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My Dearest Niece,

Fear not, although Society may say you are ruined. Those who know you will always love you. When you return from France, it will all be forgotten. These sorts of scandals always are for girls with money and prestige. Do not think you are the first or last to face such concerns. Think of your future, my dear girl. You may be, perhaps, a little sadder but also wiser for the misadventure.

Your loving aunt,

A.F.

 

Chapter One

Elizabeth Bennet snatched the letter addressed to her from the mail tray in the hall and left Longbourn and all its noise behind. Reading letters from her dearest sister, Jane, now required solitude. Jane’s heart had been broken when their new neighbour, Mr. Bingley, left the area over three months before. After a month of sorrow, Jane had gone to London to visit with their aunt and uncle but her letters did not seem to indicate she was improving.

Mr. Bingley’s sister, who had seemed a dear friend to Jane, did not help matters. Before leaving Hertfordshire, Miss Bingley had written Jane a letter hinting that her brother had plans to marry his best friend’s sister. She reiterated the point when Jane called on Miss Bingley shortly after arriving in London.

Elizabeth’s lips curled up in memories of Mr. Bingley’s friend. That Mr. Darcy was friends with Mr. Bingley — himself everything amiable — ought to be a mark in Darcy’s favour. And yet, Mr. Bingley’s hasty retreat from Hertfordshire, followed directly by Darcy and Bingley’s relations whom he had left behind, just proved Bingley was too amiable for his own good. He would never see how Darcy treated all those around him. Elizabeth had been told that Darcy dare not surround himself with anyone but those that would stroke his ego.

Jane’s letter was uncharacteristically light and Elizabeth would likely finish reading it before she reached the nearby town of Meryton. She allowed herself a few minutes of reflection before opening it. She hoped Jane would be showing signs of forgetting Mr. Bingley’s impression on her heart. It was now March and surely three months in London could erase six weeks of flirtation in Hertfordshire. Elizabeth drew consolation from the fact that tomorrow she would leave for her journey to Kent to visit a newly married friend. She travelled with Charlotte’s father and sister but they intended to break in London and then Elizabeth would see for herself how Jane fared.

Taking a deep breath, Elizabeth broke the seal as she passed the lodge of Longbourn. Its tear-stained contents shocked and repulsed her.

Dearest Lizzy,

I write to you in the most melancholy of spirits. Yesterday, while shopping with my aunt, I espied Mr. and Miss Bingley outside a shop window. They were speaking with a lovely young lady, very elegantly dressed and I could see the evidence of her good breeding and proper manners. She stood with an older lady, who I must think is a companion or some relation. I cannot say for certain, but I wonder if this was not Miss Darcy.

I could perfectly see their expressions. Miss Bingley was very pleased to meet the lady, her brother scarcely less so. I saw in his countenance every expression of happiness and amiability he ever showed me. The young lady and her friend soon left.

Mr. and Miss Bingley came in the store with smiles still on their faces. They did not see me at first as I was mostly concealed by a display. I stepped out into the aisle to greet them. Instantly they ceased their movements and their smiles vanished. Mr. Bingley coloured but did not acknowledge me in any way although I had curtsied to them. Caroline tugged on her brother’s arm and they turned and quit the shop. It was so dreadful! My only consolation is that no one of our acquaintance saw it.

I now must say he had no true regard for me. I am quite distressed. I can only think myself a fool for believing otherwise. And to have my wishes so openly known by all my friends and family! He undoubtedly desired to leave the neighbourhood to avoid such rumours. I cannot blame him in the least for having a care about the credit of his name.

I know you will sit and think that it was all designedly done, but for what purpose? What could either the brother or the sister gain by making me believe in their affections? No, let me blame myself. I hope I was not so vain as to imagine this preference, perhaps though I only saw what I wished to see.

I hope this reaches you before you depart for London. I long to have my dearest sister with me.

Yours,

  1. Bennet

Elizabeth had never felt so much rage before in her life. Miss Bingley and her brother gave Jane the cut direct in a shop! Fortunately, it seemed there had been no witnesses but the very thought! Jane would excuse it though.

In the weeks since Mr. Bingley’s departure, Elizabeth had tried hard to reconcile the Mr. Bingley, whom she knew to be kind-hearted, with his treatment of Jane and friendship with Mr. Darcy. Jane would never listen to her arguments. Every time Elizabeth attempted to say perhaps Bingley was less than reliable, she was shushed. To Jane, anyone she loved or esteemed must be without fault.

Elizabeth rather saw faults in everyone. If not of character, then of circumstance. The charming Militia officer, Mr. Wickham, and his poor prospects served as an example. Of course, that resided squarely at Mr. Darcy’s feet. As repining the impossible benefitted nothing, Elizabeth had never let Wickham into her heart. She would always wish him the best and count him as a friend. Elizabeth even championed his courtship of the newly wealthy Miss Mary King in Meryton. After all, handsome young men must have something to live on as well as the plain.

All this thought of gentlemen irked Elizabeth. “What are men to rocks and mountains?” she said as she entered the edges of Meryton.

Reaching the outskirts of town, Elizabeth kicked a rock for good measure and instantly regretted it. Pain pierced her foot. Limping to an alley where she could slip off her boot and rub her sore toes, she was surprised to hear familiar voices of several of the officers carry from around the bend. What were they doing gathering in an alley?

“She wasn’t much to look at, but she was enthusiastic enough,” Captain Carter said.

“Most bar maids turned whores are for a few quid,” Mr. Wickham said and joined in with the laughter his words caused.

Elizabeth did not quite know what they were talking about, but it sounded coarse.

“And here I thought my equipment made her randy,” Mr. Denny said and another round of laughter ensued.

Instinctively, Elizabeth did not care for it. She was turning to limp away when she heard reason to stay.

“No, I don’t partake in that sort of sport,” Wickham said. “Now, Longbourn, there’s some apples ready for the picking.”

Elizabeth’s cheeks flushed. Increasingly, she began to believe they spoke of carnal things and that connected with five gentlewomen in the same manner they spoke of a bar maid could never be a good thing.

“Too marriage-minded over there,” Denny warned.

“So much the easier then. A true seducer can turn a phrase just so a lady expects a marriage proposal but all she’s gotten is a tumble instead,” Wickham said.

“The Bennet chits are let on a loose leash. Their mother practically throws them at young men,” Carter said.

“Must be why that Bingley fellow ran off just after his ball,” Denny said. “A shame too. Chap certainly knew how to throw a good party.”

“And best of all, their father is too loose in the pockets to demand satisfaction!”

Elizabeth’s temper began to grow but she knew better than to confront such talk. There was nothing to do but listen to such humiliating talk of her family. She had to wonder at being cursed with such good hearing, however.

“It’s a shame they’re not the heiresses Mary King is,” said Wickham. “Wouldn’t mind keeping Eliza to warm my bed every night, even if she is a bit of a bluestocking.”

Tears sprang to Elizabeth’s eyes to be talked about in such a debased way in addition to the usual insult of bluestocking coming from a gentleman, nay, cad, she had thought friend.

“You’re not the only one who was tempted by her. Mr. Pompous Darcy and that parson danced with her at the ball.”

“That’s old news Carter.”

“Yes, but one of the Netherfield maids is sweet on me,” said Denny, “and she said that Miss Bingley was in fits of jealousy the entire time Miss Elizabeth was at Netherfield. Lucy said Miss Bingley often writes the housekeeper asking for information about the area and the Bennets in particular.”

“Well, there you go, Wickham,” said Captain Carter. “Darcy left because he knew you would win the challenge for Miss Elizabeth’s affections. You ought to claim your prize!” A round of raucous laughter rang out.

“Oh, I have far better idea,” Wickham said but dropped his voice. Elizabeth inched forward to hear better, hoping her boots didn’t scrape against the stone pavement. “Eliza is too intelligent for such a plot, she would know enough to want a real wedding…but Lydia. Lydia I could convince to elope.”

“What do you get out of that?” Carter asked.

“Eliza will be going to Hunsford soon. Darcy’s aunt is her cousin’s patroness and I know he visits every Easter. Eliza is no fool and neither is that sharp eyed friend of hers. She snatched up Collins right away. Between the two of them, they can help Darcy along. Once they’re engaged, I can make off with Lydia and Darcy will pay to patch the whole thing up.”

Elizabeth’s mouth dropped open while the men sniggered.

“And once she’s tired of her dour husband, I will play on her affections as well. Mark my words, boys, I will not be wearing red for much longer.”

“You are debauched, my friend!” Carter said as the men finally walked away.

Elizabeth stood in the alley with her back pressed against the wall for a long while. She could not credit what she heard. Was this what men talked of? Was it as harmless as the gossip she heard from ladies like her Aunt Phillips?

However, Elizabeth knew even in that case there were always shades of truth. Her sisters were given too much freedom, her mother too eager to put them out, and her father too willing to laugh at their follies. They had no fortune and no brothers to demand satisfaction from a rake. If not Wickham and these officers, then surely it made them open to be preyed upon by others. Bingley’s treatment of Jane was proof enough that men cruelly use women.

In time, her heartrate returned to a normal beat and her breathing calmed. Lydia would know better than to elope and to a man without fortune. Besides, how would they ever be alone enough for such a thing to transpire? Behaving silly at a ball was not the same sort of thing as an elopement. And Lydia could never keep a secret to save her life! Elizabeth considered telling her father but decided to act as though she had never heard such ridiculous things. She could not take Wickham’s words seriously and had no proof. Certainly, her father knew more about men and had seen no reason to distrust the officers. Still, Elizabeth hoped to avoid Wickham at the dinner her mother had invited him to that evening. She never wanted to speak with him again.

 

*****

 

“Fitzwilliam, Georgiana, sit with your old aunt,” Baroness Darcy said to her sister’s grandchildren when she saw them enter her evening soiree. They were her only family left.  The “children” obeyed. “I know you leave for Kent soon, Fitzwilliam. Do you go as well, Georgiana?”

“Not this year, Aunt,” the young lady said with downcast eyes.

“Chin up. Darcys are never to feel inferior,” Lady Darcy said. “At the rate Fitzwilliam is going, you shall be the next Baroness.”

“Spare me your matchmaking, Aunt. Lady Catherine will give me ear full enough when I arrive in Kent,” Darcy let out an exasperated sigh. “Besides, mother and father were both thirty when they married and I have some two years until then. And you have never married.”

“That is because there were no young men like you, my boy,” the aging lady said with an affectionate pat on her favourite nephew’s cheek. The action, and his expression at the endearment, made Georgiana giggle.

“Much more like it, young lady. Will you play this evening?”

“Oh no! I could never perform before all these people. They are only in the habit of hearing the very best.”

