June 15, 1863
The Northern Moors of England
Ashewood Manor and Estates
"Ma-ma, please. I am sure her hips are perfectly suitable for bearing children." The tallest man in the room spoke lightly, while his words chided, they were light and playful. The figure bent to peck his elderly mother on the cheek, his hair a slightly darker tone than the woman's elegant white. Bennet had been graying for years now, what had started as a few flecks had now spread its way across his entire head, leaving only flecks of his youthful chocolate color instead.
The woman reached to lightly smack at his arm. "You wouldn't know such truths Bennet, men never do. They see a smiling girl, a pretty lady and their wants are met."
Bennet straightened and winked towards his younger brother, "But ma-ma. I haven't even seen her! William has, what have you to say on the structure of her hips?"
Their mother huffed in aggravation, but a smile played in her eyes, just grateful that finally her eldest would wed and secure the family's fledgling wealth to a girl who's name carried weight. Bennet, much like his late father, wasn't born with the political maneuvering needed to raise them higher. They had money, vast funds to rival the nobility of England, but the Ashewood name meant little. William was far more gifted in that arena, and spent most of his time now in London seeking to gain favor with the Lords who sat in Parliament. Bennet marrying this girl was the first step he had promised.
"The celebration tonight is key, our friends and neighbors will be duly impressed, there is no doubt to that." William ignored his mother and brother's banter about the structure of the girl. "I sent word a fortnight ago about the change in theme, I'm glad you finally settled on one Bennet."
Bennet was prone to flights of fancy, but he was a financial genius, a rising star in the field if whispers from their competitors meant anything. He had wanted something grandiose, no expense spared. "She will be lovely as Artemis, even with such short notice. Come now, we should prepare ourselves."
Bennet stood behind a partition, far from the entrance of the great hall. Once upon a time it had perhaps served as a throne room, now it was a ballroom with room for hundreds. Tables were nestled along the perimeter for the feast they would share, the middle left open for dancing. The Ashewood's band was playing softly as attendees took their places and spoke in whispers. His mother was seated already, his brother kept him company.
"You didn't speak of the surprise did you brother?" Bennet looked to William, a touch of glee filling his sea foam eyes.
"No, I did not. I was hoping you would forget such a thing. Do you really find it wise?"
Bennet laughed, his eyes still scanning the room. "We will begin soon, nearly everyone is here." He looked down to his costume. A crisp white toga had been wrapped around his frame, his dinner attire underneath for the sensitivities of those attending. A laurel wreath had been placed about his head, and he held a great bow of finely carved wood in his hand. He was Orion, the great demi-god of the hunt.
The ballroom had been decorated like a great forest. Trees had been brought inside and situated about the room, small woodland animals sewn and stuffed and placed to depict a sacred wood teeming with life. They had even found a man to taxiderm a deer, it stood near where Bennet was now.
"Come, it is time." He clapped William on the back, sending him off to arrange his entrance.
A moment passed, and another before he received his cue. Bennet strode out confidently onto the small raised dais overlooking the bustling room. He brought his hand to cup over his eyes as if seeking something. "Oh Great Lady Huntress, Goddess of my heart! Where are you fair Artemis?" He heffed the bow and took aim at the stag, releasing an invisible arrow, but a servant pulled a rod, and the stag toppled over on cue. The audience below applauded gently. "I come bearing a gift for you, my fair love. Show yourself!"
She had dutifully ignored her mother's yimmering on and on about this engagement party they were going to. It was hardly any different from the way she went on and on about other people's parties. The fact that it was for her daughter seemed to not have changed anything at all. It might have, and she might have known if she'd been actually paying attention to the words that were coming out of her mother's mouth. But she wasn't. She frankly didn't care.
Charlotte sighed after cringing as her maid, and dear friend, tugged on her curls a bit to much. "Sorry," the girl murmured softly to her mistress, looking at up to meet her eyes in the mirror. Lottie merely smiled at her. It wasn't like she did it on purpose. It hurt, but it would hurt more if she made a fuss about it. She'd had a maid be mean like that when she was younger, and she was loath to repeat that again.
Her hair was to be worn mostly down tonight, which was highly out of fashion, but it had fit the costume that she had decided on. Her husband to be was indeed a little eccentric, though she had to admit that this was something she could handle. And indeed liked. But even more out of style, was what was going in her hair. Her mother had thrown a fit about it, but she'd also ignored that and decided she'd do what she wished for her own engagement party. Her maid was in the process of braiding feathers into hair along with a few sparkling crystals to make her hair would shimmer. Like the moon. And as she was set to be the goddess of the Moon and Hunt tonight, she thought it fitting. Especially given that she'd not be able to really be the latter. Not at this party.
