Richard Fitzwilliam looked out at the steel-colored waters of the Atlantic and thought of England. He either didn't notice or didn't care about the sky darkening with the gathering storm. He was remembering the last time he had seen his father, in the empty vestibule of some formerly great house in London. It was just before his battalion left for France, and even knowing his only living son could very likely be killed, the Ambassador couldn't bring himself to even shake his hand. Two months later, Richard had taken a bullet in the neck. He lay bleeding in the rubble, and all he could think about was that cold, empty house and his father's colder eyes. No thoughts of love, happiness or warmth found him in those moments before he lost consciousness. He only saw blame, loss, and grief. Is this all there is? He wondered as the medics worked over him. That thought sunk him into a despair he had not yet been able to bring himself out of. It was if the world had been washed with gray, everything tender and green had been burnt to ash.
Once he had recovered from his physical wounds (he had a shattered wrist and three broken ribs) he didn't even think about trying to see his father again. He didn't know if the old man even knew he survived the war. He didn't imagine he cared either way.
Instead he went home to Virginia for a while. He made daily trips to see his mother in her nursing home. He would sit with her for hours, not speaking a word. Of course she couldn't speak. His mother hadn't spoken a word since Richard was a boy, the result of a traumatic head injury. She only sat it her wheelchair, staring vacantly at nothing and everything, and for the first time in his life, Richard envied his mother.
Eventually, he was persuaded to stay with his Darcy cousins on their estate in the mountains of North Carolina. He hadn't been there in over five years, since before the war. The first breath of mountain air changed everything somehow, he felt clean again, and for the first time realized he might recover after all. He was slowly knitting himself together again, though he still slept very little and had to force himself to eat. Sleep brought nightmares and food had no taste. In the meantime, he tried his best to hide his affliction from his cousins, Georgiana and Will. He had them to live for, he had his motorcycle, and thanks to his large interest in Darcy's munitions factory (an investment his father, the Ambassador, had advised him against), he had his own fortune intact. He was beholden to no man but himself.
Taking a break from his cousin's company, Richard had decided to tour the coast. He'd driven his motorcycle from Pemberley to Wilmington, from there to Myrtle Beach and on. He was deeply tanned and windblown; his usually brown hair was lightened by the sun, his cheekbones pronounced from his weight loss and his eyes slightly sunken, overall giving him the appearance of a rangy lion. He didn't mind, he'd always been handsome in an off-kilter way, but now he was distinctly attractive and repellant at the same time. Something to be admired, but warily.
He found himself in Charleston on May first, escaping to the seaside to find some relief from the heat in the ocean air. He paced slowly up and down the boardwalk, noticing only several other tourists; no doubt most of the city knew to keep indoors with a storm approaching. He looked up at the heavy black clouds with a feeling that was almost smug. Deep down, he admitted, Richard couldn't care less if the storm picked him up and deposited him in the middle of the ocean. The war, his father, his whole life had made him weary deep in his blood and bones. To not struggle anymore, he thought, could only be a relief.
Richard realized that he had been absentmindedly staring at a woman who stood on the beach. Her blue dress was whipped back by the wind, snapping like a flag. She held her sandals in one hand and watched her feet as they sank into the wet sand. He watched, mesmerized as she stepped out of the sinking sand, repeating the exercise again and again.
A boom of thunder rolled across the sky, making Richard look up. He saw out of the corner of his eye that the lady did the same. He couldn't see her face properly, only the swirl of dark curls around her head. Something about the woman's delight in this simple pleasure of feet sinking in sand made him feel an odd reluctance to leave the fascinating scene below him. Almost reluctant, he made his way back to his motorcycle.
The breeze had turned almost chilly as the first fat raindrops began to fall. He was only a mile away from his hotel, but was nevertheless anxious to get out of what was promising to be a hell of a storm. As he neared his bike, he saw the woman in the blue dress walking close by, still barefoot, looking anxiously up at the sky. A few drops of rain had already fallen on her shoulders, turning her dress a darker blue in those places. He noticed that she was extremely pretty, with dark expressive eyes and a healthy complexion. Her obvious worry at being caught in the storm strained her features and he only hesitated a second before speaking to her.
"Ma'am?" She continued walking towards the sidewalk, either not having heard him or purposely ignoring him. He called out to her again. "Pardon me, Miss?" This time she turned around and looked at him. She could hardly be called a woman; she didn't look to be a day older than eighteen. He was struck by the expression in her dark eyes, like two pools of liquid ink, and he was silent for several moments before he noticed the furrow in her brow. That had decided him.
