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Even More Consequences From A Call

Chapter Text

Prologue

 

Meryton, Hertfordshire
Saturday, April 1, 1786

 

“Mr. Attwood paid me a visit today,” Mr. Gerald Bennet said from his seat at the head of the dinner table.

 

That man’s daughter, Jane, looked up at the odd tone of her father’s voice.

 

“That is not uncommon, father,” her brother Thomas said with a quick glance at her.

 

“He wanted to discuss Jane,” her father said.

 

Jane was now certain the suspicion she shared with her brother was correct.

 

“Does he want Jane to sing a special song tomorrow?” Tommy asked sounding hopeful while shooting her a worried look.

 

“I would be happy to sing any song Mr. Attwood prefers,” she said quickly, and to her ear a little desperately.

 

“No Jane, Mr. Attwood asked for your hand in marriage,” Mr. Bennet said to the shock of the room.

 

“Father, you cannot be serious,” Jane said desperately.

 

“Jane is not even sixteen, father, she is not out yet,” Tommy said.

 

“I told him that, but he is still interested,” her father said. “Mr. Attwood proposed a year-long engagement.”

 

“Is this an April Fool’s joke?” Jane asked.

 

“You cannot be considering this, father,” stated Tommy.

 

“I cannot?” Mr. Bennet asked quietly.

 

Jane caught her brother’s panicked look before turning pleading eyes to her mother.

 

“That is enough, Gerald,” that man’s wife, Mary Bennet, said sternly. “Mr. Attwood is older than you and asked to court me when I was but fifteen years old and also not yet out.”

 

“Mr. Attwood is the vicar here and has an adequate income. Why should I not promise him Jane’s hand?” Mr. Bennet asked stubbornly.

 

Knowing how her father reacted to being told what he could not do, Jane tried to diffuse the situation. “Father, you know how I wish to marry for love. I am only fifteen. Why can I not be given the opportunity to meet men? I could attend a few house parties with mother’s family. Who knows what could happen? Maybe I will meet a titled gentleman?”

 

“I think this discussion is over for the moment. Come Jane, let us leave the men to their port and cigars. I need to write my cousin a letter. I think he would be interested to know a vicar at one of his churches is preying on his young cousin. Again!” her mother said with a dark look at her father. “You know how My Lord, the Bishop of Landal, dotes on his young cousins.”

 

“Oh mother, thank you,” Jane sobbed when they were in the drawing room.

 

“My child, that will hold your father off for a while, but you know how he gets when he feels he was defied. I had better come up with a plan to implement if he attempts to force the issue. I will ask Basil if I may send you to him. It might dissuade Mr. Attwood if he knew you were under his Bishop’s protection and Basil would never allow them to force you into marriage at the pulpit.”

 

Chapter 1

 

Darcy House, London
Monday, November 26, 1810

 

“She believed that the answer to everything was in a good cup of tea, Mr. Darcy. I am sorry, but I would rather have coffee,” Mr. Reginald Hurst responded to his host’s offer of tea.

 

“Of course, Mr. Hurst,” Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy replied as he pulled the bell. “Such a tragedy, I wish my staff could have done more.”

 

“Do not blame yourself Mr. Darcy, my coachman and footmen told me what happened. Somehow Miss Bingley found out that you and Miss Darcy were in residence. Be careful there by the way, I think she has a spy in your household,” Hurst warned as there was a knock on the door.

 

“Enter,” Mr. Darcy called out.

 

“Pardon sir,” a maid said as she entered the room, “Mrs. Smythe asked me to deliver some tea and coffee.”

 

“Thank you, Maggie. How is my sister?” Mr. Darcy asked.

 

Hurst saw the maid hesitate before answering.

 

“Forgive the liberty sir...” she paused, “I had Lily pack Miss Darcy’s trunks when your note was dispatched to Lady Matlock. When the response arrived, I asked Angus to escort Miss Darcy and Lily to Matlock House. I apologize sir, I know it is my place as Miss Darcy’s maid to attend her... but Mrs. Smythe and I were doing everything we could to help the doctor and... Lily looked like she would be ill...” she stammered.

 

“Maggie, please calm yourself. I appreciate, and approve of, the actions you took. I would have done the same thing. Truly,” Mr. Darcy said gently.

 

“Thank you, sir,” Maggie responded gratefully before turning to him. “Mr. Hurst, I am sorry for your loss,” she said before curtsying to both gentlemen and leaving the study.

 

“Mr. Hurst, I am sorry for asking about my sister before...”

 

“Stop, Mr. Darcy, please do not apologize,” he interrupted then put his head in his hands. “You were naturally concerned over your sister’s well-being. Mrs. Hurst and I were fond of each other, it might have even been a thin inclination of love at one point, and I will mourn her loss, but you must know my father arranged the marriage to save our estate after two poor harvests and a significant investment failed.”

 

With a deep sigh he looked up, “I do not know what I am going to do, where I will go. I am thoroughly disgusted with Miss Bingley’s actions so I cannot stay at my townhouse with the brother and sister and I cannot go to my parents’ home. In the four years Mrs. Hurst and I were engaged and married, Mother has not forgiven father for approaching a family whose wealth came from trade. I had hoped mother would become accustomed to the idea while the Bingley siblings mourned their father. As much as I love my mother, she will be impossible and try to arrange a match with one of her friends’ daughters immediately.”

 

“Mr. Hurst, I know our acquaintance has been brief to this point, but please call me Darcy.”

 

“And you must call me Hurst.”

 

“What would you say to joining me at Pemberley? I will be there until after the spring planting when I make my annual visit to my aunts’ estate in Kent. Georgiana will be returning to school after the holiday season,” Darcy asked.

 

“Are you... That is to say... I have heard what a diligent master you are and would embrace the opportunity to learn from you. Will it not be an imposition to have a houseguest for five months? What about your sister, would she mind a guest during her school break?”

 

“Those are valid points. Pemberley is rather isolated and to be honest it can be lonely during the winter months. I will make it clear to Georgiana that as you are in full mourning, we are not expected to entertain you. You will not offend either of us if you choose to take meals in your room. Would that ease your mind?” Darcy offered.

 

“Partially. My other concern is Miss Bingley. If she finds out I will be at Pemberley...”

 

“I understand perfectly,” Darcy interrupted. “You could be truthful and yet reveal nothing. After all, it is true that a friend invited you to their estate for your mourning period. You could route all your post through your butler in London. I am assuming you will let Bingley and Miss Bingley stay at your townhouse?”

 

He nodded thoughtfully, “Bingley has been looking for an estate to lease, but he will be in full mourning for three months. I will strongly encourage him to find other living arrangements before his half mourning begins. I will suggest he lease a townhouse in London to build up to the responsibilities of an estate.”

 

“That is a very good idea,” Darcy said. “Enter.”

 

“Pardon me, sir,” Jeffries, the butler, said, “Mr. Bingley is here.”

 

“Show him in Jeffries,” Darcy replied. “Bingley, thank you for responding to my note promptly.”

 

“Darcy, I did not know you were going to be in town. What can I do for you?” Mr. Charles Bingley asked Darcy before noticing who was in the room. “Hurst! What are you doing here? I was not aware you were on friendly terms with Darcy.”

 

“Bingley, please take a seat so Hurst may explain to both of us what happened,” Darcy said.

 

“Bingley... I do not even know where to start,” he said.

 

“How about at the beginning? You said the sisters came here to call on Georgiana?” Darcy prompted.

 

“Yes, the spy. Is it possible someone from your household is being bribed Darcy? Do you have any newer staff?”

 

“Bribed? No, that is not possible. The newest staff member at Darcy House came from Pemberley, everyone else has been with us for years,” Darcy responded. “Jeffries has expressed similar worries and has a theory. I had discounted it, but now I am not so sure.”

 

“What are you talking about? Spies?” Bingley asked, looking confused.

 

“Bingley, are you aware that Georgiana and I arrived at dusk yesterday and did not put the knocker up because we expected to leave for Kent first thing tomorrow?”

 

“No, I told you I had no idea you were going to be in town,” Bingley said.

 

“Somehow your sister found out.”

 

“Are you suggesting she placed spies in your household?” Bingley asked affronted.

 

I suggested it Bingley, not Darcy. Although I am curious to hear Jeffries’ theory.”

 

“I am not. How dare either of you accuse Caroline of such underhanded deeds.”

 

“We are getting off topic, Hurst. Bingley you must listen, this is a serious matter.”

 

“As I said, the ladies came to Darcy House in my carriage to call on Miss Darcy. My butler, driver, and footmen all said my wife did not want to go out in this unseasonable weather but her sister insisted they had to visit dear Miss Darcy since she was in town.” He paused and caught Bingley’s eye. “Bingley, this next part is difficult for me to say, I cannot imagine how it will affect you.”

 

“Hurst, whatever is the matter with you today? I fear you are going to accuse my dear sister of something more. It is obvious you have never liked her and I have never understood why. She is everything that a proper young lady ought to be and so kind.”

 

Hurst shared a brief incredulous look with Darcy before continuing.

 

“I am not accusing her, I am stating fact as witnessed by my staff, Jeffries, the doctor and butler from next door, and the footman who was manning the front door of Darcy House. Louisa was handed down first but was walking slowly because the rain had started to ice over. When Miss Bingley exited the carriage, she swept past my wife too closely and knocked Louisa down. Bingley I am so sorry to have to tell you this,” he paused. “When Louisa fell backwards, she hit her head on the carriage step.”

 

“You mentioned a doctor, I am sure Darcy’s staff was efficient as usual. Do you want Caroline and I to move in to help care for Louisa?”

 

Hurst thought Bingley asked a little too quickly, and eagerly. “Bingley, Miss Bingley is not here,” he said.

 

“I know that, Caroline is at your townhouse. She was angry your staff refused to take her shopping. Although she was very excited when Darcy’s note arrived. Caroline was certain he was finally coming to the point and about time I might add,” Bingley added with a grin.

 

“Bingley, what on earth are you talking about!” he yelled while absently noting Darcy’s narrow-eyed glare at Bingley. “Angry at my staff? How dare she! Bingley, Louisa had been knocked down, was bleeding, and your sister did not care. When Miss Bingley was told Miss Darcy was not available for callers she stepped OVER Louisa and demanded MY staff leave without their mistress. She threatened their jobs, abused them, and finally convinced them to bring her to my townhouse. She has been gone for six hours, Bingley. SIX HOURS!”

 

“Bleeding? Caroline did not mention there was blood. She said Louisa fell.”

 

“I was told Georgiana and I pulled up seconds after the Hurst coach left and Mrs. Hurst was most certainly in distress. I cannot believe any decent human being would leave a sister in that condition. I made Georgiana exit the carriage in the stables, asked Angus to carry Mrs. Hurst inside with the doctor following, and made sure Jeffries had requested supplies. Mrs. Smythe and Georgie’s maid directed Angus to a suitable room and did everything possible to assist the doctor.”

 

He stared at his brother in law sadly. “Bingley, I am afraid Louisa did not survive her injuries. The doctor told us she passed away an hour ago.”

 

“What? Caroline said it was a bump on the head, how on earth could she die from such a wound? No, I refuse to believe it. What are you not telling me?” Bingley asked desperately.

 

“Bingley, we are telling you everything,” Darcy responded calmly. “If you do not believe the two of us and my servants, there were other witnesses. The nephew of my neighbor in the white house was just arriving and his aunt’s butler saw what happened. The nephew rushed to help, he is the doctor who tried to save her life. I swear to you on my honor, we are telling you the complete truth.”

 

“But... Caroline said... I cannot believe... She would never lie to me. Maybe she did not know Louisa was hurt. That must be it,” Bingley tried to rationalize what he was hearing.

 

He opened his mouth to respond but stopped at Darcy’s headshake.

 

“Bingley, I know this came as a shock to you. Did you ride over on your horse or come in a carriage?” Darcy asked.

 

“I rode my horse so Caroline could join us after I agreed to your request,” Bingley responded woodenly.

 

Darcy’s request? He worried Bingley was talking about what he thought he was. Pigs would take to the sky like birds before Darcy married Miss Bingley.

 

“I will ask Jeffries to ready my carriage and for one of the stable lads to ride your horse. You must inform Miss Bingley,” Darcy said gently before opening the door. “Jeffries, I see you have anticipated me. Please ready my carriage for Mr. Bingley and have one of the lads ride his horse home.”

 

“Very well sir,” Jeffries responded. “Mr. Hurst, the coroner arrived and is inspecting Mrs. Hurst.”

 

Hurst nodded his thanks while Bingley started.

 

“Coroner? Surely that was not necessary,” Bingley stated nervously.

 

“Bingley,” Darcy said, “of course it was necessary. All accidental deaths must have a coroner’s inquest, you know that.”

 

“I think we may finally be getting through to him how serious this is, Darcy,” he interjected.

 

“But Louisa fell on a slippery walkway, there is nothing suspicious about that,” Bingley said desperately.

 

“William,” Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam said loudly as he entered the room unannounced. “I heard Miss Bingley murdered Mrs. Hurst in front of your house while you were out shopping with Georgiana.”

 

“Murdered?” Bingley squeaked.

 

“Richard!” Darcy admonished, “Where did you hear that?”

 

“At White’s, everyone is talking about it. Rogers was visiting his grandmother, she lives across the street a few houses down you know. He was leaving as the Hurst carriage pulled up. Rogers said Mrs. Hurst was being careful when Miss Bingley pushed her down and tried to enter your house. When Miss Bingley was not admitted, Rogers said she stepped over her sister, who was lying on the ground bleeding, and had a row with the servants before the carriage left.”

 

“How dare he malign my sister so!” Bingley roared. “I will sue him for slander!”

 

“Bingley, calm down. I have never seen you act this way,” Darcy said.

 

“I would say he is in denial,” Colonel Fitzwilliam muttered.

 

“Bingley, does that story not match exactly what Darcy and I explained? Yet you still think we are keeping something from you? I know how close you and Miss Bingley are and that you are upset, but seriously man open your eyes!”

 

“No Hurst, you are both trying to avoid a lawsuit, Darcy for his staff failing to maintain the sidewalk and you for my sister dying because of your carriage step. My sister would not lie to me,” Bingley responded desperately.

 

“Bingley, Louisa was my wife. You have no right to threaten to sue anyone because of her death.”

 

“Besides, Bingley,” Colonel Fitzwilliam said mockingly, “do you think anyone will believe your sister over Viscount Dover and Marquess Brundel?”

 

“What?” Bingley asked paling.

 

“Bingley,” Darcy said, “when Richard said Rogers saw what happened, he was referring to Matthew Rogers, Viscount Dover, eldest son of the Earl of Warfolk. I am assuming his cousin the Marquess was also visiting their grandmother.”

 

“Oh no. Nobody will believe Caroline now,” Bingley said.

 

Hurst saw Colonel Fitzwilliam look at his cousin who shook his head and mouthed ‘later.’

 

“All of the staff members and the doctor, who were closer mind you, will be honest at the inquest. To say Miss Bingley pushed her sister down or murdered her is an exaggeration.”

 

“I tend to agree, Darcy,” said an older gentleman standing in the doorway.

 

“Barnes, thank you for arriving so quickly.”

 

“I was summoned by my mother, if you recall she lives in the brown house next door. She was playing her pianoforte and looked up to find new sheet music when the Bingley carriage arrived. She witnessed Miss Bingley brushing past her sister causing her to fall. I must hold an official inquest, but given the number of eyewitnesses I have talked to, I will most likely be proceeding with a result of accidental death,” Barnes explained.

 

“Thank the Lord,” Bingley prayed.

 

“Mr. Hurst, Mrs. Smythe asked me to let you know they are preparing the body. Would you like my assistant to transport Mrs. Hurst to your townhouse?” Barnes offered.

 

“What? Who is preparing the body?” Bingley asked.

 

“I asked Mrs. Smythe and Maggie to prepare Louisa.”

 

“Caroline should be preparing the body. That is her right as a sister!”

 

“Mr. Barnes, yes, please proceed and thank you,” he answered the coroner who bowed and left. “Bingley, I beg to differ. My wife was in distress on the ground and her sister stepped over her to leave. It was Mrs. Smythe and Maggie who worked alongside the doctor to save her life. No, you are wrong.”

 

“Caroline will be devastated, Hurst. How am I to tell her that not only is Louisa gone but her body has already been prepared? It will be impossible to live with her until she calms down,” Bingley stated. “How will this look to others?”

 

“That does bring up another point I wanted to discuss, Bingley,” he said.

 

“Hurst, maybe it would be better to bring this up later,” Darcy interrupted.

 

“I would wager this is about the living arrangements of the Bingley family,” Colonel Fitzwilliam added with a wicked gleam in his eye, clearly enjoying the scene playing out in front of him.

 

“Our living arrangements? Why would that be a discussion?” Bingley asked.

 

“Do you really expect me to allow Miss Bingley to live in my house after her actions today?” he asked incredulously.

 

“I do not see why that should affect anything. Louisa is the eldest, it is her responsibility to care for us,” Bingley defended.

 

“Her responsibility?” he gasped. “Correct me if I am wrong Bingley, but are you not the head of your family?”

 

“Not according to the actions I have witnessed since arriving,” Colonel Fitzwilliam offered gleefully.

 

“Of course I am the head of my family. You know my father’s will was very clear Hurst.”

 

“Then why do you feel it was my wife’s responsibility to care for you?” he asked, genuinely interested in the answer.

 

“Because she is the eldest,” Bingley answered automatically.

 

“She was the eldest Bingley. I refuse to allow you to transfer your responsibility onto me. I will be accepting a friend’s offer to visit his estate for the next five months,” he informed his brother-in-law.

 

Hurst saw the cousins sharing a look and Darcy nodding.

 

“I hate to do this today Charles, but you need to start looking for a home of your own. It is a good idea to lease a townhouse before an estate to figure out if you enjoy the many duties involved. You will inform Miss Bingley she will not be mistress of my townhouse during my absence. My housekeeper and butler will have strict instructions that the knocker is not to be up unless I am in residence. I encourage you to move when your deep mourning ends but demand you do so before I return in April,” Hurst stated emphatically.

 

Bingley looked at him wide eyed and he heard Colonel Fitzwilliam snicker.

 

Darcy jumped in, “That is a very sensible suggestion, Hurst. Bingley has never truly been the master of a house. When not in school, he went from his parents leased house, to his aunts in Scarborough for mourning, then directly to your townhouse. Learning on a smaller scale should help him get used to being the master of an estate faster.”

 

“But I thought that between you and Hurst, the estate I leased would be well looked after,” Bingley said.

 

Hurst, Darcy, and Colonel Fitzwilliam all stared at Bingley with incredulous looks on their faces.

 

“Darcy, you told me you would teach me and Hurst dislikes visiting his parent’s estate,” Bingley defended himself.

 

“I said I would help Bingley, as in temporarily,” Darcy said slowly. “If you have leased an estate next year, I will visit after the fall harvest at Pemberley but I could not stay more than two months, three at the most. I have a sister to raise and an estate to run. Not to mention I could never leave Georgiana alone on the anniversary of Christ’s birth.”

 

“Hurst, I thought none of your friends had inherited yet. Who invited you? If you and Louisa were to visit, why did they not include me and Caroline?”

 

“Pardon me sir, your carriage is out front,” Jeffries said from the doorway.

 

“I will see Bingley out and be right back,” Darcy said.

 

“Mr. Hurst, I am sorry for your loss,” Colonel Fitzwilliam offered.

 

“Thank you, Colonel Fitzwilliam,” he responded while staring into the fire.

 

What on earth just happened? It sounded like Bingley expected Darcy to offer for Miss Bingley. He wondered if Bingley was really that naive and easily manipulated by his sister. The few times they had been in company with the Darcy’s, it was clear they barely tolerated Miss Bingley’s fawning. Perhaps he should have been paying more attention to his surroundings instead of drowning himself in liquor just to make it through the day. What else had he missed?

 

Louisa was such a different woman away from that sister of hers. He had been mourning their happiness since the younger siblings moved in shortly after their honeymoon. He was certain they were beginning to fall in love. He had such high hopes for their life together and now was left to be disgusted with what he had become.

 

“Darcy,” Colonel Fitzwilliam said as his cousin returned, “that little boy has no idea the storm that is headed his way.”

 

“I agree,” he added. “He seems to find nothing lacking in Miss Bingley’s actions.”

 

“What did the little boy mean when he said nobody would believe Miss Bingley now,” Colonel Fitzwilliam wondered.

 

After he and Darcy explained what happened, Colonel Fitzwilliam looked confused.

 

“I do not understand. How can he be so completely under her influence? Is he off his rocker?” Colonel Fitzwilliam asked.

 

“The Bingley family is very small. Their parents were both only children and my in-laws wanted a large family but it was not to be. I was told there were numerous disappointments during their marriage. Louisa was born shortly after the tenth anniversary of their wedding. She was five years old when Miss Bingley was born and the parents were thrilled by the second successful lay in. When Charles was born healthy, not eleven months later, their parents were so happy. The younger siblings spent their childhood being doted on by the household. My wife grew up hearing repeatedly that as the eldest child, it was her responsibility to take care of her siblings and make sure nothing happened to them.”

 

“Good lord,” Darcy exclaimed, “she was only five years their senior. That is a heavy responsibility to give a young child.”

 

“Yes,” Hurst agreed, “and unfortunately it created habits that were unbreakable. Mrs. Bingley passed away from smallpox when Louisa was thirteen. The siblings were looked after by servants while their father threw himself into the business, but really for the next four years she was responsible for the care of the younger two.”

 

“I bet the family dynamics added more than a few inches to your waistline,” Colonel Fitzwilliam chimed in while grinning.

 

“Richard!” Darcy admonished, “That is highly improper. Hurst just lost his wife!”

 

“All is well,” he chucked deprecatingly. “Colonel Fitzwilliam is right. My wife let Miss Bingley take over our lives which in turn made me hide in my study or drink myself into a stupor. I actually had an appointment with my tailor today, I need to order a new wardrobe. As you can see, I feel like the clothes I am wearing will burst at the seams.”

 

“Do not worry, you are bound to lose a few stones while staying with us at Pemberley, Darcy and I are both very active. I would not reschedule your appointment, your clothes will fit better soon. And please call me Colonel or Richard. My cousins first name is my surname so it is confusing to use Fitzwilliam when we are together,” the Colonel explained.

 

“Us?” Darcy queried. “I was unaware you were invited to Pemberley and with the manners you are displaying today you will not be.”

 

“Really Darcy, do you honestly think I cannot wheedle an invitation? All I would have to do is let slip to Georgiana that my general is taking a month off to visit with family and gave his staff leave too.”

 

Darcy rolled his eyes while he chuckled. “Hiding behind a girl still in the school room, eh Colonel?”

 

“I am a brilliant military strategist Hurst. I use whatever means I have to accomplish my goal,” Richard said while raising his eyebrows twice. “I will be spending a week with my family at Matlock, but there is something about Pemberley that soothes the weary soul,” he finished quietly.

 

“Now you have done it, how can I argue when I agree with your reasoning?” Darcy said. “He is right though, Hurst. I would not reschedule your appointment and if your valet has not disposed of your old clothes, I would suggest he pack a variety of sizes.”

 

“I will teach you some tricks the army uses to keep our men in shape,” the Colonel offered.

 

“Thank you, Colonel.”

 

“Now to discuss our travel plans,” Darcy tactfully changed the subject.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

On the road to Longbourn from London
Saturday, December 1, 1810

Jane Sakville nee Bennet started getting excited as her carriage entered the village of Meryton. “We are almost there! I cannot believe it has been two years since we last visited. Other than the butcher’s shop being painted, it looks as though nothing has changed.”

“I am sorry, my dear, that we could not visit sooner,” her husband, Frederick Sakville, said.

“I understand, truly I do. Mother Sakville’s illness took us all by surprise, then to lose your father the following year.” Jane paused and took a deep calming breath. “I would say our family is due some frivolity.”

When the carriage stopped on the side of the road to Longbourn, Jane said, “Oh Frederick, I do love you so. I am so grateful we visit Longbourn when we return to our estate from London. Every time we stop here, I think about the first day I met you and Edmund.”

Frederick, responded, “Hertfordshire to Dorset is not much farther than London to Dorset and we get to see our family. Besides, I would do anything to see that smile on your face. As to that fateful day, I have never been as grateful to have a mishap with a carriage.”

“Father is right, mother,” four and twenty-year-old Edmund Sakville said, “if the carriage wheel would not have broken, I would not have a mother or sisters.”

“Oh Edmund, always so dramatic,” nineteen-year-old Juliet Sakville teased. “I am sure father would have married someone, although I doubt that she could be anywhere near the woman mother is.”

“Jules is right,” seventeen-year-old Celia Sakville said, “we have been blessed. Mother, please tell us the story of how you met again? It is my favourite.”

Before answering, Jane stared out the window seeing the events of the past unfold.

~*~

Meryton, Hertfordshire
May 1786

Jane Bennet rambled across her father’s estate thinking about the past month. Tommy had been worried Mr. Attwood was growing desperate, he had forbidden her walking alone. She defied him this once because it had been a difficult few days, and she needed a solitary walk.

Word had leaked that Mr. Attwood had made her an offer. Her father thought their servants gossiped but she, Tommy, and Mother knew Mr. Attwood started the rumor hoping to force her hand.

On certain days going into Meryton, even with a maid following, was like walking the gauntlet as described in the history books father admonished her for reading. Thankfully, it appeared Meryton was mostly on her side. The older residents remembered Mr. Attwood had proposed to her mother and Jane’s friends all agreed with her reasoning. The spinsters were affronted that she had not accepted an honourable offer of marriage immediately. At least everyone acknowledged he was much too old for her.

Jane was thinking about returning to Longbourn when she heard a loud crack followed by the wails of an infant. Hiking up her skirts slightly, she made her way as quickly as possible towards the sound.

What met her eyes as she cleared the tree line astonished her. An elegant black carriage had broken a wheel and the most attractive man she had ever seen was holding a wailing infant trying to direct what she presumed was his staff.

“Are you all well?” Jane asked slightly breathless, she did not care to decide if it was due to her haste or seeing him. When he turned eyes as blue as the seas on her, she was lost.

“None of us are hurt,” the man said.

It took Jane a moment to realize he was answering her question. “Here, let me take the babe while you help your servants,” she offered. At seeing his hesitation, she continued, “I will stand to the side of the road and try to calm the little one. I promise I will never leave your sight.”

With a nod he handed her the child. When their hands touched briefly, fire spread through her body causing her to gasp. She looked up with startled eyes and was sure he felt it too. His eyes had widened and he looked at her intently before he turned to help his men inspect the wheel.

A few minutes later Jane realized the men were quiet. She stopped pacing and cooing at the babe to turn towards the carriage and found all five men staring at her, their mouths agape.

“Did I do something wrong?” Jane asked quietly. “I never left your sight.”

“How did you do that?” the man asked. “Edmund has been raising bloody hell since we left London.”

She raised an eyebrow and waited.

“Oh, pardon my language. It has been an extremely long four-hour carriage ride Miss...”

“I am Miss Jane Bennet of Longbourn. You mentioned this little man is Edmund and I presume you are his father,” Jane answered the unspoken question.

“Mr. Frederick Sakville at your service,” he answered with a bow. “And yes, Edmund is my son.”

“The little man appears to be hungry. Pardon me for prying into your affairs, but are you not traveling with your wife or a nurse?” she asked delicately.

“My wife passed away from child-bed fever. Edmund’s nanny is terribly sick and had to stay in London and his wet nurse received an express this morning and left her position. Her uncle passed and she inherited enough funds to live independently. There is hopefully a wet nurse on the way, my housekeeper was looking when I left,” Mr. Sakville explained.

“Unless the wet nurse left immediately, they will be too late for little man. I know this may sound presumptuous, but I have a suggestion,” she offered.

“Please Miss Bennet, what is your idea?”

“I do not know if it is a good idea for many reasons. One of our tenants passed away two days ago, he tripped while crossing a stream, hit his head, and drowned. His wife was very close to confinement and the shock sent her into labor pains. She labored all evening but the boy child was born too early.”

“I see,” he said thoughtfully. “Does she have any other children?”

“No sir, this was their first. They married just over a year ago,” she said sadly.

“You are correct, it might not be a good idea, however, I believe it is the best option currently. Is this farm close by?”

“It is on the other side of this orchard, sir. We will call on her if you and one of your servants will follow me?”

“Afraid I am going to ruin your reputation, Miss Bennet?” Mr. Sakville teased with the first real smile Jane had seen on his face.

~*~

On the road to Longbourn from London
Saturday, December 1, 1810

Shaking herself out of her memories, Jane said, “The first time I met your father he used language not often to be found in mixed company and threatened to compromise me.”

She delighted in coming up with new ways to explain their first meeting. As expected, her darling husband chuckled and her children laughed. Jane told her children the story until the carriage started down the drive to Longbourn.

After Frederick handed her down, Jane saw the family lined up to greet them and she threw herself into her brother’s arms. “Tommy, I have missed you so much.”

“Jane, it is wonderful to see you,” her brother said.

Jane moved to her sister-in-law, “Fanny, I know we are only here for a few days, but we have much to discuss.”

“Oh Jane, the fun my girls will have. All the dresses, shoes, ribbons, and other accoutrements needed for a season! Tis too much, I may need my smelling salts,” Fanny exclaimed while fluttering her handkerchief around her face.

“Do not worry, we will have everything planned well in advance,” Jane chuckled.

“You will be sure to introduce them to rich gentlemen?” Fanny asked.

Jane nodded and turned to greet her eldest niece when the youngest charged forward.

“Aunt Jane, did you bring me any gifts? I must have them first!” fourteen-year-old Lydia Bennet proclaimed loudly.

Jane continued towards her namesake and greeted the four elder sisters, pointedly ignoring Lydia.

Once everyone was settled into the drawing room, Jane said, “Kitty, happy birthday. Does being sixteen feel any different?”

“Not yet, Aunt Jane,” Kitty answered.

“I understand. Wait until the next assembly, that is when you will notice,” she informed her niece.

“I get to come out at the next assembly too!” Lydia interrupted the conversation loudly.

Jane glared at her youngest niece. She could not believe how brash and unruly Lydia had become in the past two years. Her eyes narrowed when she noticed the smirk on Lydia’s face and what was hanging around her neck.

“Kitty, why is your sister wearing the necklace we gifted you for your birthday last year?”

“She took it from my room and refused to give it back. I told mama, but she said to let her have it and be done.”

Jane turned to her nineteen-year-old niece Elizabeth, while noting Lydia’s smug look. “Lizzy, where is Mrs. Waldron?”

“Mama does not allow her to sit with us any longer. I sent a letter informing you but you never responded,” Lizzy said testily.

“I also sent a letter,” her two and twenty-year-old niece Jane added.

“I did too,” seventeen-year-old Mary confirmed.

“I find it hard to believe that three letters went awry, four if you include the letter I am sure Mrs. Waldron sent,” Jane said with a stern look at Lydia who had a smirk on her face again. “Sims, please get Mrs. Hill.”

“I have always wondered, Aunt. How do your footmen know which Sims you are asking when they are both in the room?” Mary asked.

“That is a good question Mary. Nathan is the elder twin by almost twenty minutes. When they are both in the room, Nathan takes the first order and Noah takes the second.”

Mary smiled and nodded, “Yes, that sounds like an ingenious way for them to always know.”

“Sara, it is good of you to respond so quickly,” Jane thanked the housekeeper and long-time friend. “After Lydia returns Kitty’s necklace, escort her to the nursery and inform Mrs. Waldron she will be having lessons today.”

Lydia leapt to her feet, stomped her foot, and held her hands balled into fists at her side as she screamed, “The necklace is mine now! You cannot tell me what to do!”

While Jane stood things seemed to slow down. She noticed her brother looking dumbfounded, her sister-in-law looking at her angrily, and the Sims brothers advance a couple steps into the room. She also heard her daughters gasp, her son mutter “Dear lord,” and her husband caution “Jane.”

She knew in that instant it would take something drastic to make Fanny realize the danger her youngest daughter presented to their entire family. She would be forever grateful the only servants in the room were Mrs. Hill and the Sims twins as she had known all three of them their entire lives. Mrs. Hill grew up at Longbourn and the Sims boys were the children of her housekeeper at their main estate in Dorset, Cloverdale.

“Lydia, we gifted the necklace to Kitty. Why do you believe you should be able to claim it as your own?”

“I wanted it so I took it. I knew mama would let me keep it because I am her favourite. Why does Kitty need it anyway as she is unlikely to marry for many years if ever? I WILL be the first Bennet daughter to marry,” Lydia proclaimed stubbornly.

Oh, this is worse than I expected, Jane thought to herself. “Your father has declared that you girls may come out in Meryton at sixteen and you are not eligible to be presented in town for a year or two after that. At bare minimum, you have another year and a half until you can even start a courtship, Lydia. With Juliet and Lizzy coming out in town this season and Jane joining us for the season, it is likely one of your sisters will meet, court, and marry a gentleman before you come out in Meryton society.”

“No! I will not allow it!” Lydia screamed as she stomped her foot again. “I do not care if I have to elope with or compromise the first man I see, even if it is my cousin. I told you I will marry first!”

When Jane looked at Fanny, she was pleased to see fear in her eyes even if her brother was still staring at Lydia as though he had never seen her before.

“Lydia, you will take that necklace off or you will be restrained while Mrs. Hill does so. The choice is yours,” Jane said in a dangerously quiet voice. “But make no mistake, the necklace will be returned to Kitty.”

Lydia gave an unladylike growl before she reached up quickly. Jane was grateful that Nathan grabbed her arms in time because it looked like Lydia planned to rip the chain off her neck. She nodded at Mrs. Hill who undid the clasp and handed it to Kitty while Lydia complained.

“That is enough Lydia! You will go up to the nursery or Sims will carry you. You have two seconds to decide.” Jane saw Nathan let Lydia shrug out of his grasp and then follow her out the door.

As Jane sat down, she noted the expressions on the faces of the people still in the room: shock, fear, regret, amusement, disgust, hurt, anger, worry, annoyance, and even displeasure.

“I can see you are displeased with me, husband but I refuse to apologize. Fanny needed to see how much danger that child posed,” Jane defended herself. “Girls, how long has her behavior been like that? Around two months?”

“Yes, Aunt Jane, ever since Mrs. Waldron was banished from the family rooms,” Lizzy answered.

“I truly am curious what happened to your letters. I have not had a single letter from Longbourn in two months,” Jane said. “That is why we decided to arrive earlier than usual, I was worried something happened.”

“I...”

“Kitty dear, if you have something to say, please feel free,” she said encouragingly.

“I walked into Lydia’s room the other day without knocking and saw her putting some letters away before she yelled at me,” Kitty explained.

“Did you see where she put them?”

“Yes, Aunt Jane. Shall I bring them down?”

Jane nodded and the room was quiet until Kitty returned and handed her a bundle.

“Why, these are all addressed to me!” Jane exclaimed. “Thomas and Frances, you will join me and Frederick for a conversation in the study. Now!”

~*~

Longbourn, Meryton
Saturday, December 1, 1810

Frederick Sakville watched his wife walk out of the parlor with a sense of dread. The way she held her shoulders back with narrowed eyes was a problem, but the way she was clenching her hands spelled certain disaster.

“What has been happening here!” he demanded as soon as the study door closed. “That display was worthy of a child in leading strings not a child who thinks she is ready to join polite society. Need I remind you of our deal, Bennet?”

“No Sakville, I did not realize...”

“Should I ask Miller how much time have you been spending in your study? What your family does affects mine! I will not allow one spoiled child to ruin the work of my ancestors.” At Bennet’s guilty look he rounded on Mrs. Bennet. “What about you, madam? That child is bold as can be, yet you looked angry at my wife until Lydia mentioned eloping or compromising my son. MY SON!”

“Frederick dear, please calm down. I believe you have made your thoughts known,” his wife said.

Internally he smiled. Everything he said was true, but acting as he had, allowed his wife to see through her rage. “As you wish dear.”

“Frances, my husband made some very astute observations. How could you have let things get this bad?” his wife demanded.

“Oh Jane, I do not know. Looking back, it came on so gradually, that I hardly know where it began.”

“I have a good idea,” Bennet broke in. “Lydia played on your fears of Jane becoming an old maid.”

With a heavy sigh Mrs. Bennet agreed.

“What should we do, Jane? How is Lydia to be worked on? I am embarrassed to say, but I do not know if I have the strength to undertake the task,” Mrs. Bennet admitted sadly.

“What thought just crossed through your pretty little mind, my dear wife?” he asked his wife when he saw a satisfied grin upon her face.

“Matilda.”

Soon all four adults had the same smile upon their faces.

Frederick thought back to the day that changed his life. The day he met his darling wife and Matilda.

~*~

Meryton, Hertfordshire
May 1786

“I am not afraid for my reputation, however it is only proper we have an escort. Would you like Master Sakville?” Jane asked reluctantly as they started walking through the orchard.

“Heavens no, he would only start screaming again. How are you so knowledgeable regarding infants, Miss Bennet?”

“I help my mother with tenant visits, sir. Three years ago, one of our tenants had a bad case of...” she stopped suddenly, not wanting to remind this gentleman how his wife had died.

“Of child-bed fever?” Mr. Sakville asked softly.

“Yes,” she responded quietly. “She was unconscious for almost a week. The doctor feared she would not survive. Her sister moved in to tend her while the ladies of the area took turns during the day helping with the babe and other children. Father was not happy I spent so much time at their farm, but he has a hard time saying no to me. Usually,” she finished with a mutter.

“This appears to be a caring community.”

“Yes, it is. How old is Master Sakville?” Jane asked.

“He is two months old.”

“Does he cry a lot?”

“I believe so, at least if the comments the wet nurse gave when she left were any indication,” Mr. Sakville answered ruefully.

“I have heard similar stories from our tenants. In most cases, it usually stops when the babe is three months old,” she offered.

“That is certainly good news.”

“Here we are...” she stopped dead in her tracks when she saw Mr. Attwood leave the house.

“Miss Bennet, what are you doing with those men!” Mr. Attwood exclaimed loudly while starting towards her. “Is that an infant in your arms,” he asked as his eyes narrowed in anger.

Jane gasped and took a step back. Mr. Sakville stepped partially in front of her and Edmund and she felt the footman approach her on the left. She was too mortified to respond but was glad to notice Mr. Attwood stopped.

“Jane is here? What are you doing with an infant, my dear?” Mrs. Bennet asked.

Grateful to see her mother, she answered, “Mother, may I introduce Mr. Frederick Sakville. Mr. Sakville, my mother Mrs. Mary Bennet. I was walking and heard Mr. Sakville’s carriage wheel break and little man crying and had to offer assistance. I was in plain sight on the main road and in the orchard the entire time.”

“Your daughter was a godsend madam. She insisted my footman walk with us from the carriage to the cottage. At no time were we alone,” Mr. Sakville added.

“I am grateful she was of assistance,” her mother said then turned to vicar. “Thank you for stopping by Mr. Attwood, have a good day.”

Jane heard Mr. Sakville chuckle quietly at her mother’s dismissal of the vicar. Before Mr. Attwood left, he directed a look of such loathing towards their group, Jane felt the footman step closer and heard a low growl of displeasure from Mr. Sakville. She was frightened.

“Jane Elizabeth Bennet! Your brother forbad you from walking out alone. What if you had run into Mr. Attwood unaccompanied? My goodness child, you do drive me to distraction,” her mother huffed.

“Mother!” Jane said quietly.

“Do not backtalk me young lady. You are a fool if you think Mr. Sakville and his footman did not understand your reaction to Mr. Attwood, which I saw from the window by the way. Of all the foolish things, girl. I thought we were trying to save you from an unwanted marriage. You just wait until your brother hears about this. Although, I am sure Mr. Attwood is on the way to our house so it is really your father you need to worry about,” her mother finished. “Jane!”

Mr. Sakville managed to get an arm around Jane before she crumbled. She was faintly amazed at how fast he could move.

“Give me the babe,” she heard her mother say.

“Miss Bennet! Miss Bennet, can you hear me?”

“Oh mother, what have I done?” she wailed.

“Mr. Sakville, would you please carry my daughter to the chair on the porch?” Mrs. Bennet asked.

“Of course,” Mr. Sakville responded before picking Jane up. “My wet nurse left my employment this morning and Edmund is hungry. Your daughter suggested we pay a call on your tenant who may be able to assist me.”

“That is a good idea,” Mrs. Bennet said thoughtfully, “for more than one reason. My goodness, who convinced you to travel without a wet nurse? Do you enjoy wailing?”

“Of course not, madam, when I say suddenly, I was being truthful. The carriage was packed and we were boarding when an express arrived. Apparently, her uncle passed away and left her a sizable inheritance. The uncle’s lawyer demanded her presence immediately to execute the uncle’s will.”

“Well, that was certainly high-handed of him. If he knew where to send the express, obviously he knew she was in service. What type of person does not allow a replacement to be found?” Mrs. Bennet wondered.

“Do not worry, Mrs. Bennet,” Mr. Sakville answered. “I made note of his direction, he will be receiving a set down.”

“As it should be,” her mother harrumphed. “Are you looking for a permanent wet nurse?”

“My London housekeeper started the search this morning. I would have stayed until a replacement was located, but I had a meeting scheduled. I missed it anyway,” he finished ruefully.

“Matilda Tucker has no family, no way to pay the quarterly rents, and nowhere to go when she is inevitably evicted. Unfortunately, Longbourn is fully staffed because she is a good, strong, loyal, hardworking young lady. You could not ask for a better wet nurse for your son,” she suggested.

“The idea has merit. Shall I take Edmund while you see if she is willing to assist me temporarily? I would have to meet her before a final decision is made, but if she is half the person you claim, I will tell my housekeeper to stop searching,” Mr. Sakville decided.

Jane heard the door open and Matilda say, “I would love to nurse this little angel.”

“Matilda Tucker, what are you doing on your feet!” Mrs. Bennet exclaimed.

“I am sorry Mrs. Bennet, I simply cannot lay abed any longer. Please allow me to feed the babe,” Matilda pleaded.

“I would appreciate the assistance, Mrs. Tucker,” Mr. Sakville said.

With a sigh, Mrs. Bennet gave in. “Come along Matilda, I will show you what is to be done.”

Jane’s mind was reeling. What had she done? In her wildest dreams she never would have guessed Mr. Attwood to be here.

“Miss Bennet, may I get you anything for your comfort?” Mr. Sakville asked quietly.

“No sir, I am well. Thank you for asking,” she responded.

“You do not look well. Now it is my turn to be presumptuous. Mr. Attwood made you an offer of marriage, which your father supports, but you refused,” he stated confidently.

Jane nodded, sighed, laid her head back, and closed her eyes. “You are close enough, sir.” She appreciated that Mr. Sakville allowed the companionable silence to stretch until the door opened and the ladies walked out.

“It appears as though you also have the magic touch, Mrs. Tucker. I have never seen Edmund so calm. Did you also help the tenant a few years ago with her new babe?” Mr. Sakville asked.

“Yes sir, I was a maid in the Bennet household at the time and Mrs. Bennet brought me along to help,” Matilda answered.

Jane and Mrs. Bennet watched silently as Mr. Sakville and Matilda became acquainted. After a half hour discussion, Mr. Sakville turned to Mrs. Bennet.

“I apologize if my arrival has caused a disruption to your household, madam,” he said.

She waved her hand before replying, “Think nothing of it, this has been brewing for the past five weeks. It was bound to happen soon.”

“Jane, you are welcome to hide from your father here, if you need to and your mother agrees,” Matilda offered.

“There may be a problem with that, Mrs. Tucker,” Mr. Sakville interrupted. “I am officially offering you the post of wet nurse to my son.”

Mrs. Tucker looked torn for a moment until she straightened her shoulders and looked Mr. Sakville in the eye.

“I would be honoured to accept, your offer is the answer to all of my prayers. However, I cannot leave Jane in her time of need. I am afraid I must decline.”

“No Mattie, you must not let my situation affect your decision,” Jane pleaded. “This is the perfect opportunity for you when you need it the most. I would rather marry Mr. Attwood than have you decline!”

“Mr. Sakville, speak what is on your mind,” her mother cut in.

“I have not mentioned my destination. I believe we are not very far from my estate. You might have heard of it, Netherfield?” he chuckled at their stunned expressions. “My footman Walters is the soul of discretion, do not worry this conversation will be spread by him. If Miss Bennet’s situation becomes unbearable, she could stay with Mrs. Tucker. I will inform the housekeeper my son is a light sleeper and demand nobody enter the nursery suite. Mrs. Tucker will be chaperone and Miss Bennet will be safe.”

“That is an admirable offer to make to relative strangers. How do you know my husband would not challenge you to a duel? He could be the magistrate and have you arrested for kidnapping,” her mother asked lightly.

“He would not know where she is unless you told him, madam,” Mr. Sakville challenged.

“I think you overestimate your control of the servants. Jane is well known in Meryton and the current butler of Netherfield is not known for his discretion after a glass of ale at the pub.”

“My dear Mrs. Bennet, please, do you consider me a daft man?” Mr. Sakville asked in mock outrage. “Of course, she would not apply for admittance like a guest. Walters will stay on the grounds near the stables until nightfall unless I receive a note from you letting me know everything is fine at home.”

“You offer your footman’s services without so much as a by your leave?” Mrs. Bennet joked.

“He knows I would have suggested it, madam,” Walters spoke for the first time. “I have a sister about Miss Bennet’s age and colouring. I would expect someone to help her in the same way if it was necessary.”

Jane watched the scene play out in front of her in a haze of confusion. She was brought out of it by her mother’s next question.

“Jane, what do you think?”

“I do not know mother. Father has been acting odd, I do not understand.”

“I know dear. If it becomes necessary, would you prefer going to Basil or Netherfield?” her mother asked.

After a long look at Mr. Sakville, Jane answered, “I should go to Cousin Basil. It is the proper thing to do.”

“I understand, Miss Bennet,” Sakville said. “All I ask is that you consider Netherfield a possibility if you find yourself unexpectedly in need of sanctuary. Put on a cloak with a deep hood and ask for Walters at the stables. I will send you to your cousin in my carriage with Walters and a maid on a round-about route. It is best if your mother is not involved so she does not have to lie to your father. She would truthfully not know where you are at any point in time when your father asked.”

“A fine precaution, thank you,” Mrs. Bennet said. “I will get my horse and we can walk back to your carriage.”

“Mrs. Tucker, we will have a maid watch Edmund and Walters will escort you and a few maids back later with a carriage to pack your belongings. Is there anything you want to take right now?” Mr. Sakville asked.

“Yes, I need to grab a few dresses and the drawing Jane did of my late husband. I shall only take a few minutes,” Matilda answered, handing Edmund to Jane.

“I will help you, dear,” her mother offered.

~*~

Longbourn, Hertfordshire
Saturday, December 1, 1810

“That is a wonderful idea,” Bennet said. “Matilda is fiercely loyal to your family and would never breathe a word of what occurs.”

“Inverness,” Frederick stated confidently. “We will send Matilda and Lydia to Lochdale in Inverness. It will be made clear to Lydia that no matter what happens, Matilda has final say as to when they return.”

“Brilliant my dear. Lochdale is one of our estates in the wilds of Scotland. The nearest neighbour is twenty miles and the closest town is thirty. Lydia will need a new wardrobe. An appropriate wardrobe for Scotland and her age,” Jane said with a stern look at Mrs. Bennet.

“I agree,” Bennet said.

“I will tell her,” Mrs. Bennet said to the surprise of everyone. “I allowed this to happen, I will take the brunt of her displeasure. When do they leave?”

Bennet pulled the bell and asked Mrs. Hill to fetch Matilda.

~*~

Longbourn, Hertfordshire
Monday, December 3, 1810

Mr. Thomas Bennet sat at the head of the table while his family broke their fast. He could not believe how far he and Fanny had fallen. How did neither of them notice what had been happening? He was spending far too much time in his study and Fanny was allowing herself to be led by their youngest.

He was grateful to Matilda for helping Fanny inform Lydia what was happening. His head still ached at the wailing that had taken place earlier when they sent the carriage off to Scotland.

He noticed his sister staring intently at her husband. He was reminded of the events that happened as a consequence of Jane and Mr. Sakville calling on a Longbourn tenant.

~*~

Meryton, Hertfordshire
May 1786

True to Matilda’s prediction, a few minutes later Mrs. Bennet walked out of the Tucker cottage with a bag of items Matilda would need immediately. Mary saw Jane and Mr. Sakville looking at each other longingly. She caught Walters’ eye and grinned when he discretely rolled them. She wondered if the two young people had any idea how interested in each other they were.

“Mr. Sakville, we are all set,” Mary said a bit loudly, breaking the spell. She heard Walters chuckle when the couple jumped and joined him quietly.

When Mrs. Bennet cleared the orchard and saw Mr. Sakville’s carriage, she knew she was right. This young man was very wealthy but she could tell Jane had no clue.

Upon hearing from the carriage driver they would be unable to fix the wheel with the items on hand, Mrs. Bennet said, “Mr. Sakville, I suggest we remove my saddle and send two of your footmen towards Netherfield. There is a chance the stable lads would recognize a Longbourn horse, so it would be safer to have one of them walk up the drive seeking help while the other rides back.”

“Mother is right,” Jane added. “Jimmy works at Netherfield and Longbourn, he would definitely recognize the horse.”

The group had a pleasant conversation while waiting for the footman to return. Once the horse was saddled again, the Bennet ladies took their leave.

“Remember ladies, Netherfield is a safe haven should it be needed,” Mr. Sakville said one last time.

“We will keep that in mind Mr. Sakville. Do not worry, my husband cannot marry Jane off tonight. After all, he would have to arrange for another vicar to perform the service as Mr. Attwood could not marry himself,” she joked.

“That is not funny mother,” said a distraught Jane.

“You are right Jane, I apologize. It should be a little comforting knowing we would have time to get you away from Longbourn though,” she said gently.

“Your mother is right, Miss Bennet. I feel partially responsible for the predicament you are in. I would rather compromise you myself than have you forced into an unwanted marriage because you were being kind,” Mr. Sakville stated emphatically.

“Was that meant to be comforting?” Jane asked sarcastically. “If it was, you failed.”

“Jane! Mr. Sakville was trying to be helpful. And honestly, I agree with his thinking. If I was going to be forced to marry, I would prefer to marry someone I thought was attractive and got along with instead of someone old enough to be my father whom I despised,” she said.

“Mother is right, Mr. Sakville. I apologize,” Jane said sadly.

“I understand Miss Bennet, really I do. It has been a difficult hour for you. If given a choice, I would prefer you were not forced to marry. However, if it comes to pass, I hope I am the more appealing alternative,” Mr. Sakville said dryly.

The Bennet ladies were silent during the walk to Longbourn. Mary was annoyed to see Gerald waiting impatiently for them on the front lawn.

“You let me deal with your father, Jane. When I send you to your room, leave no matter what he says,” she told her daughter.

“Jane Elizabeth Bennet! What were you thinking!” Gerald said.

“Jane, up to your room right now,” Mary instructed. “Your father and I will be in his study discussing what happened today.”

“No Mary...”

Mary raised her voice, “I said now, Jane! Gerald, you will come with me.”

“What has gotten into you Mary?” Gerald asked once they were in his study.

“Gerald, did you give Attwood permission to marry my daughter,” Mary asked quietly, glaring at him. She knew he realized how upset she was when he sat back and his eyes widened. “Did you?”

“No, I told him I would work on convincing her,” Gerald defended himself.

“In all the years we have been married, I never regretted my decision to accept your offer. This past week has me wondering if I was right. Jane is fifteen and he is OLDER THAN YOU! Have you taken leave of your senses? What is going on Gerald? Why are you pressing this when the rest of the family is against the match? Is Mr. Attwood blackmailing you?”

“Blackmail? You must be joking Mary,” Gerald said looking offended.

“No, I am not. I have been thinking about this all month and blackmail is the only thing that makes sense. You do not even like Mr. Attwood. If he is not blackmailing you, why are you prepared to give him our only daughter?” she asked vehemently.

“I did not realize you were all so against the idea,” Gerald grumbled.

“I am not fat-headed! At least act like you respect me and my opinions,” she hissed.

“Oh Mary, you know I respect your intelligence and your counsel has helped solve many estate issues,” Gerald said. “I guess I have no choice. Promise me you will not tell the children what I am about to relate.”

“I cannot make that promise Gerald until I hear what you have to say. I will, however, promise to wait at least a week and then give you the option to tell Jane first,” she countered.

“Fair enough,” he said. “I have been having episodes where my heart races. I have talked to the doctor and he thinks my heart may be failing.”

Mary’s mind raced with this information, but it kept coming back to one point. “I still do not understand why you think marrying Jane to Mr. Attwood is a solution.”

“It is not a solution, I simply want to see her settled, maybe have a grandchild on the way,” he finished quietly.

“A grandchild? Oh Gerald, if this is about the entail, why are you not insisting Thomas marry?”

