Charles did not expect the ball to be any different than the dozens he had already attended since the start of the year. Yet he was perfectly willing to be entertained, and he would never frown on an evening of dancing with pleasant people.
"Charles!" Moira called as Charles pushed his way in through the small crowd, extending a pale arm sheathed in a beautiful shade of bronze muslin. "Did you hear the news?"
Charles took her hand, smiling warmly. "If you mean to regale me with the goings-on at Netherfield Park, I assure you we are fully acquainted with the news. Mama would not stop talking about it. Poor Mr McCoy! I expect he shall be positively besieged."
Moira smiled deviously. "Well, you know what they say about single men in possession of a fortune!"
"I suspect the saying should go more along the lines of 'must be looking for the nearest set of curtains to hide behind'," Charles returned.
Moira stifled a laugh behind her hand. "You are terrible, Charles! But I refer to the fact that Mr McCoy is not alone at Netherfield Park! He is here with his sister, Emma, as well as a good friend of his, a Mr Lehnsherr."
Charles frowned. "What an odd name. I have never heard it before."
"Nor should you have any reason to. The gentleman has just arrived from London. I understand that he is a very close friend of Mr McCoy's, and extremely handsome." She noticed Charles' stare. "Your mama was not the only lady in the neighbourhood to be well informed."
Charles shook his head in despair. "She means for Raven to 'try her hand' at Mr McCoy. I simply do not understand this willingness to marry us off, Moira. She will not understand our wish to make a love match. Though, of course, the security of a gentleman’s fortune would be most welcome. Indeed I fear I shall never find anyone to suit my exacting requirements."
Moira laughed again; her eyes were dancing, reflecting the amusement in Charles'. "You never know, my dear," she said, squeezing Charles' hand. "Oh, but here they are now! Look, there is Mr McCoy, and Miss McCoy, and that must be Mr Lehnsherr."
Charles did look, and then wished he had not, for the gentleman in question was indeed formidable-looking. Rather taller than the rest of the assembly, Mr Lehnsherr looked severe in black that highlighted the taut frame of his body. Charles' gaze lingered on the man, but he had such an expression of hauteur on his face that Charles found himself looking away, somewhat affronted by the perceived slight. He diverted his attention to the man next to him. Mr McCoy had an easy grace, an open smile on his lips, and Charles did think him to be a kind young man, happy in whatever company. Charles considered him against his beloved sister's disposition, and indeed this could be a most fortuitous match. Raven was a sweet, even-tempered girl, a little shy with strangers, but once she was comfortable in their company, she had quite the tongue on her. Charles suspected, however, that Mr McCoy was not one of those gentlemen who would brand his sister a hoyden and would not see her for the person she really was.
Mr McCoy's friend leaned close to speak to him; Mr McCoy darted him a glance, but did not heed his remark. They stopped in front of Sir William and Lady MacTaggert.
"What a pleasure to receive you, Mr McCoy. You do honour us with your presence," Sir William boomed. At Charles' side, Moira rolled her eyes.
"The pleasure is ours, Sir William. How kind of you to invite us so we may become acquainted with our neighbours." Mr McCoy spoke pleasantly, in a kind tone. Charles found himself liking him immediately.
At Mr McCoy's side Mr Lehnsherr looked away, a barely concealed sneer on his lips. Charles blinked, but in that time Mr Lehnsherr's face had schooled itself in a mask of polite boredom once again.
"I hear he owns half of Derbyshire," Moira whispered in Charles' ear. This did not excuse the man's rudeness.
"How unhappy he looks to be here," Charles mused. "I wonder that he should attend at all."
"I imagine that Mr McCoy would have insisted."
"Charles, come here this instant," Mrs Xavier called from Charles' right.
"Do not leave me," he hissed at Moira, who simply looked sympathetic.
Mrs Xavier would accept no refusal. She took Charles' arm and nearly towed him behind her in her rush to get to the strange trio. Charles shared a long-suffering look with his sister, on Mrs Xavier's other side.
"My dear Mr McCoy, what a pleasure to see you here! Do allow me to introduce to you my children. This is Raven, my eldest. She is widely considered to be the beauty of the county."
Mr McCoy blinked at Raven; Raven blinked at him. Charles did not think it was his imagination to see a hint of pink flooding both young people's cheeks. Perhaps this meeting would be fortuitous indeed.
"And this is my son, Charles," Mrs Xavier added, a touch less enthusiastically than she had introduced Raven. Charles, used to be regaled to second place, merely bowed.
"How do you do," Mr McCoy said, no less polite, but Charles noticed the way his eyes returned to Raven over and over again.
"A pleasure, Mr McCoy," Charles murmured.
Mr McCoy jumped, as if startled. Charles noticed Miss McCoy shift subtly away from where she had been standing very close to her brother.
"Do forgive me," Mr McCoy rushed to add. "This is my sister, Miss Emma McCoy, and this is my friend, Mr Erik Lehnsherr."
Everyone exchanged murmured pleasantries, with the notable exception of Mr Lehnsherr, who contented himself with standing back and glaring at everyone apart from his friends. Charles was not impressed in the least, but for the sake of Mr McCoy he would be civil.
"What brings you to Derbyshire, Mr Lehnsherr?" Charles enquired politely.
Mr Lehnsherr looked at him for a moment, during which Charles felt like a piece of metal, stripped bare of its furnishings. "I am here at the request of Mr McCoy, of course."
"Of course," Charles echoed, and could not smother the faint note of amusement in his voice.
Mr Lehnsherr glared at him, but did not deign to continue the conversation.
"Do you dance at all?" Charles asked, steeling himself for the unpleasant man's undoubtedly cutting reply. He really should try to stop himself from making an effort when it was obviously unwelcome.
"Not at all," Mr Lehnsherr replied, which did not surprise Charles. The clear dismissal in the man's voice did.
"Indeed?" Charles said faintly, but the man was already walking away.
'What an odious man,' Charles said to himself. He was not at all used to judging his fellow men so, but there was something about Mr Lehnsherr that set Charles on edge like no one in the room ever could.
He said as much to Moira.
"Oh, my dear Charles! Do you mean to say that you have found a person whom you did not approve of?"
"You need not sound so surprised; it happens often."
"Indeed, but not so soon after you have met them! What is it about him that bothers you so?"
Charles did not reply immediately, for it was indeed unlike him to feel so strongly about someone as soon as they met. He watched his sister dance with Mr McCoy instead -- Mr McCoy did not seem to share his friend's aversion to dancing. He had asked for Raven to accompany him as soon as the first strands of a country dance had filled the air.
Raven looked flushed and delighted with her partner when the dance ended, and Charles lost her slender frame in the crowd when Mr McCoy led her away from the space set aside for dancing. It hid them from Charles’ somewhat limited view from behind the seating tiers, where he and Moira had taken refuge from the crush. While listening with half an ear to Moira recounting her most recent trip to the ribbon shop, a certain tall frame caught Charles’ eye through the benches.
"Come, Lehnsherr, I must have you dance," Mr McCoy spoke at Mr Lehnsherr's side.
Mr Lehnsherr looked down fondly at his companion, but his reply was short: "Indeed I had better not. You were dancing with the only pretty girl in the room, and your sister was otherwise engaged. I do not see anyone whom I would desire to accompany me on this chore."
Mr McCoy laughed, as if Mr Lehnsherr had not sounded perfectly serious. "Miss Xavier is indeed beauty incarnate, but come now. Her brother Charles is perfectly handsome. I am sure he would make an excellent dance partner."
"He is... tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me. You had better return to your partner, McCoy, and enjoy her smiles. You are wasting your time with me."
Beside Charles, Moira gasped with affront.
Mr McCoy looked like he wanted to argue, but thought better of it. "I shall, then. But you are being perfectly terrible, my friend."
Mr Lehnsherr's face composed itself into a frown, although even from afar Charles could see he was not at all angry. Mr McCoy seemed to agree, for he rolled his eyes at his friend and took his leave. Charles was gratified to see that Mr McCoy made straight for the side of the room where Raven partook of some punch.
Mr Lehnsherr looked after him for a moment, before sweeping the room with his sharp gaze, as if dissecting it. Charles resisted the urge to shrink against the flimsy protection of the shadows provided by a few tiers of wood. Of course, Mr Lehnsherr did not spot him, but for some reason that did not prevent Charles' heart from beating far too fast.
"I do not believe that man," Moira seethed. "He is the most unpleasant creature I have ever beheld."
Charles strove to laugh lightly; it took slightly more effort than pleased him. "My dear, you must not be so easily swayed. It is not like I wanted to dance with him in the first place; indeed, he has done me the great favour of not having to converse with him at all."
Moira took both his hands in hers. "But Charles, he was perfectly rude to you!"
"A misguided soul, to be sure, but it will save me the trouble of having to pretend to like him."
"If he should ask you to dance again, I desire you shall not agree at all!"
"Moira, I believe I can promise you never to dance with that man," Charles said, meaning every word.
The table was not as quiet as Mr Xavier hoped the next morning, for Mrs Xavier saw necessary to regale him with every single thing Mr Henry McCoy had said and done with regards to Raven the previous evening.
"Would that he had sprained his ankle at the first dance," Mr Xavier grumbled just quietly enough that only Charles overheard him. Charles had to hide his face in his teacup so that his mother would not see the twinkle of mirth that he knew resided in his eyes.
The morning post was quite an event.
"A letter for you, Miss Raven," the maid curtsied by Raven's chair.
Raven took it curiously, contriving to remove it from her mother's reach while at the same time maintaining her mild expression.
"Oh, it is from Emma McCoy. She has invited me to dine with her. Her brother will be dining out," Raven added quickly, to stave off Mrs Xavier's excitement.
"Dining out?" Mrs Xavier exclaimed, outraged. "But that is simply insupportable!"
"May I take the carriage?" Raven enquired eagerly.
There was a foreboding look in Mrs Xavier's eyes when she supplied, "Certainly not. You shall go on horseback."
"Horseback?" Raven and Charles repeated, surprised. Charles did not like the way his mother was observing the overcast sky.
His trepidation was confirmed shortly after his sister had departed, for no sooner had she gone out of sight that the heavens opened and the dry earth was thoroughly drenched. Charles could not help but worry for the remainder of the afternoon and well into the early evening, when a missive arrived from Netherfield Park.
"'There is nothing wrong with me other than a sore throat and a mild fever,'" Charles read out loud, fighting the impulse to clench his fists and wrinkle the letter. "'My friends are being very kind, offering to shelter me for the night so I may rest comfortably.' This will not do, father! We must go and fetch her at once!"
"You will do no such thing," Mrs Xavier declared before Mr Xavier could even open his mouth. "She is perfectly fine where she is. No one dies of a simple fever."
"Mother," Charles snapped, but he could see it was so much water off a duck's back. "Father," he appealed next.
His father looked at him with the helpless detachment Charles disliked most. "Do not fret, Charles," he said. "She will be perfectly fine in a few days."
Charles pushed back his chair and stormed from the room. Darkness had fallen already, and not a single ray of light penetrated the thick cloud cover. He would have to delay his trip until the morning.
He did not sleep well that night.
"My goodness, Mr Xavier, did you walk here?" Miss McCoy sneered over her small nose firmly pointed in the air.
"I did," Charles replied, tugging his dignity around himself like a cloak.
He cursed his luck that he should come across Miss McCoy and Mr Lehnsherr enjoying a stroll through the estate's perfectly sculpted gardens, but there was no way to avoid them -- the path through the meadows came out right at the edge. Still, how unfortunate that he should be forced to endure the barely-veiled contemptuous stares.
"Excuse me," he ventured when the silence stretched too thin. "Where is my sister?"
To his unhappy surprise, Mr Lehnsherr stepped forward. "I will take you to her," he volunteered.
Charles was too well-mannered to refuse him out of turn, and so he braced himself to bear the awful man's presence. "Thank you," he said.
Miss McCoy was looking distinctly unimpressed when he and Mr Lehnsherr walked away, and that was the only consolation to be had.
After the first five minutes, the silence started to grate on Charles. Mr Lehnsherr walked by his side, shortening his strides ever so faintly, just enough that Charles did not feel like he should run behind him to keep up. The man was just as taciturn as the previous evening, and Charles amused himself by thinking that such behaviour in a person who did not own half of Derbyshire would not be quite so accepted by polite society.
Nevertheless, stubborn silence was not one of Charles' traits.
"How are you enjoying Netherfield Park, Mr Lehnsherr?" he asked lightly.
"Well enough," Mr Lehnsherr replied shortly.
Charles remained silent for a moment, gathering his patience. "I am given to understand that the library here is substantial. I have long desired to be able to visit it."
Now Mr Lehnsherr was the one who kept his peace for a short while, before rousing himself to reply. "Indeed it is very well maintained," he supplied grudgingly. "Do you read a lot, Mr Xavier?"
"As often as I am able," Charles confirmed. He did not think it was his imagination that the silence from Mr Lehnsherr was marginally less icy that time. "I was much impressed by William Blake's most recent poetry collection," he added.
Mr Lehnsherr turned to look at him, for what Charles fancied was the first time he had taken proper notice of his person. There was unmistakable approval in the man's assessing gaze. "At least you did not quote The Mysteries of Udolpho. It is a small blessing."
"You do not approve of Mrs Radcliffe, I take it?"
"You may take it however you like, so long as you never mention that woman's name to me," Mr Lehnsherr declared.
Charles' attempt to stifle a smile at Mr Lehnsherr's tone did not go quite as planned. "And what of Miss Austen?" he enquired, knowing full well that he was inviting Mr Lehnsherr's disapproval but prepared to weather it in that case. "I found her novel Sense and Sensibility most engrossing."
Mr Lehnsherr curled his lip. "Mr Xavier, you surprise me. For someone who seems more educated than many men of my acquaintance, I did not take you for a reader of frivolities."
"Ah. On this matter, Mr Lehnsherr, we shall have to agree to disagree. I find Miss Austen's sharp wit and thorough study of character to create one of the most interesting novels in my family's possession."
This conversation had brought them to the manor's side entrance; Mr Lehnsherr swooped Charles a quick bow. "Excuse me, I must return to Miss McCoy. Pray take the second staircase to your left; your sister is resting in the third bedroom on the right side of the hall."
"Of course. Thank you, Mr Lehnsherr, for the pleasure of your company," Charles replied, unable to completely force the amused smile from his lips.
Mr Lehnsherr blinked at him twice before spinning on his heel and striding swiftly away. Charles spared him no more than a glance before eagerly ascending the staircase the gentleman had indicated.
Raven, thank the Lord, was indeed resting comfortably, taking up most of the luxurious double bed in her sprawl.
"Charles!" she exclaimed when she saw him enter in the wake of his knock; the obvious pleasure in her voice at his appearance warmed him deeply. There was but a rasp in her voice, and she was looking tolerably well for a person with fever.
"How are you feeling, dearest?" he asked, sitting carefully at the edge of the plump mattress.
"Very well under the circumstances," Raven replied, smoothing a hand over the long braid of her hair self-consciously. "Everyone has been so kind even though I am certain I am a dreadful imposition to them."
"Nonsense, love. I am sure they are delighted to have you in their house. Especially Mr McCoy," Charles could not help but tease.
Raven blushed most fetchingly. "Mr McCoy has been excessively obliging," she conceded.
"Oh course he has," Charles said fondly. "My dear, he is quite taken with you."
Raven tried to turn her face away, but Charles could see that the flush now extended to the tips of her ears. "Charles, you must not tease so."
"Upon my word, I am telling you only what I have seen with my own eyes," Charles assured her.
Raven smiled happily, and Charles' heart flipped over in his chest to see her almost glowing with pleasure.
The afternoon passed quickly, for brother and sister were very close, and often conversed for hours even in normal circumstances. Charles supplied news about their brothers - Armando having learned a new concerto to play for her when she was well enough to come home, Sean and Alex taking it upon themselves to tend to the garden that was usually Raven's domain, so that no flowers met their demise for lack of care. That last did not reassure Raven as much as Charles had intended -- but he conceded that their two younger brothers could be relied upon to create trouble wherever they went.
