Darcy was frowning in concentration as he wrote an important business missive when a voice in his ear caused him to startle.
"My, Mr. Darcy, how neatly you write! I declare I have never seen a man with a hand as nice as yours!"
"Elizabeth, my dear," he said absently "I am rather busy at the moment. Might we talk later?"
"Of course!" cried she, "I would not dare to disturb the austere master of Pemberley in his duties, for they are of the utmost importance. And you perform them to perfection, Sir! I am in awe of your competence and your conscientiousness!"
At this, Darcy raised his eyes from the letter he was writing for the first time. "Have I done aught to upset you, that you are subjecting me to your patented punishment of fawning flirtation?"
"Upset me?! How could you upset me? You must know that I am grateful for any small morsel of attention the great master of Pemberley condescends to bestow upon me, for he has many other duties to perform. And you do perform them so well, Sir!" She fluttered her eyelashes at him.
"Ah, so you are feeling neglected." He sighed. "My love, before our wedding I had done all that I could to care for my business concerns in advance, so that I may dedicate all my attentions to you during the first fortnight of our marriage. But I can put off my work no longer, and after neglecting it for two weeks, the amount of issues that require my attention is truly overwhelming."
She softened slightly, but persisted. "Oh, I understand! I would never deign to try and take your attentions off the myriad of matters that you must attend to, for you are a man of such importance! I do quite comprehend that the great master of Pemberley (of ten thousand a year) would be too busy to even send a message with a servant to inform me that he is unable to attend the walk we had planned around the grounds this afternoon."
"The walk? But we agreed we would walk together at four. And now it is only-" he pulled out his pocket watch "-four thirty. Oh dear."
Elizabeth smiled ruefully. "I felt like quite the fool, waiting for you at the entrance for half an hour. And the servants did stare! But I was hesitant for some time to interrupt you in your study, for I thought you must surely be in the midst of an important meeting to abandon me so."
"I am sorry, my love. I simply lost track of time. Can you forgive me?"
Her expression remained in a pout, but a twitching at the corners of her mouth told him that he was forgiven. "There is nothing to forgive, for the great master of Pemberley can do no wrong."
"Is that so?" he smiled. "Even if the great master of Pemberley is a lecherous man who wishes to take his wife to his bedchambers in broad daylight, and keep her there for two hours at least?"
"You are a man of impeccable judgement, Sir, and if you deem it appropriate- Fitzwilliam! Put me down!"
"I shall not," said he. "For I have half an hour that I ought to have been spending with you that I must compensate for. And I intend to begin immediately."
"But what if one of the servants were to see us? What would they say?"
"They would say," he replied, "that the great master of Pemberley is a man of infinite wisdom, and if he deems it necessary to carry his impertinent wife to their rooms, then he must know what he is about."
Caroline Bingley gritted her teeth.
After the announcement of Eliza Bennet's engagement to Mr. Darcy, she had gone to great lengths to endear herself to her usurper in order to retain the right of visiting Pemberley. It was an utterly mortifying experience, and she was beginning to think that it had not at all been worth the effort.
"My dear Mr. Darcy," Eliza simpered, "I do declare that I have never seen a man more sharply dressed than you! And how ever do you contrive to keep your clothes so free of wrinkles?"
"I have my man iron them before use, for I am in fear of shaming my elegant wife by appearing any less than my best. But then, Mrs. Darcy, your beauty is so great, that I am in doubt as to whether anyone notices what I wear when I am in your presence. They are surely too enchanted by you to give me a second glance."
Said beauty (who Caroline personally never thought was all that attractive) shot Mr. Darcy a coy smile. "I wonder that you should say such a thing. I have always found it to be the other way around. Whenever you enter a room, no female in it (myself included) can remove her eyes from you."
Caroline could bear it no longer. "I beg you excuse me, I find my head is paining me." She curtsied and rushed out of the room before the saccharine flirtation of the two inside could cause her to be physically ill. Nothing was worth enduring another moment of that, not even the bragging rights of being a regular visitor at Pemberley!
After the door closed behind her, and her footsteps faded away, the Darcys burst into giggles.
"You, my wife, are brilliant!" declared Mr. Darcy.
"Stop it," Elizabeth chortled, "she is gone now."
"How long do you think it took?" Mr. Darcy asked.
"About fifteen minutes, I suppose."
He consulted his pocket watch. "Close. It was seventeen minutes. Not bad, but there is always room for improvement."
Elizabeth smiled. "Worry not, my darling, we will ensure that by the time this visit ends, she will never again seek an invitation into our home!"
