To Machester, they were to go.
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A week later, they arrived at the Calverton estate just outside of Manchester. They would stay for about a week and then return to Pemberley. Darcy hoped to whisk his wife away for another holiday with only the two of them but was uncertain where to go. He had thought of Scarborough, but the Bingleys preferred that seaside resort, and Darcy did not know if he wanted to see his old friend again.
Calverton’s estate was nearly as large and ostentatious as Rosings, which did not seem to suit its present earl and countess at all. It was newly built in the last fifty years or so, and Darcy thought it was no wonder that the previous earl was in debt. The family clearly built the house for vanity. Even if there were adequate funds left over, the men who valued such things would be likely to overspend in other areas.
Calverton and his wife met the party on the steps. They were then escorted to the drawing room, where they were to be introduced to the other guests before retiring to their chambers to refresh themselves.
Upon entering the drawing room, Darcy’s feet stopped dead. He was slightly aware of a quiet gasp somewhere behind him. In truth, he could not begin to guess who had uttered it as he was confident they were all shocked at what they saw.
Calverton noticed their combined reaction and cleared his throat before introducing the guests. They included his mother and sister as well as his wife’s three brothers and their wives.
“I hope you do not mind, but I have had an unexpected visitor of my own,” Calverton said after introducing his relatives. “I had met Mr. Bingley in Scarborough. As I am considering selling or leasing the estate and Bingley is looking to buy or rent, I invited him to visit at his convenience.”
Bingley grinned at them, but Darcy could detect signs of unease around his eyes. “Thank you, Calverton, but I am much acquainted with all of your guests, except His Grace.”
“I did not realise,” Calverton said.
“Bingley and I are old friends,” Darcy said, earning a slight blush from Bingley. “I met my wife while staying at a house he leased in Hertfordshire. That is how he knows Her Grace and Miss Bennet as well.”
Bingley seemed to have trouble keeping his eyes off Jane. Dorset appeared to be very amused by the encounter. “Well, do introduce me to Mr. Bingley, at least, Calverton.”
There was a slight chuckle from the assembled parties before Calverton performed the office. Their host seemed unsure what to do next, but thankfully his wife took over.
“Well, now that we have all that settled, let us show you to your chambers. We dine at six o’clock, but should you need refreshment before then, merely let us know. If you do not wish to rest before dinner, we shall happily await you here.”
Lady Calverton escorted them to their rooms. Darcy and Elizabeth had separate chambers with a sitting room between them. While Calverton Hall was large and likely designed with more than one stateroom as that was the recent fashion, he was both gratified and disappointed that they had been given such rooms. He would not have minded in the least if he shared a room with Elizabeth. As it was, one bed would be entirely unused.
After cleaning himself, he wrapped himself in a banyan and knocked on his wife’s door. Hearing no answer, he called, “Lizzy, can I come in?”
When she still did not answer, he opened the door to find the room empty. In the dressing room, he found Elizabeth in only a thin chemise, and the sight stole his breath. She was bent upside down with her back to him as she combed through her wet hair. Silently, Darcy leaned against the wall to enjoy his view for several moments.
As she began to stand up, he said in a husky voice, “Shall you turn around now, so I may admire your other side as well?”
Elizabeth startled and let out a gasp before giggling. She turned on Darcy and shook her finger at him. “Shame on you for sneaking up on me.”
“I did knock,” Darcy said as he approached her. “When I entered here, all capability of speech left me.”
“Did it now? And you were always so capable of talking?”
“Oh no,” Darcy said as he reached her and ran a hand over her arm. “I much prefer action.”
Elizabeth shivered at his touch. She wrapped her arms around his neck and ran her fingers over the still damp curls at the base of his neck. Moaning, Darcy trailed kisses down her throat while walking her backward to the bed in the other room. When her knees touched the mattress, she leaned back. Darcy followed, balancing on his elbows.
He murmured into her ear as his hands caressed her body. “Well, I guess this answers one question I had.”
“What is that?” Elizabeth asked in a breathy voice.
“Which bed we were going to use for our stay. Unless you would rather try the other one next time?”