"They are trying," Charles reproached, and Raven looked chagrined.
When the half-hour gong went, Charles left his sister's side most unwillingly, for she had bid him attend supper and express her thanks to the family on her behalf.
"Indeed I would much rather dine with you here," Charles tried to protest, but he was ill equipped to handle her imploring gaze. "Oh, very well."
He had no clothes to change into, as he had not anticipated remaining at the manor for longer than an afternoon, but Mr McCoy was adamant.
"Mr Xavier, I would not hear of you leaving. Miss Xavier is so much more comfortable with your presence at Netherfield, I really must insist. Of course you may borrow whatever items you require from my valet."
"I am most grateful, Mr McCoy, but surely it would be an imposition," Charles attempted, but for the second time that evening found himself unable to refuse the request. "You are most kind. My sister would not have been cared for half as comfortably at home, I dare say. But I promise you that we shall take our leave on the morrow, and leave you to your guests."
Mr McCoy looked crestfallen, and Charles hated to remove his sister from Mr McCoy's company, which she obviously enjoyed very much, but he could not in good faith trample over the man's kindness any more than they already had.
And so Charles emerged not long after from the room adjacent to his sister's, freshly attired in a forest green dinner jacket, a clean shirt and a snowy white cravat, feeling much more like himself even when wearing another man's clothes. He and Mr McCoy were of a height, and Charles truly felt the most comfortable he had been ever since receiving Raven's missive the previous night.
He was surprised, when he arrived downstairs, to see all three of his hosts waiting on his appearance before settling to dinner. Miss McCoy was wearing a beautiful pink gown that offset her milk-white shin to perfect advantage, but it was Mr Lehnsherr who captured Charles' attention effortlessly. Clad in severe black again, he still managed to look stylish, and was without a doubt one of the most handsome men Charles had ever beheld. If only he was not so arrogant and prideful as to lower himself to converse with the inhabitants of Meryton, Charles felt he could have come to really appreciate his company.
Conversation during dinner was light and flowed easily. Charles kept to himself, for it was obvious that the three friends knew each other exceedingly well. This gave Charles the opportunity to study his unexpected companions. He found Mr McCoy to be just as genuine and pleasant as first impressions had suggested. Miss McCoy believed she was subtle in her approach, but to Charles it was perfectly obvious that she had set her sights on Mr Lehnsherr. Charles found himself feeling sorry for the man, coveted because of the chance circumstance of his birth and not for his own merits as a person. But he then reminded himself that such an unpleasant man deserved someone like Miss McCoy -- she would make him a perfect wife.
After dinner, they retired into the sitting room, where Mr Lehnsherr made his way swiftly to the writing desk in the corner, and looked to settle to it for the duration. Mr McCoy, having somehow found out that Charles was a voracious reader, offered him the freedom of the estate’s library in the next room, thus endearing himself to Charles for life. Charles browsed happily through the thousands of titles on the bookshelves, stroking an affectionate fingertip over many a volume. In the end, he settled on Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason, which he had meant to ask his father to obtain for him for some time, and reluctantly returned to the sitting room.
Alas, he was not to be left in peace to peruse it.
"You write uncommonly fast, Mr Lehnsherr," Miss McCoy simpered.
"You are mistaken. I write rather slowly," Mr Lehnsherr replied shortly. Charles was gratified to discover that he was not being more deferential to Miss McCoy, even though she was his dear friend's sister. Charles began to suspect that this was simply Mr Lehnsherr's habitual disposition, rather than a slight upon his conversational partner.
He had shown much more animation talking to Charles that afternoon that he displayed now towards Miss McCoy. How strange this man was!
Mr McCoy himself regarded him perfectly amiably, and Charles could not suppose that a man like Mr McCoy would be such close friends with someone like Mr Lehnsherr if the same did not have some redeemable qualities.
All of Miss McCoy's attempts to engage him were in vain, however, for Mr Lehnsherr would not be deterred from writing to his sister Angelique. Charles strove to focus on his reading, but the words danced before his eyes in a distracting manner, for his attention was elsewhere.
"I do find that improving one's mind by extensive reading is an imperative for anyone who desires my acquaintance," Mr Lehnsherr replied now, to a remark of Miss McCoy’s which Charles had missed, and Charles gave up his purpose.
"But from your own words, Mr Lehnsherr, a person should read only authors you yourself approve of, if they were to gain your esteem."
Mr Lehnsherr stopped in his writing and turned in his chair.
"You are giving me too much credit, Mr Xavier. I merely desire that the people I speak to do not attempt to convince me that someone who writes Gothic novels to the exclusion of all else is someone worth reading, for we shall not agree."
"So you are willing to be persuaded as to the merits of other authors with whom you are not familiar?"
"I find that the ones worth reading are few and far between. However, I must say I prefer French and German philosophers' writings to almost any of the drivel the Italians or Spaniards can come up with."
Charles blinked. "How many languages do you speak?" he blurted.
"Mr Lehnsherr speaks six languages fluently," Miss McCoy supplied adoringly.
Charles smiled at the barely-concealed sneer on the man's lips at Miss McCoy's insertion. "I wonder, Mr Lehnsherr, if, amongst your busy reading schedule, you have also perhaps had the chance to peruse Mrs Wollstonecraft's manuscript, A Vindication--"
"--of the Rights of Woman? Certainly. Just because I do not approve of some women writers, it does not follow that I do not give all due attention to those that deserve the recognition."
Charles was taken aback. He had certainly not expected this in light of their recent conversations, and did not have a ready reply.
"Shall we have some music?" Miss McCoy enquired, clearly bored with a conversation she did not take part in, making her way to the pianoforte and beginning to play.
Mr Lehnsherr held Charles' gaze for another moment before turning back to his letter. Charles' own endeavour to lose himself in his book once more was even less successful than before.
The next morning brought with it an unwelcome surprise. Charles was strolling outside, waiting eagerly for the carriage that would take him away. He could not honestly say that he had enjoyed his stay -- he would be leaving Netherfield Park much more unsettled than he had been when he arrived. He was rather happy that Raven felt well enough to travel, for he could not be certain what another night under that roof might bring.
The carriage, when it arrived, was not empty. Charles watched in barely hidden dismay as his mother and three younger brothers disembarked with unsuppressed excitement.
"What is going on here?" he hissed at Armando, the most sensible of the four, and that included Mrs Xavier.
"Mother insisted," Armando said gloomily.
Charles watched Sean and Alex run inside, and only just stopped himself from closing his eyes in despair.
It was worse than he had imagined. Mr Lehnsherr's face, which had started to lighten a little in Charles' presence, grew shuttered once again, the very moment when he saw the rest of the Xavier family enter the house. For quite the first time in his life, Charles saw his mother and brothers as another, not of their family might see them -- and he was ashamed.
The younger boys were brash, uncaring of proprieties, and his mother was barely any better. The only light on the horizon was Armando, but he appeared to be in one of his lecturing moods. Charles watched Mr McCoy's bewildered face, Miss McCoy's obvious contempt, Mr Lehnsherr's impassiveness, and for a very brief moment wished he had not come at all. His attempts to check his family fell on deaf ears, and short of evicting them from the room there was no deterring them.
"Mr McCoy, did Lady MacTaggert hear correctly, that you intend to give a ball?" Sean asked, patience evidently failing past the pleasantries.
"Indeed," Mr McCoy answered politely, good humour coming back to carry him over the strange invasion of his house by Xaviers. "When your sister feels well enough, you yourself shall name the date, Mr Xavier."
Sean barely stopped himself from clapping his hands at the news. Alex looked beside himself with excitement. "And will you invite the officers?" he asked eagerly.
This was the first time Charles had heard of the Militia’s arrival at Meryton beyond the recent rumours, but of course, his family could be relied upon to know all the latest gossip.
Mr McCoy looked even more confused, but acquiesced out of good manners, Charles suspected. Mr Lehnsherr's look was thunderous upon the mention of the Militia, and Charles felt even more like a child being chastised. He threw his brothers another cowering look, which worked not at all.
It was altogether a relief when it was time to leave.
"I really cannot tell you how grateful I am," Raven said sweetly as she took her goodbyes with the McCoys. Mr McCoy looked very sorry to see her go, and even Miss McCoy was extremely solicitous, for which Charles was grateful. Mr Lehnsherr thawed enough to sweep her a bow, which she acknowledged with a graceful nod.
"Mr Xavier," Miss McCoy said, no more, no less, a mere pretence at civility. Charles afforded her a perfunctory bow.
Mr McCoy was, once again, perfectly genial in his farewells, and Charles shook him by the hand with pleasure. And then there was only Mr Lehnsherr, standing to the side of the small group.
"Mr Lehnsherr," Charles said, torn between offering his hand and bowing. In the end he bowed, because he assumed Mr Lehnsherr would not like to shake his hand.
He was therefore much surprised that Mr Lehnsherr was the one to brace his hand on Charles' elbow and help him into the carriage. Charles had not sought it, and the touch burned even through the two layers of his jacket and now-clean shirt. Mr Lehnsherr let go as soon as Charles had his balance, and turned and walked away before Charles could even open his mouth to thank him.
He had never been so confused by a person in his life; his mother's endless prattle did not help. He spent the half-hour journey staring out of the window, rubbing a spot on his arm that felt too cold.
"My dear, I do hope you have ordered a good dinner for us tonight," Mr Xavier said one morning not long after the two eldest Xaviers had returned from Netherfield Park. "I have reason to believe we are to receive a guest."
"Oh!" said his lady, "is it Mr McCoy? I have expected him these past three days. Alex, ring for Hill, we shall have to order a joint of pork--"
"Before you order half a farmhouse, Mrs Xavier, be advised that we are not expecting Mr McCoy," Mr Xavier said, with a note in his voice that made Charles instantly wary.
With good reason, it appeared.
"Mr Collins," he complained to Moira mournfully a few hours later. "He is to inherit the whole Xavier estate. An old feud between his father and my grandfather, which was decided by the courts in favour of the Collinses."
"Everything?" Moira asked.
"Everything," Charles confirmed gloomily. "Even Armando's piano stool is his property."
"Oh, my poor friend," Moira soothed, drawing him into a brief embrace. Charles allowed himself to wallow for a moment before pulling himself back together.
"I must go, we expect him momentarily," he said.
"I will walk you to the edge of town," Moira offered, and Charles gratefully accepted.
They walked arm-in-arm down the main street, each lost in their thoughts and not paying their surroundings enough notice -- and so they did not notice the startled carriage horse rearing to their right before it was nearly upon them.
"Hoy!" someone shouted, and the horse startled away from them. The soldier -- for he was wearing the red livery of the regiment -- dashed after him, and within moments he had the heaving animal settled.
"Are you all right?" the man enquired urgently.
Charles was the first to recover. "Yes! Yes, we are well, thank you so very much, Mr--"
"Sebastian Shaw, at your service." The man bowed.
"A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr Shaw. My name is Charles Xavier, and this is my good friend Miss MacTaggert."
"Your servant," Mr Shaw bowed again. His smile was warm and his features pleasant, and Charles found himself liking him immediately.
"Are you with the Militia, Mr Shaw?" Moira asked.
"Indeed I am. I have just now arrived in town."
"And at a most fortuitous moment," Charles couldn't help but add.
"I am happy to have been of assistance. Perhaps you would be kind enough to show me the way to the barracks?"
"Certainly," Charles agreed, and they walked together to the edge of the town, where Moira said goodbye.
"It is not long North of here," Charles supplied, indicating the direction to Mr Shaw.
"And you, Mr Xavier? Which direction are you headed in?"
"East. My family resides in the Longbourn estate."
"A pity we shall have to separate here, then." The man did look regretful, and Charles was charmed by his sincerity.
"Perhaps we shall meet at the ball at Netherfield Park tomorrow evening? I understand that the entire regiment is invited."
"I shall very much look forward to it," Mr Shaw replied, smiling. There were tiny wrinkles around his eyes, betraying his age, for he was certainly more mature than Charles.
The whinny of a horse behind them startled Charles, and he whirled around -- only to come face to face with Mr McCoy and a white-faced Mr Lehnsherr, riding in from the direction of Netherfield. Mr Lehnsherr stared at Mr Shaw for a moment before whirling his horse back around and galloping away without so much as a 'How do you do?'.
"Excuse me," Mr McCoy said in his friend's stead, riding off after him.
Charles was mystified. "Do you know the gentleman?" he enquired.
There was a pinched look in Mr Shaw's eyes. "Indeed I do," he replied, but did not look happy to be saying so. "We are not in the best of relations, I'm afraid."
Charles knew that he should not pry, but he was helpless to resist. For some reason, the mystery of Mr Erik Lehnsherr was not one he could leave unsolved.
"May I walk with you?" Mr Shaw asked, and Charles readily agreed.
They strolled some way before Mr Shaw felt moved to speak. "Is Mr Lehnsherr well regarded by society here at Meryton?" he asked.
Charles shook his head. "Not at all, sir. The consensus is that he is an unpleasant sort of man who derives pleasure from nothing and cannot be pressed to converse with those he feels below him."
Mr Shaw sighed. "I cannot say that I am surprised," he admitted, drawing to a slow stop by a sturdy oak and lending Charles a hand to help him sit in its shade, after which he followed.
Charles tried to hide his curiosity, but it prevailed against his better nature. “Have you known Mr Lehnsherr very long?” he asked.
Mr Shaw watched the comings and goings into Meryton, looking reluctant to relay the circumstances of his and Mr Lehnsherr’s acquaintance. In the end, he acquiesced to Charles’ obvious interest in the subject.
"I have known Erik Lehnsherr his whole life. I was a steward for his father at the Pemberley estate, where the Lehnsherr family resides. I was also employed by the elder Mr Lehnsherr to tutor his son when he became old enough to teach. I was excessively fond of Mr Lehnsherr, and so of course I agreed immediately.”
He paused, brow furrowed, as if to think of this was unpleasant to him. Charles waited patiently, silently urging him to go on; after a moment, Mr Shaw composed himself and complied with the unspoken request.
“The boy had a keen mind, but unfortunately his character was of such arrogance and conceit even then that I was unable to teach him much in the end. When I confessed my failings to Mr Lehnsherr, he was extremely disappointed in his son, and the boy came to resent me for it.
"I know not how his other tutors fared, but I had to concede defeat when the younger Mr Lehnsherr started lying to his father about the subjects I was teaching him, and my methods. His Father did not believe him, and this only embittered him further. When his Father passed away, Mr Lehnsherr dismissed me immediately, and had me escorted away from the estate, after which point he severed all contact.”
Mr Shaw’s jaw clenched then, and he looked angry and resigned. Charles’ heart ached for him.
“You need not continue, sir, if it would distress you,” he said, contrite.
“No, Mr Xavier, pray do not make yourself uncomfortable on my account. There is but little of my history with the family left to relay, though it pains me to burden you with all this,” Mr Shaw said kindly.
“No, no,” Charles replied, needing very much to follow this dreadful story to its bitter conclusion. “Do go on.”
Mr Shaw’s generous mouth twisted as he obliged him. “The last blow to me was dealt by Mr Lehnsherr’s sister, Miss Angelique. She had used to be a darling child who was very partial to my company, but over the years I am sorry to say she has grown up much like her brother, arrogant and unwilling to engage with those whom she believes to be below her station.
"And so I confess I am not at all well-disposed towards Mr Lehnsherr, or his sister. He may well have changed as he matured, but I'm afraid that for me he will always remain the prideful child that could not be taught."
Charles, upon hearing the last of this tale, immediately applied himself on Mr Shaw's behalf. "Such atrocious behaviour! Oh, it is a wonder you can stand to be in the same vicinity as the man!"
Mr Shaw smiled bravely. "You are too kind, Mr Xavier. But like I said, I held enormous respect for his father, and it is for his sake that I hold my tongue around the son."
Charles sat in silence for a moment, resettling his first impressions of Mr Lehnsherr against this evidence against his character. He was so absorbed in his thoughts that he did not realise the time until Mr Shaw stood regretfully.
