Author's note: This story was inspired by my grandparents, who wrote outlandish but sweet love letters to each other during World War II. My grandmother kept every letter that Grandpa sent to her. I originally meant to turn his one-shot into a mult-chaptered story called "The Courtship of Georgiana Darcy," which would include Georgiana and Richard's letters. I still may at some point. Thanks to AnastasiaDreams for her beta. This story is also related to my P&P drabble series "Fragments." Obviously, if you don't like Colonel Fitzwilliam/Georgiana, don't read.
Darcy House, Brunswick Square
Late April 1814
Georgiana's maid did not disturb her until late morning as her mistress had only returned from the Spencer Ball in the early hours of dawn. When the noon hour arrived and she still had not been summoned, Loughton slipped into Miss Darcy's rooms and opened the curtains, allowing the sunlight to spill across the bed. She laid the breakfast tray on the table by the window, arranging her lady's setting, before disappearing into the wardrobe to select her afternoon dress. Something simple, after last evening's elaborate ballgown. Loughton had taken even greater care than her usual meticulous approach, for beyond the fact that the evening before had been the annual Spencer Ball, she was no fool. She had seen the changes in Miss Darcy since the return of her cousin from France a fortnight ago.
Colonel Sir Richard Fitzwilliam, he was a catch. She could not fault her lady's taste, though she thought that Miss Darcy deserved a title, a husband with a seat in the House of Lords.
At last, Georgiana squinted at the bright spring sun and stirred. "Loughton, what time is it?"
"Just after noon, Miss Darcy," she replied. As Loughton moved about the room, she saw the disordered stack of letters beside Miss Darcy on the bed, the firm signature of Richard peeking through the missives. She smiled to herself, though correspondence between cousins was expected and innocent enough, the "dearest girl" in a slanted masculine hand was telling.
"So late," she murmured. Georgiana burrowed further into her bed in protest of the sun, allowing an unladylike and entirely childish moan to escape before she surrendered to the day. After last evening, she deserved a day of rest and solitude. She instinctively patted her treasure of stacked letters in their familiar place by her side. The correspondence began innocent enough indeed. After news of various battles reached London, Georgiana had been startled into the bleak realities of campaigns. Anxious for his safety, the letters poured from her, sometimes emotional, sometimes rambling, if only to see the evidence of his firm hand in reply.
Although tired, Richard's unexpected appearance at the ball was exhilarating. Unable to sleep, she had taken out every letter Richard had sent to her since he left Pemberley last summer to return to the Continent, trying to make some order of her fluttering and confused feelings.
It should have been a season of celebration. And it was, even if her nerves were frayed. News arrived across the Channel of Napoléon's abdication and with it came a wounded Richard. As a colonel in Beresford's corps, his division had been among those first to attack French troops in the village of St.-Boes on 24 February of that year. During the siege of the church, a canister shot hit Richard's sword hilt and unhorsed him. Badly bruised and disoriented, he was shot in the shoulder during the French counterattack and lost quite a bit of blood. By the next morning, the wound was enflamed and he had nearly succumbed to the subsequent fever. He was not able to return home until a fortnight ago.
Georgiana was not to learn how close they came to losing him for many months. But, the Richard who returned home was thinner, paler, quieter, though his good humour remained. There was a difference, especially when his eyes rested upon her, and forcing her to recall the teasing tone of her letters with some embarrassment. The silliness and teasing, and her manner of addressing him which seemed far too intimate now. Dearest darling indeed. What had possessed her?
But hadn't he returned the address in the same vein? "Dearest Georgiana," the first letters began, and then continued with ever more elaborate addresses. He seemed intent on starting each letter in the most outlandish form. She picked up each one, intending to put them to some order and to lock them back safe into the chest she kept beneath her bed. Instead, she lingered, as she always did.
