Lydia Bennet pulled the door to Willow Hall closed as quietly as she could. She did not want to wake a single person, especially her uncle. Marry Wickham? A lieutenant? A man who cheated and played cards far too often? Did her uncle wish for her to be a pauper? She knew she was not made for such lowly circumstances. Did Uncle Gardiner not also know? If she married Wickham, she might be limited to just one maid of all work! Lydia shuddered at the thought.
Reaching the gate, she turned to take one last look at Willow Hall and then, biting her lip, continued on to the road. Her heart beat loudly in her chest. She had done some things before which required a good dose of fortitude, but none had been so daring as this. Above her, the moon was only a sliver and clouds blocked many of the stars. Lydia stood looking down the road one way and then the other for a few minutes. Surely, the carriage that brought her to Willow Hall had turned left into the driveway, or was it right? She sighed and crouched down to look more closely at the ground. It was no use; there were groves from carriages both to her right and to her left. With a shrug, she swallowed her fear and turned in the direction her mind had first told her must be the way to Kympton.
She felt a need to whistle to fill the silence of the night, but she dared not. She would do nothing to draw attention to herself from anyone or anything. The thought sent a shiver down her spine. This was foolish and far too dangerous. She paused, turned back, and then remembering her uncle’s words, “It must be done. You must marry him to save both your reputation and that of your family.” She turned away from Willow Hall once again and continued on her way.
For the next twenty minutes, she entertained herself with thoughts of ribbons, lace, and bonnets, describing to herself the perfect hat to accompany the new yellow dress she would have when she reached home. Mama would see to it. Lydia smiled to herself. Mama always saw to what Lydia wanted even when Papa was reticent. Mama would not see her married to a lieutenant. A captain was the lowest rank which Mama, and truly anyone of sense, would find acceptable. A lieutenant’s wife! Indeed! Lydia nearly laughed at the thought until she heard something ─ a scurrying beside the road to her right. Something very like a fit of nerves gripped her heart. Not wishing to be preyed on by either man or beast, Lydia scooted off the road and into the stand of trees on the left. The woods indeed felt safer. She picked her way between the trees, not entirely sure if she was still travelling in the same direction as she had intended, but going back toward that scurrying sound was not an option.
After another twenty minutes of walking and feeling quite turned about and tired, Lydia spotted a cottage. It was a tiny stone cottage with a small structure for storage next to it. Perhaps she could rest there and be tucked away from the notice of any night creatures. She just wished a moment to rest so that this feeling of being utterly lost would vanish.
She rapped lightly on the door to the storage building. She lay her ear against the wood, and after a few minutes of listening intently and hearing no sounds, she opened the door. The structure housed nothing ─ not a scythe, not a rake, not a bucket. There were no flowers or herbs hanging from the rafters to dry. It was empty. Completely and entirely empty. Lydia studied the perplexing emptiness for a moment before finding a corner and sitting down with her feet tucked beneath her and her head resting, at first, tentatively, and then more fully leaning into the wall as she relaxed.
The first rays of sun poked their fingers through a small gap between two boards on the wall opposite Lydia. The light played with her hair and then crept across her face, tickling first her nose and then her eyelashes. Lydia swatted at the offending light and turned her head to avoid it. Her hair caught on a nail that had not been hammered in completely, and the sharp pain of the tugging woke her. She rubbed her eyes and looked around the shed. In the light of the morning, it was not quite so empty as it had been in lantern light. In one corner, there were five pieces of wood neatly stacked, but that was all — five pieces of wood and a lot of nothing else.
She peeked out the door. There was neither the smell of a fire nor a wisp of smoke rising from the chimney of the cottage. Confident she was alone, she stepped out of her sleeping spot and surveyed her surroundings. Nothing looked familiar. There were fields of grass and flowers beyond the cottage and trees behind her. To her left was a slope that descended for some distance. She had not seen any of this when they had travelled from Kympton to Willow Hall. She would have remembered it, for it was beautiful ─ the kind of beautiful that caused one to stop and admire it for hours, the kind of beautiful that inspired paintings and poems, the kind of beautiful that brought a smile to her face and peace to her heart.
