Saving Miss Caulfield
a short story by Kristi Ann Hunter, originally published on Regency Reflections
If Miss Bianca Caulfield laughed at one more thing her idiot of a dancing partner said, Landon Sinclair was going to break something. Preferably Mr. Camden Theodore’s toes. Then the cad wouldn’t be able to whisk her away from the protection of her mother and brother under the guise of an innocent quadrille in a London ballroom. What were they thinking, letting him court Bianca?
He supposed he should call her Miss Caulfield now, but she had always been Bianca to him.
She was easy to spot in the crush of dancers, her blonde hair twisted into the simplest coiffure in the room. Landon caught glimpses of her light green dress as she moved between the other dancers. She was light on her feet, floating through the complicated dance steps without any effort. It was a hard-won grace, Landon knew. He’d spent hours this winter having his feet trampled and his shins kicked as she tried to learn the steps. Her brother sported similar injuries, but one would never know it to see her now.
It would have been a pleasure to watch if she weren’t smiling up at Mr. Theodore.
“Please tell me you intend to start a mill with that fist, Lord Braidstone. This evening could use a good distraction.”
Landon looked down at his hand, surprised to find it curled into a tight ball. With conscious effort he loosened his fingers, stretching them until the knuckles popped. A deep, fortifying breath brought the strong combination of perfume, smoke, and champagne, further reminding him of the conduct expected of a viscount at a social gathering.
He glanced at the speaker, finding the expected grin on his friend’s face. “You let her dance with that shuffler, Caulfield?”
Mr. Giles Caulfield, Bianca’s brother, shrugged and adjusted his coat sleeve. “Why not? He’s well off, popular, and set to inherit a barony.”
“He’s a pompous windbag who lies his way through what should be gentlemen’s dealings and falls asleep in church.” Landon made a point of leaning casually against the wall, crossing his arms to hide any fist-making tendencies he might unconsciously entertain.
Giles adjusted his sleeve again. “Pompous or not, his attention has chased off all other interested beau.” He cleared his throat and tugged at the other sleeve. Obviously the man needed a new tailor. Or perhaps his valet had ruined the coat somehow. “Unless you know of someone?”
Landon cast his eyes about the ballroom. There had to be someone better than Theodore. Anyone was better than Theodore. He would trample on Bianca’s open heart and sweet spirit, breaking the girl Landon had watched grow up. The mere thought of losing the light of her smile made Landon desperate.
“What about Mr. Bertram?” Landon nodded towards the mill owner across the room. A bit old, perhaps, but he was honorable and loyal and able to provide a good life for Bianca.
Giles shook his head. “Too busy with rebuilding after the Luddites smashed his looms. He’s only in Town to visit Parliament.”
True enough. Rumor was he’d let his house fall into disrepair as he tried to save his business. Bianca shouldn’t live in a rundown house. Landon blew his breath out through pursed lips as he looked over the room. That one’s reputation was awful. Another given to drunken routs.
His eyes lit on a tall gentleman entering the ballroom. “Fellbourne?”
Giles shook his head. “Has plans to ask for Presbrook’s daughter.”
The girl who’s dinner conversation was limited to the fit of her slippers? Fellbourne never had possessed high enough standards to appreciate Bianca. “Milton?”
“Debt. He’ll probably be run out of Town within the month.”
Landon jerked his gaze back to Giles. “Truly? I had no idea.”
Giles nodded. “I overheard several shopkeepers today while I was waiting for Bianca outside the milliner.”
“That won’t run him out of town unless he runs up an account at one of the finer establishments. Still, it’s a vise Bianca need not deal with.” Landon returned to scrutinizing the options in front of him, looking for someone ideal and realistic.
What was Giles saying? Bianca was still dancing with that rascal. “Beg your pardon?”
“Bianca. You should call her Miss Caulfield now. At least in public.”
Landon grunted in agreement. For propriety’s sake he should use a more formal address, but there was a much more pressing issue at stake than adjusting his life-long habits.
The dance set was drawing to a close. Soon Bianca would be back at her mother’s side where someone more suitable could ask her to dance. Landon glanced to his left to see if Mrs. Caulfield was still in her previous location. One of Theodore’s friends hovered at her elbow.
