Before you begin reading this story, please be aware that these are sample chapters only. The full version of this story is no longer available on Fan Fiction.
The complete book was published on Amazon and other e-book retail sites in May, 2017; and since some of those sites prohibit authors from offering published works for less (i.e. free) on other sites, I removed the complete story from Fan Fiction in June.
If you'd like to get a taste for my writing, please feel free to read on. I'd love to get your feed-back.
And if you'd like to read the complete book, you'll find it on all e-book retail sites under the title Mary and the Captain. You can also find it in print form on Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.
Thanks for your understanding. I appreciate your interest in reading my story!
Captain Robert Bingley returned his dance partner to her mother's side and made a short bow.
"Thank you for the dance, Miss Garfield. It was a pleasure."
In truth, the ordeal of dragging the young lady through the steps of a polonaise had been far from pleasurable, but good manners and a keen self-control born from years of military training helped him hide his true feelings from both the lady and her mother.
He offered her a smile, which his sister Caroline had often complimented as having just the right combination of civility and aloofness, and asked after the health of Miss Garfield's father. For answer the young lady's mother launched into a catalog of her husband's medical complaints that lasted several minutes. Robert listened patiently and murmured appropriate words of sympathy, giving the ladies his undivided attention until the orchestra sounded the chords of the next dance. It was his signal to move on.
He bade them a good evening and was just beginning to make his way through the crowded ballroom when he caught sight of his sister Caroline moving purposefully in his direction.
Miss Caroline Bingley was in excellent looks. Her gown was, as always, exquisitely cut of fine silks, and her dark curls were arranged most becomingly about her pretty face; but he saw in an instant that there was a light in her eyes he had not seen earlier when he left her side to search out a dance partner. Caroline was up to something.
As soon as she reached his side she threaded her gloved hand through the crook of his arm and directed his steps toward the opposite end of the ballroom.
"I have been looking everywhere for you," she said. "What on earth were you doing with that tiresome Louisa Garfield?"
"Squiring her about the dance floor. I believe you were a witness to it."
"Yes, but, why, I should like to know, when there are so many more desirable young women here tonight?"
"And so many more ladies who wish to dance than there are men to partner them, as is often the case. As a gentleman it is my duty to dance with as many as I am able."
"Oh, duty," Caroline said, with a dismissive wave of her free hand. "While you were busy giving consequence to the unworthy Miss Garfield, I have been working diligently on your behalf."
"Have you? How so?"
She looked up into his blue eyes and smiled enigmatically. "Sowing seeds, dear brother, sowing seeds. Do tell me you are not engaged to dance the next with some undeserving—and equally forgettable—miss."
"On the contrary, I have pledged the next dance to your friend, Miss Paget, and was about to go in search of her."
Caroline's expression brightened. "Twice in one evening, Robert? I begin to think you have developed a tendre for my dear friend."
"Would it surprise you? I think you are aware Miss Paget is by far the prettiest girl here, and certainly the sweetest in temperament."
"You have stated the very reasons I decided to take her up and help bring her into fashion. Oh, this way," Caroline said, applying pressure to Robert's arm to right the direction of his steps.
Robert tolerantly allowed her to steer his course. "Clearly you have a destination in mind for us. Where are we going?"
For answer Caroline stopped walking and faced her brother. She looked up to examine his face, from the neat arrangement of his dark brown hair to the firm line of his chin; from there her gaze traveled over his broad shoulders and the polished medals fixed to the red tunic of his officer's dress uniform. How handsome he looked! And how much she wished he would not be so tiresomely independent. If he would only learn to lean on her and allow her to manage one or two small things in his life, he would thank her for it later, she was certain.
Hadn't her instincts been right about his military career? Hadn't she predicted that some horrid colonel would whisk him away from the bosom of his family as soon as he purchased his commission? She had been against his joining the army from the start, insisting that Bingley men should use their wealth to purchase memberships at White's, not military commissions; and predicting that living in encampments would rob him of his good manners and make him fit only for mingling with the fish mongers at Billingsgate. Robert had listened patiently, and called her Mother Hen; then he promptly joined the Hussars and reported for duty with a stunning swiftness that almost made her head spin.
That had been almost two years ago, and the Bingley family had seen little of Robert as he traveled across England and to the far reaches of the world. But now he was back in London, having returned in August; and if she had her way, she would see to it that he never left the family again.
She brushed an infinitesimal bit of lint from the shoulder of his tunic, and said, "You must not blame sisterly pride when I say you are quite the handsomest man here tonight. I have noted the admiring glances of every eligible young woman who has had the privilege to see you pass by—not to mention the calculating looks of their mothers! You must promise me you shall resist them all."
"With the exception of Miss Paget, of course. After all, she is my closest friend—so close that I often think of her as a sister, and have to remind myself there is no blood between us. Still, we enjoy the deepest sister-like devotion."
