Fic: A Taste for Scandal (SGA, Sheppard/Weir)

Author’s Note: Written for the Sheppard/Weir Ficathon for wanatee_1984, who requested: “Jane Austen ‘pride and prejudice’ style fic.” The epistolary format of the story was inspired by the delightful Sorcery and Cecelia and sequels by Patricia Wrede and Carole Stevermeyer. Also, wherever possible I have attempted historical accuracy with regards to social and political attitudes. This means that the characters will have some opinions and prejudices that they do *not* in the series and would most likely be horrified by, but probably would have in the context of the time this AU is set in. America, England and Canada were not allies, not even in name, in 1813 and there were *huge* perceived differences between people of different races, genders, religions and classes. Truthfully, most of the characters are probably *still* too modern to be accurate, but there was only so much I could bring myself to do and still respect them. 😉 Thanks to trinity1986 for a last minute but still exacting beta, mariposa510, Clara and Medie for encouragement and moral support. Oh, and to Medie for one other thing too…she knows what.


~15 May 1813
10 Avalon Close, London

Dear Samantha–

How fortunate that I remembered to furnish you with my intended direction before departing, as your letter was waiting at the house when we arrived. We might have been here sooner, had Laura not taken a spill from her horse shortly before I arrived to fetch her, resulting in a rather dreadful cut upon the chin. Naturally, she could not be permitted to make her début in such a state, so our departure was delayed until the cut had sufficient time to heal. Thankfully, there will not be a scar. It does not say much for her deportment, however–I fear the absence of a mother in her upbringing has been more detrimental than I supposed. How Stephen expects me to find a husband who will have patience with such unladylike behaviour, I’m sure I don’t know. She is lovely, however, and in despite of my fears for her prospects, I find myself admiring her fearlessness, so I think we shall get along quite well, provided she does not mind a little correction now and again when it becomes absolutely necessary.

Lest you think I only have one charge after all, I must also add that Kate is a perfect lady, and quite the image of her mother. One might think with that angelic face and all those perfect golden curls that she was something of a goose-wit, but not a bit of it! We have had several opportunities to converse, and I found her to be quite well read on a variety of subjects. She is also quite a dear, and I find myself thankful that she and Laura have already become fast friends. I might even venture to say we have all become friends–it is not so long since we were their age, after all.

Having only just arrived, I fear I cannot yet furnish you with the gossip you requested, unless you desire an exhaustive description of our accommodations and the staff. Tomorrow I take the girls to the modiste and the day after we have been invited to take tea at the Fraisers’.

~17 May

Suddenly I find myself glad that I had not yet remembered to close or dispatch this missive, as otherwise I might have been compelled to write again before you even had the chance to read this.

We have just returned from tea at the Fraisers’ where, as hoped, I was able to collect a bit of the latest gossip, as requested. I think you will find it of certain interest. Do you recall a rather odious gentleman by the name of Mr. Meredith McKay? His father had been awarded a large grant of land in Canada by the King as thanks for his loyalty during the rebellion in the colonies, and said father had sent him back to Mother England to procure a wife the same year you and I had our first Season. I imagine you do, as he was quite taken with you, if most unseemly in the way he went about saying so. To think that he truly believed you would accept his proposal because none better was going to offer for you! I have never been so pleased to see a gentleman–if the word is even applicable, which I doubt–proved wrong.

And here I am rambling like a goose-wit rather than coming to the point–forgive me! I mention Mr. McKay not to torment you with unpleasant memories, but rather because he is back in London and according to Janet, as yet unwed! I find it deeply satisfying to learn that apparently the vexing man was unable to find a woman who would abide with his arrogance and rudeness. His sister, I am told, is of quite another sort (it is to present her that he has ostensibly returned). Kate, Laura and I look forward to meeting her.