“It appears that Theodore is determined that your sister not have any other options.” Landon nodded his head in Mrs. Caulfield’s direction.
Giles gave no more than a glance to the man waiting with his mother. “I believe I mentioned that.”
Landon waited, but it became painfully obvious that Giles was going to do nothing to stop Theodore and his cronies from monopolizing Bianca’s attention. With a sigh Landon made his way through the crowd at the side of the ballroom.
Giles was a dear friend, closer than any of Landon’s own brothers or cousins, but lately he’d been shirking in his brotherly duties towards his sister, leaving Landon to pick up the pieces. They were going to have to talk soon, but first Landon had to save Bianca.
Bianca’s face hurt. She’d only been at the ball for an hour and already she was faking the smiles and relying on well-practiced laughter to give the impression of a young woman having the time of her life. In reality she was desperate and growing moreso as the season continued. She couldn’t return home without a secure future.
In truth she couldn’t return home at all. Mother and Giles tried to assure her that Father wouldn’t mind, but they all knew the truth. He’d grumbled for months about the expense of a London season, the uselessness of daughters, and even the size of her dowry, although none of that came directly from him.
God bless her grandfather who had left her a decent dowry when he died. Without it, who knows what her father would have set aside for her?
Mr. Camden Theodore was saying something about country estates and the seclusion from Town, but Bianca could barely make out the words over the pounding of her heart and the constant litany of dance steps running through her mind.
They couldn’t afford much time with a dance master, so Bianca had been left to practice with her brother and their generous neighbor, Lord Braidstone. Landon. Bianca swallowed a sigh as she kicked her skirt clear of the next intricate step. She strained her ears to hear the music over the loud talking around her and the fears screaming in her mind.
She brought her thoughts back to Landon. He always had a calming effect on her. Such a mixed blessing. He’d been part of every significant moment in her life, another older brother ready to tease her one moment and rescue her the next.
But he’d ruined any chance she had for marital bliss.
The dance ended and Bianca dropped into a curtsy, looking up at Mr. Theodore through her lashes. She tried to picture him as her husband, but the effort was futile. She couldn’t imagine a cozy dinner at home with his flat eyes across the table or a quiet stroll through the countryside with his constant stream of boasts and gossip as the only conversation.
That may be her life, though.
“Don’t you agree?” he asked with a pat of her hand as he led her from the dance floor.
Bianca smiled. Was the panic reaching her eyes? Because she had no idea what to say and couldn’t blindly agree to a question, not when it was entirely possible he’d asked something crucial to her future happiness. The man spoke often of expediency and efficiency. He might have asked her to marry him on the dance floor to save him a trip to her house.
How to get out of this? “I am parched. Do you think they have lemonade?”
His face screwed up in a frown, the only expression that ever reached his eyes. “Of course. You had a glass before we danced. We missed the first song if you’ll remember.”
A delaying tactic that had caused her to spend more time in his company instead of less. “I had forgotten. It must be the heat. Quite a crush tonight, is it not?”
They reached her mother and Bianca gracefully slid her hand from his elbow, restraining the urge to wipe her glove on her gown. She didn’t want to mar the precious light green silk. It was the only evening gown of color that Mother had allowed.
“I am sure that Mr. Julian can see to –“ His frown darkened. “What are you doing here?”
Bianca spun her head so fast her neck twinged in protest. Mr. Theodore had obviously been expecting his friend, Mr. Julian, to be waiting to claim her for the next dance. Joy, relief, trepidation, and speculation warred for prominence in Bianca’s midsection as she took in the welcome sight of Landon’s tall form standing beside her beaming mother.
Landon raised his brows and looked around as if wondering what wasn’t painfully obvious about his intentions. His brown eyes smiled at her as he brought his gaze back to her. “I’m here to claim Miss Caulfield for the next set.”
“But Julian –“ Mr. Theodore stumbled to a halt.
Mother waved her hand in the air. “Mr. Julian was here, but I sent him to fetch me a glass of lemonade. It is so dreadfully warm in this crush, isn’t it?”