“He has not looked twice at any of the ladies in Meryton. Besides, Attwood has five brothers,” Gerald defended.

“You know as well as I do there is no way to determine sex, Gerald. Of all the ridiculous excuses. If you would pay attention, you would have noticed that Thomas is infatuated with Fanny Gardiner. If you recall, she is four months younger than Jane and I suspect he is waiting until she comes out in Meryton society at sixteen,” Mary informed her husband.

“How can you tell,” Gerald asked.

“Are you blind? How can you not know? As for Jane, I think a solution has presented itself.”

“What do you mean by that?” Gerald asked curiously.

“Did you hear the owner of Netherfield is coming for a visit?” Mary asked.

“Of course, you know the butcher told everyone when he got the meat order. The old bird is going to demand I ride the shared fence with her steward and then insist on repairs she will refuse to help pay for,” Gerald complained.

“You know you must be neighbourly. I insist you call at Netherfield tomorrow,” Mary said. She thought it would serve him right to go unprepared to meet the new master. “I also insist that you apologize to Jane tonight. She is terrified you are going to force her to marry that man.” It made her feel better that Gerald still had the good sense to look guilty. “Now let me explain what happened today and then we will discuss your health.”

~*~

Meryton, Hertfordshire
May 1786

Dinner that night was stilted. His mother had explained everything that had happened earlier in the day to Thomas Bennet. He was sure Jane had packed a bag and stashed it at the back gate, ready to make a run for Netherfield. Mr. Sakville was right, they needed to save their mother the trouble of being thought an accomplice. Thomas would escort Jane himself.

“Mother, are you well? You are barely eating,” he asked.

“Yes Thomas, it has been a long day,” his mother said with a pointed look at father.

“Speaking of the events of the day,” his father started.

Jane gasped, covered her mouth, and fought back tears.

“Gerald!” his mother said sternly.

His father took Jane’s hand and said, “Jane, I apologize.”

The unexpected words made Jane start crying and stare at father in terror while he started to get angry.

“What exactly are you apologizing for father? Did you give Jane’s hand to that man?” he asked loudly.

“No, son, and this apology is for all of you. I was so wrapped up in my own concerns I did not realize how against this engagement you all were. I have sent a note to Attwood refusing his request, permanently,” Mr. Bennet said emphatically.

Jane cried tears of relief. “Oh father, truly? I am free to make my own choice?”

“Yes dear. I will write a note giving you permission to choose your own husband. I doubt it would stand up in a court of law, but I am sure it will make you feel better.”

“Your father is feeling guilty enough to agree to visit the old bird at Netherfield tomorrow.”

Jane giggled and he looked at his mother who winked.

“That is a hefty penance indeed,” Jane said with a sniffle. “I hope you are up to the task father.”

“Jane, you will never know how sorry I truly am for trying to force an engagement,” his father said quietly.

“I forgive you father, especially once you give me the letter,” Jane said cheerfully.

~*~

Meryton, Hertfordshire
May 1786

The next day, Thomas was sitting in the drawing room with his mother and sister when father returned from Netherfield. He was still trying to make sense of what his mother told him. Father was ill? Mother told him not to tell Jane because she had promised father a week to tell her.

“I ordered the tea to be brought in, Mary. We will start the real discussion after it arrives, however let me say that was a wicked thing you did,” his father said shaking his head while everyone else laughed.

“What did you think of the old bird,” mother asked after serving tea.

“Wicked woman and horrible children,” father muttered. “As all three of you obviously know, the old bird passed away and left Netherfield to her grandson. That was a pretty significant piece to leave out of the explanation of what happened yesterday.”

“You told him,” Jane asked her mother in surprise.

“Yes, I told him everything except that Mr. Sakville had inherited and was inhabiting Netherfield,” his mother said.

“After we were introduced, he told the same story you did, Mary, with details you did not notice because of your vantage point. Jane dear, did the expression on Attwood’s face when he saw you really make you take a step back and gasp?” his father asked worriedly.

“Oh yes father, it was very frightening. Mr. Sakville stepped in front of Edmund and his footman moved forward ready to help protect the babe if needed.”

“You think they were only protecting the child? My dear girl, you really are very young and naïve. Yes, they were protecting Edmund, but after meeting Sakville, I believe he would have stepped in front of you even if HE was the one holding Edmund,” father said.

There was such an expression of hope on Jane’s face, Thomas grinned.

“You are blushing, he must have been right.”

“Father, what are you talking about,” he asked.

“Jane, you do like Mr. Sakville?” father asked, ignoring his question.

“Yes father, he was very kind to me.”

“That is not what I mean, Jane,” father closed his eyes and sighed.

“I think your father is curious if you would consider Mr. Sakville as a suitor, Jane,” mother clarified.

“A suitor? But we have just met,” Jane stated the obvious.

“Would you be interested in courting him?”

“Father, his wife passed away two months ago. He is in deep mourning.”

“Yes Jane, he made that clear. Would you agree to a courtship?” father asked again.

“I am not yet out father. I do not turn sixteen for almost a month.”

“Jane Elizabeth Bennet, quit stalling. Do. You. Like. Mr. Sakville. Enough. To. Agree. To. A. Courtship?” father asked slowly as if Jane was a simpleton.

“Yes father, I am interested in getting to know him better once his mourning is over,” Jane finally answered while blushing.

“Jane, did you know his marriage was arranged? He met his wife the day before they married, they went on a two-week honeymoon, and then she moved back to her father’s house because she was afraid of the servants? He did not see her again until just before her confinement. He mourns the death of his son’s mother, but he barely knew his wife.”

“What a sad story,” mother cried out.

“It is, but do you understand why I may be willing to bend the rules under the circumstances?” When Jane nodded, father continued. “Sakville called for Mrs. Tucker and we agreed you could have a quiet courtship at Netherfield while he is in residence. It is no secret you and Matilda are good friends. Sakville is willing to sit with you ladies in the nursery. Matilda is a proper chaperone in case the other servants catch wind of the visits.”

“Jane, what do you think,” mother asked.

Thomas said, “You do not have to say yes. You are my sister and will always have a home at Longbourn.”

“Thank you, Tommy, I appreciate hearing you say what I already know,” Jane responded while patting his hand. “Father, I am inexplicably drawn to Mr. Sakville. I welcome a courtship with him.”

~*~

Longbourn, Hertfordshire
Monday, December 3, 1810

“Tommy!”

Thomas Bennet was brought out of his thoughts by his name being called. “Yes sister?”

“Is there something wrong? You have been staring at nothing for quite a while.”

“I apologize, Jane I was lost in memories of days past. I am well. What can I do for Matilda to thank her for the task she is undertaking and in fact everything she has done for our family? Sakville, may I add to her retirement bonus?”

“That is not necessary, Thomas. Matilda does not know it, but she is actually quite wealthy.”

“Really? How is that possible?”

“You know Matilda loved her husband very much. She will not look at another man and cares for our children as if they are her own. She has refused to accept payment since the moment I hired and brought her to Netherfield. In her mind giving her children she would never have, feeding, clothing, and housing her was enough payment. I had my solicitor start an account for her wages and all of the bonuses she has refused.”

“Thomas, I will buy some yarn at the shops and send it to her,” his wife decided. “You know how she is always knitting.”

“That is a good idea, my dear. Thank you,” he said.

“Her favourite colour is blue, Fanny,” his sister added.

“Seeing everyone at the table made me nostalgic. Do you remember the dinner after you met Mr. Sakville?” he asked. “You were so frightened. When you took Mr. Sakville to call on Matilda, did you have any idea how far reaching the consequences would be? Our parents would be proud of our family.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

 

Day 1 on the road to Pemberley
Monday, December 3, 1810

 

“Are you sure I should have brought my carriage, Darcy,” Reginald Hurst asked.

 

“Yes, most definitely,” Darcy answered. “How much abuse would your staff have taken from Miss Bingley if she was denied use of a carriage that was sitting in the mews?”

 

“No wonder Beech looked relieved when I told him he would be joining me after all,” he said thoughtfully.

 

“I rarely travel further than Lambton after it snows. Wiggins performs detailed maintenance on my carriages and I will ask him to start with yours this year,” Darcy offered.

 

“He should do mine last to be sure yours are completed,” he argued. “I will reimburse you for your staff’s time.”

 

“Nonsense Hurst, you will be my guest, I could never accept payment. I am asking Wiggins to start with your carriage because he is not familiar with the equipage. What if he has to make parts? It could take a lot longer. If you feel the need, I would not object to you speaking with Wiggins to ask what his staff needs to make the winter easier.”

 

“I never would have thought about the parts,” he said sadly. “I truly have a lot to learn. For example, not just giving Wiggins money. I will have my butler or housekeeper send whatever is needed from London.”

 

“Might I offer another suggestion?” Darcy asked. At his nod Darcy continued, “Check Lambton before you write to London. Business from the estate helps the village. My staff have instructions to start with our stores. There are items, such as my favourite coffee, that I have sent from London. In Lambton you will find Georgiana’s dressmaker, the cobbler who makes all my boots, the tailor who makes my clothes, and the blacksmith partners with Wiggins when repairs are beyond his capabilities.”

 

“My father never mentioned any of this,” he said while shaking his head. “I should not be surprised, like his father before him, he leaves the management of the estate to the steward. His training on estate matters consisted of showing me where to look at the bottom of a quarterly profit statement and introducing me to the solicitor. I believe my first order of business will be to purchase a journal from the store. I will be taking copious notes.”

 

“We will visit the cobbler too. Your boots are appropriate for London, but Derbyshire feels much colder than London because it is so windy and you need new ones if you will be joining me outside in the muck,” Darcy said. “Come, we are on a long open stretch of road, let us join Georgiana and Maggie in the carriage. You are not used to riding long distances yet.”

 

“Why would it matter where we are,” he asked after Darcy informed Wiggins and Georgiana of their plan. Darcy answered as they were attaching their horses to the back of the carriage.

 

“I really have no cause to worry, but a wide-open space means fewer places for people with nefarious intentions to hide.” At his shocked expression Darcy continued, “As I said, there is no need to worry. Wiggins and the footmen have asked about highwaymen every time we stopped and they are all armed. Having your carriage along helps too, it makes our party look larger. Hurst, I take the protection of those I care about very seriously.”

 

“Maybe the next village we stop in will have a store,” he muttered as he climbed stiffly into the carriage.

 

“Mr. Hurst, are you injured?” Miss Darcy asked.

 

“No Miss Darcy, I am well. It has been a long time since I have ridden horseback this far,” he answered while sitting down gently. He chose not to think about how many days it would take his muscles to stop throbbing.

 

“I understand, and empathize,” Miss Darcy said. “I remember when William was teaching me and Maggie to ride. He had to make me attend him on the second day, I was very sore and thought riding again would make it worse. As usual, my dear brother was correct and it helped.”

 

He looked at Maggie before turning to Darcy and asking, “You taught your sister’s maid to ride a horse?”

 

“Of course, I also taught her to shoot. As I said, I take the protection of my sister very seriously. I trust my grooms to ride with Georgiana, but Maggie is the daughter of my housekeeper at Pemberley. Mrs. Reynolds’ family has worked for mine for generations. My valet and Wiggins are her nephews, my butler is her husband, and my cook is her cousin,” Darcy explained. “Maggie was born a few years before Georgiana, when Mrs. Reynolds was an upper maid. When Georgiana was born, it was decided Maggie would become her maid when they were old enough. Maggie took lessons with Georgiana to ensure she had all the knowledge necessary to protect her. What if she was asked to give Georgiana a letter and did not realize it was from a man? Georgiana could be considered compromised and forced to marry. What if Georgiana was riding with a groom and one of them was hurt? Should my sister be left alone and unprotected waiting for help or be made to ride to Pemberley, unescorted, for help?”

 

When everyone in the carriage burst into laughter, Hurst knew he must have an incredulous look on his face.

 

“I continue to shock you. Yes, the Darcy’s allow servants to marry. When a maid is found to be in a delicate condition, they inform the housekeeper and, if necessary, their duties are changed so they may continue working and are kept out of sight of guests.”

 

“I say! I had heard you were a liberal master, but this is beyond the pale,” Hurst exclaimed and noticing Miss Darcy’s discomfort he apologized. “I am sorry, Miss Darcy. I did not mean to scare you. I was simply surprised.”

 

“I am not scared, Mr. Hurst,” Miss Darcy responded, looking uncomfortable.

 

Darcy shared a look with him before interjecting, “Georgiana, is something wrong?”

 

“No brother,” Miss Darcy answered softly.

 

“Miss Darcy, please do not think that I am upset. It was simply unexpected, but now that I think about it more, I am intrigued. Do the maids return to work after they give birth, Darcy?”

 

“Some do but most do not, it depends on their situation,” Darcy answered. “My grandmother’s maid fell in love with and married grandfather’s valet. They tendered their resignations, but my grandparents refused to accept and I cannot but agree. I shudder to think about Murray leaving my employ, I trust him implicitly and rely on him heavily.” Darcy paused and Hurst saw him physically shake. “When their first child was born, the current Mrs. Reynolds, she was sent to live with her grandparents in a pensioners cottage. My grandmother was a liberal mistress and when they were in Derbyshire, she allowed her maid to see her daughter as much as possible.”

 

“And from there it continued,” Hurst guessed. He was awed at the kindness of this family.

 

“You would not look down on a servant in that condition, would you Mr. Hurst?” Miss Darcy tentatively asked.

 

“Miss Darcy, I am going to be at Pemberley for five months. Please do not be afraid you will offend me by asking a question,” he said gently. “To answer you, no I would not. I am continually amazed and humbled at how well your family takes care of your servants and estate.”

 

Miss Darcy gave a relieved sigh and smiled. Hurst saw a look of comprehension cross Darcy’s face.

 

“Little Star, were you worried about Sally?”

 

“Yes brother. I am sure Mrs. Reynolds would keep her out of sight, but I am relieved we do not have to end her employment,” Miss Darcy answered.

 

“Sally? An increasing maid?” he guessed.

 

“Yes Hurst, very much so. She is expected to start her confinement within a fortnight. Her husband works in the stables, his name is Wiggins,” Darcy said wryly. “Georgie, I would never release Sally. If necessary, Mrs. Reynolds knows to move staff to the dowager house temporarily. Now Maggie, what book do you have there?”

~*~

Day 2 on the road to Pemberley
Tuesday, December 4, 1810

 

The next day, after they stopped for a midday snack and her brother and Mr. Hurst had joined them in the carriage, Georgiana Darcy was staring out the carriage window thinking about the past week. She could imagine how Miss Bingley reacted to finding out about her sister’s death. Mr. Bingley would sit back, never correct her vulgar and abhorrent behavior, and instead defend her no matter what. She was so very glad William was nothing like the Bingley’s.

 

She looked at Mr. Hurst and wondered how much he suffered.

 

“Miss Darcy, do I by any chance have food on my face?”

 

“No sir,” she responded quietly, feeling her face flush.

 

“Do you have a question?” Mr. Hurst asked. “Remember, I told you yesterday I do not mind answering questions and promise I will not be angry.”

 

Georgiana saw Mr. Hurst grin at her brother and noticed he was shaking. “William! Are you laughing at me?”

 

“No, my dear. Why would you think that?” William asked innocently.

 

“Hmmmph,” responded Georgiana before turning to Mr. Hurst. “I do want to apologize to you, Mr. Hurst. My brother and I should have invited you to stay at Darcy House after the accident. I am worried the week was horrible for you.”

 

“Georgiana, why do you feel the need to apologize?” William asked, looking baffled.

 

“I know how sad I was after my father died and I cannot imagine circumstances at the Hurst townhouse allowed for mourning,” Georgiana answered, her eyes glistening. Her brother reached across the carriage and took her hand.

 

“Little Star, I did offer to let Hurst stay with us.”

 

“I declined Miss Darcy. There were too many things I needed to do and plans to make with my staff.”

 

“Was it horrible for you?” Georgiana asked.

 

“It was unpleasant but not horrible, thank you for asking,” Mr. Hurst answered. “We did have a few heated discussions regarding Miss Bingley’s actions and Mr. Bingley finding alternate housing for them. I felt it was best to arrange for my solicitor to deliver an official warning stating I would not allow them to reside at my home after February twenty sixth. It should be delivered sometime today.”

 

“That was wise, Hurst,” William agreed.

 

“I also called all of my servants together, with the Bingley’s present, to make sure there were no misunderstandings regarding the household while I was gone,” Mr. Hurst continued.

 

“Another wise move, my friend.”

 

Privately, Miss Darcy agreed.

 

“When I returned from your townhouse, I had a frank discussion with my butler and housekeeper. My paternal grandmother passed away before I was born. When I reached my majority, I inherited her townhouse, some jewellery, and half of her dowry. When the housekeeper was ready to retire, Mrs. Mayes, my current housekeeper, was let go by my parents because my sister no longer needed a nanny. She accepted the position immediately and got on so well with my butler, they married.”

 

“I assume your sister inherited the other half of your grandmother’s dowry?” William asked.

 

“I must ask for your discretion on this matter. Based on the conditions of the will, Horace would never conform, but we are her only grandchildren and it appears she split her dowry between us. My grandmother never approved of my father ‘putting on airs’ as she said. She summoned her Cousin Horace and a solicitor to change her will making her cousin executor and trustee of the inheritance. Cousin Horace was authorized to read two paragraphs of the will to her family, which basically said the heirs will be informed when certain conditions are met, until then everything would be managed by him. Grandmother inherited the townhouse and jewels from her mother and because she had no daughter, her marriage settlement gave her rights to determine who would inherit them and her dowry upon her passing. Grandmother’s will forbad me telling my family what I was left. When my sister reaches her majority and is told of her inheritance, everything should be revealed to my parents and we may read the will in its entirety.”

 

“Why did she not leave everything to her husband?” she asked.

 

“Grandfather was a good sort. He knew the solicitor had been called for and had assumed what grandmother ordered. He told me he was happy for me because he really did not approve of his son either. In fact, part of me wonders if it was not his idea. When I reached my majority, my parents could not but know that I inherited grandmother’s townhouse and they were angry. When they saw Louisa wearing one of the necklaces, they knew I inherited at least one piece of her jewels and Venetia tried to force me to reveal everything. Thankfully Cousin Horace was in town and I was able to get a note to him.”

 

“Mr. Hurst, who is Venetia?”

 

“I apologize Miss Darcy, Venetia is my mother. My parents are Ernest and Venetia Hurst. They are both social climbers. If the estate would not have been in need of capital, there is no way father would have arranged a marriage to a tradesman’s daughter. In a way, living with Miss Bingley was like being home.”

 

“You were sold for the sake of your estate?” she asked with tears in her eyes.

 

“In a way, yes. To keep his reputation intact, father never would have considered selling his townhouse. He has asked me many times what his mother’s will said, but I could honestly tell him I was not allowed to read it or disclose what I inherited. The quarterly earnings of the dowry were reinvested and I inherited a nice sum which allowed me to claim independence from my father. It was my decision to marry Mrs. Hurst to save the estate, Miss Darcy.”

 

“How old is your sister, Mr. Hurst,” she asked.

 

“She is twenty, Miss Darcy, and will reach her majority just after the new year.”

 

“Have you seen her recently? Is she married?”

 

“No, I have not seen her in a while and she is not married. My sister has a way of manipulating a situation to get what she wants without you knowing what has happened. It is an amazing talent and thankfully, other than a little bit of mischief, she uses it for good.”

 

“If she reaches her majority soon, your father will lose his control over her,” William observed.

 

“Yes, that has me worried but we do correspond occasionally and so far, she is well. As I mentioned, my mother did not approve of Mrs. Hurst, neither did my father, really, so I rarely see my family. At first, it looked like Louisa and I would get along well and fall in love. After Louisa’s siblings moved in, I found a way to cope. Do not feel sorry for me, I agreed to the wedding,” Mr. Hurst said gently.

 

“Now you have to deal with the Bingley’s,” William added.

 

“Correct, Darcy. Most of what happened this past week were suggestions made by Mr. or Mrs. Mayes. My favourite two are taking all of the jewels to my bank vault and informing Miss Bingley that she will receive a bill for the items she has or will break,” Mr. Hurst finished with a wicked grin.

 

“What about...” Georgiana closed her mouth and finished with, “Pardon me, I am going to read my book.” She saw her brother and Mr. Hurst share a look before speaking.

 

“Georgie, if you have a question, please speak.”

 

“I do not have a question, brother. Thank you for asking,” she said while opening her book.

 

“Miss Darcy, did you have a statement to make?” Mr. Hurst asked. “Remember, you will not insult me.”

 

She bit her lip while thinking.

 

“Little Star, you only do that when you are nervous. Please, speak your mind,” William said.

 

“Well, it crossed... I recalled a conversation the sisters once had in our drawing room. They were talking about a ball they attended earlier in the week and Mrs. Hurst was reminding Miss Bingley that she had not returned the jewellery she borrowed. I wondered if Miss Bingley’s jewellery box was checked and if you have a way to prove what was borrowed versus what belongs to her,” she finished. After her statement, the silence in the carriage was unsettling. She was growing uncomfortable and started to apologize when Mr. Hurst interrupted her.

 

“Do not apologize, Miss Darcy,” Mr. Hurst said still looking shocked. “I cannot believe neither I or my servants thought about what was in Miss Bingley’s jewellery box.”

 

“I never would have thought to look there either, Hurst,” William said. “Do ladies really share their items like that?”

 

“Of course, brother,” she said. “Girls at school borrow ribbons, bonnets, dresses, hats, gloves, spencers, and shoes occasionally if they are the same size.” The gentleman still had shocked looks on their faces so she continued, “Have you ever borrowed a cricket bat or a pen from a friend?”

 

“But that is different,” Mr. Hurst said.

 

“Why?”

 

“It just is,” he responded.

 

“Brother, has Richard never borrowed an item of clothing from you?”

 

“Of course not.”

 

“You mean, to your knowledge he has not. You are the same height and have a similar body shape. Would your clothes fit him?” she asked.

 

“Most likely,” William responded, “but they would not be an exact fit.”

 

“I believe if you asked your valet, he has loaned clothes to Richard’s batman. For example, if he came over and it was a pleasant spring day but got colder before he left? You think one of your coats was not offered, accepted, and returned? Or that time we went walking in the park and it rained?”

 

“Well, I guess I never thought about what would happen in the circumstances you described,” William answered thoughtfully.

 

“Mr. Hurst, do you have a way to prove what jewellery belonged to Mrs. Hurst?” she asked.

 

“Yes, thanks to Louisa, I do.”

 

“What do you mean, Hurst?” William asked.

 

“Louisa demanded her father add an appendix to our marriage settlement outlining the possessions she inherited from her mother with instructions that they were to be held for our eldest daughter.”

 

“Do the items revert to the Bingley’s now?” William asked.

 

“I believe the only stipulation was that if there were no daughters, the eldest son would inherit for his first daughter. They should belong to me as they were her personal property. Louisa also insisted on an inventory of the townhouse while we were on our honeymoon, which would include the pieces I inherited from grandmother Hurst. I thought it was due to her upbringing as a tradesman’s daughter but now I wonder if she envisioned trouble with her younger sister over some of the pieces.”

 

“How detailed is the inventory,” she asked.

 

“The bills were exorbitant, or so I thought at the time. Louisa hired an artist from Rundell, Bridge & Rundell to sketch items. She also had Philip Rundell himself and other specialists come to the house and verify the authenticity of pieces and add values,” Mr. Hurst explained.

 

“I do believe expresses to your solicitor, butler, and bank are in order, Hurst,” William said.

 

“Yes, I must authorize my solicitor to commission the firm to inventory the pieces in my vault. Grandmother was the daughter of an earl, most of her pieces were valuable,” Mr. Hurst said. “I think legally the pieces all belong to me, but I had planned to speak with Bingley and find out if any of the Bingley pieces had sentimental value.”

 

“What happens if pieces are missing?” she asked.

 

“I believe that is why he will be sending an express to his butler too, Georgie,” William answered. “I would give instructions to allow the firm entrance to search the townhouse for pieces not in the vault, with the Bow Street Runners along to witness.” Turning to Mr. Hurst, her brother asked, “Will this affect your plans for the Bingley jewellery?”

 

“I did not think about having the Bow Street Runners witness the process, Darcy. That is a very good idea. I do not know what I will do if pieces are missing,” Mr. Hurst answered. “If there were a few pieces mixed in with Miss Bingley’s jewellery, given Miss Darcy’s recollection that they often shared items, I think they will be taken to my vault. If there are a lot of items missing and it appears to be purposeful... I do not know.”

 

“In good weather, it takes two days for an express rider to travel the distance from London to Pemberley. I think it would be wise for the four of us to discuss your plans. I have a travel desk we can use to take notes while we think about possible issues and questions your solicitor will have. We could send instructions with the initial letter,” William suggested.

 

“The four of us?” Mr. Hurst asked in surprise.

 

“Yes Hurst, Maggie too,” William said with a grin. “Maggie has helped with numerous inventories at Pemberley. She will be able to give details about the process we would not know and scenarios we never would have thought about. That is one thing I learned early on. I give my servants directions and listen to their opinions. If they say something I am asking for is not possible, or could be done more efficiently, I listen. I might not always follow their suggestions, but, for example, if Mrs. Reynolds tells me we do not have the staff to complete a project, I know I need to authorize funds to hire extra help.”

 

“I would also ask your housekeeper to inventory your townhouse,” Maggie added. “If you were serious about Miss Bingley paying for items she has broken, should you not have a list ready? Pemberley is inventoried once a year. Do you know the last time your townhouse was done?”

 

“I do not know, maybe not since our honeymoon,” Mr. Hurst answered.

 

“Your housekeeper needs to do an inventory of the contents of your townhouse immediately,” William said.

 

“After the jewellery is done,” Maggie corrected.

 

“Why after, Maggie,” she asked.

 

“It is best not to make it known an inventory is happening. If you have untrustworthy residents or staff, what is to stop them from putting an item back until the inventory is done? I also suggest, your housekeeper work with a locksmith. Once a room is inventoried, it should be locked. If Mr. and Miss Bingley are the only residents, and they are in mourning, they do not need to access the entire house.”

 

“See Hurst, this is exactly why I suggested we include Maggie. Well done,” William said.

 

“I am sure the jewellery store or the Bow Street Runners will suggest this, but just in case they do not, I would have them start with your vault and then contact your butler to find out when your townhouse will be empty. Maybe the siblings will have to try on their mourning clothes?” Maggie suggested.

 

“Darcy, where is that writing desk?” Mr. Hurst asked. “I wish I had that journal,” she heard him mumble.

~*~

Pemberley’s drive
Wednesday, December 5, 1810

 

“Goodness gracious!”

 

Hurst heard Miss Darcy giggle and saw Maggie smile and Darcy smirk.

 

“It is just a house, Hurst,” Darcy said.

 

Just a house?” he asked incredulously.

 

“It is home,” Miss Darcy said with a contented sigh. “It is my favourite place.”

 

“But it is huge!” he exclaimed. “It will take me five months to learn where the principal rooms are located. Have either of you entered a room you did not know existed?”

 

“When I was younger, I would sometimes follow William into a room I had never seen. We will arrange for William or Mrs. Reynolds to give you a tour,” Miss Darcy offered.

 

“How many servants do you employ,” he asked.

 

“There are fifty in the main house,” Darcy answered.

 

“Total, Darcy. How many servants do you employ at Pemberley.”

 

Darcy sighed, “Altogether over two hundred.”

 

“Two hundred,” he repeated in awe. “That does not include Darcy House and you have other properties?” Darcy nodded. “Bloody hell,” he quietly exclaimed, earning a sharp look from Darcy. “Miss Darcy, I apologize if you heard me just now.”

 

“I did not Mr. Hurst and I am just amazed as you. I have never thought to ask how many servants we employ. William, you said fifty in the house and over two hundred in total? How is that possible?”

 

Darcy smiled at his sister and responded, “I reacted the same way when I was learning about the estate from father. You must understand, the numbers fluctuate based on the time of year and whether or not we are in residence. Normally the housekeeper at the dowager house requires a staff of five, the stablemaster fifty, the master gardener a hundred, and the gamekeeper fifteen.”

 

“Where do they all live?” he asked, unable to come up with an idea.

 

“We will continue this discussion later, we have arrived at the house,” Darcy said.

 

Hurst stepped down, turned around, and stared at the impressive structure.

 

“Come Hurst, we do not want to leave the door open longer than necessary in this frigid weather,” Darcy said while escorting his sister into the house.

 

Upon crossing the threshold, Hurst was halted by the sight of the household staff lined up to greet the Darcy’s.

 

“Allow me to introduce our butler and housekeeper, Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds,” Darcy stated. “This is Mr. Reginald Hurst, he will be staying with us for his deep mourning.”

 

Mr. Reynolds bowed while his wife curtsied and said, “Mr. Hurst, you have our condolences. I have put you in the most isolated guest suite.”

 

“Good idea, Mrs. Reynolds,” Darcy agreed.

 

“Thank you, Mrs. Reynolds, the quiet will be nice. Darcy, why do you feel it is a good idea?” he asked.

 

“It is not uncommon for people to show up unexpectedly, especially with our unpredictable weather. As far back as I can remember, we have had friends who were in the area show up because they could not find an inn with rooms available when it started to snow.”

 

“Having seen Pemberley, and knowing of your generosity, I can understand people using any plausible excuse to stay here,” Hurst responded wryly.

 

After the laughter ended, Mrs. Reynolds said, “I have ordered water for baths and trays brought to your rooms for dinner tonight. Mr. Hurst, allow me to escort you to your suite.”

~*~

Pemberley, Derbyshire
Thursday, December 6, 1810

 

Hurst watched Darcy speaking with his stable hand and wondered if he would achieve a fraction of the natural ease the man exuded. Darcy knew what to do in every situation they had encountered on their journey, Hurst had never seen him flustered. Darcy was a man born with an aura of command, and probably more importantly, was trained for the responsibility his entire life.

 

“I hope your first night at Pemberley was restful, Hurst,” Darcy said once they were on their way to Lambton.

 

“Yes, it was. The Colonel was right, there is something about this estate that soothes the weary soul. I must thank you again. I cannot imagine another place that would have done more for my peace of mind in such a short amount of time.”

 

“It is my pleasure, Hurst. I know you and Mrs. Hurst did not have a love match, but I could tell how distraught her death made you.”

 

“I was, Darcy. I was more than fond of her, I started falling in love with her after we were married. As I mentioned, when Louisa was thirteen, Mrs. Bingley passed away from smallpox and she was essentially responsible for raising her siblings. What I did not mention, was that while Mr. Bingley made his fortune and Mrs. Bingley tried to raise the family socially, they were already being raised by a nurse and tutors. Make no mistake, the parents loved their children, however I believe they followed what they were told happened in the first circle, leaving servants to raise the children until they were old enough to join the family for dinner. Louisa was allowed to attend dinner when she was ten years old. Louisa told me Miss Bingley made such a fuss, her mother allowed all three children to join them. Miss Bingley idolized her mother and at five years old, after dinner they started reading the society papers and discussing how to meet the people they learned about.”

 

Hurst paused and looked at the countryside for a moment. “When Louisa was seventeen, her father had amassed enough wealth that the sisters had dowries of fifteen thousand each. He decided Charles would attend university when ready and sent Louisa to a seminary, even though she was the oldest student. When their father passed away, their dowries were twenty thousand pounds, Louisa had just left the seminary, Miss Bingley had taken her place, and Charles was in Cambridge. That spring, while in full mourning, the sisters lived with their father's cousin in Scarborough and Louisa and I were allowed to become familiar with each other by exchanging letters. Shortly after we were married and living in the townhouse, Charles left Cambridge and decided he was moving in with us. When Miss Bingley found out, she followed.”

 

“They did ask for permission, right?”

 

“Maybe there was a conversation with Louisa, but I was never approached,” Hurst answered deprecatingly. “How did you and Bingley become friends? You would not have been at Cambridge at the same time.”

 

“Father and I were, or I should say, I am, an investor in Bingley & Son. As morbid as it sounds, we met at my father’s funeral. He introduced himself, offered his condolences, empathized as his father had also passed away, and we bonded.”

 

“It seems reasonable to me. You had shared experiences, and knowing Bingley, he latched on and started following you around like a puppy,” he said then started shaking his head. “I apologize, I should not be speaking ill of my brother-in-law.”

 

“I understand. His reaction to Mrs. Hurst’s death was not what I expected either. It is reasonable to me that you would be bitter,” Darcy said understandingly.

 

“Well, enough of heavy topics. Does Lambton have a store where I can purchase three journals and some pencils?” he asked.

 

“Why three journals?”

 

“I did a lot of thinking last night, Darcy,” he began after a thoughtful pause. “I will be learning estate duties from you, however at university my notes were often illegible. To solve the issue, every evening I will copy my notes into a fresh journal. This will not only make them neat and hopefully reinforce what we worked on, but it will allow me to prepare questions to ask the next day. But,” Hurst sighed, “I also feel that I am at a crossroads. I want to start a personal journal, to keep track of my weight loss progress, the plans I have for my life, and things I do not want to forget.”

 

When Darcy failed to answer, Hurst looked up to see him frowning. “Do you disagree?”

 

“Pardon? I was wool-gathering.”

 

“Do you disagree with my reasoning?”

 

“I agree completely, I was simply marveling over this conversation. Do you have any idea what it is like being Bingley’s friend?”

 

“Ahhh, I believe I understand. With Bingley, you try to guide him and ultimately end up telling him what needs to be done,” he guessed.

 

“Correct. I was momentarily amazed that we were actually having a two-sided, intelligent conversation, as equals. I did not have to tell you to buy at least two journals and quite frankly your insight has impressed me. I did not buy an extra journal for personal notes until three months after I took over running Pemberley,” Darcy admitted.

 

“I had the advantage of watching how you dealt with the aftermath of the accident, our travels, and arrival at Pemberley. You seemed to just instinctively know what needed to happen.”

 

“For the most part, I learned from watching my father, who learned from his father, and so on. I never thought about how it would seem to an outsider.”

 

“It is an impressive sight and has made it woefully clear how unprepared I am to inherit. In my entire life, I have never known my father to consult with his steward regarding a fraction of the issues you have personally handled in the past week. It makes me wonder how much care he takes in hiring the servants.”

 

“You fear you will find misuse of estate funds?”

 

“No, I am afraid there will be outright theft. I have never liked the steward or his father before him. ‘Fools fold their idle hands, leading them to ruin.’ as is written in Ecclesiastes.”

 

“My goodness, Hurst. What else have you been studying after you retire for the evening?”

 

“I have been reading some of the books you suggested after I eat my dinner. My biblical knowledge is from spending a few summers with my mother’s father, who was a vicar. I was tasked with research for his sermons quite frequently,” he said ruefully.

 

“You continue to amaze me Hurst. Ah, that is Lambton up ahead. To answer your earlier question, Mr. Thompson owns the store. He usually stocks up this time of the year as many people start a new journal after Twelfth Night. I sent a note to the cobbler this morning, he is expecting our visit.”

 

“I am glad. You are correct, my boots are not adequate. My toes are almost frozen from this wind,” he said with a grin.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

 

Longbourn, Hertfordshire
Thursday, December 13, 1810

 

“Matilda sent an express to let us know they crossed the border into Scotland safely,” Mr. Thomas Bennet announced to his family while breaking their fast. “She anticipated another five days travel to Lochdale.”

 

“I am glad. Thank you for letting us know,” that man’s wife responded.

 

“Did she mention how many megrims she had?” his daughter Lizzy asked with a grin.

 

“No Lizzy, it was a short note. Apparently, she took Lydia to task as soon as they left Meryton by making her walk alongside the carriage,” he said.

 

“She did?” Lizzy asked, sounding impressed.

 

“Oh, my poor sister,” his daughter Jane said.

 

“No Jane,” Mrs. Bennet corrected, “in this case, it is poor Matilda. Mrs. Waldron, I must apologize to you again. I never should have let Lydia convince me she no longer needed lessons. I am so pleased you agreed to stay on and help chaperone the girls.”

 

“I agree,” he said. “If the true value of their dowries were ever to become known, we would be forced to flee Longbourn to escape the hordes fortune hunting second sons and scoundrels.”

 

“What do you mean, papa,” Lizzy asked with narrowed eyes.

 

“The amount is slightly larger than the neighbourhood believes, my dear. After all, the funds have been invested in the four percent’s for our entire marriage and the interest has been reinvested.” He could tell Lizzy and Mary did not believe him, but thankfully no further questions were asked.

 

“Did Mrs. Tucker say anything else, papa,” his daughter Kitty asked.

 

Thankful for the change of topic, he answered, “Yes, by the time she let Lydia back in the carriage, she had blisters on her feet and was in tears. Matilda then told Lydia some hard truths. I imagine she told Lydia what happens to women who elope without the benefit of a marriage settlement and that a gentleman who is compromised into marriage, is not likely to offer a satisfactory settlement and can walk away with little damage to his reputation if a father refuses to sign.”

 

He noticed the surprise on Kitty’s face and was glad he took Matilda’s advice and did not continue to shield his daughters.

 

“But father, surely a gentleman would do what is right?” his eldest daughter asked.

 

“Jane dear, are you well? You look pale.”

 

“Yes mama, I am shocked at what papa is saying.”

 

His wife held Jane’s hand and said, “My dear, a gentleman would do what was right. However, you are making one big assumption.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Not all men are honourable gentlemen. Is that what you meant, mama?” Mary asked.

 

“Yes, Mary. Jane dear, not everyone you meet will be honourable, regardless of their sex,” his wife added to Mary with a raised eyebrow. “During your season, Jane, you were escorted by Frederick, Jane, and Edmund which meant you were never alone. I am sure Matilda was with you anytime you left the house. I am right, am I not?”

 

“Yes, mama. Aunt Jane told me Mrs. Tucker accompanied me and my maid because I was not as familiar with London as she was.”

 

“That was true, Jane,” he said, “but the more accurate reason, is because London is not Meryton. The slightest impropriety, no matter the cause, if witnessed by anybody, can force a marriage and your reputation may be irrevocably ruined. We do not want any of our family to be obligated to a stranger because of gossip.”

 

“Mrs. Waldron, I believe it is time we give my daughters appropriate information to make them understand the world we live in,” his wife suggested.

 

“I agree,” he said. “You have lived with us long enough that I trust your discretion. However, feel free to ask us for clarification if you are unsure how much to divulge. I especially want you to work with Jane. She has a gentle soul but is too trusting. Maybe reading the newspaper from London will help?”

 

“That is a good idea, husband,” his wife said with a soft smile.

 

“I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to my entire family,” he said. “As you girls grew older, it was easy to hide in my study and let Mr. Miller manage the estate. Fanny, I would also like to apologize to you for making you attend assemblies without me.”

 

“I understand, Thomas. I let Lydia direct my actions because it was easier. I think we have made amazing progress in our marriage this past fortnight,” his wife said with a saucy grin which caused his cheeks to heat.

 

“Yes, my dear, and we are working very vigorously to penetrate the issues within our relationship,” he retaliated with a smirk and was pleased to see her answering blush. He looked up embarrassed when he heard Mrs. Waldron try to disguise a laugh as a cough.

~*~

Pemberley, Derbyshire
Thursday, December 13, 1810

 

“Next time we go to Lambton, I need to buy some red thread,” Hurst mumbled to himself while wandering the corridors of Pemberley.

 

The past two weeks had been the best of his life, with the exception of the short time after his marriage before Louisa’s siblings moved in. The residents of Pemberley had settled into a routine. He was waking up earlier every day as he got accustomed to country hours. He would wake up, eat breakfast, and then join Darcy, who was an early riser, in his study. When he entered the study, he would read a farming book until Darcy was done answering his correspondence. Once they were both ready, they would discuss the section Hurst had read.

 

They would then move to the library to be joined by the steward and his assistant, Mr. Grey and Ward, to continue planning the spring planting schedule and discussing other issues that arose. After luncheon, they would go horseback riding and Darcy mentioned starting fencing lessons when the Colonel arrived. Hurst would take a tray in his room and retire for the night while Darcy and Miss Darcy ate dinner together and spent time reading and discussing their books.

 

Hurst had taken copious notes, almost a quarter of the journal he used at meetings was full. After a few days, he started becoming overwhelmed. Before he decided to say something, Darcy announced he and Miss Darcy would be going to Matlock for a week. The stated reasons were to visit with their aunt and uncle because they would be spending Christmas at Pemberley and to allow Richard a ride to Pemberley in the carriage instead of on horseback during the winter. Hurst knew the truth, Darcy was simply being Darcy. Instead of mentioning how overwhelmed he looked, Darcy arranged a break. Hurst still met with the steward and his assistant, but instead of planning, they were teaching him how estate books were kept. He was amazed at Pemberley’s income. His sister-in-law would faint if she knew how much Darcy was really worth.

 

Hurst continued wandering the hallways looking at the paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and furniture. He was trying to figure out which part of the house he was in when he heard an ear-piercing scream that sounded like it was coming from up ahead.

 

“Oh, dear lord,” he said when he entered the correct room. “You must be Sally.”

 

“Please... help... meeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” she managed to get out between pants.

 

“I am embarrassed to admit that I am lost, I have not seen a staff member in over an hour,” he explained.

 

“Down hall... third doooooooorrrrrrrrrrr!”

 

Hurst saw a puddle of water appear under Sally. “I do not know anything about child birthing, but that cannot be a good sign. The third door on the left, or right?”

 

“Please don’t leave me,” Sally sobbed and started panting again.

 

“I must try to get help, but I promise I will be gone only a moment,” he said after her pain ended.

 

“Left,” Sally said weakly.

 

Hurst rushed to the third door on the left and yanked it open to find a stairwell. “Hello! Anyone! I need help on the second floor! HEEELLLPPP!!!!!!!”

 

Hearing Sally screaming again, Hurst returned. “I called down the servants’ stairwell for help. Pray someone heard me. What can I do? Shall I put a blanket on the floor, get a pillow from the couch, and help you down?”

 

“Please,” Sally said before she was gripped with another pain.

 

“Do you think you can get down by yourself or shall I pick you up?” Hurst asked and then lunged to catch her as the next pain was too intense. “That answers that question. I imagine being comfortable is not possible, but is this at least better?”

 

“Yesssssss AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!”

 

After her pain ended, he asked, “Do you have any idea what to expect? I have never even attended a birth in the stables. I am looking to you for guidance regardless of your experience.”

 

“I saw my nephews... I have an ideaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!”

 

He held her hand and tried to be as comforting as possible through the pain. “How did you end up by yourself in the middle of nowhere? Did you know your pains had started?”

 

“Mrs. Reynolds keeps me to areas of the house closed in the winter. She told me to dust and my back hurt all day. All of a suddennnnnnnn aaaahhhhhhhhhh!”

 

Upon hearing a gasp behind him, Hurst turned and saw a footman. “Go get Mrs. Reynolds, now, and then Sally’s husband, Wiggins. Darcy said he works in the stable.”

 

“Right away, sir,” the pale young man said before running out the door.

 

“Evan is at Matlock with the Darcy’s. I think the babe is coming, I have to push. My sister said before ahhhhhhhhhhh...”

 

“What do I need to do,” Hurst asked after her pain had passed. Upon seeing Sally blush, he said, “This is not the time to be modest. Both your lives are at stake.”

 

Sally closed her eyes and nodded. “Pull up my dress to see if the babe’s head is...” Sally said before another pain came and he could see her strain.

 

Without comment, Hurst did as he was told. “Oh, sweet merciful Jesus, I see hair. I am assuming I catch the babe, letting it fall to the floor does not seem right,” he muttered to himself.

 

“Yes,” she gasped when her pain ended. “Blanket toooooooooooo ahhhhhhhhhh.”

 

Hurst saw more of the head appear and knew he did not have time for a blanket. He shrugged out of his coat and managed to catch the boy child as he was born. “It is a boy, but there is something around his neck.” Acting on pure instinct, Hurst removed the cord and when the babe did not cry, he started patting his back until a robust wail was heard. “Good job, Sally, you have a son.”

 

“Well done, Mr. Hurst.”

 

Hurst turned his head and saw Mrs. Reynolds and another servant in the doorway. “How long have you been there?”

 

“We got here just as he was born, sir,” Mrs. Reynolds responded as she walked into the room to check on Sally. “Cook will send water up when it is heated, Aggie went for towels, and my husband sent for the midwife. Susie, go find a towel or blanket to replace Mr. Hurst’s coat.”

 

“Yes, Mrs. Reynolds,” the maid said with a curtsy.

 

“Sally, why did you not tell me your pains had begun,” Mrs. Reynolds gently admonished. “Mrs. Hansen will be very jealous. She labored for an entire day with her first child.”

 

“I didn’t know, ma’am. My back hurt but ‘twas normal,” Sally explained.

 

“Wait until Darcy hears about this,” Hurst said to himself and then started laughing with the housekeeper.

 

“How did you know to remove the cord and slap his back, Mr. Hurst,” Mrs. Reynolds asked.

 

“I have no idea. I honestly do not remember what happened. My body just reacted, if that makes sense,” he tried to explain.

 

“It does indeed, sir,” she answered. “If you will excuse us, we will get Sally ready to move.”

 

“Sally said Wiggins is with Darcy at Matlock,” Hurst said. At Mrs. Reynolds nod he continued, “Should she be alone with an infant? Could we put her in a room here so she has help if needed? I also do not like the idea of sending the young man out into the cold weather.”

 

Mrs. Reynolds seemed to nod her approval before answering.

 

“We will move Sally to a room in the servants’ quarters. We will also send the other carriage driver to Matlock with an express for Wiggins.”

 

“Allow me time to change my clothes and write Darcy a note,” Hurst said.

 

“Of course, sir, when you are done, give it to my husband. He will be writing the note to Wiggins and sending Hodges on his way,” Mrs. Reynolds informed him.

 

“Sally, congratulations on a successful birth. You and your son will be in my prayers tonight,” Hurst said. “Thank you, Mrs. Reynolds, for holding the express for me. I am embarrassed to admit, but I do not know exactly where I am. Could you spare someone to escort me to the main hall so I know how to get to my room?”

~*~

Matlock, Derbyshire
Thursday, December 13, 1810

 

Fitzwilliam Darcy, his sister Georgiana, and his cousin Richard were preparing to mount their horses when they noticed a rider approaching at a fast speed.

 

“This is usually not a good sign,” Richard muttered.

 

Darcy concurred.

 

“Brother, does that look like Hodges to you?”

 

“I believe you are correct, Georgie. See, he is headed this way,” Darcy answered.

 

“Sir, it is not bad news. This is for you,” Hodges said as he handed him a letter. “Do you know where Wiggins be?”

 

“I believe so, Hodges. Give me a moment.”

 

Darcy,

 

Do not be alarmed, everything is well. I helped birth a child! Yes, you read that right, your eyes are not deceiving you.

 

Wiggins needs to return immediately. I was wandering around the second floor earlier today, well to be completely honest I became lost. This house is absolutely gigantic! Anyway, I was taking a stroll, enjoying the decor when I heard a scream. I found poor Sally, in the throes of childbirth, all alone. I will save the details for your arrival.

 

Pardon the presumption of sending this note with one of your servants, but Mrs. Reynolds had her husband working on the arrangements before I asked. Seeing how diligent of a master you are, I thought you would want to know right away too. Please let Miss Darcy know Sally and her son are doing well.

 

At the risk of overstepping again, I asked Mrs. Reynolds to make up a room for Sally and the babe. I did not feel right sending them out in the cold air to their cottage, alone. As I am finding to be the case, she had already given the order.

 

Your amazed friend,

 

Reginald Hurst

 

“Oh my,” Darcy said.

 

“Brother, what has happened? Hodges said it was nothing bad.”

 

Darcy handed the note to Georgiana and saw Richard reading it over her shoulder.

 

“Hodges, go to the kitchen doors and ask for Wiggins. Trade horses with me,” Darcy said as he handed the reins over. “Wiggins may leave immediately and we will attach your horse to the back of the carriage. Will you be rested enough to drive in two hours?”

 

“Yes, sir, I will help Wiggins pack and then take a nap,” Hodges said. “It shan’t be no problem to make Pemberley before dinner.”

 

“Thank you, Hodges.”

 

“Goodness, brother, I am mortified for both Sally and Mr. Hurst, yet I am extremely grateful he was able to help her,” Georgiana broke the silence.

 

“Baptism by fire,” Richard said. “Do you think Hurst is well?”

 

“He has grown a lot in a short span of time, Richard. Hurst continues to surprise and impress me. I believe he was still feeling the excitement of the situation when he wrote this note, it is almost giddy, but I think he will be fine. I remember the first time I assisted a birth in the stables, it was an amazing experience.”

 

“Brother, I would not let Sally know you compared the birth of her child to a foal,” his sister said with a grin.

 

“Come, let us put away the horses and tell Uncle and Aunt we are to leave a day early,” Darcy said as he headed to find a stable lad.

~*~

Pemberley, Derbyshire
Thursday, December 13, 1810

 

As he exited the carriage at Pemberley, Fitzwilliam Darcy was once again grateful for the efficiency of his staff. They had indeed left Matlock within two hours and made it to Pemberley before dinner.

 

“Hurst, I hear you had a boring day going over accounts with Mr. Grey,” Darcy said dryly. Hurst looked like he was walking on air.

 

“Come, you must see Reggie,” Hurst said excitedly, before walking into the house.

 

Darcy looked at Mrs. Reynolds and mouthed ‘Reggie?’ but she simply shook her head and indicated they should follow Hurst.

 

“Apparently we are going to see Reggie,” Richard said with a chuckle.

 

The group followed Hurst to the servant’s quarters and into Sally’s room.

 

“Oh, Sally, congratulations,” Georgiana said as she rushed to the bedside. “He is adorable.”

 

“Thank you, Miss Darcy. This is Evan Reginald Wiggins, Reggie so he dunna get confused with his father,” Sally said.

 

“Reginald?” Darcy asked with a glance at Hurst who was blushing furiously. “I do not believe that is a family name.”

 

“May I hold him?” Georgie asked.

 

“Miss Darcy, you are still covered in road dust,” Hurst broke in. “We would not want Reggie covered, would we?”

 

“Oh! You are correct, Mr. Hurst, I was excited. Holding babies is my favourite part of visiting tenants.”

 

“We will come back down after we clean up and change into our dinner clothes, unless Sally is sleeping,” Darcy told his sister while trying to suppress a grin at Hurst’s behavior.

 

“I am tired,” Sally confirmed. “Mr. Hurst, you could take Reggie to the drawing room for introductions. Evan went to fetch our mothers.”

 

Darcy was shocked to see a look of pride crossing Hurst’s face, his chest puffing out, and his eyes becoming moist.

 

“It would be my pleasure, Sally. Come here, young man,” Hurst cooed to the babe while carefully picking him up.

 

“Hurst, would you join us for dinner tonight? Mrs. Reynolds knew we would return and had ordered a feast later than normally served,” he asked.

 

“She informed me mealtime would be pushed back. Yes, I am already properly attired for dinner. I will see you all shortly.”

~*~

Pemberley, Derbyshire
Thursday, December 13, 1810

 

“Hurst, my good man, what have you been doing to yourself? Your clothes could almost be considered baggy,” Richard Fitzwilliam announced as he walked into the drawing room. He could not believe the change in the two weeks since he had been in company with Hurst.

 

“Colonel, how kind of you to notice. I sent a note to Dr. Withers after I left Darcy House and he agreed to see me the next day.”

 

“How did you manage that? He is in such high demand, it is immensely difficult to get an appointment with him,” Richard said, impressed.

 

“He is a cousin of my aunt, who was a product of my grandfather’s second marriage. Dr. Withers and Aunt Phoebe were born within six months of each other and are only ten years older than me. Mark, Dr. Withers, spent his summers at our estate and they allowed me to tag along.”

 

“I am still amazed at the difference in just two weeks. I do believe you have lost an entire stone.”

 

“Mark is a great believer in the works of Scottish physician George Cheyne, who wrote about his own weight battle. Cheyne recommended eating no meat, a lot of vegetables, and drinking milk. Mark has suggested I follow his teachings for at least a month and the cook here has been understanding and added a few of the things that worked for her, such as limiting the rich sauces she is famous for,” Hurst explained. “I have also been riding each day with Darcy and walking in the park.”

 

“That sounds like a sensible plan,” Richard agreed. “Just be careful what types of vegetables you are eating. Too many potatoes seem to make my clothes shrink.”

 

“Cook said the same thing,” Hurst confirmed with a grin. “She has me eating a lot of green vegetables, eggs, and roots like carrots.”

 

“Now that I am here, we will add more activities. Tomorrow morning, we will run part of the park instead of walking.” Richard had decided he would do everything to aid Hurst in his transformation. If he had anything to say about it, the Bingley’s would not recognize Hurst when next in their company.

 

“Run?” Hurst asked. “Really, Colonel, that is unnecessary.”

