Applause and cheers greet Georgiana after her performance on the pianoforte.
Mr. Darcy takes the stage and introduces a special guest author who will now do a reading that is Georgiana inspired...
by Regina Jeffers
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The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy, a cozy mystery, is a follow-up to my inspirational novel, Christmas at Pemberley. Some of the non-Austen characters introduced in the Christmas book are carried forward into this one, along with a few of the minor story lines.
The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy takes place two years into the Darcys’ marriage. It is the summer of 1815. Darcy’s cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, is now a Major General and is married to Darcy’s sister, Georgiana. When Edward Fitzwilliam returned to Pemberley at Christmastide, he had expected to find his young cousin still the shy, innocent girl he left behind while in service to his country. In her place, he discovered a confident young woman.
Edward and Georgiana advanced the date of their marriage when he received orders to join Wellington’s forces after Napoleon’s escape from Elba. They had four days before he shipped out.
After the Battle of Waterloo, in anticipation of her husband’s return, Georgiana travels to the Fitzwilliam property outside of Kirkconnel in Scotland to set up their “love nest.” Unfortunately, Georgiana receives word that the British army reports Edward has died at Waterloo. The report is erroneous, but Georgiana has no means to judge the truth. When Edward learns of the military’s mistake, he rushes to Scotland. However, he is too late. In her anguish, Georgiana has raced from Alpin Hall, and she become lost on the Scottish moors and is presumed dead.
When Darcy and Elizabeth learn of the erroneous support, they rush to Scotland to reassure Georgiana of Edward’s survival, but like his cousin, Darcy is also too late to prevent Georgiana’s having gone missing.
Meanwhile, the MacBethan household has been gathering “lost souls” from the moors, and a girl wakes in a cell to find herself chained to the wall. She is devastated because she recalls the recent loss of her husband and because she is relatively certain she carries his child, but she holds few other memories. Domhnall MacBethan, the estate’s laird, has recently assumed his father’s title. The estate had suffered during his absence, and upon his return, Domhnall was, initially, thankful for his mother’s aid in setting the title to right, but a power struggle has since ensued between Domhnall and his mother, Dolina MacBethan, Lady Wotherspoon. Dolina has chosen the girl from the moors as a wife for her youngest son, Aulay, who is brilliant, but childlike. Dolina tells the girl that her name is Lady Esme.
Domhnall MacBethan falls in love with Esme and is determined to make the girl his wife, but he holds a dark secret that could destroy their quickly developing relationship. In the interim, Dolina sends Munro MacBethan to learn more of the girl the family has found on the moors. Overhearing the conversation between his mother and his cousin, Domhnall demands that Munro provide him the information prior to speaking to Dolina. Slowly, Esme’s memory is returning in bits and pieces. She recalls being housed in the cells, and she has set herself the task of discovering the truth of the keep’s ruins. Her search begins our scene…
Esme crossed the open area to the stairs leading to the lower levels. She would have liked to take a candle, but she would not risk anyone’s notice. Her normally soft tread echoed loudly in her ears, but no one else stirred. She had waited for the clock to chime one before executing her escape.
Following the narrow spiraling stairway, she held tightly to the wall’s stones to steady her step. At the northwest corner, the stairs took a deeper slant into what most likely was the cellar. The air had cooled dramatically. Lord Wotherspoon’s previous description of the monastery’s ruins had reminded Esme that she descended into the earth, as if she stepped into a grave.
A shiver ran down her spine as the stairs opened to a narrow, uneven passage. Allowing her fingertips to slide along the damp walls, she edged forward and stepped carefully into the darkened passageway.
Esme fought to discern anything in the complete blackness. Concentrating on the openness, a pinpoint of light provided her a sliver of hope. She turned to the right and walked toward the flicker of truth awaiting her.
