In Which Bullen is Offered a Choice
In residence at his parents’ home in the days leading up to his wedding, James Bullen has decided after much deliberation to meet with the girl he had once thought to marry. Now he rides his horse across the countryside to her home, hoping that Patience is too caught up with the final preparations for their wedding to notice how long he might be absent. The hoofbeats along the ground seem to tap out Patience’s name, making him wonder again if he should really have agreed to meet Eliza after all. If his fiancée were to find out, she would be heartbroken. And livid.
Eliza Stapleton, a pretty young woman of 21 with pale blonde hair and even paler blue eyes, waits anxiously upon a settee in her family’s sitting room. Mama has gone into town to see about some apples, leaving Eliza alone aside from the help. As she hears the sound of a horse approaching, she quickly goes to the window, her heart leaping into her throat at the thought of seeing James once more after so long.
Bullen pulls his horse up and dismounts, handing its reins off to the groom and walking to the front door of the massive Stapleton manor. He has a moment of doubt, wondering if it is too late to turn around and gallop back to Patience. But no, he is here now, and Eliza wanted to see him one last time, so he straightens his coat and his hat. Raising a hand, he hesitates and then raps on the door.
Rather than rush to the door as she would greatly like to, Eliza stays in the sitting room wringing her hands nervously. She had wondered if he would even really come and now he is here and she is terrified. What if she cannot convince him that their love has never faded, and that she is who he belongs with. Her butler goes to answer the door and Eliza watches from the doorway to the sitting room as James is admitted into the residence.
The house is as he remembers it from visiting Mr. Stapleton with his father. The butler leads Bullen into the sitting room, and he manages a warm smile to Eliza as he approaches her, bowing politely as she curtsies to him. He stands awkwardly for a moment before looking around and then back to her. “You are looking very well, Miss Stapleton. I hope you are in health.”
It is all Eliza can do not to rush to James and throw her arms around his neck. All the regret from having turned down his proposal at her father’s bidding comes flooding back, bringing tears to her eyes. “Oh, James, please do not call me that. You know I am still your Eliza, as ever I have been. Come in and sit down.”
The butler reaches out to take Bullen’s coat and hat, motioning for Bullen to go into the sitting room with Eliza though he remains close by to act as a chaperone. Even if this man is engaged, one still could not be too watchful over a young lady as pretty as Miss Stapleton. Bullen nods and goes into the room, finding a seat near the banked fire and waiting for Eliza to sit as well.
“Would you care for tea, my dear?” Eliza does not hesitate to use pet names with him, as she still has high hopes that she can change his mind. He belongs at home, with her, not with some strumpet in some town that is barely a speck on the map. With her, he can be a gentleman of leisure until his father passes and he takes over his vicarage. That was the plan all along, she wishes she could remind him.
“No, I do not intend to be here for long, Miss Stapleton.” Bullen knows that if he uses her given name it will only make things more difficult for both of them. “You asked to see me, and I am here. What is it you wanted to say?”
“Nonsense, darling.” She putters about making tea despite his refusal and his calling her Miss Stapleton, even if it was like a knife to the heart. Did he really no longer love her? No, he had said he did, even if he loves this fiancée of his more. Eliza does not need to be reminded of how he takes his tea and brings it to him with a warm smile. “There you are. Now tell me how you’ve been, my love.”
Bullen sighs and takes the tea, setting it aside on a nearby table rather than drinking any. At times like these, he wished he carried a flask. “I am well, Eliza. As you know, I am to be married in only two days. I’ve only come out of respect for you. I hope you know there is nothing more to it than that.”
Eliza turns tear-filled eyes on him, though she manages to hold back the tears and sit on a chair very close to his. Reaching out, she places her hand on his and squeezes. “I know, my dear. But I had hoped you might have some remaining doubts as to how things might be between the two of us.” She holds her breath, hoping against hopes that he will answer to the affirmative.
If he had no doubts before, he does now, with her hand on his. It is such a familiar position, and brings back a flood of happy memories. Then of course there is the memory of her denying his proposal and walking away, her family’s opinion more important than his own. No, she was not the right choice for him, he reminds himself. “No, I have no doubts, Eliza. What is done is done. It is just as you wanted it.”
“I will not believe it,” she cries, pulling her hand to her heart as if wounded. “Your letter led me to believe anything but. And surely if you were so set on marrying this girl, you would not be here now. And besides, it is not what /I/ wished, but what Papa wished. You know I could not deny him in his condition. And now I am free to marry as I choose.”
“I was very sorry to hear about your father, Eliza, but it changes nothing on my part.” He shakes his head, hardly able to bear her tears. Rather than respond to her claims about his letter, which filled him with guilt as he wrote it, though not as much as he feels now, Bullen picks up his cup and takes a drink. “You are certainly free to marry as you choose, but it will not be to me that you are married, no matter how much you may wish it now. You certainly did not wish it then.”
“I /did/ though, James. You must believe me, darling. There was never any other for me.” Eliza leaves her chair, kneeling at his feet and laying her head in his lap as she had so many times before when they were all but engaged. “Please, my love, do not marry her. She cannot love you as I do. Surely you know this in your heart.”
Bullen’s hand goes instinctively to her hair, the soft tresses sifting between his fingers. After a moment he remembers himself, and pulls his hand back as if he has been burned. “Eliza, even did I believe that, I could not very well jilt Patience. I do love her, and she loves me, whether it is as much as you or not. It is immaterial now.” He gently pushes her from his lap so he might stand.
Eliza sits back on her heels as he pushes her away, getting to her feet quickly so she might go to him where he now stands at the window. She laces her fingers into his and looks up at him, remembering how much she enjoyed their height difference. She had always felt so safe when he embraced her and kissed her. “Well, I do not see why it should matter if she is jilted. Surely if she is so desirable, she shall find another suitor in no time. You and I could still be together, my dear. Mama is of a mind to allow it, and even should she not there is nothing to stand in our way now. Please do not deny me.”