"I am afraid I must rescind your delightful company, for I'm expected at the barracks momentarily," he said apologetically.
"Oh! Yes," Charles exclaimed, jumping to his feet in chagrin. "Of course, and I am expected at home. It was wonderful to make your acquaintance, sir, and I hope to have the pleasure of your company at the dance next Friday!"
"I shall count every minute," Mr Shaw said, very handsomely in Charles' opinion.
They parted amicably, and Charles had never looked forward to a ball more. It was to be hoped that Mr Shaw was a much more willing dance partner than Mr Lehnsherr.
When Charles hurried home, it was to find his father pacing the front hall, attempting a nonchalant air that had not worked on Charles for years. Charles was about to enquire as to his father's worries when the sounds of an arriving carriage filled the air. It stopped outside the doors to the house presently, and a man only slightly taller than Charles alighted with none of the usual grace.
"Mr Riptide Collins at your service," the man supplied obsequiously.
His arms were filled with books, but while the sight would normally excite Charles, it was clear from the faded letters on the binding that these were dry volumes full of self-righteous sermons, not something Charles could resign himself to. He had no doubt that they will be filled with cautionary words against relations between members of the same sex, which had been accepted for some years by polite society, but not at all by the church. Charles would feel himself a false witness before God and himself if he pretended to approve of such writings, as to do so would be a direct contradiction to his own predilections.
Nevertheless, he contrived to be civil enough towards the man, since he was a guest in his father's house.
"Did you have a pleasant trip, Mr Collins?" he enquired politely.
"Indeed I did, I thank you. It is, of course, entirely due to my patroness, the esteemed Lady Catherine De Bourgh, who graciously lent me her second-best carriage for my journey. I have no doubt you are familiar with Her Ladyship?"
"I'm afraid not," Charles supplied, striving to be cordial.
"Oh!" Mr Collins exclaimed, perturbed. "But of course I shall tell you all about Lady Catherine, for she has been wonderfully obliging to my humble self."
"I shall wait with bated breath," Charles assured him, endeavouring not to catch his father's eye for fear of losing his composure.
Mr Collins, Charles was sorry to discover, did not improve on further acquaintance, and it was a trial to withstand his frequent and often misguided readings of the sermons contained in his many books. He had been a guest at Longbourn for only a few days, and already Charles' patience was wearing thin. He contrived to be absent from the house on every possible occasion, using the excuse of overseeing the estate in his father's stead -- he was learning more and more how to manage it, as the responsibility fell to the eldest son. But to his distress, he did not manage to escape the man completely, for Mr Collins had taken a fancy to Raven, and her helpless, beseeching looks tore at Charles' soft heart. And so, against his best intentions, he found himself keeping company with the man far more than he would have liked.
Fortunately, the next day was the eagerly expected Friday of the ball at Netherfield Park, and soon enough it was time to ready themselves for the evening. Raven retired earlier than the rest of them, but not long afterwards Sean was calling for the family's valet and attempting to convince his brother Alex to lend him his ivory britches, to little success.
Charles gladly used the excuse to retire himself and escape Mr Collins' presence. He desired to present himself in his best light, and took the chance to draw himself a bath, after which he debated for some minutes between his forest green and navy blue evening jacket, and the bronze waistcoat versus the cream. At long last, he settled on the navy and cream combination, brushed his hair until it shone, and made his way downstairs, eager to make his way to Netherfield.
Raven waited in the drawing room, looking delightful in a peach silk gown that lent a golden sheen to her flawless skin.
"You look beautiful, my love," Charles said, lifting her hand to his lips in exaggerated admiration that was no less sincere.
"So do you, Brother. Dare I ask whom you hope to impress?" Raven asked slyly, for Charles was quite aware that he had spoken of Mr Shaw to her at some length the night before.
Charles flushed a little, but did not deny the accusation, for he was very much looking forward to meeting the gentleman again tonight. After another half hour, the rest of the family joined them, and at last the Xaviers were ready to embark on the short journey to the neighbouring estate.
Netherfield Hall was lit up with hundreds of torches and candles, until it was fairly blazing into the night. Charles disembarked first, and immediately turned to offer Raven a hand down. The seven of them piled into the spacious entrance hall, to wait their turn to greet the hosts. Mr and Miss McCoy were waiting by the tall double doors into the ballroom, exchanging pleasantries with guest after guest. Charles took the time to crane his neck to try and see over the heads of the crowd for a tall auburn-haired man, but he was nowhere in evidence, even with the line moving forward and Charles’ changing view.
"Are you looking for someone, Mr Xavier?" Mr McCoy enquired kindly. Charles started. He had not been aware that they were so far along the line already! How very ill-mannered of him!
"No! Not at all," he supplied quickly. "I am simply admiring the general splendour."
"It is breathtaking," Raven chimed in sincerely.
Mr McCoy beamed at her. "I am so glad."
"Do enjoy the ball," Miss McCoy said, signalling the end of the conversation. Charles was no longer feeling even remotely charitable towards her.
The ballroom had wonderfully high ceilings, and when Charles entered it he felt like he was walking into a glittering cave, all crystal chandeliers and candlelight glinting off ladies' jewellery and men's cravat pins. He lost himself a little in the reflections, so much so that he nearly jumped out of his skin when Raven took his elbow.
"Your Mr Shaw isn't here," she supplied hurriedly as they tried not to be separated by the throng. "He had to leave for town on a moment's notice."
“How did you find out so quickly?” Charles asked, surprised.
“I met with Colonel Foster by the punch bowl just now,” she said, stepping closer to Charles’ solid frame to escape the push of those passing behind her. “I mentioned that you’d made his new officer’s acquaintance the other day, and were looking forward to meeting him again.”
Charles would be lying if he said that he was not disappointed. Fortunately, he spotted Moira's presence not far from him once Raven left him again, and distracted himself with pleasant conversation until he had managed to swallow his disappointment sufficiently to enjoy the ball.
He was making his way towards the punch table, holding Moira's hand tightly against the flow of people jostling them on all sides, when he bumped to a stop against another man's chest. He looked up into Mr Lehnsherr's startling blue eyes.
"Mr Xavier," Mr Lehnsherr murmured.
"Mr Lehnsherr," Charles replied, bemused that Mr Lehnsherr had troubled himself to stop and talk to him.
Mr Lehnsherr's eyes drifted down Charles' frame. For a moment Charles was acutely aware of the extra effort he had gone to tonight in the hopes of impressing a certain other gentleman. Mr Lehnsherr's eyes locked on his again.
"May I have the next dance?"
Charles said 'yes' automatically, barely a thought passing through the shocked blankness in his mind.
Mr Lehnsherr bowed perfunctorily in the crush, and strode off. Charles blinked a few times before he managed to move again, dragging Moira behind the nearest corner.
"Did I just agree to dance with Mr Lehnsherr?" Charles whispered, shocked.
"I daresay you will find him very agreeable, Charles," Moira said, thoroughly amused.
"That would be most inconvenient, since I have sworn to loathe him for all eternity!" Charles exclaimed, and the two friends burst into laughter a moment later.
All too soon Charles found himself standing opposite Mr Lehnsherr as the first strands of a violin thrilled through the air. He moved smoothly, accustomed to the steps since he had been fourteen, and noted with approval that Mr Lehnsherr was himself a most graceful dancer, for all that he professed to hate the activity.
"This is a perfectly turned-out room," Charles said after a minute of dancing in silence.
Mr Lehnsherr said nothing. Charles huffed a little to himself.
"It is your turn to say something, Mr Lehnsherr. I remarked upon the size of the room; perhaps you might comment on the number of people."
"Do you always talk when you dance?" Mr Lehnsherr enquired dryly.
Charles smothered a grin at the put-upon tone. "No," he answered primly. "No, I prefer to be taciturn and silent."
A few more moments passed, during which Charles contented himself with observing the close, intimate touches being exchanged by Mr McCoy and Raven, who were dancing a little further down the line, hardly looking away from each other. That his sister should be so fortunate to have love as well as security in her marriage was everything Charles could want for her, and he could only wish himself as lucky. Looking away, he noticed Sean's simpering form at the end of the line. He endeavoured not to look too closely, for fear of upsetting himself at his brother’s lack of decorum.
"Do you often walk into Meryton?" Mr Lehnsherr said suddenly, drawing Charles’ attention back to him. He was gazing down at Charles intently.
"Yes, I often walk into Meryton," Charles answered, unwilling to be cowed. He did not know what made him say it, but he found the words slipping out of his mouth regardless. "In fact, Miss MacTaggert and I were in the process of making a new acquaintance when you happened upon us on Monday. I believe you are familiar with Mr Shaw?"
Mr Lehnsherr's gaze snapped away from Charles', and he glared at the back of the room. "I am," he replied, and Charles was a little taken aback by the growl that had entered the gentleman's voice.
"I received the impression that relations between you were not amicable," Charles ventured.
A muscle in Mr Lehnsherr's jaw started to twitch. Charles forced himself to look away; it was much more difficult than it should have been.
Mr Lehnsherr stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Why do you ask me these questions?" he asked, obviously agitated.
"I am trying to make out your character, Mr Lehnsherr. I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly."
Mr Lehnsherr was quiet as he swept Charles back into the dance, and remained so for the duration. As the music was drawing to a close, he spoke at last.
"I hope to provide you with more clarity from now on," he murmured.
Before Charles could reply, the music ended. Mr Lehnsherr bowed to him gracefully and walked away, leaving Charles to stare at his back in confusion.
For the rest of the night Charles was so busy placating various family members, and preventing them from embarrassing themselves and the whole family, that he did not have time to think on Mr Lehnsherr's words until he was lying in bed that night, exhausted and bewildered.
“What?” Charles snapped in horror, recoiling from Mr Collins' professed hand.
"I believe our union would be most beneficial for all involved -- for you, Cousin, are not unattractive, and I have reason to believe you have quite a lively mind. Of course, it would mean that your family home will be secured for your Mother and Father, and the rest of your brothers after you and your sister marry. And I flatter myself that I can set an example amongst those slow to accept that same-sex relationships are perfectly normal and not to be shunned."
Charles steeled himself. "And what of love, Mr Collins?"
Mr Collins looked taken aback. "What of it?" he asked, confused.
Charles huffed. He would never be able to make this man understand what Charles desired, that he would marry for love or not at all, inheritance be damned. He would find a way to support himself and his parents if it was the last thing he did, for he would depend on no one other than himself.
"Sir, I thank you for the honour you do me, but please understand. I cannot accept you."
Mr Collins' expression did not change. "I am certain that once you and your parents have conversed on the matter, you will change your mind," he said confidently.
Charles had always been a calm person, brought up to be polite and well-mannered. He always strove to see the good in people. But this was too much even for Charles' famed even disposition.
"Mr Collins. To begin with, insulting me in such a way will not endear you to me. Secondly, I am convinced that you cannot possibly make me happy. You see, you profess not to believe in the talk denouncing same-sex relationships, and yet you preach the works of men violently opposed to it. I am afraid this duality will not be so easily resolved as you imagine. And thirdly, sir, I do not, could not grow to love you. That is why I must refuse you. I do hope you can understand."
Leaving Mr Collins gaping behind him in affront, Charles strode out of the house.
Mrs Xavier was not so easily put off. It took Mr Xavier taking a rare stand for her to cease badgering Charles to 'stop being so silly and go back before the man believed him and left'. But Charles could not do it; indeed, he would not. There had to be somewhere to draw the proverbial line, and this was where he was making his stand.
The tension was thick between him and his mother, and Charles did not relish it, for Mrs Xavier was relentless in her disapproval. They were in the middle of another argument when an unexpected letter from Netherfield arrived. Mrs Xavier took it eagerly to her daughter, argument with her erstwhile elder son forgotten in favour of the possibility of a much more desirable connexion taking place. But when River opened it, it was to find a missive penned by a careless hand, delivering the news that the McCoys were returning to town, taking Mr Lehnsherr with them, and did not plan to return.
His poor Raven. She tried to put a brave face on it, but Charles could well see she was distraught. For her heart to be crushed in such a callous manner, oh, it made Charles' blood boil, and he had a few choice words he wished delivered to Miss McCoy -- but Raven staid his hand. Rather than upset her more, Charles acquiesced.
Heart heavy, he escaped the house at the earliest opportunity, desperately needing to clear his head from everything that had recently happened. He knew he ran the risk of encountering his awful cousin if he quit the confines of Longbourn, but it was a risk he was willing to take if it would allow him to regain his clarity.
He was inspecting the farthest end of the estate when, to his short-lived pleasure, Moira came to find him. Charles saw straight away that his friend was apprehensive, and he hurried towards her in concern.
"My dear Charles," she started, trying and failing to look him in the eye. "I have come to tell you the news."
"What is it, Moira?" Charles rushed to ask. "Has anything happened?"
"A great deal has happened," Moira replied tentatively. "Mr Collins has proposed to me, and I have accepted him."
Charles could do no more than stare at her in dismay. "Marry Mr Collins?! But he is ridiculous!" burst from his lips.
Moira's expression hardened. "Yes, well, Charles. You can judge all you like; you are a man, you have more ways than marriage for caring for yourself and your family. But what of me? I am a woman; I cannot take a profession, or earn my own support.”
Her voice shook, and she paused, taking a moment to compose herself. Charles watched her helplessly, shocked and chagrined at the bitterness in her voice.
“I am twenty-six years old,” she continued after steeling herself. “I have no prospects. Mr Collins is a good, honest man, and he has offered me a home of my own. Of course I accepted.”
Charles opened his mouth, reached forward – to try and reason with her, to reassure her, he knew not what – but she would not listen, simply talked over the interruption.
“If you cannot understand that, well, I shall be very sorry not to talk to you again. You are my best friend, Charles, but you do not have the right to judge me."
Her face crumpled for the briefest moment before resolve stiffened her features again. Charles started forward again, meaning to draw her into his arms and reiterate his unshakable high opinion of her, but he had taken no more than a step towards her when she turned away, pausing for a mere second before striding quickly back in the direction of Meryton.
Charles stood frozen to the spot in the falling dusk, staring out into the fields surrounding Longbourn. He felt wretched, that he had made his friend feel this way, to think that Charles thought her beneath him. Nothing could be further from the truth; he respected Moira all the more for the strength it took to make such a decision with her eyes wide open.
Moira removed to Kent with her husband not long after their last conversation, and Charles wasn’t afforded the opportunity to apologise that he so desperately wanted. It wasn’t long before the Militia followed, deployed away from Meryton, and Charles found his life was feeling rather grey in the wake of both departures. He joined his mother in urging Raven to visit their aunt and uncle Gardiner in London, believing a change in scenery would do her the world of good. Charles was indeed worried for his sister -- she had become even more quiet and withdrawn since Mr McCoy's return to town, and Charles' heart hurt for her.
"I strongly advise you to write to Mr McCoy when you are in town. I am sure he should be delighted to see you," he told her, for he was firmly convinced that Miss McCoy was to blame for the group's removal in the first place.
Raven smiled wanly at him, but agreed that she should. Charles saw her off one overcast morning, a hint of a chill in the air despite it being mid-summer. The postman met him just as he was re-entering the house.
"A letter for you, Mr Xavier," the man called, and Charles strode down to meet him. His heart warmed to see Moira's tidy script on the front, and he rushed to pay the man so he could open it and read her news.
The invite to visit her and his cousin in Kent was a welcome relief from the melancholy mood that had fallen over him, and he started packing his luggage as soon as he sent back his confirmation.
The journey was long, but Charles hardly felt it. His head was buzzing with thoughts, and the quiet was soothing to his aching heart. He had not had much chance to speak with Mr Shaw before the man had followed his regiment away, taking with him the only conversation partner Charles had left after Moira married and left Meryton. It had been a bleak few weeks for Charles indeed.