 

“I beg to differ. Did I not mention teaching you tricks the army uses to control my waist line? I have firsthand experience with new recruits that running not only helps but it is the quickest way I have found to build stamina. When I teach you the footwork involved with fencing, you will thank me. We will start with shorter distances and alternate days between running and walking until you become accustomed to the exercise.”

 

“You seem quite comfortable with an infant, Mr. Hurst,” Georgie said as she entered the room. “I do believe it is my turn.”

 

“Mrs. Reynolds is a godsend,” Hurst responded. “I was afraid to hold him but she put him in my arms and taught me what to do.”

 

“I was here first, Georgie, although I was a bit distracted by Hurst’s clothes to truly appreciate the babe.” Richard watched as the little imp took the child from Hurst and turned to him with a huge grin on her face.

 

“I am sorry Richard, but as I mentioned new babes are my favourite part of tenant visits. He is so adorable,” Georgie said before looking at Hurst. “Normally, I would not presume to mention a gentleman’s attire, but since Richard pointed it out, Mr. Hurst, are you wearing someone else’s clothes? They fit you ill indeed. Do you need to visit the tailor in Lambton? My brother will introduce you.”

 

“No, Miss Darcy, these are my clothes. In fact, this is the outfit I was wearing when we left London.”

 

“But, how is that possible?”

 

Darcy walked into the room and answered his sister, “Little Star, Mr. Hurst consulted a doctor before we left London. Previously, Hurst performed no physical activity and ate and drank to excess. At Pemberley, he is riding, walking the park daily, drinking no spirits and a lot of water, and not only is he eating smaller portions, but Cook has been serving him food specifically recommended by the doctor. I could tell it was working before we left, but this last week has shown a drastic change, Hurst.”

 

“Thank you, Darcy. Mark told me not to be discouraged if I did not see results immediately. He said the longer I stick to it, the better. Since you left, in addition to riding after lunch for pleasure, I have been joining Ward when he inspects the estate.”

 

“That is a lot of exercise for your horse,” he responded.

 

“It is not, Colonel. Wiggins instructed the stable lads to bring me a different horse each time I rode. Wiggins says I am actually doing him a favour because he does not have to assign a lad to exercise them in the yard.”

 

“How are you handling the different horses?” he asked.

 

“Richard, Wiggins knows how much riding experience Hurst has. I am sure he had a list of acceptable horses prepared.”

 

“Yes, Wiggins would have taken every precaution. I am a little astounded at his foresight,” he agreed.

 

“Richard, would you sit with me by the fire?” Georgie asked.

 

“Of course, lead the way,” he said, wondering why Georgie wanted to speak with him privately.

~*~

Pemberley, Derbyshire
Thursday, December 13, 1810

 

Hurst was a little hesitant to see Reggie leave with Mrs. Reynolds when she announced dinner was ready, but he knew the babe needed to be returned to his mother. He and Richard followed Darcy and Miss Darcy into the smaller dining room. They had settled into a pleasant meal when he noticed Miss Darcy and the Colonel exchanging looks.

 

“Miss Darcy,” he said, “Do you have something to say?”

 

“I am impressed, Hurst,” the Colonel said. “You are becoming more observant of your surroundings. Yes, she has something to ask her brother.”

 

“Georgie, why do you look afraid to ask me a question?” Darcy asked, sounding hurt.

 

“Brother, I was hoping you would allow me to stay at Pemberley and not return to school,” Miss Darcy said quietly.

 

“Not return to school? Georgiana, you cannot be serious! Mrs. Younge wrote to say you are falling behind the other students. According to her, you will need individual tutoring. She offered to be your companion this summer and suggested I locate you a house in Ramsgate to limit the distractions. I have already asked my solicitor to start looking for properties to rent,” Darcy informed his sister sternly.

 

Hurst was afraid Miss Darcy was going to cry when she stood up and left the room quickly.

 

“That was badly done, Darcy!” the Colonel shouted. “You did not even let her explain.”

 

“There is nothing to explain, Richard. She is not ready to leave school.”

 

“Darcy,” he broke in, “are you not the same person who lectured me about not making decisions without knowing all of the information? Does that not apply to your sister, more than anyone? For God’s sake man, she is not one of your servants to order about as you desire!”

 

Darcy looked taken aback while the Colonel was nodding.

 

“Hurst is right, Darcy. If this is how you regularly treat Georgie, I have some thinking to do about the future. Did you forget, Uncle George made me her guardian too? I actually listened to her, asked questions, and agreed with her.”

 

Hurst watched as Darcy tried to process what just happened.

 

“Darcy!” the Colonel shouted to get his attention focused. “Why did you not let Georgie explain?”

 

“There was no need,” Darcy answered. “I am not going to let her abandon school because it is proving too difficult. She needs to face problems instead of running away from them.”

 

“In what ways was she falling behind?” he asked.

 

“What do you mean, Hurst?”

 

“You said Mrs. Younge recommends additional tutoring. In what areas?” Hurst demanded.

 

“Well, she did not say, but as the headmistress, she would know,” Darcy defended himself.

 

“So, you took the word of a relative stranger as fact, without specific details, and did not let your sister explain her reasoning,” the Colonel asked darkly.

 

Hurst watched as Darcy opened and closed his mouth a few times without responding and could see the moment the truth washed over him. “I see you finally realize you have done your sister a disservice. After you offer her an apology, I dare say you owe her a pretty trinket,” he suggested.

 

“An expensive, shiny, trinket,” the Colonel added. “With an apology in front of me and Hurst, possibly while on your knees.”

 

Darcy had opened his mouth to respond when Miss Darcy walked back in with tears streaming down her face and paper in her hands.

 

“Here, brother, read these letters from my school friends. All three of them wrote to congratulate me on being the best student at school,” Miss Darcy said as she put the letters in front of her brother.

 

She returned to her seat and continued eating, while occasionally sniffling. Hurst was amazed to see it, but Darcy looked even more guilty than he had previously.

 

“Little Star,” Darcy said softly.

 

Miss Darcy refused to look up from her dinner until her brother moved to the seat next to her and tried again.

 

“Georgie, please look at me.”

 

When Miss Darcy looked up, Darcy continued.

 

“I am so sorry, Little Star. I will not read your personal correspondence. I should have asked you to explain why you did not want to return to school instead of taking Mrs. Younge’s letter at face value. Please, explain it to me?”

 

“I miss you terribly when I am at school,” Miss Darcy sniffled. “With all of the masters you hired for me, I can learn nothing more from school. I already have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and I speak French and Italian fluently. What more could they teach me? Maybe Mrs. Younge was writing to so many families, she addressed the letter incorrectly?”

 

“No, Little Star, unfortunately that is not the case. The letter was clearly addressed to myself and she even mentioned how Pemberley would be a distraction with how much you enjoy visiting the stables and the orangery.”

 

“Wait a moment, Darcy,” the Colonel broke in. “Georgie, did you ever mention the orangery to Mrs. Younge?”

 

“I do not think so,” Miss Darcy responded.

 

“It is a rather specific thing to mention, is it not Darcy?” the Colonel asked.

 

“But, if Miss Darcy did not tell her, how did she know?” he asked.

 

“Exactly, Hurst! Do you not see?” the Colonel stated. “Darcy, I do not want Georgie returning to that school. It stretches the bounds of credulity to believe that Mrs. Younge would have confused her best pupil for one so bad she needed personal tutoring. Even if Mrs. Younge heard about the orangery from another student, why did she lie to you about Georgie needing tutoring? Something else is afoot.”

 

“I agree, Darcy. It might be as simple as Mrs. Younge trying to find a lucrative income, free holiday, and way out of the sweltering heat and smell of London while the school is closed during the summer months, but something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” he quoted.

 

“Well done, Hurst,” the Colonel congratulated. “Did Darcy recommend Shakespeare in addition to farming books?”

 

“Yes, Richard. Hurst has been taking a dinner tray in his room most evenings and is apparently working his way through the Bard’s works,” Darcy said. “I agree with both of you. Georgiana, you will not be returning to school.”

 

Darcy was quiet and withdrawn for the rest of the meal. When they retired to the drawing room, he shared a look with the Colonel and nodded at Darcy.

 

“Darcy,” the Colonel started. “What is wrong? You already apologized to Georgie in front of us.”

 

“Yes, brother, I forgive you. I understand how my question would have looked to someone who is so dutiful.”

 

Hurst saw Darcy flinch as his sister spoke. “Come, my friend, you have been so helpful to me, allow us to be of service to you.” Darcy looked at him in anguish. “None of us are perfect. Please, allow us to help you through whatever is obviously paining you. We will not judge you.”

 

“Do I really order people around with a disdain for their feelings?” Darcy asked quietly.

 

Hurst looked at the Colonel and indicated he should speak first.

 

“Darcy,” the Colonel said slowly, “I am sorry to say, but given your station in life, a certain amount of arrogance that you know what is best for your servants is unavoidable. You have too many decisions to make that affect their livelihoods.”

 

“The Colonel is right, Darcy. Although, I will admit, when I first met you, which I now understand to be based on your shyness when meeting strangers and Miss Bingley’s predatory reaction, your manners did make me believe you were arrogant and conceited.”

 

“William,” said that man’s sister, “every action you take affects me in some way. I know you do not make decisions lightly and they are made with my best interest in mind. Having said that, I would like to be consulted when possible. For example, you never asked me if I liked Mrs. Younge well enough to spend an entire summer with her. Would you like it if Richard told you what part of the country you would be residing in and with whom?”

 

“But Georgie, caring for you is my responsibility!” Darcy said, clearly frustrated.

 

“No one is disputing that, Darcy. But stop and think about Miss Darcy’s question. Really think. What if the Colonel told you he rented a cottage at Ramsgate and you were to spend the summer learning estate matters from Bingley?” he asked with a grin.

 

“Darcy, ignore Hurst. We all like to have our own way very well, you more than others,” the Colonel added with a grin. “Think back to when you were younger. Did your father ever ask your opinion or did he direct what you did?”

 

Hurst could see recognition flash on Darcy’s face.

 

“Oh, Little Star, I am so sorry. Richard, my father did indeed ask my opinion when possible. He did not always follow my wishes, but I remember how it felt to just be asked. I will try to do better by you, Georgie. You may have to remind me when I slip into old habits.”

 

“Miss Darcy could always initiate the conversation,” Hurst said to Darcy before turning to her. “When your brother mentions upcoming travel, you could state your opinions.”

 

“That is a good idea, Mr. Hurst. Thank you,” she said with a smile.

 

“It works too, Georgie,” the Colonel said. “You initiated today’s conversation about not returning to school.”

 

“Yes, well done, Georgie,” added Darcy. “When I write to my solicitor to stop looking for properties in Ramsgate, I will ask him to start an investigation into Mrs. Younge and the school. The situation does not sit well with me.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

 

Pemberley, Derbyshire
Friday, December 14, 1810

 

Hurst was surprised to find the rest of the party in the dining room the next morning.

 

“Darcy, you are breaking your fast late today,” he observed.

 

“Yes, Wiggins called me to the stables this morning to look at Achilles, who was acting odd. Wiggins wanted me to look at him myself.”

 

“Nothing is wrong, I hope,” the Colonel stated.

 

“Wiggins thinks he might have influenza so we isolated him from the other horses. If he is correct, we do not want it to spread throughout the stables.”

 

“Yes, the army’s stablemaster watches for influenza closely. The last time we had an outbreak in London, it lasted for two months and spread to almost all of the horses. My superiors were quite upset because it caused a delay in training the new recruits.”

 

“The same thing happens with illnesses while at school. After the holiday break, there are always a few girls who return sick and infect others. Brother, I am so grateful you will not make me return,” Miss Darcy said.

 

“I am immensely grateful you asked, Georgie. It was no hardship, I assure you. I miss you when you are away too.”

 

“If I am not returning to school, I will need a companion,” Miss Darcy mentioned.

 

“Well done, Miss Darcy,” he said. “What a clever way to initiate a new conversation.”

 

“Darcy, we may have to limit how much time Georgie spends with Hurst. He may be a bad influence on our ward,” the Colonel said with a grin.

 

“Yes,” Darcy thought out loud. “You learned everything the school had to offer, what more could a governess do that tutors and a companion could not? We should have a companion now. With Hurst in residence, you need to always have a proper chaperone. Not that I do not trust you or my servants, Hurst.”

 

“I understand completely, Darcy. All it would take is one unexpected visitor who is a busybody to plant a seed.”

 

“Could we ask Nanny Alice to fill the role temporarily?” Miss Darcy asked. “I would enjoy seeing her and we could look for a companion at our leisure.”

 

“That is a good idea, Georgie. I will add a line to the letter to my solicitor asking him to start looking for a companion. He will be able to perform a discreet search and thoroughly research references,” Darcy answered. “Unfortunately, the Darcy and Fitzwilliam families are rather small and I do not know of anyone who fits the criteria. Hurst, do you have any family members or acquaintances that might be interested?”

 

“Not that I am aware of, however, I may have a temporary solution. My uncle succumbed to palsy shortly after I lost Mrs. Hurst. Aunt Phoebe has always been a quiet lady and my cousin’s wife has a, how shall I say this, vibrant personality.” Hurst chuckled. “The Dowager Viscountess would be mortified if you offered compensation, but she might be persuaded to spend her mourning with me in quiet solitude at Pemberley. She gave birth to two sons and always wanted a daughter. If you get along well, she could be a valuable asset when interviewing a companion and it would not be a bad idea to start preparing Miss Darcy for her come out.”

 

“Hurst! My Little Star is only fourteen,” Darcy said.

 

“I know you are more of a father than brother, Darcy, but it will come sooner than you expect or want,” he warned. “Her dowry will attract a lot of attention.”

 

“Hurst is correct,” the Colonel said. “You cannot refuse to see the need to start preparing her.”

 

“Yes, he is. Unfortunately,” Darcy responded before turning to his sister. “Do you approve of inviting the Dowager Viscountess?” At her nod he continued, “I will write an invitation to send with your letter, Hurst. Between your aunt and Nanny Alice, Georgie will be well looked after.”

 

“Yes, and Aunt Phoebe may know of a suitable candidate to be the new companion. She has a vast circle of friends and acquaintances.”

 

“Where does she live?” Darcy asked.

 

“In the dower house at my cousin’s estate in Surrey.”

 

“If we send Alfie with an express immediately, he can spend Sunday at Darcy House with his aunt and deliver the message Monday,” Richard suggested.

 

“Alfie?”

 

“Alfred Reynolds,” Darcy clarified. “Mrs. Reynolds’ grandson loves horses and seeing the countryside. He is my personal messenger and completely trustworthy.”

 

“If Maggie is her daughter, how can her grandson be old enough to be a messenger?”

 

“Maggie is the youngest child and a bit of a surprise to her parents,” Darcy laughed. “Alfie is the eldest son of her eldest son. Only two years separates the aunt from her nephew.”

 

“I will write a letter to Aunt Phoebe after we finish eating and give Alfie directions,” he said with a grin.

 

“Is there an inn near your cousin’s estate where my staff could stay overnight? If you think your aunt will accept the invitation, I plan to have Alfie leave London in one of my carriages and offer her transportation to Derbyshire with his protection.”

 

“I am almost certain she will accept, Darcy. The last letter I received indicated she was frustrated with her situation. Her daughter-in-law is in mourning for my uncle, but is trying to justify accepting morning callers and her husband, my cousin, has not stepped in. Even if Aunt Phoebe does not accept the invitation, she will arrange a room for Alfie and the driver. They will not need to say at the inn,” Hurst stated definitively.

 

“Darcy and Hurst, finish your letters after you eat, then we will see Alfie off to London before Hurst and I change into clothing suitable for running. Do not worry, Hurst, my batman has everything you will need.”

 

“How kind of you,” he responded while rolling his eyes.

 

“Richard, it is starting to lightly snow. I am afraid you will slip and fall,” Miss Darcy said.

 

“Miss Darcy, I always thought you were an intelligent young lady,” Hurst said. “It is a shame we must wait until spring.”

 

“Hurst, as you said in your note, this house is absolutely gigantic. We will run up and down the long hallways,” Richard decided with a grin.

~*~

Whitemeadow, Warwickshire
Friday, December 14, 1810

 

Twenty-year-old Grace Hurst walked down the hallway with an uneasy feeling. She was only ever summoned to her father’s study to be disciplined. She had not done anything bad, lately.

 

Her parents were blinded by their ambition and were pushing her at every unmarried single gentleman with a title. She planned to show up on the doorstep of her brother’s townhouse as soon as she reached her majority. She knew he would support her.

 

“Father, you asked to see me?”

 

“Yes, Grace. Sit down please,” Mr. Ernest Hurst said.

 

“I am glad you called for me, father. I need to ask you a question,” she said.

 

“Your question can wait,” her father said. “I received a letter confirming plans I have been making. You will marry the Earl of Camfield as soon as the banns have been read.”

 

Grace could not believe what her father had just said. The Earl of Camfield was a known rake, gambler, seducer of maidens, and keeper of mistresses. He was a short, pudgy, bald man who had a peculiar odor and, if you believed the rumors, beat his former wife frequently, caused her death two months ago, and was looking for a wife with a dowry to replenish his coffers. She could tell by the look in her father’s eyes he expected her to protest vehemently and would use the excuse to lock her away until the marriage.

 

“Father,” she started slowly, “I know mother declared we would not publicly mourn Louisa’s passing, but the earl is in full mourning for another four months. Are you prepared for the scandal this will cause?” She watched surprise flash across her father’s face and could tell she had made a point in her favour.

 

“Yes, you are correct. You will have to be wed quietly. My response will include a request for a special license. The announcement will be printed after his mourning ends and will say you were lately married,” he said while eyeing her closely. “You do not object?”

 

“Would it matter if I did?” she asked carefully. She did not want to give him a reason to believe she was ready to lose the contents of her stomach.

 

“No, it would not. You are my daughter. You will do as I command!”

 

“Well, within reason,” she responded dramatically. She grinned internally when her father’s mien softened slightly. “Father, I wanted to ask your permission to visit Miss Owens, she invited me to join her. May I go? Mrs. Owens’ cousin, Lady Sheldon, is visiting and I would like to deepen my friendship with her ladyship’s daughters,” she added. It was all true, she simply neglected a few pertinent details.

 

“I suppose.”

 

“May I arrive in time for dinner?” she asked.

 

Father was looking at her suspiciously. “Here is a piece of paper and a pen. Write Miss Owens a note and I will have it delivered.”

 

“Thank you, father, that is very kind.”

 

My friend,

Father has agreed that I may accept your kind invitation. Our carriage will deliver me in time to take dinner with your family.

I look forward to seeing you,

Grace

 

“If you have no further need of me, I will start packing my trunk.”

~*~

Pemberley, Derbyshire
Saturday, December 15, 1810

 

“I received a few interesting letters today,” Hurst announced in the drawing room after dinner.

 

“And? Do you intend to add to that statement, Hurst?” the Colonel asked when he did not continue.

 

“Darcy, I know it is normally not the done thing, but could we ask Maggie to join us? I believe she has a right to participate in the conversation.”

 

“Absolutely, Hurst. I am curious to hear the results myself,” Darcy answered before nodding to a footman.

 

“What results? Why would Georgiana’s maid have a right to join us?”

 

“I agree, Mr. Hurst, and appreciate you asking her to join us,” Miss Darcy added.

 

“You too?” the Colonel asked. “Why?”

 

“Some of the items she had me add would never have occurred to me,” Hurst answered her with a grin, while ignoring the Colonel. “I owe her a debt of gratitude.”

 

“What are you talking about?”

 

“Me too, Hurst. I know you would hate to lose Maggie, Georgie, but we should ask Mrs. Reynolds to start training her as an under housekeeper,” Darcy said with a twinkle in his eye.

 

“What are you all talking about and why are you ignoring me?”

 

“It is a good idea, brother. Since we returned to Pemberley, Mrs. Reynolds asked Maggie to train her cousin, Susie, to be an upstairs maid. She is learning quickly and I get along with her too.”

 

Maggie entered the room, curtsied, and said, “You asked for me, sir?”

 

“Yes, Maggie. Please take a seat,” Darcy said.

 

“Will. Someone. Answer. Me.” the Colonel ground out.

 

“A little testy tonight, Colonel,” Hurst teased before he explained the steps he had taken before leaving London and what was put into motion on their way to Pemberley.

 

“Thank you, Hurst,” the Colonel stood up and bowed quickly. “I would wager my commission the majority of your most expensive pieces were not in the vault.”

 

“How right you are, Colonel, for the most part. My butler wrote that he arranged for the inventory crew to arrive as soon as the siblings left to pick up their completed mourning attire. EVERY single missing piece was found in Miss Bingley’s possession. By the time the Bingley’s returned, all of the items were laid out with the accompanying proof that they belonged to me. He went on to say he thought Miss Bingley would have an apoplexy when she was almost arrested for theft and assault after throwing a chimney piece at a runner.”

 

Hurst turned to Miss Darcy and said, “I do not know how to thank you for suggesting we inventory Louisa’s jewellery.” Turning to Maggie he continued, “You were also correct to inventory the house. Quite a few of Louisa’s expensive decorative pieces were found in Miss Bingley’s trunk.”

 

Richard whistled and said, “Well, that definitely qualifies as interesting. There is no question that Miss Bingley was attempting to steal items from your townhouse?”

 

“Correct, Colonel. Louisa’s maid is still in my employ and was able to confirm most of the jewellery was in the master suite as of two days before the accident when we visited the theatre. They believe that when Miss Bingley left Darcy House, she went right to Louisa’s jewellery box. My maids confirmed the decorative pieces disappeared shortly after Louisa’s death.”

 

“I take it Mr. and Miss Bingley no longer reside in your townhouse,” Darcy stated.

 

“Yes, thanks to the letter we wrote. The Bow Street Runners oversaw the packing of their personal property with the inventory clerks and sent them on their way, that is when they found the other stolen items. My butler arranged for the locks to be changed and informed all of my staff that the Bingley’s were banned from the townhouse, as we also discussed.”

 

“Will Miss Bingley be in trouble?” Miss Darcy asked.

 

“One of the letters I received was from my solicitor. Do I want to press charges?”

 

“What would happen to her if you do?”

 

“She would hang, Georgie,” the Colonel answered her question dispassionately.

 

“Richard! That is not appropriate,” Darcy said as he took his crying sister into his arms.

 

“Darcy, she needs to know. You cannot protect her from the evils of the world.”

 

“The Colonel is correct, Darcy. She can protect herself better if she knows what to look out for. In this instance though, I think she is crying because she feels responsible for the trouble Miss Bingley finds herself in. After all, she suggested I inventory the jewellery.”

 

“Is Hurst right, Georgie?” At his sister’s nod, Darcy continued, “You are not at fault.”

 

“Did you steal the items and hide them in Miss Bingley’s trunk?” the Colonel asked bluntly.

 

“Miss Darcy, I am not going to press charges but I need to do something.”

 

“What was the total value of the items, Hurst?” the Colonel asked.

 

“According to my solicitor, almost ten thousand pounds,” he responded.

 

“How is that possible?” the Colonel asked.

 

“I told you my grandmother was the daughter of an Earl. The only daughter as a matter of fact and her mother was the only daughter of a Duke. There were two necklaces, in particular, that made up more than half the amount.”

 

“I have an idea.”

 

Everyone turned to look at Maggie.

 

“Please proceed,” he encouraged.

 

“Miss Bingley has a dowry of twenty thousand pounds, does she not?”

 

Hurst confirmed that was correct, amazed that Miss Bingley had spread it far enough that the servants knew the amount.

 

“Does she have control of her funds?”

 

“If her dowry was set up like Louisa’s, she does not until she marries or reaches the age of thirty years.”

 

“Her brother is in charge of her funds until either condition is met?”

 

“He should be, yes.”

 

“Then instruct your solicitor to write a contract stating that five thousand pounds of Miss Bingley’s dowry be turned over to you in recompense for the theft with a contingency that if she spreads gossip about you, she owes you the other five.”

 

“Brilliant!” the Colonel whispered. “Miss Bingley is so proud of her dowry, she discloses the amount to everyone she meets trying to show she belongs in the first circles. Hit her where it will hurt the most without involving the courts.”

 

“Tell him to keep it vague,” Darcy added. “Not just gossip about the jewels, but any gossip she spreads about you.”

 

“Did Mr. Bingley write too? What did his letter say, Mr. Hurst?”

 

“Yes, Miss Darcy, he wrote pleading Miss Bingley’s innocence. She has him convinced that the entire household is out to get her.”

 

“Bingley is delusional,” the Colonel stated.

 

“We discussed this, Colonel. They grew up as Irish twins and, Miss Bingley being older, has had him under her control his entire life. I doubt he would blame her if he walked into a room and saw her shooting an unarmed person who was begging for their life,” he stated. “Miss Darcy, I apologize if that was too graphic.”

 

“No, Mr. Hurst, it was not and from what I have seen it is an accurate analogy. Richard, you have not been around the Bingley’s enough. Where Miss Bingley leads, Mr. Bingley follows like a puppy looking for a treat.”

 

“Can you tell if Bingley is angry at you?” Darcy asked.

 

“Apparently not. As we discussed, my solicitor made it seem as though taking inventory was a natural part of the process.”

 

“Did the inventory tell you the value of the items Miss Bingley has broken?” Maggie asked.

 

“My housekeeper wrote that Louisa was one step ahead of me. She had been keeping track, so Mrs. Mayes had to only add the recent items. I am to expect a follow up with the exact amount once they are done with the entire townhouse.”

 

“Do you have a copy of your marriage settlement here?”

 

“Yes, I do, Darcy. Why?”

 

“Maybe an inventory is part of the process. I have been thinking, if Mrs. Hurst had enough foresight to demand an inventory be attached to the settlement, maybe she requested one be done in the event either of you passed away. As his father’s heir, Bingley would be in possession of a copy. If my guess is correct, when you respond to his letter, you could state your solicitor was carrying out his father’s wishes as outlined in the agreement the elder Mr. Bingley signed. That is, if you want to try and salvage a relationship with the siblings,” Darcy said.

 

“Might I offer a suggestion Mr. Hurst?”

 

“Of course, Miss Darcy.”

 

“Richard sent us copies of the French translation of The Art of War by Sun Tzu. I am paraphrasing the section of spies, based on my interpretation of his advice, but keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

 

“Well done, Georgie. That is not entirely accurate, but an apt conclusion for our purposes,” the Colonel said. “The quote I believe you are referring to is The enemy’s spies who have come to spy on us must be sought out, tempted with bribes, led away and comfortably housed. Thus they will become converted spies and available for our service. As I said, your advice is close enough. Keep them close and convert them into your spies. Bingley is such an obliging little boy, give him a drink or two, get him talking, and listen.”

 

“You had my sister read The Art of War?” Darcy asked his cousin.

 

“Yes, we routinely read books and discuss them in our letters. That time it was my choice and I needed something more thought provoking than Cecilia by Fanny Burney,” the Colonel responded.

 

“You enjoyed it, you know you did. You had more theories about the ending than I did,” Miss Darcy said with a little pout.

 

“That may be so,” the Colonel said with a slight blush, “however you cannot deny you also enjoyed The Art of War.”

 

“I did and it helped us with our French fluency.”

 

“Us?”

 

“Me and Maggie, Mr. Hurst. If we do not own a copy of the chosen book, Richard is kind enough to send two. We discuss the section before I write my letter.”

 

“Ah, I see how it is. You two conspire against me while I have to defend my position alone?” the Colonel asked with a grin.

 

Hurst noticed Darcy thoughtfully looking at his sister. “Darcy, old boy. What has crossed your mind?”

 

“I believe I found a way for us to pass our evenings after dinner. Instead of me and Georgie each reading our own book, the four of us could pick a book, take turns reading, and discuss what was read. Do you speak French, Hurst? The library here is well stocked.”

 

“I did at one time, but it has been a while.”

 

“Well then, we will have to start practicing. I assume your Latin is also in need of a refresher?”

 

“Yes, dreadfully so. I was never proficient.”

 

“Oh, brother, if you are going to teach Mr. Hurst Latin again, may I learn too?” Miss Darcy asked excitedly.

 

“That sounds like a good idea Georgie. You seem to enjoy the philosophy books I have chosen. If we teach you both Latin, we can expand our book selection. What say you, Darcy?” the Colonel asked.

 

“As you wish. I will look for the primers my tutor used to teach me,” Darcy said.

 

“Excuse me, sir,” Mrs. Reynolds said as she entered the room. “You wanted to be informed immediately when Alice responded to your note.”

 

“Please stay, Mrs. Reynolds, I may need to have you prepare a room,” Darcy said before he read the note. “I am sorry Little Star, Nanny Alice has moved in with her granddaughter to help with her children. Hopefully, Hurst’s aunt will agree to visit and can temporarily fulfill the duties of a companion.”

 

“Sir, pardon the interruption, but what about Mrs. Annesley,” Mrs. Reynolds suggested.

 

Hurst was surprised when all three cousins stared at Mrs. Reynolds as though she was daft. “Darcy, is there something wrong with the idea?”

 

“No, Hurst, I am amazed I did not think of Mrs. Annesley before.”

 

“Me too, brother. She would be perfect,” Miss Darcy added.

 

“And such a simple solution,” the Colonel added. “I guess it is true, sometimes you cannot see the forest through the trees.”

 

“She is looking for a position?” Darcy asked Mrs. Reynolds.

 

“I have not heard it from her, sir, but two of the staff have said she is.”

 

“Who is Mrs. Annesley?” he asked.

 

“The widow of the vicar at Kympton, one of the Darcy family livings, who is in mourning herself. Her husband passed away in October when he fell from a horse. He was a younger man and it hit the community hard. I gave the living to his curate, who is an honourable man and well known to the church. My father had desired the living to go his godson, thankfully Wickham declined and was paid the value over three years prior. Mrs. Annesley is currently living with her younger brother’s family in Lambton.”

 

“I am surprised Mr. Wickham declined, brother. He is such an amiable young man,” Miss Darcy said.

 

Hurst noticed the look Darcy and Richard shared and the distaste on Mrs. Reynolds face. “I do believe I am missing something. Miss Darcy seems to have fond memories of Mr. Wickham but the adults do not.”

 

“You are correct, Hurst. He is a scoundrel. Darcy, we need to show Hurst the miniature from your father’s favourite parlor. If you ever see him, inform Darcy, me, or Mr. or Mrs. Reynolds immediately,” the Colonel explained harshly.

 

“Richard, how could you say that about Mr. Wickham? You grew up with him like William did,” Miss Darcy exclaimed.

 

“Little Star, Richard is right. Wickham is not an honourable gentleman. I mentioned how I paid him the amount of the living? When Mr. Annesley passed away, Wickham returned and asked that I grant him the living.”

 

Miss Darcy gasped and said, “Is that why he was here on All Hallows Eve? He said he was worried how we were getting along without father.”

 

“You spoke with him?” Darcy exclaimed.

 

“Yes brother, I was on my way to the music room and we talked for a few moments. He was charming,” Miss Darcy said with a blush.

 

Seeing the thunderous look on the faces of the other men, he asked, “Mrs. Reynolds, you do not have a high opinion of him either, do you?”

 

“No, Mr. Hurst, the maids and I do not,” she said, giving him a significant look.

 

Hurst heard Miss Darcy gasp and the look on her face was almost amusing.

 

“Mrs. Reynolds, you do not mean that he...” she was unable to finish.

 

“I apologize sir, I fear I have said too much,” Mrs. Reynolds said to Darcy.

 

“No, Mrs. Reynolds, you did not. We just discussed how we cannot protect Georgiana from the evils of the world. Georgie, how do you know about this? Did something happen at school?” the Colonel asked.

 

“Yes, Richard. One of the girls had a letter from home. Her youngest sister wrote that a maid had been found to be in a family way and she overheard a conversation that suggested their brother was the reason.”

 

“Unfortunately, that is all too common, Miss,” Mrs. Reynolds said.

 

“Really?”

 

“I believe this is a conversation you should have with Mrs. Annesley if she agrees to be your companion,” she stated with a look that Miss Darcy seemed to understand.

 

“Yes, Mrs. Reynolds, thank you for the suggestion. I like Mrs. Annesley, brother, and she is already familiar with Pemberley and the surroundings. May I write a note asking her to take tea with us tomorrow after services?”

 

“Yes, Georgie, and give it to Mr. or Mrs. Reynolds to be delivered. Hurst, while my sister is writing an invitation to Mrs. Annesley, you could go upstairs and get your marriage settlement. Richard and I have some experience with contracts, we would be willing to help you figure out what it says.”

 

“I appreciate the offer. I am ashamed to say I let my father and hers work out the details,” he said. “Although, I am not excited to walk up and down the stairs. My legs are not happy with me.”

 

When Hurst returned, Darcy asked his sister to play for them with Maggie turning the pages for her.

 

“I hope you do not mind if we read Hurst’s marriage settlement while you play, Georgie.”

 

“Not at all William, I know you enjoy hearing me play while you work.”

 

Darcy read the first page, then handed it to the Colonel, who gave it to Hurst when he was done. By the time he was done reading the last page, Darcy and the Colonel were having a quiet discussion.

 

“Hurst, your settlement is straightforward,” Darcy started. “There are quite a few contingencies to protect Mrs. Hurst should you predecease her, but there is nothing should she pass away first.”

 

“Darcy was right,” the Colonel said. “In the event of your death, an inventory was to be taken of the possessions Mrs. Hurst inherited. An argument could be made that your solicitor was following the spirit of the document by ordering an inventory. It was not required in the event of her death, but Mr. Bingley obviously wanted one done.”

 

“It appears as though I remembered correctly regarding her dowry and jewellery. It is obvious neither of our fathers thought we would be childless, or that she would pass away before me. Since nothing was put in writing, the jewels are part of her personal property and would become mine upon her death?” he asked.

 

“You would want to consult with your solicitor to make sure there are no laws we are unaware of, but yes, Hurst, I agree,” Darcy said.

 

“A similar situation happened to a soldier in my unit. His sister passed away during childbirth, along with the babe. His parents tried to reclaim the family jewellery, but her husband refused. They took it to the courts, but nothing was in the settlement and they lost. I agree, they should be your property now.”

 

“I will have a few letters to be sent Monday. If tomorrow was not Sunday, I would ride into Lambton and hire an express rider.”

 

“Did Bingley mention their family jewellery in his letter?” Darcy asked.

 

“No, but I am certain it is only a matter of time. Miss Bingley was very upset that, as the eldest, Louisa inherited their mother’s favourite ring and a few other pieces. I have no objection to giving some of it to Mr. Bingley for his future wife, but I know he would give it to his sister at her insistence.”

 

“You think Miss Bingley would pressure her brother into filing suit?”

 

“Yes, Colonel, I do. If my solicitor agrees everything belongs to me, I will have him send Bingley a letter informing him if he brings suit, I will ask the judge to make them pay for my solicitor’s fees for wasting the court’s time on a frivolous lawsuit.”

 

“Mr. Hurst, may we offer a suggestion?”

 

“Yes, Miss Darcy and I apologize if our discussion distracted you from playing.”

 

“No, it did not. You are being quiet, we only heard what was said because I was looking for a new sheet of music. Why not make that a stipulation of the contract regarding Miss Bingley’s dowry?” Miss Darcy asked.

 

“If Miss Bingley spreads any gossip about you, or is seen in possession of any jewels that belonged to Mrs. Hurst, she must pay you the other five thousand pounds and the cost of the items she has broken. That way you could give Mr. Bingley the jewellery and he could not give it to his sister without depleting her dowry even more,” Maggie finished.

 

“Gentlemen,” Hurst announced, “I do believe we should invite Miss Darcy and Maggie to all of our discussions. What think you two of crop rotation?”

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

 

Lochdale, Inverness
Saturday, December 15, 1810

 

Matilda Tucker looked at the girl sitting across from her. After 13 days on the road, she still had not made a dent in the cocoon of self-importance Lydia had wrapped around herself. How any child of fourteen could be so self-assured was beyond her comprehension. She had tried making the child walk alongside the carriage and lectured until her voice was hoarse. Neither idea worked.

 

“We just turned off the main road,” she told Lydia. “We should arrive at Lochdale shortly.”

 

“La, it is about time,” Lydia complained. “I cannot wait to have a bath and sleep in a quiet house instead of a noisy inn.”

 

An idea started to form in Matilda’s mind. “I have told you, Miss Lydia, we are not guests of the estate and will not be treated as such. If you want a bath, you will have to heat the water and fill the tub yourself. Then, after your bath, you will need to empty the water.”

 

“What are you going on about, Mrs. Tucker? Of course we are guests here. This is my uncle’s estate,” Lydia stated.

 

Matilda shook her head and watched the scenery pass by until they approached the house.

 

“What is the carriage driver doing? Why is he going to the stables?” Lydia demanded.

 

“I told you, Miss Lydia, we are not guests. We will be using the servant’s entrance and meeting with the housekeeper,” she answered with a smirk. “You will hold your tongue until we are in Mrs. Douglas’ office or you will be eating porridge for the next two days.”

 

“And I have told you, Mrs. Tucker, I do not answer to you. I do not even listen to my parents, what makes you think I will listen to you?” Lydia asked smugly.

 

Matilda allowed all of the malice she had felt for the girl over the past days to show on her face and was pleased to see Lydia’s expression change slightly. “You heard your parents, did you not? I was given permission to treat you however I see fit. We will not be leaving until I think you are reformed. Do you know where we are?”

 

“In Scotland,” Lydia responded, enunciating each word clearly, as if she were speaking to a simpleton.

 

“Where in Scotland? Did you know Scotland is half the size of England? Think about it, child. It took us almost six days to make it to Gretna Green and another six to make it to Inverness, although we did lose almost an entire day when the carriage wheel broke. What would you do if I made you exit the carriage right now? Where would you go?”

 

“Why, I would go to the house and they would let me inside.”

 

“Would they really? An unknown, arrogant, spoiled child who wanders up to the door? If such a person arrived at Longbourn, what would happen?” Matilda watched Lydia attempt an answer. “I see you have no idea. If you do not know how a household runs, why do you feel prepared to marry?”

 

“My housekeeper would handle everything, of course. I would entertain my friends, attend assemblies, and make merry,” Lydia stated.

 

“If you do not want to spend the night outside in the cold, I suggest you are quiet until we are in the housekeeper’s office. Do not try my patience, little girl, or you will not be allowed in the house and we are twenty miles from the nearest neighbour. You need to think about consequences before you speak,” Matilda warned as the carriage came to a stop.

 

“Thank you, Noah,” she said to the footman when he helped her down. “You will follow us to the housekeeper’s office and wait in the hallway until we are done.”

 

“Yes, madam,” he responded before helping Lydia down.

 

“Sims,” Lydia cooed, while taking a step and brushing up against him, “Mrs. Tucker is being dreadfully mean. Would you show me to the family wing?”

 

Noah allowed disgust to momentarily show through his normally bland facade as he took a giant step back. Matilda was thrilled to see the first crack in Lydia’s defences.

 

“This way, Miss Lydia,” Matilda said, as she all but pushed the child towards the waiting housekeeper. “Mrs. Douglas, it is good to see you again. I hope our arrival was not a surprise.”

 

“Mrs. Tucker,” the housekeeper acknowledged her with a curtsey. “We are prepared, the express rider arrived on Monday. Please follow me.”

 

Matilda made sure to keep Lydia between herself and Mrs. Douglas as they walked to the housekeeper’s office.

 

“Forgive my forwardness,” the housekeeper said once everyone was seated, “Do you know yet if the young miss is with child?”

 

Matilda heard Lydia gasp in outrage and smiled.

 

“I am not with child!” Lydia defended.

 

“What else was I to assume? You acted the part of a hussy when you approached the footman outside, in plain sight.”

 

“I did not! When I write to my uncle about this, you will be fired,” Lydia threatened.

 

“Your uncle?” Mrs. Douglas asked with wide eyes.

 

“Yes, her uncle. Miss Lydia, if I were you, I would keep that information to yourself unless you want everyone here to think what Mrs. Douglas did,” she warned. “And she will not be fired.”

 

“Yes, she will, my uncle will not stand for the insult,” Lydia claimed.

 

“What did she say that was incorrect?” Matilda asked.

 

“She... She... My uncle will not allow this to go unpunished!”

 

“Did you, or did you not, brush your breasts up against Noah’s arm not five minutes ago?”

 

“You brought a person of easy virtue into this house?” Mrs. Douglas asked, shocked.

 

“I am a gentlewoman!” Lydia yelled.

 

“So am I,” Mrs. Douglas responded dryly. “Yet you do not see me brushing my bits up against young men to try and get what I want.”

 

“Mrs. Douglas, as Miss Lydia has already demonstrated, the entire family is worried her behaviour, if left unchecked, will ruin them. Tell her about yourself, please.”

 

“Miss Lydia, as I said, I am a gentlewoman. In fact, I am the niece of a Baron.”

 

Matilda saw Lydia trying to process this information. “She needs to know how you became a housekeeper.”

 

“I see your reason for bringing her here now,” Mrs. Douglas sighed.

 

“Your history did not occur to me until we were almost here,” Matilda admitted. “Our first thought was to get her as far away and isolated from society as possible.”

 

“I was once like you, Miss Lydia. Bold, fearless, and certain I had the world in my hands.”

 

“What happened? Did your father lose his estate? Uncle would never allow Papa to lose Longbourn,” Lydia said confidently.

 

“When I was sixteen, I was visiting my uncle’s townhouse in London. I was not old enough to have a season but I was to attend a few smaller family parties with my aunt and uncle. At one of the parties, I met a dashing young man in uniform who was in the unit of a distant relative. He turned on the charm, but I now know he thought I was the Baron’s daughter. You see, I was standing next to my cousin when he asked where to find the Baron’s daughter. I was so naïve,” she said while shaking her head, “I had no idea I kept meeting him by design and thought he looked so handsome in his uniform.”

 

After a short pause, Matilda encouraged her to continue.

 

“He convinced me to elope with him.”

 

“But, I do not understand. How did he not know you were the Baron’s niece? Why are you a housekeeper if you are married?” Lydia asked, confused. “Did he die in battle?”

 

“I was not out yet, so our interactions were few and for the most part well chaperoned. He thought he knew who I was and never asked about my family,” Mrs. Douglas said with a sad look on her face. “As far as I know, he is very much alive. When he went to my uncle demanding his daughter’s dowry, he found out I was the daughter of his wife’s sister with £500. To say he was displeased would be an understatement. You do realize, do you not, that when you marry, you become your husband’s property? He can do whatever he wants to you, short of murder, and the law will do nothing to him?”

 

“Gentlemen are honourable, especially if they wear a uniform,” Lydia dismissed the warning carelessly.

 

“Impudent child!” Mrs. Douglas seethed. “Would you like to see the scars I have on my body?”

 

“Miss Lydia,” Matilda broke in, “Mrs. Douglas was not treated kindly by her husband. He had planned to marry the wealthy daughter of a Baron and failed. He took his rage out on her. Do you understand what we are trying to tell you?”

 

“He hit you?” Lydia asked quietly.

 

“That is like saying it snows a little bit in Scotland,” Mrs. Douglas said. “Yes, he hit me. Repeatedly. He refused to call for the apothecary because it was too expensive.”

 

“You got away and have a good position,” Lydia stated. “Everything turned out fine in the end, did it not?”

 

“Miss Lydia, all did not turn out well. Would you like to live the life of a servant? I did not get the courage to escape until we had been married for a year. The first time I tried, he found me in less than an hour and almost killed me. When I healed enough to get out of bed, I tried again. Thankfully, that time I planned things better. I waited twenty minutes after he left for duty, packed what possessions I could carry, and walked out of the rooms we rented. I had managed to save up enough for a ticket on the post carriage to London but my husband had warned the postmaster I might try to abandon him and asked to be notified immediately. I panicked and started walking down the road. Thankfully, I tripped as your aunt’s carriage was passing by and the driver stopped to make sure I was alright. When she saw my face, your aunt immediately put her cloak around me and had a footman help me into the carriage.”

 

Matilda took up the tale, “Your uncle was handling a tenant dispute and asked me to accompany your aunt on her visit to a friend’s estate. We had Mrs. Douglas lay on the floor of the carriage, under some blankets, and made a show of driving through the village, slowly, while loudly discussing whether or not to shop. We even browsed one of the stores, supposedly looking for a particular brand of coffee, before continuing to your uncle’s estate. The driver pushed the team through the night and we made it home just before dawn the next day. We were able to get Mrs. Douglas into my room without anyone seeing her.”

 

“They saved my life,” Mrs. Douglas said simply.

 

Matilda could tell Lydia had no idea how to respond to what they divulged. “I believe she needs time to reflect on all that she has heard, Mrs. Douglas. Miss Lydia, I was serious when I told you we are not guests. I realize we gave you quite a shock so we will have the maids prepare a bath for you tonight, but, starting tomorrow, you will handle all of your own needs. You will dress yourself, do your hair, empty your chamber pot, haul your bath water, and have daily duties assigned to you. If I am not mistaken, you normally do inventory just after the new year?” she asked Mrs. Douglas.

 

“Yes, the family always spends the holidays at their main estate and the mistress feels it is a good way to start the year off right.”

 

“Miss Lydia and I will be happy to assist in any way. She thinks she is ready to marry but has no idea what being the mistress of an estate entails. She will also be taking lessons from you on household matters. Consider her in training to be an under housekeeper.”

 

“Very well, I have a few ideas myself. I will have a tray sent to Miss Lydia’s room tonight. Tomorrow, she will have to eat in the servant’s hall or prepare her own food.”

 

“I like the way you think, Mrs. Douglas. I knew coming here would be the perfect solution.”

~*~

Lochdale, Inverness
Sunday, December 16, 1810

 

“When I send the mistress an express tomorrow letting her know we arrived, I am going to demand a raise,” Matilda Tucker told the housekeeper. “I will go wake the child up, please see that a plate is ready for her. I cannot believe after all the trouble you went through to prepare something for her last night, it was sent back untouched.”

 

“In all fairness, after her bath, she cried herself to sleep before I arrived with the tray,” Mrs. Douglas said. “Those dresses are for her.”

 

Privately, Matilda was encouraged by the progress she seen in Lydia since arriving at Lochdale the previous evening. She had envisioned a battle over the coming months, but Lydia seemed to take Mrs. Douglas’ story to heart.

 

She entered Lydia’s room and was surprised to see her on her side, curled into a ball, clutching a battered looking doll, with evidence of her tears clearly visible. “Miss Lydia, it is time for you to wake up. Mrs. Douglas gave me a few dresses that should fit you. The rest of the servants have already broken their fast and been working for almost an hour. Mrs. Douglas saved a plate of food for you. I will stay as you get dressed and help do your hair today. After you break your fast, we will meet with Mrs. Douglas.”

 

She was not disappointed at the look on Lydia’s face.

 

“I will not wear those! I brought dresses.”

 

“Did you forget, Miss Lydia? If you want to wear the dresses you brought, feel free. All you will do is ruin them and inform the servants of your true standing. If you thought Mrs. Douglas’ guess was insulting last night, just wait until the servants start gossiping. Hurry up now.”

 

Matilda had to prod Lydia a few times to finish, but faster than she anticipated, they entered the kitchens. She was not surprised when Lydia quickly finished what was on the plate and asked for more.

 

“Now that you are done, we will talk in Mrs. Douglas’ office,” she said while standing up. “Servants do not have the liberty of asking for seconds.”

 

“Before I can determine what Miss Lydia will be responsible for, I must get an idea of her knowledge. Can you read?” Mrs. Douglas asked from behind her desk.

 

“Of course, I can,” Lydia responded belligerently.

 

“Miss Lydia,” she warned. “Watch your attitude. If you were a servant, you would most likely be disciplined.”

 

“I would have fired her,” Mrs. Douglas confirmed. “You will have to learn your place here. Do you know your sums?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Have you ever seen a household budget?”

 

“No, Mrs. Hill does that,” Lydia responded dismissively.

 

“No, Miss Lydia,” Matilda broke in, “she does not. Your mother handled the household budget until Miss Bennet was old enough to learn. They are now assigned to your sister, Miss Mary, however Mrs. Bennet spoke of teaching Miss Catherine after the new year.”

 

“I did not know that,” Lydia said.

 

“Have you helped with the dinner menus?” Mrs. Douglas asked.

 

“No, Mrs. Hill...” Lydia stopped and turned to her. “Does Mary do the menus too?”

 

“Yes, Miss Lydia, she does under your mother’s direction,” she confirmed. “Your mother has taught your sisters confidence in household matters by letting them feel the task is their responsibility, but ultimately it is your mother’s and she takes it seriously.”

 

Mrs. Douglas looked thoughtful before nodding to herself.

 

“Mrs. Tucker, I would like your permission to inform one of the maids of Miss Lydia’s true status. Lara has a story of her own and I feel she can be trusted to keep yours and will not judge,” Mrs. Douglas asked her.

 

“I would like to meet her first,” Matilda answered.

 

“I would expect nothing less. We will need help because it would raise too many questions why I would train an under housekeeper who did not even know the basics of being a maid.”

 

“I understand,” she said. “I will take Miss Lydia on a tour of the house while you arrange a meeting.”

 

“One last thing,” Mrs. Douglas said. “She will no longer be referred to as Miss Lydia on this estate. From this moment on, she will be introduced as Lydia.”

 

Matilda was momentarily silenced. “Thank you, Mrs. Douglas. That had not crossed my mind.”

~*~

Pemberley, Derbyshire
Sunday, December 16, 1810

 

Reginald Hurst and the Pemberley party were in the drawing room chatting, passing the time until Mrs. Annesley arrived for tea.

 

“I received a letter from Bingley today,” Darcy announced.

 

“On Sunday?” the Colonel asked.

 

“Let me guess, it was misdirected due to the blots?”

 

“Yes, Hurst, it took longer to arrive than normal. I was told the servant who brought it to the postmaster in London mentioned it was intended for Derbyshire, otherwise I do not believe it would have ever arrived.”

 

“William, how did they know the letter was for you?” Miss Darcy asked.

 

“That was a stroke of luck, Georgie. The letter did arrive in Derbyshire based on the initial information and one of the postmasters in the county was able to make out enough to guess it was for a Darcy at Pemberley. It was delivered to our vicar yesterday and he pulled me aside after services today to confirm it was mine.”

 

“But brother, if the writing was so bad, how were you able to read the contents?”

 

“Georgie, I have had a lot of practice deciphering Bingley’s handwriting and the outside was in worse condition than inside. I must have been raining when it was delivered to the postmaster in London.”

 

“What did my brother have to say? Was it sent before or after they were made to leave my townhouse?” Hurst asked.

 

“It appears as though it was written the day after. He said they went directly to a hotel and arranged rooms, then Bingley found a rental agent,” Darcy answered.

 

“You mean he had not already contacted one?” he asked, surprised.

 

“That does not surprise me, Hurst,” the Colonel said. “Bingley seems like an impulsive man. He would have waited until the last day to start looking. I expected you to receive an express on the day they were to be out begging for a few extra days to complete the rental paperwork.”

 

“Yes, well, the next day the rental agent brought Bingley to see three townhouses and he signed a year-long lease on one of them,” Darcy explained.

 

“When do they move?” Miss Darcy asked.

 

“They took possession immediately, Georgie. Bingley wrote to give me his new directions. He also asked if the siblings may visit Pemberley.”

 

“If you say yes, I will take Georgie and go to Matlock,” Richard stated definitively.

 

“Oh, thank you, Richard. I am sorry, William, but I do not want to be in Miss Bingley’s presence.”

 

“Darcy, what are your thoughts?” he asked.

 

“Do not worry, Hurst. I have no intentions of inviting them here,” Darcy said emphatically.

 

“Brother, I know you abhor deceit, but in this case...”

 

“Georgie is right, Darcy. You could tell him that I have been granted leave for a month and you planned to visit with me at Matlock.”

 

“Fantastic, Colonel. It is entirely factual and even my brother would not dare show up at the house of an Earl without an invitation, regardless of his sister’s insistence. Darcy?” Hurst saw Darcy start at the reminder of the Bingley’s past behaviour.

 

“I agree, Hurst. If I ignore his request, either Bingley will take my silence as acceptance or Miss Bingley will demand they travel here and he will agree immediately.”

 

“Darcy, I know you might not like this, but with Alfie on his way to Surrey, you need to go one step further. My father sent a note asking your opinion on an estate matter, correct?”

 

“Yes, he did, Richard. There was some question regarding the stability of a tenant’s roof and whether or not it should be replaced before winter sets in with a vengeance.”

 

“Would it not be better to view the roof before answering?” Richard asked with narrowed eyes.

 

“Yes, I suppose that is true. Why?”

 

“If it were me, I would take a trip to Matlock, view the tenant’s roof, give my father a sound opinion based on your observations, send an express to Bingley, and return to Pemberley the next day,” the Colonel said with a grin.

 

“I do believe you are onto something, Colonel. Darcy could address his response from Matlock and your father might be prevailed upon to offer one of his staff to deliver the express because Darcy’s messenger is occupied. The letter was misdirected after all, and Bingley deserves a prompt response,” Hurst said with a delighted look in his eye.

