To celebrate our third year of sharing inspirational Regency fiction with our readers, we are giving them brand new short stories. Today we present the conclusion of Saving Miss Caulfield.
Part 1 can be read here.
Saving Miss Caulfield, Part 2
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.