After several minutes of admiring her surroundings, Lydia decided it was time to explore the cottage. Carefully, she opened the door, calling out a greeting as she did, just in case someone might be within. She waited for a reply, and when none came, she entered. Dust covered the table and the three glasses that sat turned upside down on the small cabinet next to a larger cupboard with doors. In the small sitting room, Lydia took a seat on a large chair in front of the fireplace. The back of the chair wrapped up and around her. She leaned her head against its back. Ah, she sighed with pleasure. Even though the fabric of the chair was worn so thin that the pattern was little more than a shadow, this was much more comfortable than that shed.
She allowed herself to close her eyes and enjoy the comfort for a what she thought was a moment. However, when one is as tired from travelling in crowded coaches, debating with one’s relative to avoid an untenable marriage, and then walking for nearly an hour in a circular path along a road and amongst trees while fearing that some creature was going to attack her, even a moment of rest can stretch into hours.
Lydia’s weary body welcomed sleep, and just as it had in the shed, it did not wake of its own accord. However, this time it was not the gentle and playful fingers of the sun which woke Lydia but the banging of a door and a masculine voice.
Lydia tucked herself into the chair as best she could. The back of the chair was nearly turned completely toward the door, so perhaps if she were very still, she would not be noticed. She sucked in her breath and closed her eyes as she listened to the sound of boots thumping through the cottage.
Marcus Dobney peered into all the rooms in the cottage and was about to lock the door and leave when he heard a small, muffled sneeze from the sitting room. He shook his head. He had looked in that room and seen no one. Another sneeze. Ah, the chair by the fireplace! How had he neglected to check there?
He crept into the room, coming up behind the chair. “I heard you sneeze,” he said as he stood behind the chair and looked down at the occupant. “Miss Lydia?” he asked in surprise as she squealed and shot to her feet.
She whirled on him. “That was not nice. You frightened me half to death.” She placed her hands on her hips and glared at the intruder, who looked oddly familiar. “How do you know my name?”
He chuckled and leaned on the back of the chair. “It is also not nice to be stealing into cottages that do not belong to you.” He tipped his head and smirked as her eyes narrowed. She looked as defiant now as she had last evening when they had been introduced. “You do not remember me?”
Lydia shook her head, but then her brows furrowed, and her mouth formed a perfect o as her eyes grew wide, and she began to recall why the fine looking gentleman leaning on the back of the tired old chair looked so familiar. “You were with Captain Harris.” She bit her lip as she strained to remember his name. To be honest, she had not been focused on much yesterday except convincing her uncle that she did not need to marry Wickham. There had been two gentlemen who had come to call, and then Jane escorted them to the garden to find Miss Dobney. That was it! “Mr. Dobney, is it?” Lydia fluttered her lashes just a bit and smiled sweetly. Most of the men she had met responded well to such an expression.
Marcus nodded and motioned for Lydia to be seated on the settee near the window as he pulled the chair to face it. “Why are you here in my cottage when you should be at Willow Hall?”
Lydia watched his fingers unbutton his jacket as he sank into the chair and swung one leg over the other. This was his cottage? Her brows furrowed once again. Surely, a man who wore such beautiful clothes did not live in this tiny dust-covered cottage. “You live here?”
He chuckled again. It was a sound that Lydia found dreadfully infuriating. There was no need to laugh at her for asking a simple question.
“No, I do not live here, but just the same, the cottage is mine ─ or will be when I come into my inheritance.” He leaned forward. “Now, tell me why I should not call the constable to report a vagrant?”
Lydia pulled herself up and looked down her nose at the man across from her. “I am not a vagrant. I merely needed a place to rest, and the door was unlocked.” She folded her arms. “It seems very careless of you to leave your inheritance unlocked.”
He chuckled again, and she huffed. “My steward forgot to lock it yesterday when he was checking on the fields. That is why I am here. I told him I would see to it.”
“It is not well-tended,” she muttered.
He raised a brow at the comment but let it pass. “You are avoiding my question.”
She smiled at him again and rose from her seat. “I am sorry, but I must be on my way. If you could just point me in the direction of Kympton.”
