Lady Darcy’s Bluestocking Club–Chapter Three

I’ve gotten behind on this story. I’m sorry! I’ve been sick a few weeks. Additionally, I am trying to finished Treasured. I should have Chapter Four ready next week, though.

Previous chapters: One / Two

Chapter Three

 

A day or two after they arrived in London, Darcy entered his club. He hadn’t been in there since he met with Bingley and before he left for Easter in Kent. He was hailed by a few acquaintances and greeted them civilly, noting he attracted more onlookers than ever before. Settling into his usual seat, he overheard a nearby discussion.

“I am surprised to see Darcy,” said one man. “I heard he was in Hertfordshire for a sister-in-law’s wedding.”

“One of many,” another said.

“Indeed,” the first man said. “It is good his wife comes from such a good breeder.”

Darcy tensed at the vulgar term but remained silent.

“Ah, but no sons,” said the first.

“Pemberley has no need of a male heir, and if they never are blessed with children, Miss Darcy will tend to the Darcy legacy. The estate—and the title.”

“How old is Miss Darcy? She should be making her come out soon.” A young man with eager eyes spoke up.

Darcy could not remember who he was. Undoubtedly, he would like a connection to a barony and a hefty dowry.

“I would rather hear about those sisters-in-law,” the first said. “I have heard they are all out and nearly all as beautiful as Lady Darcy.”

“Have you seen her? Darcy keeps her locked up!”

“Interesting that—he must be ashamed to have been taken in by a fortune hunter. Can she be so beautiful if he will not squire her about?”

“One just married a duke. You cannot claim the family is too low now.”

Darcy had heard enough. Standing, he glared at the group of men before stalking out. Had he never fully registered before how men talked about women? As though they were worth nothing more than for their pleasure, to make heirs, or to enhance their accounts? He turned to leave and did not know if he would ever return. His poor wife. He could only hope she had a better experience with the ladies who had called on her.

Enroute to his home, Darcy considered what he had heard. He had been disgusted at the time, but now he also felt pity. The men were ignorant and would never know the joys of being loved and respected by a strong woman. Perhaps it was not entirely their fault. The usual gentleman’s education did not include much in the way of thinking of women as equals. However, they had ample opportunity and means to rectify their lack of intelligence.

He had not thought as seriously about the matter of opening a school for ladies as anything more than a promise to his aunt. He had seen the worth in educating women, of course. However, he had never considered it as imperative for the entire human race. The only way to end ignorant talk like he had just heard was by showing the world what educated women could do and by proving some men were unafraid of them.

Arriving at Darcy House, he waved his butler off with news of letters in the study and cards from callers and climbed the stairs to the drawing room where he expected to find his wife. He found Georgiana and Mary seated at the pianoforte working on a duet.

“Where is Elizabeth?”

Mary and Georgiana exchanged a glance.

“Where is she?” Darcy demanded. “Is she unwell? Was someone unkind to her?”

Why had he left her alone for calls this morning? She had insisted she was ready to face the ton, but he had wanted to be at her side. He was racing through the hallway to her chamber when he heard her voice call out to him from the other end of the hall. Turning around, he saw her give him a curious look and approached.

“Were you looking for me?” she said sweetly and seemed unaffected by anything.

“Indeed. When you were not in the drawing room, I assumed something awful happened.”

Elizabeth raised her brow and tapped her foot but said nothing.

Darcy hung his head. “And I ought to know by now not to make assumptions. Forgive me, love.”

“You did not think that I could tolerate a morning of calls from the ton’s finest?”

He approached and kissed her forehead. “Can you blame me for being over-protective?”

“Do other husbands think their wives are made of glass? What do men at your club say?”

Darcy did not want to think about that just now. “I do not think you are made of glass. I simply regret the convention that says I must spend so much time away from my new bride. I also know there are many vicious and petty ladies in the world.”

“This would not be my first time meeting vicious or petty ladies. I am not Fanny Bennet’s daughter for nothing and let us not forget I have known Caroline Bingley.”

“You are quite correct. So, nothing of note happened today?” He knew Elizabeth was strong, but he also knew how much it hurt her when she learned of Mrs. Collins’ low opinion of her.

“No, it all went as I expected. How was your day?”

Darcy frowned. It going as she expected was not the same as saying it went well or she thought some of the ladies were friendly. Why had he not asked Dorset’s mother to sit with her? Or Lady Catherine could have come from Rosings. Few would dare to say anything against her.