"Caroline …" he said, in a mildly warning tone.
"You are right, of course, that Miss Paget can never be a true sister to me—only a sister-in-law, much like our dear Jane. It was a lucky stroke for all of us when Miss Jane Bennet married our brother Charles, and have we not welcomed her to the family as one of our own? I suppose," she said, allowing a hint of tragedy to tinge her tone, "it is too much for me to hope that the same may one day be said of my dear friend, Miss Paget."
Robert's expression was wary but tolerant. "When did you become such a calculating minx?"
"I?" she said, with innocently wide eyes.
"Allow me to conduct my own flirtations, Caroline."
"Of course—but only if you will tell me that my instincts are correct in this. Have I accurately gauged your feelings for Miss Paget?"
No sooner did those words leave her lips than Caroline Bingley knew she had gone too far. The look of affectionate amusement left Robert's face with the finality of a curtain dropping on the last act of a play.
"May I give you a hint, Caroline? Soldiers are trained to be lead, not pushed."
"I meant it kindly, brother."
His rigid expression softened slightly. "Of that I have no doubt."
"Can you blame me for wanting to see you happy and settled in life?"
"That depends on how you intend to accomplish the thing."
"I shall tell you, though I hadn't meant to say a word about it until I was certain every detail was arranged."
"Are you about to describe those seeds you said you were sowing on my behalf?"
"Indeed, I am," she answered, with a coy smile and a dip of her head that caused the jewels in her headdress to glitter beneath the ballroom's candlelight. "You see, I have become so fond of Miss Paget that I begin to think it a shame that we must spend Christmas apart."
"But you and I are to spend Christmas at Netherfield with Charles and Jane. We have planned it so."
"And Helena is to go to Essex to her sister and brother-in-law.
She has mentioned to you, has she not, that her sister is soon to deliver her first child? Helena's mother is determined to be in Essex for her lying in."
"Yes, she told me."
"Did she also mention she is not keen on the idea? Of course she wishes her sister well and hopes she delivers of a fine, healthy child, but Helena cannot like the idea of burying herself in Essex for two months."
"Just what, exactly, are you up to, Caroline?" he asked in a tone of affectionate suspicion.
"I have been busy with Charles and Jane. They wanted to spend a quiet family Christmas at Netherfield with you and me and Jane's sisters—"
"I did not know Jane's sisters are to be there. I look forward to meeting them."
"Don't," Caroline recommended. "Oh, I know you are the model of good manners, but you will waste such efforts on those Bennet girls. Promise you will pay them no mind."
"Ignore my sisters-in-law? Caroline, you cannot mean it!" He protested, unsure if he should laugh at her or scold her.
"You say that only because you have never met the creatures."
"But they are Jane's younger sisters, are they not?"
"Yes, but a last name is the only thing they have in common. They are nothing at all like our dear Jane."
He looked down at her, frowning and smiling at the same time. "How can that be?"
"You will learn soon enough. They have nothing of Jane's temperament and no accomplishments to speak of. One of them—Kitty, they call her—runs after officers. She is quite shameless about it, so beware she doesn't set her sights on you."
He laughed outright at the notion. "And the other sister?"
"Mary is even more trying. She imagines herself a talented musician, but the truth is she has no ability whatsoever, yet the family will encourage her. Your regiment marching down a dirt road has a finer sense of musical rhythm than Mary Bennet can ever hope to achieve."
"If they are Jane's sisters, they cannot be as bad as you describe," he said, in good humour. "Why, Jane is dear and sweet—I could not have wished for a better match for our brother Charles. I think these sisters must be more like Jane than you are willing to admit."
"I assure you, they are not."
"Still, I will be happy to make their acquaintance. But what have they to do with those seeds you have been sowing?"
"Nothing at all and I assure you, they will never figure in any of my plans."
"And those plans are …?" He was beginning to wonder if Caroline would ever tell him what plots and ploys she had set in motion.
"I believe I have convinced Jane to invite Miss Paget to spend Christmas at Netherfield with us."
Robert was still for a long moment. His heart, which had beat so strongly and steadily a mere moment before, now began to thump crazily beneath the gleaming medals pinned to the tunic of his uniform. From the moment he had made the acquaintance of Miss Helena Paget he had been smitten as never before. He had met her in August after his regiment had returned to England; Caroline had introduced her as her newest and dearest friend, and that alone would have disposed Robert to think well of her. But it also happened that she was the most bewitching young woman he had ever met.
At twenty years of age she was delicate and sweet, quick to smile and possessed of an engaging dimple and an equally engaging wit. He had first been attracted to her beauty; but after ten minutes of conversation with Helena, he found himself completely beguiled by her many charms; so much so that when he discovered his regiment had been ordered to Kent, he was besotted enough to consider the idea of resigning his commission, just so he could remain in London by her side.
