I’m trying to decide if I should post two chapters a week of this story or of Mr. Darcy’s Secret Baby. If you have an opinion, be sure to tell me!
Previous chapters: Chapter Fourteen / Chapter Thirteen / Chapter Twelve / Chapter Eleven/ Chapter Ten / Chapter Nine / Chapter Eight / Chapter Seven / Chapter Six / Chapter Five / Chapter Four / Chapter Three / Chapter Two / Chapter One
After a morning of touring the grounds of Calverton Hall and a delightful luncheon picnic in the middle of the maze, Elizabeth had been looking forward to resting before dressing for dinner. Hearing her door open, confused her, as both her maid and husband knew her wishes.
“Lizzy,” Lydia hissed. “Are you asleep?”
“I was nearly there.” Elizabeth sat up in the bed, a scold on the tip of her tongue even as she smiled. Lydia was still Lydia. Elizabeth angled her head to see Lydia’s pale face peeking from the door that led to her dressing room. “Whatever is the matter?”
She rushed to Lydia’s side, found her shaking, and directed her to the bed. Lydia sat stiffly on it. “Lyddie, what is wrong?”
Lydia began shaking her head, and she covered her face with her hands. “I can never be free of this! Why do we bother to try? I will ruin you all!”
“Hush,” Elizabeth said, peeling her sister’s hands from her face. “What are you talking about?”
“Jane seemed out of sorts last night, and now I know why! Mr. Bingley is here!”
“Did Jane tell you?” Lydia shook her head, and Elizabeth gasped. “How did you find out?”
“He came downstairs with the housekeeper to speak with the butler. I think he means to rent the house. He saw me in the hall!”
Elizabeth felt her eyes go wide. “What did he do? What did you do?”
“He was quite literally taken aback!”
“Did he say anything?”
“No. Thankfully, he recovered fast enough. The housekeeper was displeased, though, and told me to be on my way to my mistress. I know I turned as white as a ghost. I ran upstairs straight away.”
“Did you not go to Jane first?”
“She was…busy,” Lydia said with a blush. “With the duke.”
“Oh.” Elizabeth shook off her shock and discomfiture. “Well, you did right in coming to me. We should have nothing to fear. Bingley might be curious, but I do not think he would be malicious and tell anyone about your situation.”
“Even that sister of his?” Lydia asked.
“Darcy valued Bingley as a close friend for many years. I think he can be trusted to keep a confidence.”
“But they are not friends anymore,” Lydia said sadly. “Can we really trust him?”
“I will speak to my husband about it. Did anyone else see your interaction?”
Lydia’s brow furrowed as she nodded her head. “The butler was greeting Bingley from his doorway. Lady Agatha’s maid was also present.”
Elizabeth hid her feelings of concern. “Surely, it can be explained. You are very pretty. He was just struck by your beauty.”
Lydia nodded but continued to look nervous.
“Lydia, do you know that Jane and Dorset would like to raise your baby?”
“Yes, we have discussed it.”
“And do you know why?”
Lydia blushed. “I am ruining everyone’s lives, am I not?”
“Please do not say that, dearest!” Elizabeth embraced her sister. “I do not mean to guilt you. I just wanted to know your feelings on the matter. Jane and Dorset are making their own choices.”
“But it is because Wickham—”
“We all wanted Wickham away from Kitty. You and she both made reckless and imprudent decisions. However, he is the one who has engineered this entire thing. Do not allow him to win by holding him blameless!”
Lydia nodded meekly.
“If you know why they wish to adopt your child, then you can understand why it is dangerous if more people than are necessary discover the truth.
“Yes, I understand.”
“And is it what you want? If you say the word right now, we can end the entire façade.”
“But what about Lord Liverpool’s demands?”
“We will find another way, dearest. Everyone wants what is best for you. We might disagree on what that is, but your opinion matters the most.”
“I had not decided,” Lydia said as she rubbed her belly. “I do not think I have felt as most mothers do when they are expecting a baby. I am not in love with its father and know now that I never was. He never loved me. I was just a tool for him to blackmail Darcy. In a way, he is still doing that. I see that I made my own choices in the matter, perhaps I ought to suffer the consequences. But, then I think about the baby and what would be best for it. Am I ready to be a mother? Would I be a good one? What would ever become of us?” Tears slipped down Lydia’s face.
“Shh,” Elizabeth held her sister. “We would never leave you destitute.”
“But even acknowledging me could ruin your reputation.”