Thoughts of Mr Shaw naturally lead to thoughts of Mr Lehnsherr, who had been a topic of conversation between Charles and Mr Shaw every time they met. The more he listened to Mr Shaw, however, the more he struggled to reconcile the picture Mr Shaw painted of the Erik Lehnsherr he was acquainted with. Mr Lehnsherr enjoyed the devoted friendship of Mr McCoy, who was not someone to attach himself to the kind of person that Mr Shaw described. And too the Erik Lehnsherr Charles had spoken with was highly educated, excessively so; he spoke six languages, was widely read, and from what Charles had concluded ran his estate to considerable profit. This profile did not match the one supplied by Mr Shaw, and once the discrepancy made itself known to Charles, he could not easily dismiss it, no matter how much he sought to.
Charles arrived late in the afternoon, when the weather was still sunny enough for rays of light to glint through Moira's dark hair as she ran out to meet him.
"Welcome to our humble abode, Cousin Charles," Mr Collins called out. Charles could do no more than nod to him, for he was unwilling to be drawn into a long conversation with the man.
Moira had them ensconced within her private drawing room within minutes, leaving Mr Collins outside to tend to his hedges.
"I encourage him, you know," Moira said mildly. "The fresh air does him good."
Charles smiled at her, running a careful eye over her shape. There was a quiet happiness about her, a contentment Charles did not remember seeing before. With some surprise he realised that Moira was happy. Charles was prepared to be very charitable to the man who had made her so; it seemed that while to Charles, who valued independence so highly, marriage to Mr Collins would have been a slow death, Moira thrived under his attention.
"You look surprised, my dear," she said, startling Charles from his thoughts.
"I am happy to see you happy," Charles said earnestly, taking her hand. “I was entirely in the wrong to assume that your wishes were the same as my wishes. I only hope you can forgive me for being such a poor friend to you.”
Moira smiled at him, forgiveness and reassurance in the gentle squeeze she gave his hand before withdrawing. "I never expected to marry for love," she mused quietly as she poured the tea. "And I didn't. But I am... comfortable, and secure in the knowledge of a good home; and with time, God willing, children. It was more than I expected from life, Charles. So yes. I am happy. And I am glad that you can see that, my friend."
Charles found a smile for her. It seemed he was not quite so insightful as he had always imagined -- he never could have said himself that Moira felt this way, but he didn't have to understand it to accept it, and to support his friend in her choices.
A shout interrupted their comfortable silence, sending Moira scurrying to the window. "What is it, dear?" she called out, and then, "Oh! It is Lady De Bourgh's carriage. I imagine we shall dine at Rosings Park, in that case."
"Oh!" Charles echoed, though he did not know what was so important about that.
Mr Collins joined them at the window when the carriage drove away. "We have all been invited to dinner by Her Ladyship," he confirmed. Seeing Charles' bemused expression, Mr Collins went on to say, "Do not fret, Cousin. Her Ladyship will not expect you to wear evening dress."
"Yes, my friend, just put on whatever you've brought that's best," Moira said serenely, though Charles caught the small roll of her eyes that she did not quite manage to hide.
Rosings Park was impressive, a large manor built from the honey-coloured stone so often found in the area. Charles could not imagine what the upkeep of such a vast estate might entail.
"Beautiful, is it not?" Mr Collins asked, but did not wait for an answer. "Come along," he added nervously, hurrying his stride even more.
If Charles had thought at all about what Lady Catherine De Bourgh must be like, Charles imagined he would probably have been pretty close to the mark. The woman sitting regally on a plush chaise was not young -- indeed, her skin drooped around her chin and neck, and the skin around her thin lips pursed in displeasure was lined with wrinkles.
Mr Collins' carrying, if possible, became even more obsequious.
"Allow me to present my Cousin, Charles Xavier," he quavered.
Charles rounded the chaise, and looked at Her Ladyship's small, beady eyes.
"A pleasure," he said, bowing.
Lady Catherine observed him through her pince-nez for a moment before deigning to incline her head.
"My daughter, Miss De Bourgh," she said, waving dismissively at a young, ill-looking woman sitting a way away. "And my Nephews, Mr Lehnsherr and Colonel Fitzwilliam," she added.
Charles stiffened, turning on the spot to see Mr Lehnsherr standing by the far window, disguised by the fading light outside.
"Mr Lehnsherr!" Charles exclaimed, before remembering himself and bowing, fighting a faint flush to his face.
Mr Lehnsherr bowed back as Lady De Bourgh picked up on Charles' surprise.
"Do you know my Nephew, Mr Xavier?" she demanded.
"I do indeed, Ma'am. I met him when he visited his friend Mr McCoy in --shire."
Lady Catherine stared at him for a moment before continuing as if Charles had not spoken. "My Nephew is excessively fond of me. He comes to visit me whenever he can take the time from his duties."
Charles remained silent, noting that the long-suffering look in Mr Lehnsherr's eyes betrayed his impassive facade. He looked at Charles steadily; Charles found himself pleased he was at least being acknowledged by someone, even if it was Mr Lehnsherr.
The other man also stepped forward from the shadowed corner, bowing swiftly. "Colonel Fitzwilliam at your service," he said jovially.
Charles smiled and bowed at him. "A pleasure, Colonel," he said pleasantly.
Charles chose to sit on the far end of the table throughout dinner, hoping to discourage Lady Catherine's sudden and rapid demands for information about his family – he would much rather she had remained distant and aloof. He still had to answer more than he wished, but there was no escape to be found. He avoided Mr Lehnsherr's gaze, but he could feel the man's eyes on him even when he looked away. It left him uncomfortably unsettled. He wished the gentleman would turn to converse with Miss De Bourgh sitting next to him, but Mr Lehnsherr did not spare her the least of his attention fixed on Charles.
After dinner Charles rose to stroll the room, ostensibly to stretch his legs after his journey. He found himself with company through no effort of his own.
"Is your family well, Mr Xavier?" Mr Lehnsherr enquired a few moments after he joined him.
"Very well, thank you," Charles replied politely. "My Sister has lately been in London; perhaps you have seen her?"
Mr Lehnsherr replied that he had not.
"Oh," Charles said, and kept walking until he came to meet Colonel Fitzwilliam, who was walking towards them.
"Mr Xavier, you must regale me. What was my Cousin like when he was at Netherfield?"
Charles felt Mr Lehnsherr stiffen slightly by his side, and his barbed retort died in his throat. "Unfortunately disinclined to dance," he replied lightly instead.
Colonel Fitzwilliam laughed heartily. "Sounds just like Lehnsherr. He never did learn to fit smoothly into a new group of acquaintances. Doesn't know how to talk to people he isn't familiar with, you see."
Charles smiled, and felt the tension at his side dissipate slightly. "No one is born knowing," he rebuffed gently. "Perhaps Mr Lehnsherr just needs to practice."
He dared to meet Mr Lehnsherr's eyes for the first time since the conversation started, and was surprised to find an unusual level of warmth in them.
Later in the evening, he found himself talking lightly with the Colonel while Mr and Mrs Collins conversed with Her Ladyship and Miss De Bourgh, Mr Lehnsherr a severe presence to the side.
"Have you been long here at Rosings, sir?"
The Colonel, nodded, looking resigned. "A whole week already. Lehnsherr conscripted me to suffer with him. He is lucky we have known each other since the cradle, or I would not have agreed."
Charles hummed sympathetically. "It looks like you are doomed, at least until Mr Lehnsherr finds companionship of the more permanent type, whoever the unfortunate lady turns out to be," he could not resist throwing out.
Instead of laughing, the Colonel shook his head. "Whoever she or he is, they would be a lucky person indeed; coming to stay at Rosings Park would be a small price to pay for the privilege of being Lehnsherr’s spouse. Lehnsherr is loyal to a fault, once one secures his friendship and affections."
Charles was surprised by the inclusion of the male pronoun, but it was nothing to the shock he felt when the Colonel spoke again. "Why, he was telling me that he saved a very good friend of his from an inopportune marriage just last month."
Charles felt a chill run down his spine, as if someone had dropped a chip of ice under his shirt. "Who might that friend be?" he asked, deceptively calm.
"A Mr Henry McCoy," the Colonel supplied, believing he was doing his friend an honour by relaying the matter.
Charles could not speak for a moment, but rallied before the Colonel could grow concerned. "Was there an objection to the lady?" he asked, trying not to grit his teeth.
"The family," the Colonel corrected. "It was implied that they were unsuitable."
The breath escaped Charles's chest, and refused to return. He let the Colonel's next words wash over him, choosing instead to stare down Mr Lehnsherr where he stood by his aunt's side. He felt numb, and his head pounded unbearably. It was not long before he excused himself to the Colonel and the others, citing a horrendous headache, and made his way out of the house. He did not see Mr Lehnsherr's concerned gaze follow him out, but even if he had, he would not have cared.
The chilly air calmed his pounding heart, his heaving chest. He walked down to the Collins' home quickly, but he could not settle for long, and instead chose to walk out again, leaving a candle lit in the window to guide his way back to the house. He wandered the grounds for a long time afterwards, feeling shocked, hurt, betrayed, although why he should feel that last was a mystery to him.
"Insufferable man," he growled to himself, over and over again; squeezed his hands into fists and ground his teeth together to keep the angry tears at bay.
The candle guided him back to the house before the others returned, but he did not rest well that night.
The next morning his head was still pounding, and so he begged off going to church in favour of sitting quietly in the parlour, attempting to compose a letter to Raven. It had been far too long since he wrote to her – over a week! -- and so he prepared his pen and paper, and tried to think of what he could say without pouring his anger between the pages.
The door to the room flew open, and he streaked a long line of ink across the paper from the sudden noise. He was not expecting to see Mr Lehnsherr, looking flushed and discomfited and palming his riding gloves in both hands.
"Mr Lehnsherr!" Charles exclaimed.
"My apologies, Mr Xavier. I was told you were still feeling unwell, and I wanted to see whether you needed anything at all."
"Thank you, sir, no," Charles replied stiffly, thinking only 'this is the man responsible for Raven's unhappiness'.
Mr Lehnsherr did not go away, however. He stared at Charles some more, then turned to pace the room in obvious agitation. Charles waited, for he could not imagine what the man might want from him.
Mr Lehnsherr turned swiftly on his heel and came to stand in front of Charles.
"In vain have I struggled," he said, regarding Charles intently. "It would not do. My feelings would not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."
Charles stared back, struck speechless for one of the few times in his life.
The silence stretched uncomfortably, until Mr Lehnsherr seemed unable to take any more of it. "I have fought long and hard against it; it goes against my judgement, my breeding, the wishes of my family, but my desire would not be denied. I must ask you to become my husband."
"Mr Lehnsherr, I..." Charles could not find words, for here was this person who embodied everything Charles hated about society's dictate, asking Charles to put all that has happened aside, and marry him? It was insupportable.
"Sir, I thank you for the compliment, but I cannot agree," he said firmly.
Mr Lehnsherr's eyes bore into his own. "Are you refusing me?" he asked, such disbelief in his voice that Charles became all the more stubbornly determined to keep his decision.
"I am," he said in challenge.
Mr Lehnsherr looked almost wild for a moment, and Charles fought not to shrink away from him. He pushed the chair back and stood, placing them on a more even height.
"What reasons can you give me for your rejection?" Mr Lehnsherr demanded.
Charles could not hold himself back any longer.
"Do you think anything in the world could convince me to marry the man who destroyed the happiness of my beloved sister?" he snapped, holding Mr Lehnsherr's gaze.
He saw the man falter briefly, but then the conviction was back in his eyes.
"I did what I thought was right," Mr Lehnsherr stated.
Charles' eyes widened impossibly at the man's nerve.
"You separated a young couple who loved each other, exposing them to society's ridicule and the pain of a broken heart, and you believe this to be the right thing?"
"I observed Miss Xavier most carefully, and could not ascertain that she loved McCoy, or would be receptive to his feelings for her."
"That's because she has learned not to throw herself at gentlemen she has just met!" Charles argued furiously.
"McCoy, too, was persuaded that she did not care for him!"
"An event that, I would imagine, you facilitated?"
Mr Lehnsherr stood his ground. "Regardless, there are other factors to be considered."
"It was... suggested that this would be an advantageous union for the lady."
"Did my sister give that impression?" Charles demanded.
"No, but it was amply suggested by your Mother, your younger brothers, even on occasion your Father."
Charles stared at him helplessly, for he could not deny the accusation. His family, while he loved them dearly, could behave in a manner shockingly improper sometimes.
For the first time since the conversation started, Mr Lehnsherr looked chagrined. "Forgive me," he said softly, making Charles look up at him. "You and your sister I must exclude from my accusations."
Charles swallowed weakly, but he was not done. There was one more thing that picked at him, gave him no peace, made him doubt himself and Mr Shaw and Mr Lehnsherr equally. "And what about Mr Shaw?"
Mr Lehnsherr's entire demeanour changed immediately. "Mr Shaw?" he growled, and this time Charles did step back from the man's palpable anger.
"Yes. He has told me of his misfortunes," Charles said.
Mr Lehnsherr unleashed a bitter laugh. "Oh, yes. His misfortunes have been great indeed."
"You dismissed him unfairly after years of loyal service, and yet you mock him?" Charles asked, startled, for he had not expected such a callous reaction to the history he knew of between the two gentlemen.
Mr Lehnsherr stared at him some more, blue eyes burning with an inner fire that drew Charles like a magnet.
"So this is what you think of me," Mr Lehnsherr stated quietly. "Thank you, sir, for explaining so fully. I will not take any more of your time. Goodbye." After another brief moment, he turned his back on Charles and stalked out of the room.
Charles stared at the door, which Mr Lehnsherr closed quietly behind himself. His knees gave out, and he sank down into the chair he had pushed back earlier. Movement outside the window caught his eye, and he watched Mr Lehnsherr stride away with quick, angry steps, hand clenched into a fist at his side.
The next morning brought Charles no further clarity. For the second day running his head ached when he made his way to breakfast. The sight of all the food made him feel queasy, and so he begged leave to eat later. Instead, he went for a walk, hoping to clear his head from the shocking discoveries of the previous day. He walked much further than he had before, and a part of him delighted in the fresh air, the lush green grounds, the perfect lawns and the aged oak trees, breathing in lungful after lungful of the sweet scent of summer.
He was following a meandering path through a smattering of fir trees when he became aware of another person approaching from the other direction. When he lifted his head, he discovered it was the last person he wished to see.
Mr Lehnsherr looked up also at the noise, and fixed Charles in place with those penetrating eyes. "I have been walking the gardens for some time in the hope of finding you. I will not bother you further. I wish your would do me the honour of reading this letter," he said, handing Charles a thick envelope.
Charles took it with nerveless fingers, watching Mr Lehnsherr bow to him and leave by the same path that Charles had followed. Against his wish, his fingers edged under the sealed flap containing the missive, and now that it was open it would be rude for Charles not to read it.
Do not be alarmed, sir, on receiving this letter, that I intend to renew the sentiments that were, last night, so disgusting to you. I merely wish to defend myself against some of the accusations levelled against me.
On the subject of your sister and McCoy I will not say more. I believed myself to be acting in the service of a dear friend, and did not perceive that your sister felt genuine affection for him. I will not apologise for caring for my friend's happiness and well-being.
It is the subject of Mr Shaw that I wish to address. You accused me of ruining his future; if correct, the injustice would be great indeed. However, Mr Xavier, I'm afraid you have been labouring under a misapprehension.
It is not easy to write the following words to you, for this is a private family matter and as such I would prefer to keep it from the public eye. But you, Mr Xavier, I am willing to trust with this truth. You deserve to understand the falsehood of what has been said to you, and I know I can trust you to be discreet.
Mr Shaw was indeed my Father's steward, and as such my Father trusted him implicitly, even with the education of his only son. But Mr Shaw's methods were quite unorthodox. For every mistake I made, I was punished. A cane, a belt, whatever Mr Shaw found handy. He believed that pain was a great motivator, and had no problem providing it as often as he felt was required. It was months before my governess realised the bruises and cuts on my back could not be only a result of falls, or rough play with my friends. By the time my Father figured out what had been happening, I was fifteen.