Bianca tried to contain her giggle, but it escaped in an inelegant sputter through her lips. She coughed to hide the embarrassing sound, but ended up sounding like a sick cow as the cough and giggle mingled in her throat.
Landon grinned. “Are you well?”
“Yes, quite.” Bianca forced her lips to curve. Hopefully it looked like a smile. Ice. Brisk breezes. Swimming in the lake at the first sign of Spring. She willed the chilly thoughts to keep the heat of a blush away. Her neck grew warm, but her cheeks remained mercifully cool.
“Shall we?” Landon offered his arm.
Bianca pinched herself as she placed her hand on his elbow. She’d danced countless times with him at home, but never had he asked her at an actual event. He claimed she should keep her dances free for the men vying for her hand and attentions.
Oh how it hurt that he didn’t number himself among those men.
The music started and they bowed to each other. It was a simple dance, one she’d done since she was a girl, which allowed her to focus on her partner. Her handsome, kind, intelligent partner.
He leaned his head down as they stepped between the other couples. “I’ve heard the singer at Vauxhall is quite good.”
Bianca felt a blush threaten her ears. What would he do if she ran her fingers through his dark hair? “I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing her yet.”
“Perhaps we should go then.”
They circled around the other couples in their group until they made it to the end of the line, where they stood facing each other. Bianca was floating. Did he actually want to escort her to Vauxhall? Was he finally seeing her as something other than a younger sister? Her prayers must be working.
Landon smiled across the way at her. “What do you think? Shall we make a party? I’m sure your brother would like to go. Is there someone special you would like me to invite?”
Bianca blanched. He couldn’t mean what she thought he meant. “Special?”
“Yes.” He stepped forward and grasped her hand as they reentered the dance. “Please, anyone but Mr. Theodore. I can’t abide the fellow.”
Bianca tripped over a simple step and stumbled into Landon’s side.
“Oh!” she cried as she righted herself, only to find herself adjusting too much and crashing into the woman on her right.
Landon gripped her arm and righted her with a small laugh. “We’ll simply focus on the dancing for now, hmm? Just like old times.”
“Just like old times,” she said with another cheek torturing smile.
He gave her a brilliant smile as the dance concluded, congratulating her as he always did. And Bianca’s heart broke.
The next morning Bianca doodled nonsense on a piece of writing paper, staring out the drawing room window. The Season was nearly half over. Announcements appeared almost daily in the Times. Mother tried not to look worried, but occasionally Bianca found the paper with a name or two circled and she knew another man her mother had hoped to match her with had found someone else.
She was starting to get desperate. Was she to be forced to settle for the first available option? In truth it appeared she was only to have one option. And did it really matter? The man she loved didn’t love her and didn’t see her as marriage material. Only time, God’s grace, and determination were going to make her love her husband. Even then she doubted it would be a passionate love like the couple in Song of Solomon.
At least half of what she’d read in that book of the Bible was beyond her understanding, but it had sounded wildly thrilling and made her think constantly of Landon.
“Lord Braidstone to see you, miss.”
Bianca’s gaze flew to the maid. Landon never called for her.
And then he was there, his large frame filling the doorway, his brown eyes twinkling and a small smile on his lips. His chestnut hair curled where his hat had been and her fingers itched to smooth it down.
“Good morning.” He entered the room and sat in the chair beside her writing desk.
“What are you doing here?” The abruptness of her question made Bianca wince.
“I came to finish our conversation. Giles said you have no fixed engagements for this evening so it seemed a fine time to go to Vauxhall.”
Oh yes, the trip to the Gardens. His curiosity about whether or not she had someone special to invite. “Yes. That would be a fine idea.”
“Have you thought of anyone we should include in the party?” He settled further back in his chair. “Anyone but Mr. Theodore.”
What was wrong with Mr. Theodore? Other than his obvious similarity to all of the other unappealing obsessively ambitious young men she’d met in London. “I’m afraid he’s the only one.”