"Do you have far to walk, Miss? I'd be happy to give you a ride if you need one." He said, gesturing towards his motorcycle. The girl looked at him, skeptical, then at the motorcycle. A wry smile twisted her mouth charmingly.
"Thank you," her voice was softened by her accent, but he noticed that it had none of the usual thickness of the Charleston accents, "but my hotel is over a mile away, I was going to wait out the rain in that diner." She pointed north, about seven blocks down the street where the diner's sign was clearly lit 'Matlock's'. He had to chuckle at the name, the Fitzwilliam's were descended from English nobility. If his ancestor hadn't been banished in disgrace during the reign of King George III, Richard might even now be the Earl of Matlock. It seemed as though one of his father's incessant family history lessons had finally paid off.
"Mister, it's a diner. Not Bob Hope." He turned to look at the girl, who stood there in here bare feet, arching an eyebrow at him. He hadn't even realized he was laughing out loud. When was the last time I did that? He couldn't recall.
"Let me at least give you a ride that far, please." He asked.
She seemed to be weighing him with her eyes, sizing him up. Her dark eyes narrowed as she chewed her bottom lip, considering. Richard was fascinated. He'd shown very little interest in women as of late, his main concern was usually just to make it through the day. Now he found himself bewitched by some girl barely old enough to be looked at, who had just appeared on the beach as if she rose from the foam. The thought made him smile openly, though he was a bit out of practice.
At his genuine smile, it seemed as if the sun were shining just for a moment on his face, and she nodded once before brushing the sand off of her feet and replacing her sandals.
"Have you ever ridden a motorcycle before?" he asked. At this she laughed openly, a low bubbling sound that made him tingle from his feet to the roots of his hair.
"Don't fret on my sake, Mister" she said, "I know enough not to fall off the back of one."
Richard flashed another sunny grin and straddled the motorcycle in one fluid movement. A moment after he felt her weight on the seat behind him. He was polite enough not to look behind him as she adjusted her dress, no matter how badly he wanted to. He revved the engine to life, not feeling the cold rain that was falling more freely now, but the warmth emanating from behind him. He felt her arms timidly clutching the sides of his jacket, and he took a moment to enjoy the closeness of this strange girl. She smelled incredible, like rain and salt and something sweet but earthy at the same time, the way vines sometimes smelled. He savored it a moment before backing the bike up and speeding off in the direction of the Diner. He may have been showing off, just a bit.
Too soon for his liking, they reached Matlock's. Parking the bike under the awning he once again gave her a moment to dismount and adjust her dress before turning to look at her. The rain was falling freely now, drops were caught in the curls of her hair like dew on a spider web. He made an effort not to notice the way her blue dress clung to her in places. Instead he looked at her face, and saw a softened expression of gratitude in her eyes.
"Thank you," she said, "can I at least buy you a cup of coffee for your trouble, Mister…?" He returned her smile and held out his hand "Richard Fitzwilliam. And I would love a cup of coffee, Miss…?"
"I'm Elizabeth Bennet", she put her small hand in his and gave it a quick, firm shake. "It's nice to meet you, Richard Fitzwilliam. Do you think we should go in or do you think we ought to start gathering two of every animal?"
He laughed out loud, killing the engine on the bike. He got off and shrugged out of his jacket before handing it over to her.
"Please", was all he said. The jacket was as much for his sake as for hers. He saw her face flush prettily before she nodded and slipped it over her slender shoulders. Though the jacket was slightly damp too, it at least gave her the advantage of hiding her wet clothes. They hurried together towards the diner entrance, and when Richard opened the door for her he couldn't resist putting his hand on her back to usher her in.
The girl, Elizabeth, he reminded himself, choose a booth facing the street. From where they sat they could see rain pouring down in heavy sheets. The street had already begun to flood, and Richard was glad he had not driven much further. Settling in to their booth, he felt her eyes on him and chose to continue looking out the window for the time being. The waitress, a pretty older woman who wore entirely too much lipstick, came over to them and greeted Elizabeth by name.
"Miss Lizzy, did you get caught up in that rain?" Elizabeth smiled up at the waitress.
"Almost, ma'am. My friend Richard here gave me a ride so it wasn't too bad."
The waitress turned to him with a knowing smile. Am I that obvious? He wondered. He felt uncomfortable under so much scrutiny, and for a moment considered that this is what his cousin Darcy must feel like. His discomfort must have shown because the waitress next took out her order pad and pulled a pencil from behind her ear. "What can I get ya'll?" she asked.