“Why should I care about the opinions of others over the well-being of my sister?”
“But Mary and Georgiana—”
“Care for you too.” Elizabeth heard Nash in the dressing room. She dropped her voice. “Now, wipe your eyes. You do not have to decide anything at this moment. If you choose to keep the child, Darcy and I will support you.”
“Thank you, Lizzy,” Lydia sniffed.
“Thank you, Hilton,” Elizabeth said, using Lydia’s fictitious name just as her maid entered the room with confused and astonished eyes. “It was thoughtful of Her Grace to think of me and offer me the blue diamonds.”
Lydia curtsied and left. Elizabeth turned her eyes to her maid. “Her grace is truly the kindest woman I have ever met—but I have long known that.”
“You must be pleased to see her again,” Nash said as Elizabeth took her seat in front of the vanity.
“Indeed. I miss my sisters terribly.”
“You have four, I believe, ma’am?”
“Yes, besides Mary, there are two more younger than me. I am quite the mother hen to them sometimes.”
“I can see that about you,” Nash said as she began to unpin Elizabeth’s hair from her daytime arrangement. “When your time comes, you will be a dedicated and kind mother.”
“I hope,” Elizabeth said with a soft smile. She had begun to suspect she was with child, but it was too early to say anything to her husband. She would hate to get his hopes up just to be wrong.
Elizabeth and Nash conversed on the subject of sisters as Elizabeth readied for dinner. Just before it was time to depart for the drawing room, there was a knock on the dressing room door from the servant’s entrance. Nash answered, and there was a brief conversation before she returned with Jane’s necklace of blue diamonds.
“You look positively angelic,” Nash said.
“Thank you,” Elizabeth smiled into the mirror. “It is more than the diamonds, though. It is all your hard work. My hair has never been so well tended to or so stylishly arranged.”
“It is kind of you to say,” Nash bowed her head before gathering Elizabeth’s gloves. “Does the duchess look like you, ma’am? I have never seen her closely,” she said while holding out the gloves for Elizabeth.
“A little,” Elizabeth answered while Nash tied up the garter on the top of one glove. “All of us have certain similarities. However, Jane’s hair is lighter than mine. She is taller too. These diamonds are the perfect compliment to her eyes. It is no wonder the Duke bought them for her. The sister that most resembles her is my third sister, Kitty.”
“She is the one who married a soldier?”
“Yes.” Elizabeth tried not to sigh. With everything going on, it had slipped her mind to ask Jane if she had heard from Kitty.
“I wish her well then. My sister married a soldier too, not an officer like yours, though.” Nash frowned sadly. “Their love story was tragically short. I hope it goes better for her.”
“Thank you. My condolences to your sister.” Elizabeth squeezed her maid’s hand. Of course, she could never say that they all hoped Wickham met an untimely end upon a Spanish battlefield. “Did you know him well?”
Nash laughed. “Aye. We grew up with Tommy. He almost didn’t declare himself, but then Nancy was to travel to an aunt’s to find employment, and he couldn’t bear to see her go.”
Darcy knocked on the door, and Nash moved into a corner. Elizabeth took her husband’s arm but looked over her shoulder before leaving. “Was your sister happy even though the marriage did not last very long?”
“It was the happiest that I have ever seen her, and I know she thanks the Lord every day for the time they had and the memories she can share with their children.”
Elizabeth merely nodded in dismissal.
“What was that about?” Darcy asked.
Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders. “Nash and I were discussing our sisters. Hers had married a soldier, and he died. I was only curious about how she felt becoming a widow so soon.”
“You are not plotting my demise, are you?”
“No,” Elizabeth grinned at the tease. “Now, I shall feel bad telling you as you have teased, and my answer is too serious. I was thinking of Kitty and if she will mourn Wickham.”
They arrived in the drawing room and could no longer discuss the subject. Elizabeth took the time to observe the occupants of the room. Darcy settled in with the other gentlemen. They were to have a day of sport on the morrow. Of course, it was not the proper season for the hunt, so what that truly meant was pugilism. Elizabeth shook her head, knowing she would be tending to her husband’s face afterward.
Bingley did not seem his usual self, but then he had appeared nervous since they first arrived. She could only imagine how uncomfortable he must be in Darcy and Jane’s company once more. He often looked at Jane when he thought no one would notice. Dorset, of course, did not miss a thing. However, Bingley also looked at Mary and Elizabeth now and then. Elizabeth wondered if he was attempting to convince himself that he had not seen Lydia downstairs.
