Eight – Persuasion
Looking up into Stephen’s face, Beth suddenly saw him through a haze of tears. He was toying with her, he could not be serious.
“L … love? You speak of love when … all you wanted before was …”
She could not speak those hideous words aloud, she simply could not.
“To bed you?” Stephen completed for her, then smiled sadly before he continued. “Dear Lord, but I have made a blithering mess of it, haven’t I? Forgive me, my love, for hurting you with my haughty ways.”
And he took her in his arms where she stood frozen and unresponsive yet he did not seem to notice. How could he be so carefree about something she considered so serious? Yet, quite unexpectedly, the sweetness in his voice touched her right in the heart.
“Of course, I was attracted to you. I would be blind and completely without feelings, would I not have been attracted to a lovely, adorable woman like you. The fact that we knew each other since childhood might have had something to do with it, too. I admit to having been a total cad and an incredibly stupid oaf not to understand that you would not be pleased about it. Being a peer of the realm does that to a man, darling, although that is no excuse for my boorish behaviour.”
He again lifted her face so that she was forced to meet his gaze.
“But, my dearest girl, once you had set off to Manchester after boxing my ears and leaving me so unexpectedly, I began to have an inkling of what you really meant to me. I was baffled to find myself completely lost and hating every moment of it. I could not think straight without you popping into my head every minute of the day. I could not sleep at night and when I did, you haunted my dreams. I found myself going utterly bonkers without you, Beth.”
Oh, those gorgeous blue eyes … burning with fire … Could she really believe him? She so wanted to … she so longed to.
“Beth, I know you have no trust in me and I cannot blame you, for I gave you every reason to distrust me. After all, I was responsible for so many misdeeds. I caused your mother and brother to die in that horrible accident. I compromised an innocent village girl and abandoned her and the children I begot. And … I wanted you to be my mistress. That was perhaps the dastardliest deed of all. I did not see you for the wonderful woman you are.”
Cupping her face in his hands, he softly kissed first her brow, then the top of her head.
“I love you, Beth … I must have loved you since that day, at the vicarage, when my mother spoke so harshly to you, and my father evicted yours. How crushed I felt in my parents’ stead, how ashamed and … how deeply sad at the sudden realisation that you were going to leave the village and disappear from my life. You were always in my thoughts, Beth, through my Cambridge days and later, when I was in the army and fighting.”
Finally, Beth found the courage to say something back to him. “Why were you so mean and vicious to me, then? You never gave me any reason to think you cared for me.”
Stephen’s reaction was a complete surprise to Beth. She did not know exactly what she had expected but certainly not this! Fenton released her and sank onto a chair, raking both of his hands through his hair.
“God, Beth! Could we not let bygones be bygones? I was haughty and arrogant and … well, furious, too! You came back, pretending to be someone else, and with a purpose of ruining me. I did not comprehend why, Beth! You already knew of my involvement in the tragedy!”
“Yes, I did! And I wanted you to own up to it, pay for it, Stephen Fenton! Can you blame me?”
When he lifted his eyes to hers, the look in them pierced her heart.
“Oh, I have paid for it, Beth, dearly so. First, I lost you. And then, when I finally managed to put you out of my mind and began loving Florence, I also lost her – and in a carriage accident, irony of ironies.”
There was pain in those drawn, pale features and bitterness in those thin, rigid lips. For the first time in their long acquaintance, Beth could actually see the deep hurt and sorrow in Stephen Fenton. Florence … his wife … Beth had never known her and conveniently forgotten about her. Florence Durant had been the daughter of a Devonshire earl, and the baron not only gained a charming, very beautiful baroness but also a substantial amount of dowry money. Their mutual love had been equally substantial, apparently.
“I am very sorry,” she whispered, belatedly, and swallowed away her stupid pride.
Stephen’s face was pale but without emotion, once more. Beth knew he was a master in disguising his feelings, a characteristic she loathed in him. How could she deal with a man who was incapable of showing how he felt? How was she to connect with such a man? She was not sure if she would be able to share her life with Stephen if he could not make her a part of his life and feelings.
Then, all of a sudden, one solitary tear rolled down Stephen’s cheek, and Beth’s heart skipped several beats. Her hand went up and slowly, gently wiped it away.
“I would be very honoured indeed, my lord, to become your wife …”
When Stephen led her outside, to the front of the cottage, Beth was utterly astonished to find the whole village waiting for them. The Reverend Carter and Mr Sage stepped forward to meet them, a radiant smile on their faces.
“My dear Miss Williams,” the Reverend beamed. “May I express the extreme gratitude of the entire community for the enormous task you have fulfilled? You have brought back joy to our little village, and we want to thank and honour you.”
And there they were! All her pupils, girls and boys alike! Each with a huge bouquet of the loveliest wild flowers they could gather in the fields of early May. Beth’s eyes, once more, filled with tears.
She took several of the bouquets in her arms while Lily and Oliver carried the rest inside. After a moment, Stephen Fenton cleared his throat and raised an arm to ask for silence.
“People … dear friends … I, too, have an announcement. Miss Williams has done me the great honour of consenting to be my wife.”
A deafening cheer rose from the assembly and Ruby threw herself into Beth’s arms.
“Oh … famous! Dearest Beth, I am so happy!” A couple of minutes went by in which numerous villagers came to congratulate their school teacher, before Stephen asked for silence again.
“Mr Carter, sir? I have a favour to ask of you,” he addressed the vicar.
A gasp of delighted surprise escaped the crowd when the baron retrieved a document from his coat.
“Reverend, I have obtained a special licence to marry my beloved Miss Williams forthwith. Would you perform the ceremony now?”
Beth stared at her betrothed in appalled astonishment. Words failed her while her heart exalted with joy!
“My lord,” the Reverend replied, “I would be honoured … and utterly overjoyed to oblige you.”
“Well, my dearest, loveliest Beth, then, without further delay, we shall go into St Mary’s church and be joined in holy matrimony!” Stephen said and offered his right hand flashing a radiant smile at his beloved. With an answering smile, Beth sealed her fate by placing her hand in Stephen’s. The die was cast; from now on, she would follow her baron to the end of the world if necessary.