Caroline stepped out of the carriage and into the grounds of Netherfield with a slight downward curl to her lips and a delicate wrinkle to her nose. Not enough to appear unladylike or unattractive, but simply to subtly announce to any observers that her surroundings were beneath her, and it was a great act of condescension on her part to grace the home with her presence. It had been years since she had last deigned to visit her brother's home, and she wanted to make very clear what a great sacrifice her attendance had taken.
Unfortunately, both her brother and Jane seemed oblivious to this slight. Her brother greeted her with enthusiastic warmth, and Jane was a font of compliments to her looks and clothing, which, quite distressingly, sounded genuinely pleased on her behalf, with not a tinge of envy to be heard.
The rest of the day continued in a similarly unsatisfactory manner, and by the end of it, Caroline was cursing her capitulation to her brother's request to spend the Christmas season with the family. To think- at this very moment she could be in town, attending balls and soirees, and giggling with her friends over the fashion faux pas of their peers. Instead, she was stuck between her brother Hurst on one side, and Mr. Bennet on the other, and could not rightly decide which would be more painful to converse with.
The worst of it was, that as an informal family gathering, supper was attended by the children as well, and was therefore a far louder and more exuberant cacophony of an affair than any civilized person was accustomed to.
Caroline tended to avoid little children, as she had always observed an alarming tendency on their part to begin exuding snot at unpredictable moments. Therefore, it took her a while to notice that one of the children was missing.
"Where is darling little Sophie?" she asked her sister Jane, upon observing the absence of her favourite niece.
A look of consternation crossed Mrs. Bingley's usually serene countenance. "She has been a naughty girl today, and so has not been allowed to attend dinner with the adults." Lowering her voice, so the other children wouldn't hear, she confided in Caroline: "I truly do hate to punish my children, but in this case, there was really no choice. She has been very bad. Imagine- she has pushed her younger cousin Darcy into a pond during an argument! His clothes were completely covered in mud."
Caroline gasped with shock. "Your Sophie? Pushed her cousin into a pond? How distressing!" She could hardly believe that any child of Charles and Jane would be capable of such behavior. She would expect something of the sort from Miss Eliza's wild daughter, but sweet, angelic Sophie? How could such a thing be?
Then- it came to her. She realized immediately what had caused Sophie to act so out of character. Her little niece wanted to marry the young Darcy. He was, after all, promising to be as handsome as his father, and was the heir to Pemberly besides, and as his cousin she had a definite advantage in the field. Only, being six years old, she did not know how to properly entice her love interest.
Everyone knew that when little boys fancy little girls they often pull on their braids and bother them to get their attention. Poor Sophie, having observed this behavior, had mistakenly concluded that teasing and bullying were the right way to engage the object of her affections.
Well, Caroline would be happy to help by setting her straight. She was something of an expert on the matter, having observed the whole sordid courtship between Eliza and Mr. Darcy, and thus knew the way to a Darcy man's heart. She would help little Sophie, and her niece would succeed where Caroline herself had failed, and secure the hand of what was sure to be the most eligible bachelor in a few years' time.
After excusing herself for the night, Caroline went upstairs to her niece's room and knocked on the door. Sophie opened it with a petulant and stubborn look on her face, but it faded once she realized it was her aunt Caroline, and not her mother come to try and cajole her into apologizing.
"Dearest Sophie!" Caroline exclaimed with genuine affection, pulling her pretty little niece into a hug, "How good it is to see you! I missed you at dinner, tonight."
"I wanted to go, but Mama didn't let me," Sophie said. "I had to have dinner alone in the nursery."
"I know," cooed Caroline soothingly. "She told me all about it. Now, you are very like your aunt Caroline, you know, and I immediately realized why you pushed your cousin into that pond."
"So you understand?" Sophie asked. "You are not here to scold me?"
"No, no," Caroline assured her. "I merely wanted to offer you some advice. Listen carefully, now: The best way to go about your objective is to flatter your cousin excessively. No matter what he does, and no matter how inane it is, you must act as though you are deeply impressed by it. No flattery is too excessive, even if it seems ridiculous and transparent. Trust me, I know Darcy men, I have witnessed this method succeed first hand." She could not quite keep the bitterness from her voice.
Sophie nodded solemnly, resolve on her pretty little face. "Tell him that everything he does is great. No matter how ridiculous it seems. Thank you for the advice, Aunt Caroline."
Caroline patted her affectionately on the head, pleased to be dispensing such invaluable pearls of wisdom. She left in high spirits.
How strange, Sophie mused, watching her aunt leave the room. Her aunt Lizzy and her aunt Caroline hardly ever agreed on anything, but when her aunt Lizzy had visited her earlier to hear her side of the story, and Sophie told her how mean Ben had been and how she had wanted to punish him, Aunt Lizzy had advised the exact same thing.