Darcy could see Georgiana’s fear but her words were reminiscent of Elizabeth Bennet’s words at a dinner in Hertfordshire. He had thought she teased, but had she been afraid of his opinion? During his time in the area, Darcy had feared he had been too obvious in his admiration for her. Darcy believed that his friend’s sister, who long had designs on him, had not been the only one to notice how much he liked Elizabeth.

His aunt’s words broke his reverie. “Then play your own composition and no one can claim to have heard a better rendition of it!” Lady Darcy exclaimed.

“Aunt,” Darcy chided. “Georgiana, our aunt only intends to tease.”

“Do I? And I suppose you believe you can speak for me? I had thought you were raised better.”

“Please do not be cross with Fitzwilliam,” Georgiana said. “He would never presume to know better than a social superior.”

“Social superior! Is that the rubbish you learn at schools now? Fitzwilliam, you must give her proper companionship. Georgiana, I mean he ought to know better than to speak for a woman, not just a peeress.”

Darcy smiled at his aunt’s gentle scolding and held up a hand. “Of course, I now you are a rational creature with your own mind. I have no doubt you speak from your heart.”

Years ago, Darcy’s aunt had been part of a circle of intellectual women who hosted a salon. Instead of the usual political wrangling and gambling, they promoted the arts. Several of the hostesses became renowned artists and writers. In the Darcy family, the term bluestocking was no insult. The same could not be said for his Fitzwilliam family. However, they had always liked the Darcy purse.

“I knew there was good Darcy blood in you,” the Baroness said.

“Now, you know it is a commandment to obey your elders and so you must indulge an old lady. My one regret in not having children of my own is that there is no one to take up my torch when I’m gone.”

Georgiana screwed up her face in confusion. “I thought Fitzwilliam was your heir?”

“Of the title and the money, of course. I mean of my passion!” Lady Darcy paused and nodded at another titled lady who walked past them and toward the card tables.

“Music?” Georgiana asked.

“Music, writing, art. Female artists funded by females.”

Darcy tugged on his cravat. These days, talk of women pursuing such things for intellectual stimulation, income, or world renown was akin to espousing favour for France’s Revolution. The ones who could most support such a project happened to fear for their necks.

“Fitzwilliam, I’m putting you to work. Bring me the brightest young women you can find of good stock and decent income and I will fashion them into patronesses.”

“If I could find such a young woman, I would marry her,” Darcy said even as a pair of fine, dancing eyes came to mind. However, Elizabeth Bennet did not come from good family or decent income.

“What’s the matter with him, Georgie?”

Darcy blinked to find his aunt studying him closely.

Georgiana rolled her eyes. “That’s the look on his face whenever he thinks of her.

“Her? Are you courting a lady and did not tell me?”

“Of course not, Aunt. You know you would be the first to know anything I do.” He tried to remain serious but his subtle smirk gave away his sarcastic words and immediately Georgiana and his aunt were grinning.

“La! You make me sound a pest! I will not be like your other aunt then and meddle in your business. You do not have to tell me who, but if Georgie’s female intuition tells her you are sweet on a girl, you cannot hide it for long.”

Darcy tugged on his cravat again. With any luck, he would not remain sweet on her for much longer. Surely there was someone who met his qualifications for a wife. The problem was, now that his aunt had stated who she looked for in intellectual companions, Darcy could not help but notice they were the same as what he always said he wanted in a wife. And while he would always desire an intelligent wife, a spouse was something far different than a philosophical colleague. No lady had piqued his interest in eight and twenty years the way Elizabeth Bennet had. Perhaps choosing a wife involved some undefinable quality, an attraction as well as intellectual compatability.

“I think we have him thinking on her again, Georgie,” his aunt teased and Darcy scowled.

“Tell me more about this project of yours, Aunt. We are to go to the theatre tomorrow, perhaps we might find a lady who suits your demands.”

“That’s the problem with you,” she said after an exasperated sigh.

“What is?”

Georgiana laughed at him. “Everyone knows most who frequent the theatre care little about the plays. They go just to be seen.”

“And where would you expect a true appreciator of theatre to go?”

“They might go,” Lady Darcy said, “but they would not be so bold as to confess the reason.”

“How preposterous! Do you think so meanly of your sex?”

The Baroness laughed at him. “I have years more experience than you do, my boy. I know such a lady is a diamond of the first water. There is a disadvantage to this generation. In my day, ladies fought hard to receive any education. The ones who persevered beyond basic letters and math were often taught by their fathers or their brothers’ tutors. Now, ladies’ heads are filled with false accomplishments and vain pursuits. I fear it is impossible to find a learned lady who is not muddled with such mush.”

“Could not the same be said of gentlemen? Now, everyone attends school and University but few come out with any true greater understanding and mastery of the subjects.”

“The essential point, Fitzwilliam, is that when they are taught it is to be of use to their estate, profession or the country. Ladies so called “refined” education is to be of use in only this,” she waved her hand around at the drawing room.

Various clusters of people congregated together. One group played Commerce, another Whist. A third group sat near the fire and discussed politics. One lord’s wife winked at a member of parliament of the opposite party and then leaned in close. The scene suggested exchanging favours for votes.

One day, Darcy would inherit the barony first created for John Darcy in 1317, and God help him if Pemberley or any home he resided in took on such a scene. His aunt was very much correct. Ladies were not encouraged to think beyond empty, or sometimes immoral — whether seducing an opponent or a man to the altar — pursuits.

Aware he had been silent too long, Darcy addressed his aunt with his purpose in coming this evening. “I have been wondering, Aunt, do you have any suggestions for a companion for Georgiana? As you know, I resisted finding a replacement for Mrs. Younge, but you have convinced me that her education might be lacking.”

“Of course. I will have a list with references drawn up when you return from Kent.” Do not worry,” she said when Georgiana furrowed her brow, “you shall help decide. Now, I have ignored my guests for long enough. Do try to enjoy yourselves before you leave,” she said as she stood.

With all the grace and poise an eighty-year-old baroness could muster, she walked through the room. When the group at the fire seemed to grow too contentious, she redirected the more outspoken ones to the supper room. Those prone to gambling too high were arranged near the fire, away from the card tables. Indeed, no school could teach such instincts. Magdalena Darcy, tenth Baroness Darcy de jure, might be the last of her kind and her heir apparent could only hope the next Baroness Darcy might be just as capable.


My Dearest Niece,

I send you my love as does your uncle and cousins. The girls greatly miss you, and you are welcome back at any time. I know my words are poor comfort after all the turmoil you have been through, but recall a great life can come from the loss you have faced.

Your loving Aunt,

A.F.

 

Chapter Two
“Did you enjoy the performance, Lizzy?” Mr. Edward Gardiner asked the niece sitting to his right.

“Very much. I can hardly recall a time I enjoyed the theatre more,” Elizabeth replied. In truth, however, her mind had wandered.

She had arrived in London yesterday with Sir William Lucas and his daughter. Tomorrow they were to leave and continue their journey on to Hunsford, Kent where Sir William’s eldest daughter, and Elizabeth’s former best friend, now lived with her husband. Ordinarily, she would have much to look forward to with such a journey, and she always enjoyed spending time with her aunt and uncle, yet she felt unsettled. Whilst they did not often go to the theatre, and she always enjoyed the outing, tonight, her mind was full of other things. Now that she could no longer speak to her father, she began to wonder if she should have.

Elizabeth had been following her uncle blindly through the crowd, too anxious to appear normal, when she accidentally stumbled into a solid form.

“Pardon me! I am so sorry!” she exclaimed while reeling backwards.

Strong hands captured her elbows and steadied her. “Are you certain you are well — Miss Bennet!”

Elizabeth heard the astonished tone of Mr. Darcy’s familiar voice and finally looked up. Of all the people she had to crash into in London, it had to be him?

“Forgive me, Mr. Darcy. I should have taken better care of where I was going,” she said.

“Think nothing of it,” he said with a kinder tone than she could recall from their meetings in Hertfordshire. “You are uninjured?” he anxiously looked her up and down.

Elizabeth allowed a soft chuckle to escape before her reply. “I am sturdier than that.”

“Indeed. I recall you walking several miles to visit your ill sister. Surely one misstep in a crowded hall did you no damage.”

Elizabeth knit her brows. She was confused by his continued and odd conversation. He suddenly seemed to recollect himself.

“It is a surprise seeing you in London. Have you been here long?” He seemed to anxiously scan the room. He likely wanted to find an acquaintance to escape to or hoped to leave before her other relatives came upon him.

“No, I am only here for one night at my aunt and uncle’s before going with Sir William Lucas to visit his daughter who is now settled in Kent.” There was no mistaking his look of anxiety eased as she confirmed her family was not nearby.  “My eldest sister has been here many weeks, though,” Elizabeth said in a sharp tone. She was confident he knew of it. “Have you never seen her?”

Elizabeth had expected to shock him. Instead, he looked confused. “No, I have not had the pleasure.”

After an awkward silence between them, she heard Jane’s anxious voice. “There she is!”

As the rest of her party approached, Elizabeth curtsied and made to leave, but Mr. Darcy suddenly spoke. “How is the rest of your family? I hope they are in good health.”

“Yes, they all are well. We have heard nothing of Mr. Bingley and his sisters. I trust they are well, only busy with London,” she said just as Jane and her aunt and uncle approached. She did not miss the heightened anxiety across Jane’s face when she detected whom Elizabeth had been speaking with and heard the name of Bingley.

“Elizabeth, what happened?” Mr. Gardiner asked her but glared at Mr. Darcy. Belatedly, Elizabeth realised they really should not have continued their conversation so long.

“I was so enraptured still with the performance, that I was not watching where I stepped. I was unknowingly separated from you and stumbled, literally, into this acquaintance of mine, Mr. Darcy. We met last Autumn. He stayed with his friend, Mr. Bingley, who leased Netherfield Park.”

A look of recognition flickered across Mrs. Gardiner’s face, and her uncle’s features cooled as well. From the corner of her eye, she saw Sir William and Maria Lucas say goodbye to a friend and draw near to their assembled party. As Elizabeth made the necessary introductions to her aunt and uncle, she consciously watched Darcy’s reaction. He looked anxious, but there was not the expression of hauteur she had known him to have in Hertfordshire.

“It is absolutely capital to see you again, Mr. Darcy!” Sir William said and nearly bounced on his toes. “Did Miss Eliza tell you we are soon to be visiting Hunsford? You will recall my eldest daughter, Charlotte, of course. She was fortunate enough to marry the rector to your very aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.”

“You are to be at Rosings?” he asked in a tone that Elizabeth felt accusatory, but no one else seemed put off by.

“We shall stay in the Parsonage, of course,” Elizabeth replied. “I doubt we will see the estate at all,” she said. At first, she could not understand why he would be so possessive of the place, but then she recalled that he would marry his cousin, the heiress of Rosings.