But finally, her hair was done, her circlet set with a cluster of moonstones set in a semi-circle like a crest moon, her dress sufficiently tightened, by her mother's standards at least. Thankfully she was a thin girl already so she could still manage to breath. Just so. Thankfully there were less hoops to this skirt than on most of her new ball gowns, again she'd managed to over ride her mother's opinion. But just so. So was not hugely fond of big bustles, but all in all she didn't mind them.
"I don't know what your fiance is going to say when he sees you like that," her mother huffed, following her daughter out to their waiting coach. "You look so silly."
Lottie looked over her shoulder at her mother, looking at her evenly. "Mother, really, it was his idea, I doubt that he'll think it silly at all." The older women opened her mouth to protest that that was such nonsense but thankfully, Lottie's father finally joined them, taking her mother by the arm and steering her away from their daughter. She knew she was testing the limits of her mother's patience, and she had so little of it left by way of her. She was starting to reach the dangerous age where men might start to think her too old. And Abigail Benedict would not stand for having a spinster as a daughter.
The ride from their estate to her betrothed's was quiet and tense. Her mother was kept silent by her father's steady look and Lottie was so pleased by that. She did not want to listen to her go on and on about how important this was, that she didn't mess anything up. Lottie didn't want to be a spinster anymore than her mother wanted her to be. She knew what to do and what not to do. She hoped.
And even more thankfully, when they arrived, her mother was taken away to be seated by her father and she was greeted with the blessed sight of her brother, waiting to escort her mother and father in. She was so very glad he was there and she wasn't going to be alone. She waved at him as she was escorted off on her own somewhere else. Seems her husband-to-be had a little show planned for their entrance. A servant stood holding out a bow to her, explaining what it was that he wished her to do. A little smirk tugged up the corners of her mouth and a playful light danced in her green eyes. He had no idea what he was getting himself into. None at all.
"Do you think that you could perhaps get me a real arrow?" she asked of the servant, a mischievous light dancing in her eyes. He looked hesitant, unsure if that was a wise idea. But she stared to pout then, the smile quickly vanishing from her face as she looked down, letting some of her blonde hair fall into her face. "Please," she murmured, sniffling a little bit as if she was fighting off tears. Finally he consented and slipped off to fetch what she'd asked for.
She adjusted her dress, brushing down the creamy fabric that lay over her dress, giving her just the slightest hints of Grecian grace, watching the orange and sliver flowers shift and hide themselves in the folds of the dress, smiling at the rich hunter green taffeta that ran the neckline of her dress set just above her chest. She didn't think she looked silly at all, she thought she looked quite good and the green in the dress set off the green of her eyes so very well. It was the best she could do while still remaining in fashion. There was only so much she could fight her mother over after all, so she chose her battles wisely. Though Artemis would never be caught in anything as remotely silly as this.
The servant returned at last with the arrow she'd asked for, handing it to her like it was some prize worth more value than it truly was. She smiled her thanks just as she heard a voice calling out for her. A voice calling out for Artemis, which tonight, was her. She felt herself smirking as she slipped out of cover before her cue. She spotted him easily, he was a rather flamboyant. Taking a deep breath, she raised the bow up, arrow notched in place and let it fly. Her was aim good and the arrow flew true, just grazing past his shoulder and embedding in the wall behind him.
There was an audible gasp that rippled through the room and it took a few moments before there was the slightest applause, starting with Lottie's brother. Who, when she looked at him, was grinning ear to ear. Her green eyes flickered back to her betrothed, waiting for his reaction, to see if he'd go on with his little show.
Bennet stared, wide eyed at the beauty, noticeable even from a distance. Mother was right, a pretty girl was enough for him to be satisfied with, and he was pleased with his brother's choice. She seemed impeccable, her crown, glistening in the soft candlelight. He smiled, appreciating what she had done with the theme he had created. She was resourceful, creative, that spoke well of her.
He heard the sound as he felt something fly over his shoulders and by his ear. Even as he heard his guests gasp, he stared blankly at the quivering arrow firmly embedded into the wall behind him. He turned his head back to his betrothed and realized with a grin that she had loosed an actual arrow at him. He wondered just how she managed to obtain an arrow, how she knew how to shoot a bow so finely and accurately. He wondered more though, why there was so little applause for such fine showmanship. Ah but of course, all eyes were on him for his reaction.