You may also find it of interest that it is not Mr. McKay, nor his sister, however, who is the talk of the Ton this Season, but rather a friend of his–a Colonel John Sheppard. You would scarcely believe the wild tales that are flying about regarding this gentleman! Apparently he is English, but has recently returned from a long tour of duty in the Americas, hence his friendship with the Canadian. The gentleman is rumored to have ten thousand a year and a country estate with the ostentatious and highly inappropriate name of Atlantis. More exotic, he is said to have disembarked with a pair of Native servants, and keeps no other staff. And as though this weren’t enough to set the Ton buzzing, rumour names him a scandalous rake, who has broken hearts all across two continents. As you can imagine, the more romantic and adventurous of the eligible young ladies have already set their caps for him, determined to be the one to mend his wicked ways. It will be interesting to catch a first glimpse of the mysterious Colonel, and see if he stands up to his rather dramatic reputation.

I shall write more after the Littletons’ fête, as doubtless I shall have more to report then. Janet sends her best wishes along with an invitation to call once your confinement has ended.

Your loving friend,

Elizabeth


~12 June 1813
10 Avalon Close, London

Dear Samantha–

I write in haste, praying this letter reaches you before the London papers, which I know your husband has been known to take. There will be a great deal of talk, I am sure, but you at least must know the truth.

Colonel Sheppard is every bit the rake that rumour has made him out to be! I have been made a scandal before the whole Ton, and the worst of it is that I know I am as guilty as he, and yet do not know if I even care. Now, lest you make any assumptions regarding the nature of this scandal, let me return to the beginning and tell the whole tale in order.

Our first weeks in London were spent making sure that Kate and Laura both had suitable wardrobes for the Season, and let me tell you, it was no easy task! Yet in the light of more recent events, I feel safe in stating briefly that Laura was naturally the root of it, and leaving the matter at that. Once that was accomplished, their Season began in earnest with the fête at Lord Ernest and Lady Catherine’s. Much to my immediate relief, neither Kate nor Laura lacked for dancing partners, and neither did Laura tread too severely on the feet of any of hers. It seems the dancing lessons I persuaded Stephen to arrange for her whilst she was recovering from the incident with her horse have paid off!

I was quite content to sit out, knowing that no one would approach me as long as I still wore mourning for Simon. I took the opportunity to study the company–one might say the competition. Mr. McKay was there, along with his sister, Miss Jean McKay, who is as perfectly lovely as described–I had a chance to speak with her briefly, and she began by apologizing for her brother’s behaviour towards you. Apparently he told her of it and received a firm dressing down in return. If only more men had such sisters!

Lord Beckett was also present, much to the astonishment of all, as he is said to rarely leave that remote Scottish castle of his except when called upon by the King himself. He asked Laura to dance twice, which I take to mean that she did not address him too informally, tread too hard upon his toes or do aught else that would have revealed her to be the unruly child she truly is. (I say with affection, of course!)

After about half an hour, I was finally given a glimpse of the mysterious Colonel Sheppard! He entered the room and all eyes immediately went to him, which was how I knew who he was. And truthfully, he is a handsome gentleman–long dark hair pulled back in the fashion of the regiment, warm hazel eyes and a little boy’s smile. One could almost hear the collective sigh from the unwed young ladies present. Then, Samantha, I tell you my heart nearly stopped, for he cast a disinterested glance about the room…and then settled his eyes on me! I saw him lean over to speak to Mr. McKay, who glanced at me and then turned to give him some answer. I thought that would be the end of it, but no, his eyes never left mine.

At this point, I fear a most unseemly blush began to colour my face, for the look in those eyes–I tell you it was something no unmarried woman should ever see from a stranger. Nor a married one from any man but her husband! I gathered my scattered wits about me and deliberately looked away. Yet still I could feel the heat of his eyes upon me.

