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Previous Chapters: Chapter One
“Fitzwilliam, Darcy,” Lady Catherine nodded as they entered her drawing room. “Kiss your cousin.”
Anne barely lifted her head for Richard to peck on her cheek but offered more of her face for Darcy. His heart sank. Had he not made his preferences regarding any possibility of their marriage clear? Perhaps she merely meant to please her mother. Darcy stifled a groan at the thought of having to discuss the matter with mother or daughter again.
“Where is Georgiana?” Lady Catherine asked.
“Do you not recall? I wrote to you over a week ago. She is recovering from a cold and preferred to remain at home.”
“I do not see why she could not come,” she frowned at him. “It is only a cold.”
“I confess I spoil her and did not wish to discomfort her with the ride.” Darcy slid his eyes to Richard. He had been correct that Lady Catherine would insist on asking about his sister.
“I should scold you for being so indulgent,” her ladyship said with a censure-less smile.
“I also considered Anne, of course.”
“That is just like you,” Lady Catherine beamed. “You think of everyone and everything.”
Darcy lightly shook his head but refrained from blushing at his aunt’s praise. Richard was correct. Aunt Catherine never saw fault in him. He could say he intended to dance barefoot on the dining table and she would find a way to praise him. Was it any wonder that all her servants were as complimentary? Take her parson, for example. How he was related to Elizabeth, Darcy could never understand.
No. No more thoughts of Elizabeth.
“Did you hear me, Darcy?” Lady Catherine, thankfully, interrupted his thoughts. “I asked how your sister liked Ramsgate. I have thought of taking Anne. Or if you still have the house perhaps we might stay with you this summer.”
“I have already told you she did not care for it, Aunt,” Richard said with a subtle nudge to Darcy’s knee.
“I do not want to hear it from you. What do you know? You spend months in mud and on horses in a Godless country.”
Darcy’s brows rose. Lady Catherine’s insults were particularly barbed today. “Thank you for your inquiry,” he attempted to smooth the situation. “Richard is correct. Georgiana did not care for Ramsgate. She mentioned the house was insufficient so I did not retain it. If you would like, I could suggest a solicitor in the area who might assist you.”
Said solicitor did not ask intrusive questions or gossip when Darcy unexpectedly showed up and whisked his sister away after firing her governess on the spot. Darcy clenched his hands at his side. Would that all men in his employ could have been so loyal. No, some attempted to seduce his sister and blackmail him for the misfortune of his birth.
“Perhaps,” Lady Catherine pursed her lips. “If Georgiana did not care for it then it may not be the best place to send Anne. I am very selective about where to spend my holidays. So is Anne.”
Darcy nodded. One reason he did favour his aunt, aside from being happy to finally have any family at all, was that she never required much input from him. His mind was free to wander and merely nod now and then. Richard, who was a regular magpie, could not conceive remaining quiet for much of an hour let alone an entire day.
“And so Georgiana has spent all her time in London since then?”
“We went to Pemberley first, but she has been in Town since September.”
“I wish you had followed my advice and kept a governess for her. They transition to companion quite nicely, as you see with Anne.” Lady Catherine nodded to her daughter.
“If she had been brought up with a governess all along, I am sure you would have been correct,” Darcy answered. “I have recently hired a companion.”
“I do not see why you needed to hire one specifically just to sit with her when she has female relations,” her ladyship frowned.
Darcy glanced at Richard. Was there any pleasing the woman? He began to understand what his cousins always complained about.
“I am feeling rather slighted, Aunt,” Richard interrupted. “You have not asked after my family or me at all.”
“I hear from the Earl often enough. What do you have to say that will interest me? I know you prefer to shock me.”
Lady Catherine shook her finger at the colonel as if she were scolding a much younger boy. Darcy bit back a chuckle.
“It is not my fault I have been deployed to the Continent a few times and have lived to tell the tale.” Richard winked, and Anne smiled. “One would think you are ungrateful that I live.”
“Ungrateful! Me?” Lady Catherine thumped her cane. “Your jesting seriously displeases me.”
“Pardon me,” Richard smirked. “I had thought it would delight you.”
Lady Catherine sniffed and cast her eyes about the room.
“You did not tell them about Mr. Collins,” Anne spoke softly.
Mention of Collins made Darcy walk to a window and look out it. Too many memories of Hertfordshire were associated with the name.
“Quite right, Anne. I have got a new parson. Old Dr. Montague retired.”
“Riveting,” Richard said in a wry voice.
“Well, he is newly married. Is that not news enough for you?”
Richard chuckled. “News of a marriage does not titillate men the way it does for women.”
“He is just the sort of rector we need in this parish. He is heir to an estate entailed on him away from five daughters. For Anne’s sake, I am glad such things were not thought necessary in Sir Lewis’ family.” Lady Catherine paused for a moment and went on. “Well, I convinced him to visit the family. There had been some kind of breach, and it was his Christian duty to heal it and marry one of the cousins.”
Dread filled Darcy’s heart. It could not be.
“Well, he did even better than I had commanded,” Lady Catherine said. Without seeing her, Darcy knew she smiled. “His cousins, judging by the one visiting, are impertinent and falsely superior. No, he did much better than marry one of them and brought back a meek and humble wife.”
Darcy let go of the breath he had been holding.
“Miss Charlotte Lucas as was. Daughter of a tradesman who was knighted. Just the sort of woman to know her place. Not too low and not too high. She manages the household and her husband perfectly. Her sister and one of his cousins are now visiting.”
Richard laughed again. “I like the image of her managing her husband. You say relatives are visiting?”