“Shall we not join our sisters? I can ring for tea,” Elizabeth said.

“They are employed in their own pursuits,” he said with a slow-growing smile. “And I was in pursuit of you.” He captured her hand and began leading her down the hall.

“William, we cannot.” Elizabeth looked around nervously. “It is the middle of the day! Our sisters must have heard us conversing. What will they think when we do not return to them?”

“That it is far better we are affectionate with each other in private than in public and everything else they will understand when they are married.”

“Affectionate in public—”

Darcy interrupted whatever else Elizabeth intended to say with a kiss. One hand nestled at her waist, the other stroked up and down her back. After a few moments, he pulled back. “Please, Lizzy.”

“Ben,” Elizabeth whispered but nodded.

Sometime later, as they relaxed in Elizabeth’s chamber, Darcy told her about the visit to his club. “I do not know that I will go back.”

“Are all the gentlemen that way?”

“No. Of course not,” Darcy shook his head. “In truth, I have barely said more than a word or two to any of those men.”

“And you have enjoyed the place in the past?”

Darcy thought for a moment. It had meant little to him that he had not been there in weeks. However, there were times when he desired male company. At the moment, his friendship with Bingley was severed. Nor had he and Richard made amends. The only other man he had been around in weeks was the Duke—currently honeymooning—and Elizabeth’s father. In the past, the club had offered a possibility of socialization without the dreaded experience of a lady seeking a husband. True, there were always fathers and brothers looking for a wealthy match for the women in their lives. However, he was never forced into dancing with anyone there. Additionally, it was easier to leave if anyone annoyed. At a ball or soiree, there would always be the possibility of giving offense and wounding a lady’s sensibilities if he seemed bored by her prattle.

“It has had its merits,” Darcy said.

“You cannot sit at the house with me all day,” Elizabeth said gently and rubbed his back. “Not that I enjoy the confinement that much.”

Darcy winced. “I ought to have considered that you were used to company more. I know your mother entertained often.” He sighed. “Would you like to host a dinner party?”

Elizabeth chuckled. “You will not put me off this topic. However, since you have asked, I do not wish to host one yet. However, soon we must. It is what is expected of us, and if I am ever to make real friends in this Society, then I will have to play hostess. I never really enjoyed my mother’s parties. It is not as though the guests were usually fascinating people with interesting conversation. I suppose I miss my routine. My sisters and I would walk to Meryton almost every day. We would look at the shops and meet with acquaintances. Occasionally, we would make new friends. My world here seems very small by comparison.”

Elizabeth paused and gave her husband a stern look. “We were talking about you. Is avoiding the club why you wished to stay home today?”

“I did not have any expectation that I would hear such vulgar, insensitive words. I did, however, have an inkling that it would be more unpleasant than usual. The last time I was there was with Bingley. Looking back, he was fishing for information about the barony and ran home to tell his sister I was searching for a Bluestocking. I do not know if I wished to avoid the memory or just was not desirous of company. As it happens, I have no close male friends left.”

“Well,” Elizabeth said with a small smile, “it is not unusual for men to give up some acquaintances upon marriage. There will be nothing unusual about that or inviting critique. Surely you have some men that you do not know as well as others that might be worthy of elevation. Or you may meet new friends. You can be a charming conversationalist when you try. If you no longer prefer the club, what about another pursuit? As for the rest, I have been told a charming wife may be of use.” Elizabeth batted her lashes before laughing at her antics.

“Lucky that I have a very charming wife.” He leaned in for a kiss.

Elizabeth melted against him for a minute before pulling back and placing a hand on his chest. “We really should join our sisters now. We will scandalize them!”

She began to move away from the bed, but Darcy tugged on her hand to still her movements.

“Do you have something more to say?” Elizabeth asked, looking over her shoulder at him.

“I do not mean to pressure you about the ladies’ club. I know you wanted to do it out of reverence for my aunt, but I can see now how needed it is. Not only do ladies deserve a club of their own and their education should be supported for their own sake, I see now some men must learn an intelligent woman is nothing to fear. The school my aunt suggested is a most excellent idea.”

Darcy saw a flicker of terror enter Elizabeth’s eyes before she smiled. “Of course, both are marvelous notions, and I am committed to both. I would prefer to gain my footing in this world first. I must let them see who I am before I can ask for their support. If I cannot hold my own in our home, how should I ever manage such a fete?”