Nor did it stop there, or while I might still be privately scandalized, none but the two of us should know of my shame. I had almost persuaded myself that it was once again safe to stop staring at the wall when I saw movement out of the corner of my vision. When I looked up, there he was, so close that I could see his uniform had been freshly pressed and all his buttons newly polished. He introduced himself with a polite little bow, and then promptly asked me to stand up the next waltz with him! I turned him down, of course, but not as easily as you might think. But then, you know how I love to waltz, so perhaps it would not surprise you.

Regardless, a true gentleman would have taken my refusal to heart, along with the gentle reminder that I am still wearing mourning. Colonel Sheppard, however, merely leaned closer and whispered too low for anyone but myself to hear: “Come on, Elizabeth. Haven’t you ever wanted to just forget about what people think for a little while and live your life?” (He must have been in the Americas for a long while–he even talks like a Colonial!)

He held out his hand, and heaven help me, Samantha, I took it, without even correcting his casual form of address. I cannot in good conscience explain myself, except perhaps that it has been so long since a man has asked me to waltz that I forgot myself. I certainly forgot myself during the dance–it was so lovely to be waltzing again! Sense returned to me, of course, as soon as the music had stopped–I rather wonder that it didn’t stop as soon as we stepped onto the floor, as surely the musicians must have been a shocked as everyone else–and I thanked him and moved to return to my seat. The more fool I, for thinking a man so brazen would be content with just one dance! No, he caught my arm as I was leaving, and before the night was out we had stood up every dance together.

When the evening concluded and I was safely ensconced once again in the carriage with Kate and Laura for the drive home, I of course felt mortified at my own behaviour. Yet, I would be lying to you if I said a part of me was not also in rapture. I had resigned myself to the dull, spinsterish life of a chaperon, yet you know as well as I that I have always been too much of a romantic for my own good. Perhaps this should be a lesson to me about letting my heart rule my head. Of course, it would have been easier if my two charges had not plied me the entire ride home with questions about the mysterious Colonel Sheppard.

Perhaps had it ended there, my reputation might still be intact, despite the drubbing it took at the fête. However, the next morning while I was in the kitchen supervising the preparation of our luncheon to distract myself, Peter–our butler–came in to announce that a Colonel John Sheppard had come to call. In the vain hope that he had asked me to dance last night with the purpose of ferreting out how best to charm me into trusting him with my charges, I sent Peter back to inquire which of the ladies he wished to call upon: Miss Highgate or Miss Caldwell.

I should only have been so fortunate. No, the reply he sent back was that while he was sure Miss Highgate and Miss Caldwell were both quite charming, it was Mrs. Wallace with whom he desired to speak.

Flustered as I have not been since the night Simon called to propose, I ordered Peter to have tea laid out in the blue parlour, and I would greet him there. I then took myself quickly upstairs to freshen up, as though I were a flighty child rather than a grown woman and a widow!

Upon returning downstairs, I greeted him as formally as possible considering the way my heart was palpitating in my chest. He thanked me for my company last night at the fête, and then began to ask me questions about myself. The truly remarkable thing, however, is that he listened to the answers! You may recall from our own Season how rare this was: most men would make enough inquiries for polite conversation, yet it was clear that their preferred topic of conversation was themselves–how much they had a year, their titles and their properties. My attempts to elicit any information from Colonel Sheppard (and I did not ask after his annual income–I still retained that much sense of propriety!) were met mostly with evasion. I only caught his interest when I inquired about the name of his estate. He looked surprised and even pleased to discover that I had read Plato, and he spent the next several minutes quizzing me about the classics. I daresay I need not tell you how pleasing it was to speak with a man who did not sniff and look down his nose upon me, commenting that reading gave women airs and led them to forget their proper place. Perhaps there is something to be said for a man who is so improper!

I will tell you, we talked for nearly two hours. It was only when Peter came to tell me that luncheon was ready, and would I like it laid out in the parlour, that John–for so he has insisted I address him!–took his leave. And I, I am left in a state of utter mortification, for I have realized that I truly do not know what I will say or do if I see him again. Kate and Laura are both seething with envy, and I can only imagine what the other chaperons will be saying about me by the time this reaches you.