That had always been their way. To be teasing and silly. Why should growing older or a war make any difference? That is what she told herself, when she blushed at their address and wondered if she played with fire. After all, should anyone else come upon those letters … well, she would be thoroughly compromised and Fitzwilliam might very well harm Richard. Not that they were at all improper. It was the merest folly. Only the manner of address and their mutual tendency to exaggerate their teasing could lead another to mistakenly believe a dearer intimacy where none existed.
The most gracious and beautiful lady in all of England
Dearest Richard, dearest darling
To my dearest darling in all the world, my Georgie
My own dearest Lancelot
To the queen of all she surveys and the empress of my heart
It was the merest and purest folly. They knew where they stood.
They were cousins and he had once been her guardian and her brother's closest friend. Such a close connection encouraged freedom, did it not?
It did not matter; she told herself it did not matter, even when her heart raced at the sight of his firm handwriting. He liked to tease, especially her. Except ... he looked at her differently, she thought, since his return. He was different. To her. He was still Richard, but he was different to her.
Georgiana had played with fire before and been burnt. But Richard was not George Wickham.
Except, she sometimes wondered, had she raised expectations of him? She feared that she might have, that he might feel obligated towards her when she hardly knew what to make of her own feelings. They were too free with one another. She knew that. He probably did too, but she could not know if he felt those expectations.
"Miss Darcy," Loughton interrupted her thoughts, "your breakfast will be cold."
Georgiana knew a scold when she heard one, so she secured her ribbon around the stack and dropped them into the chest at her feet. Loughton was always eager for details of Georgiana's outings. She took great pride in her mistress, who usually obliged, though the young lady seemed reticent, if not out of spirits this morning.
"Was the ball not to your liking, Miss Darcy?" Loughton ventured.
"Pardon?"Georgiana's thoughts had been several houses down their street at Fitzwilliam House where Richard stayed with his parents. Since his return, Lady Matlock had demanded his presence and her right to fuss. Georgiana understood even if she did not like his decampment from Darcy House, where he habitually resided while in London.
Loughton repeated her concern. Georgiana smiled tiredly. "The ball was lovely, if a little long," she replied. "You will have to excuse me this morning, Loughton, I seem to have woken with a headache."
"Of course, Miss Darcy. You might drink a little tea to ease your head. Shall I ring for fresh tea?"
"That isn't necessary."
Loughton nodded and sought her lady's approval of her dressing choices. Georgiana knew that her absentmindedness, particularly in regards to clothing today, would be a source of annoyance to Loughton, though she would never display that annoyance. She ached to crawl right back into her bed, but she knew that such an action would only draw the concern of Elizabeth.
"Have my brother and Mrs. Darcy been downstairs?"
"Yes, Miss Georgiana. They have gone out for a walk to Hyde Park with the little master, the day being so fine."
"Good," Georgiana answered. She needed a little solitude.
The ball last night was more than a ball. It was the first true social outing with Richard since her coming out. While these occasions would always be a contradictory source of enjoyment and anxiety for Georgiana, the unpleasant realisation of Richard's place in society threw her. He was not well yet and she hated to see him in pain. But she also hated to see him the object of ambitious mammas. Though that latter concern paled in comparison to her first.
Before his injury, she had only thought of Richard as a soldier in an abstract way. He had been in battles before, and she had heard the milder, cleaner tales of those battles, though they had seemed more like adventures than real danger. Now, they were a threat. She always thought him invincible, indestructible, but that awful white sling and subtle winces were constant, glaring reminders of his mortality. He was safe now, but he would go back. There was always a battle, always a war. For Georgiana's entire life, there'd always been a war with France. Peace – that was a fairy tale.
Georgiana nibbled as much toast as she thought would satisfy the motherly Loughton and made her excuses. "I want an afternoon of reading and peace," she said. "I shall be in the library."
"Yes, Miss Georgiana," Loughton replied, though her expression was stern. Georgiana was fairly certain that a tray of tea and cakes would shortly follow her.
She dressed quickly and in silence, telling Loughton only to knot her hair loosely, for her head did ache.