He held her gaze from afar, his smile wide and genuine. "My beautiful goddess has arrived!" He turned his back to his guests and retrieved the arrow, surprised at the force required to remove it from the wall. Bennet ran his large hands over the arrow as he looked upon the crowd again. "Fairer than even Aphrodite, and with truer aim than mighty Athene. She has a heart as pure as snow." He spoke loudly, for his voice to reverberate across the hall. "My Lady, you have spared me even as your brother bid you to send me to the heavens. My heart, it is yours!"
With great flourish he thrust his hands outwards, bowing deeply. Finally, his guests relieved that the celebration was not ruined, but instead augmented, began to applause. William appeared once more at his side. "You didn't tell me about that part of your plan." Bennet's younger brother whispered in his ear as he took the arrow away.
"I was not aware either. Invite our guests to feast with us, and try to make sure Minister Adley doesn't drone on with grace too long. I am quite famished after this." Bennet bowed once more to his friends, neighbors, and acquaintances before exiting the dais to take his seat at the head table. Charlotte would dine with him and his family tonight, her parents and brother already seated at his mother's table.
As he made his way to the table he heard his brother thank everyone for their attendance and invite then to eat and drink fairly. Bennet wanted to guffaw but kept it inside, he would eat and drink as a glutton tonight, and he would see just what more Charlotte had to offer him as wife. She most certainly seemed to be anything but ordinary.
"Marvelous wasn't it?" He pecked his mother's cheek as he sat, greeting Charlotte's family as was courteous. He felt as though he had intruded upon an awkward silence only made more so by his arrival. His mother, bless her soul, looked as if she had swallowed something rotten, but the only one of Charlotte's family he could read was her brother. He seemed to be in fine spirits!
"Marvelous." His mother's response was lacking any enthusiasm as she sipped her wine. Though she was aged, she was spry and full of life, whether in joy or as was more often the case, in anger. Bennet ignored her mood for now, instead eager himself for Charlotte to be escorted to her seat.
The smile that had been tugging up her mouth came full force when he didn't yell at her. She had been expecting him to yell at her. He had not expected her to fire at him with a real arrow, and even though she had missed him, she was expecting him to be very angry for even thinking about doing it. What if she had missed? If she had missed she'd be so horribly mad at herself, let alone how mad he might be. Or his brother. Or his mother. She felt a little faint then, just thinking, after the fact of course, of how horribly wrong that could have gone.
No, stop it. I'm a good shot and I wouldn't have done if it I thought I would miss. She kept saying that to herself as she was escorted to the table, the bow removed from her hands and taken away. She wouldn't have killed her husband to be.
As she walked to the table she kept her eyes on her betrothed, watching him to see if he was angry or if he was as amused as he seemed by it. It was hard to tell, she didn't know him well enough to say one way or the other. She could see that her mother was on the verge of lecturing her about how she had been stupid and silly and unladylike. Lottie was sure to get an earful on the ride back home. Her father though, along with her brother, seemed amused and pleased by her. Especially her brother, who's smile was hard to miss.
She stood next to her betrothed, waiting for him to pull out her seat, her father and brother standing at her approach, offering Bennet a surprisingly sweet smile. He looked older, closer. His hair gone grey already. But that didn't bother her any. Despite the grey, despite the laugh lines on his cheeks and the crinkles at the corner of his eyes from years of smile, he still looked young. It was in his eyes, his easy expression. Even if he was at least a decdae, if not more, older than her, he didn't seem to be the type to act it. She could work with that.
"Mister Ashewood," she said softly, inclining her head some in greeting.
Bennet looked up at the sound of a soft, yet lively voice. His green eyes met hers, where as his were light like, hers held an intensity that only broadened her smile. He couldn't stop himself from looking down the length of her body before he stood, her hips looked just fine. Just fine indeed. As if she could hear his thoughts, his mother tsked under her breath.
"Miss Benedict." He took her hand as he stood, pleased to find her coming up only to his chest. He bent at his waist to press his lips to the air just above her hand. "Your performance was marvelous." He glanced at her parents from the corner of his eye. "It pleased me to have you play along with such fanciful notions." Reaching behind her with his other hand he pulled back the chair. Tonight at least, he would be the most proper gentleman he could muster. He didn't need his mother berating him once again on his scoundrel ways. He had time until the wedding to meet his needs elsewhere, for now, he was enraptured.