“There is nothing you cannot do, my love,” Darcy said and raised her hand to his lips. “I will trust you to know when the time is right. I only wanted to let you know that my feelings on the subject have changed from one of obligation to keen interest.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth nodded. “Now, how shall we explain our absence to our sisters?”

Darcy stood and walked around the bed. “We say nothing unless they ask. Then you can say you were busy with whatever it was you were doing before I returned.” Darcy paused as he focused on stepping into his trousers. “What was it you were doing? You never answered me.”

“I was with the housekeeper, darling.” Elizabeth’s voice was muffled as she held hairpins in her mouth. “Can you lace me up?”

Darcy smiled at the request. He did not know what other husbands and wives did. Did they call their maid and valet back upstairs to assist in redressing after a mid-day interlude? Whatever the others did, he did not care. He enjoyed these intimate moments with Elizabeth. He was growing quite adept at ladies garments. He smiled at the roguish thought.

Elizabeth turned when he had finished and looked at him. “What is that smirk for?”

“No reason,” he said as he sat on the edge of the bed so she could tie his cravat. “I wonder if Andrews fears for his position. You would make a fine valet.”

“You should be careful teasing the one who wraps linen around your neck,” Elizabeth said and tugged on the fabric for emphasis.

“I am all atremble,” Darcy laughed. “Why did you meet with Mrs. Lewis?”

“No, I simply wished to go over some menu plans. What shall we say you were doing?”

They now stood by the door, hand in hand. “The butler informed me of your whereabouts, and so I returned to my study.”

“And if they see us exit the room?”

“Then I suppose they will quickly learn to not be so observant,” Darcy said and squeezed Elizabeth’s waist earning a light thwack on his arm.

“You are incorrigible.”

“And you love it.”

Elizabeth laughed and shook her head. “I love you, silly. I merely put up with everything else.”

Darcy’s heart always beat faster when she said those words. He would never tire of hearing them. When she said that she loved him, he felt like the most powerful and worthy man in the world, like knights of old going off to slay a dragon. “I love you, Elizabeth,” he pressed a kiss to her temple before hearing her happy sigh and opening the door. If they must face the world, they would do so together.

Lady Darcy’s Bluestocking Club–Chapter One

Georgian Crescent

You guys have been so patient with me! I had wanted this book to come out last spring but I moved and just couldn’t get back into this world again. Then, I moved again! The kids are back in school and it seems to be going well. Perhaps it’s the start of school that had my brain turning back to the bluestocking world.

I plan on working on this story every day and giving it most of my attention once Treasured is finished. Hopefully, that means a release late Fall 2018. I hope you enjoy!

Do you remember where we left off? Darcy and Elizabeth were married. He inherited the barony and the Baroness had suggested they open a school for bluestockings. The Duke of Dorset announced his intention to marry Jane. Lydia is pregnant by Wickham but he married Kitty. And the most shocking revelation of all: Lady Catherine is actually Darcy’s SISTER. His mother had an unfortunate affair at fifteen and the child was raised by her parents. Many years later, she married George Darcy and had Fitzwilliam and Georgiana.

I can try to promise as many twists and turns in the sequel!

 

Chapter One

Elizabeth Darcy gulped as she saw the sign marker list the ever-more-rapidly-approaching town of Meryton. “We do not have to visit. There is still time to turn back,” she said to her husband.

“Lady Darcy, are you afraid to visit your mother?”

“Afraid? No, never,” she affected a grin. The bravado could not last long, however. Shoulders slumping, she sighed. “If fear is based mostly on anxiety over the unknown then, no, I am not afraid at all. I know all too well how she will react. I can hear her shrill voice and feel her flutterings already. Please? May we go home?” Elizabeth buried her face in her husband’s arm as the carriage swayed.

“If we do not visit her then we risk her calling on us in Town…”

“Oh, no. We cannot risk her wanting to accompany us to every ball. She would introduce herself to everyone.”

“Besides, I know you wish to lend your support to Jane.”

Elizabeth sucked in a deep inhale. Letting it out, she muttered under breath. “It is not as though she loves him.”

“What was that?”

“You heard me,” Elizabeth said. Yanking her arm from around her husband’s she crossed them across her chest and frowned. “I cannot believe you are letting her marry him.”