For the span of several heartbeats, she wondered whether she truly wanted to know what the light held, but she continued her slow progress toward the unknown. Finally, Esme reached a locked door. With her fingers, she traced the hinges, the handle, the door’s width. Nothing moved as she went on tiptoes to peer through the grated opening. The light remained far removed, and the shadows held their secrets in a tight grasp. Disappointed, Esme turned to the blackness behind her, but a blood-draining scream filled the depths of the ruins and froze her in place. She stumbled toward the grated closure in time, to observe two figures step into a circle of light.
“That be a difficult one,” the first figure said.
“I expect no more difficulty.” The voice was one she knew well: that of the house’s mistress. “I want him prepared by mornin’.”
Esme recognized the finality in Dolina MacBethan’s tone. Stifling a gasp, fear filled the girl’s heart. Lifting her skirt, she moved quickly away from the opening until she reached the corner. Her hand grasped the wall’s edge, and she stumbled, but she had no time to worry about the sudden pain in her weak ankle. A scraping sound announced the door’s opening. In a panic, she raced to the stairs and climbed to the main level.
The footsteps quickened behind her as she reached the grand hall. She glanced about to assess the open area before breaking into a run. Like many of the traditional Scottish keeps, Normanna Hall required anyone wishing to reach the private quarters and the battlements to cross the hall to a second staircase. Previous lairds had designed their houses with security in mind, but at the moment, all Esme wanted was the secrecy of the upper passage.
“Lady Esme!” Dolina’s voice rang out in the empty hall.
Caught, Esme skidded to a stop, but she did not turn to face the woman. Dread crept up her spine. The estate’s mistress would return Esme to the cells below, and she would meet the same fate as the person she had heard screaming only moments earlier.
Lady Wotherspoon’s purposeful approach held her in its grip.
“What be ye doin’?” Dolina hissed close to Esme’s ear.
Terror ran rampant through her chest. Her throat would not permit a response. She simply shook her head in denial. Of what? Esme could not think: denying her presence seemed tantamount. Yet, she could not.
“I ast ye a question, gel,” Dolina said threateningly.
A familiarly calm voice took both women’s breaths. “I asked Lady Esme to join me here.” Domhnall MacBethan stepped from the shadows and placed his arms about her. Instinctively, Esme slumped against him. “I would show the lady the battlements. The stars are brilliant when the world is silenced by sleep.” His hand brought her head to rest against his chest.
Dolina protested, “Lady Esme’s room...”
“Will remained unlocked,” Domhnall announced. “Lady Esme has earned my trust. Is that understood, Mother?” The girl felt him stiffened with the recognition of his mother’s presence. His tone spoke of disappointment, of hatred, and of revulsion, but Esme had never felt safer in her life. Tentatively, her arms encircled Domhnall’s waist. Evidently, she had made her choice in the MacBethans’ battle of wills.
He said not one word as they climbed the steep stairs leading to the battlements. Domhnall had rarely felt such strong feelings: such anger that Lady Esme had placed herself in danger and such thankfulness that he had reached her in time. Unable to sleep, he had wandered through the deserted passageways of his ancestral home. He had done so on a regular basis ever since he had discovered the evil his mother had welcomed to the manor. Of late, he had spent his time grieving for Maighread and their son. His grief was too much to bear in the daylight. He had failed Maighread. He had failed his ancestors. He had failed his descendants, because he had not acted quickly enough to put an end to the madness.
Tonight he had spent several hours divining ways to extricate the family name from his mother’s wickedness. He had allowed the woman free rein, and she had betrayed him and all the MacBethans. At first, he had been grateful for the unexpected income she had brought to the estate coffers. It had settled many of the debts from Normanna’s former lords. Now, only abhorrence remained; his mother had set the family roots on a sandy base.
The woman beside him stumbled, and Domhnall automatically caught her to him. He realized belatedly that he had been walking too quickly for her. Startled by the lost of his flawlessly varnished control, Domhnall glanced down at her flushed face. He studied her shadowed profile. “I apologize,” he said contritely. “I allowed my anger to set a punishing pace.”