Unease – that is what she felt, she decided as she made her way downstairs. She could not understand it.
Richard spent the entire last evening with her at the Spencer ball. He even danced with her twice, despite his shoulder, and shared mocking glances with her when they'd been separated by a table at supper. She should have been happy and she was, but she was anxious too.
And then, there'd been her "suitors:" Mr. Sidwell, a puffy dandy in debt to his eyeballs; the too-blunt Lord St. John who had no qualms in admiring her lineage and her fortune even as he "flirted," if flirting it could be called; the stern Sir Francis Calthorpe who was more like a clergyman than any lay person had a right to be; the dashing naval Captain Tomalin who reminded her a little too much of George Wickham; and Mr. Oliphant, who was very nice but just as shy as she had once been so that they sat in awkward silence or danced in awkward silence – though he was as rich as Croesus as Mrs. Henry Penhallow, the former Caroline Bingley, informed her.
And last, but not least, was Lord Byron who meant nothing at all. Her greatest attraction for him seemed to be her connection to his sister Mrs. Leigh. The former Miss Augusta Byron was a distant cousin through their father and Fitzwilliam once admired her when they were barely out of the schoolroom. Byron was teasing in a different way than Richard. He was witty and far too handsome; he could be malicious in his observations of others and it made Georgiana nervous. She most liked him, if she liked him at all, when he was subdued and she could turn the topic to Mrs. Leigh. He liked to talk about his sister, for Byron could trace some familial resemblance in the features of Miss Darcy and in her sweet manner. He also liked to make her blush.
Lord Byron embarrassed and confused her terribly. She was very happy indeed when Richard rescued her from that situation. Byron kissed her hand in parting, if only to draw the ire of her guardian, surrendering Miss Darcy to her "guard of honour," as he put it. Her cheeks had flamed. Richard was not pleased at all, though he said nothing of it to her – yet. Not that she needed any warning away from Byron. Even if the female population of London wanted to throw themselves at his feet, Georgiana would not be seduced by another, handsomer George Wickham. While she was flattered by his attention and felt herself able to be his friend – putting aside all romantic considerations – she knew herself now and knew that she would never be happy with one she could not trust. Not that Byron was at all serious. He needed more than her £30,000.
When she entered the library, Georgiana absentmindedly picked up Chretien de Troyes's Arthurian Romances, which usually remained by a side table per her preference. She had loved that work since childhood, though she knew that such romances were no longer fashionable. Gothic tales were all the rage, but she loved the nobility and sacrifice of Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot. Even when they were wrong, they were wrong in such a spectacularly noble manner that she could not help being drawn back into that world.
Where were all the Lancelots now?
A never-ending parade of opportunistic young men who wanted either the Darcy name or fortune or both – it was all she could see in her immediate future. Was the world full of nothing but George Wickhams? At the moment, the Darcy name seemed a curse to her. If she were only a Miss Smith of Lambton, she would not be forced to a London Season. She would not be an object of prey. She was tired of London and crowds and constant socialising with near strangers. She wanted Pemberley and quiet evenings with Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth and baby Alexander – and Richard dropping by for long visits.
Once after her own debut to London society, Elizabeth had said to her in a fit of pique, "The more I see of the world, the more I am dissatisfied with it." Indeed. She wished she had her sister-in-law's courage. Georgiana could more easily withstand the dissatisfaction then.
Thank heaven and all the saints she had no social obligations today. Even she would have to rebel.
Richard waited until the early afternoon before he made his way to Darcy House in Grosvenor Square as he knew that the ladies would have a late morning. Last evening had been the annual Spencer Ball, an important social event for newly out and newly married ladies – especially in the Whig circles of the Darcys' and Fitzwilliams' connections. It signified acceptance into Whig society, as Richard's father sat with the Whigs in the House of Lords, as every Earl of Matlock had sat since the loose formation of the Whig party a hundred years before; it was expected and required that both families stay until the very end – which could sometimes be until dawn.