“I am hardly in control of your sister’s choices. Nor am I her guardian.”

“You cannot tell me you believe them well-suited.”

“Why not?”

“She is so innocent, so pure and he—he—he is so worldly! He could have anything and anyone.”

“Does it not mean his affection for her must be all the more genuine?”

Elizabeth’s frown deepened as she did not want to admit to Darcy being correct.

“Nor would I say the Duke is very worldly.”

“His father—”

“Yes, his father! Who are either of us to point fingers at someone’s family as proof of their own character?”

“I will concede to that,” Elizabeth said disgruntledly.

She could understand why Jane accepted the Duke of Dorset’s proposal after a mere week of acquaintance. Bingley had proven disloyal and too weak. However, Elizabeth knew Jane still loved him. Her affection for Dorset extended only to gratitude for loving her and saving her sisters from disaster. Dorset had used his family’s position to send Wickham to Spain so Kitty would not need to live with the pain he must bring any wife. Dorset’s mother, the dowager duchess, had invited Lydia to live with her until after her confinement. It was agreed that Lydia would stay at Knole Park in Kent with Dorset’s sister so no one in Meryton might guess the truth—that she was with child.

Additionally, Kitty had refused to come to Jane’s wedding if Lydia were there. It made more sense to continue with the lie that Lydia was away for her health and could not return than to invent a new excuse for Kitty’s distance from the family. Of most of this, Mrs. Bennet had no understanding. Even if she did, Elizabeth noted, she would focus only on the fact that Kitty had married an officer, Elizabeth was married to a baron, and Jane would marry a duke. The fragile condition of their family’s reputation and honour would be lost on her.

“Have you given any thought to my Aunt’s suggestion of starting a school?” Darcy asked.

“I certainly agree that a school with Blue Stocking ideals is needed in the world, but I wonder at my ability to be its benefactress as well as a hostess to the Club.”

“You forget one of the greatest resources for doing good is at your disposal now?”

“What is that? I could certainly gain more education by hiring masters—”

“No, my dear,” Darcy interrupted. “Money. The Blue Stocking Society was so successful all those years ago because they found wealthy women to finance it. As Lady Darcy you have quite a bit of funds of your own and the estate could always endow more. You would already be in the top circles of Society, but with Jane as a Duchess, you will be able to reach even more people. People who would only listen to you if you had the right name, title, and money.”

“You are correct,” Elizabeth straightened her shoulders. “I have been thinking about this as though I am still Lizzy Bennet of Longbourn, but I am not.”

“Not that I ever found you deficient,” Darcy said and placed a kiss on Elizabeth’s cheek, “but you are so much more now. Do not give in to old insecurities simply because we will be facing your mother and your home.”

“I will not,” Elizabeth vowed. “I have been two minds about Dorset choosing to buy Ashworth as a wedding gift to Jane, but now I am determined to be thankful for it. Could you imagine if we were all housed at Longbourn?”

“Yes. It is a shame Bingley did not give up Netherfield as it is the most convenient, but it is understandable that Dorset could not approach Jane’s old suitor.”

“I do not know that Mr. Bingley would have turned him down if he had,” Elizabeth observed and could not keep her disapproval out of her voice. “He seems to have taken quite an interest in finances.”

“I am hopeful it is a regrettable phase of his life which he will soon outgrow.”

“And your friendship?” Elizabeth watched as Darcy’s brow furrowed and his jaw clenched.

“I do not know that it could ever be what it once was. However, I do not wish to cut him entirely.”

“What happened to the young man who declared his good opinion once lost was lost forever?”

“He learned the value of forgiveness from a bright, beautiful lady whom he loved very much and is still amazed she ever loved him in return.”

“Ben.” Elizabeth only called him such at very special and tender moments as he once confessed he preferred it to his family names. He wrapped his arm around her, and she settled her head over her heart. “I can hardly believe you ever took notice of what I was then—so proud, so angry.”

“We were both fools.”

“We were, but I do not think I could have loved you as dearly as I do now if I were not the fool I was then.”

Darcy’s answer was to lift her chin and express his words with kisses full of unsaid devotion.

 

*****

 

A part of Elizabeth had expected to step foot into Longbourn, and it be as loud and chaotic as ever. Her mother had not changed and was only more anxious than usual. Kitty also seemed as ever her normal self. Elizabeth had heard Kitty call from the window that it was not the Duke and Dowager Duchess who had arrived but only Lizzy and “her grumpy Mr. Darcy.” Even so, Mrs. Bennet welcomed him profusely—a lord is a lord, after all.