Just before the dinner gong sounded, Elizabeth realised that as she had been busy scrutinising others, she was the subject of a curious gaze herself. Lord Calverton’s mother finally approached her.
“You may be surprised to hear, Lady Darcy, that I know you by reputation.”
“Indeed, that does shock me. Do we have a common acquaintance?”
“I have recently been a guest at Rosings Park, the residence of your husband’s aunt.”
Elizabeth caught the slip of the woman’s tongue and only wondered if it were intentional or not. Lady Catherine had decided to let it be known that she was not the daughter of an earl by birth, but rather his granddaughter, and Darcy’s elder sister. “I hope my husband’s sister was well. When did you last see her?”
“Oh, I have not seen Lady Catherine since all the vile gossip began.”
“I am unsure which rumors you reference, but she is indeed the natural daughter of my deceased mother-in-law.” Elizabeth attempted to smile to soften the blow. “How did you come to hear of me before Lady Catherine ever met me?”
“Never mind that. I find myself most curious about your family, Lady Darcy.”
Elizabeth squared her shoulders. This could hardly be worse than a session with Lady Catherine or any of the other rude ladies of the ton.
“What would you like to know, my lady?”
“These are your sisters.” She nodded toward Mary and Jane. “Your mother must be well-pleased at the match your eldest sister made.”
“Indeed, she is.”
“And how did your sister meet the Duke?”
“I grew acquainted with the Duke and his family during my stay near Rosings in Kent. It is very near Knole Park, and I was fortunate enough to be their guests for a day.”
“I had understood you stayed at Rosings, not near it. You were not a guest of Lady Catherine’s?” The Marchioness frowned.
“Her ladyship was kind enough to often invite our party to her home. I was the guest of my cousin and his wife. Mr. Collins is Lady Catherine’s rector, and his wife was a dear friend.”
“I am surprised that none of your sisters married your cousin. When I met him, he seemed a very suitable match and quite well set up,” Lady Louisa observed.
“Fortunately for us all, his interests lay elsewhere.”
“Oh, Mrs. Collins is a very fine woman! Now, I surmise this cousin must be on your mother’s side then since you do not share a surname?”
Elizabeth wondered at the question. Surely she could have a cousin through her father if he had a sister. “Actually, he is a relation of my father.”
“How interesting that you have both gentlemen and rectors in your family tree. It is fortunate for your brother that he will not need a profession. Of course, we favour soldiers in our family. Except for my brother William, who is now an archbishop.”
Elizabeth glanced at Calverton, who had been neither a soldier nor in the church. How curious that his mother would eat at his table and yet seem to not acknowledge his existence. “Alas, I have no brother, and Mr. Collins will inherit the estate.”
Lady Calverton tsked. “That only makes your cousin all the more eligible. For that matter, were your mother’s relations unacceptable for some reason? Or perhaps you do not approve of marriages between cousins—although that is how many of the great families have operated for centuries.”
“My mother’s sister has no children, and her brother’s children are quite young.”
“Poor Agatha. The war has taken so many eligible young men, I despair of her ever marrying well.”
At last, Elizabeth began to understand the woman beside her. Was she angry that Elizabeth and Jane had married ‘above their station’? She surely had no interest in considering Bingley an appropriate suitor. “Perhaps your daughter-in-law may introduce Lady Agatha to young men of her acquaintance.”
“Upon my word, that would never do!”
Elizabeth nearly laughed at the woman’s reaction. She decided to stir the pot more. “Mr. Bingley has an income of five thousand a year. I know many peers are not as fortunate.” Such as Lord Calverton.
“There is truth to that,” Lady Calverton said while narrowing her eyes, “but we are not quite as desperate as that.”
No, Elizabeth had not thought so. “How does Lady Agatha feel about marrying a man much older than her? I believe there are not so many young peers that are single, but there may be a great many more that have been widowed.”
“I would much prefer that to her marrying an heir and waiting for the father to die. However, if they have any children at all, then it will never do. Everyone knows the offspring of the first wife will hate the second one and begrudge her and her children everything.”
“Of course,” Elizabeth nodded with false sympathy.
Lady Calverton leaned forward. “I believe we understand one another, Lady Darcy. I would be most grateful if you shared any of your arts with my daughter. I would ask the Duchess as well, but as I observe her, I think it was only her beauty that attracted Dorset. Agatha may not rival your sister, but she does not need as much help there. However, you ensnared Darcy, so you must have some cleverness about you.”