Elizabeth ordered a cup of coffee and a slice of peach pie for herself; he briefly looked up and ordered the same. The waitress nodded and was off, coming back moments later with two cups of steaming black coffee, a bowl of sugar cubes, a small pitcher of cream, and two slices of warm peach pie that smelled so sweet his stomach gave an involuntary rumble.
He looked up at Elizabeth, who had continued her observation of him while stirring her coffee absently.
"So." She paused to take a sip from her mug, "Richard Fitzwilliam. That's a bit of a mouthful."
The corner of her mouth turned up in a smile. He smiled back, taking a long pull off of his coffee before answering her.
"I suppose it is. You can call me Rich if you like." She considered before answering, "No, I like Richard. It's a respectable sounding name. Pair that with your motorcycle; you can't get much more respectable in these parts."
"And should I call you Elizabeth or would you prefer Lizzie?"
"Oh by all means, stick with Elizabeth. I won't be satisfied unless I'm at least somewhat respectable myself." She said playfully before biting into a forkful of pie. He smiled at her, saying, "Elizabeth it is then. And I'm only too happy to be Richard for you. By all means let's be respectable." She tried to hide her smile behind her napkin as she chewed.
"If you don't mind my asking, how are you enjoying Charleston? You mentioned you were staying in a hotel so I took it to mean you're only visiting."
He paused to let her answer and to try the pie. He was immediately aware of the rich sweetness and a hint of tart flooding his mouth, and under that the buttery flavor of the warm crust. The sensation, the taste was so overpowering it almost made his eyes water. He didn't think he'd ever eaten anything so sweet, so deliciously perfect in his life as that bite of peach pie. He felt some small part of him relax and let go of some undefined weight that he'd been carrying around. Between the pie, and the beautiful dark eyes that looked at him from across the booth, Richard felt something close to happiness for the first time in years.
What an extraordinary day this is turning out to be! He thought to himself.
Elizabeth took another sip of coffee before answering. "Yes, my sister and I are visiting with our Aunt. I'm going to college in a few months and coming to Charleston with my Jane was my Aunt's gift to me." Her face wore a mix of embarrassment and pride that he found completely endearing.
"And is your sister going to College too?"
She flushed deeper, "No, Jane is training to be a nurse and stays home to help my mother deal with my other sisters. I'm the second eldest, so I'm the first of us, besides my father, to go to college. I suspect my sister Mary is clever enough for it, but she won't graduate for another year, and I'm not sure she's got the ambition."
He read between the lines that she was going on scholarship, or else she would not be going at all. He admired her for it. After all, he hadn't been born rich like his cousins. Though he was rich now, he'd never imagined he'd earn more in life than a Colonel's salary. He knew how difficult it was to raise yourself up from humble beginnings, and the kind of backbone it took to do so. Again he thought about how only an hour ago he was alone and full of dark thoughts, and now here he was with a mouthful of peach pie, sitting across from an uncommonly pretty and clever young lady, who shivered for a moment and pulled his jacket closer around her.
"How many brothers and sisters do you have?" Richard could hardly contain his curiosity. Tired of dwelling on his own life and the problems that came with it, it was a welcome distraction to ask about someone else's.
"No brothers and four sisters." She was looking off at nothing, obviously thinking of home, a somewhat rueful smile on her face.
"Five daughters? That must keep your father busy!" She laughed out loud, her eyes sparkling as they focused on him again.
"We have a small cluster of farms in Meryton, my father spends most of his time either in the fields or in his office with a book. Having five daughters has certainly taught him the finer points of quiet and solitude."
"And your mother?"
"Rendered silly by her ambition to marry all of her daughters off to rich men."
He hoped she didn't hear his quick intake of breath. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat and focused on him.
"But what about you? Do you have brothers and sisters?" Richard's mouth compressed to a grim line.
"One brother, and if you can believe it his name's even more of a mouthful than my own."
"Longer than Richard Fitzwilliam? Heaven Forbid!"
"Actually, my full name's Lieutenant Colonel Richard George Fitzwilliam".
"I hope you don't mind if I don't use your full moniker but continue with just 'Richard'. I can only tolerate so much respectability. How on earth could your brother's name be longer than that?"
"His full name was Lieutenant Commander James Robert Fitzwilliam the Third". Her eyes widened at the word 'was', but only for a moment. She tentatively put a hand on his arm and gave it a gentle squeeze.
"I stand corrected, Sir. If my name were that long I'm sure it would take me a week to sign it."