The wide smile stayed on his lips as he released her hand so Charlotte could take her seat. He pushed gently against it as she did so, bringing her up to the table. His eyes lingered on her small waist before he forced himself to return to his own seat beside her.
His brother had been watching him, and as a loud and sonorous voice began to plead God for health and prosperity, William took his seat as well. Bennet passed him a look, a slight quirk of his still brown eyebrows, a knowing sparkle to his eyes. William nodded curtly before reverently bowing his head. Bennet was pleased to see William had done what was necessary, the Minister Adley was brief.
Soon enough other voices picked up around them and a servant appeared to pour the wine and serve the first course. "I trust your travel was easy? The rain was rather unfortunately timed, but such is life in England!" Bennet smiled again towards the girl. God, she was young. He dared to guess he could have fathered someone if her age as a young man, first experiencing life. William truly did have impeccable choice. Even for a man aging as he though, he required a young wife to give him and his family children; a brood to rival the heathen Irish as his mother wanted.
Her cheeks flushed some as he looked her over, feeling his eyes travel the length of her and back. She'd not seen him before and while she'd had the chance to look him over as she approached, he'd not taken the chance like she had. And he wasn't very subtle about his look either. But she really couldn't say no to him, not without causing a scene at least, and she didn't want to cause a scene. At least not one like that. Soon enough she'd be seated and then he'd not be able to look her over quite so well.
"Thank you," she murmured softly, trying very hard not to bit at her lip as he kissed the back of her hand like a feather. "Well how could I not when it was so interesting."
She thanked him softly, as he pulled out her sear for her, settling down into the seat as he pushed it forward for her. She looked up at her own brother then, smiling at him as he seated himself back down along with their father now that she was seated as well. Her head inclined as the minster started the prayer for the meal. She didn't listen to a word of it, not that she normally did. They hardly ever said anything of worth, it was always for show, she'd noted. It didn't take much to see that even men of the cloth weren't the most, holy of men to say the least.
When he spoke to her she was startled, looking up at him blinking her green eyes at him as she tired to process what exactly it was that he was talking about. The weather, of course it was the weather. "We managed to thankfully only drive through it and not have to walk," she said with a little nod of her head, nodding again as her wine glass was blessedly filled. She reached for it, taking a little more than a lady like sip and could feel the eyes of her mother boring into her. But she ignored her and looked to Bennet instead. "I do hope it wasn't too awful here earlier," she went on conversationally. "Though I suppose it is nice to have the party inside where the rain won't ruin it, but I think it would have been nicer, and fit the theme more, to have had it outside. Artemis is the goddess of the wilds after all."
Weather, a topic suited for light dinner conservation, yet his conversant had found a way to reveal more of herself. Bennet had refrained from asking how a gentle lady knew the workings of a bow, but he wouldn't hold his tongue on this. "You are well read on the Greeks, Miss Charlotte?" His mother had disliked the theme chosen; Greek gods were false and nothing to be trifled with, much less their unsavory behavior. Yet his fiance had at least basic knowledge of them; how very intriguing.
"I must agree with you on the location of this event however. To be outdoors would have added such a mystical quality, my recreation of it is grand but it lacks that appeal." He sipped at his wine before forging ahead. "Ah, the celebrations we will have when you are mistress of my estates. You will do well, I believe, truly, with such acute observations as you've shown."
Bennet drained his glass of wine, a servant reappearing instantly to refill it. No, the forest he created was not as mystical as the real thing, but with so many bodies in the hall buzzing quietly, there was a surreality to the whole affair. He would have to get Charlotte away from prying eyes and eavesdropping ears at some point. There were answers he wanted that he was sure those present would not want to hear. A walk in the fresh night air would have to please her as well.
He addressed Charlotte's father and brother next, a sudden thought of a way to extend the Benedicts' time at his home. He would indeed want to see Charlotte more, but going to call on her was not the way he wished to do so. He wanted to see how she played at being the lady of the household. "The weather, I am told, will be taking a turn for the better. I have not had a good hunt in weeks. I've also recently acquired some fine new hounds, please, stay the rest of the week, and we can take them out tomorrow. My mother will be most gracious in attending to your wife and daughter." Bennet smiled warmly at the man, surely there couldn't be more pressing business when the only suitor for his daughter was so insistent?
When he called her by her Christian name she looked surprised. Even with the Miss in front, they were not familiar enough to address each other so. Especially in front of the rest of their families. But she held in her even further startled expression only with years of training. She chewed the inside of her cheek, keeping her lips from turning down into a bit of a frown. Though honestly, hearing him say her name and not her family name was rather refreshing. Thankfully though, she was spared having to tell the truth and upset her mother by her brother Henry's intervention into their conversation.