Though he was tired and the bright afternoon light hurt his sleep-deprived eyes, he made his way to Darcy House at the earliest hour that he imagined would be acceptable. Georgiana was not a morning person, so he expected to find her a little irritable, perhaps rude; she was capable of being rude – sometimes. If she were at ease to let her famous Darcy mask drop; that she felt herself comfortable enough with Richard to be rude warmed him. He loved her for those moments.
The house was unusually quiet and he was told by the butler Winston that the master and mistress had gone for a walk, but that Miss Darcy could be found in the library. For that, Richard was grateful – as close as brother and sister were, Georgiana could be in awe of Darcy, which led to her be sometimes reticent about her feelings. To Richard, again, she was far more open.
She started when he opened the door without being announced. He was one of the few, even among family members, that were allowed that privilege in the Darcy home.
"I hope I am not intruding," he said hesitantly when he saw her fatigued expression.
She looked far too weary for an eighteen year old.
Though he knew that her Season would be difficult for her retiring nature, there was that in her expression last night which was beyond shyness. She had pressed his hand tightly as he handed her into the carriage, her features strange. He felt certain she had meant, or wanted, say something.
"Never," she replied, though her smile was wan.
She started to rise from her seat by the window. "You don't have to rise for me, Georgie. We are not so formal, are we?" His tone was quiet but teasing.
That provoked a genuine smile. He sat down in one of the over-plush sofas near her window-seat.
"Will you take a walk with me, Georgie?"
She sighed. "Not today. I am committed to staying at home, though I should be glad of your company."
"It is a warm day," he complained after a moment. "How do you bear sitting in the sun?"
"I like it," she answered simply. "You are too fastidious, Richard."
"Says the young lady who will not see an opera unless it is in Italian."
"I like Mozart too," she protested.
"I stand corrected." He pushed open the window nearest his sofa, letting in a very welcome breeze.
"Mrs. Adams will not be happy to have the street dust coming through the window."
"If you would take a walk with me, I would not need to open the window."
She stared at him fixedly. "The last two days have been nothing but socialising. The last thing I want to do is parade around Hyde Park today. It will be overrun with gossip from the ball last evening."
"True," he conceded.
"We could go to Fitzwilliam House," she suggested. "You have a larger garden there."
"No," he answered firmly, then added sheepishly. "I am escaping my mother for one day. She has been smothering since my return."
Georgiana smiled. "So ungrateful!"
"I am never ungrateful," he replied loftily. "The company of Darcy House is far more pleasing."
He might have looked at her pointedly then, but she wasn't sure. Once, she thought she knew every expression, could read him better than anyone, but these enigmatic looks were beyond her field of expertise. She did however acknowledge the compliment. "Then here we shall stay – at least until Matthews removes the beehive from the garden. I'll not be going near that again." She shuddered.
Richard laughed. "My dear fearless, Georgie. I'll protect you from the bees."
He shrugged off his coat, draping it over the back of the sofa and began to roll up his shirtsleeves. A burning flush crept up her cheeks, so she turned back to the window. He had no idea the effect he had on her person. She could see his reflection in the glass, his hair slightly disheveled by the steady breeze coming through the open window near his seat. He had never been more charming to her.
It was only then that she noticed the absence of his sling.
"Richard, your shoulder!" she exclaimed, turning back to him and forgetting her desire to hide embarrassment.
His brow furrowed. "Pardon?"
"Where is your sling?"
"I've worn it long enough," he dismissed. "It is not very taxing to walk over here. I didn't need it."
"Hmmm," she considered, though his expression looked far too innocent. "What did your physician say?"
"Georgiana, I am a grown man."
"No one disputed that."
"So you say, though I wish you would take better care with yourself."