Darcy smiled, confusing Elizabeth greatly, before replying. “You are mistaken then, Miss Elizabeth. My aunt takes a very minute interest in her parish. I know she often has her rector and his wife dine with her and know she would extend the courtesy to their guests.”

“Indeed! I had not expected such condescension,” said Sir William. “However, now that I think about it, I am not surprised. I have often noted such elegant breeding among those at court.”

Elizabeth tried to hide a smile. Before Mr. Darcy was required to reply, two tall and elegantly dressed ladies approached. One was about the correct age to be Mr. Darcy’s grandmother or other older relative. The other lady had a womanly figure and shape, but her youthful face and nervous demeanour were that of a girl just entering society.

“Fitzwilliam, would you introduce us to your friends?” the older lady asked.

Mr. Darcy complied. Elizabeth then learned that the ladies were his aunt, Lady Magdalena Darcy, and his sister, Miss Georgiana Darcy of whom Elizabeth and Jane had heard much from Mr. Bingley’s sisters. Elizabeth expected a haughty attitude, but there was only graciousness from Lady Darcy and shyness from Miss Darcy.

“It is a pleasure to meet any acquaintances of Fitzwilliam’s,” Lady Darcy said. “Will you be in London for long?” she asked.

Sir William hedged. “We are breaking our journey to Hunsford, Kent from Hertfordshire to visit my eldest daughter. She lately married the rector to Rosings estate.”

“Oh! My cousin, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, is the mistress of Rosings!” Lady Darcy exclaimed. “How fascinating! Fitzwilliam shall soon be visiting there.”

The two talked of Rosings for a few minutes while Mr. Darcy, to the exclusion of nearly everyone else, spoke to Elizabeth and his sister. “Georgiana, Miss Elizabeth is a delightful performer. I am sure you share some common interests in musical selections,” he said gently.

“I recall from your letters,” Miss Darcy murmured. “Do you not think, Miss Elizabeth, that the new music we have recently had in London to be of the most expressive kind?”

Elizabeth hid her surprise that Darcy had written of her and smiled at the young girl. “We certainly live in exciting times. Among the terrible things about this war is that it takes so much the longer for us to get the newer works from Vienna, where so many of the other best composers reside.” She stepped closer to Miss Darcy to say in a conspiratory tone, “Perhaps you will just have to write your own works.”

Miss Darcy gasped, Mr. Darcy chuckled and most surprising of all, Lady Darcy said, “That is precisely what I have been attempting to tell the girl for months!”

Elizabeth blushed at her forwardness, but the titled lady met Mr. Darcy’s eyes and then nodded her head as though they decided something in silent communication. She spoke with authoritative gentleness. “This is not the fashion at all, but I am an old woman entitled to my eccentricities. I invite you all tomorrow to my home in Park Lane at two.”

With the invitation to the illustrious address in the Mayfair district, any expectation Elizabeth had of Sir William declining the offer died. He agreed with alacrity, and her relatives were no less agreeable. As they boarded the carriage to return to the Gardiner residence, Elizabeth’s worries about Wickham’s vulgar boasting evaporated. In their place, Elizabeth could only wonder about the strange set of circumstances that now meant she would be visiting both sets of Mr. Darcy’s titled aunts in as few days.

*****

The party arrived at Lady Darcy’s residence with anxious punctuality. Elizabeth noted the simple elegance of the home. Never having heard previously of Mr. Darcy’s connection to another titled relative, she researched the matter the night before.

Her ladyship was the eldest daughter of Barbara Fitzwilliam and Lord Henry Darcy, the last Baron. Her title was one of the few remaining that could pass through the female line. As she had no children herself, for years her heir presumptive was her nephew. George Darcy’s father had taken the Darcy surname when he married the Baroness’ sister. When George died, his son Fitzwilliam Darcy became the new heir.

Elizabeth considered Charlotte’s words to her about the rich having reason to be proud. She supposed Charlotte would say the same about the titled. Yet, why was Elizabeth only now hearing of it? Should not Darcy wish to tell everyone? Perhaps he merely assumed all the world knew of it. When a Bennet journeyed to London, they stayed with the Gardiners, where gossip of nobility and their heirs had no significance. They were not like Sir William, who regularly attended St. James’, nor were they like Mr. Collins and salivated over peers. In truth, whilst Mr. Bennet was one of the foremost gentlemen in their corner of Hertfordshire, Elizabeth suddenly realised how insignificant they were compared to the peers of the world.

Elizabeth spoke very little as she was seated near Miss Darcy and Maria. She had hoped the two girls, of such a close age, would encourage each other to talk more but they were both too terrified. Elizabeth soon realised Mr. and Miss Darcy must be frequent guests to Lady Darcy’s house as Mr. Darcy seemed to play the host quite well. Although, his aunt was by no means infirm. After the tea-things had been taken away, a tour was offered. Miss Darcy had gone to speak to Lady Darcy, leaving Maria alone with Elizabeth when Mr. Darcy approached. Before he reached her side, however, Maria fled for the safety of Jane and Mrs. Gardiner. The behaviour humoured Elizabeth and its contrast to how she imagined her youngest sister, Lydia, might behave, made Elizabeth give out a resigned sigh.

She no longer trusted Mr. Wickham, but it did not mean she had to like Mr. Darcy. In truth, her reasoning for believing Wickham’s story about Darcy was out of a desire to find a fault real enough for others, like her father, to dislike Darcy. To Mr. Bennet, it was not sufficient that Darcy had insulted his favourite daughter upon first sight or was too haughty to mix with their neighbourhood functions. Nor was the fact that he obviously used his influence over his friend, Mr. Bingley, a concern for her father. Her father made light of the fact that his eldest daughter, Jane, now suffered from a broken heart. Elizabeth knew it was simply her father’s way of expressing concern by interjecting humour. However, Elizabeth had mixed feelings about approaching him with her concerns about Wickham.

Still, for Lydia’s sake, Elizabeth would speak to Mr. Darcy and hope to understand Wickham better. Her sense of justice revolted at approaching the man she suspected responsible for causing her dearest sister’s heartbreak, but Jane was too kind-hearted to listen to Elizabeth’s beliefs on the matter anyway. It was not truly choosing loyalty to one sister over the other.

“Miss Elizabeth,” said Mr. Darcy. “My aunt has given me the task of guiding the tour. I know you would wish to see the library but am uncertain about the rest of the guests. Do you think we ought to start or end the tour there?”

Elizabeth looked at him carefully. She had been accused of being a “great reader,” said in an insulting tone by Miss Bingley, while she stayed at Netherfield. Elizabeth had tried to demur, knowing Society’s opinion on well-educated women, but then Mr. Darcy had turned the matter around on her and claimed he believed an accomplished lady improved her mind by extensive reading. Elizabeth had assumed he said it only so she might be found insufficient whether she enjoyed reading or not. Now, knowing that she was wrong to trust Mr. Wickham and hearing the conversation of a relation Darcy apparently admired, she thought better of it. He intended no insult, it was only her own insecurities which made her read tones into his voice he did not inflect.

Yet still, a part of her wondered if Mr. Darcy meant because her uncle was in trade he would not enjoy the library. She raised her chin. “If I consulted only my own feelings we would never leave. My aunt and uncle enjoy reading, and Jane does as well. I believe ending the tour there would be pleasurable to all.”

Darcy looked immediately relieved, and Elizabeth castigated herself that she had assumed the worse about him, again. “I have enjoyed getting to know your aunt and uncle,” he said.

It looked as though he wished to say more, but the others were ready for the tour to begin. He spoke well on the curiosities in each room and knew the history of the house. His aunt sometimes supplied entertaining anecdotes. Having been through the principal drawing rooms of the first floor, the group made their way downstairs. Here they stopped at a small conservatory, a recent addition as smaller gardens were becoming the fashion.

Lady Darcy treated her assembled guests to a horticulture lesson on a breed of orchid. “It is a funny looking flower,” Maria finally felt bold enough to say. “So different than the usual roses you see often displayed.”

“This is true,” her ladyship replied. “However, I think they are increasing in popularity. I would not be surprised if some of the other great houses of England specialise in growing them.”

“We may see them on our Summer tour then,” Mr. Gardiner said.

“I do not think they could ever become the favourites of Society the way tulips were,” Sir William added.

So began a discourse on the fascinating history of tulips in the Low Countries. Lady Darcy included information she had read in the original Dutch and promised to show them a copy of a portrait she had. Maria and Miss Darcy were attentive listeners but, having read such before, Elizabeth moved about the room. Mr. Darcy silently came to her side.

“Some would think the history lesson holds no interest to you,” he said.

“Do you come all this way to scold me or to tease me?” she asked.

“I do not dare do either. I daresay you are the proficient at teasing,” he offered a small smile.

Elizabeth laughed. “How impolitic of you! Leaving me to say you must be the proficient at scolding!”

“I am the guardian of a much younger sister,” he said.

“She does not seem the sort to need much scolding. My sisters on the other hand…” she trailed off. Should she take the opportunity to ask about Wickham? She chewed her bottom lip before deciding. “I am glad to have a moment of privacy with you, Mr. Darcy.”

Darcy’s eyebrows shot up in surprise and then lowered with a mixture of pleasure and satisfaction settling upon his face.  “Is that so Miss Bennet?”

“Yes, I would speak with you on a matter of some delicacy.”

Darcy’s breathing grew harsher, which confused her as they did not move. He remained silent, so she pressed on, “Actually, I owe you an apology, sir.  At the Netherfield Ball, I all but accused you of harming Mr. Wickham.”

She blushed and looked down before adding, “I am sorry to say I believed many tales he spun about you and has been telling the neighbourhood for many weeks now.”

Taking a cleansing, steadying breath, Elizabeth paused again for a moment. “But I have recently learned he is not a gentleman and not to be trusted.”

She glanced up to see a look of extreme displeasure upon Darcy’s face.  At long last, he managed to inquire, “Has he harmed you in some way, Miss Bennet?”

“No!” A heavy silence remained between them, and she felt Darcy’s unspoken interrogation. “I take it by your response, though, you believe him capable of doing harm? Such as blackmail and extortion?”

“Along with gambling, cheating and lying, those are among his favourite activities. Have you heard him plan to blackmail someone?”

Elizabeth hardly knew how to reply but was certain Darcy would know if she completely disassembled. “I only overheard him planning to extort money from someone he knew well.”

He furrowed his brow. “You are certain that is all you heard?”

She chose not to answer. “Is he truly capable of following through in his schemes? He seems to lack a sense of industry and if he has invented this false tale of your dealings then might his imagination run a bit too fanciful?”