He had not done so, but leaving Helena behind had been one of the most difficult things he had ever done—far more difficult, he began to think, than facing an enemy on the battlefield. Under this strong emotion he entered a new and extraordinary phase of his life, where the military career he had always enjoyed and celebrated suddenly began to chafe. Where once he had been content to concentrate on obeying orders and going where his King and colonel commanded, he now found his thoughts consumed by the date of his next scheduled leave and the quickest route back to London and Helena's side.
When he was with his regiment he relied on Caroline—good sister that she was—to keep his memory fresh in Helena's mind until the next time he was able to see her. But now fortune had smiled on him. Thanks to his sister's machinations, he might actually have two uninterrupted weeks with the lovely Miss Paget at Netherfield, his brother's country estate. Two weeks in which he would be free of his regimental duties. Two weeks in which he could court her as she should be courted, and make his feelings known to her. Two weeks in which he would have ample time to secure her hand and her promise to marry him.
On an impulse he bent to give his sister a quick kiss on the cheek. "Oh, you dear little schemer! You cannot know how happy you have made me, Caroline."
"Stop that," she said, embarrassed but pleased. "You may thank me by putting your time at Netherfield to good use and making my friend Helena your wife. But I beg you will not mention the arrangement until I have secured Jane's agreement. You know how Jane is—she hesitates so over the smallest decisions that you or I would have settled in an instant. We are decisive by nature, you and I—the sensible members of the family."
"How will I ever thank you?"
"By dancing with Miss Paget, of course." With a slight, graceful gesture she directed his attention to the far end of the ballroom. "You will find her there, with her mother and father. When I left them, they were standing between the door and the potted palm."
Instinctively Robert's head turned that direction, his eyes scanning the assembled crowd from his advantage of height; but the ballroom was filled to overflowing with guests, making it impossible for him to single out one petite young woman.
"And may I give you another hint, Robert? She is wearing her mother's sapphire tonight. I find it gaudy, myself, but I daresay it would mean much to her if you were to compliment its color and size."
Robert dipped his head to murmur close to her ear, "Mired in the details, as always, are you? No, no, I mean to compliment you, for you have managed us all very well tonight, I think. What would I do without you?"
"Without me you'd still be dancing with the Miss Garfields of this world. Now go, do! The beautiful Miss Paget awaits."
Caroline tarried just long enough to see Robert escort Helena Paget onto the dance floor before she joined her brother and sister-in-law. She found Charles and Jane in close and happy conversation, their attention devoted only to each other in the midst of the overcrowded ballroom. After two years of marriage they were still in the throes of first love and had not yet progressed past the newly-wed stage of affection. Caroline often wondered how two grown people who spent every waking and sleeping hour together could remain so besotted with each other, but Charles assured her that she would no doubt feel the same when Cupid's arrow struck her. Caroline pledged to evade all such arrows aimed her direction.
But when it came to matters regarding Robert's heart, she was quite happy to help Cupid's dart find its target. She purposefully stepped between Charles and Jane to ensure she had their full attention, and said, somewhat complacently, "Tell me, please, you have noticed that our brother is dancing a second time with Miss Paget."
Neither Charles nor Jane had noticed. Indeed, they had eyes for no one but each other, but at Caroline's invitation they dutifully directed their attention toward the dance floor.
"What do you see?" Caroline asked.
"A very creditable cotillion," Charles answered, promptly. "Robert always was an excellent dancer."
"And what of my dear friend, Helena Paget?"
"She is a charming young woman," Jane said. "I am so glad to have made her acquaintance. You are blessed with a delightful friend, Caroline."
Caroline's smile revealed none of the impatience she felt. "But what do you see as they dance together?"
Both Charles and Jane studied the couple as they moved through the figures of the set. At last Charles said, "They dance splendidly together. I always liked a cotillion myself! Jane, we must have a cotillion or two played at the new year ball. You know we are planning to have a ball at Netherfield right after the new year, don't you, Caroline? We must have mentioned it. Nothing too lavish—just an excuse, really, to have our Netherfield neighbours about us and welcome in a new year together. Jane has been planning the thing for weeks. Tell her, Jane."
"I look forward to hearing all the details," Caroline said, before Jane could reply. "Tomorrow, perhaps. Now do look at Robert and Helena again. What do you notice?"
"They look as if they are enjoying themselves," Jane ventured.
"Enjoying themselves?" Caroline repeated. "Yes, I dare say they are, but look again. Oh, for heaven sake, can you not tell they are in love?"
Jane and Charles immediately looked surprised, then turned as one toward the dance floor, watching in earnest as first Robert then Helena executed a very graceful allemande.