 

“It would help your case if the letter was delivered by someone wearing Matlock livery,” the Colonel supported.

 

Miss Darcy giggled and added, “I agree, William. I know it will not feel entirely right to you, but I believe it is the best solution. Think of Mr. Hurst. You offered him five quiet months to mourn his loss and he has stated he is not comfortable living in the same house as Miss Bingley. And, you invited his aunt here for the same reason. Richard and I will go so you can mention the family party is away.”

 

Hurst saw Darcy nod his head.

 

“We will have to make sure we are back by dinner on Friday in case Hurst’s aunt accepts our invitation,” Darcy decided.

 

“So much for rarely travelling further than Lambton after it snows,” Hurst said with a grin. “You should have Hodges drive you so Wiggins may stay here with Reggie.” He noticed everyone was grinning at him and defended his statement, “Sally is still recovering from her ordeal. New families should spend time together to create a bond, sort of like a honeymoon. Do you disagree?”

 

“No, that is a good idea, Hurst,” Darcy agreed with a smirk. “Bingley’s letter also mentioned the happenings in town, that is why he asked to visit.”

 

With a grateful smile, Hurst asked, “How so?”

 

“People are refusing to acknowledge the siblings. They are being shunned every time they are in public.”

 

“Brother, they are supposed to be mourning,” Miss Darcy stated, her surprise clear. “Why are they out in society?”

 

“To be sure, there is a great amount of guesswork involved in deciphering Bingley’s handwriting, but it appears as though there were issues when they were picking up their mourning clothes. Miss Bingley was unhappy with the quality of the work and the modiste would not listen to her complaints. Madam went so far as to tell Miss Bingley to find another establishment as she was unwilling to handle future orders. Bingley was essentially told the same thing by his tailor.”

 

“There is more, is there not?” the Colonel asked.

 

“Yes, Bingley said their acquaintances refused to acknowledge their presence when they were in the two shops. They were not given the cut direct by anyone, but it is clear the rumours have turned the town against the siblings. Bingley mentioned they planned to shop for furnishings within the next few days.”

 

“With the lease of a new townhouse, shopping for household items is an acceptable outing while in mourning,” Hurst agreed. “Right now, they appear to be receiving indirect cuts, but unless a major scandal breaks out, I fear they are in for tougher times. Looking back, I realize it started before we left. Most of the condolence callers asked for me and only addressed the siblings when they had to.”

 

“Darcy, I wonder how much of this is our fault,” the Colonel said.

 

“Richard, how could any of it be your fault?” Miss Darcy asked.

 

“I believe he is right, Georgie,” Darcy said. “When we dined at Matlock House before we left London, during the separation after dinner Richard and I told Uncle Michael what actually happened, he had only heard rumours and wanted details. He could tell how upset I was with the reaction of both Bingley’s and was scarcely less upset himself.”

 

“You should have heard father’s response when I told him Bingley implied Darcy was expected to ask for Miss Bingley’s hand,” the Colonel said with a wicked grin.

 

“Georgie, you remember Uncle Michael asked you to play for us?” Darcy asked his sister after scowling at the Colonel. “He asked us to tell Aunt Olivia the story and she was appalled. I told them we had invited Hurst to stay with us and they agreed to keep the information to themselves. Uncle Michael suggested that Aunt Olivia make our displeasure of the Bingley’s known to the ladies and he would handle the men.”

 

Hurst could not help himself, he started laughing. The looks on the faces of everyone made it worse, until tears were streaming down his face.

 

Once he got control of himself he said, “I apologize. The irony of the situation suddenly hit me and I could not contain my mirth. Miss Bingley is not very subtle so I imagine I am not telling you anything too shocking. Obviously, the intent of her visit was to strengthen her friendship with Miss Darcy with the hopes of getting Darcy’s attention. It would also not hurt their standing in society to see them admitted into your townhouse.”

 

“Subtleness is not her forte,” the Colonel agreed. “I agree with both counts.”

 

“Now this is pure conjecture, but I think she was also going to drop hints that her brother admires Miss Darcy, after all, one marriage may lead to another. The ironic consequence of the call is that instead of raising their status in society and forwarding two marriages, they are being ostracized from the group of people she had hoped to join.”

 

“How certain are you Miss Bingley is trying to match Georgie with Bingley?” the Colonel asked with a dangerous look in his eye.

 

Hurst saw Darcy move to comfort his clearly distraught sister before answering, “As I said, it is a conjecture.”

 

“Based on what?” the Colonel demanded.

 

He took a moment to think back, “Based on previous conversations that, when added together, appear to be more than what they seemed at the time.”

 

“Brother, I do not want to marry Mr. Bingley,” Miss Darcy sniffled.

 

“You will not have to, Little Star,” Darcy said gently to his clearly distraught sister.

 

“Details, Hurst!” the Colonel demanded.

 

“I do not know if I can give you specific details, Colonel, as I said, it was my impression.”

 

“Do you recall what they said that was most concerning?” Darcy asked, with his arm still around Miss Darcy’s shoulders.

 

“Miss Bingley brings Miss Darcy up all the time. She never fails to mention how accomplished she is and states what a good wife she will make,” he said then paused to think. “The most overt thing I heard was this past season. Bingley met an ‘angel’ and Miss Bingley did everything she could think of to separate them and finally ordered him to drop the acquaintance. She told him if he liked fair haired beauties, he needed to wait four or five years for one with a large dowry. She guaranteed he would be able to marry into the first circles, like her.”

 

“That concerns me too, Hurst,” the Colonel agreed. “Darcy, I know we are headed there within a few days, but I am going to send an express to my parents tomorrow. I am tempted to send one today even though it is Sunday. Mother needs to address this discreetly in case Miss Bingley dropped hints to anyone else. I will also send letters to a few friends stationed in London. They will start a campaign to counter any gossip.”

 

Hurst saw Darcy looking uncomfortable. “Darcy, it needs to be done. If Bingley noticed they are not being acknowledged, it must be really bad. Do you think Miss Bingley will stop at anything to keep whatever standing she has deluded herself into believing she has in society?”

 

“Brother, I had hoped I would not have to return to school so I packed as many of my belongings as I could fit in my trunks. We need to send someone from Darcy House to clean out my quarters. I will write my friends informing them I will not be returning and explain what happened at our townhouse. I will also mention that my cousin heard a rumour was apparently being spread about me in London, someone falsely claiming I had intentions toward a friend of my brother’s.”

 

“Good idea, Georgie,” the Colonel said. “Darcy, have you ever told Bingley you will never marry his sister?”

 

“Of course not, Richard. That would be highly improper.”

 

“In what way? You and Bingley are good friends, are you not? Has he ever mentioned you marrying Miss Bingley?” the Colonel asked.

 

Hurst saw Darcy thinking and interjected, “I have heard Bingley make comments while in Darcy’s presence. Bingley frequently says how well Darcy and Miss Bingley look standing next to each other and what great partners they made while dancing. Put together with Bingley’s comments at Darcy’s townhouse, I now believe he was hinting at a match.”

 

Darcy shook his head sadly before responding, “Hurst is correct. There were things that seemed harmless at the time. I propose we retire to the library after dinner and start writing letters. Be careful what you say, I do not want to vilify the Bingley’s based on our assumptions.”

 

“Agreed, Darcy. We can discuss how best to accomplish our goals as a group,” the Colonel stated.

 

“Mrs. Annesley,” Mr. Reynolds announced.

 

“Thank you for agreeing to take tea with us today, Mrs. Annesley,” Miss Darcy greeted their guest.

 

“Welcome, Mrs. Annesley. It is a beautiful day, I appreciate your desire to walk to Pemberley after services. My carriage is ready to take you to Lambton when we are done,” Darcy confirmed.

 

As the only person not previously known to Mrs. Annesley, Darcy introduced Hurst while Miss Darcy poured tea. They discussed the weather briefly before Darcy opened the real conversation they wished to have.

 

“Mrs. Annesley, I was glad to hear you agreed to help your sister-in-law through her confinement. Is the child well?”

 

“Yes, Mr. Darcy, I have a new nephew and my sister is almost back to her previous self,” Mrs. Annesley answered.

 

“Oh, I adore holding new babies,” Miss Darcy said. “Do you plan to stay with your brother and continue caring for your nephew?”

 

“I am unsure what my future holds, Miss Darcy. My brother does not have a lot of space in the apartment above their shop.”

 

“Have you given it any thought?” Darcy asked.

 

Hurst saw Mrs. Annesley’s eyes narrow slightly and her take in Miss Darcy’s eager expression.

 

“Mr. Darcy, we have known each other for a number of years. Please, be direct with me. It appears as though you have a reason for inviting me to tea, other than social niceties,” Mrs. Annesley stated firmly, while still being appropriately deferential to her late husband’s employer.

 

Darcy chucked before responding. “Well said, Mrs. Annesley. I will be direct if you promise not to be offended.”

 

Hurst saw her look at Miss Darcy again before agreeing.

 

“Have you given any consideration to seeking employment?” Darcy asked.

 

“To be honest, I was hoping you asked me here for that reason,” Mrs. Annesley answered, with tears glistening in her eyes. “As much as I adore my younger brother and his family, I do not want to be a burden on them, sir.”

 

“Oh, brother, I am so happy.”

 

“Georgiana, do not get ahead of yourself, my dear. I have yet to ask,” Darcy gently admonished his sister. “Mrs. Annesley, Miss Darcy has convinced me and Colonel Fitzwilliam that she no longer needs to attend school. Would you be interested in becoming my sister’s temporary companion?”

 

“Temporary only, sir?”

 

“I have asked my solicitor to start a search in London.”

 

“Darcy, hold on a moment. Mrs. Annesley has been known to you for many years, correct?” the Colonel asked.

 

“Yes, Richard.”

 

“Do you trust her?”

 

“Completely.”

 

The Colonel nodded. “Mrs. Annesley, are you looking for a permanent position?”

 

“Yes, Colonel, I refuse to be a burden to my family. And before you ask, I trust the Darcy family with my safety. I would be honoured to be Miss Darcy’s companion and ask you to cancel the search in London. I apologize if that is too bold a statement.”

 

“Not at all, Mrs. Annesley,” the Colonel responded. “Georgie, do you have any reservations about offering her the position permanently?”

 

“No, Richard. My only concern would be that she is still in mourning, but by the time we leave Pemberley, she will be in half mourning,” Miss Darcy said.

 

“You are also in mourning, Mr. Hurst?” Mrs. Annesley asked.

 

“Yes, until the end of May,” he responded.

 

“This will be a quiet household for the next few months, Mrs. Annesley. With Georgie not returning to school, Hurst in residence, and my unmarried state, we need a companion to retain respectability,” Darcy explained.

 

“I understand, sir. Pemberley is a large and prosperous estate. Do not take this to heart, but through no fault of your own there is animosity from some of the wives of men with lesser estates. In my opinion, there are one or two of them who would delight in causing you trouble.”

 

“I have found that is true no matter where you are,” the Colonel agreed. “I saw it happen on the continent frequently.”

 

“Truly? Is there anything I can do to change the situation?” Darcy asked.

 

“No, sir. The people I am speaking of, feel they should have been, or their daughters should become, Mistress of Pemberley,” Mrs. Annesley said gently.

 

“Ah, I see. Thank you for the explanation,” Darcy said. “My sister, cousin, and I will be traveling to Matlock to assist my uncle with a tenant issue, Hurst will be staying here. When I decided to start a search for a companion in London, we invited Hurst’s aunt, who is also in mourning, to visit. If she agrees, and there are no delays in travelling, she should arrive on Friday. Would it be an imposition to have the Dowager Viscountess here too? We thought she could start preparing Georgie for her coming out.”

 

“Not at all, sir. While I am a gentleman’s daughter, I did not have a season in town. Having a Dowager Viscountess here would ease my mind. I daresay nobody would venture to insinuate anything improper is happening at Pemberley with her in residence too.”

 

“Mrs. Annesley, you are a gentleman’s daughter?” he asked.

 

“Yes, Mr. Hurst. I imagine you are wondering why I have not returned to the estate I grew up on? My father was a gamester, sir, and was killed during a dispute over a card game. My elder brother inherited and found the estate was deeply in debt. Rather than sell, my brother has leased the estate and took a position in London. He will hopefully be able to take possession again after the current lease ends.”

 

“Admirable,” the Colonel said. “I have known people who were in his situation. Most of them sold the estate and either bought a commission or a ticket to the Americas rather than undertake the work involved in turning their situation around.”

 

“My brothers are dedicated to restoring the estate, Colonel. My younger brother was to have a commission purchased out of our mother’s dowry, which my father could not touch. He took just enough to open his shop in Lambton and allowed our elder brother to use the rest to repair some tenant houses. Our aunt has a small townhouse in London. She let my elder brother stay with her and refused his offer to pay rent. He took work as a clerk and saved or invested every penny for seven years. He made some profitable decisions in the past two years and recently paid off the last of our father’s debts and the balance of our younger brother’s building loan. The lease on the family estate was renewed last month, and my brother made sure the tenants knew it would not happen again.”

 

“It was smart of him to sign another lease and kind to give the tenants one year’s notice. He will be able to save for a year and the tenants will be able to look for a new situation without urgency. Shall we go to my study to discuss when you will start your duties and what your pay will be?” Darcy asked.

 

“Of course, sir. If I may be so bold, I would like to start immediately.”

 

“Immediately?” Darcy asked with a skeptical look.

 

“Not truly immediately, I would need to return to my brothers shop and pack my clothes. My brother and I have discussed me finding a position so he will not be shocked. Also, I feel a conversation with the Viscountess would be prudent, especially before deciding what my duties to Miss Darcy will be,” Mrs. Annesley explained with slight smirk.

 

“Ha!” he said, while slapping his knee. “Well said. I think we have another lady to invite to our discussions, gentlemen.”

 

“Poor Darcy,” the Colonel grinned. “When I return to my duties, you two will be outnumbered by the ladies. At least Hurst is used to living with a strong-willed woman.”

 

“Yes, and it drove me to the drink,” Hurst grinned.

 

“Do not worry, Richard. We will not be too hard on my brother and Mr. Hurst,” Miss Darcy smirked.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

 

Dower House, Surrey
Monday, December 17, 1810

 

Phoebe Dobbs was enjoying a mid-day meal whilst thinking about how her life had changed since her beloved husband James passed away from palsy a fortnight ago. James never tried to hide the fact that he was of a weaker constitution. His condition had deteriorated rapidly. The physician said he would be dead before two months were out, but her dearest James had survived another five.

 

They were both overjoyed when their sons, Alfred and Harold, were born healthy. Her eldest son, Alfred, while physically stronger than her husband, had little of his father’s character. That wife of his, Cynthia, was flouting propriety by accepting morning calls while the family was in deep mourning. Alfred refused to order his wife to strict mourning protocols, even allowing her to wear half mourning colours immediately claiming they had been working through their grief for five months already. The new Viscountess Dobbs was eager to take her place as mistress of the leading estate in the area.

 

“My Lady, a personal messenger has arrived,” her butler said.

 

“Where is the letter?”

 

“He refuses to give it to me. It is most irregular, but he insists he has instructions to place it directly in your hands.”

 

“Show him in,” Phoebe ordered. She was surprised to see a young man, barely old enough to be called such, dressed more finely than some gentlemen. “Well, young man. You have my attention.”

 

“My name is Alfred Reynolds, Alfie,” the young man introduced himself while bowing. “I apologize for interrupting your refreshments, however my master was quite adamant I deliver this letter directly into your hands.”

 

“It is nice to meet you, Alfred. That is the name of my eldest son,” she said with a smile. “I am the Dowager Viscountess Dobbs. I do not believe I have ever seen you before and you are not wearing livery. Who is your master and why is he writing to someone he has not been introduced to?”

 

“Ah, but my master did not write the letter, Lady Dobbs, that distinction is to be given to your nephew, Mr. Hurst,” Alfie responded with a grin.

 

“Distinction? My goodness, you are well educated for a servant,” she stated, surprised.

 

“My master takes prodigiously good care of everyone on his estate. My family has worked for his for generations. He noticed my aptitude for learning and offered to sponsor me at university. When I declined, he gave me a position as his messenger because I enjoy travelling.”

 

“A word with four syllables? That brings us back to my previous question, rather quickly. Who is your master?”

 

“I have very clear instructions, my Lady. I am to deliver this letter to you and wait for a response,” Alfie said before handing her a letter.

 

Phoebe was uncertain why her nephew was being so secretive, but decided to read his letter.

 

Aunt Phoebe,

I do believe you are quite put out with me right now. Who is this lad to demand an audience with you? Why, he would not even tell you his master’s name!

In all seriousness, I was surprised and concerned when I read your recent letter. I never would have thought Alfred so uncaring that he would allow his wife to disregard mourning for his father.

My last letter informed you that I was staying at a friend’s estate for my mourning. His sister, more than twelve years his junior, has been granted permission to end her schooling and stay at their estate. I imagine your brow is furrowed wondering if there is proper chaperonage with me in residence.

I have a proposal that will benefit all of us. I was given a guest room in an out of the way part of the house. I learn estate matters from my friend in the morning, we exercise after tea, and most nights I take a tray in my room for dinner. My suite is very quiet and our schedule allows me time to read and think about my life. The biggest advantage is how soothing it is. Just being here has allowed me to work through a lot of my grief and guilt.

Would you like to join us? If you agree, my friend will assign you rooms next to mine. Alfie arrived in a carriage and will escort you to my friend’s townhouse in London tomorrow and then to the estate. You will be able to properly mourn without battling Cousin Cynthia’s need to flaunt her new position to the local society and it will give us a proper chaperone.

Also, my friend’s sister is quiet and lacked feminine companionship while growing up. I know how much you wanted a daughter, which I believe is part of the reason you dote on Grace so much. If you get on well, would you like the opportunity to guide a motherless young lady through her come out? Do I ask too much? I rather think it would be a dream come true.

Unfortunately, I know my cousin’s wife too well. I apologize for being so vague, but if Cousin Cynthia were to figure out where I was staying, she would have no scruples in spreading gossip which would ultimately get back to my in-laws, who seem to think I am obligated to continue housing them.

Say you will come, even if it is just for the rest of your mourning. I am worried for you.

Reginald Hurst

PS

Please arrange accommodations for Alfie and the carriage driver. I told my friend you would be happy to see to their care overnight even if you decline the invitation.

 

“Well, young man, it would seem as though your master is well known in the first circles,” Phoebe said. “Oh, come now, do not look so surprised. My nephew is being too careful, is afraid my daughter-in-law will spread gossip, and is being housed in a remote area of the house? If I agree, you will escort me to my nephew?”

 

“Yes, my Lady.”

 

“When would I know the name of my host?” Phoebe asked.

 

“Should you accept, I have an invitation for you from my master.”

 

“Your master has a townhouse in London, an estate, and a much younger sister who will not be returning to school?”

 

“Yes, she was very excited when her brother agreed she could stay home.”

 

Phoebe looked at the young man carefully. “You seem to know her well.”

 

“That is correct, my Lady. I took lessons with the miss and my aunt. Mr... my master’s family feels it is very important their personal servants are well educated. There is no younger brother for me to become valet to, but he still encouraged me to join the ladies in the hopes I would become one of his footmen or perhaps the butler after my grandfather.”

 

“In the meantime, I am sure it eases his mind to have a trusted individual delivering his important messages. You took lessons with the daughter of the house and your aunt? Was your aunt the governess?”

 

“No, my Lady. My father is the eldest child and my aunt is the youngest. Grandmother says that Aunt Maggie was a surprise, I was born two years later. We grew up more like cousins along with the young miss, but she is my aunt.”

 

“Very well. Tell me about your master’s estate. Why does my nephew feel it is soothing?” As she listened to Alfie describe his home, she came to a decision. “All right, young man, I accept my nephew’s proposal.”

 

Phoebe read the invitation and burst into unladylike giggles. “Well, this certainly explains a few things.”

 

“The master arranged for us to stay in his London townhouse overnight. Will you be able to leave tomorrow morning?” Alfie asked. “If we depart early enough, you should have time to do some shopping in London.”

 

“I am an early riser young man and I would like to visit the shops before leaving for the north. Shall we plan to leave at dawn?”

 

“I will prepare everything for our departure,” Alfie said.

 

“I was invited to dine at the main house tonight. I will ask my maid to start packing my trunks right now. Would you like to load them onto the carriage tonight or in the morning?”

 

“It would be best to load them tonight,” Alfie answered.

~*~

Dower House, Surrey
Tuesday, December 18, 1810

 

Phoebe Dobbs slid her gloves onto her hands and addressed her maid. “Lucy, are you ready to begin our adventure?”

 

“Yes, my Lady. I am looking forward to finding out what our destination is.”

 

“We will talk in the carriage,” Phoebe responded thinking about dinner the previous evening. Her son was not happy with her decision to travel. Alfred had argued with her all throughout dinner and continued in the drawing room. Cynthia was oddly quiet, the only question she asked was whose estate she would be visiting.

 

When Phoebe refused to name the estate or the family she would be a guest of, Alfred started another round of complaints. When his voice started rising, she called for her carriage and left. He knew to send letters to his cousin’s townhouse. Other than that courtesy, she was a widow and dependent on no one.

 

Phoebe nodded to her butler to open the door, stepped outside, and saw her son dismount near the waiting carriage. It was unlike Alfred to be awake this early, she knew nothing good would come of this visit. With a sigh, she started walking towards him.

 

“You there, boy,” Alfred all but snarled at Alfie, “Where is my mother?”

 

“Lady Dobbs will be joining us shortly, my Lord,” Alfie responded respectfully with a bow.

 

“Where are you taking my mother? This carriage appears to be well made, but it has no crest. Who is your master? How dare he invite someone far above him in consequence to visit his estate. Does he plan to seduce and marry my mother? I warn you now, I will cut her off entirely!”

 

Phoebe was so shocked at the behavior of her son, she came to a complete stop.

 

“You do your mother an immense disservice!” Alfie said. “My master is the best of men. He would never prey on a widow. I have been sent for Lady Dobbs’ protection and I take my task seriously. I did not imagine I would have to protect her from her own relations. You will leave, now.”

 

“How dare you,” Alfred said. “Do you know who I am? One note from me, and you will be hung for kidnapping a gentlewoman.”

 

“Alfred!” she admonished loudly. She was momentarily amused by the look on Alfie’s face, he must have thought she was addressing him. “We went over this last night. I am not beholden to you! I do not answer to you and you have no ability to cut me off from anything.”

 

“I forbid it mother! You will not leave!”

 

“Forbid?” she said quietly. “The arrogance of that statement is unparalleled. Let me be rightly understood, I am going to visit your cousin and there is not a single thing you can do to stop me. Just try and interfere,” she said dangerously. “Alfie, we need to stop in the village and send a few expresses. The area magistrate and my solicitor need to know I have accepted an invitation from my nephew and am leaving with you voluntarily.”

 

“As you wish, my Lady,” Alfie said while bowing. “Are you ready to depart?”

 

“In a moment,” she said before turning to her now silent son. “You went too far, Alfred. To threaten this young man with death?”

 

“Mother, I am trying to protect you. It is easy for dishonourable men to prey on recent widows. They offer them the world and leave them penniless.”

 

“That is all you care about, is it not? Money?” she spat. “Lucy, go instruct the housekeeper to pack my belongings and send them to my townhouse,” she ordered. “Alfred, I will not be returning to the dower house.”

 

“You have nowhere else to go, I will not allow you to reside in my townhouse. Do you think Cousin Reginald will take you in? He may be willing to now, but he needs an heir and I doubt a new wife will want his aunt draining their estate’s resources,” Alfred responded spitefully.

 

“You assume too much,” she said. “Apparently, you are unaware that the townhouse belongs to me. I inherited it from my maternal grandmother, it is not part of the Dobbs holdings.”

 

“You are wrong, mother. Father’s will left all of the properties to me.”

 

“Believe what you want, but I suggest you read my marriage settlement,” she said. “My will is already written, but your actions today have made it clear I was correct in my decision. Your brother Harold is my heir. He will inherit my townhouse, dowry, and marriage settlement. It is past time he is made aware.”

 

“You cannot do this! The townhouse is mine.”

 

“No, it is not. A letter will be waiting for your brother as soon as his ship lands in England. Alfie, we may need to delay our trip by a day.”

 

“Of course, my lady. My master’s townhouse is at your disposal. Are you ready to leave?”

 

“Yes, Lucy is back from her task. The village is but two miles away. The butcher’s son is usually willing to make deliveries to the magistrate and we should be able to find an express rider going to town.”

 

Phoebe and Lucy were handed into the carriage by Alfie, and they left without a backward glance at her son.

 

“My Lady, I do not think your son will let the matter go, I am afraid he will send someone to follow us. We should have the express rider stop at the Darcy and Hurst townhouses before your solicitor. When we arrive in town, we will complete your shopping first and one of the other carriages will take us to the townhouse when you are done.”

 

“Very well. I would not have thought to warn Reginald’s staff. Of course, that will be the first place Alfred goes.”

 

“Do not worry, my Lady. The housekeeper and butler are the only people who know where your nephew is. They are both loyal to him.”

~*~

Darcy Townhouse, London
Tuesday, December 18, 1810

 

Phoebe Dobbs was enjoying a glass of sherry after dinner while thinking about her day. Before the carriage had left her drive in Surrey, Alfie produced a traveling desk to write their notes before arriving in the village. Fortune shone on them when the butcher’s son was leaving for the magistrate’s estate with an order and happily delivered her note for a few coins and Alfie encountered an express rider he knew who was already on his way to London. With their notes safely and speedily on the way, within five minutes of entering the village, they continued to London.

 

Their first stop in London was her solicitor’s office where she was able to arrange her affairs in accordance with her wishes. Two letters were written, one to be delivered and one to sent to Portsmouth in the event Harold’s ship docked before the letter was delivered through the naval post system. Harold was twelve years old when he chose a career on water and was enrolled in The Royal Naval Academy. Eight years later, he was now a Lieutenant, thanks in small part to her husband’s political influence.

 

After her business was done, the travelling party stopped for tea and then spent the rest of the afternoon shopping. Phoebe had never spent a winter as far north as Derbyshire, but she had friends who lived in Lincolnshire and knew warmer clothes were needed because it was windier than London. Alfie mentioned there was a capable seamstress in the village near Pemberley, so she concentrated on ready-made items such as gloves, sleepwear, and coats.

 

After shopping, they stopped at Hatchard’s bookstore. Alfie escorted her through the store, out the backdoor, and into another carriage. With how quickly they left Surrey, he thought it unlikely her son was able to have them followed, but was cautious anyway.

 

She was debating whether or not to search out a book in the library when Mrs. Smythe entered the room.

 

“Pardon, my Lady. A message was just delivered from your nephew’s townhouse and I believe you will want to read it straight away. I have asked my nephew and your maid to join us,” the housekeeper said as Alfie and Lucy walked in.

 

She read the note and handed it to Alfie and Lucy to read. “It seems you have an idea already in mind, Mrs. Smythe. Please inform us.”

 

“All of the servants from Darcy House, including Alfie, could be recognized. I suggest we send Alfie and Lucy in the master’s new unmarked carriage. Alfie will wear a large hat and stop a few townhouses away. Lucy will walk to the servant’s quarters, without leaving Alfie’s sight, and demand they return her servant. Do not make too much of a fuss or you may be remembered.”

 

“That is well thought out. Lucy, do you have anything to add?”

 

“No, my Lady. I agree completely,” Lucy said.

 

“Well, be off and hurry back.”

~*~

Hurst Townhouse, London
Tuesday, December 18, 1810

 

Grace Hurst nervously approached the servant’s entrance of her brother’s townhouse. She knew he was not in residence, but hoped Nanny Sara would allow her sanctuary until he could respond to a letter. Before knocking, she made sure the hood of her cloak was covering as much of her face as possible and kept her head down.

 

“What do ya want?”

 

“The housekeeper, she be expecting me,” Grace answered, trying to sound like a servant.

 

“You are lucky I was talking to Cook. I have no appointments this late...”

 

Grace raised her head slightly and saw Nanny Sara’s eyes widen.

 

“Back to work, the lot of you, this is none of your concern. I remember now, the housekeeper down the street arranged a late meeting so as not to interfere with your duties. Come along to my office. Nora, ask my husband to join me.”

 

Grace followed Nanny Sara, grateful that she played along.

 

“Miss Grace! What could have possessed you to show up, announced, late at night, and without an escort! Are you out of your senses?”

 

“Oh, Nanny Sara, I...” Grace could not help bursting into tears. As the arms of the woman who was more of a mother than her own closed around her, she cried out all of the fears that had been running through her mind. As she started to get herself under control, she heard the door open and close and a gasp.

 

“Good evening, Mr. Mayes. I apologize for arriving unexpectedly,” she said quietly.

 

“Miss Hurst?”

 

“Yes, dear. I believe she was just about to tell me what happened,” Nanny Sara said sternly.

 

Grace explained being called into her father’s study and his announcement. “You know my father. He will force me to marry the earl. I am certain he has paid the vicar to marry us regardless of what happened just in case I refuse to say ‘I do.’ Clara was invited to join her aunt, Lady Sheldon, for a shopping trip in town and they extended it to me too. I asked father if I could go to Clara’s for a few days, neglecting to mention the trip to London. In the bustle of our arrival in town, I managed to hire a hackney cab and sneak away. I know it was a big risk, but I am asking my brother for sanctuary until my birthday next month.”

 

“Your brother is not in residence. Actually, nobody is living here right now, he finally made those Bingley’s leave.”

 

“My dear, are you forgetting? I believe the master and his friend would both agree this is an urgent situation. I will send a note to the butler at the townhouse,” Mr. Mayes broke in. “I will be right back.”

 

“What are you forgetting? What butler at what townhouse? Why are you being so mysterious?” she asked.

 

“Miss Grace, even though none of the family are here, we think the walls may still have ears. Your brother ordered us to never say his friend’s name here,” Nanny Sara said. “You are in luck, though. Your Aunt Phoebe is in town.”

 

“Aunt Phoebe? She is in mourning and dislikes town,” she said, confused. “She always says it is too loud with grasping, fake people.”

 

“You know your brother is at a friend’s estate for his mourning?”

 

“Yes, Nanny Sara, I received a letter last week. It was postmarked from London, but Reginald told me he was staying a few days outside of London. He wanted to make sure I did not worry if there was a long delay in his responses.”

 

“Your Aunt Phoebe will be joining your brother so they may mourn together, quietly, without your cousin’s wife. She is staying overnight in the townhouse of your brother’s friend and starting her journey tomorrow.”

 

“And you were told to never say his friend’s name out loud? That is singular,” she commented.

 

“Ah, husband, you are back. Did you send a note?”

 

“Yes, we should have an answer shortly,” Mr. Mayes answered.

 

“Miss Hurst, would you like a tray of food?”

 

“Yes, Nanny Sara, that would be wonderful. I am hungry,” Grace said. She could not believe how everything was working out. It almost seemed as if the good Lord had his hand in the circumstances.

 

“I will be back shortly. Did you bring your trunk?” Nanny Sara asked.

 

“Yes, I left it just inside the back gate hidden by a tree. I thought it would be odd if I showed up with a fine trunk when I was trying to pass myself off as a servant.”

 

“That was very smart, Miss Hurst,” Mr. Mayes said. “My dear, if you are going to get some food for her, you should be quick. I do not think it will take long for someone to collect Miss Hurst.”

 

“I will get you some bread and cheese. My husband will be standing outside the door until I return should you need anything.”

 

“Thank you, Nanny Sara,” she said gratefully. After the housekeeper returned with a plate of food, the two ladies caught up on each other’s lives while Grace ate until a knock was heard. Grace was amazed when Mr. Mayes stepped aside to reveal her aunt’s maid.

 

“There you are, you worthless maid. I sent you down here to perform a simple errand and I find you chatting with the housekeeper and eating,” Lucy raged with a grin. “Unless you want to start looking for a new position, you had better follow me. I hope you do not think you will get a good reference from me.”

 

Grace was sure she had a huge smile on her face the entire time. She stood up, quietly thanked the couple for comforting and feeding her, put her cape back on to hide her face, and answered demurely, “Yes, madam. I apologize.”

 

She followed Lucy out of the house and down the walkway.

 

“Do you have any luggage, Miss Hurst?”

 

“Yes, Lucy, my trunk is there,” Grace answered while discretely pointing. Her eyes widened when she saw the luxurious carriage Lucy was walking to.

 

“Alfie, Miss Hurst has a trunk just inside the gate, to the left, hidden behind the tree,” Lucy told the carriage driver.

 

“I will come back and get it once you are safe with Lady Dobbs.”

 

Grace had no idea where they were going, it was dark and she was not very familiar with the streets of London. To her, it appeared as though they were not going in a straight line.

 

“I apologize for the long ride, ladies. I took a circuitous route to ensure we were not followed,” Alfie said as he was handing them down in the mews of a townhouse.

~*~

Darcy House, London
Tuesday, December 18, 1810

 

Phoebe Dobbs paced waiting for her niece to arrive. She wondered what could be taking them so long. If anything happened to Grace...

 

“Aunt Phoebe!” Grace said before rushing into her arms.

 

Phoebe guided her sobbing niece to the settee and comforted her. When Grace stopped crying, she took her face in her hands and said, “Grace Madeline Hurst, what were you thinking! You took an unbelievable risk. What could have possessed you to leave all your friends behind!”

 

“Father has promised me to Lord Camfield. We were to be married as soon as he arrived with a special license,” Grace said with panicked eyes.

 

“The Earl of Camfield? Is my brother out of his senses? How scandalous, he is in mourning for another four months, at least.”

 

“Yes, I pointed that out and father said the announcement would be put in the papers at a later date which said we were recently wed. You understand now why I had to take the chance?”

 

“I do, but it was still a great risk. What if Mr. and Mrs. Mayes had been away?” she asked.

 

“I did think that far ahead. I would have announced who I was and demanded a room overnight. I planned to take the post to Surrey tomorrow. Cousin Alfred and his wretched wife would have been pleased to expand our connections through the marriage, but I knew you would support me.”

 

“How did you get to London? You did not travel all the way from Warwickshire alone?”

 

“Of course not, Aunt Phoebe. You remember my friend Clara? Her mother’s cousin, Lady Sheldon, was taking her daughters to town and invited Clara who asked if I could join them,” Grace explained.

 

“At least you traveled to town respectfully. Did you leave a note for Lady Sheldon?” she asked.

 

“I did not have time. I saw my chance to escape and I took it on the spur of the moment,” Grace said.

 

“You will write a note of apology and let her know you are fine. I do not know if you are aware, but Lady Sheldon was related distantly to the former Lady Camfield. Be honest, my dear, she will understand. Let her know your brother is taking you under his protection until your majority,” she advised. “While you write your note, I will arrange for delivery.”

 

Once the note was on its way, Grace asked, “Where are we anyway? Nanny Sara refused to tell me the name of my brother’s friend. She was afraid the walls had ears, meaning the Bingley’s are trying to figure out where my brother is, I am sure.”

 

“We are at Darcy House,” she said with a smirk.

 

“Darcy House?”

 

Phoebe laughed at the incredulous look on Grace’s face. “You do know how Louisa passed away?” When Grace indicated she did not, Phoebe told her the story Alfie related on their way to town. “So, you see, your brother has distanced himself from the Bingley’s.”

 

“I thought Mr. Darcy was friends with Mr. Bingley. Why would he invite my brother to mourn instead of his friend?”

 

“According to Alfie, the Bingley’s actions after the accident were so deplorable, he would not be surprised if Mr. Darcy broke with Mr. Bingley.”

 

“Talking about me behind my back, my Lady?” Alfie asked when he entered the room.

 

“You little scamp,” she responded with a grin. “Was a response delivered?”

 

“I took the liberty of delivering Miss Hurst’s note myself, my Lady, after I retrieved her trunk. I doubt you are aware, but my master and Earl Sheldon are friends, they fence together at their club and share similar political beliefs. The couple empathized and understood why Miss Hurst acted the way she did. They were appreciative that you thought to send a note and that Miss Hurst was in the care of a relative. They agreed to send an express to her father informing him that she disappeared and they have no idea where she is. They will implore him to make haste to town and hire Bow Street Runners.”

 

“Father thinks I have been at Clara’s estate. He will be furious,” Grace said.

 

“I explained that, Miss Hurst. Lady Sheldon, in particular, thought the situation was diverting. Apparently, she dislikes both of your parents and would have helped you anyway, had she known in advance.”

 

“Thank you, Alfie,” Phoebe said.

 

“It was my pleasure, my Lady. Do we need to delay our departure a day so Miss Hurst may do some shopping?”

 

“No, Alfie, we want to leave at dawn,” she said.

 

“I agree. If the express rider delivers the note to father tonight or tomorrow morning, I am afraid he will arrive in London by dinner. I want to be as far away from here as possible,” Grace stated.

 

“I understand. I will have everything ready, my Lady.”

 

“Should we send an express to let Mr. Darcy know Grace will be arriving with me?” she asked Alfie.

 

“No need, my Lady. I heard grams and gramps talking to the staff before I left. The maids and footmen will be doing a thorough cleaning of that wing starting with the suite next to Mr. Hurst. By the time we arrive, they should have at least four suites cleaned. If you do not mind Miss Hurst refreshing herself in your suite, by the time you retire after dinner hers should be warmed enough.”

 

“Very observant, young man. Thank you, it eases my mind to know we will not be putting the maids to extra work.”

~*~

Darcy House, London
Wednesday, December 19, 1810

 

“Alfie, where is my luggage,” Phoebe Dobbs asked her escort.

 

“It is on the Matlock carriage, my Lady. I realize you will probably think I am fit for bedlam, but my master told me to be careful we are not seen together or followed. The master received permission to have his uncle’s carriage bring you to Pemberley.”

 

“That was kind of him,” she offered.

 

“Yes, the earl is very kind and not too proud to speak to servants. In this case, it also helps his son who will take the carriage back to London after his visit instead of riding his horse. My master and Mr. Hurst had already arranged the Matlock carriage and told me to do whatever it took to make sure our presence at Darcy House went unnoticed. That is part of the reason my aunt put you both in rooms that face the garden. Not only is it a beautiful view, but she did not want to risk someone seeing a light from the road and thinking the family was here. To speak plainly, they think Miss Bingley has a spy either in the household or somewhere nearby watching the house.”

 

“That would not surprise me. Miss Bingley seems to think her money will open any door she wants it to. She looks down on people in trade, conveniently forgetting that is how her father made his fortune. I never did like Miss Iambetterthaneveryoneelse. Her last name should have been Braggley,” she suggested as Alfie assisted her into the Darcy carriage.

 

“Miss Boastful?” Grace suggested with a snicker as she was handed up.

 

“I will deny this if asked, but I do believe I have heard my master mutter Miss Backbiter,” Alfie said with a grin.

 

“Miss Braggart?” she offered.

 

“Miss Bicker?” Grace countered.

 

Alfie broke up their giggles. “Once we change to Lord Matlock’s carriage just outside of London, we will continue until we reach our first destination. If you need us to stop, for any reason, signal the driver.”

 

Phoebe saw Grace lay her head upon the cushion and sigh as they started the three-day trip.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

 

Hurst Townhouse, London
Wednesday, December 19, 1810

 

Sara Mayes was in her office reviewing the final results of the inventory. The staff had found more items missing, but were unable to determine how long ago they vanished. She was almost done adding up the total when Nora, one of the upstairs maids, burst in.

 

“Mrs. Mayes, you hafta come quickly. There are men, they be tryin to break past Mr. Mayes and the footmen. They said they were to search the house.”

 

“Nora, take a deep breath. You did very well. Go inform Cook what is happening and stay out of the way,” she told the distraught girl.

 

She could hear the argument before she reached the front door. The second she heard the elder Mr. Hurst, she knew they were looking for Grace.

 

“Gentlemen!” she said loudly. “What is going on here? Are you trying to create a spectacle for the neighbourhood?”

 

“Where is my daughter?” her former employer hissed at her.

 

“Why do you believe I would know where Miss Hurst is? In case you forgot, you ended my employment, without notice I might add, when she was sent to school,” she responded calmly. “Although, I guess I should thank you, even though you could not be bothered to write me a recommendation. In an indirect way, you are responsible for my marriage.”

 

“What are you blathering on about? I know Grace came here, she does not know anyone else in London,” he said forcefully. “Mr. Slith, earn your fee, sir!”

 

“Madam, I assume you are the housekeeper. We are here to search Mr. Hurst’s townhouse for his underage daughter. Her father is determined to find her and bring her under his protection as is his legal right. If you hinder our search, you will be arrested,” the pudgy little man said smugly.

 

“Mr. Slith, is it? I am the housekeeper, Mrs. Mayes, and I assume you met my husband, Mr. Mayes, when you tried to push past him. This man,” she indicated her former employer, “is not master of this townhouse. It is owned by his son, Mr. Reginald Hurst.”

 

“That does not matter, madam, we will be searching the premises,” Mr. Slith stated.

 

“Do you have a warrant?” she asked sweetly.

 

Mr. Slith responded arrogantly, “I do not need one. If you do not move aside, the lot of you will be arrested.”

 

“I may be a simple housekeeper, but my master is generous and allows us to read the newspaper when he is done with it or not in residence. I seem to remember an article that was printed last week, it outlined the ground-breaking 1765 decision by Lord Camden on Entick vs Carrington. You do know the case, do you not?” she finished with her own smug smile, as she watched the man squirm. “I am unfamiliar with your uniform. What policing force are you employed by?”

 

“I am a Middlesex Constable madam, and we will be searching this house,” Mr. Slith stated again.

 

“You must not be a very good constable,” she baited him. “Not only are you trying to unlawfully search a residence but you are unaware that Regent Street is in Westminster. You have no authority in this part of the city.”

 

“What you are saying is irrelevant,” Mr. Hurst broke in. “Grace is my daughter and I have a right to search my son’s townhouse for her. Her betrothed is in town and has acquired a special license. They will be married immediately.”

 

“I was unaware Miss Hurst is courting someone, let alone doing so long enough to receive a proposal. Who did she agree to marry?” she asked innocently.

 

“She will be the new Lady Camfield,” Mr. Hurst responded. “Now all of you will move, this instant!”

 

“Mr. Hurst, we are completing an inventory of the townhouse and have strict orders that nobody is to be admitted. As I am sure you were already told, Miss Hurst is not here,” she stated forcefully.

 

“I see you are choosing to be difficult and hide the disobedient young lady,” Mr. Slith said. “Very well, I will be back in a moment with more help to arrest everyone.”

 

“Really, Mr. Slith, must we go through this again? You have no authority in this part of the metropolis and no right to search this house without a warrant signed off by a magistrate. Did I miss that part of the conversation? Do you have a warrant? If you do, I would be happy to escort you through the rooms with the Bow Street Runners as witnesses.” She saw him open his mouth to complain and quickly added, “As I said, the household is being inventoried and I have the only key to open rooms that were locked behind the inventory staff.”

 

“I do not care if you are working on an inventory. This man hired me to find his daughter, and I intend to do just that. Now, step aside or you will be forcibly moved,” Mr. Slith threatened.

 

Sara saw Mr. Slith’s expression change to one of fear and heard someone approaching from behind. She turned to see that Mr. Fielding must have followed her from her office when she walked out of their meeting.

 

“Did I hear correctly? Did Mr. Hurst pay for your services?” Mr. Fielding asked Mr. Slith with a menacing look on his face.

 

“Of course, I paid him. You must pay Bow Street Runners to take your case. I hired the first one I came across. Enough of this nonsense. I want my daughter!” Mr. Hurst shouted.

 

“Mr. Slith told you he was a Bow Street Runner?” Mr. Fielding asked.

 

“Are you daft man? Of course he is a Bow Street Runner, he must also work as a Middlesex Constable when he needs funds. GIVE ME MY DAUGHTER!”

 

“You are a constable for the local parish?” Mr. Fielding asked the one person in the invading group Mr. Hurst brought with him who looked confused.

 

“Yes sir, I am,” that man responded.

 

“Did you know he was misrepresenting himself?” Mr. Fielding asked the constable.

 

“No sir, he identified himself to me as a Bow Street Runner when he asked for help in executing a search. I would not be here if I had known what I do now.”

 

Mr. Fielding turned to Mr. Hurst and said, “I want to make sure I have this situation correct, sir. Your daughter, Miss Grace Hurst, is underage and chose to leave your protection. You travelled to your son’s townhouse, in Westminster, expecting your daughter to be here. Along the way, you met a Middlesex Constable who identified himself as a Bow Street Runner, hired him, and are now attempting to trespass in order to perform an illegal search of your son’s townhouse to look for your daughter, who does not want to marry Lord Camfield.”

 

“What insolence!” Mr. Hurst said. “This is my son’s townhouse so I am cannot possibly be trespassing. Whether or not my daughter wants to marry Lord Camfield is irrelevant! She will do as she is told.”

 

“From what I have witnessed, you understand the matter correctly, Mr. Fielding,” Mrs. Mayes confirmed.

 

“Aye,” she heard her husband speak for the first time since she walked up, “you have hit the nail on the head. I told them Miss Hurst was not here and they would not be allowed entrance because of the inventory. One of the footmen fell when they tried to push past us and hit his head. I told him to find Cook to be bandaged up.”

 

“Mr. Slith, you will arrest these people for hindering our search,” Mr. Hurst ordered. “Now!” he yelled when that man did not move.

 

“Mr. Hurst, you are labouring under a false pretence. Mr. Slith is not a Bow Street Constable and will in fact be arrested by the constable behind him,” Mr. Fielding nodded at the man who escorted Mr. Slith away. “Take him to the Piccadilly office, constable. I will meet you there after I ask the footman if he wishes to file charges on assault.”

 

“What do you think you are doing?” Mr. Hurst asked. “You have no right to arrest him.”

 

“Yes, sir, I do because he is not a Bow Street Runner. You paid an impersonator who was attempting to trespass, which is illegal in itself, but a servant was assaulted in the process which makes it a more serious charge.”

 

“You are a liar and a swindler who is trying to make me pay another fee. Arrest this man and bring Mr. Slith back,” Mr. Hurst ordered one of the other lawmen from the group he brought with him.

 

“Perhaps introductions are in order, as it appears you do not remember me. Unfortunately, we are distantly related, your mother and my father were first cousins. I am Mr. Arnold Fielding and we were introduced, in his very house, four years ago, when you and your wife tried to make Cousin Reginald violate the terms of his grandmother’s will by disclosing what he inherited. Conveniently for my cousin, father and I were in town. As the executor of your mother’s will, my father was able to support Reginald. Since our last meeting, my father was installed as a judge and I was promoted to the head of the Bow Street Runners.”

 

Sara was amazed at how fast the bluster left Mr. Hurst. It was obvious he knew there was no way he was going to be able to remove Grace from the townhouse. “I was not lying, sir, I have no idea where Miss Hurst is right now,” Sara said, then noticed Mr. Fielding caught how she worded her statement. “Mr. Fielding arrived at daybreak to help verify the inventory was completed. In his official capacity, he will tell you she has not been here.”

 

“That is true, my staff and I arrived early this morning to confirm the results,” Mr. Fielding agreed, while glancing at her with narrowed eyes. “Since my father refuses to have anything to do with you, I have never met Miss Hurst, however, I have not seen anyone who could be my younger cousin or heard any of the staff speak of her arrival.”

 

“Where could she be?” Mr. Hurst asked dejectedly.

 

“We do not know, sir,” she said. “Husband, will you please see these gentlemen get into their carriage?”

 

“No, I need to stay here. My townhouse is not ready to receive me. Have a room prepared,” Mr. Hurst demanded.

 

“That is impossible, sir. As Mrs. Mayes told you, multiple times, in the past ten minutes, this house is being inventoried by the order of Bow Street. You cannot be admitted.”

 

“You just said the inventory was done. Therefore, I can stay here,” Mr. Hurst asserted.

 

“I said we were verifying the results but we are not done. Now, if my cousin is as smart as I think she is, you will not find her before she reaches her majority on January 11th. Hopefully, she will contact father, wherever she is, in regards to her inheritance. Father and I know enough about Lord Camfield to help make sure the marriage never takes place. I will warn you now, if you arranged your daughter’s marriage based on what you think she will inherit, prepare to be disappointed. My father has not allowed me to read your mothers will, but he did tell me they put safeguards in place to protect whoever ended up being her heir.”

 

“Mother’s wealth should have been left to me,” Mr. Hurst claimed forcibly.

 

“Your mother signed a will in front of her doctor, solicitor, husband, and cousin, who as you know is my father and is now a judge. You have absolutely no right to try and challenge the terms,” Mr. Fielding replied.

 

“Father was present? I did not know that. Did he know what was in the will?”

 

“My father may know the answer to the question, but I do not. Let me be perfectly clear. Miss Hurst is not here, you will not be staying at this townhouse tonight, and if you give these good servants, or my cousins, any trouble, you will be arrested for your part in assaulting a footman. Good day,” Mr. Fielding said sternly.

 

“Mother’s wealth should have been mine,” Mr. Hurst mumbled as he left.

 

Sara watched the group leave with a sense of relief. “Thank you, Mr. Fielding, I am grateful you were here.”

 

“Let us finish the inventory,” Mr. Fielding said. “Perhaps your husband should join us?”

 

Once they were back in her office, she finished totalling the column. She handed him the first page and explained, “Mrs. Hurst had been keeping track of the items Miss Bingley broke since she moved in so all I had to do was add the items between the day Mrs. Hurst passed away and when Miss Bingley was made to leave the townhouse. The combined total is almost £1,000. It boggles the mind to see it all in writing like this. The missing items are...”

 

“I do not care a single bit about the inventory right now, I just used that as an excuse to get both of you in this office,” Mr. Fielding said while setting the paper down. “I remember now, you were my cousin’s nanny who turned into the governess. You raised her, not Mrs. Hurst. With her brother away from London, Miss Hurst would have headed directly to you. Where is my cousin?”

 

“I am sorry, sir, but I cannot tell you. Mr. Hurst left explicit instructions that we were not to tell anyone where he is. You may write a letter and we will see it delivered to him with the next packet we send,” she answered lightly.

 

“That is not what I mean, Mrs. Mayes, and you know it,” Mr. Fielding glared at her. “Where is Miss Hurst? And do not give me that nonsense about not knowing where she is right now, I know you have seen her. Approximately, where is she?”

 

Mrs. Mayes nodded her head yes as she said, “I am afraid you are mistaken, sir. I do not know where she is.”

 

Mr. Fielding sat back and studied Sara and her husband for a few moments before writing something down and giving it to her.

 

You are afraid we will be overheard?

 

“Yes, sir, that is a concern we have had for a while. Miss Bingley was very particular about things,” Sara nodded and he wrote another line.

 

Miss Hurst is safe?

 

“Of course, it was done just as the master would have wanted.”

 

Where is she?

 

“No, sir, that amount is accurate too. It was a rather expensive vase because it was a gift from his Aunt Phoebe, the Dowager Viscountess Dobbs,” Sara said and smirked at him when he looked shocked.

 

You put her under her aunts protection?

 

“I told you, sir, it was just as the master would have wanted. I have worked for the family for a long time and I know the dynamics well. Lady Dobbs is a favourite of both siblings. The vase was precious to aunt and nephew, for the sentimental value.”

 

She will be joining Reginald?

 

“Yes, sir, they were a set and travelled everywhere together.”

 

“Very well, Mrs. Mayes, I am satisfied. It is a shame you do not know where my younger cousin is. My father will need to speak with her when she reaches her majority.”

 

“Yes, your father was the executor of their grandmother’s will. I am sure my master will be glad the matter is to be resolved. Mr. Hurst has always wondered what the entire will said. Any communication may be delivered here and we will see he receives it,” she said. “In good weather, it takes a week to receive a response, unless we send it express. Like London, the northern counties see a lot of snowfall this time of the year, but the wind whips through the open fields so fast it seems colder and travel times can be uncertain. My master’s friend has a personal messenger who is very loyal and trusted with all of his most important letters and packages,” she said significantly.

 

“Thank you for the information,” Mr. Fielding told her as he burned the paper he wrote his notes on in the fireplace. “It eases my mind to know you take such good care of your master. I am afraid we will have to finish the inventory another day. My father is expecting me at his townhouse shortly.”

 

“Very well, sir. Again, thank you for your assistance and remember we would be happy to forward anything you need to send to your cousin.”

 

“I would not be surprised if you heard from me later this evening.”

~*~

Pemberley, Derbyshire
Friday, December 21, 1810

 

“Hurst, calm down and stop pacing, please, I beg you,” Darcy urged.

 

“I am sorry, Darcy. I am anxious to get Aunt Phoebe inside,” Hurst said from the main entryway of Pemberley. He was worried the storm would arrive before his Aunt Phoebe did. He would never forgive himself if anything happened to her.

 

“I understand. Frankly, I am amazed we had such decent weather for our trip to Matlock. There is usually more snow in December,” Darcy informed him. “You heard the signal. The carriage has passed the gatekeeper’s house so she should be here soon.”