And oh dear, here I have been so caught up in my own troubles that you must think I never even received your letter of a week past. Mark has behaved shamefully–to accuse your father of a dalliance with the parlour maid when there is no evidence to suggest such a thing! I am not surprised that he has been disinherited–perhaps once he can no longer live in the fashion to which he has become accustomed, your brother will come to his senses and beg forgiveness. Nevertheless…I think, having read this letter, you will understand (or rather I hope you will) why I say that I only wish a troublesome brother were the greatest of my problems!

Do write and advise me what I should do about the dreadful Colonel. I know you well enough to know your advice will be correct even if not strictly sensible, for you have never yet advised me wrongly.

Your flustered,

Elizabeth


~30 June 1813
10 Avalon Close, London

Dear Samantha–

Simon was a good man and a good husband, and he provided comfortably for me, for which I am grateful. If we did not marry for love, I did come to love him, and I do miss him.

Still, I suppose it is not speaking ill of the dead to confess that you are right: he never was the great, passionate romance I had longed for when we were young and concealing Penny Dreadfuls in our reticules to read by candlelight after retiring to bed, only to be caught and have them thrown upon the fire before we had the chance to discover how they ended! Therefore I have decided to take your advice to heart, in spite of your caveat. For I too, Samantha, wish to know how this tale shall end!

In keeping with that decision, when an invitation arrived only days after your letter–an invitation for Kate, Laura and I to attend a dinner party at Colonel Sheppard’s London house–I sat down at once to write out our acceptance. It is not Atlantis, but I thought at least I might be able to satisfy myself (and you, of course!) regarding a few more of the rumours surrounding him.

The dinner party was set for Thursday last, with dancing to follow. I, of course, wore my standard mourning, but Kate looked stunning in a pale green crape, and miraculously Laura managed not to stain, tear, wrinkle or otherwise destroy her powder-blue silk. I do not know whether it was for my sake, or whether she has truly begun to mend her reckless ways, but for the evening she truly looked the part of a young lady.

Also in attendance were Mr. McKay and his sister, Lord Beckett and his mother, a Major Lorne whom I did not know, and a charming gentleman from Russia or somewhere thereabouts by the name of Zelenka. It was quite an intimate affair, and I assure you Kate and Laura and I were quite the envy of the Ton once word got about! Of course, society being what it is, a good deal of the talk was speculation regarding the nature of my relationship with John, and I will not pretend not to be injured by some of what managed to make its way back to my ears. What truly frightens me, though, is that it ought to have offended me a great deal more than it did. Truthfully, Samantha, I feel as though I were a great ship riding the crest of a wave that has no end. I am sure before the season is out, life shall have dropped once more into the trough, but I simply cannot bring myself to care as much as I ought.

I think it is quite probable that I am in love! Heaven help me when John tires of me, as I know he must for every other rumour has proved true–what else am I meant to conclude but that he is every bit the rake that gossip holds him to be? Yet if so, I cannot help but see what gives him such allure, for he treats a woman as though she were his equal or even his better!

Before I wander off on starlit paths and wind up penning you a Penny Dreadful of my own, however, I am sure you wish to know the particulars of the dinner party.

Very well, then, I shall tell you. It was not quite like any dinner party I ever attended, nor am likely to again, perhaps due to the presence of so many foreigners. And on the subject of foreigners, I must reveal that I have met the Native servants! They are a man and wife, with the rather remarkable names of Ronon and Teyla, and what is truly extraordinary is that they are not slaves, indentured, or paid servants. Rather they are friends of John, who came across the sea with him because they desired to see his homeland, and serve him because they possess skills that a man of his upbringing does not and it is their pleasure to do so. In spite of this–perhaps because of it–I have never seen a household better kept or more pleasantly so.

