A Novella: Regency Flings
West Sussex, England. Late March, 1816
Stella Barrington took one last look in the mirror and drew out a few soft curls to frame the sides of her face. It was a foolish vanity, she knew, and completely unwarranted. James Norris was coming to see Virginia, not her.
Hardly anyone noticed her face or form once they realized she was lame. As though that made her somehow less. Lieutenant Norris was no different from the rest. He greeted her cordially every time they met, but he never had eyes for anyone but her sister.
Breathing deeply, Stella pressed one hand to her breast and told herself it didn’t matter. Once Virginia married James, Stella could forget about him and let her heart move on. Her father had promised her a season of sorts in London this year – after a great deal of badgering, of course. Stella knew her father’s reticence was not out of stinginess. He did not want her to be hurt.
But Stella knew she could hold her own in any drawing room. Perhaps not on a dance floor, but how much dancing was required of a wife?
That’s all she wanted. To become wife to a decent man, and bear his children. To feel his regard and affection. To experience the love and respect of her children.
Stella wanted not to be known merely as the crippled maiden aunt of her sister and brother’s children. That was a fate she could not abide.
She did not expect she could ever garner the romantic attentions of a dashing fellow such as Lieutenant Norris. He was tall with broad shoulders and light hair the color of sand, with strands of gold shot through. Each time she’d seen him his skin had been bronzed by the sun, causing his eyes to appear lighter than a normal blue. To Stella, they were the color of a pale blue sky. His features were as manly as one would expect in a naval officer, hard and square, and so handsome the sight of his visage nearly took her breath away.
But men like James Norris did not take note of women like Stella. He was Virginia’s, if she wanted him.
Of course Virginia would. And her absence from Barrington Manor would only make Lieutenant Norris more interested. When he learned that Virginia and their parents had removed to Brighton to see to her ailing grandmother, he would cut short his visit. With apologies, of course. And perhaps he would even find a reason to stop at Brighton before returning to his ship.
Stella had seen it happen before. Young men tripping over their tongues for a moment of Virginia’s attention.
Lieutenant Norris should have arrived at Barrington Manor by now, for it was nearly dark. Stella had to suppress a shiver of disappointment at the possibility that the lieutenant might have already gotten wind of Virginia’s changed location. Perhaps he’d already detoured to Brighton and would not be coming to Barrington Manor at all.
Stella rarely used a walking stick these days, taking one only when she walked the fields with Tilly, her Great Dane. She’d figured out that walking strengthened her leg and it had helped to minimize her limp, though when she was fatigued, her lameness was as pronounced as ever and she needed Tilly’s support.
Luckily, she was not the least bit tired at the moment. She decided it was the perfect time to catch the heavy shadows of late winter out in the back garden. Perhaps she’d be able to swallow her disappointment if she occupied herself in a worthwhile pursuit.
She picked up her sketching pad and a packet of freshly sharpened pencils and started down the stairs.
# # #
If there was one thing James Norris had learned in the past month, it was that life was too short for wasting. Damn all, he’d lost his closest friend, Lang Jameson, in the explosion on the wharf at Plymouth. As James was several years Lang’s senior, he understood far too clearly that he’d already wasted too much precious time.
Aye, he’d been involved in many a naval battle these past few years, but somehow he and his friends had managed to come through them – intact, mostly. During their time in the fleet, Freddie Diggins had lost a finger. Douglas Harris’s memory had gone defective. Farley Taylor had nearly lost an eye. All of them had scars from one bit of shrapnel or other.
Yet now, nearly a year after Old Boney had been imprisoned, James was dead – horribly and violently killed for no good reason whatsoever.
A few days after the explosion and fire, James had resigned from the navy. Losing Lang had been the shock that thrust him from further military service. It was time he did something more than ride the waves on The Defender.
James rode toward Barrington Manor, the home of his very good friend from school, Robert Barrington, whose sister James intended to wed. He’d put off marriage long enough, thinking he had all the time in the world. He was already five and twenty, by God. He’d believed he would have plenty of time to do all he’d set out to do in this life. Serve England in her fight against Napoleon; carouse at various pleasure houses with the other veterans of the war; travel the continent he’d fought so fiercely to protect from arrogant French tentacles.
A set of entirely different priorities had begun to form inside his head the moment he’d identified Lang Jameson’s burned body amidst the rubble of the navy storehouse. Lang’s body had been unrecognizable but for his height and the color of his hair – what was left of it.
Nausea roiled as James thought of it, and he wished he’d been able to spare Lang’s father, the earl of Sunderland, the same misery. But the earl had raced down to Plymouth and insisted upon viewing his son’s remains before his burial. It was an agony James would never wish upon any father.
Pushing his bleak memories to the back of his mind, James turned his thoughts to Virginia Barrington whom he’d met several times. Though James would not inherit his noble father’s title or estates, it was known that he would inherit a large sum upon his sire’s death. A young lady could do worse than settle her sights upon a wealthy, former naval officer for a husband.
He and Virginia had exchanged a few letters, and James knew she had not yet received a suitable offer of marriage. She was waiting… for him, he hoped.