 

Hurst knew Darcy was right, but he could not help himself.

 

“There! Did you hear that? The carriage just pulled up,” Darcy said but Hurst was opening the door before the words were out of his friend’s mouth.

 

“Aunt Phoebe, I am so very glad you beat the storm here. We were not expecting you until later...” he greeted his aunt with a hug before he caught sight of his sister emerging from the carriage and abruptly stopped speaking.

 

“Come, Reginald, let us go inside and then you can introduce us to our host,” Aunt Phoebe gently ordered.

 

Hurst automatically offered an arm to each of the ladies and escorted them inside.

 

“Darcy, allow me to introduce you to my aunt, Phoebe Dobbs, the Dowager Viscountess, and my sister Miss Grace Hurst,” he explained. “Ladies, this is my friend and host, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy.”

 

The ladies curtsied and Darcy bowed while looking apprehensively at Grace. Hurst was about to ask his aunt for an explanation when his sister spoke.

 

“Mr. Darcy, from what I hear, you are quite the enigma about town. I know from experience people love nothing so much as talking about you. At a dinner party my family recently attended, the hosts and other guests discussed your behaviour last season. They all told the stories as if they were acts in a play they attended together. The common theme was that when you attended outings, you spoke only with your acquaintances, danced only with ladies in your party or your relatives, and scowled at the unmarried ladies who dared to come anywhere near your person. I am sure they sensationalized the stories to entertain each other, but really, why attend Almack’s and private balls if you do not intend to dance? They also talked about the debutantes who chased after you and made spectacles of themselves. There are apparently wagers laid in betting books all over town at the beginning of each season as to which ladies would be bold enough to try compromising you, with the amount paid out in double if the attempt happened in a room full of witnesses. Do not worry, sir, I did not show up, uninvited, with the hopes of forcing a marriage. No offense, but you seem too arrogant, conceited, and dismal for my tastes. Such presumption,” Grace said with a smirk while rolling her eyes and shaking her head.

 

“Grace! We must work on your tact, my dear. You should not point out everything you notice, even if you do appear to be correct,” Aunt Phoebe admonished with a matching smirk.

 

Hurst was afraid Darcy would be offended and then was amazed to see his friend shake his head deprecatingly and start laughing.

 

“Touché, ladies. You are both welcome here, although I am a bit nervous what you will do to my poor, sweet, innocent little sister.”

 

“Grace, what are you doing here? Is father well? Where is mother?” he interrupted.

 

Before his sister could answer, they heard the wails of an infant.

 

“Oh, Mr. Hurst, I cannot get Reggie...” Sally stopped when she noticed their guests. “I apologize, Mr. Darcy, sir, please excuse me.”

 

“Sally, wait! This is my aunt and sister, please speak freely. What is wrong with Reggie?” Hurst asked while walking towards the pair. He heard his aunt ask Darcy why a maid was searching out her nephew, to talk to him about an infant who shared his name and his friend start explaining the relationship before Sally answered.

 

“He is normally a good boy, but he will not settle. Evan was called to the stables a little bit ago and I cannot get Reggie to sleep,” Sally said in tears.

 

Hurst saw Miss Darcy and Mrs. Reynolds approaching. “Sally, give me the young man. Mrs. Reynolds, please make sure Sally gets some rest.”

 

“Very well, sir. Send for me if you need assistance. Come along now,” the housekeeper said as she gently guided Sally out of the room.

 

Hurst turned to see Darcy grinning and his aunt smirking while Miss Darcy looked excited and Grace shocked.

 

“Mr. Hurst,” Miss Darcy said, “you have the magic touch. Reggie is almost asleep already. I want a turn holding him soon.”

 

“Has the world gone mad? My brother helped deliver a maid’s babe and looks perfectly happy holding him?” Grace asked the room at large.

 

“Why did you miscreants desert me? Oh, of course, the lad is more exciting than I am. Hurst, introduce me to your aunt. Hold on,” the Colonel said slowly as he got a better look at Grace. “Who do we have here?”

 

“Richard!” Hurst heard Darcy hiss as he watched Grace’s eyes light up.

 

“Why do we not let them go upstairs and refresh before adjourning to the parlour where Hurst can introduce Georgie too?” Darcy suggested. “Aggie, please escort them to the room prepared for Lady Dobbs and then go find Mrs. Reynolds to ask which room to prepare for Miss Hurst.”

 

Once everyone was refreshed, introduced, and settled in the parlour, the Colonel declared, “Alright, out with it, ladies. I am always eager to hear a good tale and I imagine this will be an exceptional one.”

 

He heard his sister giggle and saw her lower her head shyly before explaining what led to her arrival. His sister, giggle! He automatically handed Reggie over to Miss Darcy when she said it was her turn to hold the babe and continued to listen to his sister while looking suspiciously between her and the Colonel.

 

“Well,” Darcy said when Grace was done, “I cannot like the risk you took but it seems to have been the lesser of the two options available and turned out well.”

 

“I am quite impressed, Miss Hurst,” the Colonel said. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman, regardless of her fortune, must be in want of an earl as a husband, no matter his proclivities.”

 

“So it seems,” Grace said with a sidelong look at Darcy.

 

Hurst heard his Aunt Phoebe chuckle and noticed Darcy blushing slightly.

 

“Unfortunately, for my father, acknowledged or not, the statement is not universally true. Setting aside the rumours about Lord Camfield, I will not be made to marry a man I know nothing about. Reginald, I worry something is troubling father,” Grace told him.

 

“Darcy and I have discussed this, Grace. Father and mother have left the servants to run the estate with little oversight or praise. I do not know if you were ever aware, but the estate was in dire straits when father arranged my marriage to Louisa. It took most of her dowry to set the finances along the right path. I believe the estate is being stolen from by servants who feel under-appreciated and father is in need of another influx of money. Enough of that. Aunt Phoebe, it seems as though Alfie took the protection of you both seriously,” he stated.

 

“You have no idea how well, Reginald,” his aunt responded. “Would you believe he ordered your Cousin Alfred to leave the drive of the dower house as we were leaving?”

 

Hurst listened to the events surrounding his aunt’s departure with wonder.

 

“I knew he was the right person to send,” the Colonel said. “Darcy, we need to do something for the young man. I was dumbfounded when he declined your offer to pay for his attendance at university.”

 

“Me too, Richard. He told me the idea of sitting in a classroom and then an office all day did not appeal to him,” Darcy answered.

 

“Do any of your properties raise horses? I could see him becoming a much sought-after trainer,” the Colonel said.

 

“I tried something similar too,” Darcy answered.

 

“Alfie and I talked in the carriage on the way to London. He is happy at Pemberley and doing what he loves. Why is that wrong?” Aunt Phoebe asked.

 

“It is not wrong, my Lady,” Darcy answered. “I feel as though he is capable of more and do not want his loyalty to keep him from achieving his potential.”

 

“I agree with you, Darcy,” the Colonel said. “However, I am also familiar with the phrase, you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink. Who are we to decide what is right for him?”

 

“Maggie tried to convince him to accept my brother’s offer of funding a university education,” Miss Darcy added. “He told her he enjoyed being a messenger because it allows him to travel and make important decisions that would help my brother.”

 

“That he has,” Darcy grinned. “I would hate to lose him as a messenger.”

 

“When Georgie comes out, or if you ever get married, you will assign a footman to guard the lady closest to your heart when you are not able to escort her personally. Tell me I am wrong,” the Colonel challenged Darcy.

 

“You know me well, Richard, and Alfie is the perfect choice. Father told me he had to hire a body-guard for mother because she was accosted while shopping on Bond Street shortly after they were married by a lady who had set her sights on becoming the mistress of Pemberley. There was also talk of a former would be suitor of hers trying to cause trouble.”

 

“Alfie seemed to enjoy coming up with ways to throw my son off our trail when we were shopping in London,” Aunt Phoebe added. “He appeared to be good at it, too.”

 

“I agree, Aunt Phoebe,” Grace said. “He had a huge grin on his face when he apologized for making the trip from Reginald’s townhouse to Darcy House take so long.”

 

“Talk to Alfie tomorrow. If he is agreeable, I will write a letter to a few of my former compatriots who have started a school of sorts,” the Colonel told Darcy.

 

“What kind of school, Colonel?” Grace asked.

 

“I will only say, if Lady Dobbs thinks he is already good at throwing people off the scent, she should see him after he finishes,” the Colonel answered with a smirk. “Ah, Mrs. Reynolds, has that grandson of yours told you about his escort duty yet? It seems as though it was quite eventful. You would be proud of how well he protected these lovely ladies.”

 

“Enough of you now, Colonel. Sir, an express was delivered for Mr. Hurst and the rider was told to wait for a response. I have given him quarters in the servants’ wing for the night,” Mrs. Reynolds said while handing Darcy a packet.

 

“Thank you, Mrs. Reynolds. Given this storm, he may need to be our guest for a few days.”

 

“I have already warned him of that, sir,” Mrs. Reynolds said before she curtsied and exited the room.

 

“From what I have seen so far, that woman is a gem,” Aunt Phoebe said as Darcy handed Hurst the letter. “Before we reached my suite, she had already sent another maid to start the fire in the room she assigned to Grace. What is wrong, Reginald?”

 

“It is an express from my housekeeper. It seems more happened in London than even you were aware of. Father arrived at my townhouse the day you left demanding Grace be returned to him for her immediate wedding. Father was sure Grace was there and hired a Bow Street Runner, who turned out to be an impostor, to assist him by searching my residence. Cousin Arnold, who is a constable and the son of my grandmother’s cousin, was finalizing the inventory with my housekeeper and assisted the staff in making sure they did not enter. There is also a letter from his father, Cousin Horace, regarding my grandmother’s will. Mrs. Mayes told my cousin enough that my relatives know I am in the north. As the executor, Cousin Horace asks whether or not he should send a copy of the will to me with a trusted messenger, I am assuming Mrs. Mayes told him about Alfie, or wait until we return to London.”

 

“What do you mean, grandmother’s will?” his sister asked.

 

With help from his Aunt Phoebe, Hurst told his sister the story surrounding his grandmother’s death, her will, and their parents’ reactions to his inheritance.

 

“What rubbish. You had no control over the fact that father’s mother overlooked him and left her possessions to her first grandchild. I am sure father will disinherit me for my defiance. My only hope is that you or Aunt Phoebe take pity on me,” Grace responded. “May I stay with you Aunt Phoebe? No offense Reginald, but you need an heir. After your mourning ends, I expect that you will marry again. Aunt Phoebe and I can help you avoid waspish harpies this time around.”

 

“I would be honoured to take you under my protection but I would not worry so much, my dear,” his aunt said. “Because of his illness, James demanded that my father let me participate in the discussions surrounding our marriage contract. James made sure my pin money was enough to allow me to keep my dowry and marriage settlement, along with all interest, untouched for my care after his death. He agreed to fund our future daughter’s dowries entirely from estate funds, although with two boys it was unnecessary. I remember my father mentioning my brother’s settlement was written differently. If I am recalling correctly, your parent’s settlement said his wife’s dowry of £20,000 must be held in trust to be split between their daughters, with each daughter having no less than £15,000 upon their marriage or twenty-first year. I believe your parents are allowed to spend the interest from her dowry so the amount would not have grown.”

 

“If father was allowed to spend the interest, that would explain why he did not pressure me to marry right away. Oh, Aunt Phoebe, how will we know for sure?” Grace asked. “I would like to contribute to the cost of my upkeep.”

 

“I will write to my solicitor ordering him to visit your father’s solicitor on your birthday and demand the money be transferred to you. Mr. Darcy, do you have a local attorney who could complete some legal paperwork for us?”

 

“Actually, I think we do, my Lady. One of my neighbours has a son who is a solicitor. I seem to recall my steward telling me the lady of the house demanded her children all come home to attend her twelfth night ball. Once the snowstorm has passed, I will have a footman deliver a note.”

 

“Thank you, sir,” Aunt Phoebe nodded at Darcy. “Grace, there is more. Your uncle and I were hoping for a houseful of children. When we married, he opened four trust accounts in the four percents for future daughters. A few years ago, when it became clear there would be no more children, he closed two of the accounts, put one in your name, and the final one in Reginald’s name. After three and twenty years of the interest being reinvested, your account should have a balance of almost £25,000. If I am correct, you have a dowry of £45,000, plus whatever your grandmother’s will says.”

 

“But what about Cousin Harold?” Grace asked. “I would not feel right accepting the funds when he is in the navy. Wait a moment, I thought Reginald inherited everything in my grandmother’s will?”

 

“Unless I am off my mark, you do not need to worry about your cousin,” the Colonel broke in. “Your aunt said there were four accounts created for daughters, I wonder how many were set up for second sons? Besides, £50,000 would buy a small estate, probably worth £2,500 a year.”

 

“Maybe more if you got a good deal,” Darcy agreed.

 

“You are too smart for your own good, sir, even though it was only £45,000 at the time,” Aunt Phoebe told the Colonel. “The Colonel is correct, Grace, my son Harold has been well looked after. Your uncle wanted you give you security because he loved you as if you were his own. Your trust is set up so that only you can access the principal, with your brother or Cousin Harold’s approval, and the interest is for your use alone. As to your grandmother’s belongings, we will not know if you inherit anything until you reach your majority and are allowed to read the will.”

 

Mrs. Reynolds walked in and announced, “Dinner is ready, sir. Miss Darcy, I will take Master Reggie to his father.”

 

“Thank you, Mrs. Reynolds,” Darcy said while offering Aunt Phoebe an arm to escort her into the dining room. “Hurst, we will discuss how to respond to your cousin whilst we are eating.”

 

Hurst scowled when the Colonel rushed to offer Grace an arm forcing him to escort Miss Darcy into dinner instead of his own sister.

 

“Do not worry, Mr. Hurst,” Miss Darcy whispered. “Richard was enthralled with Miss Hurst before he found out she potentially has a large dowry.”

 

“Dear Lord, you were bad enough before my sister got here. Poor Darcy,” he muttered then heard Miss Darcy giggle quietly.

~*~

Longbourn, Hertfordshire
Sunday, December 23, 1810

 

Mr. Thomas Bennet was enjoying a glass of port in his study after dinner when he heard a knock. “Enter,” he called out.

 

“Sir, an express rider delivered a letter from Scotland. He said I was to tell you first it did not contain bad news and then explain that when Matilda hired him, she told him to disregard propriety and carry on through Sunday in order to arrive in London to visit with his parents,” Mrs. Hill explained.

 

“That sounds like Matilda. If I had to guess, the young man could not afford to travel on his own and she made it possible.”

 

“That is what he said, sir. He works at the estate closest to Lochdale and has not seen his family in almost five years. Somehow, it was brought to Matilda’s attention,” Mrs. Hill explained. “I offered him a room for the night, but he intends to press on and make it to London as soon as possible.”

 

“Very well, thank you, Hill,” he said before he read the letter, burst into laughter, and then joined his family in the drawing room.

 

“My dear, I received an express from Matilda and thought you would like to know right away.”

 

“On Sunday? How scandalous!” Mrs. Bennet exclaimed.

 

“Now my dear, let me tell you the circumstances and I am sure you will agree it was understandable,” he said before he explained.

 

“Well,” said that man’s wife, “I still do not like that he travelled on the Lord’s day, but that poor boy. It must have made him so happy he could visit his parents. Imagine, not being home or seeing family in that many years.”

 

“If I had my books and steward to run the estate, I think I could manage,” he answered with a smirk. “I will read Matilda’s letter to you now.”

 

He enjoyed watching the expressions on their faces. It became a game of sorts, to correctly guess how each person would react. When he was done, he was unsurprised to see Jane looking sympathetic, Lizzy amused, and Mary as though she wanted to give Lydia a stern talking to, but what surprised him were Kitty and his wife. Both of them seemed shocked, to be sure, but they were looking down while biting their bottom lips.

 

“Well, my dear, do you have anything to say?” he asked.

 

He was quite shocked to see Kitty’s shoulders start shaking and when she caught her mother’s eye, they both broke out in hearty laughter. He heard his wife gasp out ‘made her empty her own chamber pot’ and shook his head realizing he would never truly understand women.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

Pemberley, Derbyshire
Monday, January 7, 1811

Colonel The Honourable Richard Fitzwilliam walked slowly down the stairs at Pemberley for the last time of his visit and saw the rest of the party assembled at the bottom to farewell him. He was always sad to leave his cousin’s estate, but this was the worst in memory. Never had he been so well entertained during a leave. The addition of the Dowager Viscountess and Miss Hurst had made the company even more enjoyable than it usually was.

When he reached the main floor, Georgie cried, “Richard,” and ran into his arms, crying.

“Come on, sprout, I am headed to London, not the continent.”

“I know, but I so enjoyed having you here,” she answered from the folds of his red coat.

“And I relished being here, but the general told us we had to report for duty in London by January 14th. With the weather so unpredictable at this time of the year, I need to leave now,” he comforted her until she released him and stepped back. “I will miss you, Georgie. Mrs. Annesley, I am counting on you to keep her entertained and safe.”

His cousin clapped him on the back. “Safe travels, Richard.”

“Thank you, Darcy. I am grateful Alfie brought my father’s carriage to Pemberley. I am also thankful he is accompanying me to London. I will let you know who wins the most games of chess,” he said with a smirk.

“How do you play chess in a moving carriage?” Lady Dobbs asked. “I have tried, but we spend more time putting the pieces back onto the correct squares or picking them up off the floor to make it worthwhile.”

“Darcy has a maintenance man who is particularly skilled with wood. Howard enjoys whittling and makes beautiful hand-crafted pieces and a special board with raised lines. The base of the chess pieces fit into the squares perfectly. I find it quite dastardly that father has already received two sets he keeps in the largest Matlock carriages. Although, since I do not have a carriage of my own yet, and Alfie and I will be able to use one of them on our trip to town, I cannot be too upset. I do believe I am next on his list to receive a one, am I not?” he asked Darcy with a glare.

“I will ask and let you know,” Darcy grinned.

“I am sorry to say, Colonel, but your set may be delayed,” Lady Dobbs said playfully. “I plan to ask this Howard, if he will make one for me. If Grace will be part of my household, we will need a way to pass the time in a carriage. I may have to offer an incentive.”

“You would bribe the man? For shame, my lady,” Richard responded while shaking his head and adopting an air of disappointment.

“As you like,” the Viscountess responded with shallow curtsy and grin.

Richard was intrigued by Miss Hurst. He stepped in front of her and asked, “You play chess?” When she nodded, he continued, “How did I not know this fact about you?”

“It has been a very busy two weeks, Colonel, and we have not had a Sunday with nothing to do. Perhaps, if we meet in London in the future, we could play a game then?” Miss Hurst asked shyly.

“I would honoured,” he said before bestowing a kiss on the back of Miss Hurst’s hand and stepping in front of her aunt.

“Lady Dobbs, Howard supports his widowed mother and spinster aunt. His household could definitely use the funds from your incentive. I would be happy to cede my place on his list to you. An officer in his majesty’s army is expected to be chivalrous after all,” he said while performing an elegant bow.

“You are an even bigger scamp than Alfie, but you do seem to have a big heart. I appreciate the gallant and thoughtful gesture, although I do not think it was for me, so much as it was for someone else,” Lady Dobbs finished quietly with a smirk.

“Beauty and brains are a dangerous combination, my Lady,” Richard responded just as quietly. “Miss Hurst, again, I must apologize that I will miss your birthday dinner.”

“I understand, Colonel. In this weather, it would be impossible for you to attend and still report for duty on time. I will pray for your safe arrival in London.”

“Thank you, Miss Hurst, I appreciate all the help I can get,” Richard stated. “Hurst, my good man, Alfie and I will meet with both Mr. Fielding’s to answer any questions they may have and arrange the transportation of any necessary documents related to your inheritances to Pemberley with Alfie. Be sure to keep to the exercise schedule we created. You will perform some sort of physical activity every day. I do not care if you fence, ride your horse, or both, as much as you want, but every other day you must run,” he finished with a glare until Hurst nodded.

“Lady Dobbs, I am relying on you to keep that nephew of yours on track with the exercise plan he agreed to,” Richard continued with a wink. “I will be sure to keep the appointment you scheduled with your solicitor on Miss Hurst’s birthday then accompany him to your brother’s solicitor’s office. I have all of the necessary legal documents in my possession to ensure I am able to act as your proxy. I double checked to make sure I packed them.”

He accepted one final round of goodbyes before walking out the front door to join Alfie in the Matlock carriage. It was going to be a long few months until he would see Miss Hurst again. He would be sure to respond to Georgie’s letters immediately and ask questions to probe for information about their activities.

~*~

Pemberley, Derbyshire
Wednesday, February 20, 1811

Mr. Reginald Hurst sat at the dinner table at Pemberley thinking back over the past three months. In his wildest dreams, he never would have imagined his life could have changed so drastically in such a short period of time. He was a much-improved horseman, exceeded the Colonel’s expectations for learning to fence, could run the ten miles round the whole park at Pemberley without stopping to walk, had lost three stone, and wore clothes he last fit into before his marriage. Thankfully, his valet was not one to get rid of anything, so Alfie was able to bring him smaller sizes from the attic of his townhouse.

In his role as the executor of the will, Horace Fielding had sent a packet to Pemberley with Alfie which included a copy of the entire document. Grace did inherit the other half of their grandmother’s dowry and jewellery, but they were astonished to find out there was a small estate their grandmother had inherited at the same time as the townhouse.

His grandmother had thought ahead and left a letter for her heirs to explain her reasons for bypassing her own son. At five years old, she said he was already ordering the servants about as if he was the lord of the manor and by the time he was ten, it was unbearable. The parents had tried to lessen their son’s attitude and strengthen his character, to no avail. She could tell it would only get worse and did not want to add to his sense of self-worth. There was also a lesser concern that in his arrogance, her son would make bad decisions that would force him to sell the estate that had been in the family for four generations.

Her Cousin Horace and her solicitor worked out scenarios for the disbursement of her possessions dependent on how many children her son’s wife bore him or what would happen in her only child died without issue. With two grandchildren, of different sexes, her will split the jewellery and dowry evenly and left the townhouse to her grandson and the estate to her granddaughter. With their portion of her dowry left invested for so many years in the four percents, the siblings each inherited a trust fund with a significant balance. They also inherited a secondary trust containing the proceeds from the rental of their properties.

He had been able to allow the interest from his grandmother’s dowry to reinvest every year and live off the interest from the rental payment trust. Now he also received the interest from the £5,000 of Louisa’s dowry that had not been required to save his family’s estate, the trust his Uncle James had gifted him, and most recently from the £5,000 of Miss Bingley’s dowry. To honour his Uncle James, he used the first interest payment from the Dobbs trust to create nine funds for future Hurst children. The interest is reinvested and his solicitor automatically adds to the principal every quarter. His intent is to make sure his daughters have healthy dowries and sons all receive an inheritance, not just the first born. If he is not blessed with children, Grace’s will be his heirs.

In the hope of pressing his point, Hurst’s father had cut off his allowance when he refused to disclose the extent of his inheritance, but it did not work. Not even Louisa had known how wealthy he was because he circulated an incorrect amount to keep fortune hunters, of all sorts, and salesmen away. It amused him to find out Darcy safeguarded his wealth the same way.

Grace was upset with him, at first, for not telling her she would receive an inheritance from their grandmother, but surprisingly Miss Darcy came to his defence by pointing out that he was not allowed to read the will and had no idea that she was left half the dowry and jewellery, let alone an estate. Miss Darcy asked Grace what would have happened if her brother told her to expect the same amount of dowry and jewellery that he inherited, only to find out that she received much less because everything was not split evenly. Grace finally conceded that she was wrong to be upset, which was a rare occurrence.

Hurst was pleased to see how well his sister, Aunt Phoebe, and Miss Darcy got along. The three ladies spent a good portion of their days together, with Mrs. Annesley, and had decided to call each other by their given names. Even though it was a few years away, Aunt Phoebe and Grace had started training Miss Darcy for her presentation at court while Mrs. Annesley concentrated on the specifics regarding precedence and how to seat people at dinner. He and Darcy had even learned some things when more than a few tea times were spent discussing some trickier guest lists his Aunt Phoebe put together.

He was unprepared for the amount of work and effort the ladies spent preparing for a curtsy that his aunt said would take less than five minutes to complete. They had requested a statue be moved into one of the sitting rooms to be used in place of the monarch. Darcy agreed with him that it was ridiculous, but neither of them begrudged their request. Hurst doubted the sculptor had intended the statue to witness Miss Darcy tripping over the table cloth that had been tied around her waist to mimic the train on a presentation gown.

Most nights, the Hurst party would take dinner trays together in the sitting room between the ladies’ suites and spend the evening in whatever pursuits they desired. When the snow had built up, Darcy mentioned he had two sleighs that were pulled behind horses. None of the Hurst guests had ever ridden on one before, so Darcy asked Wiggins to teach him how to handle them in the snow. It did not take long before they found a new way to pass the winter months. Grace and Aunt Phoebe loved the feel of the sleigh gliding over the snow. It was a very relaxing time for everyone.

The most notable thing, to Hurst at least, was when Sally and Wiggins asked him to be godfather to young Reggie. Sally was nervous at first, asking a gentleman to undertake such a task, but he quickly made them understand he was hoping for the outcome but was afraid to ask himself. Unknown to the parents, realizing from his own experience how quickly funds grow when the interest was left to reinvest over many years, he had sent a letter to his solicitor on the day Reggie was born to create another trust fund in the four percents for the boy’s education.

“I received a letter from Bingley today,” Darcy said, interrupting his thoughts.

“Do we want to know what it contained?” he asked with a cheeky grin. “Is he still annoyed with me for making them pay £5,000 out of Miss Bingley’s dowry?”

“He does not say, but it is doubtful. I think he finally realized you did them a favour. I must admit, I was so tired of his complaining, that in my last response, I was unrelenting. I told him he was lucky you did not press charges and explained what would have happened to Miss Bingley if you had. Bingley does not always connect an action with the appropriate consequence,” Darcy explained.

“Thank you. I am a little nervous what his letter to me will say. Like yours, mine have been increasingly filled with nothing but complaints about Miss Bingley losing part of her dowry and how the siblings are being treated by society along with demands to know where I am,” he said. He could not believe his brother-in-law still did not understand why the siblings were being shunned, by him and society. He had a feeling his Aunt Phoebe had sent letters to friends explaining what happened to her niece-in-law. They had all heard from acquaintances who were in London that there had been a marked increase in the hostility being shown to the pair of siblings in the past month instead of the gradual decrease they had expected. Although, that could be because Miss Bingley had started wearing half mourning clothes, after only two months, and took a trip to Bond Street frivolously shopping at the confectioner’s, tea room, and pastry shop while shamelessly trying to invite anyone of whom she could claim the slightest connection to a ball she had decided to throw before her deep mourning was officially over. Thankfully, the Bingley’s had not ignored Darcy’s refusal to extend an invitation to Pemberley. They had all been concerned that the siblings would show up at the front door regardless of an invitation.

“When Bingley signed the lease for his townhouse in December, the agent told him about an estate in Hertfordshire that he could take possession of after Michaelmas. After two months in the townhouse, Bingley signed a year-long lease on the estate, Netherfield Park, sight unseen,” Darcy informed them.

“Sight unseen, are you sure?” he asked, shocked.

“Yes, Hurst. Bingley invited me and Georgiana to visit for two months after he takes possession. He told me that he plans to invite you, too. I am sure your invitation will arrive with the next packet of letters from your townhouse,” Darcy told him. “I believe that means you have been forgiven.”

“Do I have to join you brother?” Miss Darcy asked. “Miss Bingley makes me uncomfortable and I do not believe anything will stop her desire to become your wife. Please tell me that will never happen,” she pleaded nervously.

“She makes everyone uncomfortable,” Hurst mumbled.

Darcy chuckled before responding to his sister, “That will NEVER happen, do you hear me? I do not care what circumstances she engenders, I will not marry her. I promise you.”

“Thank you, William,” Miss Darcy responded. “You really are the best brother.”

“As to your other question, Georgie, you do not have to accept the invitation. My biggest concern with accepting for myself, is that I am not comfortable staying at Netherfield without a proper chaperone.”

“As you should be,” Aunt Phoebe interrupted. “I am sure that woman would try to compromise you in front of as many witnesses as possible or she would inform everyone in town you were staying in a house, with four unmarried people, with only your sister’s companion as chaperone. Georgie would probably be saved having to marry Mr. Bingley because of Mrs. Annesley’s presence, but all of society would expect you to ask Miss Bingley for her hand. Although, a rich, single, handsome young man who has made his distaste for a particular young lady known, would probably come out unscathed after a few months, especially since the lady in question is out of favour with everybody who matters in society.”

“Perhaps you should place a notice in the London papers stating you will never marry Miss Bingley?” Grace suggested with a smirk. “You could even insinuate you are close to an engagement with a fictitious lady. I am sure you have met such lady in your dreams, we could call her Miss P for perfect.”

“Grace,” his Aunt Phoebe admonished while shaking her head.

Darcy looked unsure how to respond, or if one was required, and turned to Miss Darcy.

“Georgie, I know we talked about you visiting Ramsgate this summer with Mrs. Annesley to care for you. What say you to joining me in Hertfordshire instead? We could rent a dwelling and establish ourselves in the area before the Bingley’s arrive. If you agree to come with me, you could befriend the daughters of the local gentry and I would be close enough to advise Bingley without having to worry about being compromised by Miss Bingley almost every single moment of every day and night. Although, we would have to return to Pemberley for a few weeks during the harvest,” Darcy offered.

“Oh, brother, do you really think it possible? I would love the opportunity to spend so much time with you and make more friends. Could you be away from Pemberley for so long? Would you even be able to handle a holiday of that length?”

“Yes, Georgie, believe it or not, I could be a gentleman of leisure,” Darcy told his sister with a rueful grin. “Mr. Grey has proven himself to be a trusted steward and Ward’s training is coming along nicely. I am sure there will be a few necessary trips to Pemberley, but on the whole, they should be able to handle most things between them or with my direction via post. I will send a letter to Stevens asking him to start a search for an appropriate property to rent or lease for six months. Hurst, would you like to join me and Georgiana at the lodgings I find in Hertfordshire? If Lady Dobbs and Miss Hurst intend to continue living with you, they are welcome too. I am quite certain they would not get along well with Miss Bingley.”

He looked at his aunt and sister to see them nod their approval. “We are grateful for the offer, Darcy. I would rather refuse Bingley’s invitation than stay in a house with them. With all of us watching out, we can protect you from the dreaded Miss Bingley,” Hurst finished with a wicked grin.

The elder Darcy rolled his eyes while the younger giggled with his sister and aunt.

“Seriously though, Darcy, Bingley’s behaviour last November has me concerned,” Hurst said thoughtfully.

“Me too, Hurst,” Darcy agreed. “But we are forewarned.”

“We will be watchful brother,” Miss Darcy said.

“Let Miss Braggley try anything,” Aunt Phoebe, who shared their worries, said with an impish grin.

His aunt had filled the group in on the fun she and Grace had trying out new last names for Miss Bingley. His aunt’s favourite had stuck.

“Careful, Aunt Phoebe, if you use her new moniker too often, you are liable to slip and call her that to her face. I know you like to play with their last name in good fun, but please be careful, for my sake. Unfortunately, I am tied to them.”

“Really, Reginald, who do you think I am? I know the difference between a fun game to help ease the tension and a serious matter. Although, I will admit, especially for Grace’s sake, you have a point. We cannot let ourselves be unkind or ungracious,” Aunt Phoebe agreed with a hard look at Grace.

“Thank you, Aunt Phoebe,” he said with an over-exaggerated bow.

“Sounds like we are going to Hertfordshire this summer,” Darcy announced with a grin.

~*~

Pemberley, Derbyshire
Tuesday, March 5, 1811

“I do not think I have ever had so many interesting letters arrive at Pemberley as there have been in the past few months,” Darcy announced when they were having tea.

Hurst looked at Darcy closely. He did not appear upset by what he received, so it must not be from Bingley. “Out with it then, obviously it is not from my brother-in-law.”

“One of them was from Stevens, my solicitor, who had some luck searching for lodgings,” Darcy explained.

“How does that qualify as interesting, Mr. Darcy?” Aunt Phoebe asked.

“He likes to say things that will shock us to hear, Aunt Phoebe,” Grace said with a grin. “We should ignore him, Georgie, and continue our game of chess.”

“I am sure William would not have brought it up unless it was relevant to all of us. Perhaps we can tease it out of him,” Miss Darcy stated playfully.

“I relent, dear Georgie,” Darcy said while laughing. “It is not fair of you four ladies to continuously gang up on me and Hurst.”

“Well, what did Stevens have to say that was interesting?” he asked.

“Interesting might not have been the best adjective to use, Hurst. Intriguing is probably more accurate. Stevens wrote the attorney in the town nearest to Netherfield Park, a Mr. Phillips from Meryton, asking about places to rent or lease in the area. Mr. Phillips assured him the only property available had been leased recently, but suggested an alternative.”

“Now I am intrigued too, I think. What type of alternative could he have suggested? Did he propose you rent a cave on the countryside? Did he suggest a tent like the army uses? A room above the horses in his barn? A chicken coop?” Aunt Phoebe asked Darcy.

“In a cave? Really?” Darcy shook his head. “It seems there is a family in the area, the Goulding’s of Haye Park, who have family in one of the villages twenty miles from Pemberley. They have been looking for long term lodgings in the area for months, but have had no luck. Mr. Phillips proposes we switch houses for the summer. He describes Haye Park as a lovely estate with nine bedchambers and mentioned that a neighbour’s steward has agreed to handle the estate business for the summer.”

“Curious,” he said. “That really is ingenious. Are you tempted, Darcy?”

When Darcy failed to respond immediately, Aunt Phoebe asked, “How big is your dower house, Mr. Darcy?”

“Well done, Lady Dobbs. Before Pemberley was built, the dower house used to be the main house so there are ten bedchambers and room for a full complement of personal servants. You are suggesting I offer them the dower house for the summer?”

“That is exactly what I had in mind. I realize most men do not think of the dower house unless it is occupied. Haye Park does seem to be large enough to suit our needs, even if the Colonel and his parents were to visit,” Aunt Phoebe stated.

“Would you be willing to keep house for me, Lady Dobbs? I know the job should really fall to Georgie, but she is not out yet,” Darcy asked.

“I have never learned how to run a household, so it makes perfect sense to me. Allow me to unreservedly concede the position of mistress to Lady Dobbs if she desires it,” Miss Darcy announced gratefully.

“I would be happy to assume the duties of the lady of the house, Mr. Darcy,” Aunt Phoebe said. “If you would like, Grace and I could start teaching Georgie how a household works now in an environment she is intimately familiar and comfortable with the servants, most importantly the housekeeper.”

“Mrs. Reynolds took over facilitating the mistress duties when my mother passed away and I never thought about Georgie needing to learn. I think it would have been too much like realizing she was growing up,” Darcy said sadly. “Mrs. Annesley, please do not take offense at my next statement, I know you are familiar with a much smaller house. Lady Dobbs, if it is no imposition, I would appreciate you training Georgie. Would you mind working with Mrs. Annesley to devise a schedule?”

“Aunt Phoebe, I need to learn how to run a household too. Mother never taught me,” Grace told their aunt.

“Why does that not surprise me?” Aunt Phoebe shook her head. “I am sure the housekeeper at Whitemeadow has complete oversight of all household matters. I would be more than happy to teach the girls all they need to know, with Mrs. Annesley’s help of course. As the vicar’s wife, I am sure she became familiar with the tenant families in the neighbourhood.”

“Mr. Darcy, I know the letter said a neighbour’s steward would handle the estate matters for Haye Park, but would asking you to teach me how to manage an estate be too much? I will have to start learning how to run Cherry Grove sometime.”

“Brother, I would like to learn too!” Miss Darcy stated excitedly.

“Latin and estate management? What do you think, Hurst? Do you feel comfortable enough in what you have learned to start teaching our sisters?” Darcy asked him.

“As long as you are there to keep an eye on our progress, it would help us figure out if I really understand what I have been taught,” he decided.

“You said one letter was from your solicitor. Did you receive two? Who was the other letter from, Mr. Darcy?” Grace asked.

“Very observant, Miss Hurst,” Darcy told Grace. “The other one was from the investigator I had looking into Georgie’s old school and the headmistress.”

“What did he find?” Miss Darcy asked her brother.

“He is of the opinion that Mrs. Younge was looking for a lucrative side job that would allow her to take a free holiday. The investigator has been following her for months, and the only concerning thing that happened was a single card game, at one of her friend’s houses, where she met Mr. Wickham.”

“Does he think they have an ongoing relationship?” he asked.

“It did not appear so, Hurst. The investigator believed it was the first time they met and they only played one game at the same table. Did Mrs. Younge have an ulterior motive for suggesting a trip to Ramsgate? He was not sure,” Darcy said. “Could the two of them have joined forces? The investigator said Mrs. Younge asked probing questions of all of the people at her table and seemed to become excited when Wickham mentioned his father worked for the Darcy family at Pemberley. Wickham answered a few of her questions, but he was apparently disinclined to continue and changed the subject.”

“Georgie is a pretty, kind, innocent, sheltered, and rather naïve young lady with a very large dowry. The miniature I saw of Wickham was of a handsome man who she has known her entire life. If they were working together, it does not take a genius to figure out their goal would have been,” Aunt Phoebe said.

“Georgie is only fourteen and I would rather send her to one of my estates in disgrace than give my consent. I doubt even George Wickham would have been so depraved,” Darcy stated.

“She would be fifteen by that time, but it would not matter in Scotland,” Aunt Phoebe said to a now silent room.

“I do not understand what is happening,” Miss Darcy said. “Why is everyone so upset?”

Hurst saw Darcy looking at his sister with worried eyes. “Darcy, how about we let my aunt and sister explain to Miss Darcy what their potential motive could be.”

“Good idea, Reginald,” Aunt Phoebe agreed. “Please ask Mrs. Reynolds to join us and go fence or take him on a nice long ride, maybe both will be necessary.”

~*~

Matlock House
Thursday, April 18, 1811

“Hurst, it is nice to see you. How have the past few days been?” Darcy asked as Hurst walked into Matlock House with his sister and aunt on his arms.

“Darcy, it has been peculiar,” he acknowledged his friend with a nod.

“Allow me to introduce you all to my aunt and uncle then we will continue our discussion before dinner.”

After the formal introductions had taken place, the Colonel quickly offered Grace his arm and escorted her into the parlour leaving everyone else to follow.

“Miss Hurst, I have heard so much about you from my son and Lady Sheldon,” Lady Matlock greeted his sister once they were all seated. “Georgie and I were planning to shop on Bond Street next week. Would you and Lady Dobbs like to join us?”

Hurst saw his aunt nod to Grace and the invitation was accepted.

“Darcy, have the Goulding’s left for Pemberley?” he asked.

“Yes, Hurst, they stayed at Darcy House for two days and Alfie left with them this morning. He will make sure they are introduced to everyone they need to know at Pemberley and in Lambton. William Goulding expressed interest in working with Mr. Grey and Ward on estate matters. I wrote Mr. Grey authorizing him to train the young man, if they had time and got along well.”

“Why would they travel half a day’s journey south to begin a northern journey of three days? Could Alfie not have picked them up in Meryton?” he asked.

“That was Mr. Phillip’s doing, Hurst. I must say I have been rather impressed with him so far. He insisted we meet and spend a few days together to be sure we wanted to proceed. The Goulding’s were a little apprehensive when they saw Darcy House, but relaxed when I told them they would be staying in the dower house at Pemberley. We got along famously and signed an agreement outlining the terms to protect both families, another one of Mr. Phillips requirements and rightly so. Similar to a lease document, our responsibilities are clearly spelled out. For example, if there is a fire at the stables at Haye Park and my carriage is damaged, I am responsible for replacing my equipage.”

“I enjoyed getting to know Dottie and Martha, the Goulding sisters, through the letters brother allowed me to write them, but meeting in person was wonderful,” Miss Darcy said. “They told me about the other families with daughters I would meet this summer. The Long family has two nieces living with them, the Lucas family has three daughters, but the youngest is only nine and still in the nursery, and the Bennet family has five, two of which are near my age.”

“Do not forget, Georgie,” said Aunt Phoebe, “you and Grace will also be learning how to manage an estate when we are in Meryton and continuing your household education. There will be many duties that need to be accomplished. Your days will not be spent socializing with the ladies of the neighbourhood and practicing the piano forte.”

Lady Matlock looked scandalized and asked, “Why will Georgie be learning to run an estate? That is hardly a proper thing for a genteel young lady to learn.”

“I inherited an estate, Cherry Grove, from my grandmother, Lady Matlock. I would like to have some idea what I am looking at when I visit for the first time. Georgie asked if she could learn too,” Grace explained.

“Aunt Olivia, I think it is a good idea for Georgie to learn about running an estate,” Darcy interrupted. “How will it harm her? Uncle Michael and I have discussed estate issues quite frequently. Would it not be convenient if a man could discuss such things with his wife?”

“Well, I guess. An estate? Truly?” Lady Matlock asked with a speculative look between her guest and son. “I suddenly find myself interested in learning more about how an estate is managed. Perhaps my nephew can be persuaded to extend an invitation to his favourite aunt and uncle.”

Hurst caught the Colonel’s eye and nodded at Lord Matlock who was looking at his wife with appreciation in his eyes. It was all he could do to hide a smile.

“I say, there must be a fine line between favourite and only. If Uncle Lewis was still alive, who is to say the de Bourgh’s would not be my favourite aunt and uncle,” Darcy said wryly.

“Darcy,” Lord Matlock gently admonished. “Your aunt is right though, we would love to visit with you for a few weeks this summer. Richard would too, I wager.”

“Brother, have you told Mr. Bingley we will not be staying at Netherfield when we visit?” Miss Darcy asked.

“Not yet, Georgie. Hurst, have you seen the Bingley’s since you have returned? Is that why your time in town has been peculiar?”

“I have not, Darcy. Given the possible trouble with my in-laws, cousin, and father, I have yet to put the knocker on the door. Mr. Mayes has turned away one or both of the Bingley siblings every day,” Hurst said shaking his head. “I have no idea how they found out we are in town. We had to station extra footmen near the front door yesterday after Miss Bingley arrived and yelled at Mr. Mayes. We did get the few remaining items related to my grandmother’s will taken care of, though. Cousin Horace was glad to officially be relieved of his duties as executor. I am not looking forward to the visits my father and Cousin Alfred are certain to make.”

“Mrs. Mayes and I have interviewed all of the female staff of his townhouse while Reginald and Mr. Mayes handled the males. We are trying to identify any who may be loyal to the Bingley’s instead of the Hurst’s,” Aunt Phoebe informed everyone in the room.

“I wish you both luck,” Lord Matlock said. “It is not an easy task to undertake.”

“Miss Hurst, would you and Georgie like to walk in the park with me tomorrow?” the Colonel asked.

“Colonel, given my family members who have yet to make an appearance at my townhouse, I do not want Grace in public without me. We shall all go,” Hurst answered for his sister. “What time?”

~*~

Hyde Park, London
Friday, April 19, 1811

Grace Hurst strolled along one of the paths in Hyde Park on the arm of Colonel The Honourable Richard Fitzwilliam. She could feel the strength of his arm under her hand and it was exhilarating. When he left Pemberley a few months ago, she had no possible way to know how much she would miss him. The temptation to snuggle closer was strong, but she knew her Aunt Phoebe would give her a never-ending lecture and Reginald just might lock her in the attic of his townhouse. She had not yet decided if the comfort it would give was worth the possible risk to her freedom.

When they arrived at Hyde Park, Georgie took Reginald’s arm and started the group walking along the path. She would have to figure out some way to repay her friend for the timely assistance. Grace had seen her brother look back every once in a while, but with Aunt Phoebe, Mr. Darcy, and Mrs. Annesley walking behind her and the Colonel, he had nothing of which to complain.

The group had been walking in the busy park for twenty minutes and Grace had lost track of how many times the group had stopped to speak to an acquaintance someone had met along the way.

The most recent people they encountered were Lady Sheldon, her two young daughters Lady Sarah and Lady Elinor, and Grace’s friend Clara. Lady Sheldon and Clara were in town for the season and decided to take the younger girls for a walk. As both ladies were eager to hear how Grace’s life had improved once she was free from her parents, the groups merged and started walking again. Grace was delighted to see the elder daughter, Lady Sarah, walk slightly ahead with Georgie and Reginald chatting happily about drawing while the younger, Lady Elinor, walked next to the Colonel and was asking him questions about his uniform and riding horses. It melted her heart to see how kind he was with the young girl, then realized she should not be surprised because Georgie was so much younger than him.

Grace saw Georgie, Lady Sarah, and Reginald, who were about twenty paces in front of the rest of their group, come to an abrupt halt just before a bend in the path and quickly turn around. She asked the Colonel if he could tell what had happened.

“I am sorry, Miss Hurst, I have no idea. There must be someone on the path ahead they know, but the trees are blocking my view,” he replied. “Let us walk a little faster, sprout looks uncomfortable.”

“Yes, the angle she is holding her head is a dead giveaway, but she also looks afraid,” Grace said as Mr. Darcy walked past them quickly. “Apparently, her brother agrees.”

She saw Miss Darcy mouth Bingley to her brother just as the siblings came into view. As soon as they were close enough, she said, “Lady Sheldon, I am sorry but we must part company. Reginald, you and Mrs. Annesley get Georgie to the carriage while the Colonel, Aunt Phoebe, and I help Mr. Darcy.”

“Is that Miss Darcy I see further up the path? I do not recognize the man she is with, is it one of your Fitzwilliam cousins?” they heard Miss Bingley ask Mr. Darcy while trying to take his arm. Mr. Darcy stepped back quickly and put his arms behind his back.

“Aunt Phoebe and Colonel Fitzwilliam, please forgive what I am about to do,” she said quickly before taking a deep breath and walking forward to enter the fray.

“William,” Grace cooed while approaching Mr. Darcy from behind. Hearing the nickname his sister used, in a tone of voice it had never before been spoken, caused Mr. Darcy to stop his greeting of the siblings, turn around quickly, and unclasp his arms. Pretending he was the Colonel, she grabbed his arm, stepped closer than strictly proper, looked up at him, and said, “We should join Georgie and our friends.”

“Uh, sure, whatever you say,” Mr. Darcy answered, looking confused for a moment before he grinned.

“Miss Hurst, what are you doing here?” Miss Bingley sneered loudly to the capture the attention of the people walking nearby. “How dare you importune Mr. Darcy! You should not risk harming the good name of dear Miss Darcy by claiming a false friendship and speaking of her so informally. How uncouth! Are you trying to use Mr. Hurst’s slight acquaintance with Mr. Darcy, created through the close friendship he has with Charles, to raise your connections? Or, even worse, are you trying to force Mr. Darcy to propose in order to retain his honour? I dare say I need to have a conversation with Mr. Hurst regarding your disgracefully inappropriate behaviour.”

Grace looked Miss Bingley dead in the eye and without acknowledging her, turned around dragging Mr. Darcy along. As expected, she saw her aunt and the Colonel, but surprisingly enough, Lady Sheldon and Clara were waiting on the path too.

“Imagine, Mr. Bingley standing about in a stupid manner letting that woman make a dunce out of herself in the middle of the park. To call your friendship with my brother slight is a ridiculous fallacy,” Grace said to Mr. Darcy a little louder than normal as they approached the rest of their party. “I do believe you inviting my brother to spend five months at your estate, with his sister and aunt, means you are close friends. She obviously does not know you well enough if she thinks anything could force a man as arrogant and conceited as you to do something you did not want to. Besides, I rather think her accusation is the pot calling the kettle black.”

“Quite so,” Mr. Darcy answered, sounding amused.

Behind her, she heard Miss Bingley let out an exasperated screech.

“Charles, take me home. Now!”

“Insufferable, horrid women,” she hissed quietly after she had taken the Colonel’s offered arm. “How dare she call my behaviour inappropriate. I am sorry, Mr. Darcy, but I know you would have ended up inviting them to take tea with us because you are too much of a gentleman. I could not bear to see Reginald upset and make poor Georgie suffer Miss Bingley’s fawning. I will have to warn my brother what I just did. He could not have honourably acted against Miss Bingley without completely cutting the acquaintance, but as a female I have more leeway. We may need to move to your townhouse, Aunt Phoebe.”

“Grace,” Aunt Phoebe hissed.

Grace could tell her aunt was winding up for an epic lecture on deportment, which if she was being honest, she deserved, but thankfully Lady Sheldon interrupted loudly for the benefit of the crowd that had yet to disperse.

“Grace, Clara told us Mr. Darcy took you and Miss Darcy out on horse drawn sleigh rides when you were at Pemberley. When you all dine with us later this week, you must tell me all about the visit. Mr. Darcy, Lord Sheldon is looking forward to hearing all about how you and Colonel Fitzwilliam taught Mr. Hurst to fence. I do hope Mr. Hurst is skilled because my husband is quite eager for a new partner,” Lady Sheldon announced.

Grace did not remember receiving an invitation to dine with the Sheldon’s, but she could see the crowd Miss Bingley had delighted in creating were listening with anticipation of more gossip to spread.

“Lady Sheldon, I left Pemberley just after twelfth night so Darcy took the brunt of Hurst’s fencing training. He was already better than expected after two weeks, so I am eager for a bout with him myself. The addition of Mr. Hurst, Lady Dobbs, and Miss Hurst to our family party at Pemberley, made my visit more enjoyable than anticipated. I would be honoured to tell you all about the goings-on. My young cousin has apparently become quite an intimate of Miss Hurst. I do believe Georgie thinks of her as a sister she always wanted,” the Colonel responded just as loudly with a wicked grin.

Grace realized what was happening and appreciated the Colonel was quick on the uptake. “Georgie has indeed become one of my closest friends. Poor Aunt Phoebe,” she said with a shake of her head. “She was trying to prepare Georgie for her presentation, and I was not very helpful.”

“To be fair, Miss Hurst, from what Georgie wrote to me, you only instigated mutiny and absconded to the orangery with my ward when she needed a break. I do feel bad for poor Darcy though,” the Colonel said playfully, “Georgie took advantage of his good nature and he ended up sitting for your paintings and drawings more times than I thought possible.”

“His good nature?” Grace asked with a laugh. “I believe it was due to the fact that the man cannot stand to see his sister disappointed.”

“I am standing right here, you know,” Darcy tried to interrupt.

“My husband is the same way with Sarah. All she has to do is look at him with forlorn eyes, and he agrees to almost anything,” Lady Sheldon said with a grin.

“Georgie and I improved our chess skills over the winter months. You owe me a match, Colonel. I have not forgot, you see,” Grace added.

“I am looking forward to it,” he responded quietly.

“Lady Sheldon, pardon me for dropping in uninvited and eavesdropping, but it was too delicious of a scene to pass by. I hate to inform you that none of my beastly relatives told me about your dinner invitation. Was I included? I was unable to hear Miss Hurst play at Matlock House last night, unfortunately I had a prior commitment, but I know from our dinner at Darcy House earlier this week that she plays exceptionally well.”

“Lord Halburn, where have you been hiding?” Lady Sheldon welcomed the Matlock heir to their group. “Of course, the invitation included you.”

Grace could have sworn Viscount Halburn gave Lady Sheldon a slight wink with his bow of acceptance. Another one who loves to play to an audience, she thought before the Viscount turned to his brother with a challenging look.

“Richard, I am sure you need to be getting back to the general. I would be more than happy to take over as escort to Miss Hurst,” Lord Halburn offered.

“You are wrong, brother,” the Colonel responded. “I am free for another hour.”

“A pity,” Lord Halburn answered his brother with a smirk. “Miss Hurst, I heard mother mention you would be attending Lord Mordaunt’s ball with us next week. May I have the honour of your first set?”

“I am sorry, Lord Halburn, your brother has already requested that set,” she responded, ignoring the brothers’ obvious rivalry.

“The supper?”

She shook her head and answered, “I am afraid that one has been promised to your brother too.”

“The final then,” Lord Halburn stated. “Richard could not possibly have asked you for three sets.”

“No JT, he did not. The final set is mine,” Mr. Darcy answered before she could.

Grace was only slightly worried she was going daft. She did not remember Mr. Darcy requesting a set in advance, but she accepted the offer discretely as he asked for it. “I am sorry, my Lord, that set is reserved too.”

“Of course, all of your important sets are spoken for. Do you know how rare it is for a beautiful and rich young lady, who also has a brain, to appear in society?” Lord Halburn asked. “The second set?”

“It would be a pleasure, my Lord,” Grace confirmed with a grin.

“I am not so sure that was a truthful statement, Miss Hurst,” Lord Halburn said quietly. “Well,” he continued louder, “I must be off. Until the ball, Miss Hurst. I look forward to our set.”

As he walked past his brother, Grace was sure she heard Lord Halburn whisper, “You lucky devil.”