He'd grown a fidgety in her questioning, but stilled at this pronouncement. "Do you?" She barely heard his question at all. His tone was entirely too soft as though speaking to himself. He wasn't even looking at her. It was the same tone she had caught from him last evening, both curious and hesitant. She remembered a warm summer evening on the terrace at Pemberley when he told her of his recall to the Continent, that he would miss her début. She did not remember her reply, so rapt was she in his words, and her sudden fear for him. She had wept and he had held her, his voice just so and breaking over her name. It was the first time that she'd ever heard that voice from him.
Georgiana could not allow the silence to develop into awkwardness, not between them, and because he did not seem inclined to continue, she turned the subject, regardless of the alarming race of her heart. "Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth have taken Alexander to the park."
"That's nice," was his absent-minded reply, "though I didn't come to see Darcy or Elizabeth or the baby."
The old urge to cry again crept up, fear its companion; because, the last time he had needed to see her privately, he had went away to war and come back injured and solemn. Just don't speak the words, she prayed. As long as they are not spoken, she could stay in this happy cocoon where he had returned to her, just as he promised in all their letters.
"It is a little warm today, is it not?" she rambled, moving to the sofa opposite his seat. She picked up the volume of Arthurian tales she had tucked away at his entrance. Anything to keep her hands occupied and to aid in the appearance of keeping her mind occupied as well.
The entrance of a footman with fresh lemonade saved Georgiana from further embarrassment and she directed him to place the tray by her, casting her book away once again. "Thank you, Thomas, that will be all." The tension was gladly broken by the servant's entrance, so that when he left, Georgiana felt confident enough to turn back to her cousin. "Would you care for a glass, Richard?"
"Yes, thank you, Georgie," he replied. She lingered in handing the glass to him, as she lingered over his letters.
"Georgie," he began, uncharacteristically hesitant, so that she sat up straighter and leaned in his direction just slightly. "You seemed ... downcast last night."
"Did I?" She sounded missish; she knew it, but could not seem to stop herself.
"When I left you last night, you seemed troubled." When he handed her into the carriage and kissed her hand. It was no more than gallantry required, but she could still feel the press of his lips against her gloved hand.
"I was tired. I am tired."
"I thought, perhaps, something might have ... bothered you."
She was confused for a moment, as she tried to discover any occasion of anxiety in which Richard might have borne a part – beyond her worry over his health. "I cannot think ... that is" she paused, recalling the pang in her heart when the Countess Spencer requested that Richard lead her beautiful and glamourous daughter to supper. "Richard, I know you had to lead Lady Georgiana Spencer to supper."
His brow wrinkled in confusion. "That is not what I – I meant that you did not seem to enjoy yourself at all, last evening."
This time he could not fail to see the burning flush. She must be beet red. She had never blushed for Richard before and suddenly all in one afternoon she could not stop. "Oh." She placed her glass of lemonade back on tray before she met his gaze, but it was not teasing and she scolded herself for thinking that he might tease her in this matter. "I confess that I should be glad for this Season to be over."
When he had left her at Pemberley in the summer, she had been confident, even looking forward to her first Season, at least looking forward to the gowns and the nights at the theatre, if not to her court presentation – that it fell so short of her expectations did not surprise him, though it saddened him all the same. She had been so happy to plan her own ball with Elizabeth and demanded that he open the ball with her. That his recall to the Continent by Wellesley had forced him to disappoint her cut him more deeply than he anticipated. He'd been absent through most of her season and had only been allowed to follow the brief and too cheery glimpses she had given in her letters.
My very own knight-errant, she had written.
He moved to sit beside her. "Has it been so very bad, my love?"
His eyes were so blue and they seemed to swallow her whole world. She didn't know what to do with the confusion building towards him. He wasn't supposed to be an enigma. He was Richard. Just Richard. Like he had been since she was a child. Dashing and charming like he had always been, but just Richard.
I think I might love you, she wanted to say.
"Not so very bad," she conceded instead, "though I should have liked to have you there."
He smiled playfully, tugging her hand. No gloves, just his hand around hers. Georgiana looked down at their hands resting together on the sofa between them.
"As your guard of honour," he teased, recalling Lord Byron's sarcastic words the night before.