He surged from the chair and began to pace. “You cannot seriously be contemplating marriage to that man. He’s cruel. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. He cares nothing for his horses, works his staff to the bone, and neglects any and all things Godly. More often than not he leaves the club foxed. You cannot marry him.”
Bianca stood with a frown, resignation pooling in her heart. “Which makes him very similar to half the other men I’ve met in London. He hasn’t asked yet, but he is the only one who potentially will. I hope he does. I don’t have any other choice.”
“You could go home.”
Bianca smiled sadly into Landon’s eyes. The hesitant way he’d said the sentence proved he knew how harsh Father’s welcome would be if she returned home unwed. He’d declare her a failure and doom her to a miserable secluded spinsterhood.
“Well, there must be someone.”
Her hand looked small as she reached out to touch his arm and stop his pacing. Her broken heart reached out to him. A pseudo-brother with no acceptable means of aiding her. It must be a difficult position for him.
“There’s no one else. If Mr. Theodore asks, I will have to consent. He has an estate in the country. I believe he would be content to leave it for me to run in his absence. With the title, he’ll require children. I would be happy to have children.”
Landon’s frowned darkened. He wrapped his hands around her upper arms and looked deep into her eyes. “You can’t marry him.”
He crossed to the window, muttering quietly to himself. Was he naming and excusing other men? She didn’t even recognize some of the names. Shame coursed through Bianca until it weakened her legs and she fell back into her seat. Even Landon, with all of his connections and social status couldn’t think of a decent man who would be interested in marrying her.
“I have no other options.” Bianca smiled at him as best she could, but she’d never been able to hide from Landon. He would see her sadness, feel her resignation, and there was nothing she could do about it.
“Yes you do.” He spun from the window, his mouth pressed into a line of resolve. “You can marry me.”
Bianca stomped through the main hall, wishing she had on something more substantial than satin slippers. Their soft slapping against the marble floor was decidedly unsatisfactory.
She heard Landon exit the drawing room behind her, his boots thudding against the floor with confident solidity. One more grievance for her to lay at his feet. The urge to run up the stairs was strong, but she forced herself to take the steps at a sedate pace.
“Are you going to answer me?” Landon stood in the hall with his hands on his hips and his head dropped back to look up at her.
Arrogant man. Did he expect her to be delighted about his willingness to sacrifice himself because he couldn’t imagine foisting her off on some other poor bloke?
Bianca did her best to arrange her features into a mirror of his frustrated countenance “Are you going to ask me a question?”
She gripped the banister until her fingers turned white and her arm started to shake. Of all the times she had imagined Landon speaking of marriage between the two of them, not once had he suggested it in the guise of a martyr, with a resigned sigh punctuating the moment instead of a passionate kiss.
He shook his head. “Is that what has your dander up? Come back down then, and I’ll ask properly. Would you like me on one knee perhaps?”
A noise gurgled in the back of her throat, begging, threatening to escape. A growl? A scream? A cry? Some terrifying combination of the three? She swallowed it down and continued her trek up the stairs, pounding each step with enough force to jar her knees and echo through the house.
Quick, light taps indicated Landon was running up the stairs behind her. She would have to abandon pique to obtain speed if she wished to attain privacy before he reached her.
Her brother, Giles, stood in the hall at the top of the stairs, blocking the way to the private salon.
“Step aside, please.” She made to step around him, but he dodged, placing himself in her path once more. Bianca’s eyes narrowed. “Step. Aside. Please.”
Had he truly just denied her retreat? His eyes left her face to look over her shoulder. No doubt Landon had reached them.
Giles cleared his throat and looked between the two of them. “May I ask what brings you visiting so early in the day?”
“I asked your sister to marry me,” Landon growled. “Then she left the room.”
Bianca’s laugh was short and rude. “You did not ask.”
He stepped forward, a ruddy splash along his cheekbones matching the angry heat in his gaze. “Will you marry me?”
“No!” Bianca shoved past the two men, fighting the tears. She didn’t want a miserable marriage with Theodore, but she didn’t want to be pitied either.
How could she possibly have a real marriage with Landon when he saw her as a little sister? Would there even be children? How could she be expected to move past her adoration and love for him if she saw his name every time she signed her own?