He appreciated her tact; he knew his misery must have been plain on his face. He'd lost his brother three years ago on the Lexington. Their father had always preferred James, and his death had been the last straw in an already strained dynamic. The Ambassador's words still echoed in his head. I wish it had been you. Richard felt the despair threaten like a black wave and pushed it down. Looking at Elizabeth, but thinking of his father, he suddenly wanted to shield her from anything ugly or cold, even if something was him.
Attempting to lighten the mood, he continued "But I do have joint guardianship of my young cousin, along with her brother, who is like a brother to me. We're all close enough to pass for actual siblings."
"Have you traveled much?" she asked, in an attempt to steer the conversation away from dark waters. "I only come here once a year maybe to visit my Aunt and Uncle, other than that I've never been anywhere."
He settled in his seat and told her about all that he had seen as a boy, growing up in Washington D.C., and about his travels in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Any talk of the war he avoided, which she had already picked up on. She didn't ask about anything relating to the last six years, but instead focused on his boyhood and the wonders of New York, which she had always wanted to visit. They continued on this way for another hour, neither of them had noticing that the rain had ceased and the street was clear, drying in the sudden appearance of the May sun.
Only a lilting voice crying "Lizzie!" from the door was able to put an end to their conversation. Richard saw Elizabeth eyes soften with affection before she blushed again, having been caught at a diner with a strange man. He turned around towards to see who had spoken from the door, his breath suddenly caught in his throat.
Walking towards them was one of, perhaps the most beautiful women he had ever seen in his life. Her soft, blond curls rested like a golden crown on her head, her deep blue eyes wore an expression of concern and relief. Her skin was like bisque porcelain, except for her rosy cheeks, and she was tall and graceful.
"Jane, I'd like you to meet my new friend." Elizabeth said from across the booth, amused at his dumbfounded expression.
"Richard, this is my sister Jane Bennet. Jane, this is Richard Fitzwilliam. He helped me escape the flood so I thought I'd treat him to a cup of coffee and some pie."
"Nice to meet you" he managed. Jane Bennet wore a gentle expression, her face shone with gratitude. "Mister Fitzwilliam, thank you for helping my sister." She turned to Elizabeth.
"I was so worried with this weather Lizzie, and you were gone for so long!"
"Did Aunt Gardiner let you take the car?" she asked, surprised. Jane nodded. "Well, then I suppose we'd better get back and put her mind at ease." Elizabeth said. Richard was thrilled to hear the reluctance in her voice. Jane seemed to take the hint and inclined her head towards Richard in a quaint gesture. "Mister Fitzwilliam, it was very nice to meet you." She said with a soft, friendly smile. He barely had time to return the sentiment before she glided out the door and headed towards a large gray sedan. Elizabeth stood and seemed to consider something before speaking.
"Richard. I hope that you will come have dinner with my sister and my aunt and I tomorrow night. We're staying at the King Charles Inn?" she phrased the last like a question; he nodded and said he knew where it was.
"Well then." She took off his jacket, handing it back to him. He draped the jacket over his arm, fighting the instinct to bury his face in it and inhale her rain-salt-vines smell. She took some money out of the pocket of her dress to leave on the table, and he took the hand in his, shaking his head.
"No, Elizabeth. I won't let you pay for this. That was probably the best pie I've ever had in my life. I would feel guilty if I let you pay." Her hand was warm, almost hot to the touch. He couldn't be sure but for a second he thought he felt it grip his own. She flushed a fierce red, his hand still holding hers, and smiled up at him.
"How about we go Dutch?" she asked. He stared blankly at her.
"Go Halfsies? Split the bill?" He smiled, shaking his head.
"Not a chance." Slowly, he released her hand. She put her money back in her pocket, keeping her eyes anywhere but his. He knew she was embarrassed by his boldness, but seemed to be pleased as well.
"I will come by your hotel tomorrow, and if your Aunt and Sister don't mind, then I would be happy to join you for dinner." His voice was low, just above a whisper. She looked up at him fully at last, turning the full force of her dark eyes on him. He felt himself melt him from the inside out. Her sister might be more beautiful by most people's standards, but Elizabeth had an undefined quality that made her more irresistible than any young woman he had ever encountered.
"I'll look forward to seeing you then" she said, still red-faced but by no means displeased. With that, she walked out the door and joined her sister by the gray sedan. He sat down heavily in the booth, watching the car pull away. "Elizabeth Bennet" he said to himself. No other words were necessary.