I must confess I half expected them to dress in skins and speak in pidgin, as they always do in the memoirs of great explorers. On the contrary, both speak English quite well, dress simply but modestly, and have mingled with the white man nearly all their lives. Truly, I felt myself ashamed of the conclusions I had drawn on so little evidence, but Teyla graciously pardoned me and thanked me for my willingness to look beyond my prejudice. Then she said something quite extraordinary, something I have not been able to remove from my thoughts.

I must ask you, though, before I reveal what it was, not to speak a word of this to anyone! What scandal John’s attentions to me have already caused are nothing to the row that would result should it become known that he associates himself with heathens, for while Teyla and Ronon appear quite civilized, they are not Christians. Indeed, Teyla is some sort of priestess among her own people, believed to have strange powers, amongst them the ability to see the future.

And this, Samantha is what I find so remarkable, and what you must never reveal to another soul, not even your husband. Teyla told me that John came to her once, for counsel. His father had died and left his son his entire estate, but with the caveat that John was to inherit only if he returned to England to take possession of Atlantis and find a wife. It seems the elder Sheppard was not pleased that his son had not yet borne an heir of his own. John did not wish to be forced into a loveless marriage and thus was inclined to disregard his father’s terms and allow the estate to pass in its entirety to a cousin. He sought Teyla’s advice because she was the wise woman for her village, and she counselled him to make the journey–that it would not be in vain–because she had seen my face in a vision.

Can this be possible? Reverend Kinsey would say that Scripture calls such power the work of the devil, and I am wicked indeed to take such hope from it, but how can hope ever be wicked? I need hope now, for my heart is lost and will surely be broken if not for some miracle. It is said that God works in mysterious ways–is it not possible that he could work even through a heathen?

And here I have done it again; I have let my thoughts wander. You must think by now that I spent the entire evening conversing with the staff! Far from it–though that may have been the most remarkable part of the evening, it was not nearly the sum of it.

As it often does when there are many gentlemen at table, conversation over dinner soon turned to the subject of war, both that being waged against Napoleon and–dearer to Mr. McKay’s heart, though of far lesser importance, according to Mr. Zelenka–the war in the Americas. I do not know if it was John’s presence that emboldened me, but when Mr. McKay and Mr. Zelenka began to argue whether Mother England should attempt to reclaim her recalcitrant colonies or concentrate our efforts upon curtailing Monsieur Bonaparte’s ambitions in Europe, I found myself unable to keep silent.

“While Mr. McKay has reason to be proud of his fellow colonists’ success in repelling the American invaders, it seems unwise to have our fighting forces spread so thinly at such a time,” I stated, nearly as surprised to hear myself speak as the rest of the party must have been!

To my even greater shock, they did not at once dismiss me as a woman and therefore necessarily ignorant of men’s affairs. Rather, Mr. McKay turned to me and said, “The Royal Navy would be far more thinly spread were it not for the very seamen whom the Americans take such issue with our impressing. For all we know, they may support the French: it was them, after all, who enabled the colonies to win their ridiculous little rebellion. If we are to defeat Emperor Bonaparte, we must first subdue the Americans.”

“Does it not support Napoleon’s ambitions more to have half His Majesty’s Navy occupied not in French waters, but across the ocean? For every American sailor we have impressed, we lose Englishmen daily in the attempt to keep them.” I pointed out, suddenly grateful for my dreadfully improper habit of reading the papers in their entirety, not just the Society pages. “It also seems to me that a man fighting a war neither he nor his countrymen support would be more likely to desert, perhaps even turn traitor. Would it not be wiser to have sought an alliance with the Americans, rather than a conflict?”

“They sought the conflict, not us,” John argued, but in despite of that his smile never faded, and I felt strangely as though he were proud of me. “I don’t know that I’d go so far as to try to conquer the old colonies again, but McKay’s people–not to mention Teyla and Ronon’s–have every right to defend their territory against invasion.”