Mr Shaw was removed from the position of my tutor, and his interaction with my sister limited to mere pleasantries. Other tutors were found for me, though soon after it was obvious that I learned perfectly well on my own, and by the time I was seventeen and on my way to Oxford, I was well ahead of my peers.
My sister Angelique is eight years my junior. By the time I had graduated from Oxford, my Father was greatly ill, and unable to look after her as much as she needed. After my Father died and I took over the management of the estate, I myself was home infrequently, and I am afraid I, too, was lax in my own responsibilities towards her. A governess was found, different from the one I had, because she had resigned in order to look after her sister's orphaned daughter. The new woman, Mrs Younge, I am sorry to say did not have my sister's best interests at heart.
My sister expressed the desire to visit the seaside one summer, and I dutifully sent her there under the care of the selfsame Mrs Younge. I travelled down for an unannounced visit some weeks later. You can imagine my surprise when I found my sister in a passionate embrace with none other than Sebastian Shaw. My sister, who looks to me like a father, could not support deceiving me, and she told me the entire story. They were planning to elope to Scotland, where they would be married. Mrs Younge had been instrumental in engineering the deceit, and was in the employ of Mr Shaw himself.
When it was made clear to Mr Shaw that he would not receive a penny of my sister's considerable dowry, he quit the town and severed all connexions with our family. I will not attempt to convey the depth of Angelique's despair. She was then but fifteen.
This, sir, is the faithful account of my family's dealings with Mr Shaw. For its veracity you may appeal to Colonel Fitzwilliam, who as the executor of my Father's will knows the whole of it. I trust that you will see the need to keep this confidence to yourself.
Erik Lehnsherr, &c.
Charles folded up the letter with shaking hands, staring unseeingly into the distance. There was a palpable weight in his chest, pressing down on his heart, that felt very much like regret and mortification at misunderstanding the truth so thoroughly. His whole body ached as he remembered the words he had flung at Mr Lehnsherr, and could only marvel at the patience of the man in writing him this letter and going to the trouble of defending himself against Charles' unfounded accusations.
By the time Charles walked back to the house, he had managed to calm down a little, but his heavy heart had not lifted. It sunk even lower when Moira greeted him with the news that Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr Lehnsherr had come by to take their leave of them, as they were returning to town. Charles could not be sorry that he had missed them, for he was still reeling from his newfound knowledge.
Charles himself took his leave of Moira the very next day. She was sorry to see him go, but Charles knew from Raven’s previous letter that Raven was due back from town tomorrow with their aunt and uncle, and when he said so Moira did not voice any further objections.
"I shall miss you so much, my friend," she murmured as she embraced him. "Write to me often."
"I promise," Charles vowed, holding her just as tightly.
That journey passed even more quickly than the last one, for Charles' mind was occupied with his own shortcomings and appalling behaviour, and Mr Lehnsherr's unexpectedly gracious handling of Charles' misunderstood accusations. It was almost a surprise when Meryton came into view, and with it the welcome relief of his father's carriage waiting to take him home.
It was strange, how little the house had changed in the time he had been away. He felt like the whole world had shifted on its axis, but the house he'd grown up in remained the same as it had been when he left. The sun still slanted off the windows in the afternoon, blinding him for the moment it took to disembark from the carriage, and when his eyesight cleared, he saw his mother waiting for him at the door.
"Oh, my dear, you are arrived; do come quickly. Raven is back with my Brother Gardiner this morning." She hurried forward to unwind the long travel scarf Charles favoured from around his neck.
"How is she?" Charles asked.
"She's in the drawing room," Mrs Xavier supplied fretfully, which was answer enough.
When Charles entered, Raven looked up from the book she was pretending to read on the settee, and Charles fairly startled at the wan look on her fine features.
"I am so glad you are back," Raven said, and the low, weary tone of her voice worried Charles even more.
"As am I, my dear," he replied, hurrying forward to take her hand and press a kiss to her cheek.
He called for tea immediately, for he felt the urgency to get a hot drink into her forthwith. Raven sipped daintily, warming her hands on the cup.
"Charles, do stop looking at me like I am going to break," Raven spoke after a moment. "I am quite over Mr McCoy. If he should pass me on the street I'd hardly notice."
Charles merely regarded her, unconvinced.
"It's true!" Raven insisted, her voice turning brittle. "London is so diverting. There is so much to entertain."
Charles took his tea in silence, feeling distressed at the shield Raven felt the need to erect between them. He wished he could read her mind, but even if he couldn't, it was perfectly clear that his sister was thoroughly unhappy. Yet she refused to speak of it, or to even acknowledge the subject.
"What news from Kent?" she asked instead.
Charles considered long and hard confiding in her -- the Lord knew he needed a friendly ear in which to pour his uncertainties and apprehension, but to burden Raven with his own problems, after what she had been through? To tell her that it was Mr Lehnsherr who had been instrumental in her present unhappy circumstances? No, he could not. She would never see Mr Lehnsherr with dispassionate eyes if she knew the truth, and for some reason Charles wished to preserve Mr Lehnsherr's integrity before her. He would not examine his reasoning further, for it would bring him only unhappiness. He had used Mr Lehnsherr abominably ill, and had no excuse for his wilful belief of every awful thing he had been told about him. Perhaps he could atone for it now, at least a little.
"Nothing," he said upon reflection. "At least, not much to entertain."
"My dear Charles, you would be more than welcome to accompany us on our tour of the Lake country," his uncle Gardiner said to Charles one morning, not a week after Charles' return from Kent.
Charles turned from his perusal of the rose garden behind the house, drawing his thoughts back from a pair of eyes only a shade less blue than the cloudless sky above them.
"Are you certain it would be no trouble, Uncle?" he asked, for he could not deny that a change of scenery would do him a world of good. It had only been a few days since his return to Longbourn, but already Charles was feeling restless.
"Dear boy, you could never be trouble," his uncle said fondly, throwing him a reproachful look. Charles had always been particularly close to his aunt and uncle Gardiner.
Charles hesitated, but it was a need he felt as deep as his bones, especially after recent events.
"Uncle, I have desired to talk to you these months. I wish, if of course you are agreeable, for you to prepare me to enter into Trade."
His uncle looked surprised, but far from displeased. "Charles, what has brought this about? Is there trouble?"
"Not at all, sir. I have only become more aware of the family's circumstances, especially since the visit of Mr Collins. And there are... other considerations which have prompted me to take this decision. This estate shall never belong to me, or to any of my brothers, and it is time we faced that truth. I have learned to manage it throughout the past years, but I know, now, that I need to find my distance from it if I am to make my way through life as an independent gentleman, one who does not rely on his estate or on a convenient marriage for ready funds."
Mr Gardiner watched him with pride etched clearly into his faded grey eyes. "It does you honour to think in this way, Nephew. Indeed, I shall be more than happy to begin your education in the Trade. We may start when you travel with us, if you are agreeable?"
Relief flooded Charles, lifting his spirits a little. He would not allow himself to become useless, and the past few days had brought with them the unwelcome realisation that if he remained firm in his decision to only marry for love, he may yet be disappointed. And so it fell to Charles to take control of his life, and control he would have, no matter what it cost him.
"Sir, I would be delighted. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for your generosity--"
"Now, now, none of that," Mr Gardiner waved him away. "You are aware that your Aunt Gardiner and I have no children, and I have long despaired of leaving my business to a member of my family. I am very happy indeed to have been proven wrong."
And so Charles' education in his uncle's trade began. He left Longbourn behind, and travelled with his aunt and uncle to London, where he proceeded to bury himself in the specifics of his uncle's trade. It was not easy, but Charles found that his troublesomely keen mind when it came to trifling matters served him well now; he learned quickly, and was found to be perceptive at sums and the weighing of investment risks. Before the month was out, he had made his uncle a small profit, and Mr Gardiner could not be more effusive on his behalf.
He missed Raven, and wrote to her often, almost every day; her letters continued to be listless and withdrawn, but little by little Charles was pleased to note a certain lifting of spirit, the more time his sister spent at home, engaged with pen and paper, for Charles was very persistent in his insistence for quick replies. One reply in particular, however, distressed him greatly.
"This cannot be supported," he said soon after to his uncle. "Sean, to be allowed to leave for Brighton with the regiment! He is not old enough to know how to condone himself properly! He will make a fool of himself," he declared, wringing his hands. "I must write to Father at once."
"My dear boy, calm down," his uncle requested. "You are straining yourself over nonsense! Sean is young, yes, but what could possibly happen to him? Colonel Forster is a reasonable man, and he has taken your brother under his wing. He will look after him. The only possible cause of concern would be if he took up with that Shaw character, but I am sure even your brother is too sensible for that."
The fear in Charles' chest wound tighter. "Mr Shaw? Why do you say that, Uncle?"
Mr Gardiner looked surprised. "But do you not know? When the regiment left several weeks ago, it soon came to light that Mr Shaw had left behind a rather large sum in debt at all the finest shops in Meryton, and Mr King's daughter, Mary, had almost married the scoundrel before her Father found out about Mr Shaw's circumstances. --Oh! But of course, this happened while you were gone away having fun in Kent, and you did not have much chance to learn of it before we departed again. --Charles, are you well? You have gone rather pale."
Charles strove to recover himself. So it was true! He had been taken in like the most ignorant of dolts by the man's easy charm and silver tongue, while all the time Mr Shaw was a veritable viper in disguise. Well, at least his true nature was known, and none may be deceived by him again.
"I am well, Uncle. I am simply concerned for Sean's welfare. You will recall that he is not prone to good discipline."
Mr Gardiner sighed, but smiled reassuringly. "To be sure. However, I maintain that Colonel Forster can be trusted, and will see that Sean is cared for. And you never know -- perhaps this experience will be good enough to teach him his own insignificance. Do not worry, Charles."
It was not so easily done, but Charles trusted his uncle's good judgement, and contrived to put the matter behind him.
Soon enough it was time to embark on their travels. Mrs Gardiner, who was from the Lake country, was effusive in its praise, and Charles became more and more eager to see the beauties of the Lakes that she spoke of often. His one moment of weakness came when the journey's route was discussed, whereupon he professed a particular desire to visit Derbyshire. He would say that it was because he was curious to see its sights with his own eyes, but in the dark of night, lying alone in the guest room of Mr and Mrs Gardiner's house, he could admit to himself that he wished to travel the same paths as Mr Lehnsherr must once have taken. And so to Derbyshire they would go.
The beauty of the area had not been exaggerated. For the first time in months Charles felt himself able to breathe deeply of the clean country air, feast his eyes on the lush green of the moors, watch like a bird in flight the scenery spread underneath him from one of the rocky outposts overlooking the county. He stood at the very edge, closed his eyes, and allowed the steel band around his chest to loosen a little. His distress for his sister, his grief for a chance lost, his worry for Sean's own departure, all of them lifted a little under the gentle caress of the afternoon breeze, the warmth of the sun on his face. There, Charles could just be.
Later that afternoon they arrived at Lambton, where they meant to spend several days. The light was slanting already, turning the streets to liquid gold and the air to a gossamer veil of precious stones. Weary, the party retired after an early supper, but not before Charles' composure was sorely tested.
"My dear Nephew, what say you we visit Pemberley tomorrow?" his aunt said to him.
"Pemberley?" Charles repeated, startled out of his musings.
"Yes; it is but five miles from here. The maid was telling me earlier that it is open for visitors."
"Oh! yes, I have a hankering to see it," said his uncle agreeably.
"Must we? Surely we have seen fine houses aplenty in our tour. Blenheim Palace is unlikely to have competition in Pemberley."
"If it were just a fine house, I would not be so eager to see it," Mrs Gardiner said reproachfully. "But the gardens, Charles, they were the work of 'Capability' Brown, and I understand they rival the Royal gardens for beauty and charm. Surely you, who enjoy nature so much, would wish to see them?"
Charles felt terrible for upsetting his aunt so. "I am sorry. Of course, Aunt, we shall go if you wish."
His aunt looked radiant, and Charles could not begrudge her the pleasure, no matter what turmoil it should unleash inside him. He did take the liberty, later, of asking the same maid whether the family were in residence, and was assured that it was not the case. Thus fortified, Charles managed to spend a somewhat restful night in expectation of visiting the home of the one gentleman that had so captured his attention.
The next morning dawned bright and lovely, the sun warm on Charles' back as they made their way across the moors and past the small forest shielding the manor from their view. When they passed it, however, the breath escaped Charles' chest, and he stared in astonishment at the beautiful house now visible across the vast gardens. Built from honey stone much like Blenheim, it spanned the landscape, like a behemoth against the background of nature. A small lake sat to one side of the property, nearly obscured from sight by the tall grasses surrounding it and the small hill cresting nearby. The gardens were beautiful, so well situated that Charles could not help but love the picture they created.
'Of this all I could have been master!' he thought to himself mournfully, unable to help recalling the look in that gentleman's eyes when he had confessed his feelings for Charles.
His aunt and uncle were no less impressed by the property, and wished more than anything to be shown inside. For that purpose they applied to the housekeeper, who obliged in leading them through the many grand rooms of Pemberley. Charles could not help the admiration bursting in his chest, nor the bittersweet joy to be walking the home of Mr Lehnsherr. He was further tested when they arrived at the manor's sculpture gallery. Dozens of marble shapes were scattered throughout the enormous room, sensuous curves capturing Charles' attention, drawing his eye to wander from statue to statue. Charles enjoyed the beauty laid out for his appreciation, and moved from one to another with slow, languid steps that seemed appropriate in the comfortable silence of the hall.
Until Charles lifted his eyes and saw a much-familiar face, carved out of the same stone as the others, lifted on a plinth so that it was a little taller than Charles. It was the same height as Mr Lehnsherr was in real life, and Charles' eyes were drawn to the likeness' beautifully shaped lips, the strong chin, frozen in time like their owner never was. Charles let his eyes linger on the image, standing much closer than he ever would to the originator. He allowed himself to imagine what it would be like to stand this near to the living Mr Lehnsherr; how the gentleman might look down at Charles with warmth in his gaze, a faint smile twisting the mobile mouth. All fiction, of course, but to his surprise, greatly desired.
"And this is Mr Lehnsherr now," the housekeeper's voice broke through Charles' reverie.
"Such a handsome man," Mrs Gardiner declared. "Charles, is it a true likeness?"
"Oh! Does the gentleman know Mr Lehnsherr?" the housekeeper inquired, delighted.
"Only a little," Charles replied wistfully.
"And is he not a handsome man, sir?"
"Yes. Very handsome."
"The best master anyone could wish for, and the best man. Just like his Father," the housekeeper avowed.
"Indeed?" Mrs Gardiner asked, stepping away and drawing the woman with her.
"Yes, ma'am. And this is Miss Angelique. The portrait was commissioned only last year. Such an accomplished young lady, she sings and plays all day long."
"How charming," Mrs Gardiner replied, throwing Charles a shrewd glance where he still stood in front of Mr Lehnsherr's bust. "Do keep up, Charles."
Charles started a little, and stepped back, but he could not tear his eyes away from Mr Lehnsherr's face.
"Is the family at home?" he enquired, but was met only with silence. In his distraction, he had missed the group's exit, and now stood alone in the vast room.
He took the doorway through which the others had walked a short time ago, and continued to the one on the other side of the hall. He entered cautiously, for he did not wish to disturb the occupants, if indeed there were any. It was clearly a study, and judging by the amount of volumes in the bookcases lining the wall, it likely belonged to Mr Lehnsherr himself. Charles breathed in the air, the faint smell of leather and fine cigars, and again allowed his thoughts to drift to the room's owner. He could see Mr Lehnsherr sitting behind the large walnut desk, perusing ledgers and jotting down notes, or reclining in one of the comfortable-looking leather chairs by the fireplace, long legs stretched before him, lost in a book.