“Oh, I assure you he is perfectly capable of plotting.”

A chill ran up Elizabeth’s spine at Darcy’s words.

“Fitzwilliam, while I can well understand being distracted by the enchanting Miss Elizabeth, you are doing a very poor job of your duties,” Lady Darcy called from the doorway before leading the other guests from the room.

Elizabeth blushed, and Mr. Darcy also looked embarrassed. After clearing his throat, he spoke. “I am unable to explain my knowledge in more detail at this moment. I could call on your uncle tomorrow, before you leave, and explain matters to you both.”

“That will not be necessary. I will pass along the information to the appropriate party,” she quickly said. She could not fathom how he intended to have a private conversation with her and her uncle without rousing the interest of Sir William Lucas.

He looked at her intently. “You are certain he has not threatened you in any way? Should you ever need to speak about him, I hope you know to trust me. Her ladyship was correct last night. I will be journeying to Rosings in just over a fortnight. I leave for Pemberley on the morrow, but we will meet again soon, should you then feel the need to tell me more. If you or your family ever need my assistance, Lady Darcy always knows the best means to contact me.”

Elizabeth mutely nodded and followed Darcy to her ladyship’s library. She could not fathom why Mr. Darcy was so attentive to her.

Despite his kind words, Elizabeth found very little sleep that night. She wondered again and again if she ought to say something to her uncle or if she should have told her father. Writing to him would be nearly useless, as not only was he a terrible correspondent, he could not be relied upon to even read her letters. Elizabeth could not forget, however, that Darcy had a feud with Wickham and had just as much reason to lie as the other man had. Dark circles shadowed her eyes when she left with Sir William and Maria the next morning, but she had determined Wickham’s words were merely idle boasting. If nothing else, how would they ever pay for the cost of an elopement? Elizabeth was hugged affectionately by her sister and aunt. Sadly, her little cousins had not come downstairs as they were suffering from a cold.


My Darling Niece,

You must not let the words of some prejudice and vain people make you feel insecure. All who know you understand your worth. I would charge you to continue your daily reading and do not dwell on such negative thoughts.

Yours always,

A.F.

Chapter Three

 

“Eliza!” Charlotte said and embraced her friend tightly after greeting her family. “I am so pleased you came!”

“Thank you for the invitation!” Elizabeth returned the hug. “Three months without Jane, and seeing Kitty and Lydia run senselessly after officers, was more than I could bear!”

Charlotte laughed, and it seemed some of their earlier closeness was restored. However, as Mr. Collins approached Elizabeth, she had to wonder, again, how her best friend could have concealed such an artful heart. As Charlotte suddenly busied herself with talking louder than before with her father about the pathway to the house, Elizabeth perceived Charlotte was not as happy as she would pretend. For herself, Elizabeth always knew she would be in danger if she married for anything less than the greatest respect for a man, and he for her.

“Dear Cousin Elizabeth!” Mr. Collins hailed as he toddled closer to her. “Welcome to our home. In a moment, you can refresh yourself after your tiresome journey. I know how delicate young ladies are.” He opened the gate to come even closer. “Forgive me for not being out earlier, but I had abandoned my post of watching by the window to deal with a matter regarding our gardens. Very elegant gardens, and you’ll see them later.”

“I would be most pleased — ”

He interrupted her. “And how are your family? Your father is well?” He then brought his hands to his mouth steepled like a prayer. “Not that I am asking in hopes of finding him in deteriorating condition. Never think that I am anxious to see his demise and become master.”

“Rest easy, cousin. I would not think—”

“Of course, when that most unfortunate event does take place, you will always have a place with us as my dear Charlotte is your friend.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth said without the intention of saying more. She did not need to wonder why Mr. Collins believed she would need housing and protection like a pitiful spinster. In his proposal to her, he had argued she would never have another offer.

After pausing and apparently expecting Elizabeth to prostrate herself on his intended future kindness, he frowned. Charlotte and the others moved toward the house, and Mr. Collins followed. He resumed speaking, now and then looking over his shoulder to confirm Elizabeth followed like a dog at his heels.

“And your mother and sisters are well? I trust Mrs. Bennet’s nerves have not consumed her too much since my marriage. Although Mrs. Collins’ letters from her family sometimes indicate there is much to vex your mother.”

Before Elizabeth could answer his question, he began speaking again. “Your sisters enjoy good health, although I wonder if such liveliness does not come with its own cost. It’s hardly worthwhile to never be ill but have your soul in mortal danger.”

“Mr. Collins,” Elizabeth bit out. How dare he insinuate that her sisters were at risk of hell. She may not like their behaviour all the time, but they were not godless sinners!

“Mr. Collins, my father would like refreshments,” Charlotte quickly interjected and cast an apologetic look at Elizabeth.

“Oh, certainly, certainly! Well, Sir William,” the toadstool of a parson lumbered up the walk to his father-in-law.

“Charlotte, how shall I ever live without your timely rescues?” Elizabeth asked, and her friend gave her a tight smile. A faint blush swept over Elizabeth. She should recall that Charlotte would not appreciate her poking fun at her husband.

Once inside the house, Mr. Collins again welcomed them. Tea was brought in, and although Charlotte saw to everyone, her husband echoed every request she made. In between bites of biscuits, he would point out various pieces of furniture, their cost and how he came by them. More than once he addressed Elizabeth by name so as to single out her reaction to the proportion of the room and any other means of making her regret her refusal. Elizabeth blushed for Charlotte’s sake but took secret delight in knowing that she could not fulfil his fondest wishes. Everything seemed neat and tidy, no doubt due to Charlotte, but even all the simple luxuries the parsonage afforded, she could never regret not marrying such a ridiculous man.

Finally, it was recommended they see the garden. Mr. Collins excitedly herded them outside and whisked his father-in-law about. “I encourage him to work in the garden as much as possible,” Charlotte said at Elizabeth’s side. “It is so beneficial to his health,” she managed to say without a smirk or sigh.

“Indeed,” Elizabeth offered, quite at a loss of what else to say.

Next, he desired to show them his two pastures but the ladies did not have the proper shoes and they returned to the house while the gentlemen stayed outside. Charlotte led them to a small parlour in the back of the house. At first, Elizabeth was surprised her friend had not chosen the larger room for herself but recollected that Mr. Collins’ office had windows facing the road. He would forever be lurking and waiting for the admittance of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, so the smaller back parlour had its advantages.

Of her, Elizabeth thought with a brief smile. Mr. Wickham had shared many humorous stories about the old lady and how much her nephew was like her. However, remembering his story brought to mind only his degenerate words and actions in the alley and Mr. Darcy’s visceral reaction to hearing of his schemes.

“Eliza,” Charlotte interrupted her thoughts. “I do not think you heard me. It is unlike you to not offer an opinion on what I just said.”

“Oh, yes!” Maria said excitedly from beside her. “I know you cannot like him, but I only hope to hear all the hateful things you have to say about him.”

“About who?” Elizabeth rapidly blinked her eyes and shook her head to dispel her previous thoughts.

“Mr. Darcy will be visiting his aunt for Easter,” Charlotte said.

“As it happens, I already knew,” Elizabeth said with assumed nonchalance.

“What?” the Lucas sisters cried in unison.

“Yes, he told me the other evening.” Elizabeth sipped her tea.

“You saw him the other evening!” Charlotte cried.

And yesterday,” Maria leant forward to tell her sister. “He spent many minutes speaking with her alone both times.”

Charlotte gaped at her friend. “Is this true, Eliza? He must be in love with you!”

“Maria makes too much of it,” Elizabeth said as she shook her head. “I was separated from our party at the theatre and accidentally ran into him. The others in our party approached just as his aunt did and she invited us all to her home. I am certain she was only extremely polite. Mr. Darcy did not speak with her at all to indicate a desire to spend more time with us. He never would, you know.”

“And he would never ask you to dance either,” Charlotte said with a raised eyebrow, and Elizabeth hoped her friend would not talk about the subject in front of her husband.

“As to his visiting his aunt here,Elizabeth ignored her friend’s hint. “There is no reason to believe it was not his usual time of year to visit. Rosings is quite convenient to London over the Easter holiday. A man may come and go as he pleases without young ladies fancying it is because he loves them.”

Even as she said it, she rather wished ladies had the freedom men did, and they could come and go as they pleased. Eventually, Charlotte and Maria worked on some embroidery while Elizabeth pulled out her sketch book.

“Have you drawn anything new?” Charlotte asked and peered over Elizabeth’s side.

“Oh, I’m forever re-imagining Longbourn,” Elizabeth sighed.

“I would be eager to see what the Parsonage could look like,” her friend said.

“Really?” Elizabeth asked hoping to conceal her disbelief. Would Lady Catherine allow alterations?

“Indeed. Her Ladyship is often saying it could benefit a more substantial remodel.”

Elizabeth troubled her lower lip. She had every expectation that Rosings was a very modern building and Elizabeth favoured an older style. “The wattle and daub timber framing of the house would look garish when matched with the contemporary propensity for Palladian symmetry and stone work.”

Charlotte nodded. “That is why I think you could draw up sufficient plans to show Her Ladyship.”

Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders and agreed. However, she thought to herself that when she married she would rather have more freedom to choose matters of her life, not have to satisfy a patroness’s whims. The Collinses did not have a lease, nor have to pay rent for their house, but had little say in matters which must be quite disagreeable. And of course, Lady Catherine had opinions about matters large and small.

The following day, Elizabeth readied herself for a walk when Maria flew up the stairs telling her to look out the window.

“Why, it is only Lady Catherine and her daughter. You gave me a fright!” Elizabeth admonished the younger lady.

“La! ‘Tis not Lady Catherine. That is Mrs. Jenkinson, Miss de Bourgh’s companion.”

“They ought to come inside. How rude of them to keep Charlotte out of doors in this wind.”

Never mind that she had planned on walking in the mild breeze only a moment ago. She could not bear to think of the ladies of Rosings with any charity at all. Nor did she care to wonder why she presumed the worst.

“Charlotte says they rarely come in. It is the greatest honour when Miss de Bourgh enters the house.”

Elizabeth took a moment to evaluate Miss de Bourgh. She knew from Wickham that the lady was Mr. Darcy’s intended. Of course, they must keep all the wealth and estates in the family. Beyond that, she saw only a frail, sick looking woman.

“She will do very well for him, so sickly and cross.”

“Do for who?” Maria asked.

Elizabeth’s eyebrows jumped to her hairline. She had not meant to say her thoughts out loud. “Oh, not to worry. I simply remembered a book I read.”

Elizabeth contained her laughter as she saw her cousin bow whenever Miss de Bourgh looked his way. At length, the ladies rode away, and Charlotte and her husband returned indoors. The hefty parson defied the laws of gravity by bouncing on his toes.

