A Widow's Estate - picodegallo22 - Bridgerton Series (2024)

Chapter Text

Two years ago...

“Stop!” He shouted, sprinting down the gravel driveway of the Haskell residence. “Stop the carriage!”

The drivers turned to give Colin an incredulous look, reins taut in their hands. “Sir?” The taller of the two exclaimed with confusion.

“I require a word,” Colin gulped lungfuls of air. “With Miss Featherington.”

With that, he stalked to the carriage door. Swinging it open to find Penelope teary eyed with her hands twisted in her skirts. “Penelope,” he released a sigh of relief. “Please, may I enter?”

“I have nothing to say to you, Colin.” She wiped at her eyes, refusing to meet his.

“Penelope, please.” At the desperate plea, she looked at him. Her eyes were distrusting but a glimmer of hope shined through that he clung to. She nodded once, sliding down the bench to allow him entry. Gratefully, he took the seat across from her, closing the carriage door.

Penelope commanded the drivers to continue onward to Bridgerton House as Colin settled in his seat. “You cannot marry him,” rushed out of him thoughtlessly and Penelope’s eyes hardened. “Penelope, he is not for you. He is peculiar and wishes to take a wife for the most material reason.”

“And, what do you presume that reason is, Colin?” Penelope huffed.

“He desires for his wife to manage his estate while he is on his expeditions.” She rolled her eyes at him. Colin pressed forward, “He will leave you. For years at a time.”

“How will you have all that you desire if he leaves you, Penelope?” Colin crept forward in his attempt of reasoning, his knees gently pressing to hers. “You wish for love, Pen. A family. He cannot provide you with such.” But I can, he thought to himself.

“Because you believe he does not desire me for ‘wifely duties’.” Penelope sneered.

“Heaven’s above, Penelope, what are you speaking of?” Colin leaned back, flabbergasted.

“You may find it difficult to conceive that one might be interested in me, Colin, but Lord Debling has stated his intention and interest clearly.” Penelope crossed her arms, murmuring. “On more than one occasion.”

Colin went deathly still, his blood going cold. “Has he taken liberties?” He asked stiffly.

Penelope’s eyes flashed. “Not anymore than yourself has, my lord.”

His jaw clenched so tightly it began to ache. “You will be trapped in a loveless marriage.” He warned, darkly.

“It is the fate of women like me to make do with what we are granted. I shall make do, Colin.” She leaned forward as she spat the words in his direction. His knees bracketed hers now, and Colin scrubbed at his eyes, wearily.

“It is not what you deserve, Pen.” She scoffed. “You are my friend, Pen, and I want you to have the very best. And, that is not Debling.”

“Colin, do you, by chance, know of a horde of suitors that are awaiting my hand?” Her arms fell from her chest to gesture blindly as she shrugged her shoulders. “As I do not!” She exclaimed.

Colin sighed deeply, capturing her hands in his. He clasped both her hands in his, rubbing his thumb on the back of her hand as he gathered his thoughts. “Pen, would you consider another suitor? If one came forward?”

“If he admits to feelings for you, that reaches deeper than skin and flesh?” Her eyes widened and Colin began to speak faster with excitement. “Feelings that took root long before he took notice and, now, are the very essence of his soul?”

“I don’t understand,” Penelope whispered, her eyes darting between his and their clasped hands.

“Penelope, I have tried to conceal the better parts of myself in hope of being more palatable for others. Not realizing that I was attempting to shutter the parts of me that are my truest self and that my denial of their existence has been ineffective in your presence because you are what breathes life into them.”

“Colin, I...,” The carriage was slowing and Colin drew her closer, the softness in her eyes making his heart sing. She was nearly in his lap and his lips hovered over hers, admiring the delectable pink pout that had plagued his every dream since their kiss.

“I am betrothed.” She whispered before his lips could touch hers. The words hit him like a slap and his hands became cold as Penelope withdrew from him. “I have already accepted Lord Debling’s suit.”

His ears were ringing and Colin wondered if he’d heard her correctly. But the austere look in her eyes confirmed his greatest fear. The door to the carriage swung open, a driver peering into the cab suspiciously.

“Bridgerton House, Mister Bridgerton.” He announced. Colin turned towards the carriage door, unable to meet her gaze and witness her pity for him. His world had gone grey with three simple words.

I am betrothed.

If he were anything like his brothers, Colin would’ve taken control of the carriage and made his way to Gretna Green before sunrise. But he realized that while he’d fallen in love with Penelope, she had not fallen in love with him. Then, who was he to deny her the future afforded to her by a lord when he was merely a third son with no vocation and nothing to offer. Penelope had made a wise choice, and as her friend, he would not convince her to accept less.