Charles needed to put some space between himself and the lingering memory of the man, like a bruise on his skin long after the event itself is passed; and so he unhooked one of the French doors, trusting the housekeeper to lock it again behind him, and took to the gardens. He emerged at a long stone pathway, meandering through the rose bushes lining both sides of a set of steps. Charles walked down them, and immediately found himself on a lawn leading to the small hill overlooking the lake. Needing the fresh air, Charles did not hesitate to walk towards it, breathing in with full lungs, trying to drive the insistent scent of the house from his mind. The air smelled sweet, of just-cut grass, of roses in late summer. Charles clasped his hands behind his back and strolled down the gentle slope, watching as the lake came into view.
A splash caught his attention, and he turned his head; the sight before him drew out what air he had managed to retain. For there stood Mr Lehnsherr, stripped to his undershirt and britches, emerging from the water like a scene ripped straight from Charles' imagination.
Mr Lehnsherr did not see him immediately -- he sat on the selfsame slope Charles was descending, dried his feet in his discarded shirt and tugged his riding boots on before straightening and stretching his shoulders back, head lifted towards the sky. The position exposed his long, muscular neck to the blowing breeze, and Charles felt his mouth grow dry and his body react uncomfortably quickly to the view presented to his eyes.
Mr Lehnsherr turned, undoubtedly intending to ascend the hill and head for his house, when he froze in his tracks, eyes fixed firmly on Charles. Charles felt himself flush from head to toe with embarrassment and mortification, for not only was he invading Mr Lehnsherr's home, after he had behaved so atrociously towards him, but he was also thinking vastly inappropriate thoughts about the man without having been given leave to do so.
"Mr Xavier!" the gentleman exclaimed, looking startled.
"Mr Lehnsherr," Charles replied. "I am so very sorry, sir, I have intruded on an inopportune moment. I will take my leave."
"No!" Mr Lehnsherr called out as Charles started to turn, hoping to hide his face and his body's humiliating betrayal. "No, Mr Xavier, I beg you do not leave on my account."
Charles turned back, but avoided the man's face, feeling exceedingly uncomfortable.
"Sir, I am afraid we are greatly imposing on your hospitality. We were informed that you were in town, not expected back until tomorrow."
"I was," Mr Lehnsherr replied, walking closer to Charles, his wet hair falling across his forehead appealingly. "I have only just returned ahead of my party. You say 'we' -- are you here with your family?"
"My Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, from London. My sister Raven resided at their house when she was in town," Charles could not help but add, wanting to see the man's reaction.
"Ah," was all Mr Lehnsherr said in reply, but Charles did observe a minute flicker of understanding in his eyes.
There was silence, turned tense by the way Mr Lehnsherr's wet shirt outlined his torso, a line of muscles that drew Charles' eyes like a lodestone, again and again. Charles pressed his hands together behind his back, thoroughly discomfited by the way Mr Lehnsherr's eyes remained on him.
"We are on a tour of the Lake country," he said at last, hoping to converse the feeling away.
"Indeed? And are you enjoying Derbyshire?"
"Very much," Charles replied earnestly, wondering at the way Mr Lehnsherr had voiced the question like a plea.
"And... Pemberley? You approve of it?"
Charles' flush deepened furiously, burning the skin of his cheeks. What a question to ask him! The home this gentleman had once offered him, to be expected to evaluate it like a mere house he had happened upon!
"It is a beautiful home," Charles said at last, looking away from Mr Lehnsherr's searching gaze.
The gentleman said nothing, though when Charles looked at him from under his lashes there was a gentle smile hovering over his lips.
"I am very sorry once again, Mr Lehnsherr. We shall leave at once."
"I beg of you do not," Mr Lehnsherr hurried to reply. "Will you and your Aunt and Uncle not dine with us, Mr Xavier? I should like very much to introduce you to my sister, Miss Angelique."
What cruel games was the gentleman playing? His sister, as if he would allow her to make the acquaintance of someone as ill-behaved as Charles, who had insulted her brother in every possible manner?
"Sir, I am afraid we must depart. We go to Matlock tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" Mr Lehnsherr echoed faintly. "Your friends will be disappointed. Mr and Miss McCoy arrive tonight from London. They would hope to see you."
Charles was torn, for he dearly wished to see Mr McCoy again. But to impose his presence upon Mr Lehnsherr, no matter how that gentleman professed to desire it, it would not do at all.
"Charles? Ah, there you are, dear boy! We thought we had lost you," his uncle called from further up the hill. Charles fought another flush at the sight he and Mr Lehnsherr must present.
Mr Lehnsherr looked up, waiting patiently for Charles' aunt and uncle to join them.
"Mr Lehnsherr, may I present to you my Aunt and Uncle, Mr and Mrs Gardiner? Aunt, Uncle -- Mr Erik Lehnsherr," Charles supplied politely, stifling a flutter at speaking Mr Lehnsherr’s given name for the first time.
"A pleasure to make your acquaintance. You must excuse my lack of proper attire; I am just arrived from London, and I was not expecting visitors."
The charming manner in which Mr Lehnsherr acquitted himself was a thorough surprise for Charles, who expected more of the severe reserve that Mr Lehnsherr had displayed earlier in the year at Meryton.
"Charmed," his aunt replied, curtsying as Mr Gardiner bowed. "You must not trouble yourself on that account, sir, for we are to blame. We did not expect to find you here, or we would never have intruded."
"Not at all, ma'am. If you but allow me to change my clothes, I would show you the grounds. Mr Gardiner, do you fish?"
"I do indeed, sir," Mr Gardiner replied.
"I have a well-stocked lake whose inhabitants have been left in peace for far too long. Will you not join me?"
"I should be delighted!"
Charles watched, stunned, as Mr Lehnsherr treated his aunt and uncle like guests of high importance. He had never expected the proud Mr Lehnsherr to acquit himself so graciously, or so amicably.
"What a fine-mannered gentleman," his aunt mused, taking Charles' arm as they followed Mr Lehnsherr and Mr Gardiner some steps behind. "It is quite a surprise, for rumours abound at Meryton that he was taciturn and ill-disposed to conversation."
"Yes indeed," Charles answered, distracted. "I cannot imagine what could have brought such a change."
"Can you not?" his aunt replied, looking at him archly. Charles felt his cheeks heat.
Mr Lehnsherr did indeed refresh his attire, and proceeded to spend the afternoon with Mr Gardiner at the trout lake, while Charles and Mrs Gardiner partook of a picnic nearby, where the staff had thrown a blanket over the grass and brought out sumptuous delicacies for Charles and Mrs Gardiner to savour. Throughout the afternoon Charles could feel Mr Lehnsherr's eyes on him, and it took all his composure not to turn and acknowledge him. Instead, Charles helped himself to a volume of William Blake's Jerusalem and spent several hours trying to will his breathing under control.
Mr Lehnsherr's nearness was like a bottle of fine cognac -- delightful even in its mere presence. Charles would hear snippets of voices travelling on the breeze, and Mr Lehnsherr's drawl was so different from Mr Gardiner's rumble that there could really be no mistake as to who was speaking. Once or twice Charles thought he heard his name being mentioned, and every time his heart beat faster, his blood rushed into his ears, and he had to fight not to betray his agitation.
The sun was slanting towards the horizon before the two men quit their positions and walked towards the picnic blanket.
"Mr Lehnsherr has invited us to dinner this evening," Mr Gardiner informed them jovially. "Let us to the inn so we can freshen ourselves and be back in good time."
"How lovely," Mrs Gardiner exclaimed. "We are much obliged to you, Mr Lehnsherr."
"Not at all," the gentleman demurred.
Charles murmured his own thanks, but dared not speak further. He could still feel a steady gaze on himself, and as Mr Gardiner offered his arm to his wife, so Mr Lehnsherr fell into step with Charles.
"Your Aunt and Uncle are such pleasant company, I could not resist," he said now to Charles.
"Mr Gardiner is my Mother's brother," Charles supplied, out of an ill-advised desire to see Mr Lehnsherr's reaction to that information.
"Indeed," is all Mr Lehnsherr said. "I was informed he is in Trade."
"Yes; I am to follow into that profession myself."
"So I was given to understand. I think it admirable," Mr Lehnsherr said.
Charles could not help himself that time -- he turned his head to peruse Mr Lehnsherr's face, and see for himself his meaning.
Mr Lehnsherr looked back, and Charles fancied that the warm look in his eyes was not just Charles' too-active imagination.
The carriage was brought round for them immediately, and Mr Gardiner handed his lady in before climbing up himself. Charles was set to follow before he felt a hand touch his own, and turned to see Mr Lehnsherr patiently waiting on his decision. Charles did not think in that moment, but allowed himself to take the offered hand, skin to skin for the first time, Mr Lehnsherr's fingers warm against Charles' palm, squeezing his own reassuringly.
Charles stepped up, bracing against Mr Lehnsherr's quiet strength, basking in the man's unwavering presence.
When Charles' poise failed him, and he turned back, it was to see Mr Lehnsherr still standing on that very spot, watching the carriage as it rolled out of view.
Charles was unaccountably nervous when he slipped into his bronze waistcoat and his navy evening coat, and his fingers were shaking when he fixed his cravat in the Oriental style. The gravity of the upcoming evening was further pressed upon him by the memory that Mr and Miss McCoy would also be present at the dinner table, and thus Charles must maintain his distance and composure when it came to Mr Lehnsherr. He did not wish to endure Miss McCoy's thinly-veiled ridicule; indeed, he wished he might avoid the lady altogether.
"Charles, do hurry up, we will be late," his aunt admonished, and Charles stopped picking at his already-perfect cravat, and made his way out of his room.
'Just breathe,' he reminded himself as they travelled the already familiar road from Lambton to Pemberley. The sun had set moments before the house came into view, and Charles could not help his gasp when he saw the blazing lights outlining the silhouette against the rapidly darkening sky.
"Oh!" Mrs Gardiner exclaimed, charmed.
Charles' heart beat a strong rhythm in his chest, and he chastised himself for even thinking that he might be the reason for Mr Lehnsherr's extravagant welcome. Of course -- his friends had arrived, that must be it.
They were taken to the front entrance, where they disembarked to find a curious head of curls peeking through the window to the left. The head disappeared as soon as Charles spotted it, and by the time they ascended the steps Mr Lehnsherr was waiting for them at the door, looking dashing in his black coat and britches. At his side was a lovely young lady dressed in pale pink, a fetching flush to her cheeks. Charles noted the curls left loose to frame her face, and knew it must have been the same person spying on them a moment ago.
"Mr Xavier, allow me to present to you my sister, Miss Angelique," Mr Lehnsherr said.
The particular attention with which he introduced Miss Angelique to Charles first did not go unnoticed. Charles saw his aunt and uncle exchange a look to his side, but he only had eyes for Mr Lehnsherr's faintly apprehensive gaze. Charles put on his most charming smile.
"Delighted, Miss Angelique," he said amicably, bowing over her hand. She smiled at him, displaying a hidden dimple in her right cheek that endeared her to Charles immediately.
"Mr Xavier, I have heard so much about you, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance at last," she said, voice sweet and melodic.
Charles wondered at what she could mean, but refrained from asking when Miss Angelique turned to greet Mr and Mrs Gardiner. Mr Lehnsherr hovered anxiously until they moved inside, at which time he fell into step with Charles again, in the wake of his sister accompanying Mr and Mrs Gardiner. Not much was said, but his presence at Charles' side was enough to bring every nerve to life, and Charles' skin sang under the confines of his clothes, as if responding to the man's nearness. It was terrible; it would not do at all. Charles could not possibly spend the evening comfortably with his entire being stood to attention.
"Mr Xavier, how wonderful to see you again," Mr McCoy said as soon as Charles stepped into the parlour leading to the dining room.
"Mr McCoy, a pleasure. Miss McCoy." Charles spared her a brief bow, and noticed the distaste in her eyes when she dropped him the slightest curtsy.
Dinner was quiet, at least for Charles. He was gratified to hear Mr McCoy ask after Raven, and upon being told she had been in London, looked truly sorry to have missed her. Mr and Mrs Gardiner held a steady conversation with Mr McCoy and Mr Lehnsherr thereafter, while Miss McCoy looked on in mild disbelief and Miss Angelique applied herself to her soup.
"I understand you play and sing very well, Miss Angelique," Charles said gently, drawing the girl from her quiet reserve. He understood at once that in this instance, too, Mr Shaw's comments were completely fabricated when Miss Angelique smiled shyly at him.
"I do indeed enjoy playing very much. My brother bought a pianoforte for me last year, and I have been practicing every day."
"But then you must play for us," Charles encouraged, noticing immediately when she looked apprehensive. "Please, Miss Angelique. I do so love music, although I cannot play at all. I must beg of you to indulge me."
"Very well," Miss Angelique acquiesced with another shy smile. "I should be delighted, although I hope to be up to your expectations."
"I do not doubt that you will exceed them admirably," Charles assured her.
When he looked away from her again, he immediately noticed two pairs of eyes fixed on him and his companion. One was welcome; the other less so, for Miss McCoy's mouth was twisted sourly, and she looked exceedingly displeased. The other person's eyes were even warmer in their regard than earlier in the day, and Charles could not help the small smile the sight effected from him.
As promised, Miss Angelique took to the beautiful pianoforte as soon as dinner was over. Charles settled on a chaise to listen, and was soon enraptured, for Miss Angelique had flawless technique and a true sense of rhythm that made listening to her play a joy. She would not be persuaded to sing, but Charles had sensed her discomfort immediately and had not pressed beyond the initial enquiry.
"Your family must be very disappointed, Mr Xavier, to have the Militia withdraw from Meryton," Miss McCoy said. Charles wondered at her rudeness to talk over the playing of one whom she professed to be her dear friend.
"Indeed not, ma'am," Charles replied shortly, turning back towards the front of the room.
"Oh, but it must be," the lady insisted. "You in particular I hear has cause to be upset, for I believe you are quite attached to a certain gentleman in a red coat."
"You must be mistaken," Charles replied. "I cannot imagine to whom you refer."
"Oh, to Mr Shaw, of course," Miss McCoy replied blithely.
The music faltered, and Charles was on his feet within an instant.
"My dear friend, my apologies. How can you play without one of us turning your pages?" he lamented, striding swiftly to the pianoforte. "Here, allow me," he added, doing so carefully and returning Miss Angelique's grateful smile.
Looking back at the room, his gaze was snagged by a pair of clear blue eyes, so warm now that Charles felt it fill him to the brim with a giddy sense of anticipation. This time he could not mistake it -- Mr Lehnsherr was looking right at him, and there was a faint smile playing on those lips that Charles had so admired of late.
Even though caution raised its head, Charles could not heed it. He allowed himself to smile back as Mr Lehnsherr settled against the settee from which he had looked poised to spring. Charles felt a fierce protectiveness bloom to life in his chest, and only wished he could reassure the gentleman that he had nothing to fear from Charles, not again, not after Charles had learned the truth.
The party had retired late last night, and Charles could not quite manage the early start he normally enjoyed. Mr and Mrs Gardiner also remained in bed for longer than usual, and the party was only just setting out to walk to the church at noon when the inn's maid came into the parlour they had rented.
"A letter for you, Mr Xavier," she announced, proffering two letters to him on a small platter.
"Oh! They are from Raven. I had wondered why she has not written yet -- but it is clear, for she has written the direction abominably ill," he said fondly. "Would you be terribly cross if I begged off our walk?" he asked his companions sheepishly.
"Not at all," Mr Gardiner said, and his wife added, "Of course you would want to read your mail. We will walk to the church and call for you in an hour."
"Thank you," Charles smiled at them.
He broke open his father's seal and spread open the paper, covered in Raven's tidy scrawl.
My dear Charles,
I hope this letter finds you well. We ourselves are doing very agreeably, although Mama misses Sean terribly. Papa has expressed his fervent wish for you to return soon, for he is feeling positively besieged by silly people, he says--
--My dear Brother, I do not wish to alarm you, but something has happened. We have just now received a missive from Brighton. Sean is missing, and a letter has been discovered to say that he has eloped--with Mr Shaw.
I will write more when I have anything further.
Charles held the letter in shaking fingers, trying to force air into his lungs. He strode to the window in a daze, unfolding the second letter with sharp, impatient tugs, focus narrowing down to Raven’s familiar penmanship as he turned it towards the brighter light.