“I agree with Mrs. Wallace,” Mr. Zelenka spoke, only adding to my amazement. “Your Army and Navy are fighting two wars when one has already proved quite difficult enough to win.”

“And I suppose you have a better solution?” Mr. McKay asked in a most impolite tone of voice.

“Diplomacy,” I suggested. “Let each side voice its grievances, and see if a compromise can be reached. Rather than impressing sailors, impress upon the Americans how crucial it is to defeat Napoleon. Remind them also that it was the regime of the late King of France, not of Monsieur Bonaparte, who was their ally. Monsieur Bonaparte envisions himself as a new Caesar; why should he be content with the conquest of Europe, when he could reclaim territories that France has lost or sold in the Americas? Rome sought to rule the world–it seems conscionable that this new Caesar’s ambitions would be no less grand in scope.”

The debate lasted the duration of two further courses in a similar vein, and whilst it concluded with none at table persuaded of the other’s position, when the remainder of the guests arrived after dinner, I had not only Mr. Zelenka and John, but also to my great surprise, Mr. McKay, approach me to thank me for my thoughts!

Perhaps the rare atmosphere of that dinner emboldened me still further, for after when John approached me at the first dance to stand up with him, I did not hesitate, but took his hand at once and held my head as high and proud as if I were never married and being courted by the Prince of Wales!

“I knew you had that in you,” John told me once we had attained the dance floor–strange, how such a public place can be so private with the correct partner!

“Then you appear to know me better than I know myself,” I replied, a little breathless. “I must confess I am amazed that none of the gentlemen of your acquaintance took offense at my boldness. At any other gathering, I should surely have been ignored or put down for involving myself in men’s affairs.”

“So would have another Elizabeth of note, in her youth,” he pointed out with a smile. “And yet we look back on her reign as one of the greatest ages in the history of our Empire.” His hand tightened on mine and correspondingly my breath tightened also in my throat. “Perhaps what England needs is another Queen Elizabeth.”

His words sent a warmth through me that I cannot describe without resorting to language entirely too base and vulgar even for so intimate a friend as yourself. I could not help but marvel at them. “I must confess you are unlike any gentleman of my acquaintance.”

“Even your late husband?”

I suppose I should have struck him for such an impertinent question, but something told me his intent was sincere and not to offend, so instead I told him the plain truth.

“Mr. Wallace was a good man, but he was a man like any other.” I returned his smile. “Whereas you appear to be a man like no other.”

His smile became an enigma, then, and his reply was equally a cipher in its simplicity: “Good.”

There is little more to tell, except that as we had before, John and I stood up every dance together, and though I still saw the disapproving looks and whispers that followed us, I found it more and more difficult to give them any weight. Truly he has ruined me for polite society, and I know not how I shall ever go back to it. Fortunately, neither Kate nor Laura lacked for partners, so at the least their prospects have not been tainted by the odour of scandal. Of all that has transpired or might have transpired, I think that is the one thing I should regret.

It is quite late now, and I have spent far longer at writing to you than I ought, so before I find myself witness to the dawn without ever having slept, I shall close this letter and leave any other news–which truthfully, I cannot recall now in any event–for later.

Once again, I cannot express my gratitude for your counsel to follow my heart. It may lead me only over a precipice, but I have not been happier than I am now in all my recollection.

Thus I remain your devoted,

Elizabeth


~8 August 1813

Dear Samantha,

I must crave your forgiveness for having neglected our correspondence for so long, yet when you hear what I have to tell, I think you will understand. I am once again a married woman–John asked me to marry him, and since we both knew Father would never grant his consent until my time of mourning is finished, and even then probably not to John, we decided to elope!