"Only see how he looks at her, how soft his expression," Caroline said. "I do believe he can barely take his eyes off her. And see how sweetly Helena blushes whenever her gaze meets his. It is plain to anyone who looks their direction they are in the hopeless throes of a romantic attachment."
"Goodness!" Jane said, as the truth of Caroline's words dawned upon her. "Can it be? They have known each other only since August."
"That is nothing, my dear," Charles said, "for I knew I was half in love with you the night we met at the Meryton Assembly."
"Then you agree with me," Caroline said quickly, before her brother could indulge in further memories. "You do see, as I do, that Robert and Helena Paget are in love?"
"I do, indeed, now that you mention it," Jane said. "Oh, I hope Robert will be happy!"
"He will be, I am certain … once he proposes marriage. But he has not done so yet."
"What is keeping him?" Charles asked. "It is not like Robert to hesitate. Always forward, always marching toward the future, that's him!"
"He has been waiting for the right time and the right setting. You know how difficult it has been for him to find two days together in which to see her. His regiment gives him leave to come to London, but then orders him back to ranks before he has a chance to press his suit."
"I see what you mean," Jane said, with a small frown marring her lovely features. "That is always the way for poor Robert. Why, tomorrow he must return to his regiment and we shall not see him again until Christmas Eve, when he joins us at Netherfield."
"But there he may stay for two solid weeks," Charles added, heartily. "We Bingleys shall have a nice long stay at Netherfield before Robert must report for duty again."
Caroline nodded, making the jewels in her headdress sparkle. "Very true, brother. Robert will be at Netherfield for two weeks—just long enough, in my opinion, for him to properly court Helena and press his suit with her. I am certain with two weeks at his disposal, he will propose marriage to Helena, and she will accept. Oh, do say you will invite Helena Paget to Netherfield for Christmas! I think the thing may be easily done. Look, there are her parents, standing just a little by the door. It would be a simple matter for you to go to them now, Jane, and beg the favor of allowing Helena to come to us for Christmas. She can travel to Netherfield with us in our carriage. Won't that be cozy?"
Jane frowned slightly. "Do you really think their regard for each other has advanced to such a degree?"
"I am certain of it. Why do you hesitate? Do you dislike Miss Paget?"
"Indeed, we like her very well," Charles said, quickly. "She is very charming."
"And she is the niece of an earl," Caroline added, meaningfully, "as well an heiress in her own right. Of course, that sort of thing is beside the point when it is clear Robert's heart is engaged. What do you think, Jane?"
"Like Charles, I think Miss Paget is charming. And now that I understand how highly Robert regards her—Oh, Caroline, if I hesitate, it is only because I had planned a small family Christmas at Netherfield. You know my sisters Mary and Kitty will be there, and I was so looking forward to pampering them a bit."
"And so you shall!" Caroline said, in the tone of a parent coaxing a reluctant child. "And at the same time your Mary and Kitty may become acquainted with the young woman destined to be their future sister-in-law. Now, isn't that the model of a true family Christmas? Oh, what a lovely time we shall all have together!"
Jane looked at her husband, her expression still doubtful. "Charles, what do you think? Should we expand our Christmas plans to include Miss Paget?"
Before he could reply, Caroline said, "Oh, if you think it best to confine our Christmas to only Bingleys and Bennets, there is no more to be said. I was thinking only of Robert, you know. But, as you say, there is probably no reason to exert an effort on his behalf. He must learn to be satisfied with the little crumbs of happiness he can find here and there in life; and when he leaves us to fight again in some God-forsaken land from which he may never return, we will have our cozy little family Christmas to look back on."
Charles gave Jane an earnest look. "Do you think Caroline may have a point? Perhaps we should invite Miss Paget to Netherfield. If she is to join our family as Mrs. Robert Bingley, it will be the perfect chance for all of us to get to know her better. What do you say, Jane?"
"You are correct, as always," Jane answered, reaching out to tuck her fingers into the crook of his arm. "I think Kitty and Mary will like her very well. Yes, I do believe our family Christmas can include one more near-relative."
Caroline smothered a triumphant smile. "Then let us go to Mr. and Mrs. Paget now, Jane. I see them there, just beside the open doors. We will beg the favor of allowing Helena to travel to Netherfield with us. They cannot refuse, I am certain, for they, too, must have remarked on their daughter's partiality for Robert; and if they haven't, I mean to point it out to them—subtly, of course."
And with this stream of words, and many more like them, Caroline led Jane Bingley to the very field in which she had sown those seeds on Robert's behalf. She would tell Robert about it presently, for she knew he would appreciate her efforts. For now it was sufficient to know that her plans concerning her brother were about to bear fruit. Miss Helena Paget was to spend Christmas at Netherfield, just as Caroline designed. It only remained now to find a way to somehow rid Netherfield of Mary and Kitty Bennet and the Bingleys would be able to enjoy a lovely Christmas, indeed.