This time he laughed out loud. “Sit down.”
If she were not so irritated with him, she might have taken a moment to admire his smile. It was very nice. Very nice, indeed. But she was not in a mood to admire his pleasant mouth or his lovely brown eyes that were currently sparkling with amusement.
He pointed to the settee, and she sat. “You were going to Kympton?”
“I may have gotten turned about in the woods,” she admitted.
“You most certainly did,” he replied.
“It was dark,” she mumbled.
His eyes grew wide. “You were travelling at night?”
“Of course,” she smoothed her skirts, so she would not have to look at his face. It was a handsome face and wearing an expression she particularly did not like — especially on a handsome face. Handsome men were to look at her with interest, of course, but not as he was. His expression was one that spoke of him wondering quite loudly about her mental abilities. “It is far easier to make an unnoticed exit when it is dark and everyone is asleep.” She skewered him with a challenging look. “I do not suppose you remember doing anything so exciting in your youth?” There, that ought to grate, but just to make certain it did –“Not that I am calling you old, per se.” She smiled and fluttered her lashes. “I am just saying you are not young.” The effect was as she had hoped. His smile faded, and his eyes narrowed. Displeasure she could allow on a handsome face.
“I was never so foolish in my youth.”
He could see the anger at his comment by the set of her mouth and the narrowing of her eyes. His sister, Mary Ellen, would often respond in such a fashion when she did not wish to continue a particular discussion.
“Now, tell me why a girl,” he emphasized the word, enjoying the darkening in her eyes, “like you is sneaking off in the night? A secret rendezvous? Perhaps with Wickham?” He attempted to keep his tone from growling the name, but his success was only limited.
She shot to her feet, grabbed her bag, and would have left if Marcus had not blocked her path.
She stepped close to him, so close that she had to tip her head up to glare at him. “I am not a girl!”
He swallowed as he looked down at her. Her figure was definitely not girlish. However, the stamp of her foot was.
“And I do not know why everyone insists that I would even consider a man like Mr. Wickham.” She visibly shuddered as she said his name.
“Perhaps it is because, as I have heard tell, you flirted with him in Brighton and then travelled with him for several days.” He folded his arms across his chest in an attempt to avoid seeing any more of her than her face when he looked down. She rolled her large hazel eyes at him and pursed her lovely lips, causing him to swallow once again.
“As I explained to my uncle, a man such as Mr. Wickham is easily led. A mention of exposing his swindling to the ones he has played for fools and a hint that a rumour of doing harm to me might reach Mr. Darcy ensured me safe passage.”
“A lady is never safe with a man like Wickham,” growled Marcus.
Her eyes sparkled at the comment — most fetchingly he thought.
“So, I am now a lady?” She smiled at him and raised an eyebrow. Then, swiftly, she took a step to her right and scooted past him. “I really must be on my way, for as you say, no lady is safe with a man such as Wickham, so it is best that I do not remain where I might be forced to be tied to him in marriage.” She threw the words over her shoulder as she hurried to the door of the cottage.
Marcus chased after her and grabbed her by an elbow. “You are not leaving. You are returning to Willow Hall. Your family must be worried.”
She wrenched her arm free. “I am not returning to Willow Hall!”
He reached for her arm once again, but she pulled it away. “You are,” he said as he took two long strides to catch up to her again.
“No. I am not.” She began to run.
“You are being a fool.”
“I will not marry him, Mr. Dobney. I will not!”
He sighed and ran after her. “Perhaps, but you must return to your family.” He pulled her bag from her hand and sat it on the ground behind him.
“Give me my bag!”
“No, not until you are at Willow Hall.”
“Oh, you are infuriating.”
He smiled as she stamped her foot.
“Very well, I shall go to Willow Hall with you, but I am not staying.”
“Yes, you are.” He chuckled at her scowl. “You are a rather adorable girl even when you are put out.” He called to his horse. “I will need a way to get home,” he explained.
“I am not a girl,” she muttered as she stood there waiting for him to tie her bag onto his horse.
“And I am not old,” he retorted and began walking with Lydia scampering behind, trying to keep pace with his long strides.