"Are you my guard of honour?" she tried to make her own tone as light, though it was far more difficult to concentrate in his nearness than formerly. His teasing calmed her fear of distressing news.
"Always." She looked back up at Richard quickly, because his tone had lost some of the teasing to which she had been used. It was like the voice at Pemberley and a moment ago when he confessed to visiting only her, but softer. For an exhilarating moment, Georgiana thought he might kiss her. They had been leaning ever towards one another without her being aware and she was startled when he put more distance between them. Closing off. That is what it was. That was one difference since his return. He would grow distant without warning, leaving her feeling untethered. Instead of fretting and keeping to herself, her fatigue and sleepless night expressed itself in sudden frustration.
With an exaggerated and entirely unladylike "humph," Georgiana settled back into the sofa, putting her own distance between them and picked her book back up. Richard watched her incredulously as she furiously and noisily turned pages.
"Don't stare, Richard. It is rude."
"Georgie, have I offended you in some way?"
"Of course not," she mumbled, but Richard detected the petulance of her tone. She stopped flipping aimlessly through her book, tossing it back onto the table beside her, just missing her half-full glass of lemonade. She did not notice, though Richard smiled at her near miss, her little act of bullishness giving him more confidence than he had ever had reason to expect from her since he returned to find her surrounded by men younger and more eligible than he. Not that he ever expected anything from her in that regard, or that he had recognised the need of her until recently. All those months away and the weeks spent in recovery – it changed something inside him or made him recognise what had already begun.
She had tucked a miniature in his trunks, which he only found by accident in the barracks near Bayonne. He'd worn it into battle, tucked into an inside pocket. Richard didn't know what this said about him or about them. In the false back was tucked a lock of her hair, secured by a pale blue ribbon – this he had only found in his sick bed. It was the first time he had ever allowed himself to think of Georgiana beyond her cousinship and beyond his former guardianship of her. That is, to freely and seriously think of a possible future with her.
And their letters continued on the same, he never giving any indication of his condition until fever wasted his energy for writing, and still her letters came, so that when he saw her at Fitzwilliam House he expected something more than the old teasing familiarity in her greeting upon his return. It unsettled him. She made him unsure.
Last night, this afternoon – she had given him something.
She was not indifferent.
"It's just that," she continued after her long pause, looking up at him through her lashes in her old shy manner. She had outgrown many of her childhood mannerisms, but this she retained. Or, rather, she knew that he could not resist this look. It had been the origin of many troubles for him, when he had given in to her and received a lashing from Uncle Darcy. Georgiana always knew how to play him.
"I hate the Season, Richard," she said, frowning. "I'm tired of the charade. I'm tired of dancing with or speaking with gentlemen I barely know and a few I can barely tolerate. Heaven forbid I should turn down a dance and have to sit out all night."
"I am sorry for it, Georgie." He wanted to reach back for her hand, but refrained. She had put careful distance between them, whatever her reason. "Have you been very unhappy then?"
"I cannot say very unhappy," she replied, looking up at him archly. "I seem destined to attract the George Wickhams of this world."
He thought of Lord St. John sitting beside her at supper, talking only to her and her cross expression. He thought of damned Byron keeping her out a dance to talk with him and teasing her to blushes.
"Did anyone," he began softly, "importune you last night, Georgiana?"
She started. "Heavens, no!"
"Good," he replied with too much relief.
She laughed bitterly. "I know better than to be made a fool again, Richard."
"You were not a fool, Georgiana," Richard insisted, with some fervour.
"Oh, I was, Richard. I was such a silly, little fool."
"You were innocent."
"Perhaps," she conceded.
"Georgie," he began softly, drawing her hand back towards him and enclosing it in his own. "You are a beautiful young lady and an heiress, there will always be George Wickhams knocking at your door."
"You're sweet," she said, "but that statement sounds so dreadfully discouraging to me, Richard."