“The steps were steep, but I did not object to the ascent,” she said softly.
She was like no woman of his acquaintance, and Domhnall was sore to explain his attraction to her. To touch her would be overwhelming pleasure. Every time he looked upon her lovely countenance, he approached a fever point. He tightened his grip on her hand. “Then let us finish our climb.”
Whether he acknowledged it or not, Domhnall had brought this woman to this particular place because to him this was the most romantic spot in the keep. Standing on the battlements, he could imagine reaching up and catching a shooting star as it flashed overhead. “This is magnificent,” she said reverently as they stepped into the open.
Unable to control his desire for her, Domhnall encircled the girl in his embrace. Her head rested on his shoulder, and her back plastered his chest with her warmth. “You make it magnificent,” he whispered in her ear. A long silence ensued. Finally, he felt the sobs shaking her shoulder. “Tell me,” he said as he brushed the hair from her face.
She caressed his palm with her lips, and her tenderness shattered his composure. He had to protect her at all costs, even if it meant choosing this woman over his flesh and blood. “I saw...saw the cells...heard the screams. I...I remember,” Esme sniffed. “The cold...the smell of blood...the prayers...” Her voice broke on a sob. Domhnall turned her in his arms and pulled her closer. “How can...how can a man...a man of your tenderness... keep prisoners in his home?” She clutched his shirt as if holding on to her only lifeline.
“I never knew,” he rasped. “You must understand. I never knew. I should have. It was my responsibility. As Normanna’s laird, I should have known.” He cupped her face in his large palms. “My wife. My child. They were taken from me. And then my father passed. I was thrust into a life I was ill prepared to live. Do you not understand? She is my mother. I trusted her. I never questioned her methods.” He searched Esme’s eyes for understanding. For empathy.
“What do we do?” she whispered.
Domhnall breathed a bit easier; Lady Esme had said “we,” not “you.” “I have taken steps to approbate the chaos, but, Esme, I cannot see her in prison. Despite everything she has done, she is still my mother. I will send her away, where she can never hurt another.”
She stiffened in his embrace. “I wish I could say something that would relieve your anguish, my Lord, but I fear that even in the name of love, I cannot reconcile your tolerance of what Lady Wotherspoon has done.”
Domhnall frowned in disappointment. “It is late,” he said reluctantly. “We will speak more of this in the morning.” Domhnall brought the back of her hand to his lips. “I told my mother your door was to remain unlocked, but promise me you will lock it from the inside, and you will keep the key with you.”
“Damn,” Munro MacBethan growled when he observed the wagon making its way toward him. He had purposely circled the series of lochs and had approached from the east. He had stopped only twice after he left the card game in Cumnock: once to question several of the temporary workers at Alpin Hall and then again in the late morning hours in Ruthwell. Some of his clansmen thought him foolish to leave his meager wages at the Ruthwell Savings Bank, but Munro had tolerated their taunts because he had his eye on a small piece of land near where Islav MacBethan had settled.
Now, his Aunt Dolina and Aulay made their way along the Awful Hand’s Merrick appendage, and in the moor’s open terrain, a person could easily pick out his movements. Unfortunately for Munro, his aunt had business on the moor.
“Ho!” she called as she brought the horses to a halt. “Ye return early,” she noted suspiciously. “Ye found wot I ast?”
Munro knew better than to look away—to show any weakness. The Macbethan matriarch observed him carefully for any signs of betrayal. He also knew his Aunt Dolina would have no qualms in killing him where he sat in the saddle. He had promised Domhnall to report his findings to his cousin before sharing them with Dolina, but neither he nor Domhnall had anticipated this scenario. “I did.” He brought his horse closer to where she sat upon the wooden bench.
“And?” she asked emphatically.