“I hope you do not mind,” Mrs. Bennet said before Darcy had even sat all the way down, “that we do not have any of your favourites tonight. I wanted to give precedence to the Duke. Perhaps we may on another night.”

“Thank you for the concern, madam, but I shall enjoy anything you serve. In fact—”

“La! A Duke! Who would have thought such a thing possible but then I knew she could not be so beautiful for nothing.”

“Mama,” Elizabeth pleaded. “Perhaps you had better visit my father, William.”

Immediately Mrs. Bennet turned red in outrage. “Miss Lizzy! I believe you mean to call him ‘my lord.’ Pray, forgive her, your lordship. I did raise her better. I do not know why she has got so cheeky.”

Elizabeth and Darcy exchanged looks. It would be more difficult to explain to Mrs. Bennet that they preferred the informality. Elizabeth arched a brow, knowing that Darcy preferred her saucy ways.

“For those we love, forgiveness comes easy,” he said then bowed.

“He is still so enamoured with you!” Mrs. Bennet attempted to whisper as Darcy walked to the door.

Elizabeth easily saw that he had heard every word. Indeed, they were both very much in love with each other. Although, they had only been married a handful of weeks. It would be odd to expect anything different. Within seconds, however, Mrs. Bennet’s mind was called back to Jane’s upcoming nuptials. The lace handkerchief was brought out and sent fluttering until Elizabeth suggested that her mother talk with Mrs. Hill once more—and take Kitty with her.

Mary came to Elizabeth’s side. Sighing, she sat next to her where Darcy had left.

“You look very well, Lizzy. Very happy.”

“I am! Oh! I wish I could find such loves for each of my sisters.”

“I do not condone so much emotion,” Mary said with a frown. “It may have led you to Mr. Darcy, but you were attracted to Wickham before that. We see where seeking such love brought Kitty and Lydia disgrace and Jane’s heart is broken.”

“What do you know of Jane?” Elizabeth asked, anxious that others could not perceive the indifference Jane felt toward her betrothed.

“I know that she could not forget Mr. Bingley so easily and give her heart over to another so quickly.”

“It is nothing in her conduct or expression that has made you think this?”

“No.” Mary shook her head. “She is as inscrutable as ever. She never did allow the world to know her feelings.”

“Yes,” Elizabeth agreed.

Such presence of mind had caused Mr. Bingley to believe her indifferent. It had caused Darcy to think it as well. Not that Elizabeth championed Bingley after his treatment of Jane and Georgiana. Nor did she dislike the Duke. It was the rapidity of the attachment that concerned Elizabeth. They did not know one another very well, and Jane had always been so reserved. Elizabeth could not hope that they had learned much of one another in their brief courtship. It is evident to Elizabeth that the Duke was drawn to Jane’s beauty from the first moment he saw her. However, that did not create love, and without love, Elizabeth worried about the stability of their union.

“Kitty and Lydia mistook attraction for love. They may have said they wanted love but real love is sacrifice. It is compromise, and it does not always end happily. Our sisters were not seeking love, they sought courtship. They desired romance. Both on silly, uneducated minds were the evil.”

Mary seemed to consider Elizabeth’s words. “And Jane?”

“Self-respect must trump love. Never have I condoned losing your integrity for the sake of loving a person. She may still love Mr. Bingley but accepting his proposal when he offered no apology, no amends, no courtship violated Jane’s notion of self-respect. She deserves more, and she knows it. It is no surprise to me that even someone as lofty as a Duke would recognize her worth.”

“But do you think this wedding is a good thing?” Mary folded her arms across her chest. “Should she marry if she does not love him?”

“You just said you do not believe love to be necessary for marriage.” Elizabeth wanted to put Mary off the topic as fast as she could.

“If she loves another and makes a vow before God to love the Duke is that not a sin?”

“Oh, Mary,” Elizabeth cried, “I do not know! You will have to ask the vicar. Your accusation is grave, though. Do you think Jane would be capable of that? Believe the best of her as she always has of us. Believe that she intends to love him; that she means it as much as any other woman can mean it after only a month’s acquaintance. Is that too much to ask for?”

“No,” Mary said and hung her head.