"There will be other gentlemen far more worthy of you than ..." he caught himself abruptly. He let go of her hand only to cradle her cheek against his palm. "But until then," he continued, "I shall always be your guard of honour."
"Promise?" she whispered, her voice shaking slightly.
Richard did not answer immediately. Instead, he stood up quickly, his eyes resting on a point behind her, his smile turned playful. Georgiana turned to see the object of his attention, but he had already moved around the sofa. To her amazement, Richard climbed onto a chair and reached to a sword mounted high above him. When the chair did not suffice, he stood back, considering a table.
"Whatever are you doing, Richard?" Her tone was incredulous, her confusion momentarily forgotten in his antics. Instinctively, she stood to join him.
"I shall prove myself to you, Georgie," he answered. "What do you say? Shall I attempt it?" His dancing eyes captivated her. The mounting tension was broken. All was light and airy for her now.
It was so like him. Still boyish at times, even though he neared thirty years.
"Attempt what?" She could no more stop the laughter from bubbling than she could her hand from reaching out to touch his arm. The linen shirt was so thin that she could feel the heat of his skin under her hand.
He looked down, catching her eyes, with an eyebrow arched naughtily. "Do you think that Mrs. Adams will tan me alive for scratching her furniture?"
"Maybe not. She may perhaps deny you a pastry before bed the next time you visit, however."
"Wretched woman, but I shall brave it." He grinned, chucked her chin, before climbing onto the table.
"Richard!" Georgiana scolded, "Whatever you are about to do, perhaps you shouldn't."
"You are probably right," he replied, but proceeded nonetheless.
"Be careful for your shoulder!"
"Yes, my dear." He turned his face away slightly so that she could not see the wince when he lifted his shoulder. He was tired of being an invalid.
After a brief struggle with the clasp, Richard liberated a decorative sword, which had hung over the table for as long as he could remember. At least it had been decorative for the past 150 years, since it was last worn into battle by a cavalier Darcy fighting for Charles I. He, Darcy, and Wickham used to scheme for that sword. For all those practice instruments available at Darcy House, and at Pemberley, that particular sword was glamourous, forbidden, and therefore more desired.
Though he had not attempted to steal the sword since he was sixteen years old, Richard could not help treasuring the small triumph when he clasped the hilt. It made him feel giddy. He was fairly certain that proper gentlemen of nine-and-twenty should not feel quite so giddy for a sword. But there it was. He weighed it in his hand, before sliding it from its sleeve and admiring the blade.
Georgiana was still laughing at him. Perhaps something else – or rather someone else – could make him feel giddy too. All flushed cheeks and reserve gone. This was the Georgie only he seemed to know. He had not truly treasured that fact until this moment when he could cheer her out of a fog. After everything, especially after Wickham, she could still be that with him.
But, Richard was not one for maudlin thoughts, so he swished the blade once, twice in her direction to earn her shrieks.
"Fancying a duel, Richard? Shall I call for my brother or Winston?"
"No indeed." He grinned. "What do you think Darcy will say if we steal this for the afternoon?"
"He would probably scold us, but then secretly take it himself once our backs are turned," Georgiana replied with the new confidence borne of seeing how her brother could be teased by his wife.
Richard moved closer to her. "Well then, my Georgie, we shall have to make use of the time we have." He took her hand and tugged her along with him. "Sit," he instructed, motioning towards the sofa they had just vacated.
Thoroughly puzzled but willing to amuse him, Georgiana did as told. When he kneeled before her, her heart leapt. Richard held the sword by the blade between them, the hilt slightly tilted in her direction. "Richard," she murmured, perceiving that the moment had turned more serious than either had intended. "What are you doing?"
"I shall prove myself to you, Georgiana," he said, sincerely, and without a trace of teasing.
"What do you mean?" Her voice seemed caught in her throat so that her words came out in gasps. The most curious warmth spread all over her body, though goosebumps pricked the back of her neck.