“Grace Madeline Hurst!” Aunt Phoebe hissed at her. “I am not saying Miss Bingley did not deserve what you all did, but that was very poorly done. I am ashamed of you Grace and expected better of Lady Sheldon and Colonel Fitzwilliam. That was both unkind and ungracious.”

Grace knew her aunt was correct.

“While I do believe we could have handled it better if we had time to think,” Lady Sheldon said, “we could not let Miss Bingley’s statements go unchallenged. We had to act immediately or the gossip would have been blown out of proportion by dinner time.”

“Perhaps,” Aunt Phoebe conceded. “Grace, we need to speak with your brother and make some decisions as a family.”

“You are all welcome to take tea at Sheldon House. We could convene a war council by inviting the Matlock’s too,” Lady Sheldon invited the group. “The best way to combat the Bingley’s, will be a united front.”

When they arrived at the Grosvenor Gate, Grace’s spirits were lifted to see her brother and Miss Darcy playing in the grass with Lady Sheldon’s daughters.

~*~

Lochdale, Inverness
Friday, May 17, 1811

“Lydia, I believe our work here is done,” Matilda Tucker announced to her charge.

“Really, Matilda? Do you mean it? I can go home?” the young girl asked with tears in her eyes.

“You have made a tremendous amount of progress while here. You are behaving properly, but more importantly, seem to understand why it is necessary. If you do not listen to Mrs. Waldron at Longbourn, we will end up right back here,” she warned sternly.

“You, Lara, and Mrs. Douglas helped me understand. I always thought propriety existed to make adults boring,” Lydia admitted.

“Well, I am sure there is a fair bit of that mixed into the rules too,” Matilda agreed with a grin.

“I never realized how little servants earn for the long hours they work. Papa gives me more pin money than the wages I received here,” Lydia said.

“Lydia, I am pleased you made the connection. You do realize, do you not, that Mrs. Douglas assigned you jobs that would not damage your hands? Normally, the maid who polishes the furniture would dust first and the maid who washed the clothes would fold them. You were given the easy tasks.”

“I did not at first, but Lara pointed it out to me. She helped me realize I was very fortunate to be born a gentlewoman and should not squander the gift God gave me.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

 

Darcy Townhouse, London
Friday, May 24, 1811

 

“Mr. Bingley is here to see you, sir,” Jeffries announced.

 

Fitzwilliam Darcy closed his eyes, hung his head, took a deep breath, and then looked up at his long-time butler. “Is he alone?”

 

“Yes, sir, this time he is.”

 

“Jeffries, I have known you my entire life. What else?” he asked.

 

“He looks miserable, sir. This is the first time you have actually been in the house when he called. The surprise on his face when I told him I would see if you were available was quite clear. I think you should see him.”

 

“It needs to be done. Show him in,” he agreed.

 

“Very good, sir.”

 

“Jeffries, wait. Please interrupt us in fifteen minutes,” Darcy instructed his butler as he handed him a random invitation from his desk. Other than a slight quirk of his mouth, the venerable butler was too well trained to show surprise at Darcy asking him to participate in a slight deception.

 

“Darcy, I cannot believe I was not turned away again,” Bingley said petulantly.

 

“I have been busy, Bingley. Believe me or not, this is the first time I have been at home when you called. You could have sent a note requesting an appointment with me,” Darcy calmly responded.

 

“You have time to spend with Miss Hurst. The society columns have been filled with articles about your outings. I hear she was your guest at Pemberley for five months.”

 

“With her brother and aunt in residence too, Bingley. Lady Matlock has taken an interest in Miss Hurst and Georgiana is good friends with her. My sister and Miss Hurst spent the winter creating a list of attractions they wanted to visit and my aunt has given me a list of events she required me to attend. My Fitzwilliam cousins and I are taking turns escorting the ladies to exhibits, parks, the menagerie, and whatever else they added to that blasted list. Lady Matlock is my aunt, I could not refuse her request to help protect Miss Hurst at the parties and balls she assigned to me.” Darcy took a deep breath before responding. “I am only going to be in London for six weeks total. I spend more waking hours at Matlock House than here.”

 

“Caroline is furious. She believes Miss Hurst should still be in half-mourning and wants to know why she is being allowed to take part in the season.”

 

“The twelve weeks propriety dictates to mourn an in-law has clearly passed. Surely you do not expect her to mourn Mrs. Hurst as a full sibling? According to Hurst, they had met no more than three times. He was shocked Miss Bingley recognized his sister.”

 

“I had no idea who she was, I do not know how Caroline remembered.”

 

“Bingley, we need to discuss what happened in the park.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

This was going to be harder than Darcy thought. “You stood by, without saying a word, and watched as your sister loudly, viciously, and very publicly cast aspersions on the character of a respectable young lady. In front of her titled aunt and friend, no less. How have you been received in town since our last meeting?”

 

“We have been turned away from every visit we have tried to make. Caroline did not mean anything by what she said,” Bingley dismissed.

 

“Did not mean anything by it?” Darcy asked incredulously. “How can you be so oblivious to the possible consequences of what your sister did? Even if only a few people believed the vitriol she spewed, you know from your own recent experience how fast gossip spreads, true or not. All it would take is for one slighted person to start fanning the flames and Miss Hurst would have been ruined. Thankfully, Lady Dobbs and Lady Sheldon acted immediately to counteract the potential harm.”

 

“If anything, Miss Hurst seems to be more popular now than before.”

 

“Exactly my point, Bingley. What if a young lady was in the process of becoming friends with a gentleman who abandoned her and transferred his attentions to Miss Hurst? Your sister created the perfect opportunity for someone to harm Miss Hurst, even if they had to embellish what they heard and give false testimony.”

 

“I think Caroline is more upset that you have spent the past six months with Miss Hurst instead of her, as is her due.”

 

“Her due?” Darcy asked incredulously.

 

“Would you like it if the woman you were almost engaged to spent so much time with another man?”

 

“What are you talking about Bingley? Who is almost engaged?” he was afraid to ask.

 

“You and Caroline, of course,” Bingley answered.

 

“Do be serious, Bingley. I do not have a lot of time and we have more to discuss.”

 

“I am serious. Caroline assured me that you were close to announcing your engagement just before Louisa fell. We decided a man as honourable as you would wait until we were out of mourning. I know it is a few days early, but I thought we should get the formalities out of the way. You have my permission and blessing to marry my sister.”

 

Darcy could not believe what he was hearing. It was one thing to suspect the Bingley’s wanted the connection, but for him to announce it as fact, was another.

 

“Darcy? Are you alright?” Bingley asked. “Darcy! You look sick. Should I call Jeffries?”

 

“Are you out of your senses, Bingley? Did someone put you up to this? Did you place bets on how I would respond?”

 

“So, Caroline was right. Miss Hurst has turned your head?” Bingley asked with a hard look.

 

“Bingley,” he said slowly, trying to be patient, “did I ever ask you for permission to court your sister?”

 

“No, but we are such good friends, and you have been separated for so long, I am willing to overlook that step,” Bingley said confidently.

 

“Have I ever called on Miss Bingley?”

 

“Yes, you visited the townhouse frequently,” Bingley answered immediately.

 

“As your guest. Think back,” Darcy demanded. “Did I ever arrive at the Hurst Townhouse unexpected, give the butler my card, and ask to pay a call on Miss Bingley?”

 

“Not that I am aware of, but you must have.”

 

“Did I ever ask Miss Bingley to dance more than one set?”

 

“You cannot expect me to remember every set you and my sister have danced,” Bingley said dismissively.

 

“Did I ever ask her for the first set?” Darcy tried again.

 

“No, you know Caroline likes to be fashionably late. We always miss the first.”

 

“How many times did I escort Miss Bingley to Hyde Park?”

 

“I know that answer, never. She was mighty upset you were there with Miss Hurst last month.”

 

“How many times have I sent your sister flowers?”

 

When Bingley did not answer, he continued, “Let us sum this conversation, shall we? I did not ask to court Miss Bingley, nor did I call on her, dance more than one set with her, partner with her for the first, escort her on a walk or carriage ride, or send her flowers. Why, exactly, do you think I am about to propose?”

 

“But,” Bingley sputtered, “Caroline said you were going to. Ever since we met in the park, people have been even more dismissive of us. She has been trying to win the favour of anyone that will talk to us by telling them she has an understanding with you that will be announced after our mourning ends. Do you know they laugh at her because of the articles in the paper about you and Miss Hurst?”

 

“Your sister has been telling people I asked for her hand?” Darcy almost yelled. When Bingley nodded, he called, “Jeffries!”

 

The door opened immediately.

 

“Yes, sir. I was on my way to inform you Lady Matlock sent a messenger over asking you to meet her in half an hour and I have to give you this,” Jeffries said, handing the invitation back to him.

 

“Tell the messenger I will be there and that Aunt Olivia needs to convene the war council. She will know what it means,” he ordered abruptly.

 

“Very well, sir. Should I escort Mr. Bingley out? When you arrived, you told me you were only here to find some papers you need for the meeting with your solicitor later.”

 

“No, we need to finish our discussion. Thank you for the reminder that I need to reschedule,” Darcy said as he wrote a quick note. “Have this delivered to Stevens.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

Once his study door was closed, Darcy turned to his friend. “I am only going to say this once, Bingley, so pay attention. I WILL NEVER MARRY YOUR SISTER!,” he said forcibly. “I am neither by honour nor inclination bound to Miss Bingley. If she insists on slandering my name, I will have to speak with Stevens about filing suit. Heaven and earth, what has happened to you Bingley? You really must be out of your senses, there is no other way to explain your actions these past six months.”

 

Darcy stood up and started pacing behind his desk, “First, you refuse to accept Miss Bingley had any blame for her part in Mrs. Hurst’s death. Next, you hound poor Hurst trying to find out where he is because you are under some misapprehension that he is responsible for you. Then, you allow your sister to spread malicious gossip about Miss Hurst and more recently me. Finally, you have the gall to show up at my house to give me permission to marry to your sister? You are lucky Hurst cared as much about your eldest sister as he did and did not cut all ties with your family when Mrs. Hurst passed away. As it is, you are barely accepted in polite society. What do you think will happen when Hurst and I both drop your acquaintance?”

 

“When?” Bingley squeaked out.

 

“The way things have been devolving, yes, when,” Darcy said while pinching the bridge of his nose. “Bingley, have you accepted that, even though Mrs. Hurst’s death was ruled accidental by the coroner’s inquest, Miss Bingley is culpable?”

 

“It was an accident, Darcy. Louisa fell.”

 

“Bingley, you are infuriating in your blind devotion to your sister! Think about it this way, what if you were married to the angel you are always looking for. Say she went on a morning call with her sister. Your sister-in-law pushed past your angel, causing her to fall. Would you consider that an accident?” Darcy was pleased to see Bingley’s brow furrow as he thought through the scenario from the other side.

 

“Take it one step further. What if your brother-in-law refused to blame his sister and went so far as to harass you so he could live with you for free?”

 

“I say, Darcy, that is not true,” Bingley yelled at him.

 

“Out of everything I have said, that is what upset you? If you do not want to live with Hurst to save money, why are you so determined to live with him?” he asked, clearly frustrated.

 

“Louisa and Hurst cared for us, it was their job. When Louisa died, it became Hurst’s sole responsibility.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I do not understand your question.”

 

“Why was it Mrs. Hurst’s job to care for you? Your father’s will made you the head of the family with your uncle assigned to help watch over things until you reached your majority. Why did you abdicate that responsibility to your sister and brother? Why not your uncle?”

 

“Because Louisa is the eldest,” Bigley responded.

 

“We are going in circles. I cannot do this any longer, Bingley,” Darcy said with a sigh. “You are either purposefully being difficult or you really are an idiot. I am sorry to be so harsh, but there it is. Your actions are making it clear to me that our friendship is in jeopardy and was never as deep as I thought. I must inform you I have arranged for my own lodgings in Meryton.” At Bingley’s confused look, he clarified. “Meryton is the closest village to Netherfield Park. I did accept your invitation to spend the autumn with you in Meryton, but Georgie and I will not stay under your roof. I have invited Hurst, Lady Dobbs, and Miss Hurst to stay with us and they have accepted.”

 

Bingley was staring at him with wide eyes. “You have a lot of thinking to do over the next four months until we see each other in Meryton. I am going to make a suggestion, you can either listen to me or not, I no longer care. You need to leave London. Go visit your family in Scarborough or take a trip to the continent. Better yet, send your sister to your uncle in the north and cross the channel by yourself. Whether you realize it or not, your life is at a crossroads, our continued friendship is questionable at best, and your acceptance in society as a gentleman is in peril. You need to decide what you really want out of your life,” Darcy stated.

 

“I need to attend to my aunt, but I will leave you with this question to think about. What will happen if, when you find your angel, she does not want Miss Bingley to live with you? Would you marry your angel anyway and create an establishment for your sister or walk away from a wife, possible children, and happy life?”

 

Darcy opened the door and turned back. “Jeffries will escort you out, but one last thing, Bingley. I would leave London soon, maybe even today. This time, your sister has cast aspersions on my name and honour. If I let this attempt to force me into an unwanted marriage go unchallenged, I will not be able to leave the house without a guard to protect me from compromise attempts. I had to work together with my uncle to convince Lady Matlock not to interfere when Miss Hurst’s honour was attacked. Now, my uncle will be as upset as his wife and with his support, I do not want to envision how my aunt, or more worrisome the Viscount, will proceed. How do you think the Matlock’s will respond to this attack on their family?”

~*~

Hurst Townhouse, London
Saturday, May 25, 1811

 

“Reginald, how do you feel about attending Lady Matlock’s ball next week?” his Aunt Phoebe asked him.

 

“Honestly, I am not sure, Aunt Phoebe. Part of me is excited, but a larger part is afraid to officially re-enter the marriage mart,” he responded.

 

“We all know society would not have condemned a childless widower, who is the heir to his family’s estate, for ignoring propriety and remarrying right away. I do not think I have told you how much I appreciate that you mourned a full six months to honour Louisa. You have always been a fine young man, but your friendship with Mr. Darcy has matured you in ways I never thought possible.”

 

“Aunt Phoebe is right, brother. Before I left Whitemeadow, I had letters from school acquaintances probing for information about you. The worst of them came right out and said she was a widow who wanted to marry again and asked when you would shed your mourning armband,” Grace informed them. “I know growing up we did not spend a lot of time together, and it has only gotten worse since your marriage because mother was so upset, but when I arrived at Pemberley, you had been there less than three weeks and I could see there was already a significant improvement in your behaviour, and your waistline.”

 

“Thank you both,” he said, with feeling. “I know Mr. and Mrs. Mayes appreciate the education I received at Pemberley. The household has never run smoother and the food costs for the three of us are less than when it was just me and Louisa. I was able to give everyone a raise on the savings from spirits alone,” he added with a smirk.

 

“Can you believe Miss Bingley did not recognize you as the man who was escorting Georgie in Hyde Park? We must make sure you do not see either of the Bingley’s before we leave London. I cannot wait to see their faces when they meet us in Meryton. We must be sure the first time they see you is in public,” Grace said with a devilish grin.

 

“Grace,” Aunt Phoebe started admonishing his sister.

 

“Lord and Lady Dobbs are here to see The Dowager Lady Dobbs,” Mayes announced.

 

Hurst looked at his aunt in surprise as she stood up and said, “Show them in, Mayes.”

 

“Alfred and Cynthia, welcome.”

 

“Mother, I see you are playing hostess for my cousin. Grace will have to take the role over when you return home,” his cousin announced.

 

“We are doing well, thank you for asking,” Grace broke in with a scowl. “How are you?”

 

“Alfred, as I told you when I left, I will not be returning to Surrey. In a week, we are leaving to spend the summer in the country,” Aunt Phoebe said.

 

“Do not be obtuse, mother. Of course you are returning, it is expected. We were able to deflect the neighbours’ and tenants’ questions because you were in deep mourning. In two weeks, you must resume tenant visits and your other charity works in the neighbourhood,” Alfred responded. “Where is Reginald? If Grace is accepting a call from a gentleman, he should be here.”

 

“I know we do not see each other often, cousin, but I am rather insulted,” he said.

 

“Reginald? How... Who... What happened to you?” his cousin asked with wide eyes.

 

“Colonel The Honourable Richard Fitzwilliam,” Mayes announced.

 

“Colonel, what an unexpected surprise. You could not wait an hour to see us at dinner?” Aunt Phoebe asked with a smirk.

 

“My Lady,” the Colonel said while performing a deep bow. “You know I relish every opportunity to spend time in your exhilarating company.”

 

With a roll of her eyes, his aunt answered, “Even worse than the last time, you scamp. How are you this evening?”

 

“I am well, thank you. I come bearing a note for Miss Hurst from Georgie. I walked by as she was asking Jeffries to arrange delivery and I needed to talk to Hurst about our most recent investment anyway,” the Colonel answered as he handed Grace a piece of paper.

 

“And, since we are attending the same dinner party, you could ride with us?” Hurst asked with a scowl. The honorific Richard Fitzwilliam was entitled to was actually earned in his case. The Colonel was one of the most honourable men he knew, but he still did not like the attention he paid his only sister.

 

“Since you offered, I accept,” the Colonel responded with a smirk. “Lady Dobbs, mother asked me to give you her thanks. The flowers you suggested for the centre-pieces were inspiring, or so I tried not to hear.”

 

“Thank you, Colonel. Grace, what does Georgie have to say?” Aunt Phoebe asked his sister.

 

“It is an answer to my note regarding her dress for tonight. Clara and I did not want to risk all three of us wearing the same colour. At tea one day, Lady Sheldon and her friends told us a story about a disastrous dinner they attended when they were younger.”

 

“Hurst, we will need to leave soon if you plan to arrive at Sheldon House on time for dinner. Shall we retire to your study for our discussion?” the Colonel asked.

 

“Are you going to introduce us first?” his Cousin Alfred asked peevishly.

 

Hurst made the introductions and saw his Cousin Cynthia’s eyes light up at the confirmation the Colonel was the son of an earl.

 

“To answer your question from a few minutes ago, Lord Dobbs, Darcy and I took Hurst to Pemberley and helped him slim down. Hurst and I really must have a discussion before we leave. Have a nice evening,” the Colonel said dismissively.

 

“Oh, but as residents of the household we will be joining the dinner party at Sheldon House,” his cousin’s wife spoke for the first time. “We will stay in London long enough to attend the ball we read your parents are throwing for Grace and do some shopping.”

 

“Cynthia, I would never show up at a Lady Sheldon’s for dinner with uninvited guests and you are unknown to Lady Matlock, thus you are not invited to her ball. Besides, we do not have a guest room available right now. Reginald asked me and Grace to redecorate his townhouse and see to some minor renovations. We had the labourers start working before we left, in case they needed immediate answers to questions that may have arisen as they began. Had you given us warning, we could have tried to arrange something,” Aunt Phoebe stated.

 

“Then we will retire to your townhouse after dinner,” Cousin Cynthia countered.

 

Hurst could not believe the audacity of his cousin’s wife.

 

“I am rather surprised you claim an acquaintance with the Trotters, let alone being close enough with them to show up out of the blue asking them to arrange lodgings for you,” said the Colonel drolly.

 

“Who are the Trotters?” Cousin Alfred asked.

 

“Mr. Trotter is the tradesman who is leasing Aunt Phoebe’s townhouse,” Grace answered with a smirk.

 

“Alfred, what is going on? You show up, unannounced and uninvited, and are trying to force Aunt Phoebe to return to Surrey. Then, you say nothing as your wife decides you are attending a dinner and ball you were not invited to?” he asked.

 

“I can answer that, Reginald,” came a voice from the door. “With my brother and his wife, it is all about appearance and status. How could father only have been a Viscount? My brother deserved to inherit an Earldom, if not a Dukedom. Mother left shortly after father passed away, he is worried people will assume she was forced to leave or that the estate cannot afford to pay for her upkeep. I am sure Cynthia feels visiting tenants is beneath her and is demanding Alfred make mother resume the duties. Lest we forget, everyone in Surrey must be reading the same papers I did on my journey here and are talking about all the titled people my mother and cousins have befriended in London. They are here to ingratiate themselves into your new set of acquaintances.”

 

“Harold! What happened to your arm? What are you doing here?” Aunt Phoebe said before walking to her younger son and carefully hugging him.

 

“I am fine, mother. We encountered a storm just outside Portsmouth and I was injured while trying to untangle a fellow officer.”

 

“I am sure he stopped at Matlock House first and was told I was here. Lieutenant Dobbs, it is good to see you, you are earlier than expected. Did you want to wait until I could introduce you or did you leave your trunk at my parents’ townhouse?” the Colonel asked in a tone of voice Hurst had never heard.

 

Hurst noticed the look of surprise that briefly crossed his cousin’s face.

 

“No, Colonel, I would not feel right showing up at a townhouse asking for a room when I was not expected,” Harold answered innocently. “My trunks are still on the hired hackney.”

 

Aunt Phoebe must have caught her sons look of surprise because she asked, “It was kind of Colonel Fitzwilliam to arrange lodgings for you at Matlock House, Harold. As I was telling your brother, Reginald’s townhouse is being renovated so we do not have any rooms available and my townhouse has been leased for the season.”

 

“If we are going to deliver the Lieutenant’s trunks to Matlock House before dinner, we must leave now,” the Colonel said.

 

“But where are we to stay? The housekeeper will simply have to prepare a room while we are at dinner,” Alfred stated.

 

Hurst could not believe his cousin’s audacity. He wondered if there was more going on or if Harold was correct and it was all about the neighbourhood thinking he made his mother leave, Cynthia not having to perform tenant visits, and increasing their connections through his new friends. “Alfred, Aunt Phoebe already told you we are not going to show up at the Earl of Sheldon’s townhouse with uninvited guests. All of the bedrooms in my townhouse that are not currently in use are all being redecorated. In fact, the furniture dealer emptied them this morning to sell the over-decorated pieces in his store. Unless you want to sleep on the floor, I suggest you return home or stay at a hotel. Mayes,” he called. When his butler entered the room he continued, “Escort my cousins out, please, and call for my carriage.”

 

“Very good, sir. My Lord and Lady, if you will follow me.”

 

The Colonel walked to the writing desk as Hurst’s elder cousin and his wife followed the butler still complaining.

 

“Hurst, I need someone to quickly deliver two notes. One to my mother, who is used to having my fellow officers as guests with little notice, and the other to Lady Sheldon, who has a cousin in the military service and will not hesitate to extend an invitation on such short notice. And before you or the Lieutenant complain, I know for a fact mother keeps a guest room ready to be used at all times.”

 

“He speaks the truth, Harold,” Aunt Phoebe confirmed. “Lady Matlock and I have talked previously about the Colonel’s habit of inviting military guests who have no place to stay.”

 

“I asked Lady Sheldon to direct her response to Matlock House. I will ride in the hackney with the Lieutenant to drop off his luggage. Hurst, would you like to follow us or meet at Sheldon House?” the Colonel asked.

 

“We will follow you to Matlock House. If your parents have already left, Harold will need to ride in our carriage,” Hurst answered. He heard Harold chuckle quietly and noticed his sister was gazing at the Colonel with a look that seemed too close to adoration for his comfort.

~*~

Longbourn, Meryton
Friday, May 31, 1811

 

Elizabeth Bennet watched the carriage containing her sister approach with apprehension. She trusted Mrs. Tucker, but she also knew her youngest sister. Lydia was a very devious person. She would just have to keep a close eye on her sister and judge whether or not she was changed for herself.

 

Her parents allowed Lydia and Mrs. Tucker to greet everyone before they spoke.

 

“Jane, take your sisters up to Lydia’s room. All five of you will sort through everything looking for items that do not belong to her. Once the room is done, you will unpack her trunks and do the same thing. Lydia, the first time you are found with something that does not belong to you, it will be back to Scotland,” mama said sternly.

 

“Your mother is correct, young lady. Things will be different in this house from now on. We will no longer tolerate indecorous behaviour from you,” papa said. “If you cannot act your age, you will be returned to the nursery.”

 

“I understand and Matilda already told me I would be returning the items I took from Kitty,” Lydia responded.

 

The sisters entered Lydia’s room and Mary spoke up.

 

“We should have a plan. Do we want to work together or break up into teams?”

 

Surprisingly, Kitty answered first. “We should work together starting with the closet.”

 

The sisters worked diligently while catching Lydia up on the happenings of Meryton. When they were done with the room, they started unloading the trunks.

 

“Lydia, how was your time in Scotland?” Jane asked.

 

“Informative,” Lydia answered succinctly.

 

“Informative?” she asked. “That is quite vague. What is the single most important thing you learned?”

 

“To be cautious, Lizzy,” Lydia answered, sitting on her bed. “Jane, I know it will pain you to hear, but I must tell you what happened when I arrived.”

 

Elizabeth listed to her sister, frowning when she told of brushing up against Sims. She was shocked to hear Mrs. Douglas’ story, but they had a problem with a tenant once so the situation was not completely unknown to her. Jane on the other hand, was sobbing.

 

“Jane, I am sorry for upsetting you, but Matilda, Mrs. Douglas, and Lara made me realize a handsome face and charming manner can hide a black heart. As women, we have to be careful what situations we put ourselves into and who we agree to marry. I have written to Aunt Jane, and she was very understanding and helpful. Perhaps we could ask her to visit?”

 

“Lydia,” Jane answered with a sniffle, “I would enjoy seeing Aunt Jane. She did give me a warning when I came out in London, but she was not as direct as you were.”

 

“Who is Lara,” Elizabeth asked.

 

The sisters spent the rest of the afternoon talking about Lydia’s time in Scotland. Elizabeth was encouraged, maybe her sister’s reformation was sincere. Time would tell.

~*~

On the road to Meryton
Monday, June 3, 1811

 

“Harold, are you sure you should be riding? Would you feel more comfortable in the carriage with Aunt Phoebe and Mrs. Annesley?” Hurst asked his cousin.

 

“I am fine, Reginald, my arm is almost completely healed.”

 

“I know that, but I was referring to you riding a horse for four hours.”

 

“Hurst, Richard and I have taken Dobbs on as many rides in Hyde Park as the weather would allow. He is fine and knows when to join the ladies in the carriage,” Darcy said.

 

“Miss Darcy and Miss Hurst look so happy to be riding,” Alfie said.

 

“They convinced Angus to ride in front of the carriage with them to lessen the amount of dust on their clothes,” Darcy said with a grin. “It was a rather ingenious idea. I could hardly say no.”

 

“I want to be sure I have this straight,” Harold said. “Alfie is the grandson of your housekeeper and was sent to a school to learn to be a body-guard for the ladies and the footman, Angus, will be helping him?”

 

“Angus’ main responsibility will be visibly escorting the ladies when they leave the house and Alfie’s will be their protection,” Darcy clarified. “I know it seems like the same thing, but Angus is the immediate deterrent while Alfie looks for more sinister dangers.”

 

“Both ladies or specifically Miss Darcy?” Alfie asked.

 

“Both of them, of course,” he responded.

 

“Reginald, he has a valid question,” Harold interrupted. “He cannot guard two people at the same time. What if he had to make a choice? He needs to know who his primary responsibility is.”

 

“I think I understand,” he said thoughtfully. “Miss Darcy must be your first concern. Perhaps I should find someone for Grace?”

 

“With the amount of your sister’s inheritance, that would be a good idea, Hurst, even if it is a footman specifically tasked to her safety while you search for someone more suitable. I would write Richard. He may know of a trustworthy former soldier who is looking for work. Alfie, I need to add a caveat to your instructions,” Darcy said. “Georgie is your primary responsibility, however, if, for whatever reason, she is too far away and you would not be able to help her, you will protect Miss Hurst instead.”

 

“I agree, that is a smart thing to make clear ahead of time,” Harold said. “I have been charged with a few escort duties during my service to the crown and have never encountered such a situation, but the Captain of my last ship told me about an assignment where he lost an Ambassador and his wife when he probably could have saved the wife.”

 

“How does it feel to be Mr. Dobbs now, Harold? Are you glad Aunt Phoebe made you resign your commission?” he asked his cousin.

 

“In a way, yes, however, after eight years living on a ship, it is odd to be on land for almost two weeks. I did enjoy visiting different countries and having time to read in my cabin, but I appreciate having an estate and being able to start a family.”

 

“Fortunately for you, Hurst has agreed to train Georgie and Miss Hurst on running an estate. What do you say, Hurst? Would you like to train Dobbs and Alfie at the same time?” Darcy asked.

 

“Me?” Alfie asked, surprised.

 

“Yes,” Darcy answered sternly. “You refused my offer of a university education, but I insist you do this. Besides, you will be nearby guarding Georgie anyway, you might as well participate. How would you support yourself and a family if you were injured and could no longer ride long distances? I know you do not want a job that confines you to four walls, but stewards spend quite a bit of time checking on issues on the grounds, mediating tenant disputes, and planting and harvesting crops, especially on a large estate. Also, what if something were to happen to me and Mr. Ward? I need to know someone I have complete trust in is able to advise Georgie, or my future wife, at a moment’s notice.”

 

“Will Alfie still be your messenger?” he asked.

 

“No, Hurst, since we are unfamiliar with the personalities of the inhabitants, I want him to concentrate fully on our sisters while we are in Meryton. One of his cousins will take over as messenger temporarily. I have asked Richard to start looking for a suitable permanent replacement. There are many soldiers discharged for injuries that would still allow them to perform the duties of a messenger,” Darcy said.

 

“Like my arm. At first, the doctor was not sure if I would make a full recovery. To a naval man, arm strength is vital, but to a messenger, it would not matter if he had a weak arm. I should be able to fence in a few weeks. It is horrid having my arm strapped to my body, I cannot wait to practice,” Harold said.

 

“With Alfie joining us, we will be able to alternate pairs,” Darcy added.

 

“You taught one of your servants to fence?” his cousin asked Darcy incredulously.

 

“Of course I did. I saw him and some of the boys on my estate practicing with small tree branches and he was already pretty good. I will admit, it was more for my benefit than his. Unless I needed him to deliver an important letter, I had a sparring partner at Pemberley,” Darcy said with a grin.

 

“You must be the most liberal estate owner I have ever met.”

 

“Wait until you visit Pemberley, Harold. When you meet Alfie’s grandmother, you will understand,” he said with a laugh.

 

“The majority of my senior staff have known me since I was born. It is hard to be detached,” Darcy admitted while blushing.

 

“Grams think of Mr. Darcy as another one of her sons,” Alfie confirmed with a grin.

 

“Speaking of senior staff, the ones at Cherry Grove are paid by the estate but the tenants brought in some of their own servants. I will ask the Colonel for multiple recommendations. One man specifically designed to protect Grace and a few to be footmen and work in the stables. We do need to decide on whether or not to renew Cherry Grove’s lease. When the tenants, who have resided there for ten years, signed their current lease, Cousin Horace informed them the heir would meet the requirements to inherit before it ended and he did not know if it would be renewed again. Grace and I are uncertain if she wants to lease it out again or not.”

 

“This is going to earn me a scowl,” Darcy said with a grin, “but I would suggest it not be renewed. Setting aside the fact that Miss Hurst seems to want to be an involved owner, what if she marries within the next year?”

 

Hurst heard Harold and Alfie snicker. “It does seem to be inevitable,” he agreed reluctantly. “Perhaps I will mention it briefly in my letter to the Colonel to see if he offers any unsolicited advice.”

 

“Sir, we are just outside Meryton. That tree right there has become the unofficial marker,” Alfie said while pointing at a tree that was split down the middle.

 

“You are right, it looks like it was struck by lightning. Let Wiggins know, Alfie,” Darcy said.

 

“Yes, sir, then I will ride ahead to Mr. Phillip’s office,” Alfie added before kicking his horse to a gallop.

 

“I am glad you let Sally and Reggie join Wiggins, Darcy,” he said. “It would be hard for a father to be away from his family for so long.”

 

“Who is Reggie?” Harold asked.

 

Darcy laughed and explained the history for the remainder of their ride into Meryton.

 

When the town came into view, they rode ahead to join the ladies. As they rode into town, they saw Alfie standing in front of a building with an older gentleman.

 

After Alfie performed the introductions, he said, “Mr. Phillips will be escorting us to Haye Park and introducing you to the butler and housekeeper, sir.”

 

“What a large party you have brought with you,” Mr. Phillips said. “I imagine Miss Darcy is too young to be out.”

 

“That is correct Mr. Phillips, my sister will be fifteen shortly,” Darcy answered.

 

“Meryton is a bit more informal than town,” Mr. Phillips told them. “We have a monthly assembly in a fortnight and there will be at least three other young ladies her age present who are also not yet out. With proper chaperonage, we allow them to start mingling in society, safely, and dance with their fathers, brothers, and uncles.”

 

“That is a good idea,” Aunt Phoebe said. “A gradual, safe, entrance into society should make them better qualified to understand the dangers of a misstep.”

 

“My mother-in-law started the tradition for that purpose, my Lady. One of her younger sisters was compromised at her first ball because she decided to look for the retiring room, alone, and innocently took a wrong turn, found herself in the card room with only one gentleman, and unfortunately two of the biggest gossips saw her walking out. She was fortunate that the gentleman was honourable and they grew to love each other, but it certainly opened my mother-in-law’s eyes to how vital it was to fully prepare young ladies,” Mr. Phillips explained.

 

“Ladies being compromised at their first ball is a tale as old as time, sir,” Aunt Phoebe said shaking her head.

 

“Enough talk about unpleasantness. Shall we go to Haye Park?” Mr. Phillips asked.

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

 

Meryton, Hertfordshire
Monday, June 3, 1811

 

“Mr. Darcy, I must say, I was surprised when you introduced Mr. Dobbs,” Mr. Phillips said as they were waiting for his horse to be brought out.

 

“Why is that?” Darcy asked.

 

“From the information the Goulding’s shared, and please do not think badly of them, the poor family was hounded by the neighbourhood matrons, I understood only Mr. Hurst, his sister, and his aunt would be joining you and your sister.”

 

“That was the original plan,” Hurst answered. “My cousin was injured when his ship put into Portsmouth for repairs. Harold received a letter Aunt Phoebe had sent and surprised us a week before we left London. His intention was to visit while he healed and to discuss what she wrote him.”

 

“Hurst is right, it definitely was a surprise,” Darcy laughed. “Hurst showed up to a dinner party one night with his injured cousin, then a Lieutenant, in tow.”

 

“Am I to understand you resigned a naval commission, Mr. Dobbs?” Mr. Phillips asked Hurst’s cousin.

 

“Yes, mother was most adamant that I do so,” Harold answered. “I did not know until I talked to mother in London, but, upon my first injury, or writing of my desire to leave the navy, my father arranged a slight inheritance that would allow me to modestly live independently.”

 

Slight? Most people would consider an estate, even a smaller one, to be a great inheritance. Hurst could understand why his cousin wanted to keep his real eligibility a secret. Harold had always been quiet, unassuming, and reserved. Being the object of prey to mamas and daughters on the hunt was trying, to be sure.

 

“Of course I encouraged you to sell your commission. I wanted to tell you right away, but your father was insistent we let you choose your own path,” Aunt Phoebe said. “My intention was to inform you when you reached your majority anyway, but I am glad your injury was minor and allowed me to honour your father’s wishes.”

 

“I feel I should warn you,” Mr. Phillips stated sympathetically, “that news of two eligible, single, gentlemen coming into the neighbourhood caused a stir like Meryton has not seen in ages. I suddenly remember urgent business in town. Perhaps I will need to leave as soon as I tell my wife about the addition to your party.”

 

“Mr. Phillips, would it help to mention my brother is in half-mourning for six months and my cousin is here to heal and adjust to civilian life?” Grace asked with a smirk.

 

“Do not leave me to face the masses by myself, Miss Hurst,” Darcy pled. “Georgie, did you not demand we spend time together during our holiday?”

 

“Oh, yes, of course, William. I am most eager to have your undivided attention. Is that a good enough excuse, Mr. Phillips?” Miss Darcy asked quietly.

 

“It should do nicely, I dare say,” Mr. Phillips agreed with a smirk.

 

“Mr. Phillips,” Aunt Phoebe said with a sidelong look at Darcy, “I am sure the gentlemen of the area will soon be round to greet Mr. Darcy, my son, and my nephew. Will you please ask your wife to make it known to the ladies that I will be teaching Miss Darcy and my niece how to keep house during our visit? We would appreciate a fortnight to get the household in order, and have a solid start on lessons as things apply to Haye Park, before accepting calls. As I am sure you noticed from my attire, I am also in mourning for a fortnight longer than my nephew. Perhaps we can be introduced to everyone at the assembly you told us about? I will be in half-mourning by then and will attend solely to chaperone Grace.”

 

“Too right, my Lady,” Darcy said. “Mr. Phillips, please also make it known to the gentlemen that Hurst and I will be teaching Mr. Dobbs all about estate management. In light of his recent inheritance, it is vital he learn how to manage account books.”

 

Hurst grinned when Mr. Phillips threw his head back and laughed.

 

“You will all do nicely. Bennet will certainly agree you are pleasant additions to our society.”

 

“Mr. Bennet of Longbourn?” Miss Darcy asked excitedly.

 

“Yes, Miss Darcy. I understand you are friendly with the Goulding daughters.”

 

“Yes, we are, Mr. Phillips. They sent me a letter through our solicitor last March and William allowed me to respond. Grace and I have been regular correspondents with them. We all met in London before the Goulding’s went to Pemberley. We had one full day with Dottie and Martha and we took them to Hyde Park, on a tour of the Tower of London, and to the theater.”

 

“Your friendship has been the talk of Meryton for a while, Miss Darcy. Indeed, the Goulding sisters sent a few letters to friends in Meryton before they left London detailing the outings you took them on and specifically telling my nieces that you would all be close friends in no time. Mr. Bennet and I married sisters, and I have heard nothing from my nieces for the last week except their eagerness to finally meet you and Miss Hurst,” Mr. Phillips said kindly. “Lady Dobbs, I will try to discourage the ladies from calling at Haye Park. You have given a few reasons to delay introductions that might actually work.”

 

“Even better, Mr. Phillips, because they are true,” Aunt Phoebe said flippantly. “Between training the girls and my mourning, all but the most dedicated matchmakers should stay away.”

 

“And those that do not, will reveal themselves. Yes, Bennet will be mightily pleased. Do any of you play chess?” Mr. Phillips asked as his horse’s reins were handed to him. “If you do, he may try and persuade you to let the Goulding’s reside in Derbyshire permanently.”

~*~

Cloverdale, Dorset
Tuesday, June 4, 1811

 

“Matilda, I received another letter from Lydia. You are a miracle worker,” Jane Sakville told her friend. “She never wrote to me before you took her in hand.”

 

“What did she have to say?” Matilda asked.

 

“Lydia wrote to inform me she told her sisters everything that happened in Scotland,” Jane answered. When she saw Matilda’s eyebrows rise, she confirmed with a smirk at Noah Sims, “Yes, everything. As expected, poor Jane was very distraught over Mrs. Douglas’ story. Lydia said that Jane is now leery of men and refuses to even go into the gardens of Longbourn alone. To my discredit, I must admit, a large part of me is glad that Jane finally realized there are evil people in the world. I just wish she would not have gone to the other extreme.”

 

“My dear, that is natural, it does not make you a bad person,” her husband said gently before grabbing her hand to offer comfort.

 

“Father is right, mother,” Edmund said. “I love Cousin Jane, but even after your warning about the dangers in town, she was too trusting of people.”

 

“What else did Lydia say?” her daughter Juliet asked.

 

“She shared the names of the people who will be staying at Haye Park while the Goulding’s are in Derbyshire. My husband will recognize one of the names and I think all of you will remember the second,” Jane responded.

 

“Mother, do not make us beg. Who are these people?” her younger daughter Celia asked.

 

“Mr. Darcy and Mr. Hurst,” Jane answered.

 

“Darcy, huh?” Frederick said thoughtfully. “I was good friends with his father and have met the young man a few times.”

 

“Why does the name Hurst seem familiar?” Celia asked.

 

Her son burst out laughing for a moment before responding.

 

“I know you are not out Celia, but surely you accompanied mother and Juliet on morning calls when we were in London. The Hurst’s and Bingley’s were much talked about along with the name Darcy,” Edmund said.

 

“She should remember,” said Juliet. “They were discussed in mother’s parlour more than once, although, as a proper hostess, she diverted the conversation back to acceptable topics as soon as possible.”

 

“Let us not forget, we discussed Mr. Charles Bingley at a dinner last February,” Frederick added.

 

“I remember,” Celia said with a gasp. “Mr. Bingley is leasing Netherfield this autumn.”

 

Jane shook her head at her youngest daughter and explained what happened outside of Darcy House the previous November. She was amused to see Celia leaning forward in her seat, clearly eager for all the details.

 

“My cousin saw the whole thing,” Edmund offered. “He said Miss Bingley clearly caused her sister to fall and when she was not admitted to Darcy House, left without a concern for her sister’s welfare.”

 

“Edmund, you can be such a bore,” Celia whined. “Which cousin! You have so many.”

 

“John Sutton, The Marquess of Brundel. He was visiting with his grandmother who lives on the same street as Darcy House.”

 

“My dear, I know you have a lot of work to do here at Cloverdale after we spent most of the season in London introducing Juliet and Lizzy to society, but I would really like to visit my family for a short while. Jane needs me,” Jane stated with a pleading look at her husband.

 

“That is not a bad idea,” Frederick responded. “Matilda, Edmund, the girls, along with the Sims brothers for protection, should go with you. You will all stay at Netherfield to check on some work I ordered to be done before Mr. Bingley’s lease starts at Michaelmas. I know Miller, as the steward, will make sure everything is completed properly, but he will be distracted by helping with Haye Park and his duties at Longbourn. I would appreciate having you all there. I also feel you are the perfect person to help my niece through this time of emotional upheaval.”

 

“Oh, thank you, my dear. If we leave tomorrow, we could dine with my family on Friday,” Jane said excitedly.

 

“I will send an express rider with instructions for Mrs. Nicholls, a letter for Bennet, and notes for our normal inns requesting rooms. I will also let the driver know you are leaving at first light tomorrow,” Frederick offered. “You should all go pack your trunks.”

~*~

Bond Street, London
Wednesday, June 5, 1811

 

Olivia Fitzwilliam was enjoying an afternoon of shopping with her friends, Lady Sheldon and Lady Jersey. They had already visited Hatchard’s, Floris, countless other stores, and were headed to their favourite haberdashery to purchase embroidery thread for their samplers and handkerchiefs.

 

“You were telling us about Lord Halburn’s opinion at the war council you held,” Lady Jersey said. “It sounds like a marvelous idea, you know. I fully expect to be invited to the next one, although, hopefully it will not need to be convened again.”

 

“Joseph was affronted on his cousin’s behalf, then he seemed to shake it off and laughed. His suggestions for handling the situation got worse as the conversation progressed,” Olivia said while shaking her head.

 

“My favourite was forcing her to work at Astley’s as a clown,” Lady Sheldon laughed.

 

“You must be joking?” Lady Jersey asked through her laughter. “He wanted her to take employment at the circus?”

 

“Oh, yes, he did. He also suggested each of us brush past her, just like she did to Mrs. Hurst, and accidentally knock her into the largest pile of road apples available,” Olivia said while rolling her eyes. She was afraid Lady Jersey would injure herself, she was laughing so hard.

 

“The Darcy’s and Hurst’s left for Meryton on Monday,” Olivia said as they arrived at the haberdashery.

 

The friends paused their conversation to browse the shop looking for the perfect colours.

 

“What do you think about this shade,” Olivia asked Lady Sheldon. “It would complement the settee in my drawing room nicely.”

 

“I agree completely.”

 

“This one would work too,” Lady Jersey pointed out another colour.

 

“Ohhhh, yes, the two together would make a wonderful garden of flowers on my sampler. You have such a good eye for matching colours.”

 

“Lady Matlock, how wonderful it is to see you, Lady Sheldon, and Lady Jersey. I was hoping to call on dear Mr. Darcy today but his knocker is not up. Do you know where I may find him?”

 

Olivia turned to see Miss Bingley bearing down upon them. She pushed her shoulders back and allowed the haughtiest expression she could muster to cover her face. She looked Miss Bingley straight in the eyes, silently stared her down until the smile started to slip from that woman’s face, then coolly turned back around.

 

“We are almost done, should we continue our conversation from the carriage while we make our final decisions?” Lady Jersey asked with a glint in her eye. “As we arrived at the store, you were telling us Mr. Darcy and Mr. Hurst left town.”

 

“Yes, my nephew and his closest friend were eager to leave London. As you saw at the ball I threw for dear Miss Hurst, my nephew and Mr. Hurst have both been hounded by the new debutantes and the daughters of tradesmen who think money will make genteel families ignore the stench of their roots.” Addressing the shop girl who had been helping them, she asked, “There seems to be an annoying pest roaming freely in the shop today. Do you have a room we could use to decide upon our purchases?”

 

“Yes, my Lady. Please follow me.”

 

When the curtain was closed, she told her friends, taking no care to monitor her speech in front of the girl they knew from experience was a notorious gossip, “The impudence of that woman! As if trying to force an attachment with my nephew was not enough, she greeted us as though we were friends and expected us to acknowledge her?”

 

“That was quite an amusing show you put on for us, Olivia. Thank you,” Lady Jersey told her. “I am grateful I did not have the displeasure to be introduced to that woman. She is a grasping harpy of a social climber.”

 

“You are not helping,” Lady Sheldon told Lady Jersey. “Grace told me they were all excited to leave town. Georgie met some girls who live near where they will be staying. Apparently, one of the neighbouring estates is home to five daughters who are all reputed beauties. Perhaps Mr. Darcy will meet his bride in the country?”

 

“William has always said he is not fond of the ladies in society. Knowing my nephew as well as I do, he will be struck by cupid’s arrow the second he meets the lady he will wed. Lord Matlock and I have been invited to join their house party in a few weeks. I certainly would not object to him marrying a country girl, as long as she is a gentlewoman and kind. It is about time he gets married and sets up a nursery. Lord Matlock was to spend the afternoon at his club with Joseph. I must have a servant deliver a note informing him of that woman’s latest pathetic attack against our family.”

 

Olivia grinned and nodded at the shop girl who was slipping out of the room. Lowering her voice to a whisper she said, “Step one partially accomplished. What do you ladies think, will it take one or two days for every tradesman in London to know Miss Bingley is a hateful shrew?”

~*~

White’s Club, London
Wednesday, June 5, 1811

 

“I do not understand how Darcy did not punch Bingley right in the face when he gave him permission to propose to his sister,” Joseph Thomas Fitzwilliam, JT to his cousins and close friends, said with a shudder.

 

“That is because my nephew has more restraint than you do. He also has vested a lot of time, energy, and emotions into his friendship with Bingley. I can tell he is becoming disillusioned, almost to the point of not caring, but for his conscience’s sake, he is giving Bingley the opportunity to save their friendship,” his father answered.

 

“I never understood Darcy’s friendship with Bingley. The man is too happy,” Joseph said with another shudder.

 

“Bingley is one of the few people who seemed to want William’s friendship with no ulterior motives. He told me once it was refreshing to not have to worry that he would be asked for a loan, a favour, to fund an investment opportunity, or have a female relative pushed at him every time they met,” his father answered. “Miss Bingley was an annoyance, but Mr. Bingley did not hint at a connection as candidly as he did that day last November. It was only after thinking back with the new insight, that Darcy realized Bingley had an expectation that he would ask to marry Miss Bingley.”

 

Joseph thought Darcy had a point. As heir to an Earldom, he had to be cautious any time he was introduced to a new person.

 

“My Lord, a note arrived from Lady Matlock,” a footman told his father.

 

Joseph watched in concern as his father’s face clouded over as he read the note before passing it to him.

 

“Well, mother took care of half of Step One by leaking the gossip amongst the tradesmen and I am sure she will ask the housekeeper to start the servants rumour mill when she arrives home. Step Two? I see Smither just walked in. He is the biggest gossip in the room and his mother and aunts are even worse. I do owe him a drink,” Joseph said as he caught that gentleman’s eye and waved him over.

 

“Smither, I was just telling my father I owed you a drink,” Joseph said as he indicated a chair.

 

“Lord Matlock, Lord Halburn,” Mr. Smither acknowledged them as he sat down. “I thought you had forgotten our small bet.”

 

“You know me better than that, Smither. You guessed what colour combination Lord Brummell would wear to the last ball. You won fair and square,” Joseph acknowledged.

 

“The sister of your Cousin Darcy’s friend, Bingley, is the talk of Bond Street right now,” Mr. Smither said.

 

“I am not acquainted with the Bingley’s,” Joseph said dismissively, although he was pleased to see Smither on the edge of his seat, almost salivating for any information he could glean.

 

“How is that possible? Your cousin has been friends with Mr. Bingley for over three years, if memory serves. In all that time, you have never attended a dinner together? I heard Miss Bingley greeted your mother in the haberdashery earlier as if they were on intimate terms.”

 

“Oh, dear Lord,” his father muttered somberly, and quite convincingly too, if he did say so. “I am not sure I want to go home tonight, Joseph. Your mother will be infuriated at the audacity of someone so wholly unconnected to us daring to assail her in public. How does she, a tradesman’s daughter, feel her brother’s friendship with our nephew gives her the right to approach the wife of a peer of the realm without a prior acquaintance? Does she not understand how propriety works?”

 

“My mother and aunts heard that your family is friendly with the Bingley’s, so much so, that they expect a marriage,” Mr. Smither said a little greedily, with anticipation clearly showing on his face.

 

“A marriage?” Joseph threw his head back and laughed. “You know how proud my cousin is of his heritage. Do you think he would allow a tradesman’s daughter to pollute his family line? Why on earth would anyone believe a word that comes out of Miss Bingley’s mouth? She was indirectly responsible for the death of her sister, tried to cast doubt on the reputation of a respectable young lady, and now is spreading vicious rumours about my cousin in hopes to force a marriage.”

 

“I told my mother the idea was foolish, but she was insistent that everyone was talking about their pending engagement. One of my aunts dismissed it as nonsense spread by someone who was trying to quit the sphere in which they were brought up,” Mr. Smither said.

 

“You may tell your aunt that she was correct,” his father said. “I can categorically assure you that my nephew will never marry into the Bingley family. In fact, we have heard there are numerous pretty gentlewomen living in the town near to his location this summer. Lady Matlock and I have encouraged him to look for a bride outside of London’s society. Anyone who persists in gossiping about my nephew, will feel the wrath of the Darcy and Fitzwilliam families.”

 

“I will be sure tell my mother and aunts, my Lord, and encourage them to spread the news, I mean truth, to all of their acquaintances. Oh, look at the time, I am afraid I have an appointment. Good day, gentlemen,” Mr. Smither said while standing up.

 

Joseph discretely winked at his father as their original conversation continued.

~*~

Riding trails, Hertfordshire
Friday, June 7, 1811

 

Reginald Hurst was riding with Grace, Harold, Darcy, and Miss Darcy. It was a beautiful day and everyone needed a break from learning. They were all curious about Netherfield and had asked a groom for directions.

 

They started their horses out slowly while talking about the letter Darcy had received from his aunt earlier that day.

 

“Bingley did not heed my advice to leave London immediately,” Darcy told them. “Miss Bingley approached Aunt Olivia on Bond Street.”

 

Hurst heard Miss Darcy gasp and Grace laugh.

 

“What did Aunt Olivia do, William?” Miss Darcy asked her brother.

 

“Georgie, I have noticed your aunt and I are alike in many ways,” Grace said. “She gave her a very public cut direct, did she not?”

 

“Yes, Miss Hurst. It is worse than that, though. Aunt Olivia was in the haberdashery with Lady Sheldon and Lady Jersey when Miss Bingley greeted them all familiarly,” Darcy confirmed and told them what happened.

 

“Will that woman never learn,” he groaned.

 

“I doubt it, Hurst. When they left the shop, a few acquaintances approached them to ask Aunt Olivia why she gave her niece-to-be the cut direct. As you can imagine, Georgie, our aunt was as fierce as a lioness protecting her cubs and had the backing of Lady Sheldon and Lady Jersey. She said they berated those people bold enough to ask her about ‘a vile rumour being spread by a desperate woman with no standing in society’. Between their actions on Bond Street and Uncle Michael and JT’s at the club, the Bingley townhouse was closed up the same night and it is rumoured they left town in absolute disgrace.”

 

“Who is JT?” Grace asked.

 

“I apologize, Miss Hurst. JT, or Joseph Theodore Fitzwilliam, is my cousin, Viscount Halburn. When we were younger, he insisted we call him JT.”

 

“She got what she deserved. Do you think there is any chance they will not take up residence at Netherfield Park?” Grace wondered.

 

“Bingley said he paid the entire lease in advance, Miss Hurst. It is unlikely he would want to forfeit the amount,” Darcy explained.

 

“Harold, I would like to let my horse gallop for a while. Do you mind if Darcy and I ride ahead?” he asked, knowing his cousin was not completely at ease going fast on a horse.