When he had first come at Normanna Hall, Munro had thought it admirable that his aunt had discovered a means to make the estate profitable, but then he had learned what Dolina did to innocent victims; now, he just wanted distance between him and Coll MacBethan’s widow. He would leave tomorrow. He would no longer be a pawn in Dolina’s games. Munro circled the horse in place so he might have a moment to school his countenance. Should he tell her the truth? Tell them both the truth, he chastised. Allow mother and son to fight it out while you escape north.
He cleared his throat. “I met a man in Cumnock. This man speaks of a cousin he seeks from over near Kirkconnel. The girl, she leaves the estate and does not return at dark. The household searched for two days, but no one has seen her.”
“Be the gel Lady Esme?”
Munro shrugged. “If she be so, the gel’s name be not Lady Esme. She be Mrs. Fitzwilliam, and her husband be a great war hero.”
“The gel say her husband be dead,” Dolina protested.
Munro said contritely, “The estate was closed, but the lady brought in workers because she anticipated her husband’s return. Unfortunately, she received word from his mother, an English countess, that Major General Fitzwilliam was among those lost at Waterloo.”
“A countess?” Dolina said greedily. “I knew Lady Esme be from quality.”
Munro ground his teeth in frustration. He knew what Dolina had originally planned for Lady Esme, before Domhnall had stepped in and put a stop to his mother’s schemes. “She not be Lady Esme. The gel’s name be Georgiana Fitzwilliam. Her brother reportedly owns the largest estate in Derbyshire. When she learned of her husband’s fate, Mrs. Fitzwilliam rode away, and no one be seeing her since that day.”
“Must be when Blane finds her and brings her in,” Dolina mused. Her jaw tightened, and the darkness returned to her eyes. “I shan’t be fightin’ Domhnall if he chooses the gel.” She reasoned, “Mrs. Fitzwilliam be related to an earl. She has a powerful brother. The gel be needin’ a powerful husband. A man with his own title and land. Her family be payin’ to keep her reputation sound, and Domhnall has demonstrated his regard for the gel.”
“She be English,” Munro observed. “Once the lady recalls her past, Mrs. Fitzwilliam may not wish to remain in Scotland.”
Ignoring Munro’s protest, Dolina verbalized her plan. “My son be needin’ a wife and an heir, and Mrs. Fitzwilliam kin provide an influx of economy to stabilize the estate. Domhnall must press the gel to marry him immediately. We be requirin’ the deed done before her family be discoverin’ her presence at Normanna.”
Munro backed the horse away from Dolina’s wagon. “Ye should hurry along. Yer delivery’s beginning to smell.”
“Me brother Oliver knows wot to do with the deliveries I bring him,” she said as she rearranged the reins between her fingers. “Ye shud return to Normanna. Tell no one of our meetin’,” she instructed. “I be speakin’ to Domhnall upon my return.”
“As ye wish,” Munro said obediently. Yet, he would speak to his cousin. Then he would pack his paltry belongings. Tomorrow, he would leave Normanna Hall forever.
“How should we handle this?” Edward asked as they dismounted before the manor house. Darcy glanced toward the red sandstone monstrosity. “We ask about the missing horse. No one has admitted knowledge of a female taking refuge within. Let us determine if the lord of the manor volunteers information on Georgiana’s presence.”
Edward adjusted his horse’s straps. “I do not like it. Something about this place feels wrong.”
Darcy removed his gloves as a groom rushed forward to claim their reins. “I agree,” he said softly. “We should listen to what is not said by our host. Our instincts are rarely wrong.”
Handing off the horses to the groom, they climbed the few steps leading to the main door. “This place makes one appreciate Pemberley’s clean lines,” Edward said under his breath. “It feels as if each generation added on to the main house without regard to the previous generation’s vision.”
Darcy released the knocker. “A person could literally become lost in the house’s many wings and passages.”
Edward groaned, “That is what frightens me the most. Is Georgiana lost within?”
Guest post created by Regina Jeffers, author of The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy
© 2013. All rights reserved.
by Regina Jeffers
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