Turning to face her, Bullen gives Eliza a slight frown, though he does not pull his hand from hers. “Eliza, you know better than to beg things of me. It may be difficult to deny you your wishes, but I am sure I shall manage.” He looks down at their clasped hands doubtfully, knowing he should reclaim his but not quite able to make himself. “The one I cannot deny is Patience. She is to be my wife, whether you like it or not.”
“Do not say such things!” She slips her arms about his neck and kisses him softly for a moment before pulling away and resting her head on his chest. “Surely you cannot tell me you no longer love me. You have said you do. I cannot imagine that being here now does not change things for you. I am sure I have things to offer that she does not.”
Bullen tries not to kiss her back. He truly does, but it is difficult when his mouth remembers exactly how hers tastes. He is glad when she pulls away, though he stands rather stiffly as she leans against him. “Eliza, this is not becoming behavior from you. Indeed, you each possess qualities the other does not. But whether I still love you or not, I cannot simply give in to your wishes so easily.”
“Then I shall simply have to try harder, James.” She gives him a long look, one filled with determination. If she cannot convince him with her words, she will convince him by other means. She glances back at the butler who stands just outside the door, and the man sighs and pulls closed the doors to the sitting room. Running her hands up Bullen’s chest, she looks at him through her eyelashes before standing on her tiptoes to kiss him again.
Of their own accord, Bullen’s arms come up to hold Eliza, and he allows the kiss to continue for several moments before stepping away from her with a frustrated huff at himself. Patience would be heartbroken if she knew he was here, and might well kill Eliza if she saw her kissing him. “Eliza, enough. You might try any number of means to convince me not to marry Patience, but they will not work. They will only make both of us terribly unhappy.”
“I will not be unhappy for the last chance to be with you as I have always wished to.” She gives him a meaningful look before leaning up to kiss him again, her arms tightening about his neck as she pushes herself closer to him.
He sighs and kisses her back, unable to deny himself these last moments with her. He does love Patience, more than words can tell, but his heart has never stopped loving Eliza either. They were not as passionate as he and Patience, but they had their own moments as well. Finally, he pushes Eliza back, taking a step away from her and placing his hands behind his back. “We cannot do this, Eliza. My wedding is in two days.”
“Then that is two days I will have to convince you that you are making a terrible decision. Now, come back over here and let me continue to try.” Eliza raises an eyebrow at him, knowing how difficult it has always been for him to deny her. Their undeniable chemistry has obviously not completely faded, or he would have marched out the door the second she called him darling.
Bullen shakes his head, growing angry with not just her but with himself. How in the world can he even be tempted when he knows he has Patience waiting for him. He has no intention of jilting her, no desire to. But Eliza looking at him like that makes it very difficult to say no to her. It has always been a weakness of his. Nobody tells Eliza no.
“That is not a denial, James.” She moves to him again, toying with the buttons on his waistcoat before sliding her hand inside it. “Do you know how many men I have denied out of the hope that I might still have the chance to bring you back to me? You are the only one I have ever wished for. And here you are despite your fiancée being only miles away.”
With a frustrated frown, Bullen pushes her hands away. “Eliza, stop. This cannot be. If you wished for me so badly, you should have gone against your father’s wishes and married me anyway.”
“Then let us go now. We can leave tonight and go to Gretna Green. It will only take a handful of days to reach the border and then we can be married over the anvil.” She gives him a hopeful smile, resuming her position with her arms around his neck. “Your fiancée cannot do anything about it if you and I are already married. Say yes, James. It is so easily done.”
“No, Eliza,” he insists again, though he does not remove her arms. Their faces are too close together, the familiar scent of lavender and rosewater bringing back fond memories. His pulse races as he tries to find the strength to tell her to leave him be, the strength to walk out of the house and return to Patience. It is not only the right thing to do, it is what he /wants/ to do. So why is he still standing her with her arms about his neck?
“You don’t mean that, James.” Eliza pouts, turning her face upward in hopes he will kiss her this time instead of her having to kiss him. “Kiss me again and you will realize that you still wish to have me as much as you ever did.”
“I /cannot/, Eliza. I love Patience. And I am going to marry her. It is as simple as that.” He steps away from her, going toward the doors to the sitting room with every intention of retrieving his coat and hat and leaving her behind forever.
“Then be with me. Even if you will not /stay/ with me, at least let our last moments be pleasurable instead of… this.” She comes to him and pulls him back into the center of the room, running a hand down his arm suggestively. “Patience need never know.” She is convinced that if she can simply find the right way to convince him, she will have her way and he will forget his fiancée entirely.
“Eliza…” He means for it to carry a warning, but instead it only sounds like he is pleading with her. “I cannot do this. It is not right, and it is not what I wish. You must let me go. I know it is hard, I know it is not what you want and that you are unused to not getting your way, but you must. /Please/.”
“It /is/ what you wish, or you should not be here now. Do not deny yourself, do not deny what we have. It need not be this way.” She brings her hand up to rest at the base of his neck, pulling his face down to hers. If he will not kiss her, she will kiss him and convince him. “Just give in, James. My darling, I know you too well. I know what you want. And you want /me/. Not her.”
If Eliza had left it at wanting her, he very well might have given in. But she made one mistake. She accused Bullen of not wanting Patience. His head snaps up from hers, and he puts several feet between them, turning back to the door and opening it. He gives her no chance to protest, leaving her instead to stand alone and stunned in the sitting room while he flees back to his horse and back to Patience, flooded with guilt at what he almost allowed to happen.