My dear Brother, I have news--bad news. It seems that Sean and Mr Shaw are not gone to Scotland, as we had supposed. They have been traced as far as London, but have not been found.
Papa has gone to town to discover them, but I must beg you and Uncle Gardiner to return post-haste. We would rely on you to assist in the search.
Charles closed his eyes in despair. He swallowed with a suddenly dry throat, pushed away from the windowsill and made for the door--only to have it open before he could reach it.
"Mr Lehnsherr for you, Mr Xavier," the maid curtsied.
Mr Lehnsherr walked into the room, a ready smile on his lips that slipped at the look that must have been on Charles' face.
"Mr Xavier, what ever is the matter?" he asked anxiously.
"Excuse me, I must go," Charles murmured, so distressed he could barely understand that Mr Lehnsherr was there in the room with him.
"You are obviously unwell, let me call for the maid--"
"No, I am well, sir, truly. I have just received some--dreadful news--" Charles' voice, to his mortification, broke a little.
"Here, sit down, let me fetch you a glass of water--" Mr Lehnsherr offered, guiding Charles solicitously to a chair.
Charles would not settle, however, and rose again immediately. "I must find my Aunt and Uncle," he insisted.
"Very well, but let me go, or the maid--hello there," he called out of the door, directing the maid to run for Mr and Mrs Gardiner, who had walked in the direction of--
"The church," Charles supplied, breathing a little easier now that Mr Lehnsherr was so capably taking control.
"At once, sir," the maid said, running to the door.
"Now. Can you tell me what has happened?" Mr Lehnsherr requested, pouring Charles a glass of water and placing it into his shaking hands. "Is it your family?"
"No sir, they are well. It is just--my youngest brother, Sean, has eloped -- with Mr Shaw!"
Mr Lehnsherr's face grew ashen at the news, and Charles did feel now the urge to sit, and to insist that Mr Lehnsherr sit down also. For Charles well comprehended that this was the first of many shocked reactions that he and his family would have to weather.
"What has been done to discover them?" Mr Lehnsherr demanded.
"My Father is gone to London, and my sister requests that my Uncle and myself return as soon as possible, to assist in the search. But I have not the smallest hope. He is lost to us forever," Charles whispered in despair.
Mr Lehnsherr was silent for a moment. "I am shocked," he said at last. "Shocked, grieved--if I had but been honest with the world about Mr Shaw's true character, this could not have happened."
"No, sir; I am to blame," Charles said, placing a daring hand on Mr Lehnsherr's arm. "I might have prevented this, if I had only confided in my family. Perhaps then the true depth of Shaw’s depravity would have been known." He paused, then added, "I must ask of you to keep this confidence to yourself, Mr Lehnsherr, for as long as you can. I know--I know that it cannot be long."
"You may rely on my discretion," the gentleman replied.
The tense silence stretched for a long moment before Mr Lehnsherr straightened. "You have long been desiring my absence. I will leave you now. Goodbye."
Charles watched helplessly as Mr Lehnsherr quit the room, for what Charles was quite sure was the last time. Much as he was anxious for his brother, and upset for his family, there was another thought that darkened his mind. For what ever had been growing between him and Mr Lehnsherr was now surely no more; no man would align himself with someone who had a fallen brother in the family. And Mr Lehnsherr was not just any man -- his family was known throughout the country, and he had responsibilities to it that would never allow such a union.
No, Charles had better remove Erik Lehnsherr from his mind forever.
Within minutes Mr and Mrs Gardiner had returned, and another half-hour saw them ascend into the carriage and start the long journey back to Longbourn where chaos awaited, every mile taking them further and further away from the one thing Charles had ever wanted for himself.
Longbourn, when the carriage clattered its way into the courtyard in the early evening, was in chaos. Raven awaited them at the door, and Charles was truly alarmed to see the grey pallor to her skin.
"How are you, dearest?" Charles asked her quietly as their uncle slipped past him and into the house.
"I am so glad you are back," Raven confessed, the relief in her voice so strong that Charles grew even more apprehensive.
"Where is Mama?"
"She keeps to her room. You and Uncle should go up while I bring Aunt some tea. Papa is not yet back from town."
Charles pressed her hand in reassurance and went to find his uncle. Mrs Xavier was predictably distraught.
"Oh Brother, and still no news from Sean! How could he do such a thing to his poor Mama? He must know what this is doing to me, the shivers, the flushes, oh, it is not to be borne!"
Charles kept to the side, for he could not trust himself not to say something harsh that would upset his mother further. He was extremely vexed with Sean's irresponsibility and thorough disregard for proper behaviour, and was even more aware of how it would reflect not just upon him, but upon the entire family's prospects.
Mr Gardiner assured his sister that he would leave for London at first light tomorrow, and would not rest until his nephew was discovered and returned to his family. Charles added his own pledge to help in the search, and his mother responded with gratifying appreciation.
While Mr Gardiner and his wife stayed with his sister to make her ordeal bearable in any way they could, Charles sought out Raven. He found her with Alex and Armando, sitting in the living room. Armando had taken refuge in the only thing that could calm him -- his pianoforte, while Alex huddled in a chair, looking lost without Sean's constant presence by his side. As for Raven, she was attempting to read, but Charles could see her looking out into space instead.
When his brothers saw him, they all rushed from their seats to embrace him, and clung to him desperately.
"Hey, there, there," Charles soothed, contriving to guide the youngsters to the chaise and lower the three of them down.
His brothers did not cry, but they did look to be comforted by Charles' arms around them, and so he kept them there.
"I'm so sorry you had to cut your trip short; I know how much you were looking forward to it," Raven said.
"Nonsense," Charles replied, watching her fondly. "It is not as if I would have enjoyed it, knowing what has happened."
"Do you think them married, Charles?" Raven asked apprehensively.
Charles shook his head sadly. "I doubt it very much. Sean has no dowry, and from everything we have learned of Mr Shaw, he is not one to marry Sean out of the kindness of his heart."
Alex sighed and disengaged himself from Charles' arms. "Sean will be so disappointed," he said sadly.
Charles stilled. "Why do you say that?" he asked carefully.
"Well, I know how much he wanted to get married in London, and he said there was a church very near to where they were staying."
"How do you know that, Alex?"
"He sent me a letter yesterday."
"And you did not think it prudent to tell the rest of your family?" Charles demanded.
"He told me in the strictest of confidence," Alex said, torn. "I should not have said anything."
"You shall, and immediately," Charles told him severely.
After much cajoling and the application of Mrs Xavier herself, Alex produced the missive. It was not much, but enough to determine the area in which to start the search.
The next morning, just as they were climbing into the carriage, a tearful Mrs Xavier came out of bed and ran down to the courtyard.
"Charles, I must beg you not to go," she implored.
"But Mama, I was to help in the search for Sean and Mr Shaw!" Charles argued.
"I know, my dear, but what could you possibly do that your Father and Uncle cannot? No, you had much better stay at Longbourn and look after your sister and brothers, for who would if you do not?"
Charles was torn, for he dearly wished to help. However, Mr Gardiner weighed in.
"Charles, there is more than one way of helping. Perhaps you might be of more use here, keeping the family together, than in London, tearing after hearsay and ghosts."
Mrs Gardiner nodded her agreement with her husband, and it was decided -- Charles would stay behind and coordinate the effort. Charles was reluctant to agree, but he chanced to look up at the house, and saw his sister and brothers' hopeful faces, and at last he understood -- he was needed here, at least until their father came back and the situation was resolved. And so his cases were removed from the carriage and brought back into the house, and he said goodbye to his aunt and uncle and watched them drive away to London.
The grateful look in Raven's eyes assured Charles that this really was the best course of action.
Days passed, full of trepidation and tension, and the atmosphere in Longbourn could hardly be said to be jovial -- rather, it was as if a black cloud was hovering over the household with every day that brought no news.
On the fifth day since the Gardiners' departure, Charles sat in his father's office, seeing to the estate affairs when a shout brought him running outside, to be faced with a messenger's weary face.
"For you, Mr Xavier," the man said.
Charles fished for his purse and handed the man a few coins, receiving the missive in return. He broke the seal impatiently, Alex, Raven and Armando hovering anxiously before him.
"It is from Uncle," Charles announced, scanning the lines. "He has found them."
"Are they married?" Alex demanded.
"They are not," Charles said after a small pause. "However, arrangements have been made to change that, should Father agree to provide Sean with 100 pounds per annum, and settle Mr Shaw's debts accrued in Meryton."
"Will Papa agree?" Raven asked.
"Of course he will agree," Charles confirmed, running a few swift calculations through his head while Alex and Armando ran off to tell their mother the news. "It will hardly cost him more than Sean's upkeep does now. Though I do wonder how much our Uncle must have put himself out on our behalf."
"Whatever do you mean, Charles?"
"Shaw's a fool if he takes Sean for less than 10,000 pounds," Charles said flatly.
"10,000 pounds? Heaven forbid!' Raven exclaimed, but Charles' face remained set.
"I must think of a way to repay him," he murmured to himself, quietly enough that he would not be overheard in the general commotion.
Mrs Xavier was predictably overjoyed at the event, even though Charles could not say the same thing for himself. He was well aware what being married to Mr Shaw would do to Sean; however, there was nothing he or anyone could do, for the die was cast. To renege on a betrothal now would result in precisely the future Charles had so feared when he first heard the news.
And so he could do little more than smile when Messrs Shaw arrived at Longbourn not long after Mr Xavier's return. Mr Shaw looked little different than before, with his charming smile and worldly air, but now Charles was astute enough to see underneath, to the selfish nature, the sly eyes, the vaguely slimy feel of Mr Shaw's words.
Their brother was still in the first flush of infatuation, not yet sixteen and knowing little of the true nature of their world. Charles could only hope that he and his husband would find enough common ground that Sean would not be unhappy, but Charles could not see a future for them where Sean would be truly satisfied with his lot. A single mistake in his youth would haunt him for the rest of his life.
And yet Charles could not be moved to do more than pity Sean. He had knowingly jeopardised the future of his whole family for nothing more than a fancy, and Charles would not condone irresponsibility like that. Not a single thought for his sister and brothers had entered Sean's head when he had taken that fateful decision. To Charles, who put family above all, this was unforgivable.
He was, of course, civil with both Messrs Shaw -- they were guests in his father's house, and deserved at least that. But however, when Mr Shaw attempted to revive their earlier conversational topic of Mr Lehnsherr, Charles swiftly and efficiently gave him to understand that he had recently spent some time with Mr Lehnsherr and his family, including Miss Lehnsherr, and had come to quite a different conclusion for himself. After that Mr Shaw avoided him beyond the required civility.
They were taking a walk towards Meryton on the morning before the Shaws would quit it for Newcastle, where Mr Shaw had purchased a commission, when Charles at last was given the means to unravel the mystery of how Sean and Mr Shaw had come to be discovered in the first place (for Charles' father knew no more than Charles himself).
Sean was eagerly describing their wedding-- "I had so hoped that my dear Shaw would wear his blue coat, and we would have our friends from the regiment to bear witness for us, but however the officers could not be spared from their duties. It was fortunate that Mr and Mrs Gardiner came in time, else it would have only been us and Mr Lehnsherr there!"
Charles stopped in his tracks. "Mr Lehnsherr? How did he come to be present at your wedding?" he demanded.
"Why should you ask that, Charles? Of course he was there! He was the one who discovered us, paid for the wedding, purchased Shaw's commission -- everything!"
Charles could not speak for a moment. "Mr Lehnsherr?" he blurted again.
Sean gasped and covered his mouth with a hand. "Dear Lord! But I was not to say anything! Oh dear, and I promised Mr Lehnsherr so faithfully! Charles, you must not tell anyone, or he would be very cross indeed!"
The rest of the walk passed in a daze for Charles, lost in his thoughts. Mr Lehnsherr had taken it upon himself to do all this, had expended thousands of pounds, had swallowed his pride in the service of the Xavier family -- Charles could hardly understand it. He could not dare hope that it might mean that Mr Lehnsherr did not despise them for Sean's appalling conduct, and that he and Charles may have an opportunity to perhaps retain their friendship -- Charles could not expect more from the gentleman, but that did not mean that he did not wish for it with all his heart.
It was almost a relief to see the Shaws off, for Charles found it difficult to focus on anything outside his thoughts. After the carriage had driven off, Charles went on a long walk through the grounds, finding himself without meaning to on the border with Netherfield Park. He smiled self-consciously to himself, for his feet had taken him there without consulting his head. He spent some time watching the house, remembering, as he was wont to do, the first days of his acquaintance with Mr Lehnsherr. That he should have been so blind, so prejudiced towards that gentleman he could hardly fathom now, after he had spent so much time understanding what made him behave that way. Oh, that Charles should have the chance to remedy what he had done! He could wish for nothing more important.
He was so lost in thought that at first he did not realise what he was seeing, but as the sun slanted across the sky he became aware that a carriage was clattering its way up the drive towards the manor. He watched it roll to a stop, and his heart almost burst out of his chest as the door opened and the very gentleman that had occupied his thoughts stepped out, followed by Mr McCoy on the other side. Charles watched avidly as the two gentlemen ascended the steps to the manor, and he ducked behind a nearby oak tree when Mr Lehnsherr turned and looked straight in the direction of Longbourn for some moments before he followed his friend inside.
Charles stood frozen to the spot in his hideaway behind the enormous tree, trying to catch his breath. He was here! He had come, with Mr McCoy, and he had looked towards Charles' home, and Charles did not know what to think; he was so confused, it could not be borne; his thoughts were in an even worse tangle than when he set out from his house, hoping a walk would help clear them.
Several minutes later Charles came to the realisation that he was hiding behind a tree, spying on Mr McCoy's house. He felt a flush climb its way up his neck, and finally he turned to leave, filled with more questions than answers.
"Mr McCoy has come back to Netherfield," he told his family that evening when they gathered for supper.
He did not miss the way Raven's hand shook a little when she lifted her fork to her mouth, nor the way her knuckles had gone white on it when she brought it down again, yet Raven's expression never changed.
"Is that so?" Mrs Xavier demanded. "How did you come to know this, Charles?"
Charles faltered for a moment, before rallying. "I met with Mr Rutherford, Netherfield's steward, when I walked into town this afternoon," he said at last. He did not want to admit that he had almost been caught spying on the house.
"That odious man! That he should think we would seek out Mr McCoy's company, after the way he behaved towards poor Raven those months ago!' Mrs Xavier declared, incensed.
"Indeed not, ma'am; Mr Rutherford was simply being polite in letting us know," Charles hurried to say.
"Hm," Mrs Xavier scoffed. "We shall not seek out his acquaintance again, that is for sure," she declared. "Mr Xavier, you are not to visit the gentleman this time! Would that you had not insisted on going before!"
Charles kept his peace, even after he saw his father look beseechingly at the sky for help with wayward women. He did however spend more time than he normally did in watching Raven for any distress.
"Charles, do please stop," she told him later, after supper had been over and they had retired to the parlour. "I am fine. I admit that our next meeting fills me with trepidation, but I shall remain firm and polite, I am determined."
Charles said nothing, only took her hand in his, squeezing it reassuringly.
He did not sleep much that night, thoughts of how near and yet how far Mr Lehnsherr was to him keeping him awake well past a reasonable hour. He was quiet at the breakfast table, sipping his tea slowly, nibbling on a piece of toast just enough to stop his family noticing his distraction -- not that there was much chance of that. Mrs Xavier was fretting about what to order for dinner; Mr Xavier was attempting to ignore his wife and read; and Raven was lost in her thoughts -- Charles was perfectly certain what they held.
And so no one was expecting that, just as they were rising from the table to attend to their daily tasks, the maid would come rushing in to announce that they had visitors.
"Mr McCoy and Mr Lehnsherr, here to see the family," she announced, curtsying nervously.
"Oh Lord," Mrs Xavier exclaimed. "That they should come so early! I had not expected them before noon!"