“That is the testament of true love. We only wish to see her happy and safe. We must sacrifice our thoughts and opinions in deferment to her wishes.” Elizabeth turned at the sound of a carriage on the drive. “I want to see radiant smiles and hear happy words of congratulation.”

Mary nodded and at the sound of the doorbell, Elizabeth heard a great commotion downstairs. The Duke and his mother were shown into the drawing room, and before Elizabeth could utter a greeting, Mrs. Bennet arrived puffing out of breath behind them.

“Do forgive me, your graces,” she said. “There is so much to do for your visit, you see, and I am sure you know how difficult staff can be.” As soon as the words left her lips, her brows drew together and her mouth puckered into an O. “That is, I am sure your staff is trained to the very best, but we must make do with what we can get. Please, do be seated.” She motioned to the empty chairs.

The Duke sat but his mother remained standing, looking as unruffled as ever. “Lady Darcy, it is a pleasure to see you again and for such a happy cause. Please do me the honour of introducing me to your family.”

“Certainly,” Elizabeth said biting back a smile at her mother’s blush.

After performing the appropriate introductions, the Dowager Duchess sat. Tea arrived, and for a moment a dreadful silence fell over the room.

“Pardon me, your grace,” Mrs. Bennet began, “but I had expected you to bring my daughter.”

“Jane?” the duchess said while swirling her spoon in her cup. She laid it down. “No, I had thought your sister was to bring her.”

“No, ma’am. That is—yes, ma’am. Jane is coming with my brother and sister, the Gardiners. They are vastly agreeable and quite fashionable. I think you will be very pleased when you meet them.”

“I have met Mrs. Gardiner, madam. I find her agreeable and fashionable, as you say.”

“Oh did you, indeed? Well, how do you like that, Kitty?” Mrs. Bennet slid a glance at Elizabeth. “Not one ounce of the insufferable pride some people of far lesser ranks have shown in our company about our relations in trade.”

Elizabeth fought to roll her eyes. Darcy was not forgiven, merely tolerated. He did not fawn enough for her mother’s taste.

“I see four of your daughters present,” the dowager duchess redirected the conversation. “I suppose you mean Miss Lydia. I had thought she wrote to you, but perhaps we travel before it.” She glanced at her son.

“It is quite possible, Mama. We made good time.”

“My elder daughter expects to be confined soon and has preferred to stay at Knole rather than her husband’s estate in Worcestershire. This way she is near enough to London. He is in Parliament, you know. Miss Lydia elected to stay with Selina. They quite dote upon one another, and your daughter has been the best comfort to my own.”

“Oh! That is just her way!” Mrs. Bennet cried.

“I never saw anything so pleasing in Lydia. Your daughter ought to be careful of her husband around her. Lydia is always—”

“Mama,” Elizabeth stood and interrupted. She did not know why. The Duke and his mother knew the truth of their situation. However, her entire life was built around interrupting embarrassing comments from her family and keeping her mother from having a nervous attack. “We have not shown their graces the garden. I expect by the time we finish that my aunt and uncle will have arrived with Jane. The Duchess’ younger daughter travels with them.”

“Oh, of course!” Mrs. Bennet agreed. “You do us a great compliment by entrusting your younger daughter to my brother’s care. He is the most conscientious chaperone that ever lived—”

“Is that Dane’s Blood?” the Duke asked.

He winked at Elizabeth when Mrs. Bennet’s attention was diverted to a botany lesson of the estate. It was one of the few things she had ever had a head for.

“Let us go now, and you may see it in all its glory,” Elizabeth said. “Mama, I know you must continue to speak with the housekeeper. Did you wish to attend us, Kitty and Mary?”

“Mary may go but I will not.” Kitty slouched in her chair a bit. “I am in a delicate state and tire very easily these days.”

“Oh, my love!” Mrs. Bennet beamed. “Why did you say nothing? Oh, and I had you doing all sorts of tasks for me and being in the kitchen. Come with me, and we will have you set up properly. Do excuse us,” she said as she bustled off down the hall.

The others let out a collective sigh. “Mama is rather enthusiastic about…well, nearly everything.”

“Indeed,” the dowager duchess smiled. “I like it. She is not so awed by my status that she is rendered mute and I would much rather be around a person who is so artless they are ridiculous than be around those who are constantly hiding their true selves.”