Elizabeth laughed before turning her head to kiss Darcy deeply. “I prefer action too. Enough talking.”
Later, they lay in bed and discussed the surprise of seeing Bingley.
“Do you wish to leave?” Elizabeth asked him.
“No,” Darcy sighed. “Perhaps fate is allowing Bingley and I an opportunity to mend our friendship. I do not think it can be as it once was, but I will accept it if he is willing to apologize. I am not blameless either.”
“You did not conceal Jane’s presence in London so he might, one day, marry Georgiana. It is hardly the same thing.”
“No, but I thought I knew best for him, and I went to deceitful lengths for it.”
“Bingley did not think Caroline would be the best wife for you. He thought it would be a great match for her and cement his own opportunities to have such a connection. He was motived by selfishness.”
As uncomfortable as such a conversation was, Darcy’s most significant emotion was pride in Elizabeth’s defense of him. “That is true. Although I have been selfish at times too, and I believe you have told me it is a forgivable offense. Bingley has given me no reason to fear that he is truly a schemer at heart.”
Elizabeth made a noncommittal sound, and Darcy kissed her forehead. “Do you worry about Jane?”
“I have no fear of impropriety happening on either side. I do worry that seeing Bingley again might open wounds that have not entirely healed for Jane. However, she does not have a weak character, and Bingley is not immoral. Jane will scold herself into happiness if she has any regrets, and that will be the end of it.” Elizabeth sighed. “Still, it must have been a shock for her.”
“It was a shock for us all.” Darcy’s eyes slid to the clock in the room. “It is well past time to dress. I think I heard Nash in your dressing room a few minutes ago, and I have no doubt that Andrews is waiting for me.”
“I hope that Calverton’s family will get along with Sarah’s, for her sake.”
“If anyone can help bridge a gap between diverse people, it is you, my dear,” Darcy said with a kiss to his wife’s cheek before leaving the room.
As he went about dressing for dinner, he was not entirely sure that he agreed with his wife on the subject of Bingley and Jane. He had no doubt of Jane’s commitment to her marriage vows. He had no reason to precisely think Bingley would be willing to commit an affair with a married lady or would seduce one. However, Darcy also never would have guessed that he would court Georgiana at her present age or put Caroline forward as a potential bride. Still, Darcy well knew the pain of attempting to disregard one’s heart. He feared the unexpected meeting of Jane and Bingley must bring grief to them both.
Darcy and Elizabeth were the last to arrive in the drawing room. Elizabeth apologized and blushed, but Lady Calverton insisted it was perfectly acceptable. Darcy supposed she could guess what might keep a married couple upstairs. Despite noticing Elizabeth’s anxiety, Darcy also noticed signs of distress from Georgiana. He had not thought she would be unsettled by seeing Bingley, but perhaps he had misunderstood her feelings. Bingley, Jane, and Dorset were the most talkative people in the group. Bingley and Jane seemed to be having a competition in who could involve her husband the more in conversation. Both apparently overeager to prove that they recognized the bonds of marriage.
Thankfully, dinner was soon called, and Lady Calverton seated the guests most sensibly. Although Calverton had escorted his mother and sister into the dining room, they were separated at the table. This meant no one had to bear their combined stoniness. Bingley sat beside Lady Agatha, who did her best to ignore him. Dorset was to Calverton’s right, with Jane beside him, while Darcy was on Calverton’s other side. Elizabeth did not sit next to him. Instead, she was seated next to the Dowager Calverton and one of Lady Calverton’s brothers.
Calverton spent several minutes speaking to Dorset about the local species of trees before Dorset’s attention was called away. Darcy took the opportunity to address his friend. “I would like to speak with you in privacy at some point during this party.”
“Of course,” Calverton nodded. “May I suggest before breakfast tomorrow? Sarah has planned the morning entertainment, but we should have time before we eat.” He furrowed his brow, and his eyes fell on Bingley. “I apologise if Bingley’s presence is distressing to you or any of your family. I had no idea of a prior acquaintance.”