My one hesitation as ever was Kate and Laura–to abandon them in the midst of the season, without a chaperon, would be a dreadful thing indeed and beyond even my newfound taste for scandal. Yet as it happens, I need not have worried! Both the girls have found avid suitors from amongst Colonel Sheppard’s friends, and one match in particular may prove as great a surprise to you as it did to me! In the interim, Janet Fraiser has proved a wonderful co-conspirator, and has graciously agreed to shepherd them for the duration of their respective engagements, that I might be free to seize a little happiness for myself. I might reveal more, but that it is entirely likely you will see the engagements announced in the papers before you receive this letter, so I shall leave it to them to provide the details of their good fortune.

My own, however, shall not appear in the papers, or at the least not in any semblance of a good light, so you must rely upon me to reveal the entire story and thus what has occupied me so that I did not find time to write sooner.

In the weeks following the dinner party described in my last letter, John remained as attentive as ever, if not more so. He took to calling almost every day, occasionally with Mr. McKay, Lord Beckett, or Mr. Zelenka as company. Once he even brought Ronon and Teyla with him–or rather, brought them inside, as Ronon among other functions serves as his driver. Upon a whim, I invited Peter as well to join us for tea that day. Being far more proper and mindful of his place than I, he of course refused, but I cannot help but wonder what might have transpired had he not.

If I had been enamoured before these calls, I am even more so following them, for John continued to surprise and pleasantly at each turn, never more so than in the days before Lord Admiral Hammond’s fête.

As this was to be the event of the season, I took myself, Kate and Laura all to the modiste for new gowns. While mine was to be the simplest–mourning black, still–the time spent deciding which fabrics to use for Kate and Laura were well spent indeed. For Kate, we finally settled on a pale gold silk that made her seem almost a golden statue or a Hellenic goddess. In keeping with the apparent motif of matching dresses to hair, Laura chose a lovely light coral shade, also in silk, for her own gown, and both had new shoes dyed to match.

This, as you may imagine, consumed a great deal of our time. It sometimes seems to me that native peoples such as Teyla’s have one great advantage over those of us who consider ourselves civilized in that they have no expectations of Society that must be catered to.

Regardless, the gowns were awaited with much eager anticipation, even from Laura. My enthusiasm was considerably less, as I had a great deal less to anticipate, or so I believed. I underestimated John. When the packages arrived from the modiste two days before the fête, we opened them at once so that the girls might immediately try on their gowns. Kate’s gold was first with Laura’s coral beneath it, but under both of these was not the stiff, matronly mourning black I had commissioned, but rather a dress in the same high fashion as both the girls’ but in a deep, rich red like holly berries!

I had only a moment to be furious at the mix-up before I noticed a note pinned carefully to the bodice of the gown. At Kate and Laura’s urging, I removed it and opened it, hoping it might account somehow for this error. I could never have dreamed what I would read!

The note was from John, and read accordingly:

Dear Elizabeth,

It would please me more than words can express if you would put aside mourning for one night and wear this to the Lord Admiral’s party instead.

Love,
John

It is a testament to how profoundly I have changed in just a few short months that it did not even occur to me to be offended by the brazenness of the gift, or of the colour. (Despite the impropriety of it, red has always been one of my best colours, something you know I always rued.) A week later, another parcel arrived–this time a jeweller’s box, containing the most breathtaking ruby necklace I have ever seen, and matched eardrops. Once again, there was a note from John, asking that I wear them to the Lord Admiral’s fête.

By now, I probably do not need to tell you that I did, indeed, wear his gifts to the fête. I imagine it has been splashed across every Society page in every paper in the Empire by now, that the Widow Wallace attended the event of the season dressed up like a scarlet woman! Yet I can say with confidence and even a little satisfaction–which I have surely earned the right to–that every eye was upon me that night. Still, had no eyes but John’s seen me the entire evening, the look of adoration in his would have been more than enough. He too was in red–in full dress uniform–so that we stood out like a splash of bright red wine amidst the seasonal grays, browns and greens of the gentlemen and summer pastels of the ladies.

We danced every dance, and once at the end of a waltz, both our faces flushed with the exercise, John leaned in close and asked me, “Would it be too scandalous if I kissed you now? I seem to have forgotten my manners while I was abroad.”