“What good fortune! What good fortune!”

“What?” Maria asked, catching her brother-in-law’s excitement.

Elizabeth cringed but checked her mouth lest she hurt Charlotte.

“Lady Catherine, with such amazing condescension, has invited you both and Sir William to dine at Rosings Park tomorrow evening. To dine.”

Maria shrieked, bringing Sir William to the room and then the information was relayed again.

“I thought perhaps she would invite us to drink tea with her on Sunday, but who could have imagined?” Mr. Collins said.

“From all that I know of the peerage, such elegant breeding and good manners are quite common,” Sir William said. “Indeed, I am not surprised at all since you have long declared how affable she is.”

“Quite right. Quite right, sir,” Mr. Collins reversed his position and began another lengthy exuberance about Her Ladyship’s gracious condescension.

Charlotte watched the scene with a smile and Elizabeth approached her. “Excuse me, Charlotte. I was just about to go walking when Miss de Bourgh arrived. I shall return shortly,” she said.

“Of course,” Charlotte replied, but her smile did not reach her eyes. Elizabeth felt a twinge of guilt that her friend could see that Elizabeth did not feel the happiness the others did and had expected her to have.

As she walked, Elizabeth allowed that for all her mistrust of peers, they had beautiful grounds. Well, Lady Catherine had not married a peer. However, it seemed the breeding of an earl did not desert her upon her marriage to a baronet. Nor would it escape her daughter’s behaviour if Mr. Darcy was any standard for how grandchildren of earls behaved.

 

*****

 

Darcy walked into his club, steadying himself for the unwanted attention. Last week, the courts determined he was the only living male descendant of John Darcy and, when his aunt died, he would inherit the title. Yesterday, the papers had printed it. A wry smile tilted his lips up. It surprised him they took so long. Usually, the gossips salivated over such news. Well, unless there was a young lady of quality who had misbehaved in some fashion to scandalise over, often while sparing a gentleman any blame at all. Bingley waved him over, and Darcy ignored the suddenly intrigued looks and nods from gentlemen who had never bothered to care about him before.

“Darcy! Where have you been,” Bingley said and greeted him with a familiar grin. “We have not seen you in weeks. Caroline is beside herself,” he added with a laugh.

Noticing the curious gazes of eavesdroppers, Darcy fixed each one with a glare. A waiter approached. Darcy’s tone when ordering sent the last impertinent man back to his corner and the servant seemed ready to flee as well.

Bingley sat back and assessed him, eyebrows furrowed. He dropped his voice. “What has you in such a bear-like mood?”

Darcy scrubbed a hand over his face. “My aunt.”

“The one in Kent? After you to marry her daughter again?”

“No, the Baroness.” Bingley looked blankly at him. “Have you read a paper recently?” The expression on Bingley’s face explained it all.

Darcy left the table and grabbed a newspaper from a gentleman near the fire. Not caring about his startled and angry curse. Darcy tossed it at his friend and took his seat.

“You are going to be a baron?” Bingley yelled in surprise.

The occupants of the room whipped their heads in their direction and grew silent. A growl emitted from Darcy’s throat. The waiter approached trembling.

“Ah-ah-anything else?” he asked. Darcy glared at him, and the servant left.

“Darcy, is this really correct?” Bingley said, still far too loud as interlopers leant in their direction.

Darcy tore the paper from his friend’s hand. “Do be quiet!” he hissed. “I do not care for my affairs to be so publicly bandied about.”

Bingley gaped at him. “You will inherit a title. A seat in Parliament. It is not like it can be private.”

“It can be more private than you screaming it in the middle of Brooks’,” he muttered, and Bingley had the good grace to flush.

“So, you are angry at your aunt,” Bingley said, finally whispering. “Did you not know you were to inherit?”

Darcy raised an eyebrow and bit back a sarcastic retort. He should not take his temper out on his friend, even if he was stupidly smiling again. “Of course, I knew. She has had her title for a very long time, however, and does not play the usual role of a Society hostess. She’s too eccentric for them to worry about. It took years to settle the title on her after her sister died. They almost held it for my father.”

Darcy paused and shook his head. Was it that which first captured the Fitzwilliam family’s attention? “At any rate. Her petition was accepted, it must go through her hands before continuing down the line.”

Bingley whistled. “Not very many peerages go through the female line.”

“Yes, few of them were written as such.”

“So your father died before he could inherit.” Darcy nodded. “It should have been clear then that you were the next in line.”

Darcy let out a disgruntled sigh. “It should have been, but they must examine the line again and search for a relative that had been overlooked. The title might be held by women and passed through them, but invariably favours men.”

Darcy rolled his eyes at the thought. Their king was mad, his son, the Prince Regent, was a wastrel, and all the other princes were equally worrisome. The next heir to the throne was Prinny’s daughter, Princess Charlotte. And yet it would go to her son if she ever bore one. Whether or not that son proved worthy or if he had a dozen elder sisters. Well, whilst it was only with poor grace that the English allowed women to inherit at all, the French had not and look at what happened to them.

“So, the courts have finally conceded you will inherit?” Bingley summarised, although in truth Darcy had already said as much.

“Yes,” Darcy ground out. They were now getting to the heart of his distemper.

“And that has you angry? You do not wish for a title? Or you are angry that your aunt did not marry and have her own children?”

“What?” Darcy started. Such thoughts never entered his mind. His aunt’s life was her own to live. He might not like the added duties and responsibility that would ensue, but it had fallen to him, and he would not condemn her choices like a petulant child. Bingley shrugged and gave a sheepish smile. Darcy wondered if Bingley could be pardoned of murder with that look whereas he was often accused of offending with a mere look.

Darcy glanced around the panelled room full of Society’s wealthiest men. They could gossip worse than women. He locked eyes with the servant and the young man approached, trepidation in his eyes. Darcy fished several coins from his purse. “We require privacy.”

The servant’s eyes widened, and he snatched them as though Darcy would change his mind. How interesting to see that in this establishment that purported itself as among the finest of clubs for noblemen, and even princes, it did not treat its servants fairly. The man had walked off with renewed determination and soon herded the crowd to other seats.

“Well?” Bingley said with an amused look.

“She wants me to create a club.” Darcy took a sip of his brandy. “For women.”

Bingley’s face of disbelief said it all. Everywhere Darcy went, he received similar looks.

“A club of wealthy women from good families, preferably peerage. They are to discuss art, science, literature, and such like. However, there will be no conversation about politics and gambling will be prohibited. They are to be patronesses and also produce works themselves.”

“A club for bluestockings,” Bingley chuckled.

“This is hardly a laughing matter. It’s near impossible to find women to meet her qualifications.” Well, at least for him to meet such women. The ones thrown in his path had money and rank enough to their name, but little sense or intelligence, and all had only one goal: marriage.

“Oh, come, Darcy!” Bingley said and took a sip of his drink. Grinning, despite Darcy’s ill-humor, he explained. “Do you not recall in Hertfordshire? You and Miss Elizabeth Bennet argued about accomplished women.”

“Debated,” he said. He did not argue with the spirited lady. Besides, they mostly agreed. It was Caroline Bingley who had set herself opposed to Elizabeth.

Disputed,” Bingley said expectantly.

In truth, Darcy could scarcely remember what he said to Elizabeth that evening. Instead, his memories filled with the look of her profile in the glow of the fire, the way her eyes danced when she presented her opinions and shone as she would not rescind them when he disagreed.

“You had said you knew only half a dozen accomplished ladies.”

Darcy frowned. He had not been exaggerating. After weeks of searching, he had only six names for his aunt’s club.

“Caroline rattled off some ridiculous load of nonsense women should know to be considered accomplished — a euphemism for marriageable in her usage — and Miss Elizabeth patently refused it to be possible.”

Darcy took a sip of his drink to keep from smiling. He did remember the encounter now. God, she was clever.

“You asked if she actually believed it so difficult to find women that skilled and after my sister’s list, Miss Elizabeth declared she was surprised you knew any.”

How did she not see I meant her? In his weeks in Hertfordshire, he had feared others noticed his attraction to the country lady. I will see her again soon Darcy clamped down on the thought so tightly his jaw ached.

“Good Lord, Darcy!” Bingley blanched. “Is that monstrous frown from finding women for your aunt’s club or from mentioning the Bennets?”

Darcy released a breath he did not realise he had been holding. “Neither.”

Although he took no pleasure in either task, Darcy would rather face a firing squad than admit the next, but it occurred to him he needed a confidant. “My aunt demands I marry one as well.”

Bingley’s eyes bulged, and he called for more brandy. Darcy agreed with the sentiment wholeheartedly.


Dearest Niece,

Do not let melancholy besiege you. You are made of sterner stuff! He is not the only gentleman in the world, and certainly, there are dozens who have better character. Return to London, and we shall find you a match.

A.F.

Chapter Four

At breakfast the following day, the planned visit to Rosings Park was all anyone could speak of. Mr. Collins waxed eloquent, and Charlotte smiled wistfully. It appeared, however much the acquaintance of the ladies of Rosings held no interest for Elizabeth, it held considerable sway in Charlotte’s mind. Her younger sister fairly trembled at considering herself in so grand a house, and Sir William boasted about the fine match his eldest daughter made.

“Not that you need fear Charlotte snatched up the only worthy gentleman, Eliza,” he told her. “I am sure some other gentleman will come to the area sometime. You see how good things come to those who wait. And, of course,” he dropped his voice, but still loud enough for most of the room to still hear, “it does not hurt to have more attainable goals than being the mistress of Netherfield.”

Elizabeth’s eyebrows rose to her hairline, and the only thing that quelled her angry retort was that she had known Sir William all her life. Never before had she thought there was any truth in her mother’s complaints about the artfulness of the Lucases, but the pointed jab at Jane brought all her protective feelings to the front.

“Papa, did my husband show you the orchard?” Charlotte asked and gave Elizabeth an apologetic smile.

Elizabeth turned her face as she felt heat slap it. She did not want Charlotte’s pity!

Sir William furrowed his brow. “No, however, he did mention it. He said it could only be accessed by the gig. What expansive grounds your glebe is!” He walked toward his son-in-law. “Collins, care to show me your gig?”

“Eliza, enjoy your walk. Just be careful to return in enough time, so my husband does not feel the need to worry about tardiness,” Charlotte said before Elizabeth could speak.

“Thank you,” she replied and exited before anyone else noticed her.