That their guests were expected was news to Charles, but he believed he bore rather well under the circumstances. He ran a practiced eye over his sister, who was blushing fetchingly and looking like she was trying not to hope too fervently that she might know what they were here for. Charles sent her a calming smile, and offered her his hand to make their way to the parlour. Mrs Xavier led the way, bustling forward like a force unto her own. Right in front of the door to the parlour she stopped, brushing a hand down her skirts to compose herself. Contriving to look like she was not at all surprised at the visit, she swept the doors open and strolled into the room, followed more sedately by her children.
"My dear Mr McCoy! What a joy to see you again in the neighbourhood! You quit us in such a rush last spring that we had not the chance to have you to dinner, like we had planned."
Mr McCoy opened his mouth to join the conversation; alas, he was not afforded the opportunity.
"A great many things have changed since you were last with us," Mrs Xavier went on regardless. "Miss Lucas is lately married to Mr Collins, and my own son Sean is married, too, to Mr Shaw. And at only fifteen! But I do hope you shall dine with us now that you are back in the vicinity, and you shall hear all the news!"
"Thank you," Mr McCoy managed at last, looking startled at the influx of information he had not requested.
Charles decided to bear in and save the poor man from further well-meaning news. "Will you be staying long, Mr McCoy?"
"Two weeks, I hope," Mr McCoy responded gratefully. "We are here for the shooting."
"Ah. Will Miss McCoy be joining you?"
"My sister has elected to stay in town. But will you not join us, Mr Xavier?" Mr McCoy asked, with a quickly thrown glance at Mr Lehnsherr that Charles did not miss.
Mr Lehnsherr had so far remained quiet, standing to one side of Mr McCoy. He had not taken his eyes off Charles the entire time since they had entered the room. Charles dared not look at him, for fear of his composure breaking.
However, not to do so would be rude, and so he glanced up as he replied, "Thank you, no. I do not wish to intrude, and there is much to attend to after my brother's fortunate event."
His eyes locked to Mr Lehnsherr's, and Charles saw a flash of rueful recognition in them that Charles had learned of the events that had transpired to bring about the union in question. Charles dared not say more, for he did not wish to expose Mr Lehnsherr to his family's effusive gratitude, even though the gentleman deserved it. Perhaps this was better done in private. Charles could only hope such a moment presented itself in good time.
Mr Lehnsherr's piercing gaze did not move from Charles, and Charles fancied he saw them crinkle slightly in the corners, like a smile that did not reach his lips.
"I hope the weather stays fine for your sport," Charles added.
Mr McCoy leapt suddenly to his feet. "Do excuse me. We must go. It was wonderful to see you all again. Lehnsherr?"
With a last lingering glance at Raven, whom Charles had seen Mr McCoy observe ardently all the while, he swept from the room.
Mr Lehnsherr looked after him for a moment before remembering himself. "Do excuse me," he said, bowing at Charles more than at the rest of the family, and exited.
"How very odd," Mrs Xavier mused, staring at the empty doorway.
Through the window Charles saw the two gentlemen stride away, Mr Lehnsherr a little behind his friend, walking with measured steps that made the most advantage of his considerable height. Watching the fluid movements, Charles could not help but sigh wistfully.
When he looked back, he saw Raven staring at the floor in confusion, high colour infusing her cheeks. He hurried to her side, leading her solicitously to the nearby chaise.
"Oh, Charles, do not fuss," she implored. "I am well. Now that we have seen each other again, I imagine that we shall meet as indifferent acquaintances."
"Oh! Yes, very indifferent," Charles replied with a smile. "My dear, did you not see the way Mr McCoy watched you?"
"But you cannot believe me to be in danger now!" Raven appealed.
Charles looked at her fondly. "I believe you are in very great danger of making him more in love with you than ever," he said.
Raven tried to deny it, but Charles saw the pleasure in her eyes at the thought.
Unable to sit still with the anxiety of expectation, Charles decided to take another long walk to clear his head from the cobwebs of exhaustion. The past week had been a seething pit of emotional ups and downs, and it was taking its toll on him.
He purposefully made sure not to walk in the direction of Netherfield, choosing instead to follow the brook that ran through the Longbourn estate downstream, where it joined a larger river. It was peaceful, summer turning to autumn before his eyes. The colours of nature's cloak were changing, yellows and reds emerging from the green, the long grass by the riverbank turning golden with age and the sun's affectionate caress.
His mind grew quiet, yet he could not remove a certain gentleman's presence from his thoughts. How strange it had been, to see Mr Lehnsherr's gaze fall on him again and again, how torturous to not know for certain whether it was contempt or something kinder that had tinged his regard.
Charles let the rhythm of his steps draw the thoughts from his mind, until without quite knowing when he had made the turn, he approached Longbourn from the North end, on the opposite side from where he had started, and thus he was startled to come into alignment with the two gentlemen who had thrown the whole family in turmoil this morning.
"Mr McCoy! Mr Lehnsherr! What a pleasure to see you again so soon!" he said earnestly, noting the agitation of Mr McCoy and the calm demeanour of his friend.
"Mr Xavier, I apologise for my earlier conduct," Mr McCoy said, bowing quickly. "You must think me very untoward, but I have come to request a private audience with Miss Xavier."
Charles could not contain his delighted smile. Seeing it appeared to settle Mr McCoy somewhat, for he straightened and composed himself better.
"I believe it shall be our pleasure to oblige you," Charles assured him. He could not stop himself from looking at Mr Lehnsherr, and saw that his lips were curved in a smile also. It transformed his face, until his eyes glowed with an inner warmth where they rested on Charles. Charles dared not hope, but a growing conviction was taking over him that fate may have, indeed, decided to give him a second chance.
He had lingered too long. Mr McCoy, however preoccupied, could not have helped but to notice Charles' attention to his friend. Fortunately, his own feelings must have taken precedence, for he refrained from commenting. Instead, he followed Charles to the same parlour as before while Charles went to fetch his mother and Raven. Charles felt Mr Lehnsherr's eyes on him until the very last second before he entered the house.
He had never been more vexed with his mother, for she refused to let him walk downstairs again. Instead, she sent Raven down alone, and held her sons behind until some twenty minutes later, when she relented. Charles hurried downstairs, but Mr Lehnsherr was nowhere to be found. Charles agonised that Mr Lehnsherr must have thought Charles had preferred not to come back to him, but there was nothing to be done but to see how things were progressing on the other front.
He opened the door to the parlour loudly but slowly, giving the couple within a moment to compose themselves before they faced him. When he at last lifted his eyes, he saw Raven flushed with pleasure, hand held firmly in Mr McCoy's, whose eyes were shining with love and the triumph of securing the affections of the lady he desired.
"Oh! Excuse me," Charles said, and turned to leave.
"No, no! Charles, do come back," Raven called, and Charles heard Mr McCoy's voice join her.
"I hope that you would not mind that henceforth I shall call you Brother," Mr McCoy said earnestly, and of course Charles could not mind when the gentleman was about to bring so much happiness to his family, and to his sister.
"Not at all, sir," he replied warmly. “It would be my pleasure.”
Mr McCoy beamed at him, and bent his head to Raven's for a moment. Charles looked away, to give them a moment of privacy. Soon thereafter Mr McCoy hurried from the room in the direction of Mr Xavier's study.
Charles turned to Raven at last, and held out his hands to her, bussing her cheek.
"Congratulations, my love," he said, smiling effusively. "I believe you shall be disgustingly happy."
Raven laughed delightedly, a sound Charles had heard all too rarely in the past weeks. Soon the whole house was roused, and Mrs Xavier graciously allowed all the servants a glass of punch to celebrate their mistress' engagement.
Charles was, of course, thrilled for his sister, but his own happiness was marred by a rather unpleasant event that followed later that afternoon. It was just past four o'clock that a well-appointed carriage came up the drive and stopped by the house. Charles, who had been walking through the gardens to give his mother some moments alone to rejoice with his sister, noticed it immediately and walked up to it. It was not until he spotted the livery on the door that he began to realise whose it must be. His suspicions proved correct when he saw the coiffed head through the window.
"Lady Catherine!" he exclaimed in surprise, for it was the last person he expected to see on this very day.
"Mr Xavier," she answered severely, "I require a word with you, sir."
Charles was taken aback, but of course acquiesced -- he could do nothing else. He handed Her Ladyship down and followed as she led the way decisively into the gardens from whence Charles had come.
At last she deemed the distance satisfactory, for she swirled to face him, a distasteful frown on her face.
"Reports of a most alarming nature have reached me, Mr Xavier, that you intend to ensnare my Nephew, Mr Lehnsherr, into matrimony. Well, do you deny it?" she demanded.
"It is the first time I have heard of such reports," Charles replied, too startled to make any other claim in answer to the accusation.
"Are they not circulated by yourself, to embarrass my Nephew? For they could certainly not be true!"
"If you believe them so, I wonder that you put yourself to the trouble of coming here, Lady Catherine," Charles said, disinclined to be intimidated.
"I came here to have that report universally contradicted," Her Ladyship replied sternly.
"Your coming here would rather be seen as a confirmation, if such a report did exist."
Lady Catherine attempted to stare him down. Her double chin quivered threateningly, and she certainly believed herself to hold the high moral ground.
"Mr Xavier, it is clear to me that you do not hold my Nephew's interests dear, for if you did you would not propose such a monstrous scheme! My Nephew, marry a gentleman? And rest assured, sir, I use the term in its most broad definition, for your family is far from being worthy of the shades of Pemberley!"
Charles tried not to rise to the lady's words, for he would most surely lose his composure if he did.
"If your nephew has no objection to it, I wonder that you should feel the need to voice yours," he said haughtily instead.
Her Ladyship bristled. "And what of children?" she demanded, with the air of one presenting an insurmountable argument. "Is the noble Lehnsherr line to be brought to a close by the upstart pretensions of a young man who cares naught for the background of the gentleman he proposes to bring so low as to marry him?"
"Lady Catherine, your Nephew possesses superb intelligence and sense of social decorum. You cannot imagine that he has not considered these points if he was inclined to marry me."
"infuriating, selfish man! You do not care about what my Nephew owes to himself! He happens to be engaged to my daughter! Now what have you to say?"
"Only this -- that if he is so, you have no reason to suppose he would make an offer to me!"
"And does such an offer exist?" Lady Catherine asked quickly.
Charles dearly wished he could say otherwise, but-- "It does not."
Lady Catherine looked relieved. "And will you promise me that you would not enter into such an agreement?" she asked benevolently.
"No," Charles replied without further thought, for no such was required to answer that question. "I will not."
Lady Catherine's face closed down again, and she looked furious. "Selfish boy! You refuse to oblige me!" she thundered. "And this is what my Nephew can expect in an alliance, a fallen brother and a family without means or connexions? I will not allow this to pass. I take my leave of you, sir!"
She stormed back to the carriage, whence the driver hurried to hand her inside. He climbed back up on the seat and turned the horses deftly around, driving off with a clatter. Charles was left standing in the garden, wondering what on earth had just happened.
Luckily, his parents were far too involved in his sister's engagement to pay him much attention, and the episode passed with no more than a vague question that Charles deflected easily. Mr McCoy stayed for dinner, but Mr Lehnsherr was nowhere to be seen, and Charles spent his evening agonising about the excruciatingly uncomfortable conversation he must be having with his awful aunt. Oh, why had Charles not been able to say that he would not accept Mr Lehnsherr? This could all have been avoided, and they would have gone their separate ways comfortably.
But he had been unable to speak the words, or even to think them, for to let go of that hope would be tantamount to letting go of his dreams, and that Charles could not do. Still, it may yet come to nothing, for he could not imagine what Mr Lehnsherr's reaction could possibly be but to agree with his aunt's reasoning.
And yet, and yet... It was another sleepless night for Charles, tossing and turning in his narrow bed, helpless to stop thoughts of Mr Lehnsherr following him into an uneasy sleep. His body grew tight and uncomfortable, too hot, too tense; yet it was too mortifying to imagine availing himself of the usual method to fight sleeplessness. Even a touch was too much, and had him fighting to stifle a cry into his pillow. This would not do.
It was near dawn that he climbed his way out of his bed, when the morning song of the blackbird lured him from between the tangled sheets and into the fresh air. He blew out the candle that had burned through the night, fetched his heavy overcoat and made his way quietly down the stairs and out of the back door to the house.
He walked along the brook again, sending trails of mist swirling by his legs, hastily stuffed into walking boots. The chilly air quickly took care of the tightness in his body, and Charles drew it into his lungs with heaving breaths. His mind was racing, like it had done all night, and the sense of trepidation and imminent upheaval was all-encompassing. He sought out the brook with his gaze, strolled over to the small bridge and looked out across the meadows towards Netherfield. He had no hope of glimpsing it, of course -- it was much too far, even if Charles' eager imagination conjured a certain figure striding towards him through the mist.
It took him a moment to realise that the sight was not a figment of wishful thought but a flesh-and-blood reality, long legs bringing the man closer with every step to where Charles was frozen to the spot. Soon enough the veil of mist parted and released the unmistakable figure of Mr Lehnsherr making his way towards the bridge.
Charles took a few uncertain steps until he was standing on the grass at the other side, and Mr Lehnsherr was slowing to a stop before him.
"I couldn't sleep," Charles confessed, searching out the beloved face with his gaze.
"Nor I," Mr Lehnsherr said. "My aunt..."
"Yes, she was here."
"How could I ever make amends for such behaviour?" Mr Lehnsherr asked earnestly.
Charles hurried to interrupt. "After what I believe--no, I know you have done for Sean, and I suspect for Raven also, it is I who should be making amends," he said, unable to look away from the look in Mr Lehnsherr's eyes.
Mr Lehnsherr did nothing but trail his eyes over Charles' face, lingering on what Charles hoped were his lips.
"You must know," Mr Lehnsherr said, with the air of a confession. "Surely you must know, it was all for you. Quite contrary to my aunt's intentions, her visit taught me to hope as I had scarcely allowed myself to hope before. You are too generous to trifle with me, Mr Xavier--Charles.” He paused for a moment, eyes holding Charles’, beseeching. “My affections and wishes have not changed, but one word from you would silence me on the subject forever."
Charles remained silent -- he would not speak if his life depended on it. Mr Lehnsherr stepped a fraction closer, and Charles' breath stuttered in his throat at the nearness. He could feel the warmth of Mr Lehnsherr’s--Erik's body so close to his, and all he wished was to press himself closer against his chest, feel the beating of Erik's heart against his, splay a possessive hand over Erik's stomach and claim him, as surely as Erik was claiming Charles.
"If, however," Erik spoke again, so much closer this time that Charles could feel the thrum of his voice enter his chest and curl in his belly; it was low and insistent, and so very intent, "if your answer has changed, then I would have to tell you that you have bewitched me body and soul, and I--I love you. And never wish to be parted from you from this day on."
Charles felt like a vice was unclenching from around his chest with Erik's every word, until at last it was sprung free, letting him breathe Erik in, irresistible, warm and musky and male, delicious.
"Well, then," Charles said, daring to take Erik's hand at last, skin to skin with the man he had wanted for so long. His thoughts were derailed at the feel of it, the shift of small hairs against his fingers as he brought the back of it to his mouth, brushed a kiss against the knuckles, drank in Erik's stifled gasp. "Your hands are cold," he said at last, lost but for the man before him, the only thing anchoring Charles to the world.
Erik nodded, and in so doing brought their heads closer, until their foreheads touched. Charles could feel Erik's breath whisper against his lips, Erik's own lips so close, so tempting. He pushed up on his toes and brushed their mouths together, ever so faintly, a caress full of promise. It drew a small sound of sheer relief from Erik's lips, and Erik's other hand rose to curl against Charles' waist and bring him closer.
In the space between them, Charles could see all the days and months and years to come, filled with shared laughter, small moments of tenderness just like this, unfathomable happiness in the society of one another, nights filled with need and days filled with joy. With them standing together, there could be nothing to challenge their resolve.
It was more than Charles could have ever hoped for, and at last, it was all his own.