"Lottie has spent many an hour listening to me talk about my studies," he said with a nod, giving Charlotte a look that told her to hold her tongue. Though he knew that the look would not get passed Bennet, and he didn't try. It would get passed their mother, who wasn't looking at him just then.
"I only do what any other good sister would do," she shrugged, unable to keep from talking, but very able to go along with her brother's simple half-lie. He had studied the classics at school, and come home to talk to her about it endlessly, giving her his books to read because he knew how much she adored reading. "It cannot be helped that I remember such things."
When Bennet turned to address the girl's father, she felt herself stiffen even more at his invitation. Lottie could see the wheels working and turning in her father's head, weighing if cancelling other plans was worth it to ensure that this match went well and that he'd be seeing her off into this man's hands as his wife soon. Her mother looked nearly aghast at the idea of such an impromptu invitation, but she held her face well and said nothing. Finally the elder Benedict cleared his throat and nodded his head. "I don't know if can stay all week, but we can stay a few days more." He skillfully took his wife's hand, cutting off her retort about not having anything to wear by saying, "Shush now dear, we'll send word back to the estate to have yours and Charlotte's things sent back. You can go one night without."
The woman defeated some, looking to her daughter like she expected her to say something to protest this so she had some reason to not stay. But Charlotte had no reason to say no and looked to her betrothed with her own secretive smile. "A hunt sounds lovely," she said at last, nodding her head and smiling more into her wine glass as she took another large sip.
"Absolutely marvelous!" Bennet clapped his hands once before motioning for a servant. He turned his face to the liveried man, "Inform George that the Benedicts will be staying on. Have him send some men to their estate tonight to gather enough items for several days visit." Before the senior Benedict could try to argue against sending anyone out into the night, Bennet raised his hand and addressed the man. "I'll have it no other way. I've implored you to stay and I won't have your pleasant wife and daughter going without a thing."
Bennet smiled once before returning his attention to the servant. "I expect to be informed when they return. Go, now." He watched as the man hustled away, not sparing a thought for how his men would take to such a task. Truthfully, many were accustomed to his idiosyncracies.
There was little left to discuss. Bennet lacked the social charm of his brother who could prattle to no end. He looked to William now to fill in the gap, a role the younger man was acquainted with filling. William prodded Charlotte's family for news of London, allowing him to focus once more on the beautiful girl beside him. His mother was too quiet for his liking, but he was content to ignore it until they retired.
He spoke quietly as they dined, "Do you hunt as well? I could not miss your remark about one being enjoyable." Bennet hadn't planned on taking the girl out with them, and he wondered if her mother would allow such a thing. He glanced up at those around the table with a conspirational twinkle to his eye before quietly resuming his conversation. "If the Lady Benedict is so inclined, I keep several falcons and hawks. It is a dying hobby, one I enjoy too greatly to see it go." He paused, and thought better of ending his thoughts there. "I would be honored if you chose one to fly with me."
Charlotte looked quickly down from her mother's threatening look. She was glad that she could at least hope to escape her mother's lecturing by insisting that she go to bed. She wasn't going to be trapped alone in the carriage with her mother while she berated her for the things she had said, and had still yet to say, that evening that were not what a lady should be saying. She was a lady enough. She knew what she was saying wasn't often socially acceptable. And had it been anyone other then Bennet, she likely would have acted more the lady. But as he was already a strange one, and she was going to wed him after all, he should know what he was getting into with her.
When he spoke to her lowly, she looked up at him, looked to her mother and smiled, pleased to see that she was distracted with her husband and William's conversation. Which was wonderful. And meant she could actually answer Bennet's questions. "I'm not suppose to," she said after a moment, shrugging her shoulders. "But that doesn't mean I haven't." The look she gave up at him at that was mischievous and playful. He would learn soon enough that sometimes, she didn't do as told.
But his next suggestion had the smile on her face looking more childish than mischievous, her eyes lighting up in delight at the prospect. "I doubt Mother will be inclined to let me go, but she'll have less of a fight if you insist I come. Oh please let me come with you." Her tone was even childish, begging that he let her go on the hunt with him and the other men. She wanted to go so badly. Her small, slim hand reached over for his arm, grabbing on surprisingly firmly and squeezing gently. "I know how to ride and I'll stay out of the way. Please just let me come along."