While Elizabeth strolled the grounds, Sir William’s words weighed on her mind. It was he who had suggested that Bingley would marry Jane. And now, after Bingley’s departure, he insinuated that Jane tried to grasp too high. Jane never sought Bingley’s attention! Elizabeth’s heart squeezed when she recalled her dearest sister’s shy smiles and blushes at Bingley’s attention the night of their first meeting. Elizabeth squeezed her eyes shut as Jane’s visage flitted through her mind. For those few weeks, Elizabeth had never seen Jane happier. She had always been lovely, but the effects of new love made her radiant. Hopefulness had shone in her eyes, and Elizabeth now wondered if Jane would ever love again.

Restlessness passed through her. She had always known that her parents had never had a happy marriage, nor were they ideal mentors, but it suddenly occurred to Elizabeth that she felt alone in the world. Who was there to protect Jane’s broken heart? Her mother had meant well by forwarding her eldest daughter so much but was useless afterwards as she aired her own feelings without regard for Jane’s. And their father had cruelly laughed at Jane’s pain.

Mr. Wickham’s debauched words resounded in Elizabeth’s ears again. Was it not shocking for a lady, even of her age, to not immediately consider alerting her father to what she had heard? She had always been her father’s favourite, but it was because they had the same sense of humour, not true affection. It was not the sort of relationship Charlotte had with Sir William. He had never called his daughters silly or laughed at Charlotte’s unwed state.

Turning back to the parsonage, Elizabeth shook her head to dispel her thoughts. She was putting too much stock in Mr. Darcy’s words. Before speaking with him, she had thought Wickham merely boasted to his fellow cads. Why should she trust Darcy’s version of Wickham’s character? Because it matched what you witnessed when he was not attempting to charm.

Darcy’s words from Bingley’s ball reverberated in Elizabeth’s mind. “Mr. Wickham is blessed with such happy manners as may ensure his making — whether he may be equally capable of retaining them is less certain.”

Elizabeth had to allow, that Darcy wisely had not argued with her own understanding of Wickham. He did not doubt she had seen enough to find him a friend worth making, but he had also pointed out that she did not know him well enough yet to know if he was a friend worth keeping. Well, now she did.

Such thoughts only lead her to consider that, in a few weeks, Darcy would be at Rosings. He had not displayed manners which made her desire his friendship. Might she have been wrong? Elizabeth chewed her bottom lip, hating the thought. At the very least, with no one but Charlotte to really speak with, he might prove a useful acquaintance. That was if Lady Catherine and Darcy’s intended did not take up all of his time.

Passing through the gate, Elizabeth trudged up the walk, through the Parsonage and to her room to change. Although she had arrived promptly, Mr. Collins promenaded up and down the upstairs hallway giving directives for the ladies to rush their toilettes. He had taken a moment to assure her that whatever gown she had brought would be satisfactory for meeting the great lady as his patroness preferred to have the distinction of rank preserved.

As they walked the half mile to Rosings, Elizabeth found much to enjoy. Most impressive were the grounds around the house, as it was situated on a hill. However, Elizabeth did not admire them for the reasons Mr. Collins would have liked. Elizabeth perceived she would have a view of some miles and thought she might sketch the spire of one of the churches, or the towers to some of the old homes in the area. Of course, if Lady Catherine knew Elizabeth sketched she might be insulted if Elizabeth did not copy Rosings. She looked up at the dull stucco and shuddered at the gaucheness, whilst Mr. Collins blithely enumerated the cost of the chimneys and the windows. The Palladian style home was, indeed, grand and intimidating-looking when seen from a distance. Having studied architecture, Elizabeth realised the style relied on looking colossal and expansive, but really the homes were rather shallow in width.

As they entered the entrance hall Maria, and even Sir William, appeared alarmed at the ostentatious finery around them. Elizabeth, however, bore it all with calm observance. Rosings was not as large as most visitors would presume. Nor had Elizabeth heard anything about Lady Catherine that made her sound frightening. Elizabeth was not in the habit of fearing the wealthy. While the lady’s manners sounded repulsive, they did not seem intimidating.

At last, they followed the liveried servants to the large drawing room where Lady Catherine, Miss de Bourgh, and her companion sat. The ladies went so far as to rise at the entrance of guests. Thankfully, Charlotte provided introductions, and therefore they were saved the many mortifying apologies Mr. Collins would have found necessary to utter. Sir William bowed low but remained mute, and Maria sat near her sister nearly clutching her side. Elizabeth did have some sympathy for the young girl who had only just entered society after Charlotte’s marriage. While she was almost three years older than Lydia, she had less experience in company.

As Elizabeth observed Lady Catherine, she felt a prick of unease. Her Ladyship seemed very much like the picture Mr. Wickham depicted only days ago. How foolishly Elizabeth had believed every word, he had said and had imagined him as the most upstanding gentleman she had ever met! From Wickham to Darcy, Elizabeth’s thoughts turned. Brought all the more to the fore as she soon saw enough in the aunt to be reminded of the nephew.

Next, Elizabeth noted Miss de Bourgh. The lady was far smaller than Elizabeth had observed the day before. Elizabeth had always imagined such delicacy was a mere figment of a novelist’s imagination but Anne de Bourgh indeed looked like one strong wind could lift her away. Nor did she make up for her size and plain looks by a striking personality. She seldom spoke, and when she did it was only to Mrs. Jenkinson.

Shortly after Lady Catherine had detailed how the view, at which she had commanded them all to look, was better in the summer, they were called to the dining parlour. Dinner was as exemplary as Mr. Collins had promised and he took his position at the bottom of the table and carved and flattered in equal skill—that is to say leaving much to be desired. Sir William had recovered enough to echo all of his son-in-law’s words while his youngest daughter remained too frightened to speak.

Separating from the gentlemen served only to allow her ladyship to pontificate at length. Elizabeth soon recognised that there was nothing in her parish the Lady did not care to know or render an opinion on. Must she give advice on Charlotte’s shopping? It was not as though she had ever been a parson’s wife. Despite provocation, Charlotte spoke to Lady Catherine with an ease which surprised Elizabeth.

“Miss Bennet,” her ladyship said in a tone Elizabeth imagined would suit a general on a field of battle, “I have told Mrs. Collins that you are pretty, genteel kind of girl.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth mentally added she was not entirely sure it was a compliment and therefore deserving of gratitude.

“Tell me about your family, Miss Bennet.”

Elizabeth gave the woman a false smile. “I am the second of five daughters.”

“You are cousins to Mr. Collins, I believe.”

“That is correct, ma’am.”

“A pity your mother had no son.” She turned toward Charlotte for a moment. “For your sake I am glad, but otherwise I see no need to entail estates away from females. It had not been thought necessary in Sir Lewis de Bourgh’s family.”

How fortunate for you! Elizabeth thought to herself, and used all her self-control to not roll her eyes. Sir Lewis’ station, wealth and family had been so new that it could make such progressive decisions.

“Do you play or sing?”

Elizabeth bit back a sigh. The inquisition was not over, it seemed. “A little.”

“Oh! Then you shall have to play for us sometime. Our instrument is capital. Probably far superior to what you’re—Do your sisters play?”

Elizabeth’s eyes widened at her ladyship’s lapse she just barely kept herself from insulting Elizabeth directly. Beside her, Miss de Bourgh made a noise that suspiciously sounded like a cough disguising a giggle. “One of them does,” Elizabeth answered.

If Elizabeth had told Lady Catherine that she had a pet unicorn and pigs were flying outside, the lady could not look more shocked. “Why did you not all learn? I know of a family of girls who learned and your father’s income is better than theirs.”

Elizabeth chose not to reply but shot a glance at Mr. Collins. How nice of him to share their family’s income with his patroness!

“Do you draw?”

“No, not at all.” Elizabeth avoided Charlotte’s eyes. The matter of her refusing to call architectural sketching, “drawing”, had been a source of contention between them.

“What, none of you!” Lady Catherine blinked rapidly as if again she had never heard something so strange in all her years.

“Not a one.” By now, Elizabeth took perverse pleasure in rendering her ladyship shocked.

The conversation continued as Lady Catherine canvassed more of Elizabeth’s accomplishments and upbringing. After each turn, it had not seemed like her ladyship could be more aghast, but the next question always trumped the last. Elizabeth inwardly laughed. It seemed the woman had never been in contact with people who had a life that had been different than her own. Mr. Darcy had once said country towns had a constrained and unvarying society, but surely this woman had moved in fine circles of life and yet Elizabeth, who was no oddity in Meryton, was rendered peculiar.

When Elizabeth confirmed that all of her sisters were out in Society at once, she really thought Lady Catherine might have an apoplexy. She had turned red, and her eyes bulged. Elizabeth made a point that excluding sisters could not encourage sisterly affection, hoping to soothe the lady but seemed to make her only angrier.

Lady Catherine sucked in a deep breath. “Upon my word, you give your opinion very decidedly for one so young. What is your age.”

Elizabeth could not keep the mischievous smile from inching across her face. “With so many younger sisters who are grown up, you can hardly expect me to admit it.” She made her eyes wide and blinked innocently. Another giggle-cough escaped from Miss de Bourgh.

Lady Catherine’s eyes narrowed. Whether at her daughter or her guest, Elizabeth was less sure. Elizabeth bit back a smile at the idea of being the first person to dare trifle with such a lady and her ridiculous questioning.

“You cannot be more than one and twenty. Therefore, you have no reason to avoid telling the truth.”

“I am not one and twenty.”

Thankfully, before Lady Catherine could say more, the gentlemen returned and the card tables were brought out. The evening passed with little diversion or animation. Mr. Collins sat with her ladyship and apologised when he felt he won too much. Maria and Elizabeth joined Miss de Bourgh and Mrs. Jenkinson at cassino, but no real conversation was attempted.

Later than Elizabeth would have liked, the carriage was offered and brought round. As it conveyed Elizabeth and the others back to the Parsonage, Elizabeth considered that Mr. Darcy’s presence might be more welcome than she had first thought. She had never thought well of him, and they had often disagreed. However, her time at Netherfield had taught her he had no shortage of things to say when he felt comfortable. That must be vastly preferable to impertinent questions from such a domineering fishwife or the restless sighs from a mouse of a woman.

 

*****

 

“Fitzwilliam, be reasonable!” Darcy’s aunt called after him after he stormed off from the drawing room where she and Georgiana had descended upon him with charts and plans for marriage.

Stalking down the hall, he entered his study and locked the door. Pouring a glass of Madeira, he pulled a shaking hand through his curls and glared at the Darcy crest and motto that hung above the mantle. Hide the sins of his father’s godson? Yes, he could do that. Sacrifice years of carefree life for Pemberley and his sister? Of course. Accept the barony from his aunt? He had little choice. Indulge her with finding a group of bluestocking women? Why not. Allow her to arrange a cold, formal marriage for him? Absolutely not. Duty and honour be damned.

“I want…” he trailed off as his eyes dropped to the fire. He daredw not complete his thought. Loosening his cravat, he threw himself into the chair behind his desk.