If her marriage was doomed to be an arrangement for survival, then she would make it one she had a hope of surviving. Marriage to Landon when he didn’t love her back would destroy her.
A strong hand wrapped around her arm and pulled her to a stop. Her momentum swung her around until she faced her captor.
Landon’s face was set, the lines around his mouth deepening as his lips flattened. “Earlier you were resigned to a fate with that cad, Theodore. Give me one good reason why you’d choose him over me.”
Bianca stared at Landon, blinking slowly. Landon sucked his breath in through his teeth, breathing unaccountably fast.
Giles waved a hand at the door next to him. “I’ll be in my study. With the door open.”
Landon didn’t even glance back as Giles departed. Bianca frowned.
“One reason, Bianca.”
What could she say? She could hardly tell him it was because he didn’t love her because she was under no illusion that Mr. Theodore loved her either. Telling Landon that she was in love with him would only make him pity her more. She opened her mouth, praying inspiration would strike if she started speaking. “You’re… That is to say…”
He leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest with a look of confidence. Was he convinced she couldn’t come up with a reason?
“You’re too tall.” She wanted to crawl under a table. Too tall? That’s what she came up with? She deserved his pity for that lack of creativity.
He blinked. “Too tall?”
Her eyes fell to the left. His boot made a fascinating contrast with the polished wood floor.
Then he advanced and her gaze shot back to his face in apprehension. “Too tall? You’ll have to come up with something better than that, Bianca. You’re too smart to throw away your future on something so meaningless.”
Bianca felt her nails cut into her palms as she curled her fingers into fists of determination. He would not pressure her. “Why would I want to marry a man I have to break my neck to look at?”
“Better than a man you’d have to break your soul to live with.”
“My soul is stronger than you think, and it’s much easier to protect than my heart.”
He scoffed. “You think Theodore will have a care for your heart?”
It was Bianca’s turn to look superior. “Of course not. But he’ll get nowhere near it so it’s hardly in danger.”
He leaned forward until his breath bounced off her face. “Why would you marry a man who at best will ignore you?”
“Why would I marry a man who pities me?” Bianca’s eyes widened and she resisted the urge to clap her hands over her mouth. She hadn’t meant to reveal that insecurity, but now that it was out she felt better. There had always been honesty between them.
“I don’t pity you.” His voice was quiet, barely above a whisper.
“Are you saying you want to marry me because you love me?”
His mouth opened, but nothing came out. The heat in his eyes seemed banked by fear, giving credence to her assumption that his proposal was prompted by something other than romantic notions. The victory felt hollow.
“You know I love you, Bianca.”
Her eyebrows shot up even as her heart plummeted. He loved her like a sister, had mentioned that often when he teased about needing to soak his feet in chilled water after helping her learn to dance. That he use such a phrase when he knew she meant something different hurt.
“Then kiss me.” It was hard to tell who was more stunned by her challenge. It felt right, though. There was no better way to call him on his manipulation.
Landon looked awkward as he reached a shaky hand toward her cheek. He gently brushed the curls back, laying his hand along the side of her neck.
Her heartbeat increased. Was he going to take her challenge? Was it possible he felt more than she realized?
Ever so slowly, he leaned forward, bending his head toward hers. Their breath mingled, his spicy scent filling Bianca’s senses until air backed up in her lungs. Her eyes drifted shut of their own volition, despite her desire to see every emotion in Landon’s eyes.
His lips connected with hers in the softest caress imaginable, like a butterfly floating by. She waited for more, for him to sweep by again with a firmer pressure, to send her heart fluttering again, but it never came.
Then his hand was gone, leaving her neck cold. By the time she forced her eyes open, there was nothing to see but Landon’s back as he fled down the stairs.
Landon paced his study from door to bookcase, seven long strides eating up the floor before he turned and did it again.
His staff was beginning to gather outside the door, occasionally sending someone to peek in on him and ask if he needed anything. They were beginning to look worried. Not that he blamed them. He’d been pacing since he fled here from Bianca’s house hours ago.