 

“I will stay with Grace and Miss Darcy,” Harold answered with a grateful nod.

 

“Darcy, are you willing to race?”

 

“Yes, and I can tell Cic is too. I have been holding him back since we left the stables,” Darcy answered.

 

“Cic?” Harold asked in confusion.

 

Hurst laughed and saw Darcy roll his eyes.

 

“When my brother’s horse was foaled, he named him Cicero. Unfortunately, I was eight years old and had some trouble speaking clearly. I started calling him Sissy, and it stuck,” Miss Darcy explained while blushing. “Brother shortened it to Cic.”

 

“That sounds entirely reasonable, Miss Darcy,” Harold said gently.

 

“I am sure it caused Mr. Darcy some embarrassment when he unintentionally referred to his stallion as Cic the first time in front of friends,” Grace said with a smirk.

 

“I will not tell you about the time Georgie and I were riding in Hyde Park and met some of my friends,” Darcy said with a grin. “They had heard me refer to him as Cis previously, but I thought they would fall off their own horses laughing when she called him Sissy.”

 

“I fully understand,” Harold said. “We have embarrassed Miss Darcy long enough. Enjoy your ride.”

 

The two friends raced through the countryside enjoying the freedom. They came around a turn, with Darcy slightly in the lead, and saw a little girl standing under a tree throwing a doll into the air.

 

“Miss Lizzy, you are so very high in the air,” she yelled.

 

They managed to rein in their horses in time to avoid a collision, but the little girl turned suddenly to look at them and tripped.

 

“Ouch!!” she cried.

 

Darcy launched himself out of the saddle, ran to her, kneeled, put her on her feet, brushed off her skirts, checked her hands for scrapes, and asked if she was injured.

 

“I am not hurt,” the little girl said with a little sniffle.

 

Hurst dismounted, tied the reins of both horses to a nearby fence, and watched the interaction with fascination.

 

“May I introduce myself to you, my fair lady,” Darcy asked with a little bow, while still on one knee.

 

“Yes, sir,” she responded with a giggle.

 

“My name is Fitzwilliam Darcy. And what is yours?” Darcy asked.

 

“Fiswilliam? That is a funny name.”

 

“No, it is Fitz-William. However, you may call me William, it was easier for my sister when she was your age.”

 

“I have a sister too!” the little girl exclaimed. “Molly is seventeen, she is twelve years older than I am.”

 

“I am twelve years older than my sister, Georgiana.”

 

“My name is Anna! You sister has part of my name!” Anna exclaimed.

 

“My sister is named for both of my parents. My father’s name was George and my mother’s was Anne.”

 

“My mama died a year ago,” Anna said sadly.

 

“I am sorry to hear your mother passed. My mother did too, when my sister was born.”

 

“Who is that?” Anna asked, pointing at him.

 

“Allow me to introduce you to my friend, Mr. Reginald Hurst,” Darcy introduced him. “This is Miss Anna and Miss Lizzy.”

 

With wide eyes Anna asked, “You know Miss Lizzy?”

 

“Are you not holding her?” Darcy asked.

 

“My doll is named Lizzy because she gave her to me. Miss Lizzy brings me clothes, treats, food, and plays with me all the time,” Anna explained excitedly.

 

“I wish I had a friend like Miss Lizzy when I was younger,” he said with a grin. “My sister Grace is ten years younger than me. Like Darcy, I grew up without siblings as friends.”

 

“She is one of my bestest friends, Mr. Hurs. I like you, too,” Anna told him decidedly.

 

“Miss Lizzy sounds like a wonderful friend, Anna. It would be my pleasure to meet her someday,” Darcy said with a grin.

 

“William, stand up and you and Mr. Hurs turn round,” Anna ordered with a twirl of her finger and after a moment they obeyed.

 

Hurst frowned as he heard leaves rustling and something dropping to the ground.

 

“You may turn back round now,” Anna said.

 

Hurst turned around and saw a lovely, petite, brunette standing next to Anna with a leaf in her slightly messed up hair. He heard Darcy gasp and smirked at the look on his friend’s face. Interesting. He could not wait to send the Colonel a letter.

 

“Anna sweetie, have you asked your new friends if they are in need of assistance?” the young lady asked.

 

“No Miss Lizzy, but why do I need to ask them? Why not you?”

 

“Because I have not been introduced to them by an acquaintance.”

 

“William is my friend Miss Lizzy! I can do the ductions!” Anna offered excitedly. “William, this is my friend Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Miss Lizzy, this is my new friend Mr. Fiswilliam Darcy and this is William’s friend Mr. Reginal Hurs,” Anna introduced them proudly.

 

Hurst chuckled at the little girls excited mispronunciation of their names.

 

“Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy and Mr. Reginald Hurst, it is a pleasure to meet you,” Miss Bennet said with a quirk of her eyebrow. “May we be of assistance?”

 

Darcy still looked thunderstruck, so he answered, “No Miss Bennet, we were enjoying a ride and decided to look at Netherfield Park. An acquaintance of ours will be leasing the property in the autumn.”

 

“Field! Molly works at field!” Anna shouted. “Miss Lizzy taught Molly how to read and that helped her get a job as a up maid. I am only five years old,” Anna continued holding up a hand and wiggling her fingers, “so Miss Lizzy is starting my letters, reading will have to come when I get growed up a little more.”

 

“Molly got the job on her own Anna, you know that. She is a very hard worker and deserved to be moved out of the kitchens,” Miss Bennet said.

 

“Field is that way William,” Anna said pointing behind herself. “Miss Lizzy and I would be glad to show you.”

 

“Anna, that is not necessary,” Miss Bennet admonished gently. “Mr. Darcy and Mr. Hurst will see Netherfield as soon as they cross over the hill.”

 

“But Miss Lizzy, I really like William. I think you should marry him so Mrs. Bennet stops worrying about the rows and nerves,” Anna said.

 

“Anna Elizabeth Sayers, that is a most improper thing to say, young lady,” Miss Bennet scolded while blushing fiercely.

 

“But William is nice, smart, and very pretty, Miss Lizzy. That stuffy old Baron who wanted to court you was nothing like William, so I thought if you said no to him you would say yes to William. Is that wrong?” Anna asked. “William, Miss Jane and Miss Lizzy are my most favouritist people besides papa and Molly. Mrs. Bennet always says they try the nerves and will be in the rows when Mr. Bennet dies because they refuse to marry just any old man.”

 

“Anna, that is enough. We should let Mr. Darcy and Mr. Hurst continue on their way,” Miss Bennet suggested, clearly desperate to end their conversation.

 

“William, did I do bad? I was only trying to help by splaining. Miss Lizzy says a good hostess makes sure her guests are comforble. I love Miss Lizzy and want to see her happy,” Anna said looking sad.

 

Darcy stepped forward, picked Anna up, and gave her a hug. “You did nothing wrong, Anna. This is not a proper conversation to have, but since you were talking to such good friends, it is acceptable this time. However, you should never say something like that when there are other people around. Do you understand?” Darcy asked gently.

 

“I think so William, so when it is just you, me, Mr. Hurs, and Miss Lizzy we can talk about you marrying her?” Anna asked.

 

Hurst caught Miss Bennet’s eye and had to stifle a laugh. With a sigh Darcy tried again.

 

“That is not what I meant. I barely know Miss Bennet, what if we would not suit? What if I found out she has horns hidden under her hair or that she enjoys playing cards to reading books?”

 

Anna was giggling too hard to respond.

 

“Do not worry Mr. Darcy, my horns are carefully hidden by my hair and I love nothing more than improving my mind by extensive reading. Just think Anna, maybe Mr. Darcy does not like peas. I could never marry a man who hates green peas or vingt-un.”

 

“Maybe Miss Bennet climbs trees,” Darcy said with a smirk. “You want me to marry someone who climbs trees and teaches people their letters?”

 

“Maybe Mr. Darcy likes to eat porridge? Remember our agreement about porridge, Anna. I am afraid he simply will not do,” Miss Bennet said haughtily with a shake of her head.

 

“Maybe Miss Bennet does not like custard. I would be miserable if I never had custard for dessert,” Darcy said while tickling Anna. “Adults must get to know each other, their likes and dislikes, before they can decide to marry.”

 

“Mrs. Bennet does not agree. I heard her tell Mr. Bennet once, that Miss Lizzy would be her death cause she and Miss Jane will only marry for the bestest of love,” Anna said.

 

“Mr. Darcy, I am afraid Anna will give you the wrong impression of my family. She is right that my mother’s goal in life is to see her five daughters married and has she been vocal about it these past few years. With an entailed estate and no son, I am sure you can understand her worry,” Miss Bennet explained. “My father, however, has a different point of view and has reassured my mother that she will be taken care of when a distant cousin inherits the estate. None of us will be made to marry against our will.”

 

“I have been out in society for six years, most of them after my father passed away. I understand what it is like being surrounded by people who want you to marry,” Darcy said solemnly.

 

“William, you look sad. I could cheer you up! Papa says it always makes him happier when I give him a kiss and a big hug,” Anna said before kissing his cheek, laying her head on his shoulder, and giving him a hug.

 

As Miss Elizabeth was explaining about her mother, Hurst heard horses approaching. He turned his head and enjoyed the look of shock on Miss Darcy’s face upon seeing her brother with a child in his arms. He helped both ladies dismount and heard Miss Darcy gasp and saw her smile when Anna hugged and kissed Darcy.

 

“My brother has always been most comfortable around children,” Miss Darcy said quietly.

 

As they approached Darcy, Miss Bennet, and Anna, Hurst saw two people enter the clearing from a side path and froze.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12

 

Knots Inn, Nottingham
Friday, June 7, 1811

 

Charles Bingley was at the end of his patience. His sister had fought with and harassed him for the entire two days of their travel to Yorkshire. They had stopped to let the horses rest, refresh themselves, eat some food, and his sister would not stop complaining long enough to take a breath.

 

“Enough Caroline! We will be at Uncle Wilbur’s house before dark and you will stay with him while I travel to France,” he told his sister sternly.

 

“But, Charles, why did we have to leave London? Why are we travelling to Yorkshire non-stop when it is terribly dangerous to proceed at night? Why are you going to France? Why can I not go with you? I have been begging you to take me shopping in Paris,” Caroline whined.

 

“Listen to yourself, Caroline. You sound like a child of five years constantly asking their nanny ‘why’. I have answered all of your questions, more times than I can count. Repeating them will not change my responses. If you do not yet understand it was your actions that forced us to flee London in shame, I do not know how to make you understand.”

 

“What did I do that was wrong? Miss Hurst was acting like a tart with my soon to be betrothed. Lady Matlock is to be my aunt. How was it improper to greet her when I noticed she was in the same haberdashery?”

 

Finally, the first new topics of conversation in two days. “How was walking in the park with her brother, aunt, Mr. Darcy, Miss Darcy, and Lady Sheldon and her daughters acting like a tart? Were you not also walking in the park with your brother?”

 

“She should have been in half-mourning! Instead, she was allowed to attend balls with Lady Matlock we could only dream of being admitted to. Why, Lady Matlock even held a ball in her honour. It is not fair!” his sister yelled. “She should have held one for me.”

 

“Caroline, I have told you again and again, Miss Hurst properly mourned Louisa. Besides, you have never been introduced to Lady Matlock. Why would she throw a ball in your honour? Sister, you are making no sense.”

 

“I should have been introduced to Lady Matlock,” Caroline said with a grimace. “I do not understand why she did not overlook the slight impropriety and recognize me. Mr. Darcy will be mine!”

 

“Slight impropriety? You approached some of the highest placed ladies in society as if you were on intimate terms, in a very public place. What did you expect to happen?”

 

“To be acknowledged!” his sister almost shrieked. “When I am Mrs. Darcy, they will have to court my favour. I plan to make them work for my forgiveness.”

 

Charles shook his head and barely refrained from rolling his eyes. “I have been meaning to ask you, Caroline. Why did you tell me Darcy was going to offer for you?”

 

“Because he is. I am sure it will happen when we are at Netherfield Park.”

 

“What gave you that impression?” Charles asked.

 

“Why are you asking me these ridiculous questions? Everyone knew he was ready to propose when we had to go into mourning,” Caroline stated dismissively. “It was most inconveniently timed.”

 

“Inconveniently timed? Our sister died! Do you feel guilty for your part in the accident, at all?”

 

“I played no part in Louisa’s fall. Do not be ridiculous, Charles!”

 

“How can you think that? The coroner ruled the death was accidental, however, he did say you helped contribute by causing Louisa to become unbalanced,” Charles said bluntly.

 

“You are speaking nonsense, Charles. For the last time, I had absolutely nothing do with Louisa’s death. Why are you taunting me with these unfounded accusations? Are you informing Mr. Darcy of this slander when you write to him? Why would you try to sabotage my relationship with him? Do you care nothing for me? I am the future Mrs. Darcy! It seems you do not respect me, but you will at least respect my future position or you will not be welcomed into my homes!” his sister practically screamed at him.

 

“Your relationship? What actions of Darcy’s gave you that impression? Did he ever call on you?” he tried another track with a scowl on his face.

 

“Of course he did, Charles. He was at the Hurst townhouse all the time, you know that.”

 

“He was there at my invitation, Caroline. Did he ever arrive, when I was not home, and ask to speak with you?”

 

“Not that I recall. Really, Charles, you are being so tedious.”

 

Charles felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. Had he done his friend a disservice? “Caroline, did Darcy ever send you flowers?”

 

“Mr. Darcy? Send flowers? You must be joking.”

 

“I am serious, Caroline. Did he ever ask you to reserve him a set, in advance of a ball?” he asked hopefully.

 

“No, because he knew he did not have to. I always saved the supper set for him.”

 

“He never called on you. He never sent you flowers. He never asked for a set, in advance. I am confused, Caroline. What made you think Darcy was anything other than my friend?” Charles asked, hoping she could show some sign that Darcy encouraged her.

 

“Surely, Charles, you would have to be a woman to understand. Louisa and all of my friends agreed he was on the verge of proposing,” his sister said. “I refuse to stay with Uncle Wilbur. I will be joining you.”

 

He could tell he was wasting his time. Nothing he said to his sister had been heard. He had an unpleasant suspicion this is what Darcy felt like the last time they met. “No, you will not. Did you forget that father’s will put me in charge of your inheritance until you are thirty-years-old? With me out of the country, you will be under Uncle Wilbur’s protection and he will have control of your dowry and give you access to your pin money.”

 

He was pleased to see the first bit of fear from her this trip. “What do you think Uncle Wilbur will say when I tell him that I had to make an agreement with our brother-in-law to keep you from being arrested for theft? Or that Hurst could make me pay him almost £7,000 for that little scene you caused in Hyde Park? Would you like to lose even more of your dowry?”

 

“What do you mean? He cannot take any more of my dowry!” Caroline shouted.

 

“Oh yes he can, Caroline. Did you forget the contract we both signed? I demanded you were present when the solicitor explained the contract and had you sign a copy so that you could not claim you did not understand your restrictions. You agreed not to spread gossip about the Hurst family, or you would forfeit the other £5,000 in recompense for the jewellery and items you tried to steal along with almost £2,000 for the items that were broken or previously stolen and tracked back to you. The Bow Street Runners were very thorough. Does Daily’s Pawn Shop ring a bell?” he asked and saw her blanch. “I see it does. Take note of the wording our solicitor and I stressed when we reviewed and signed the document. It said gossip about the Hurst family, not specifically our brother in law. If Hurst decides to demand we honour the terms of the contract, how would you explain to our family and your friends why your dowry went from £20,000 to £8,000? As it is, someday you will have to explain that it is now £15,000 instead of the amount you told anyone who would listen to you.”

 

“Maybe Mr. Hurst did not realize I violated the terms,” his sister said quietly.

 

“If you want to continue living in your own world, then feel free to believe that. You realize, do you not, that Hurst left London with the Darcy’s last December? I would not be surprised if Darcy was behind the contract in the first place. Perhaps Hurst did not realize you broke the contract, but Darcy surely would have. Do you think any judge would side with you after Lady Sheldon explained what she heard you say about Miss Hurst in Hyde Park?”

 

“Charles,” his sister sniffled, with tears in her eyes, “I want to come with you.”

~*~

Riding trails, Hertfordshire
Friday, June 7, 1811

 

Grace Hurst looked up at her brother in concern when he stopped walking, until she followed his gaze and saw the newcomers. There was no question the brunette was a sister of the lady talking to Mr. Darcy, but the other one. Grace was not sure if she should hate her at first sight based on her blond hair, perfect figure, and eyes the most vibrant shade of blue she had ever seen. It was Grace’s experience that women like this one, contained a personality as dark as they were exquisite.

 

With a concerned look on her face, she caught Georgie’s eye and brought her attention to Reginald. Georgie noticed and then a thoughtful, almost eager, look crossed her face as she looked between her own brother and the stunning brunette in front of him.

 

There was no time like the present. Maybe her brother would lose interest when the blond opened her mouth. With a devilish grin on her face, Grace walked towards Mr. Darcy and asked, “Mr. Darcy, will you introduce us to your companions?”

 

“More ductions? I can duce you,” the little girl said excitedly, while wiggling until Mr. Darcy put her down.

 

Grace watched, surprised, as the child, who obviously belonged to a tenant, ran to the heart-stoppingly exquisite young lady with blond hair, grabbed her hand, and pulled her towards the group, with the other lady automatically following. Instead of the expected arrogance, the blond lady looked uncertain, almost afraid, to approach the group.

 

“I am Anna Elizabeth Sayers,” the little girl said with a clumsy curtsey. “This is Miss Jane Bennet, Miss Lizzy Bennet, and Miss Mary Bennet. Besides papa and my sister Molly, Miss Jane and Miss Lizzy are my most favouritist people. My middle name was for Miss Lizzy and it is my fault she has a leaf in her hair. I threw Lizzy too high and she had to climb the tree to rescue her.”

 

“I had wondered why she was up there,” Mr. Darcy said dryly, causing Miss Elizabeth to blush and Anna to giggle.

 

“I am confused,” Georgie stated, surprising Grace and Mr. Darcy by speaking in front of new acquaintances. “How did you throw Miss Elizabeth into a tree and how did she climb up to rescue herself?”

 

“Thank you for asking,” Harold said, “I was uncertain how that happened, too, but hoped I could figure it out as the conversation progressed.”

 

“My doll is named Lizzy because Miss Lizzy gave her to me,” Anna explained excitedly. She hugged Miss Bennet’s leg and continued, “Miss Jane made Lizzy the new dress she is wearing out of some old dresses from Long. Miss Jane and Miss Lizzy bring me clothes, treats, food, and play with me all the time.”

 

Grace was astonished.

 

“Anna, allow me to introduce you to my friends,” Mr. Darcy said gently. “Mr. Harold Dobbs is a cousin of the Hurst’s, Miss Grace Hurst is Mr. Hurst’s sister, and last, but certainly not least, my sister, Miss Georgiana Darcy.”

 

“You are William’s sister who has part of my name!” the little girl said excitedly.

 

“Yes, I am. Did he tell you I had difficulty pronouncing Fitzwilliam when I was younger?” Georgie asked with a smile.

 

“Yes, I tried saying Fiswilliam, but it was too hard so he told me I could call him William. Then he duced me to Mr. Hurs and I duced him to Miss Lizzy and told him Molly works at field,” Anna said.

 

“Who is Molly, who, I am assuming, works at Netherfield Park?” Grace asked.

 

“Molly is my sister,” Anna answered.

 

“I cannot wait to see Miss Bingley’s reaction if Anna visits,” Reginald said, a little too gleefully. “She has her sights set firmly on Darcy and will not appreciate another lady in her path.”

 

“But William is going to marry Miss Lizzy, we scussed it earlier,” Anna stated helpfully. “Miss Lizzy will stop climbing trees and serve custard for dessert and William will learn to like peas and stop eating porridge.”

 

Harold looked highly amused and a little confused when he stated, “But Darcy seemed to love the peas at dinner last night.”

 

“Anna,” Mr. Darcy admonished gently, “what did we talk about before?”

 

“I am sorry William. I member it is not proper to scuss such things when we are in company. I do not want you to marry anyone but Miss Lizzy and Miss Jane should marry Mr. Hurs cause I like him too. You could marry them at the same time,” Anna said while jumping up and down and clapping. “Miss Jane and Miss Lizzy, when you get married, can I spread the flowers?”

 

“Anna,” Miss Elizabeth said with a sigh, “Jane and I will not be getting married any time soon. Stop this immediately.”

 

Grace was astounded when Miss Bennet picked Anna up and rested her on a hip so naturally, it was obviously a practiced manoeuvre. Who was this young lady?

 

“Anna, what did we talk about yesterday?” Miss Bennet asked the child.

 

Grace smiled as Anna scrunched up her face, obviously trying to remember.

 

“To be careful?”

 

“Yes, Anna, you must take care when meeting new people. You cannot tell from manners alone if people are good,” Miss Bennet said quietly.

 

Grace was shocked to hear her telling a young child to be cautious. She had decided Miss Bennet was unlike the ladies she met in town, but now she was wondering if she had been hurt by somebody.

 

“Then you have to spend more time with Mr. Hurs and Miss Lizzy with William. Then you will know if you suit and can get married and let me throw flowers,” Anna suggested helpfully. “Maybe they can play with us tomorrow too?”

 

“Is it normal for daughters of an estate owner to spend all day playing with a tenant’s child?” Harold asked.

 

“Forgive Mr. Dobbs, ladies,” Mr. Darcy said. “Since he was twelve years old, he has spent more time on navy ships than he has on dry land. He meant no offense, he was truly curious. We are teaching him how to manage an estate.”

 

“You did not offend us,” Miss Bennet answered. “Anna’s mother passed away a year ago. Normally, one of the ladies in Meryton, Miss Thomlin, watches Anna on the days her sister Molly works, but she is visiting a friend for another week. My sisters and I agreed to assist Mr. Sayers when he cannot make other arrangements. We thought a picnic was in order because it was such a beautiful day. Just as we were about to leave, a letter arrived from my aunt and Mary agreed to wait with me while it was read. I apologize we were so late, Lizzy.”

 

Grace looked at Georgie and tipped her head slightly at the sisters.

 

Georgie nodded and asked, “Miss Bennet, would you and your sisters like to join me and Grace for tea tomorrow?”

 

“Yes, please say you will come. You will be able to meet my Aunt Phoebe. You must bring Anna, my aunt will enjoy her company,” Grace added.

 

“A tale of caution ladies. If you bring the little imp with you, my mother might not let you leave with her,” Harold stated matter-of-factly.

 

“My cousin is right,” Reginald added. “Aunt Phoebe may try and keep Anna.”

 

With a smirk, Grace said, “You are going to give our new friends the wrong idea about Aunt Phoebe.”

 

“Lady Dobbs is everything that is proper,” Mr. Darcy said. “But, from what I have seen, Dobbs and Hurst are correct that she will seek out Anna’s company. I, for one, would pay good money to witness the first, of what I assume would be many, lectures on proper deportment.”

 

“Now that is interesting, Mr. Darcy. Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth, I ask that you introduce me to Mr. Sayers in the future. If he allows, we would like to help watch Anna,” Grace offered then enjoyed the looks of shock on her relatives’ faces.

 

“Grace,” Reginald finally choked out, “are you feeling well, sister? Do we need to return to Haye Park so you may rest?”

 

“Reginald is right, cousin. Do you feel warm?” Harold asked her.

 

“Men,” Georgie said, shaking her head. “You have obviously not followed Grace’s line of reasoning.”

 

“I have,” Mr. Darcy said. “If Lady Dobbs is lecturing Anna, Miss Hurst will be left alone.”

 

Grace grinned at the Bennet sisters who were all laughing now and confirmed, “Mr. Darcy is correct. More to the point, Georgie and I would like to start meeting the ladies in the area who are of an age close to ours.”

 

“Miss Hurst, may we send a note to Haye Park later letting you know if we are able to accept your invitation? Our own aunt and cousins are to arrive in time for dinner tonight,” Miss Mary said.

 

“She speaks!” Grace exclaimed dramatically. “I was beginning to wonder if you could, Miss Mary.”

 

“Grace!” her brother admonished in a whisper.

 

“Yes, Aunt Phoebe?” she asked cheekily.

 

“I am not insulted, Mr. Hurst. One cannot live in a house with Lizzy without being teased. Although,” Miss Mary continued while looking her in the eye, “my sister is usually more circumspect and gentler.”

 

“A hit, a very palpable hit, Miss Mary. I am impressed,” Grace said. “Are any of your cousins female?”

 

“Yes, a good number of them are,” Miss Mary answered dryly, causing her sisters to laugh.

 

“Well done, Miss Mary. Are any of the cousins, who will be arriving in time for dinner tonight, female?” Grace clarified.

 

“Yes, two of them. Juliet is Lizzy’s age and Celia is mine. Mama jokes Aunt Jane was trying to match her child for child,” Miss Mary said.

 

“They are invited too. Georgie and I sincerely would like to become friends with the gentlewomen in the area. We will be in residence for many months,” Grace affirmed.

 

“Miss Lizzy,” Anna whined, “I am hungry. Can we eat our picnic now?”

 

“I am sorry we delayed your picnic, Anna,” Grace told the little girl. “It is time for us to leave anyway, Aunt Phoebe will worry about us.”

 

Grace confirmed they would send a note to Haye Park later and then took their leave of the Bennet sisters and Anna. She grinned when her brother had difficulties mounting his horse. Harold made a comment to Reginald she could not hear. Whatever her cousin said, was sufficient to make Reginald stop looking at Miss Bennet long enough to mount gracefully.

 

Grace rode back to Haye Park, her mind racing with everything she learned, saw, and her inferences from the meeting.

~*~

Matlock House, London
Friday, June 7, 1811

 

Olivia Fitzwilliam had finished meeting with her housekeeper to approve menus for the next few days and decided to sit in her parlour and read. She tried, she really did, but all she could concentrate on was what happened over the past two weeks.

 

Matthew and Olivia had both received scathing letters from his sister, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who lived in Kent, berating them for allowing their nephew to put himself in this position. As much as Olivia hated to admit it, Catherine had a slight point. She should have strongly encouraged William to dance at least two sets at each ball outside of his party, never with the same person twice in a season. In hindsight, it was obvious Miss Bingley would attempt to use William as her means to ingratiate herself into a higher society.

 

Catherine had held out hope William would marry her daughter, Anne de Bourgh, until two years ago when Anne reached the age stipulated in her father’s will to take over Rosings Park. Michael and Olivia were impressed with the niece they both thought too sickly to be assertive. Anne had asked, nay demanded, Michael, as the executor of Sir Lewis’ will, visit Rosings a few months before she officially inherited.

 

The day Anne turned five and twenty-years-old, Olivia, Michael, and the solicitors presented themselves at Rosings to enforce the change of mistress. Anne had been abundantly clear that Catherine would retain the right to reside in the main house, as long as Anne was given the master suite, she allowed Anne to run the household without interference, and stopped insisting on the marriage to William. The past two years had seen the situation resolve itself nicely. Anne was looking healthier than ever and Lady Catherine had softened, if only a little bit.

 

The attack on Miss Hurst in Hyde Park should have been the death knell for Miss Bingley in society. At the time, they were unsure how, but Miss Bingley seemed to be worse than the proverbial cat with nine lives.

 

Miss Bingley’s claim of a pending engagement was beyond preposterous, but for some reason, a few vocal people in society gave it credit. William had avoided an attachment to any young lady for so long that she could see how regularly dancing with Miss Bingley could have given that impression, except, he was acting gentlemanly by dancing with the ladies of his party. He was doing what was expected, people should have realized he was only doing his duty. The Darcy heritage was ancient. To believe that her nephew would marry the daughter of a tradesman was, in a word, ludicrous. It was not to be borne. Oh no, she was beginning to sound like her sister-in-law, Lady Catherine.

 

Olivia had used every source she had and traded in some significant favours to find out who was forcing the issue. She found out there were two sisters, who both tried to get William to marry one of their daughters, and Olivia was certain they were jealous he never so much as danced with any of the ladies of their family. Now that their daughters were all married, they had no need to hide their anger. One of their footmen, who was paid quite handsomely and offered a job should he ever need it, admitted he overheard the sisters discussing how they thought forcing a marriage to Miss Bingley would be a fitting punishment for William having passed over their own daughters.

 

Lady Jersey giving her voice in defense of William, seemed to quash all expectations. It would take Olivia longer to exact her own punishment in society. When the sisters, and possibly their married daughters, were denied vouchers at Almack’s next season, they would begin to see how foolish their pathetic attempt was.

 

“My Lady, Alfie delivered a packet of letters for you,” the butler told Lady Matlock.

 

“Alfie? Are you sure?”

 

“Yes, my Lady, I was surprised too. He said Miss Darcy was resting after riding and Mr. Darcy needed an important document delivered to his solicitor.”

 

“Thank you,” Olivia Fitzwilliam said. “Is he waiting for responses?”

 

“He stopped here first, my Lady. He will be back to pick up your responses before he leaves for Meryton. He warned it will be within an hour.”

 

Olivia had letters from William, Georgiana, Grace, and Phoebe, which she read in that order. When she was done with Phoebe’s letter, she stood up and hurried into her husband’s study.

 

“Michael, I know you cannot leave London for another week, but I would like to leave at dawn tomorrow,” Olivia said.

 

“Olivia, you cannot show up unannounced,” Michael stated.

 

“Phoebe told me I had an open invitation. Our original departure date was based on your schedule, but I want to leave now.”

 

“Why? What has changed?” Michael asked with narrowed eyes.

 

Olivia handed him Phoebe’s letter and enjoyed watching his face as he read.

 

Talking to himself while he read, her husband said, “This Lady Lucas seems like a bit of a matchmaker. I cannot believe she ignored their request to delay introductions and arrived with her eldest daughter. Her daughter, Charlotte, while apparently plain, seems intelligent if not a bit too eager to tell them all about the Bennet family.”

 

When he finished, he looked just as excited as she was.

 

“Imagine, a family with five daughters, and two nieces on the way, who are all beautiful, intelligent, and witty?” Michael asked. “While I will miss your company for a week, I think you are right. You and Joseph must go to Haye Park tomorrow morning.”

 

Olivia’s smile grew even larger. “My love, you are a genius! Unfortunately, Joseph told me earlier today he accepted an invitation to look at horse flesh with a friend and will not be back until late tomorrow. Richard will have to take me and either return to London late the same day or early Monday. I will write him a note demanding he stay here tonight so we may leave early.”

 

“Olivia, he may not be able to get away,” her husband warned.

 

“Nonsense. He told me they had light duties for a few days. If he asks his commanding officer for a day to escort his mother to a country estate a few hours outside of London, do you think it will be denied? If you do, I suggest you write a letter to your friend the general,” Olivia demanded.

 

“My dear, I am not trying to stand in the way of you leaving. Let us both write a note to Richard and I will have a footman deliver them right away and wait for a response.”

 

After writing her note, she left to pack her trunks wondering how many ball gowns she needed to pack.

~*~

Longbourn, Hertfordshire
Friday, June 7, 1811

 

Elizabeth Bennet was worried about her sister Jane. She was grateful their Aunt Jane had arrived, with their cousins, in time for dinner. Her mother had asked Mrs. Tucker to tell her more about her trip to Scotland with Lydia. Elizabeth was able to discreetly indicate she needed to speak with her aunt.

 

“Aunt Jane, I am so glad you arrived, I have been worried about Jane,” Elizabeth admitted.

 

“Lydia informed us there was a concern,” her aunt confirmed. “Tell me exactly what is happening.”

 

Elizabeth explained how Jane sobbed despondently upon hearing Mrs. Douglas’ story and since that day, had been untrusting of men she did not know.

 

“She will not even go into the garden alone?”

 

“No, Aunt Jane, she will not. She seems to be okay with Mr. Hill, papa, Uncle Stuart, and the Sims brothers. She has refused to attend invitations with us. I do not know what to do,” Elizabeth admitted.

 

“Matilda and I will talk to her, alone. Perhaps between the two of us, we can help her figure out how to be cautious without causing debilitating fear. I will ask your mother to invite your Uncle and Aunt Phillips to dine with us tomorrow. Perhaps surrounding her by kind men she is not afraid of will help.”

 

“Thank you,” Elizabeth said gratefully. “We have not had Uncle Stuart and Aunt Evelyn to dinner in a few days.”

 

“Lydia also mentioned Mr. Darcy and Mr. Hurst were in the neighbourhood.”

 

“Yes, they are staying at Haye Park while the Goulding’s are staying in the dower house at Mr. Darcy’s estate in Derbyshire.”

 

“Have you met them?”

 

“Yes, Aunt Jane, we came across them on a ride earlier today. Both gentlemen brought their sisters and Mr. Hurst brought his cousin and aunt, Mr. Dobbs and Lady Dobbs.”

 

“Lady Phoebe Dobbs is in Meryton?” her aunt asked, looking shocked.

 

“I believe so, aunt. Mr. and Miss Hurst called her Aunt Phoebe and Mr. Dobbs called her mother. Mr. Darcy is the one who called her Lady Dobbs,” Elizabeth explained with a slight blush.

 

“I know Lady Dobbs,” her aunt said thoughtfully. “I need to have a discussion with her as soon as possible.”

 

“Miss Darcy and Miss Hurst invited me and my sisters, along with our cousins, to take tea at Haye Park tomorrow,” Elizabeth offered. “We are supposed to send a note letting them know if we are able to accept.”

 

“Perfect, I will attend with you. I know I was not technically invited, however, given my previous acquaintance with Lady Dobbs, it is expected I pay a call on her.”

~*~

Matlock House, London
Friday, June 7, 1811

 

Olivia Fitzwilliam was pacing, eagerly waiting for Richard to arrive. He had sent a note letting her know he was able to escort her tomorrow and to expect him for dinner.

 

She was impatient for grandchildren, which required her sons to marry. Unfortunately, they both refused to settle for anything less than their ideal woman. When Richard returned from Pemberley full of stories about Miss Hurst, she was ecstatic. To hear of a houseful of beautiful women with brains, sent her into raptures. She knew intelligence mattered more to her eldest son, but my goodness, beauty would certainly help.

 

“Olivia, sit down please,” her husband said.

 

“I am too excited. I wish I was in Meryton right now,” she admitted.

 

“Mother, father is right. Please sit,” her son said as he walked in.

 

“Richard, I am so happy to see you,” she said while hugging him.

 

“Yes, it is nice to see you too. Now sit and tell me what has you agitated.”

 

Olivia handed her son Phoebe’s letter and, with her husband, enjoyed watching him read.

 

“My poor brother,” Richard said when he was done. With a devilish smirk on his face, he said, “From the sounds of it, if JT goes to Meryton, he may finally catch himself in a parson’s mousetrap.”

 

“From what Georgie and Grace both wrote, I am wondering if Miss Mary might be a good match for Joseph. She seems to be quiet, which would hopefully temper some of his exuberance, and she displays a playful wit. Grace warned me that Darcy seemed intrigued by Miss Elizabeth and her brother was struck dumb at the sight of Miss Bennet,” Olivia said with a laugh.

 

“Darcy and Hurst too?” Richard’s grin grew. “I will go with you mother. If the Bennet ladies are everything Lady Dobbs says, I will encourage my brother to attend to your protection in Meryton, with two stipulations.”

 

“I can barely wait to hear what you are demanding, Richard,” her husband chuckled.

 

“Proceed,” she encouraged.

 

“If JT falls as hard as I expect he may, mother will send me a letter with all of the, hopefully embarrassing, details and father, you must include one to the general encouraging him to grant me leave to visit you,” Richard answered with a smirk. “There is no way I would miss the upcoming spectacle of three highly sought-after gentlemen falling for a bevy of sisters, or cousins depending on how things play out.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

 

Longbourn, Hertfordshire
Friday, June 7, 1811

 

Jane Sakville knocked on the door to her niece’s bedroom. “Janey, may Matilda and I speak with you?” They situated themselves in her niece’s dressing room before she took a deep breath and began what she knew would be a difficult conversation.

 

“In such cases, I usually have more tact and patience, my dear niece. Unfortunately, after three long days of travel, I am fatigued. Talk to us, Janey,” Jane Sakville ordered her niece. “Do not try to pull the wool over our eyes and tell us nothing is wrong. I have been told, separately, by five different people, who all love you, there is something wrong.” Jane watched as her niece’s eyes misted up. She handed Janey the extra handkerchief she had ready and comforted her through the expected tears.

 

“There, does that feel better? Now, talk to us. We will not leave until you do.”

 

“Your aunt is correct, Miss Bennet. I could not, in good conscience, leave you in this state overnight,” Matilda said.

 

“I know Lydia told you about her time in Scotland,” Jane gently prodded.

 

“Yes, Aunt Jane, she did. Oh, I was very much distraught by Mrs. Douglas’ history,” her niece said. “She is such a kind, gentle, intelligent woman. If she could be deceived by a... a... bad man, what is to become of me? How am I ever to marry knowing such men exist? If she could not see his true nature, what chance have I?”

 

“Oh, Janey, I had forgotten you spent a summer at Lochdale with us. Mrs. Douglas was Kitty’s age when she married and her uncle was not very attentive to her. Do you remember the warning we gave you at the beginning of your first season?” Her niece nodded and she continued. “We did not have this exact scenario in mind, but I thought we did a good job of preparing you. Now I think we might have failed.”

 

“No, Aunt Jane, you prepared me as best you could. It was not just Mrs. Douglas’ story, but also... I appreciate the chance to unburden myself aunt, I am rather tired,” her niece finished with a blush.

 

Jane shared a look with Matilda before asking, “Mrs. Douglas told me she assigned Lara to help Lydia become familiar the duties of a maid. Did Lara disclose her history to Lydia?” When her niece gasped and looked at her with wide eyes, she smiled comfortingly and asked, “Did you think I was not aware? When I installed Mrs. Douglas as housekeeper at Lochdale, I authorized her to extend help to women in need whenever she could. An express was sent to me immediately when Lara was hired.”

 

“But, do you not see, Aunt Jane? What is to stop the same thing from happening to me? Lara was betrayed by someone she had known her entire life. How does one protect themselves from that?” her niece asked, clearly distraught.

 

“Miss Bennet, I believe your aunt and I have more information than you do. May I?” Matilda asked.

 

Jane nodded, ceding the discussion to her friend’s lead.

 

“Lara was not the first young woman to be compromised by that person,” Matilda informed Janey.

 

“If it had happened before, why was nothing done?” her niece asked with tears streaming down her face.

 

“The previous young lady, let us call her Miss Smith for ease of having a name, was new to the community. Lara described her as friendly but the scoundrel convinced enough people that she was an outspoken and flirty young lady who seduced him into kissing her at the assembly with the aspiration of forcing an unwanted marriage,” Matilda answered with a scowl. “Miss Smith was an only child and her father decided to send her to live with a relative who owns an estate near to Lochdale. When the same neighbour attempted to kiss Lara at the next assembly, she made a fool of him publicly.”

 

“Janey, I know the rest of the story will trouble you but do not take it to heart. I spoke with Miss Smith’s relatives the last time I was in Scotland. They had helped her parents settle in when they inherited their estate. I was told they never liked the young man and were not surprised by his actions. You must realize he was a bad seed who preyed on young ladies. There are times in your life you will come across people that cause you concern. Do not push that initial wariness aside even if you choose to give them the benefit of the doubt. Trust your instincts as Lara did. Your parents, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins will all help you. Do you believe anyone could fool your father, Uncle Frederick, Edmund, and Lizzy?”

 

“No Aunt Jane,” her niece agreed.

 

Matilda continued the tale quietly.

 

“Lara went shopping alone in their village a fortnight after the assembly, something she had done numerous times. The young man forced her behind a store, struck her, and tore her dress. Lara made him look a fool at the last assembly and her newfound intense dislike of him was plain for all to see. Her distrust made the women in the village wary of him. He told her his objective was revenge by making everyone think she had been completely violated. She was also worried if she accused him, the village would think she had changed her mind and was trying to force a marriage like the previous young lady, or even worse, would gossip until her father did force her to marry him. The new young doctor had witnessed him dragging her from the street and showed up just after he left. Lara told the doctor she lived at the Smith’s estate and he escorted her there. When they arrived, she apologized and explained why she had misled him. The doctor saw to the injury on her face then left to notify her parents where she was and what had occurred. She begged the Smith’s to send her wherever their daughter was rather than face the scorn of her parents and the village. After some discussion, they agreed and told Lara’s parents she had snuck out and left a note.”

 

“But, if only the Smith’s, the new doctor, and her parents knew what happened, why did Lara not go home?” Janey asked.

 

“Her father’s estate yields less than £1,000 per annum and he is a highly religious man. Lara assumed, quite correctly, he would turn her out of the house with no assistance,” Matilda answered.

 

“Was the neighbour disgraced for the second attack?”

 

“No Janey,” she answered her niece with a sad look on her face. “Even with the doctor giving witness and pressing the issue, the neighbour managed to escape blame again. The vile young man and a servant, who must have been paid a tidy sum, told everyone they had seen Lara leaving a clandestine encounter looking disheveled. He claimed she paid the doctor to lie in order to discredit him and his servant confirmed to his father and the magistrate that it was impossible he was the assailant since they had been working together with horses all day.”

 

“Now the third time,” Matilda broke in, “he was caught. By then, the ladies in the surrounding area all avoided him. Lara had grown up there and was very popular and too many bad things seemed to happen when he was near. He caught a maid running an errand and started to repeat his previous actions. What he did not count on, was the maid screaming for help and his father and the magistrate hunting nearby. The men heard the scream, saw someone strike a woman, and the young man’s own father injured and captured him.”

 

“Why did she not return home after he was exposed,” Janey asked, clearly having trouble understanding someone who choose to voluntarily stay away from their family.

 

“Lara thought about it, Janey, but in the end, she decided if her parents and siblings did not believe her, even with the doctor as witness, she wanted nothing to do with them. Also, she was comfortable with the freedom her new life allowed, even if she had to work as a servant,” Jane told her niece. “Now Janey, can you see either of your parents refusing to believe you?”

 

“No, Aunt Jane, and even if they did, you and Uncle Frederick would support me.”

 

“Good girl. You must find a way to live your life while taking appropriate precautions. For example, walking in the garden at the side of the house should be entirely safe, however walking to Meryton by yourself could not be. Notice I said could and should. Only the good Lord knows what will happen in our future. He gave us life, we should honour that gift by living it to the fullest.”

 

“What about Lizzy walking alone?” her niece asked worriedly.

 

“Would it make you feel better if I asked the youngest Sims brother if he would travel to Longbourn and join the household’s permanent staff with the sole duty to protect you girls? He could follow Lizzy at a discreet distance when she traipses along the countryside,” Jane told her niece with a smile on her face.

 

“I cannot see any of my neighbours acting the way Lara’s did, but yes it would, Aunt Jane. It was most convenient of Mrs. Sims to have five large and trustworthy sons.”

 

“Yes, Janey, I am sure being of use to my family was her design in having so many,” Jane said with a raised brow earning a blush from her niece. With a serious look Jane said, “In my opinion, Janey, empathy is both your greatest trait and worst fault. It is natural to feel bad for Mrs. Douglas and Lara, and you certainly should learn from their situations, but you cannot let that stop you from living your life. Hiding yourself away in fear serves no purpose. All anyone can do is prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

 

“Your aunt is right, Miss Bennet. There will always be wickedness in the world, but you have a lot of people who care about you, greatly. In addition to the youngest Sims brother hopefully joining your household, would you be open to the brothers teaching you how to defend yourself?” Matilda asked.

 

Jane smiled at the shock on her niece’s face. “I think it is a good idea, Janey. Talk to Edmund, Juliet, and Celia, they have all been instructed since a young age. With your uncle’s approval and oversight, I might add.”

 

Jane and Matilda both laughed outright at the wide-eyed look on Janey’s face.

 

“Instructed in what?” her niece finally asked.

 

“Edmund has more training than my daughters, obviously, but they both know how to fence, shoot, and just enough boxing manoeuvres to try and keep someone at arm’s length until help arrives. For example, picking up a stick and using it like a sword to keep distance between you and someone. As a last resort, raising your knee to a specific area will temporarily incapacitate most men. Sometimes, all it takes is a few extra seconds, Janey, to make a significant difference. Think about it, my dear.”

 

“Thank you, Aunt Jane and Matilda. You have both given me a lot to consider.”

~*~

Matlock House, London
Saturday, June 8, 1811

 

“If Richard is not downstairs in five minutes, I will depart without him,” Olivia Fitzwilliam threatened.

 

“Olivia, my dear, I know you are excited, but you must be patient. Richard was given leave on short notice. It is understandable, expected even, that he would have to organize a few matters before leaving London.”

 

“I appreciate his dedication to his duties, truly, I do, but I am eager.”

 

“I understand your desire for grandchildren, but there is no guarantee Joseph will get on well with any of the ladies in Meryton. As we have seen from past attempts, the more you push him to marry, the more he resists. Richard does seem to be enthralled with Miss Hurst, however, even there, marriage and grandchildren are a long way off.”

 

Olivia closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Everything you said was accurate. I know I am too anxious. I will try and temper my enthusiasm.”

 

“That is all I ask,” Michael said before gently kissed her forehead. “Ah, Richard, how good of you to join us.”

 

“I saw that look, Lord Matlock,” Olivia said with narrowed eyes. “Richard, your father was warning you to be wary because I am too excited about the Bennet ladies. He is afraid my exuberance will drive Joseph away.”

 

“You must admit, mother, father speaks the truth. If you inadvertently alert JT you are matchmaking, he will leave out of principle or purposefully ignore all of the ladies, probably rudely,” her son warned.

 

“Yes, unfortunately that is true,” she agreed with a grimace. “Michael, you will arrive in time for the assembly next Friday?”

 

“Yes. The vote is Wednesday and I plan to leave Thursday morning.”

 

“Richard, what are your plans? Will you be able to attend an assembly being held in Meryton next Friday?” she asked.

 

“I will discuss it with the general when I return. Although,” Richard said with a grin, “if I explain why I want the time off, he may insist on joining me. Who knows, maybe he will gain the respect of Miss Mary.”

 

“We will have to take that risk. Shall we leave?” she asked.

 

Mother and son farewelled Lord Matlock and were shortly on the northern road out of London heading to Meryton.

 

“Mother, I read Lady Dobbs’ letter to you and my letters from Hurst, Darcy, and Georgie. Tell me everything you know about the Bennet family,” Richard asked.

 

“I want to know what you know, too,” Olivia said.

 

They spent most of the journey talking about the details in their letters. Richard asked that he be allowed to encourage Joseph to visit Meryton after he met the family.

 

“I know my brother, mother. Depending on what we find, I am fairly confident I can have him ready to leave London at first light on Monday. If, as you say, my cousin and Hurst are interested in Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth, that leaves Miss Mary and the younger two sisters, who have not been presented. I wonder if their eldest cousin’s personality would complement JT’s,” Richard stated.

 

“I did not think about Miss Mary not being out in society,” she said thoughtfully.

 

“Mother, please do not try to force any relationships,” Richard said. “For all we know, the ladies might be calling, courting, or betrothed.”

 

“Words of wisdom. I will attempt to be patient, Richard.”

 

“That is all I ask. I would hate to see you grow to be attached to a particular young lady only to discover she could not become your daughter,” her son said gently.

~*~

Haye Park, Hertfordshire
Saturday, June 8, 1811

 

Reginald Hurst watched his Aunt Phoebe fondly. She was fidgeting while waiting for Lady Matlock to, hopefully, arrive in time for tea. He was sure Aunt Phoebe wanted to discuss the Bennet sisters with her friend before the family arrived. His sister and Miss Darcy had apparently been telling tales.

 

Hurst was certain Aunt Phoebe had also talked to Mrs. Stanley, the housekeeper, because his aunt seemed to know more about the Bennet family than he did and she had never been introduced to any of them. He would admit, just to himself, maybe Darcy too if asked, that he was impatient to see Miss Bennet again. He suspected her beauty would rival that of Aphrodite or Helen of Troy, but even more important, to him at least, seeing her treat the daughter of a tenant so kindly...

 

He was brought out of his revelry by Mrs. Stanley announcing a carriage coming down the drive. He shared an indulgent smile with Harold as Aunt Phoebe rushed out the door to greet the Fitzwilliam’s.

 

“I am glad you could leave London early. Colonel, thank you for escorting your mother. Olivia, when you are ready, join me in the study,” his aunt told her friend once they were in the house.

 

“I will be quick, Phoebe. It seems we have much to discuss,” Lady Matlock agreed with a twinkle in her eye that almost worried Hurst.

 

“It is nice to see you, Colonel,” Grace said while walking down the stairs. “Welcome, Lady Matlock.”

 

“Miss Hurst,” the Colonel acknowledged with a gentle smile. “If my general allows me a short leave, may I reserve the first set at the assembly next Friday?”

 

“It would be my pleasure,” Grace answered with a smile.

 

“Thank you, Miss Hurst,” the Colonel said before turning to him. “Hurst, I will be down shortly to give you an update on our investment. Where is Darcy?”

 

“He is taking a walk with Miss Darcy. I will find them and meet you and Harold in the study. Ask any member of the staff for directions,” Hurst answered.

 

“Mrs. Stanley, please show our guests to the prepared rooms so they may change out of their traveling clothes,” his aunt asked.

 

“If you will follow me,” Mrs. Stanley indicated the stairway to the new arrivals.

 

Hurst went outside to find the Darcy’s and let them know their relatives had arrived. Miss Darcy hurried inside to speak with her aunt while he and Darcy went to the study to join Harold in conversation until the Colonel arrived.

 

“Well, gentleman, I had an interesting meeting at SBG Shipping earlier this week,” the Colonel said when he joined them.

 

“Nothing bad, I hope,” Harold stated. “This is my first investment and I would hate to lose money on my maiden voyage.”

 

“No, we doubled our initial investment already,” the Colonel said offhandedly. “It was an accident that I overheard the interesting part. I was being escorted to his office for our meeting and the head clerk had just walked in, leaving the door open, to tell him the majority shareholder agreed to the proposed expansion of the company.”

 

“I thought he was the sole owner and as such would be the majority shareholder,” said Darcy.

 

“He certainly gives that impression,” he said. “But, now that I think back, I do not believe he has ever specifically said so. There is also the name of the company, SBG. Are there two additional majority shareholders?”

 

“Very astute observation, Hurst,” the Colonel said with a smirk. “He was a little hesitant to give out information, but Darcy and I have been investors for years and his wife grew up in Derbyshire. There are three brothers, by marriage, who started the company. The most wealthy is the majority shareholder and silent unless a certain amount of money is involved. Of the remaining brothers, one had more money to invest, but the other handles the day to day operations, so they are equal shareholders. I was given the impression the two brothers not directly involved are gentry. He also informed me that once SBG Shipping started turning a nice profit, the two junior shareholders created G&B Imports and Exports.”

 

“What an ingenious way to proceed,” Harold said.

 

“I thought so,” the Colonel agreed. “They could use their ships primarily for the second business and, when possible, turn a profit by hiring them out as they did to us.”

 

“If he is the owner of both businesses, why does he not have an estate?” Darcy asked. “I knew he was doing well for himself when he purchased a townhouse on my street, but why is he still in trade?”

 

“I asked the same thing, Darcy. In actual fact, he has purchased an estate but it is leased out because he enjoys running the businesses. When his children are older, and the second business is more successful, he will promote managers and assume an advisory role to become part of the gentry,” the Colonel explained as there was a knock on the door.

 

“Enter,” Darcy called out.

 

Sally entered carrying Reggie.

 

“Mr. Hurst, as requested, here is Reggie. The Bennet’s are expected shortly and I am to serve tea. Are you certain you wish to play with him for their entire visit?”

 

“Yes, Sally. The young man and I will be fine,” he assured the mother.

 

“Very well, sir. Thank you,” Sally said before curtsying and leaving.

 

“What do you and Master Reggie have planned, Hurst,” the Colonel asked him.

 

“Sally told me he has recently become a very curious young man. I am going to take him to the stables and then walk around the gardens,” he responded.

 

“Do you mind if I join you?” Harold asked. “I am used to being on my feet more than I am now.”

 

“Of course,” he said. “You may all join us if you like.”

 

Hurst suppressed a grin when all three gentlemen joined him and Reggie in the stables. They enjoyed watching Reggie’s reactions to the various horses and items in the barn. When Reggie saw his father, he started kicking his feet and babbling.

 

Hurst shared a grin with Darcy when Wiggins refused to saddle a horse so the Colonel could take Reggie for a ride. After leaving the stables, the gentlemen went to the gardens to show Reggie the flowers.

 

They were amazed to see how Reggie reacted to the various colors in the gardens.

 

“The lad seems to be learning new things at an impressive rate,” the Colonel said.

 

“And trying to put everything in his mouth,” Harold added. “You could not pay me enough money to become a nanny, but I will admit, I am partial these short visits with Master Reggie.”