To take what he truly wanted would be turning his back on all duty and honour. While he did not want Lady Darcy and Georgiana selecting a spouse for him based on charts of ancestry and the size of their dowry, neither could he imagine forsaking everything that had been ingrained in him for so many years. He would not choose a wife from a flat list of attractions on paper. Unfortunately, it meant he would actually have to converse with the ladies.

Darcy sighed and shook his head. That was likely his aunt’s plan all along. It was unlike her to believe a woman’s worth could be ascertained in a list of accomplishments or monetary value. Nor could he see any reason to rush finding a wife. His aunt was hale and hearty for eighty. On the other hand, both his parents had been gone these many years. Death was no respecter of age. Likewise, his uncle, the Earl Fitzwilliam, had long ago handed the overseeing of the estates to his eldest son. Indeed, Winchester had married ages ago and now had two boys. Richard, the Earl’s younger son, had little chance of inheriting the earldom now — to his own relief. In many ways, Darcy’s continued bachelorhood was selfish. No wonder every female relation worried over his marital state.

A knock interrupted his solitude. “Lady Darcy to depart,” the butler said through the wood-paneled door.

With another sigh, Darcy gulped the last of his drink and hoped the beverage could deaden his memories of dark, dancing eyes. He strode across the room and unlocked the door. His aunt looked up from where she was pulling on her gloves.

“Well?” she gave him an expectant look.

“I will attend the ball, however,” he folded his arms across his chest, “I will not choose to court a lady from a list of qualities you provide. If she is to be my wife, I must talk with her and see if we are compatible.”

“Excellent. Just the decision I knew you’d make!” Lady Darcy smiled in glee and Darcy contained the urge to roll his eyes. She stepped towards him and then on tiptoe, kissed his cheek. “Anyone but that Bingley woman or your cousin Anne,” she whispered in his ear.

A shudder racked through Darcy. “I can assure you, madam, that I will absolutely never, under any circumstances, make either an offer.”

“Good,” she nodded.

Darcy escorted her to her waiting carriage. When he returned inside, Georgiana awaited him in the office.

“Well?” she asked and settled in a chair, tapping her fingers on the paper containing lists of names of possible marriage partners.

“You have been spending too much time with our aunt.” He ordered tea and sat next to her.

“I could spend more time with you,” she offered.

“I believe even our aunt would say for a girl of your tender years that is hardly appropriate.”

“I am no longer a child,” she whispered. “Nor are you up to rakish activities you must shelter me from.”

“What do you know of rakes?” he asked. God help him if he ever had daughters. He could sympathise with the fathers in fairy tales that always locked them up.

“I believe I understand the danger they pose to young maidens far more than you do,” she said. “After Wickham—”

“I never should have allowed you to remain deluded about his character.”

“I do not know that I would have listened to you had I not experienced the pain for myself,” she said and shrugged her shoulders.

It was the first time they had spoken of him. “Why is that?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Georgiana said and ran a finger around the rim of her teacup. “I know I agreed to an elopement because it was exciting and empowering.”

“Empowering?” How little he understood ladies!

“Certainly! To believe yourself able to command the admiration of a handsome man who has the ability to make any woman in love with him. Believing that he saw me, not Fitzwilliam Darcy’s sister, not thirty thousand pounds, was very seductive.”

Yes, he well understood the irresistible pull of believing another knew your real character.

“And while I never thought badly of you or felt you had been unfair, I think I would have been too happy to remain in denial. The truth hurts, and I would have probably lashed out at you rather than accept your words about Wickham.”

“But I could have told you years ago, long before Mrs. Younge took you to Ramsgate.”

“But I had known him then myself. I had been smitten with him from a young age. No doubt he saw that as well and used it to his gain. Mrs. Younge quickly perceived it from the way I spoke of him.”

“You carried a tendre for him for years, and I did not know!” Darcy paled at realising how little he had understood of his sister.

“Do not be so aghast. I daresay girls that confide with their much older brothers about youthful fancies are far more the exception than the rule.”

“Perhaps so, but I would not have us be that way,” he murmured. “I do value your understanding. When I was twelve and you just born, the years between us seemed extreme, but surely that is less so now. At sixteen, you are considered full grown and marriageable. Our differences in understanding now are related more to our sexes and experiences than our ability to learn and reason.”

“Thank you,” she said and stared at her hands. Suddenly she looked up and smiled. “I do not have anything to report now. No one interests me.”

“Oh?” Darcy asked. He had rather hoped someday — eventually — she might take a fancy to Bingley. “What sort of man do you think you would like when you are older?”

She thought for a moment and then her eyes lit with amusement. “I am unsure, and so I think the best way would simply be by meeting as many as possible!”

“Georgiana,” Darcy warned. “You will make me go grey.”

“Well, then,” she said and grinned, “we had best marry you off before you look in your dotage!”

“Not you too!” he feigned annoyance but really was impressed with her ability to bring the conversation around so fully.

“And since I confided in you,” Georgiana leant forward and batted her eyes, “you should reciprocate. Is there anyone you fancy?”

“I have work to do,” he said, standing.

“So there is!” she stood as well. “Oh, please tell me who she is! I can help you!”

“Georgiana, please” Darcy pressed two fingers to his temple. “This morning was excruciating enough.”

“Because your heart has already decided?”

A knock at the door interrupted them. “Mr. Bingley, sir.”


Dear C—

As you have wallowed in self-pity for months, I have none left to offer you. I have not said you shamed the family name with your folly, but your inability to rise above matters does. You are not to be indulged any longer. A new companion shall be hired forthwith, and I recall you to London.

Your weary aunt,

A.F.

 

Chapter Five

 

“Good day, Darcy!” Bingley ambled into Darcy House with his usual fixed smile. “Ah, Miss Darcy,” he said and bowed over her hand. “You look lovelier every time I have the honour of seeing you.”

“Thank you,” she murmured and blushed bright red. “If you will excuse me.” After a hasty curtsy, she fled the room.

Although thankful for his arrival, Darcy cocked his head as he attempted to make sense of the scene he had just witnessed. Bingley had never been so direct with Georgiana before. Was she simply embarrassed or did she dislike his attention?

“This is the first time in a fortnight I have caught you at home,” Bingley said as he sat in the chair opposite.

Darcy poured Bingley a drink then retook his seat. “You have no idea,” he groaned. “I am hounded everywhere. I heard one debutante say I have been determined the catch of the Season. I cannot think why as I have not yet inherited the title and a barony is hardly worth such fervour.”

Bingley guffawed. “The Darcys are richer than many peers, and you’re far more handsome and younger than many of the doddering dukes who have been sowing wild oats for forty or more years. You can hardly blame a lady for rather snatching you than an arthritic duke intent on finally getting around to having legal heirs.” Bingley shuddered. “You would not wish it for your sister.”

“No,” Darcy agreed. “What brings you ‘round. You might have dropped a note even if I had not the time to return your calls.”

“An invitation,” he said, “to dine with us tonight.”

“Unfortunately, I am engaged this evening. I plan to attend the Duchess of Portland’s ball.”

“Yes, we are invited as well. You may dine with us, and then we can attend together.”

“Very well,” Darcy said, but inwardly groaned. Dinner at the Hurst townhouse meant three hours of courses and insipid conversation before going to the ball with even more conversation and dancing.”

“Come, it is not as bad as that,” Bingley smiled at Darcy’s pained look.

“She had a list today. Asking me to select from various descendants of the original Bluestocking Society.”

Bingley’s brows shot up. “Indeed! Did she have a favourite?”

Darcy shrugged. “With my Aunt it is hard to tell when she truly favours something and when she only argues for enjoyment.”

“Ah,” Bingley said.

The pair of dark, dancing eyes passed before Darcy’s mind again, and he shoved them aside. “She advocated for Lady Elizabeth Thynne, the daughter of the Marquess of Bath. She’s the great-granddaughter of Margaret Bentinck, Duchess of Portland, a notorious Bluestocking.  Aunt also favours Lady Charlotte Leveson-Gower, eldest daughter of the Duke of Beaufort. She is the great-granddaughter of Frances Boscawen.”

“Who was she?”

Darcy sighed. “One of the original Bluestockings. Lady Charlotte is a cousin. Frances was my great aunt Anne’s mother.”

“Right,” Bingley nodded. “The one who married the first Earl.”

Darcy gaped at his friend. Had Bingley been looking up his family line? “No, she married the second Earl.”

“Whichever,” Bingley waved his hand as though family lineages meant nothing to him. “What do you think?” He stared at his wine. “They have rank but what are they worth?”

“I actually care nothing for ranks and dowries,” Darcy shrugged. “I do agree with my aunt about finding a lady of sense with real accomplishments and ability to think, not just ornamental pursuits such as rug making. That, however, is not to be found on her lists and so I must meet with them myself.”

“And it must be a descendant from the first set of Bluestockings?”

“No, of course not,” Darcy said, and the beautiful eyes intruded once more.

“And there’s no one else you have in mind that would already suit you if, as you say, you care nothing for rank and money?” Bingley looked at Darcy expectantly.

“Of course not,” Darcy said. He did not often keep confidences from Bingley, but this was paramount. Just a few months ago Darcy had to expound on all the reasons why a match between Bingley and Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s elder sister was imprudent. He could hardly admit to mooning over Elizabeth for…egads, had it been six months? Six months of infatuation?

“Darcy, did you hear me?” Bingley’s voice sounded as though it came from far away and there was a dull roaring sound in Darcy’s ears. “Darcy! Are you ill?”

Suddenly alert again, Darcy shook his head. “Forgive me. I just recalled a matter I must attend to before leaving this evening.”

“You are certain you are well?” Bingley could not contain his concern.

“The picture of health,” Darcy said. “Dinner will be served six o’clock?”

“As always,” Bingley said and stood.

“Perfect,” Darcy said and stood as well. He hastily walked Bingley toward the door. “I look forward to it. Give my regards to your family,” he said with a nod of his head to serve as a bow.

Hoping to avoid sisters and all visitors who might speak of marriage or remind him of Elizabeth, Darcy retired to his chambers before dressing for dinner. Georgiana would remain at home with her recently hired companion, Mrs. Annesley. She had come highly recommended from Lady Darcy. A widow of only a few years, she had served as a companion to several other ladies before their marriage and could contribute to the sort of education Georgiana lacked: sense and self-knowledge.

At six o’clock, Darcy arrived at Hurst’s townhouse. He joined them as they were discussing the most recent account of battles from the Peninsula Campaign. It was not often that they spoke of current affairs. At least not in his presence and he rather doubted at all. The discussion continued throughout dinner.

“You have a cousin who has served, do you not, Mr. Darcy?” Caroline Bingley said from a chair to his right.

