My new Pride and Prejudice novella, When Mary Met the Colonel, will be available on Amazon within hours (and other retailers soon thereafter). Here is an excerpt:
“He loved serving his country, and the work he did was important, but girls like Kitty Bennet and Maria Lucas could not see beyond the uniform. They never expressed any interest in him.
Fitz slowed his pace to an amble and brushed his hair from his forehead. It was a warm day for spring, and he enjoyed the sunshine as he followed a meandering path, occasionally framed by overhanging branches and vines.
He gave his head a hard shake. Enough with this melancholy inner soliloquy. I am not a heroine in a popular novel! He had no need to provide an heir and no responsibilities to anyone else. If he never married, he would still have a good life. Never mind that the thought generated an aching hollowness in his chest. He would survive; soldiers were trained to survive.
Better never to marry than to marry a superficial chit who chattered on all day about lace and curtains and the cost of a joint of meat. He shuddered at the thought.
The pathway opened unexpectedly into a little clearing with a bench in the center. Fitz stumbled to a stop; the bench was inhabited.
His sudden appearance caused the young woman to start violently and drop her handkerchief. Her head jerked up to see who had disturbed her and immediately tilted down again. It was enough to reveal a pretty face, although perhaps not by conventional standards. Her brown hair was dark and glossy, pulled back in a severe style without any curls around her face. Her nose was a little long and her brows a little heavy for today’s fashions, but her mouth…was wide and pink with full, round lips. A mouth made for kissing. What the hell had provoked that thought?
“I beg your pardon, miss.” Fitz bent to retrieve the handkerchief. Taking it from his fingers, she was careful not to touch him while her eyes remained fixed on the stone of the path. “I did not mean to startle you…” She said nothing, crushing the handkerchief in one hand. “…I believed myself to be alone.”
Her eyes flicked up to his face and down again, long enough for him to discern that they were a dark, rich brown—but red-rimmed. “’Tis not your fault. I-I fear I startle easily.” Her voice was low and melodious. Fitz would love to hear her sing. If only he could inquire about the source of her tears, but he did not even know her name.
Perhaps he could lead to the subject indirectly. “It appears that we are both seeking a refuge from the crowds in the drawing room.”
She said nothing for a moment, but finally, she spoke. “Yes. My sister and her friend wished me to play dance music for them, but there is not enough space for dancing.”
Fitz gave a short laugh. “I thought so as well!” He cleared his throat. “You must be Miss Mary Bennet.”
The young lady dabbed at her eyes with a corner of the handkerchief, which was still fairly clean despite its tumble to the stones. “Yes. The two elder Miss Bennets are the pretty ones, and the two younger Miss Bennets are the lively ones. I am the one in the middle—neither pretty nor lively.” Her hand immediately flew to her mouth. “Oh, dear me! That sounded terribly bitter, did it not? I apologize, Colonel.”
Ah, he suspected that he had now uncovered the reason for her tears; such sentiments might be particularly acute on the day one of her sisters married. Fitz took the liberty of seating himself next to Miss Bennet. “Do you fear to offend my delicate sensibilities?” He batted his eyelashes absurdly, provoking laughter. “Only apologize if you are speaking an untruth.”
Her lips thinned into a flat line. “No. I always speak the truth.”
“No, you do not.” This caused her eyes to raise to his face in bewilderment. “You are quite pretty, perhaps not in the same way as your sisters.” Mary’s lips parted slightly, and she appeared, if anything, even more bewildered. Had no one ever said as much to her? “And if by ‘lively’ you mean that your sisters chase men wearing red coats, then I am quite pleased you are comparatively sedate.” This elicited a giggle from the young lady. “Your presence is quite restful, and so far your conversation is vastly more interesting.”
She blinked rapidly at him as if not understanding his words. Surely someone else had thought to tell her how pretty she was? Then a deep blush spread itself over her face and the part of her neck revealed by her gown’s neckline, much higher than today’s styles. Why did a simple compliment provoke such a reaction?
“Thank you. It is very kind of you to say.” Her voice was almost a whisper. Mary fixed her gaze on a number of blossoms in her lap.
“I did not say it to be kind. It is what I observe.”
Blushing an even darker red, she glanced about the clearing as if hoping to be rescued from this conversation. She was not only unaccustomed to compliments but also exceedingly shy, Fitz decided. She resembled Georgiana a bit, although Miss Bennet must be at least two or three years older.
Apparently deciding that no help would be forthcoming, she returned her gaze to the hands tangled in her lap. She cleared her throat. “Mr. Darcy said you are recently returned from the peninsula.”
Fitz blinked, a bit surprised at the abrupt shift in topic. Did she wish to direct the conversation away from the personal? “Yes.”
“I have been following the war in the papers,” she murmured. Fitz raised his eyebrows. A woman had never broached this topic with him. “Do you believe those accounts to be accurate on the whole?”
Fitz leaned toward her slightly. “Are you certain you wish to speak about this? Many women find the topic to be…distressing.”
A crease formed between her eyebrows. “Sir, the events of this war will affect our country for generations to come. It will influence the futures of my nieces and nephews. Faced with such weighty matters, I do not understand why anyone believes I should care about the latest designs in lace!”
Abruptly, she bit her lip and blushed. “I apologize for that outburst. I have had a trying day. I am overwrought.” She stood quickly, straightening her skirts. “I will trouble you no—”
Without forethought, Fitz seized her hand in his. “Please do not leave just when you are proving to be an interesting conversational partner.” He remained seated, hoping it would encourage her to stay.
“I think I must.” She stared at the ground.
“Miss Bennet, if you will allow me to be frank, the majority of my visit has been occupied by your younger sister and her friend admiring the fine handiwork of the buttons on my uniform.” Her shoulders shook; had he provoked laughter? “Intelligent conversation about the happenings in the world would be quite welcome.”
Slowly, Mary’s head lifted. Her eyes traveled down her arm, paused on her hand—which he had not released—and then rose to meet his eyes. Whatever she saw there caused her body to soften slightly. Fitz took the opportunity to tug on her hand, encouraging her to sit once more.
It was wildly inappropriate to be holding her hand, although they both wore gloves. If anyone should happen upon them, their proximity could lead to all sorts of difficulties, including an accusation of compromising her reputation. Yet he could not bring himself to leave; he was too intrigued to allow the conversation to end.
She allowed him to pull her down on the bench beside him, and he instantly released her hand. “I pray you, ask your questions.” Mary regarded him warily, a wild animal that might be easily startled. “What did you wish to ask me?” he asked gently.
“Did you fight at Salamanca?” He nodded. Her eyes lit with interest. “The papers all claimed Wellington’s strategy was brilliant, but they never described the details. What did he do?”
Fitz was momentarily in the uncharacteristic position of being at a loss for words. This was her most pressing question? He expected a query about the Spanish people or Wellington’s character. Instead, she asked about…battle strategy?”