“Goodbye, Penelope.” He said tonelessly, leaving the carriage.

“I’m sorry, Colin.” She whispered into the night.

He couldn’t turn back to look at her, knowing that if he did. It would destroy him.

*****

It was at the sixth hour of his night time ride that his body’s needs made themselves known. His mind had quieted during the ride, recalling his fondest memories with Penelople. And, the one that left him sleepless and aching with regret. A hint of trepidation began to grow within him as he considered that Penelope may reject his presence upon arrival. But, he remained steadfast. He would not allow her to send him away this time.

Spying the countryside inn, he took a short reprieve. The inn itself was modest with two large rooms joined to form a lounge with dining tables and fireplaces roaring in all corners. At the entry was the crowded kitchen and along the far wall, young maidens laundered linens and clothes of the travelers. There were various sets of stairs leading to the upper levels where the suites for residing were. At Colin’s midnight arrival, only a few inn guests were in the lounge drinking and quietly conversing. One table had a gentleman comfortably snoring in a wooden chair, a cooling bowl of stew before him. The inn seemed locked in a tranquil state that drew Colin from the perilous chaos of his thoughts for a moment.

At his request for a fresh horse and rejection of booking a room, the aged innkeeper had looked upon him with a slanted eye. “And, what’s chasing ye, sir?” She inquired, leathery hands closed around Colin’s coins.

“I am not being chased, madam.” He cast a glance at the maids laundering linens in the far corner of the room, the stench of his sweat drenched shirt making itself known. “My friend is in need. I must arrive swiftly.”

The suspicion did not leave the woman’s eyes but she sighed deeply, gesturing for a serving boy to come forward. “Say, have you any clean clothes for purchase?” Colin piped up as the boy listened intently to the innkeeper’s instruction.

“Five quid,” the woman stated curtly, tossing her greying braid behind her shoulder before she released the serving boy to his task. Colin deposited more coin in the woman’s hands, managing to cajole her into allowing him a fresh wash basin as he changed into the simple but sturdy linens. Collecting his dirty clothes into a satchel that he left slung across the back of the horse.

As he made to depart with a fresh horse, the innkeeper called for him from the kitchen’s door. “You seem foolish,” she said with a churlishly twisted mouth. “But you’ll be no good for yer friend if you’re faint from hunger.” A tied pack of checkered fabric hung from her calloused fingers in the space between them. Colin’s heart warmed as the woman evaded his gaze, he accepted the package gingerly. “Thank you, madam.” He whispered gratefully.

The innkeeper looked up into his eyes and for a moment, Colin could see the scars of a lifetime in her eyes. She nodded, wiping her hands on her apron as she stepped back from the threshold. “Go on, now, sir.” She murmured, a hand on the edge of the door. The moonlight casting her face in deeper shadows. Colin bowed as he took his leave, hoping that the universe’s blessing indicated that he was on the right path at last.

In the early morning light with the last rays of moonlight withering away under a purple sky, Colin arrived at the Debling estate. Not nearly as grand as Anthony’s country estate but stately and impressive in its own right. The manor house’s polished stone gleamed in the rising sun. As he approached the entrance, he noticed the well-maintained gardens and lawns with beautiful and exotic plants. He realized the estate teemed with life and nature, in a way, his heart took relief in the fact that Penelope had not been relegated to a lifeless and bleak home.

The housekeeper had been startled by his arrival but as any good servant of the gentry, she allowed him to enter. Summoning the stable boys from their sleep to take charge of his house.

“It is a terribly early hour, Mister Bridgerton.” The woman clasped her hands before her, her eyes downcast in apology. “We had not known of your impending arrival and kindly ask for your patience as we prepare a room.”

“Of course, of course, Miss?” He asked, standing in the middle of the sitting room that was tastefully decorated in blue. A maid flitted through the room, lighting the sconces and a passing sense of shame filled him at the upheaval he had caused the kind staff.

“Miss Haversham,” the housekeeper answered with a deep nod.

“Please forgive my interruption,” Colin pleaded, sheepishly. “If I may inquire, is Lady Debling abed?”

“No, I fear...,” the maid and Miss Haversham shared a look before the maid quietly left through the ajar door. “I fear Lady Debling has not taken rest, since the news of the Lord’s passing.”

“As I feared,” Colin murmured. “Where might she be?”

“Oh, I cannot say, Mister Bridgerton.” The housekeeper wrought her hands, nervously. “She has requested utmost privacy during this trying time.”

“I see,” Colin sighed deeply. “You will inform her of my arrival?”