“Perhaps,” I answered with a smile that I cannot but describe as coy. (O, when did I become such a dreadful flirt?) “Yet since I met you, I seem to have acquired something of a taste for scandal.”

And so he kissed me, right there on the dance floor, in front of all of Society. I heard the shocked gasps and murmur of disapproval as my eyes closed, but only as one might hear the intrusion of the waking world on the edge of a dream, so caught up was I in his kiss. When we parted, I wanted nothing more than to linger in his arms, and it appears he had the same thought, for he leaned close and whispered in my ear.

“Marry me?”

Samantha, I promise you that my heart stopped for a moment. “What?” I asked, insensibly certain that I had misheard him.

“I know I should do this properly,” he answered. “Call on you tomorrow at your house and preface the proposal with a list of reasons why I can support you in the lifestyle you’ve become accustomed to…but I don’t think I can wait even that long. Run away with me, tonight?”

Dearly I longed to say yes, with no conditions, but I still had some surviving sense of duty. “I must think of my charges,” I protested with only half a heart. “I may have no regard left for my own reputation, but it would be unjust of me to sacrifice theirs as well.”

John smiled at me then in a strangely knowing manner. “What if I told you that will likely sort itself out by tomorrow?”

I clasped his hands tightly and whispered, “Then ask me again tomorrow.”

He began as if to protest, but I held up a staying hand. “If I had only myself to consider, I would depart with you this very moment. But I would not be so unkind to Kate and Laura as to make no provisions for them.”

John smiled then. “Then I shall call tomorrow evening.”

My heart skipped once again as I promised, “And I shall be ready.”

The rest I am sure you may discern for yourself. As John had predicted, both Kate and Laura received callers to ask their hand on the morrow, both men having already written and obtained Stephen’s blessing (with no mention of my behaviour, thank the heavens!). As soon as I saw this, I at once had a carriage sent round and rode swiftly to Janet Fraiser’s. I had attempted to keep her, as well as you, apprised of events as they unfolded, and she quite happily offered to take Kate and Laura into her household until such time as they were wed, see to their trousseaux and so forth. Cassandra too, though far too young to comprehend the true magnitude of what I had chosen to do, was delighted by the prospect of acquiring two elder sisters for the remainder of the Season.

Once that was dealt with, all that remained was to return home, where Kate and Laura both helped me pack my trunks and prepare for John’s call. I decided to wear the red silk again, as I have nothing else appropriate for a wedding–everything else I own is still in mourning black!

He arrived precisely as promised, to my delight accompanied by not only Ronon, but Teyla as well. She greeted me with a warm embrace and informed me that she was to be my personal attendant until or unless I chose to find my own. Since I had chosen not to bring our Katie with me, but rather leave her to continue to care so beautifully for Kate and Laura, I could have kissed John for his forethought. I do not imagine I shall seek to find another maid either, for in Teyla I feel sure I shall have not only a servant but a friend, and considering that I do not know now if society will ever welcome me again, I shall need every friend I can find. I know you, at least, I shall never lose, and I am grateful for that beyond the telling of it.

I am also most grateful that both Kate and Laura have become betrothed to friends of John’s, for it means that even if Stephen forbids me to see them again whilst they are still under his authority, I shall not be deprived of their company forever, only until they too are wed. Still, our parting was a tearful one.

I write this to you now from an inn. An hour ago, John and I were wed at a small chapel not far from here, and tomorrow we shall continue on to Atlantis and I shall see for the first time the grand estate of which I have so recently become mistress. It is my fervent prayer that you will come to visit us there when you are able.

In the meantime, however, it is past time I retired for the evening. John is waiting, and while I adore him for his finer qualities, patience is not among them. And in truth (if you will forgive me speaking frankly for a moment), where John is concerned, neither is it mine.

I remain forever your loving friend,

Elizabeth Sheppard

 

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