His expression was solemn, though his blue eyes still sparkled. She had not seen him so obviously happy since his return. She wanted to cradle his cheek as he cradled hers and ask him to kiss her and swear never to go back to France again.
When Georgiana was a little girl and her father had died, she had cried all night in Pemberley's library until Richard had found her. She was scared and shaking and lost. Her entire world shattered. She made Richard and Fitzwilliam swear oaths of loyalty to her as knights always did to their ladies in the books she so loved. As Lancelot swore to Guinevere and Tristan to Isolde. Richard had always striven to be true to that oath, though he failed with Wickham and he failed her first Season. He would not fail her again.
Richard clasped the blade between them and looked deeply into her blue eyes so that they seemed to become his whole world. "I, Richard Augustus George Fitzwilliam, promise on my faith, my honour, and my word as a soldier in His Majesty's Army, that I do become your liege man of life and limb, and of earthly worship; and faith and truth I will bear unto you to live and die against all manner of folks. So help me God."
"Richard," she breathed and placed her hands upon his own, flesh against flesh. His hands trembled beneath her own. "That is the coronation oath, is it not?"
"Yes," he murmured and bent to press a kiss to her knuckles, "and you are my queen."
"Don't tease," she whispered, leaning down towards him. He was so close that she could feel his breath and it was the nearest she had ever been to kissing him.
"I do not tease, Georgie."
His chest almost touched her knees, but the sword remained between them. If she were very daring, she would snatch it away and demand that the oath be sealed with a kiss. It was always sealed with a kiss in those old romances. She might not be so bold as that, but she could kiss him on the cheek as she had done a thousand times before. Her lips lingered and his breath quickened, his hands tightening on the sword beneath her own.
Her heart was racing when she pulled back, fully aware of the high colour splashing across her own cheeks again. "You called me beautiful," she recalled.
Richard carefully laid the sword by his feet, but caught her hands as she began to pull away, and remained kneeling in front of her. He drew her hand to his lips. "So I did, my love."
His smile was small, but gentle, and all at once he did not seem so pale or gaunt anymore. He was her Richard again.
"Shall I swear an oath of fealty too, Richard?" she asked, half-teasing, half-serious.
He grinned. "Not yet, my Georgie." The new tone in his voice made her heart thump so loudly that he must hear it too. He still held her hands. "But I should like … someday," he confessed.
"Yes, my love, I," he began, "I've found that I cannot do without you. I am yours, in truth Georgie, not in jest. I think I have been yours for much longer than I even know."
"Richard," she whispered, "then the letters? You meant it? It wasn't just nonsense and teasing."
"It was never nonsense to me. I promised to return to you, my dearest Georgiana." He had not moved from his kneeling position, though he dropped her hands. "I had thought …" He cleared his throat and prepared to move away from her.
"I meant it too, Richard," she answered quickly, realising that her shock was misinterpreted. "I just feared that perhaps I mistook your meaning. I am not always the best at reading people." She grabbed his hand, and watched his fingers curl around her own. "I kept all your letters by my bed and I read them every night and I prayed for your return."
They stayed in that stance for a long moment, a knight before his lady, their heads so close that she could feel his breath. He wouldn't kiss her; not until he declared himself and spoke to Fitzwilliam. But he would one day, she thought giddily.
"Georgie, I want to ask you a question, but I need you to know that you need never feel obligation towards me." She liked the way his voice wavered over his words, that she could make him nervous. It betrayed the force of his feelings and helped quail her fears that she was an obligation to him. She could not be when he looked at her so.
"I hope that we have always understood one another, Richard. I know your sense of honour too well to expect that of you. I shall always be completely honest with you, especially with my feelings."
He leaned back just enough to see her eyes. "Thank you, my Georgie." Their hands were still entwined when he asked, "Would you allow me the honour of courting you?"
Happy tears had been pricking her eyes since he knelt before her, so she nodded and muttered something entirely incomprehensible, though Richard seemed to understand and kiss her cheek. "Then I shall go to your brother directly he comes home," he promised.