“Certainly,” Miss Haversham bowed deeply as she took his leave to arrange refreshment.

Alone once more, Colin looked at his surroundings. Noting that Lord Debling had made well on his promise to encourage the reading habit of his wife. The triple paned window had a beautifully carved seat under it with a small table that had a teetering pile of novels upon it already. Colin sat on the seat, reading the spines of the leather bound novels before finding the boldness to take one in hand. He opened the topmost novel and found it to be a novel about French operas, a scrap of ribbon was pressed within the pages. The yellow ribbon was gentle to the touch and a ghost of a smile was on his lips as he recalled the yellow gowns of her childhood. He’d always thought them to be so garish, but now he remembered them fondly for they reminded him of their shared youth.

The sound of a throat clearing drew his attention from the novel and he looked up to find a familiar face. “Mister Bridgerton,” she said gently, seeming almost relieved.

“Miss Rae,” he rose to his feet, returning the novel to its place. “I did not expect to find yourself in service to Miss-Lady Debling still. But, I am glad.” The woman smiled, her hands clasped before her. Where Colin felt as though he had aged a decade since he last saw the lady-in-the-waiting, Miss Rae looked as though not a day had passed.

“Mister Bridgerton,” she repeated, inclining her head towards the door, a single finger pressed to her lips to indicate silence. With that, she turned on her heel slipping out of the room. Colin hastened to follow her quietly, tracing her steps with utmost concentration. The decorated halls of the estate escaped his notice as Miss Rae led him through the grand hall until they reached a conservatory attached to the manor itself. Miss Rae stepped to the side of the door, looking up at Colin with a warm smile on her face. “I’ve owed you for that five and thirty pounds all those years ago. I am also glad you are here, Mister Bridgerton, for Lady Debling is in need of a friend.”

Colin returned the woman’s smile and gathered his courage as he grasped the knob of the door. Stepping into an oasis of tropical plants and butterflies that fluttered their wings at his entrance. There was an eerie silence in the dark conservatory, but he saw the reflected light of a flickering lamp in the eastern corner. Slowly he made his way, drawing deep lungfuls of fragrant air. The humid air should’ve felt oppressive in the small space and yet he found it to give him strength as he navigated the labyrinth of plants. Oddly, he felt as though he was trespassing upon Debling himself, the room was clearly his passion but as Colin approached the lamplight he realized that the departed man had made a small home for his wife within his heart.

Like a dream, she appeared before him. Red curls loose around her shoulders and gleaming like polished copper in the low light. She sat upon a stone bench watching a peculiar flower’s petals slowly close as the sun rose. If she noticed his approach, she did not acknowledge it, seeming to be content staring listlessly at the pearly white petals of the flower.

In this corner of the conservatory, there was a writing desk placed next to a workbench, covered in parchment and broken quills. The workbench was cleared of dirt but a collection of gardening tools was laid out upon it, waiting for an owner that would never return.

His breath caught in his chest and suddenly the eight hour journey on horse made every inch of his body ache. He sat on the other end of the stone bench, facing away from her with a hand's breadth between them. He’d ruminated on what he’d say to her when he saw her again for hours, days, weeks, even months. But now, as he sat next to her, the scent of tilled soil and ink filled his senses. He could not summon a word to his lips.

Oenothera biennis,” she whispered, her voice like music to his ears. He leaned forward resting his elbows on his knees. “A flower that only blooms at night, often called the ‘evening primrose’.”

“I learned the Latin names of all the plants here,” she continued, turning to look at a shrub with purple-toned leaves. “Acer palmatum, I had thought... I’d thought I could impress him upon his return.”

Colin put his head in his hands, burning hot tears climbing to the surface at the flat, emotionless tone in her voice. He felt unmoored at the realization that part of her was lost to grief. “But, he won’t be returning. Not alive. Not even to be-,” she released a shuddering breath. “They said there is nothing remaining to bury.”

A shocked gasp, garbled out of him. The horridness of it all burned him. He couldn’t accept that the world could be so cruel to her. “Pen,” he choked out, turning to look at her at last.

Her blue eyes shined with tears and gazed into the distance. At her name, she turned to look at him but her eyes were glassy, seeming to be blind to him and her surroundings. “He never told me how he wished to be laid to rest. How he wished to be remembered.” She turned back to the flower, her hands clenching the skirts of her night gown. “Even in death, I do not know how to honour him.”

She thrust her head in her hands, heart wrenching sobs wracked her shoulders. Colin crossed the distance between them, pulling her into his arms. Her tears soaked his shirt while his own streamed down his face to her hair, their arms locked around each other.

A Widow's Estate - picodegallo22 - Bridgerton Series (2024)
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