“Yes, but I doubt when he joined he imagined we would be at war for so long,” Darcy said. “He is now a colonel. He is very proud to have earned the rank rather than have bought it.”

Caroline blinked rapidly for a moment, and there was silence at the table. It was as though they did not know the basics of how ranks were attained in the army.

“Well, I suppose it is good that not too many of the lower classes are considered his equals, then,” Caroline said at last. “Like it is in the Militia.”

“The Navy,” Bingley muttered, and Caroline blushed.

“Yes, the Navy, I mean.” She sipped her wine. “I hope you can remain for supper, Mr. Darcy. We have found a book in Hurst’s library which we think you would take a keen interest in.”

In the past, the only time Caroline had seemed interested in a book was when he was already reading one. In fact, she eagerly dismissed Elizabeth Bennet’s interest in them while at Netherfield. This sudden interest further heightened his suspicions at the motives for their unusual behaviour. “I am sorry I cannot. I have promised to go to the Duchess of Portland’s ball.” His head began to pound at the mere thought.

“What Caroline meant was, if you had rather not go we would gladly host you here,” Bingley said.

“You had said you were invited as well,” Darcy said knitting his brows. Why was everyone acting so peculiarly?

Caroline cleared her throat. “I have often said that a ball is an absolutely irrational way to spend one’s evening. Conversation can be more easily had at home.”

Darcy could think of only one time she had ever said such a thing and that was in hopes of convincing her brother to not host a ball at Netherfield. And Bingley had never missed a chance to dance.

“I have promised the Baroness. I would be pleased to view it another time,” he said leaving no room for argument, and conversation soon turned to other topics.

Although they all arrived at the Portlands’ ball, Darcy was soon ferried away by his aunt. After the fifth dance, he sought refreshments. Bingley and his sisters were nearby.

“Darcy! There you are,” Bingley called out. “I have never seen you dance so much in your life.” He grinned.

Grinned! “I believe I always pay the proper civility to every establishment,” he answered neutrally.

“I confess I have been surprised by your partners,” Caroline said.

Darcy braced for her to either gush over his abilities or demean his partners, as was her usual wont.

“I had believed you disliked conversation with strangers,” she finished with a knowing smile.

“I do find it tedious,” he said. Hearing the orchestra strike up again, he held out his hand. “If you are free for this set, Miss Bingley, might I have the pleasure?”

“Indeed, it would be my pleasure,” she smiled at him.

It occurred to Darcy that when she did not try so hard to please, she would make some gentleman — not him — a suitable wife.

“There, now. We may remain silent if you choose,” she said in a gentle but slightly teasing voice.

“I do not mind speaking with you,” he said. “We have no shortage of topics we can discuss.”

Caroline laughed lightly. “Oh, yes. But do you not ever tire of speaking of what Society says we ought? I will remark on the room or the dance. Later, I will observe the couples, and if it is ungenerous, then that is all the better.”

She had rendered Darcy mute. He did not know how to approach a Caroline Bingley who did not belittle her peers. “What would you rather have us say?”

“Do you recall when Elizabeth Bennet suggested my intimacy with you could tell me how to tease you?”

Did Darcy imagine it or did she attempt to add huskiness to her voice with that word? “My memory is never so exact as a woman’s.”

Caroline laughed again. “There is your wicked sense of humour. I have thought of it,” she said and waited until the dance drew them closer again before continuing. “I cannot think of how to tease you that will not pain you.”

“That hints at believing you know of ways that would hurt me,” he said. The inflection in his voice made his statement into a question.

She waved a hand around, gesturing at the room. “We are here. Surely, some find enjoyment in teasing you for discomfort.”

“But you do not?” He waited for the dance to bring them together.

“No,” she said breathily.

He had never before believed Caroline had any genuine affection for him. Then again, never before had he really looked for a wife. Could it be she now felt threatened? Strangely, he felt a shred of compassion for her.

“I would rather speak of your sister,” said she. “Georgiana always brings you happiness.”

Darcy readily agreed, and their conversation turned toward her. At the close of the dance, for the first time in a very long while, Darcy believed he had almost enjoyed his set with Caroline Bingley.

As the night wore on, his patience frayed. It was more than mere exhaustion of insipid conversations with strangers. He disliked going through the motions of what his heart had already decided.

Returning to his office, Darcy snatched up the blasted lists of ladies and crumpled them into a tight ball. Throwing them into the fire, he watched as they burned and turned to ash. He needed no more lists, and he needed no more balls. No lady contained on those pages or in the rooms of London would fit his requirements for a wife. He already knew what he wanted, and it couldn’t be less convenient. He could not determine when he had lost all sight of reason and done the most foolish thing in his life, but it could not alter the fact that Darcy had suddenly recognized he was in love with Elizabeth Bennet.

 

*****

 

Sir William stayed only a week at Hunsford and left suitably impressed with his daughter’s situation. Elizabeth summoned a smidgen of pity for her mother who would hear all the virtues of Hunsford extolled from the family she now viewed as her mortal enemy. Elizabeth smirked as she considered that the rude questions of Lady Catherine and the annoying exultations of Mr. Collins were preferable to the wailings of her mother.

Despite the change in scenery, Elizabeth found the listlessness that had settled over her in December continued. Sir William’s departure did little to alter the routine of the Parsonage. The ladies sat in the smaller drawing-room, away from the lane, which afforded Mr. Collins the dining-parlour where he could keep count of how many carriages passed and when Miss de Bourgh drove by in her phaeton, which was nearly every day. He spent the chief of his time between breakfast and dinner in the garden or in his book room. Additionally, he walked to Rosings almost daily, and Charlotte often went with him.

Lady Catherine called several times and examined every nook and cranny to see if there was anything critical she could say she had overlooked at the previous visit. The maid was deficient, the furniture ought to be rearranged, and even their needlework required improvement. Lady Catherine was the sole authority on any subject a person could think of, and whether she spoke of music or literature, she acted as though she were a great patron. Nor were visiting the cottages of the neighbourhood beneath her. Her ladyship was an ever-present balm to anyone with complaints ranging from disputes to poverty. She would soon remind one of every blessing they had been afforded if not from the Lord, then from her hand. Mr. Collins was her faithful servant and brought to her the minutest concerns.

Twice more they had dined at Rosings, and it was no different than the first time, except there being one less card table. There were few other engagements, but this did not concern Elizabeth. She contented herself with half hour conversations with Charlotte and enjoyed much free time to walk around the grounds, often returning to a worn looking bench off a path some distance from the manicured gardens. The view from the hill allowed her to sketch the buildings she had desired and no one bothered her. Seldom had Elizabeth observed a gardener.

Additionally, Elizabeth poured over letters from Jane, half-dreading any sign of continued melancholy. In her usual manner, Jane attempted cheerfulness, but Elizabeth could only hope Mr. Bingley would never return to Netherfield. To ease her own mind, Elizabeth had also taken care to write her father and Mary. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Bennet did not reply, and Mary had nothing but sermonizing words to share. Elizabeth did not dare give Mary any hint of her concerns about Lydia or Wickham, but Mary did not report anything out of the ordinary in anyone’s behaviour.

As Easter approached, Lady Catherine could not contain her excitement for the arrival of her nephew. Elizabeth then learned that Mr. Darcy brought his cousin, the younger son of the Earl Fitzwilliam, with him. While her ladyship praised them both beyond what Elizabeth could believe possible for any human let alone the Mr. Darcy she knew in Hertfordshire, her daughter seemed, if possible, more withdrawn and disinterested than usual. Elizabeth had looked forward to seeing how fruitless Caroline Bingley’s designs on Mr. Darcy were as he was intended for his cousin. However, it seemed the cousin was less inclined for the match. Not that Elizabeth could blame the lady. Still, if Miss de Bourgh were unwillingly courted, it did remove some of the amusement. She would never be so unkind as to hope to see Darcy, or any man, rebuffed or a lady forced into marriage against her inclination.

The night before the hoped for arrival, they dined at Rosings. To Elizabeth’s astonishment, Miss de Bourgh asked to sit next to her after dinner when the card table had been brought out. Shortly after the game had begun, the lady whispered to Elizabeth, “It did not escape my notice, Miss Bennet, that you did not have any praise to offer about my cousin.”

“I do not believe we are acquainted,” she replied. If Miss de Bourgh was intent on having this conversation, Elizabeth would not make it easy for her.

“You know very well I mean Darcy. Although, I am sure as soon as you meet Richard you will find him vastly preferable.”

“Perhaps you, as well, have no kind words for Mr. Darcy?”

Miss de Bourgh let out one of her giggle-laughs, and Mrs. Jenkinson raised worried eyes to her. Her concern was waved aside. “Darcy can be difficult to get to know. His reserve is often mistaken for displeasure.”

“Reserve only happens when occasions lack intimacy, and I believe it is the burden of the seeker to establish intimacy.” In much the way that Bingley and his sister had led Jane to believe that they wanted to know her better.

“This is true, but do you not agree it might take some longer to feel comfortable in new surroundings than others?”

Elizabeth glanced at Maria who bit her bottom lip, and now and then glanced around the room wide-eyed with wonder. “I agree the timid may take longer to adjust.”

“Ah, but it is not only timidity. Sometimes it might be rigidity.”

Elizabeth remained silent as it seemed Miss de Bourgh wished her to do. “If one is used to things going a certain way then they might feel uncomfortable in a new environment. Especially, if they are unused to things going well.”

Elizabeth played a card. “I cannot think what you mean by these references.”

“Oh, just some observations I had believed you would find interesting and only a few days from Easter.”

Elizabeth had no ready answer, and Miss de Bourgh offered no more great insights.

After several minutes of silence, Miss de Bourgh leaned toward her once more. “I understand you are an avid drawer, despite what you have told my mother.”

“A lady does enjoy having some secrets,” Elizabeth countered.

“And you may keep yours,” Anne nodded. “However, I suggest you do not neglect your practice at the pianoforte. Additionally, I would be delighted to offer you a tour of the library.”

“The library?” Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. She had the distinct feeling the only place Anne de Bourgh would help her would be out of the highest window.

“Mrs. Collins has said you are an avid reader. I believe you will soon find her husband’s library deficient if you do not already. You are welcome to anything in ours. It is, of course, the primary reason why your friend visits Rosings so frequently.”

Mrs. Jenkinson and Maria played their final cards and the carriage was ordered. Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief when safely ensconced in it’s confines. Were Miss de Bourgh’s words about Darcy? Were they about herself? Were they for Elizabeth? Elizabeth enjoyed her walks, but she could never feel comfortable at Hunsford or Rosings. It was simply too different to what she was used to. Nor had she ever guessed Charlotte walked to Rosings so often to take refuge in its library.


Continue reading: Chapters Six to Ten

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