This morning it had seemed so simple. He had gone to Bianca’s house, determined to help her work out a plan for escaping Theodore. He’d had no intention of proposing she marry him. Had he?
As soon as he’d made the suggestion, he knew it was the right solution, the only solution. He was a viscount, outranking Theodore’s potential barony. Not to mention he was a friend of the family and more of a gentleman than Theodore ever pretended to be. If she was looking for a practical match, he was a much better choice.
So why had she turned him down?
He changed direction and strode to the window, bracing his hands on either side. His reflection wavered in the glass as evening crept in. The face was one he’d seen every day of his life, but he didn’t know the man anymore.
Since the first inklings of manhood he’d prided himself on keeping his eyes on God instead of the women that distracted so many of his friends. He’d called them fools, knowing that God would provide the right woman in time. Had he been too focused? Like a horse with blinders, so set on moving forward that he missed his destination?
Because he never expected the thought of kissing little Bianca Caulfield to shake him to his very core.
The kiss had been fleeting. He wasn’t positive his lips had even touched hers, but from the first mention of marriage to the moment he’d rested his hand on her cheek, everything he knew about his life had crumbled in on itself. He’d never felt so out of control.
So why did the thought of putting everything back the way it had been tie his stomach in knots?
Even considering what he would need to do to put their relationship back on a friendly level sent panic to his toes.
He looked past his reflection to a couple walking down the street below his window. Their heads tilted towards each other in a sign of intimacy despite the proper amount of space between their strolling bodies. They were obviously in love.
The panic flowed from him like water. He loved Bianca. And not in the family way he’d always teased her about. Somewhere along the line as she’d grown into womanhood she’d made her way into his heart while she lowered her hemlines and put up her hair.
“George!” he bellowed.
The butler was instantly at the door. How many people were lingering out there? Why did he even care?
“My horse. Now.”
Fifteen minutes later, he found himself in front of Bianca’s house again, determination of a new kind driving him to knock with more force than necessary.
The door unlatched and Landon pushed his way in even as the butler opened it. “Where is she?”
“Bianca – Miss Caulfield – where is she?”
“The drawing room, my lord, but I must protest –”
Whatever else the man said was lost as Landon’s long legs ate up the floor to the drawing room he’d earlier made a fool of himself in.
There she was. Pretty as a painting with her blonde hair in a simple braid wrapped around her head, still in a plain afternoon dress. His heart threatened to beat its way out of his chest, but a sense of rightness that filled his soul made everything right. Brought peace to his soul.
Her bright blue eyes widened as she rose to her feet. “Landon?”
He didn’t know how he crossed the room. He could have walked, run, or flew for all he knew and he truly didn’t care, because whatever he’d done had brought her within reach. He leaned in even as he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her into his chest, his heart, where she belonged.
There was nothing hesitant about his kiss this time. The press of his lips to hers felt like coming home. Her fingers dove into his hair and she sighed into his kiss, relaxing into his arms.
He pulled back, but only far enough to see into her eyes. He rested his forehead against hers, fighting to steady his breath enough to speak. This precious girl, no, this precious woman had always been there for him. He couldn’t imagine his life without her in it.
“I love you, Bianca.”
She bit her lip. “Why now? You didn’t this morning.”
He smoother the curls back from her face with a smile. “I think I did. I was just too thick to know it. You’ve always been part of my life, Bianca. I couldn’t imagine building a life, having children, growing old with anyone else by my side. You are my beloved, my darling. Please tell me you’ll be my bride.”
Her eyes glistened with tears as a wide smile stretched across her face. She nodded, her hair rubbing against his forehead like silk. A light laugh escaped her lips even as a tear ran down her cheek. “Yes, my love. I’ll be your bride.”
Landon picked her up and spun her around, spying Giles leaning in the doorway.
With a bit of heat in his cheeks, Landon placed Bianca back on the floor but kept her close to his side.
“Finally,” Giles said with a smile. “Welcome to the family.”
Surprise caused Landon to go a bit slack-jawed. Giles had known? How could the man know something Landon hadn’t even realized about himself? He looked down at Bianca with her bright smile and loving eyes, and decided he didn’t care.