“Indeed, my mother is incapable of being circumspect,” Mary said as she followed the others out the door.

After several minutes in the garden, they had exasperated the topic of local shrubbery. The conversation had dissolved to the weather. Mary cast Elizabeth strange looks, and she did not wonder why. Elizabeth had described the Duke and his mother as gifted conversationalists and yet it seemed almost painful to find a topic worth broaching. Elizabeth could only assume they did not feel free enough to say what they really wished at Longbourn.

They were saved from further awkwardness by the sound of a hack. “That must be Jane,” Elizabeth observed, and they walked to the front of the house.

Mr. Gardiner descended first, then let down his wife, Dorset’s sister, and finally Jane. Dorset came to her side, kissed her soundly, crushed her in an embrace and then spun her in a circle, eliciting laughter from all. When he set Jane back on the ground, she looked elated. It appeared romantic. It even seemed Jane was blissfully happy. She did far more than tolerate the duke’s attention. She thrived in it. She had never looked so beautiful.

“I hope you have not waited long,” Jane said.

“Only a few moments. Your sister gave us a tour of the garden, and I have met your mother and other sisters.”

Elizabeth did not miss the flash of anxiety and shame cross Jane’s face.

“I found them delightful. Mother has already said how much she likes your mother. Shall we go in?”

Dorset escorted Jane into the house, leading the others as though he were the master. This time, they met with Darcy and William. Mrs. Bennet was rung for and promptly arrived, but Kitty felt too ill to leave her bed. Elizabeth was not entirely sure she believed her sister’s words or if they were only for attention.

The reunion between Mrs. Bennet and her eldest daughter was something for the ages. No other mother could have felt more excitement or pride. Elizabeth would find it disgusting if she did not believe there was truth to it. Mrs. Bennet’s greatest wish in life had always been that her daughters would marry well. Even a prince would not be too high for her children. Everything softened in light of Jane marrying a Duke. No utterances against Mary fell from her lips. Lydia was nearly entirely forgotten. The smallest sign of affection from the Duke to his betrothed had Mrs. Bennet almost swooning.

Thus life at Longbourn had not changed entirely. Matters continued through dinner. Every intelligent word from Mr. Bennet’s lips to his soon to be son-in-law was overshadowed by his wife asking the dowager duchess’ opinion on every matter. Elizabeth sighed to herself that her mother ought to have persuaded Mr. Collins to marry Mary and then she could visit a lady in Kent who delighted in giving minute opinions on every subject. Although, there was hope for Lady Catherine yet.

Finally, Mrs. Bennet stood for the separation of the sexes. Elizabeth sent her father a pleading look, and he glanced around the table before standing as well.

“I know this is unorthodox, but I perceive our guests are tired from their travels. Let us not separate this evening and allow them more rest.”

“But surely a game of cards or some songs?” Mrs. Bennet asked, anxiety and confusion heightening her features.

“Madam, might we have an abbreviated visit tonight? Tomorrow, we may come at breakfast to make up for it,” Dorset asked.

Mrs. Bennet glanced uneasily between her husband and the Duke. “The next two days are full of visits to the neighbouring families. Then there is the wedding and my Jane…” she trailed off and brought a handkerchief to her eyes.

“Which is all the more reason why we ought to part now,” her grace came to Mrs. Bennet’s side. “I have a married daughter. I know how difficult it is to part with them. Think no more about entertaining us and seeing to our comforts. You have been a delightful hostess. Tonight, enjoy the return of your daughter.”

Elizabeth believed it was very skillfully arranged and well-said of the Duchess to get her way. She would wonder at leaving Jane to Mrs. Bennet’s nerves, but with any luck, she would tire herself out early and then Jane could go to sleep at a decent hour for the requisite gushing would happen no matter the time.

“Well, with your permission,” Mrs. Bennet smiled, “a family evening would be delightful. Lizzy, you and Mary will play for us.”

Darcy stepped forward. “I regret that we must leave as well given the distance to Ashworth.”

“Oh, yes, I had forgotten.”

For the first time in many years, Elizabeth thought she saw longing in her mother’s features.

“We will return in the morning, Mama.”

Elizabeth embraced her mother and said goodbye. As much as she knew that she would return in the morning, she had learned at this first visit at Longbourn since her marriage that she had grown too big for the role of Lizzy Bennet. It was time to embrace her destiny as Lady Darcy.