“There is no need to apologise. I can speak more on my fractured friendship with Bingley on the morrow, although that is not what I first wish to discuss.” Darcy looked over at his old friend, who stole a look at Jane. “Well, actually, I suppose it all goes together.”
No more private discussion was possible during the meal. When the ladies separated from the gentlemen, Darcy used the time to observe Bingley and Dorset. He had expected Dorset to flaunt his status, or at least his claim on Jane. Instead, he seemed to find Bingley amusing.
Wondering how the ladies fared, Darcy nearly leapt from his seat when Calverton announced it was time to go to the drawing room. This time, he did not see as much distress on anyone’s faces. Elizabeth chatted with Lady Agatha, Calverton’s sister. His mother looked on with a shrewd expression on her face. Georgiana and Mary sat with Calverton’s sisters-in-law, leaving Jane and Lady Calverton in another set.
With the arrival of the men, the card tables were brought out. Lady Calverton’s brothers appeared to be a well-mannered and jovial lot. Darcy looked forward to furthering his acquaintance with them. However, they did not play for long. An early evening was in order after the travel of the day.
Arising before Elizabeth the next morning, Darcy went through his ablutions as quickly as possible. He was unsure how long his discussion with Calverton would take and did not wish to rush it. He found his friend in his study.
Calverton asked for him to be seated, offered refreshment, and then motioned at the ledgers on his desk. “I never would have dreamed balancing accounts would be so difficult. No matter how many times I do it, it always comes out a mess.”
“I would be pleased to assist you if you wish for my opinion.”
“Thank you, that would be most helpful. Now,” Calverton clapped his hands together. “You said you needed to speak with me in private.”
Darcy nodded before laying out the events of the last few months while Calverton listened in silence. When Darcy had finished, he said, “I wanted you to know in case the scandal breaks. I did not want you to feel I had concealed information from you, and you be tainted by the association.” In short, Darcy had learned from his mistakes with Bingley.
Calverton shrugged. “I do not care one jot for the opinion of London, and neither does Sarah. They can all rot. They are nothing but a bunch of hypocritical biddies. How many of Society’s ladies have affairs? If their mothers will do such in marriage, how virtuous can their daughters be? I am not convinced all of them begin their marriages as virgins, and if, by chance, they do, it does not mean they will remain chaste after saying their vows.”
Darcy raised his brows. He had not expected such vehement feelings. “Is this one reason why Lady Calverton appealed to you so much? She was not from the ton?”
“You know how it is,” Calverton said. “Lady Darcy was not either. We both knew we could not find the sort of woman we desired in the London ballrooms.”
“Yes, in my heart, I knew it was useless to even spend time with all the debutantes thrust upon me. Back to the matter at hand, you will stand beside us should the worst happen?”
“Of course! I will throw more punches for you, too, if it comes to that.”
Darcy laughed, and Calverton joined in.
“Where is the young lady now?” Calverton asked.
“She is still posing as Jane’s maid.”
“She is here?”
“Yes,” Darcy confirmed.
“That puts the issue of Bingley into a different light.”
Darcy sighed. “I had not considered what would happen if Bingley were to discover Lydia, but I do not think he would expose us. He cares for Jane too much.”
“You have already explained how he did not care enough for her feelings earlier. Do you think he has changed so much?”
“I hope he has seen his error. I have often thought that Bingley was too eager to please. He feels the pressure of being agreeable far more than you or I do. I had manipulated that feeling. It does not surprise me that his sister was capable of doing the same. Indeed we were allies of a sort.”
“I suppose Bingley must see his weakness between losing his suit to Dorset and the loss of your friendship.”
“I hope so,” Darcy said.
“Do you think there will be trouble between him and Dorset?”
“Neither one are the sort to let such a thing occur. Dorset is confident in his position, and Bingley hates confrontation.”
“And the duchess?”
“I have no doubt that she will keep her vows to the very letter. However, my wife is concerned about possible mental anguish, which, in turn, troubles me.”
“Quite understandably,” Dorset murmured. He pulled out his watch. “We ought to eat. Sarah will be displeased if her plans are delayed by us.”
“Let us go, lest we draw the ire of your missus,” Darcy laughed as they exited the room.