The insults rolled off the older woman’s tongue with all the ease of someone who fully believed she was stating simple truths without the intent to wound. She did not pause to see if her words met their marks the way those who intentionally insulted did. However, her ignorance did not mean Elizabeth had to like the woman.
Although Elizabeth had to give Lady Calverton credit for originality. She had not been told before that she was not beautiful enough for Darcy. In all the insinuations that she had tricked or seduced Darcy, the greatest insult was always for him—that he had taken leave of his senses and understanding of duty.
Elizabeth was saved from having to reply by the dinner gong. Once in the dining room, Elizabeth found herself next to Lady Agatha on one side and Sarah’s eldest brother John on the other. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, John continued a discussion from the drawing room with the partner to his left, leaving Elizabeth at Lady Agatha’s mercy.
It took the entire soup course for Lady Agatha to acknowledge Elizabeth.
“Lady Darcy, I understand my mother has spoken with you about assisting me.”
“She did,” Elizabeth answered while praying that the daughter had better manners than the mother.
“As much as it pains me to ask someone like you, I beseech you to help me.”
Ah, the apple did not fall far from the tree. Both ladies had spent most of their time ignoring everyone. They now spoke to Elizabeth only for selfish and arrogant requests. “I confess that I do not understand the urgency you face. Surely your brother provides well for you, and I thought you had only just come out.”
Agatha made a face. “And you see who the woman I am forced to call sister brings into this place. At least you are the daughter of a gentleman. Did Sarah never tell you that she is the daughter of a blacksmith?”
“Her father’s position has never come up in our conversation.”
“Of course, it does not. She is rightly ashamed of it. One of her brothers has inherited the shop. The others are a grocer and a butcher. It is intolerable!”
Elizabeth scrutinised the men at the table. They were young, healthy, and dressed well. They spoke and behaved with manners, although surely not as courtly as Dorset. Still, they appeared just as amiable as Bingley and as capable of gentlemanly behaviour as Darcy or Calverton. “They seemed gentlemanly and well-educated to me.”
“You can teach a dog a trick and give it scraps from your table, but it will never make it an equal.”
Elizabeth repressed a sigh. Was there nowhere she could go without having to face such rudeness and conceit?
“Very well.” Elizabeth could not, in good conscience, assist the woman in finding a husband. However, if she failed spectacularly, Lady Agatha might learn to see past her prejudice and ignorance. “My mother always taught my sisters and me to take every opportunity. I met my husband, my cousin, who was the heir to my father’s estate and a clergyman, and a soldier in the Militia nearly at the same time. You can see who I chose.”
“Indeed, I applaud you on the match!”
“When there are many choices available, it is prudent to consider the possibilities. I never shied from a challenge, either.”
Lady Agatha nodded eagerly. “And if there are not many options?”
“Then consider the opportunity before you and snatch it up. For you do not know when another may come by.”
Lady Agatha’s eyes shot to Bingley.
“Find a way to make the match palatable to you and do not give up.”
“Do you suggest a compromise?”
“No, no. You want him to think it was his idea, of course. You also would not like to invite gossip.”
“I see. So, a lady would make her interest known?”
“I know it is contrary to what many are taught, but it is what my mother always suggested.”
Elizabeth had seen Bingley staring at Jane enough to know that he would not be caught by Lady Agatha. With any luck, he would give her quite a set down, and the ninny would learn her lesson. It would be better for her to embarrass herself at her brother’s house and with a man as gentlemanly as Bingley than with anyone else.
“Connections to an earl and a duke are quite enviable, actually,” Lady Agatha said as she glanced at Bingley again.
They did not speak again for the remainder of the meal, leaving Elizabeth to examine her motives and decision. Perhaps it was not entirely kind or truthful of Elizabeth, but could she be held accountable for someone else’s stupidity and folly? She was especially upset as she suspected Charlotte had been the one to describe Elizabeth to Lady Calverton. Between the reminder that her former best friend and betrayed her and the presence of Darcy’s old best friend who had betrayed him, it seemed some sort of vengeance was due.
As Elizabeth fell asleep that night, her conscience still niggled at her now and then. However, she also remembered the hilarious scene in the drawing room of Lady Agatha attempting to garner Bingley’s notice. At the same time, the Dowager Countess Calverton watched with horror. By the end of the evening, even Bingley seemed to have noticed Agatha’s intentions and appeared excessively uncomfortable.