“Yes, one was a particular friend to his wife. A few weeks ago, Mrs. Collins’ father visited. He brought with them a sister and her friend, Miss Bennet. They will remain for several weeks.”
A buzzing sound filled Darcy’s ears.
“What are these young ladies like?” Richard asked.
Darcy wanted to punch his cousin. Whether it was Elizabeth or not, Richard should not take such pleasure in idle flirtation.
“Miss Lucas never speaks. She is in awe of Rosings, of course. Miss Bennet,” Lady Catherine said with a bit of contempt mixed with amusement in her voice, “has far more courage. Wit and impertinence combined. If she knew how to treat her betters, she would be perfectly charming.”
Darcy’s heart began beating loud and fast. He felt as though he were in a ring at Gentleman Jackson’s. Each word his aunt uttered was a new blow to his heart.
“She sounds like an excellent addition to our small party,” Richard said.
“Darcy!” Lady Catherine called and banged her cane. “I heard that you already know the occupants of the Parsonage.”
Darcy turned to face them, hoping he could hide his state. “I met Mr. Collins while visiting a friend in Hertfordshire. I had to good fortune to also know his wife and the family he was visiting.”
“What did you think of Miss Bennet?” she asked. “I cannot put my finger on her. Sometimes I believe she might be mocking me.”
“You?” Richard feigned disbelief. “Never!”
If it was the Miss Bennet which Darcy feared then the correct answer was “always.”
“As you say, there were five Miss Bennets, and they came with a wide variety of personalities.”
“Ah,” Richard nodded. “You must describe her—for Darcy’s sake, of course.”
So help him, if Richard would sit there and envision Elizabeth’s loveliness and fantasize about her and right in front of him!
“She has brown hair,” Lady Catherine answered.
Four of the five daughters had brown hair. Of course, Darcy would describe Elizabeth’s as mahogany. The way sun would shine on it had always fascinated him.
Lady Catherine continued, “She is medium height, I would say. Around Georgiana’s size.”
That could be three of the five. Anticipation built as his aunt continued.
They were down to two, although Darcy knew from the description of her personality there could only be one. His heart beat a staccato rhythm.
“Anne, do you recall what her name was?”
“Elizabeth,” her daughter replied.
Elizabeth, Darcy’s mind repeated. It felt like a cannon blast had sounded, and he fought to stay upright from the shock of it all. Elizabeth, here at Rosings. So very close. All his arguments about why she would not suit began to crumble in the face of her nearness. Lady Catherine had not been repulsed by her. She even seemed to respect and like her. She praised her.
“Darcy!” Lady Catherine called and banged her cane.
“Pardon me, ma’am, I was woolgathering.”
“Hertfordshire was quite unkind to him, we are to understand,” Richard chuckled. “It seems London does not lay claim to all the match-making mamas.”
“They dare to think their daughters worthy of Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley? Of the son of Lady Anne Fitzwilliam?”
“You cannot blame a mother for believing her daughter worthy of anything,” Darcy said. “Perhaps if it seems unrealistic it is only a mark of the ferocity of her love for the child.”
Had he just defended Mrs. Bennet?
“What you describe is grasping,” Lady Catherine frowned. “Rank ought to marry like rank, or it is a recipe for distrust and disaster. Your own parents—”
“I will thank you to not mention anything about my parents!”
Darcy fumed. He could not take more of these vacillating emotions. He needed an escape. A fast ride to the Parsonage and banging on the door, grabbing Elizabeth in his arms and kissing her senseless came to mind. He settled for retiring to his chambers.
In the calm and quiet of his room, he acknowledged that his aunt had a considerable point. His mother had been born the daughter of an earl, and she married a country gentleman. Although the Darcys were wealthy, they did not favour Town. She used to tell Darcy of her debutante days of dancing set after set in London. The faraway look in her eyes and sadness in her voice had demonstrated how much she longed for such a time again. Although he had not meant to be cruel, sending her to Scotland was the worst kind of punishment her husband could render.
Their temperaments had been too different. Mr. Darcy was lively and amiable. He welcomed everyone and counted his steward as his closest friend. Lady Anne resented it all. She longed for the aloofness of London. She enjoyed the balls and soirees where she could be above others and did not have to rub shoulders with all ranks. She had been taken from everything she knew and asked to behave differently.
If Darcy married Elizabeth, it would be much the same. Elizabeth was content and happy in her country life. Had she not defended it to him? He did not doubt she could learn, but as he had been forced into playing the role twenty years ago, he long knew there was a difference between learning the steps to the dance and enjoying it. Elizabeth was made for laughter and love. Taking her from the life she cherished would snuff the light from her eyes and he could not live with himself if he did that.
While every fibre of his body longed to race to her door and carry her away, his head cautioned to avoid the Parsonage. Lady Catherine always invited him to look over the books while he visited. He would spend as much time as he could on it. There was no need to call on the Parsonage. None at all. He could conquer this.
Coward his heart whispered to him. All his arguments against Elizabeth were not just vain pretensions but a protective choice. Marrying Elizabeth would set his love aflame, there would be no containing it. No distant and appropriate English marriage for them with separate chambers and separate lives. No, he could not bear to have her away from him for so many hours. Her passionate nature would be just the same.
Then, like his mother’s love for her husband, one day it would end. Or perhaps she could die. Then what would happen to him? He had, at last, found someone to love and love him in return. His heart would be crushed. He would become a shell of a man, unable to go on and see to his duties. Georgiana and Pemberley would be in disarray. Darcys of the future would mock his existence and laugh at his portrait in the gallery. Then, one day, one would find the truth. He was never a real Darcy. And then they would know why he had been the weak link in the family legacy. His blood would find him out.
No, marrying Elizabeth would be the ruin of him.