 

“Sally showed me Reggie can stand with assistance. Watch,” he said as he set Reggie down on his feet while carefully holding his hands.

 

“He likes to bounce,” the Colonel said, sounding surprised.

 

“We should see if Lady Dobbs has requested our presence in the parlour,” Darcy said indicating the window they were in front of. “It looks as though the Bennet’s have arrived.”

~*~

Haye Park, Hertfordshire
Saturday, June 8, 1811

 

“Girls, I am known to Lady Dobbs in London. There may be a moment of awkwardness when we are introduced,” Jane Sakville warned her daughters and nieces as their carriage came to a stop. The Sims twins helped them down and followed them into the house.

 

“Mrs. Sakville, it is nice to see you,” Mr. Stanley greeted them.

 

“Mr. Stanley, it has been a few years. I hope your family is well. My daughters and nieces are here to take tea with Miss Hurst and Miss Darcy and I am here to renew my acquaintance with Lady Dobbs.”

 

“I will escort you to the parlour. Lady Matlock and her son, Colonel Fitzwilliam, joined the household today,” her childhood friend mentioned as they walked down the hall.

 

Mr. Stanley announced them to the room, “Mrs. Sakville, Miss Sakville, Miss Celia, Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth, Miss Mary, Miss Catherine, and Miss Lydia.”

 

“Thank you, Joey, we will call for you if we need anything,” Jane dismissed him while looking at the shocked faces of her two acquaintances. “Lady Matlock and Lady Dobbs, I was unaware you knew each other. I apologize for being so familiar with Mr. Stanley. We both grew up in Meryton and sometimes I slip into the past and think I am speaking with the same young man who used to pull my hair during church.”

 

After a few moments of silence, it was clear neither of the ladies would speak. Jane asked her eldest niece to perform the introduction of the two parties.

 

“I can perform most of them, Aunt Jane,” her eldest niece said, “however I have never been introduced to one of the ladies present.”

 

Once the introductions were done and everyone was seated, Jane noticed Miss Hurst looking between the two titled ladies and herself with a crease in her forehead.

 

“Why do I feel that Georgie and I are the only two who do not know an important piece of information?” Miss Hurst asked.

 

“I heard about your interactions with my nieces when you met yesterday, Miss Hurst. What possessed you speak to my niece Mary the way you did upon your first meeting? Are you always so direct and abrasive?” Jane asked. “You may have a decent dowry, but I have been a part of society for a long time. While they may overlook the harshness of your speech while you are a novelty and an unmarried woman, if you address the wrong person so flippantly, you will regret it,” Jane said with a note of steel in her voice.

 

Miss Darcy broke the tension in the room by tentatively saying, “Grace may have been wrong to state her question as she did, Mrs. Sakville, but I too noticed the look on the faces of my aunt and Lady Dobbs when you walked in the room.”

 

Jane heard the tremble in Miss Darcy’s voice and saw Lady Matlock look at her niece with surprise on her face. Another gentle soul, she thought.

 

“Miss Elizabeth, I am quite certain I asked you to bring Anna,” Miss Hurst interrupted with a defiant look at her.

 

Jane silenced Elizabeth with a look. She could not believe how Miss Hurst was acting. To purposefully antagonize a woman she was unconnected with and knew nothing about? The deference Lady Matlock and Lady Dobbs had shown in waiting for her to speak first should have clued this self-assured young woman into realizing the information she assumed everyone else knew was significant. Miss Hurst was keeping just to the acceptable side of propriety, barely, but she was extremely brusque. Jane had seen it happen before, of course. A successful season had made many women think they were untouchable and turned them into horrible snobs.

 

Knowing her friends and family would not interrupt, Jane glared at Miss Hurst until the first look of uncertainty crossed her features. “My niece Elizabeth told me Lady Dobbs was in residence so I knew information would be shared that was best not said in front of a precocious five-year-old. Anna is with my brother and son riding around Longbourn and Netherfield looking for things that need repair. Her father taught her to ride the farm horses last summer and my brother enjoys her inquisitive nature. Anna is doted on by her father and all of the males in our family.”

 

She looked at inquiringly Lady Dobbs and Lady Matlock and they both nodded. “I need to be perfectly clear, you assure me both,” Jane stressed with a hard look at Miss Hurst, “of these young ladies are to be trusted with my secret?”

 

“Yes, they are,” Lady Dobbs assured her. “I have tried to tell my niece she was becoming too full of herself these past few months. Truly, she has needed to behave better most of her life. I am actually hoping your revelation will accomplish what I have been unable to. Grace, do you promise to keep any information you learn in this room to yourself?”

 

“Yes, Aunt Phoebe,” Miss Hurst answered with a curious look.

 

“Georgie, you will answer the same question,” said Lady Matlock.

 

“Yes, aunt, I promise anything I hear from Mrs. Sakville will not be communicated to anyone else,” Miss Darcy said. “Does that include William?”

 

“You may tell your brother, Miss Darcy. Better yet, I will inform the gentlemen too before I leave,” Jane answered.

 

“Why did Mr. Stanley not address you by your title?” Lady Matlock asked her.

 

“He does not know,” Jane answered with a smirk when she heard Miss Hurst gasp and saw her face blanch.

 

“How is that possible?” Lady Dobbs asked looking confused.

 

“I grew up in Meryton.”

 

“That does not explain anything,” Lady Matlock said. “How could you possibly have managed to keep a secret this big?”

 

“Other than Sir Lucas occasionally visiting St. James’s, people from Meryton are not often to be found in society. Even if they did have a house in town, or knew someone who did, the likelihood we would attend any of the same events is slim. I did not know who Frederick was when I married him, why would anyone else?”

 

“Who is he?” Miss Darcy asked guilelessly, clearly captivated.

 

Looking her eldest niece in the eye, Jane said, “He was a kind and gentle man who saved me from a potentially horrible situation. My parents and brother liked and approved of him. All we knew was that he was the heir to Netherfield Park and financially care for me. After four months of courtship, what more did I need to know?”

 

“When did you find out?” Lady Matlock asked.

 

“At fifteen years old, before I was out in our local society, the vicar of Meryton had asked my father for my hand and it was... uncomfortable for us when I declined. Frederick proposed and asked the vicar from his main estate to travel to Netherfield, after he stopped in London to collect a special license. I did not find out until the ceremony,” Jane answered with a grin.

 

“Poor Georgie looks like she will burst with curiosity and Grace is not far behind,” Lady Dobbs observed.

 

Jane took pity on the kind looking young lady. “Miss Darcy, to answer your previous question, my husband is His Grace the Duke of Dorset, I am Her Grace the Duchess of Dorset, my son is The Marquess of Milham, and my daughters are Lady Juliet and Lady Celia.”

 

“Your nieces do not seem surprised by this information,” Lady Matlock observed.

 

“It would have been next to impossible for my family to visit Cloverdale if they were not made aware of our rank,” Jane said. “Besides, it would have been beyond the realm of possibility for me to sponsor Janey and Lizzy in town without them knowing.”

 

“What a singular situation,” Lady Dobbs said.

 

“I am still amazed you have kept an entire village from finding out,” Lady Matlock said. “Do they not realize what the crest on your carriage means? How have your servants not slipped and referred to you as Your Grace?”

 

“We do not often travel in a coach with a crest. My husband is a very unassuming man and, like me, enjoys being addressed without our titles when we visit my family. We do not require our servants to maintain such formality at Cloverdale either. We insist they call us Sir and Ma’am in our own homes. It is more likely they will forget to address us as Your Grace when we are in London,” Jane explained and then grinned at the look of astonishment on Lady Matlock’s face.

 

“Shall I ring for tea now?” Lady Dobbs asked.

 

“Tea would be lovely, thank you. Miss Darcy, do you know my husband was friends with your father?” Jane asked. “They were roommates at university.”

 

“I did not, Your Grace. Did you ever meet him?”

 

“Yes, your mother too. In fact, when you were a baby, we visited Pemberley and I held you in my arms,” Jane said with a smile.

 

“I believe I remember that trip, mother,” Julie said. “Is Pemberley the house in a valley with woods all around? I was seven, I believe?”

 

“Very good, Juliet. I should not be surprised, you spent most of your time in the gardens looking at the flowers.”

 

“My old velvet rose bush is from Pemberley, is it not?” Juliet asked.

 

“Yes, it is. When we were preparing to depart, you were so upset to leave those particular bushes, Lady Anne was most insistent you take a cutting with you,” Jane remembered with a smile.

 

“My father and brother have told me that the old velvet rose bushes were my mother’s favorite breed too,” Miss Darcy said with misty eyes.

 

“Your mother was the daughter of an Earl, yet she had a kind and gentle soul and treated everyone the same. I never heard an unkind word from her,” she finished with a quick glare at Miss Hurst. “Pardon my intrusive question, Miss Darcy,” she said with another glare at Miss Hurst, “but do you have a governess with you?”

 

“No, Your Grace. My tutors had prepared me so well, I had learned all of the subjects offered at my school faster than the other pupils and my brother allowed me to leave early. We agreed if I did not need to stay at school, a governess could teach me nothing that a companion and tutors would not. Mrs. Annesley, my companion, is the widow of our previous vicar. When we found out Aunt Olivia was arriving today for a lengthy visit, my brother allowed her to use one of our carriages to visit her brother’s estate.”

 

“That was very kind of him. I also applaud his decision to hire a woman whose character was known to you in advance,” Jane said with a glance at her eldest niece. “Lady Dobbs, I assume you are playing hostess for Mr. Darcy?”

 

“Yes, Your Grace. Miss Darcy is not out and was never trained in household matters,” responded Lady Dobbs.

 

“Unless my memory is failing me in my old age,” Jane said to a few snickers from her relatives, “Haye Park has ten bedrooms.”

 

“That is correct, Your Grace.”

 

“Are Lord Halburn and Lord Matlock to join your party, Lady Matlock?” Jane asked and delighted in seeing the surprise on both ladies faces.

 

“Richard will leave on Monday and we are hoping Joseph will join us later in the day,” Lady Matlock answered. “I am hoping they will both be here for the assembly next Friday though.”

 

“Where will I put both of them if Mrs. Annesley is back?” Lady Dobbs asked no one in particular. “Would your sons mind sharing a room temporarily, Olivia?”

 

“That will not be necessary,” Jane said with a smile. “Between Netherfield and Longbourn, we could house a small army, a very small one mind you. We will work something out. If Miss Darcy gets along well with my nieces, she could temporarily relocate to Longbourn with Mrs. Annesley. My poor brother is used to being the only male in a house with six women. How much of a disruption could two more cause?”

 

“I appreciate the offer, Your Grace. When the time comes, I will discuss the situation with Mr. Darcy,” Lady Dobbs said. “Sally, thank you for bringing the tea in.”

 

Jane, Lady Matlock, and Lady Dobbs entered into a discussion regarding their charitable works while the younger ladies broke into two groups. Her youngest nieces and Miss Darcy started a discussion about music and she was close enough to keep an eye on her daughters and elder nieces while they chatted with Miss Hurst even if she could not hear their conversation.

 

As the time neared for their visit to end, Jane addressed her niece. “Mary, would you and your younger sisters take Miss Darcy outside to show her the gazebo Mr. Goulding built for his wife? I think she will appreciate how a group of musicians could fit underneath to play for a garden party.”

 

“Yes, Aunt Jane,” Mary responded with a barely contained smirk.

 

Once the door was closed, Jane started a conversation she had decided needed to happen. “Miss Hurst...” Jane stopped suddenly when she saw her eldest niece stand and heard her gasp. “Janey, what is wrong?”

 

“My Uncle Phillips told us that Mr. Hurst was in half-mourning, but I did not realize he had a child too,” Jane Bennet answered softly while staring out the window. “The poor babe, to grow up without a mother.”

 

The maid Sally, who had entered unnoticed to remove the tea service, spoke, “Reggie is my son, Miss Bennet.”

 

Jane watched as her niece paled and began to sway alarmingly.

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

 

Haye Park, Hertfordshire
Saturday, June 8, 1811

 

Grace Hurst was mortified. Aunt Phoebe had been correct, she reverted to what her parents encouraged her to be while she was growing up. She could readily admit she had been a harsh and coarse being in her early life. As a child, she was taught what was right by Nanny Sara, but her parents did not correct her manner of speech or how she approached people. She was given good principles, but left to follow them in her parents’ footsteps with pride and conceit.

 

For many years an only child, while Reginald was at school and then married, she was monetarily spoilt by her parents, who allowed, encouraged, certainly taught her to be selfish and overbearing of anyone whose quality of attire and connections did not match or exceed her own. Her parents cared for none beyond their own family circle, unless their connections would be improved. Their example was to think meanly of all the rest of the world compared with their own sense of worth.

 

She owed Aunt Phoebe a tremendous debt of gratitude. The number of times her parents allowed her to visit her aunt and uncle’s estate was able to counteract the worst aspects of her parents’ examples. Unfortunately, her season in town brought those early lessons once more to the fore as a means of self-preservation.

 

London Society was full of beautiful young ladies with excellent connections, large dowries, the newest clothing styles and accessories from the continent, and titles. While she had been presented and participated in a few seasons in town, her parents were certainly not of the first circles. Her presence in Aunt Phoebe’s household, and their friendship with the Darcy’s and Matlock’s, had caused quite a stir among the families with unmarried women. The beautiful, wealthy, titled maidens had not appreciated a relatively unknown young lady suddenly appearing who was on such intimate terms with the much sought-after Mr. Darcy and Lord Halburn. Even though he was not pursued as relentlessly as his brother and cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, as the spare to the Matlock Earldom title and fortune, was considered a respectable catch too. Society did not take kindly to the unexpected competition for gentlemen in the first circles.

 

She had been insulted and belittled in every possible method, not only by the debutantes but also by their families who were even more vicious than their daughters. One could only handle being referred to as the pathetic upstart who was trying to quit the sphere she was born into by using her aunt’s connections to find a rich husband from the first circles, or some variation, so many times before responding in kind.

 

Once the details of her dowry were leaked, courtesy of her father’s loud complaining at his club about the injustice of his mother cutting him out of her will, those same people who had previously ridiculed her were attempting to claim a friendship. The most clever of the ladies started throwing her in the path of their unmarried male relatives, especially those who were not in line to inherit an estate.

 

Aunt Phoebe and Lady Matlock had saved her from quite a few uncomfortable situations with the matrons of society who were relentlessly trying to direct her focus to their sons. The maidens were worse, they seemed to be absent minded and clumsy in her presence. Grace had multiple glasses of wine spilled on her, food dumped in her lap by society members and servants, stains magically seemed to appear on the back of her dresses, her hem was stepped on once and ripped in a retiring room before a scheduled dance with Mr. Darcy, and she had been tripped while dancing.

 

The men of the families had made their protection of Grace known. They had warned her of the people who had been bold enough to brag about their upcoming attempts to compromise her. Lord Halburn had managed to save her from the only compromise attempt they had not been warned of in advance.

 

Instead of breaking down and retreating to the safety of her newly inherited estate, Grace decided to start accepting even more invitations and she give as good as she got. She had unintentionally turned into that which she used to despise the most, a quintessential belle of society.

 

Thinking back on the first words she spoke to Mary Bennet, made her cringe in embarrassment. She was trying to be playful and ended up being rude to someone she had just met. Miss Mary was owed an abject apology.

 

Although, no matter how she looked at the encounter that day in Hyde Park with Miss Bingley, she could not find it within herself to regret how she handled the situation or the words she had spoken. She knew she should, that she had acted no better than that lady herself, but try as she might, Georgie’s stories of past encounters with Miss Bingley made her unable to do so. If she was being completely honest with herself, it also rankled that the daughter of a tradesman thought herself so far above the gentry just because she had more money than they did.

 

To hear that Mrs. Sakville was a duchess, who went out of her way to keep her anonymity in her hometown, was humbling. She could only speculate on her parents’ actions if they were the same rank. They were condescending and arrogant enough now, with titles they would be intolerable.

 

Grace was brought out of her self-reflection by Lady Juliet mentioning that she heard in London that Grace and her brother had spent months at Pemberley with the Darcy family. After confirming she had been at Pemberley over the spring, Lady Juliet started a conversation about the flowers in the gardens. Grace suddenly realized the party had broken into groups and tried to focus on the discussion in front of her, but her mind kept thinking about how she would apologize to everyone.

 

Grace started when Her Grace all but ordered Miss Mary to remove the younger ladies from the parlour. She knew the set down that she was about to receive was well deserved and certainly justified. Suddenly, Miss Bennet arose and diverted the duchess’ attention. She was about to correct Miss Bennet’s misapprehension regarding Reggie growing up without a mother when Sally spoke. How much damage could be done between two families on one visit? Did Sally not realize what she just insinuated?

 

Miss Bennet started to sway and Grace was alarmed. She stood to steady the clearly distraught young lady.

 

“Miss Bennet, please sit down and breathe deeply,” Grace said gently while forcing her to sit. She saw the duchess mouth ‘thank you’ and discretely nodded her acceptance. “Miss Bennet, are you well? Shall we call for a doctor?”

 

“No, Miss Hurst, I do not need Mr. Jones. I apologize for worrying you. Aunt Jane, we should be on our way,” Miss Bennet suggested desperately.

 

“Jane, are you well?” Miss Elizabeth asked as she sat next to Miss Bennet on the settee.

 

While three ladies could not be truly comfortable on a settee, Grace thought it showed great sisterly affection.

 

“Miss Bennet, please do not leave just yet. I owe everyone in the room, nay on the estate, a heartfelt apology, but first allow me to explain Sally’s comment.”

~*~

Haye Park, Hertfordshire
Saturday, June 8, 1811

 

Walking down the hallway towards the parlour, Reginald Hurst watched Miss Darcy, Miss Mary, and two other young ladies leave the room.

 

“Georgie, where are you headed?” Darcy asked.

 

“Miss Mary was asked to show me the gazebo.”

 

“If the gentlemen are going into the parlour, there is no need to show you the gazebo right now, Miss Darcy,” Miss Mary replied with a wry grin.

 

Reginald was confused, and a little concerned, by Miss Mary’s response. He walked into the parlour and was stunned to see Miss Bennet looking very pale and hear his sister offer an apology and explanation. He handed Reggie to Miss Darcy before making his way to his sister and Miss Bennet.

 

“I hope, sister dearest, that your tongue is not the reason Miss Bennet looks ill,” he said with narrowed eyes.

 

“No, Reginald,” Grace replied. “Miss Bennet is upset about something she heard. Out of proper context, it was unsettling to her.”

 

Kneeling in front of Miss Bennet he asked, “Is there anything we can do to give you present relief, Miss Bennet? Shall I ask Sally to get you a glass of wine?” He saw Miss Bennet wince and, if possible, pale even further. “You look very ill, indeed, even more so than when I entered the room. How may I be of assistance?”

 

“Aunt Jane, may we leave?” Miss Bennet asked her aunt desperately, ignoring him completely.

 

“Your Grace, please allow us to explain before you leave,” Grace pleaded.

 

Hurst was so shocked he stood up and backed away. Your Grace? The Bennet’s were related to a duke? He looked at Harold, Darcy, and the Colonel to see they were as shocked as he was. However, his aunt, Miss Darcy, and Lady Matlock were not surprised.

 

“Janey, Miss Hurst is correct. We should allow them to explain Mr. Hurst’s relationship with the child and Sally,” Her Grace said gently.

 

Hurst audibly groaned. Of course! If Darcy could see the Bennet’s had arrived through the window, they could see him playing with Reggie. What could Miss Bennet have heard that would upset her so?

 

Hurst heard Sally gasp and looked at Miss Bennet with wide eyes.

 

“I am so sorry! I did not mean...” Sally could not continue through the tears that started flowing.

 

Grace stood, walked to Sally, put an arm around her shoulders, gave her a handkerchief, and directed her towards the seat she had just vacated.

 

“Please sit. You look just as ill as Miss Bennet,” his sister told Sally while directing her to the settee.

 

Hurst was confused when Miss Bennet shifted slightly closer to her own sister and away from Sally.

 

“Georgie, please introduce us to the ladies and then explain what happened,” Darcy said in his Master of Pemberley voice.

 

Hurst could not believe what he was hearing. The Duchess of Dorset? Her title was from one of the oldest and wealthiest dukedoms in the land. How had they not known? Darcy’s solicitor would certainly have passed the information on had he been made aware. The servants of Haye Park, the housekeeper specifically, should have told them when the family arrived in Meryton. Gossip of that magnitude never stayed secret for very long in London.

 

“I have no idea why Sally and Miss Bennet are so upset, brother. Her Grace dema... asked Miss Mary and her younger sisters to show me the gazebo on the grounds,” Miss Darcy responded with a blush.

 

“Your Grace?” Darcy asked Mrs. Sakville. “I have known you and your husband for as long as I can remember, Mrs. Sakville. How did I not know that Mr. Sakville was a duke? Did my father know? Of course he did, I apologize that was an unnecessary question. Why did nobody feel as though I should be informed?”

 

“Mr. Darcy, my husband treasured his friendship with your father. Mr. George Darcy was one of the few people who did not change how they treated Frederick when my father-in-law ascended to the dukedom. Frederick chose not to use the title of Earl while his grandfather lived. When he became a marquess while at school, he could no longer hide his future responsibilities,” Her Grace responded with a smile. “We both enjoyed our visits to Pemberley because your father did not feel the need to tell everyone in Derbyshire and society a future duke was visiting his estate, ask for a betrothal contract with one of our daughters, or attempt to ingratiate himself with our other titled relatives.”

 

“Very well,” Darcy responded. “I can certainly understand his point of view. I, too, have had friends try to take advantage of me and I do not even have a title.”

 

“Grace, please explain what happened here. Why do Miss Bennet and Sally look so ill?” he asked impatiently. He did not understand why Miss Bennet was so pale and would not look at himself or Sally.

 

“Brother, with confirmation from Aunt Phoebe and Lady Matlock, if you explain your association with Sally and Reggie, the misunderstanding will be cleared up.”

 

“I warned that your relationship with Reggie may be misconstrued,” the Colonel said with a smirk.

 

“Aye, from the sounds of it, Miss Bennet thinks Reggie is your son,” Harold added while grinning. “You are astern between the devil and the deep, cousin. You had best explain if you expect to recover from this wallop.”

 

Hurst was shocked. He looked at his aunt and Lady Matlock to see them both nodding.

 

“Miss Bennet, Reggie is the son of Sally, who works as an upper maid at Pemberley, and Wiggins, the Darcy’s main carriage driver and stable master. The first time I interacted with Sally, was a week after I arrived on the estate. It was the day Reggie was born,” Reginald said.

 

“My nephew was wandering the halls of Pemberley and came across Sally in the throes of childbirth. With no other choice, he had to assist,” Aunt Phoebe said.

 

“You mean...” Her Grace started and then looked at the unmarried ladies with uncertainty on her face.

 

“Yes, in fear for the life of Sally and her unborn child, Mr. Hurst did what was necessary to render aid,” Lady Matlock replied discreetly.

 

“Because Sally was with child, my housekeeper kept her out of sight of visitors. It was an awkward introduction and situation for both parties, but they persevered. Sally and Wiggins were so thankful for Hurst’s assistance, they named the babe Evan Reginald Wiggins, his nickname is Reggie because his father is also Evan. They had wanted to ask Hurst to be the godfather from the start, but were unsure if it was proper or would be welcomed so they used his name for Reggie’s middle name instead of the first.”

 

Hurst watched his sister kneel in front of Miss Bennet and hold her hand.

 

“Miss Bennet, please look at me,” Grace said gently. “My brother takes his duty as godfather very seriously and arranges visits with Reggie. He knew Sally had been asked to serve tea today and offered to take Reggie to the stables and gardens.”

 

“That was very admirable of him,” Miss Bennet said softly with tears glistening in her eyes.

 

“I am not supposed to know this,” Grace said with a quick smirk directed at him, “But I inadvertently overheard a discussion with his solicitor one afternoon in London. On the day he was born, my brother sent a letter to his solicitor asking him to set up a trust fund for Reggie’s future education and care.”

 

“Grace!” he admonished his sister.

~*~

Haye Park, Hertfordshire
Saturday, June 8, 1811

 

Grace Hurst stood and grinned cheekily at her brother. Reginald hated being the centre of attention.

 

“Did I say anything that was inaccurate, brother?”

 

“That is not the matter at hand and you know it. Why did you eavesdrop on a private conversation?” Reginald asked her.

 

“I did not purposefully listen in. I was about to knock on your study door for our appointment to discuss the invitations we received, when your solicitor was on the way out and you told him to add money to the trust from the quarter’s interest payment,” Grace responded and saw her brother’s ire disappear.

 

“No, Mr. Hurst, tis too much,” Sally said. “We didn’t ask you to be Reggie’s godfather because you have money.”

 

“I know you did not expect this Sally, but please respect my wishes. The young man will have every advantage.”

 

“But what about your future children? We cannot take away from their inheritance,” Sally said determinedly.

 

“Sally,” Reginald said softly, “did you hear my sister? I wrote the letter asking my accountant to set up the account before you asked me to be Reggie’s godfather, even before I knew what his middle name was going to be. My aunt and uncle performed a similar service for me and my sister. Opening the account now, and letting the interest reinvest and grow over many years, allows the account balance to increase exponentially without affecting what I am able to give my potential children.”

 

Grace was pleased to see Miss Bennet looking at her brother with admiration clearly showing on her face. She caught Miss Darcy’s eye and discretely mouthed ‘Reggie’ and nodded at her brother.

 

“Mr. Hurst, Reggie appears to be getting sleepy. May I return him to you now?” Georgie asked.

 

“I apologize, Miss Darcy. I offered to watch him this afternoon and have abdicated the responsibility to you,” Reginald said as he walked towards her and picked the fussing babe up. “Alright young man, lay your head on my shoulder.”

 

Grace watched as Miss Bennet’s face softened even further as Reginald started swaying and cooing to the babe. A quick look around the room saw the other women looking at him in a similar fashion.

 

“My brother will make a wonderful father when the time comes,” Grace said boldly. She noticed Her Grace was looking between Miss Bennet and Reginald with a thoughtful expression on her face. Interesting.

 

“From what I have seen so far, I agree with that assessment, Miss Hurst,” Her Grace said.

 

Grace shared a conspiratorial look with Her Grace and grinned.

 

“Now that the explanation of Sally and Reggie is out of the way, I owe everyone an apology,” she said solemnly. “Miss Mary, I specifically apologize to you for how I addressed you when we met yesterday. I had no right to make such an impertinent observation, until we get to know each other better, anyway.”

 

“I accept your apology, Miss Hurst. As I said, I have lived with Lizzy long enough to realize you were attempting to tease. You did not offend me, truly,” Miss Mary informed her with a smile.

 

“I appreciate your graciousness, thank you, Miss Mary,” Grace said.

 

“Now it is my turn to be impertinent. Please call me Mary.”

 

“And I am Grace,” she replied.

 

“You may call me Georgie,” Miss Darcy added.

 

“I do not really understand it, Miss Hurst, but I feel an odd sort of bond with you. I know we have not known each other very long, but please call me Elizabeth or Lizzy,” Miss Elizabeth said.

 

“I understand, Elizabeth. Perhaps we are kindred spirits? I would like all of the Bennet and Sakville ladies to call me Grace,” she offered.

 

“And you should all call me Georgie. I was hoping to meet new friends in Meryton. Knowing what I do of your connections, I can safely assume if you offer me friendship, you would not have an ulterior motive.”

 

“It would be our pleasure, Georgie,” Lady Juliet said. “We often have the same concerns surrounding new acquaintances. My sister and I would like to extend the same informality to you and Grace.”

 

“Mr. Darcy, I apologize for my pert statement to you when we met at Pemberley. It was wrong of me, but you looked so intimidating, I was trying to break the tension,” Grace explained.

 

“All is forgiven, Miss Hurst. And truthfully, you were accurate in your assessment of my behavior during the season,” Mr. Darcy told her. “And, it did allow me to relax.”

 

“Aunt Phoebe and Reginald, I owe you both a heartfelt apology. You have put up with so much attitude from me since we arrived in London. I am sorry to say, I lost my way temporarily. Aunt Phoebe, you specifically have my gratitude. Not only did you comfort me when the town went on attack, but if not for you and uncle giving me so much of your time and correcting my behaviour when I was younger, I would not be the woman I am today.”

 

“I think you have made excellent progress today, Miss Hurst. I fully intended to give you a thorough tongue lashing when I told Mary to leave the room. Now, however, I am rethinking that decision,” Her Grace said. “Not only did you help Janey and alleviate her distress as soon as possible, but you extended the same service to a servant. You have impressed me, Miss Hurst, which is not an easy task.”

 

“Thank you, Your Grace.”

 

“When we are in private, you will all call me Jane,” Her Grace stated. “Lady Dobbs, when we are in Meryton, my sister and I take turns hosting a light meal on Sunday after services. Would the residents of Haye Park like to join the Bennet’s and Sakville’s at Netherfield Park tomorrow?”

 

“It would be an honour, Your Grace,” Aunt Phoebe responded.

 

“Mr. Hurst, if Sally allows, please bring young Reggie. If it is not too hot tomorrow, we will eat in the gardens and play lawn games. The ladies in my family enjoy bestowing love on babes and I suspect he will enjoy being passed around. I know Anna absolutely adores younger children,” Her grace stated.

 

“You may bring him, Mr. Hurst,” Sally said.

 

“Thank you, Sally,” Reginald responded.

 

“Thank you, Sally. I must also ask you not to reveal what you learned today,” Her Grace said.

 

Grace stifled a giggle at seeing Sally so awestruck at being spoken to by a duchess, asking for a favor no less, that she could only nod in response.

 

“We must return to Longbourn. When we leave this room, please remember that I am Mrs. Sakville and my daughters are Miss Sakville and Miss Celia,” Her Grace said.

~*~

Haye Park, Hertfordshire
Saturday, June 8, 1811

 

Colonel The Honorable Richard Fitzwilliam was enjoying port and a cigar with his cousin and Dobbs after dinner. He could not believe what had transpired earlier in the day. It was inconceivable that Their Graces had managed to keep the truth about their rank from the citizens of Meryton and the servants of Pemberley. It was actually impressive and spoke well of the family. Their servants were obviously loyal and did not gossip.

 

“Darcy, what do you think about the Sakville family?” Richard asked.

 

“I have always liked Mr. Sakville, or I should say His Grace. I never had a clue who he truly was,” Darcy said. “Father never mentioned anything and we saw the Sakville’s at least once a year, usually in town. Her Grace is approachable and their daughters are pleasant. I wanted to introduce them to Georgie, but other than coming across His Grace once in Hyde Park, I have not seen them since my father died.”

 

“The Bennet’s are related to a duke,” Hurst said, almost to himself. “How can I even think about trying to form a relationship with Miss Bennet?”

 

“Hurst, the Bennet’s we have met do not seem like the type of people to let rank direct their lives. If you and Miss Bennet grow to truly care for each other, I cannot see Her Grace chasing you away,” Darcy said.

 

“Hurst, Darcy is right. Her Grace is possibly the most down-to-earth person I have ever met,” Richard said. “What do you think about the rest of the ladies?”

 

“With the exception of listening to Miss Mary’s conversation with Miss Hurst, I did not interact with the other ladies,” Darcy answered. “Georgie told me she enjoyed meeting them, she said they were all very friendly and never once talked about fashion.”

 

“High praise from the sprout, indeed. I need to send my brother an express,” Richard stated and Darcy handed him paper and a pen.

 

JT,

As I am sure father informed you, I escorted mother to Meryton for a visit with Darcy, Georgiana, and Lady Dobbs. I must to report to duty on Monday and father cannot leave London immediately. I am writing to demand you change your schedule and take over mother’s protection while she is here.

Your stylish, talented, smarter, more handsome brother,

Richard

PS

I spy, with my little eye, beauty and brains as far as the eye can see. I am not hoaxing, there are so many unattached gentlewomen here, it is like going to Gunter’s and trying to pick just one dessert.

PPS

There is an assembly in Meryton next Friday. Make sure you bring appropriate attire to attend AND come prepared to dance.

 

Richard handed Darcy the note with flourish.

 

“You did not warn him about the Duchess?” his cousin said with a wicked grin.

 

“Of course not, Darcy. What would be the fun in that? If we are really lucky, or I should say you, he will make a cake of himself upon their introduction. If I am correct, I expect a letter detailing the encounter,” he said while giving his cousin the stink eye.

 

“I will also send you a letter and ask Grace and Miss Darcy to include their perspectives,” Hurst offered.

 

“Count me in, Colonel,” Dobbs offered.

 

“Do not forget to ask your mother for her version,” Richard agreed and shot Dobbs a grin. “I am not sure whose letter will be the most amusing, Miss Hurst’s or Lady Dobbs’.”

 

“Richard, I know your father, brother, and I have all offered before, but I am hoping you are in a different state of mind. If you have given thought to selling your commission and getting out of the military, I have an estate I would like you to manage. I would be willing to split the profits with you as payment for services.”

 

“I have been giving your previous offers some thought these past months. I will be speaking with the general when I report for duty on Monday,” Richard said.

~*~

Matlock House, London
Saturday, June 8, 1811

 

“Father, I have returned,” Joseph (JT) Fitzwilliam told Lord Matlock.

 

“Did you have a successful journey?” Michael asked.

 

“Yes, I purchased three new horses.”

 

“I am happy for you. Your brother escorted your mother to Meryton yesterday. Richard sent you an express,” his father said and handed him an envelope.

 

JT read his brother’s note and started laughing.

 

“Richard seems to have sent good news.”

 

“You tell me, father,” JT said as he gave his father the note back.

 

“You two still bicker like children,” Michael said while shaking his head.

 

“Did mother send you a note with Richard’s?”

 

“Yes, she did.”

 

“What did she tell you? Were there more details regarding the throng of ladies Richard is demanding I meet?” JT asked.

 

“What your mother wrote is between her and me.”

 

“Translation, she forbad you from telling me,” JT said while rolling his eyes. “She is as bad as Richard with the matchmaking ploys.”

 

“Your mother and brother love and know you very well. If they are encouraging you to meet these ladies, they must be suitable in station and have complimentary temperaments.”

 

“That is true, I am sure,” JT said begrudgingly.

 

“The real question, my son, is whether you leave right now or Monday morning? Alfie delivered the express and I asked him to visit his aunt and wait for you to get back. If you go on horseback with a few changes of clothes, and share a valet with William, I will send the carriage with your staff and luggage on Monday at first light.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 15

 

Haye Park, Hertfordshire
Sunday, June 9, 1811

 

Reginald Hurst walked into the dining room to break his fast and was surprised to find Lord Halburn sitting with Darcy and Harold.

 

“Halburn, I did not expect you to arrive so soon.”

 

“Hurst, I feel as though I see less of you every time we meet. Congratulations my good man. It really is amazing. I saw you a week ago and now you look just as fit as Darcy and I. You must be overjoyed with your progress.”

 

“I saw Dr. Withers shortly after we returned to London in April and he was speechless. We definitely are more active in Meryton than we were during the season. I run every morning, we ride the countryside almost every day, and we frequently hold fencing matches to help Harold regain the strength in his arm. However, I have not lost a significant amount of weight since we arrived. The difference you noticed from this past week may be an optical illusion. The biggest change is that shortly before we left London, Darcy, the Colonel, and I agreed my waist was as trim as it is likely to get. Spending the funds to order a whole new wardrobe seemed like a wise decision for the first time since I started this journey back to good health. I had the final fittings at my tailor the day before we left town. The clothes I was wearing the last time you saw me, were purchased during my final year at Eton. My valet had been taking in the seams,” Hurst finished with a grin, while thinking that Halburn’s guess was more accurate than he would ever know.

 

“Now that you mention it, the style was a bit outdated and they fit you ill. If Dr. Withers figures out your secret, he could make a fortune,” Halburn told him. “I am sure the tailors will all appreciate the business.”

 

“It takes a lot of discipline. I have not had any spirits since Louisa passed away and my food choices have been limited,” Hurst explained. It had taken him a while to come to terms with his new eating and drinking habits. Darcy made it easy by not partaking in an after dinner drink at Pemberley. When they went to London and started accepting dinner invitations, it was much more difficult to repeatedly explain why he refused an after dinner drink.

 

“That would be a downside. Still, if someone is motivated, it could not hurt to try the steps you undertook.”

 

“That is true. I have been keeping Mark appraised of the changes I made to his original plan and I am writing everything down in my journal,” he told his friend. Wanting to redirect the conversation, Hurst observed, “You must have left London immediately upon receiving the Colonel’s note.”

 

“My father convinced me that travelling with Alfie as a companion and guide was a wise decision,” Halburn responded with a wry grin.

 

“JT!” Miss Darcy cried before hugging her cousin. “I am so very happy you are here! Aunt Phoebe decided that since your mother arrived, we should not wait to meet the community and we will be attending church services. You must meet our new Bennet and Sakville friends afterwards.”

 

“Georgie, let me get this out of the way immediately. I am not looking for a wife,” Halburn said firmly. “The only reason I am here, is to ensure my mother is protected. I mean absolutely no offense, gentlemen, but I know, and understand, that your sisters and mother are your first priorities, just as my mother will be mine.”

 

“But JT, Aunt Olivia is excited about possibly having a daughter. Can you not at least humour my aunt and meet Juliet and the other ladies?” Miss Darcy asked eagerly.

 

“My brother’s note rather inclined me to stay in London, not hurry to Meryton. Father had to talk me into making the trip at all. Make no mistake, Georgie, I am here for mother,” Halburn stated bluntly. “You will cease this matchmaking talk immediately or I will return to London and send our largest footman to watch over mother.”

 

“Lord Halburn, what a pleasure to see you,” Grace said as she entered the room on the Colonel’s arm.

 

“Grace, JT says he is not looking for a wife and does not want to meet Juliet or any ladies,” Miss Darcy said on a near whine.

 

“What is wrong with meeting our new friends, Joseph? You have no concerns meeting any of the insipid society maidens in London, who you have no intention of offering for, I might add,” Lady Matlock said as she also entered the room.

 

“Mother, calm down. Whether or not I marry, is my decision. Maybe I plan to let Richard’s son inherit the title,” Halburn threatened.

 

“Joseph!” Lady Matlock exclaimed while bringing her hand to her chest.

 

Hurst looked questioningly at Darcy and received a head shake that contradicted what the viscount said. Then he looked at the Colonel who was clearly enjoying the interplay between his brother and mother.

 

“Enough, Romeo. He is teasing, Mother. He arrived late last night and woke up early this morning, he is fatigued and cranky. Besides, if JT does not want to meet his Juliet, there is nothing we can do,” the Colonel said before turning to Grace. “Did you notice what I did there? I thought it was clever.”

 

“You would, naturally,” Grace said while shaking her head. “Georgie, if we want to eat before church, we should do so while the brothers continue to throw mud pies at each other. Aunt Phoebe should join us in a moment, she needed to meet with the housekeeper briefly to discuss an issue with the supper menu.”

 

The cook at Haye Park was exceptional, Hurst enjoyed every item she prepared specially for him. When everyone was done breaking their fast, they returned to their rooms to freshen up for church.

 

Hurst, Harold, and Darcy were the first to descend the stairs. They decided to wait for the rest of their party in the parlour and were discussing an estate issue when the Fitzwilliam brothers walked in escorting Miss Darcy and Grace.

 

“Mother and Aunt Phoebe will be down shortly,” the Colonel told them.

 

The party agreed to move to the front door and started to chat amiably.

 

Hurst, Darcy, and Harold continued the discussion about the estate matter they had been trying to solve when he heard the Colonel exclaim, “JT, you know that is not what I meant. Miss Hurst, ignore my addle-brained brother.”

 

“Maybe I should tell Miss Hurst about that time. You remember the one? You were five, little brother?” Halburn told his brother with narrowed eyes.

 

“If you do that, mother may find out what happened to her favourite settee,” the Colonel threw back.

 

“What about grandmother’s heirloom vase?” Halburn retorted.

 

“I assume you arrived on horseback with a limited wardrobe. If you do not want your clothes to accidentally fall into a fireplace, I suggest you relent.”

 

“In your dreams, Dickie.”

 

“Oh really, Halby? I could tell Darcy, Hurst, and Harold what I caught you doing in your room the first holiday you returned home from Eton. Or better yet, a few of the tales from your first year that were told to a younger, impressionable brother?”

 

“I think I have an idea what he caught Halburn doing,” Harold muttered with a grin causing Hurst to chuckle.

 

“Clayriver,” Halburn threatened.

 

“You would not dare! We took an oath!”

 

“What about my father’s estate,” Lady Matlock asked in a dangerously quiet voice from behind the brothers. “I hope you are not referring to the fire in the stables when you were both younger.”

 

Hurst had to purse his lips to keep from laughing at the look on the faces of Halburn and the Colonel. It was clear they were so involved in their argument that they had not heard Lady Matlock and Aunt Phoebe approach.

 

“A fire?” the Colonel asked, a little too innocently in Hurst’s opinion. “I do not recall a fire. I must have been very young.”

 

“I seem to recollect grandfather and father discussing it a few times, I believe I was six when it happened. I was also very young, but something makes me think the fire broke out in the middle of the night. Two such young children would certainly have been in the nursery sleeping under the care of their nurse,” Halburn offered.

 

“JT is correct, if, indeed, such a fire happened,” the Colonel added.

 

“There is Wiggins with my carriage and Beech is behind him with Hurst’s. Shall we depart?” Darcy asked and received grateful smiles from the Fitzwilliam brothers.

 

“Of course, Mr. Darcy. We would not want Lord Halburn and the Colonel to make a bad first impression on the locals of Meryton by being late to church,” Aunt Phoebe answered with a grin.

~*~

Churchyard, Meryton
Sunday, June 9, 1811

 

Grace Hurst had enjoyed their first service at the Meryton Church. The vicar, Mr. Rivers, was an engaging speaker whose sermons were original and thought provoking.

 

She could not believe how many people were attending the service. Grace had not thought Meryton so large a village. Most husbands escorted their family to a pew and then stood in the back of the sanctuary. Their party all complimented the rector on his sermon and discreetly expressed their appreciation for his conciseness which allowed them to walk out of the church twenty minutes sooner than they feared.

 

Aunt Phoebe and Lady Matlock had Grace’s sympathy. They had been surrounded by the neighbourhood matrons as soon as they exited the building. She quietly asked her brother, “Should we think of a reason to interrupt Aunt Phoebe’s discussion? Maybe we have to Haye Park right away to take care of a household matter?”

 

“No, leave them be. I know Aunt Phoebe was hoping for two weeks before the matrons started visiting, but now that Lady Matlock arrived early, she knows that would be impossible,” her brother answered.

 

“I do not know how mother and Lady Matlock do it and seem to enjoy themselves,” Harold said while looking at his mother. “Making small talk with people I do not know is one of the things I dislike the most about being a civilian.”

 

Grace was only half listening to the discussion that was going on around her. She was hoping for an opportunity to speak with the Bennet and Sakville ladies to apologize again and hopefully strengthen their budding friendship. Juliet caught her eye, smiled, and started walking towards their group with her sisters, cousins, and mother following at a short distance. Grace discreetly elbowed Georgie to indicate they were approaching.

 

“JT, I am excited to introduce you to Juliet and all of our new friends,” Georgie told Lord Halburn.

 

“Georgie, as I told you earlier, if you persist in this nonsense, I will be forced to give them a set down and return to London. You know how I detest having women thrust at me, it is insupportable. I am in no humour at present to be thrown at a young lady who must have hinted at an introduction because she was on the hunt for a single gentleman with a title. I suppose she must be tolerable for you to consider her a possible match, but it would not be enough to tempt me. It would be a punishment to be forced to talk with this group of young ladies. You had better enjoy your friendship, for you are wasting your time trying to interest me in any of them,” said Lord Halburn, with his back to the approaching ladies.

 

Grace closed her eyes, mortified for the second time in as many days. It was amusing, a little bit, if seen in a certain light.

 

“Grace,” Georgie whispered urgently, “open your eyes and say something.”

 

“Juliet, I was hoping to see you all after services. Would you allow me to introduce you to the newest addition to our household?” Grace greeted her friend with an apologetic look. The vindictive side of Grace’s personality enjoyed seeing Lord Halburn blanch when she spoke and then turn around quickly. She saw his eyes widen as he looked at the ladies with appreciation showing clearly on his face. She almost hoped Juliet declined the introduction. It would teach him right to let his mouth run just because he was tired and annoyed.

 

“Of course,” Juliet said politely with a disinterested look on her face.

 

Grace performed the introductions honouring the duchess’ request. She was pleased when the ladies acknowledged Lord Halburn with the slightest of nods, as if his title and handsome face meant nothing to them.

 

“Mr. Darcy, will you be following us to Netherfield Park immediately or do you need to pick up Reggie?” Mrs. Sakville asked.

 

Mr. Darcy responded, “I am so sorry...”

 

“Enough of that. It is impossible to control preposterous relatives. We will place blame where it is due,” Mrs. Sakville said with a hard look at Lord Halburn. “Come along girls, we must prepare for our guests. It appears they will need to stop at Haye Park to settle young Reggie.”

 

“How did you know that, Mrs. Sakville?” Grace asked.

 

“It is an old trick I learned from my grandfather, Miss Hurst. I used my eyes,” Mrs. Sakville said with a smirk and a slight nod to the left.

 

Grace looked to where she indicated and saw the Wiggins family walking towards Mr. Darcy’s carriage with a crying babe.

 

“Yes, of course, how silly of me not to have noticed,” Grace said, feeling her cheeks heat up in embarrassment.

 

“Mr. Darcy, with your permission, Celia has asked if Miss Darcy may ride to Netherfield in our carriage,” Mrs. Sakville asked.

 

Grace saw Mr. Darcy wordlessly ask Georgiana if that was acceptable before answering, “She would enjoy spending more time with your daughters, Mrs. Sakville. Thank you for the offer.”

 

The two parties broke up and headed towards their own carriages. As they approached the Hurst carriage at the end of the row, the Colonel could no longer control his laughter.

 

“Oh, JT, if you could have seen the look on your face! I wish I could sketch! I would love to have the moment immortalized,” the Colonel managed to say through his laughter.

 

“Wait until we are in the carriage Richard. Alfie, please stay behind to escort Lady Matlock and Lady Dobbs to Netherfield Park in my carriage,” Mr. Darcy asked his faithful servant. “With Georgie travelling with the Sakville’s, we can fit comfortably in the Hurst carriage and still maintain propriety because Mr. Hurst and Sally will be with us.”

 

“Right away, sir,” Alfie said before walking towards the ladies who were still chatting happily with the neighbourhood matrons.

 

Grace saw Mr. Darcy catch his aunt’s eye and nod towards Alfie. Lady Matlock discreetly confirmed she understood.

 

“JT, what on earth possessed you to speak like that about young ladies you have never met,” Mr. Darcy practically shouted at his cousin once they pulled away from the church.

 

“Why did nobody warn me they were walking up behind me?” Lord Halburn asked miserably.

 

“We should not have had to!” Mr. Darcy quickly retorted. “A gentleman would never disparage a young lady like that.”

 

“I only wanted to stop the matchmaking and it turned into what could possibly be the most embarrassing moment of my life.”

 

“Maybe Halburn should stay at Haye Park this afternoon,” Reginald suggested with a smirk.

 

“He should not cut and run,” Harold complained. “Not only does it reek of cowardice, but I do not want to miss the close quarter battle. I think it will be amusing to see how a society lady would deliver a broadside.”

 

Grace agreed with her cousin. Lord Halburn had made a mess of it. She did not want to miss being there when he was actually introduced to Juliet and found out the lady he all but accused of being mercenary was well above him in consequence.

 

“Richard, some of the blame should fall to you,” Mr. Darcy said with a significant look.

 

She also agreed with Mr. Darcy. The Colonel certainly played a part in what happened. He knew his brother was fatigued from his travels, yet he started pestering and calling him Romeo. As if that was not enough, just before Aunt Phoebe and Lady Matlock came downstairs, he started that ridiculous argument over an innocent jest.

 

“As much as I love to blame my young brother for every possible thing that goes wrong, I fail to see how this could be his fault,” Lord Halburn said.

 

“For starters, there was the note he sent,” Mr. Darcy said. “Other than ordering you here, the only thing he inferred was that there were numerous attractive and single ladies. Then this morning, you were tired from lack of sleep and he used Georgie’s opening to rile you up. Not that it is an excuse, at all, but you were upset and wanted to be left alone.”

 

Grace could not believe what Mr. Darcy just insinuated. Did the Colonel really not tell his brother who the Sakville’s were? She knew she was right when the Colonel gave her a big smile and a wink. He should have informed his brother about the Sakville family. She was sure Lady Matlock informed her husband.

 

“I will try and help you repair the damage, My Lord,” Grace said. She enjoyed the look of confusion on the Colonel’s face and raised her eyebrow at him. “I know what it is like to say things you do not really mean or the wrong thing because you do not have the information you need. Colonel, I am certainly not someone who should be casting stones, but you went too far, sir. You set the whole situation into motion.”

 

“I think it is a long shot, but Miss Darcy seems like the type who may try and soften their impression of you,” Harold said.

 

“Good, sweet, Georgie. You are right, Dobbs. Hopefully she can help them understand that I was simply frustrated,” Lord Halburn said.

 

“Do not get too excited,” Harold warned. “Even with Miss Darcy’s help, they still have you over the barrel. I would give them a wide berth for a while to cool down.”

 

“Why does Mrs. Sakville look so familiar?” Lord Halburn said to nobody in particular as the carriage pulled up to the house.

 

Grace wanted to tell him, but she caught Mr. Darcy’s eye and he shook his head. He was right. They would be at Netherfield shortly and the duchess could decide whether or not he should know.

 

“JT, it is going to take Sally a while to settle Reggie before we can go to Netherfield for our visit. Why do you not go upstairs and rest? I will have your valet wake you up shortly before we leave,” Mr. Darcy all but ordered his cousin.

 

“A good idea, Darcy. Thank you,” a subdued Lord Halburn replied before walking out of the room.

 

“Miss Hurst, would you like to take a walk in the gardens with me?” the Colonel asked hesitantly.

 

After retiring to her room the previous evening, she had done a lot of thinking about her own confrontation with the Sakville’s. She liked to think she came out of it an even better person than she was after her initial period of self-reflection in the parlour. What she needed right now, was time to think of gentle ways to help the Colonel see that, like hers previously, his own behavior was at times too much. She was saved from having to decline his offer by her brother’s approach.

 

“Grace, Darcy asked Alfie to pick up the post from my townhouse when he was in London yesterday and I was able to sort it before we broke our fast. You have a letter from your friend Clara and one from her aunt, Lady Sheldon,” her brother said while handing her two envelopes. “Mrs. Mayes told Alfie they were important. I apologize for not giving them to you right away, but I knew you were nervous enough about attending an unfamiliar church and that a few hours, on the Lord’s day, should not matter.”

 

Grace opened Clara’s letter first and then ripped open Lady Sheldon’s. “Mr. Darcy, may Clara visit us for a month? Please?”

 

“Grace, calm down. What is wrong?” Reginald asked.

 

“I believe I told you her parents and brother went to their estate in Scotland instead of coming to London for the season. They left her under the protection of the Sheldon’s.” Reginald nodded and she continued, “Lord Sheldon received an express that his sister was ill. Lady Sheldon asks that we allow Clara to stay with us until her family returns. Please, Mr. Darcy. Clara’s invitation to join her in London this past season allowed me to escape the marriage my father was arranging to Lord Camfield. Beyond the affection I feel for her because of our lifelong friendship, I owe her a debt I could not begin to repay. I know her parents would trust her into Aunt Phoebe’s care. The Owens estate is next to ours and Aunt Phoebe grew up with Lady Sheldon and her brother, Clara’s father.”

 

“Lady Dobbs is my hostess. As such, we should ask her opinion. For myself, and please do not take offense, with Mrs. Annesley vising her family, we would have three young ladies with two chaperones and five unmarried gentlemen in the house. The situation makes me rather uneasy.”

 

“I agree,” Reginald said. “Do not give me that look, sister. You know reputations have been ruined for less.”

 

Grace hated to admit it, but her brother and Mr. Darcy were right. “But we may ask Aunt Phoebe what she thinks?”

 

“Yes, Miss Hurst. If Lady Dobbs thinks it proper, I have no cause for concern with her taking Miss Owens under her protection. I know she would never agree to anything that would put us in a precarious position. My aunt suspected the curious matrons of Meryton would surround her and Lady Dobbs after services. She told me in advance they would go directly to Netherfield. Between the two of them, I am sure a solution can be found.”

~*~

Netherfield Park, Hertfordshire
Sunday, June 9, 1811

 

Lady Juliet Sakville was incensed. How dare Lord Halburn make assumptions about her based on the excitement of a young lady who was not out. To insinuate that the daughter of a duke had to beg for an introduction to a man with a title was idiotic.

 

“Jules, calm down, my dear,” her mother said. “I understand you are upset, but stop and think about all that you heard.”

 

“Oh, do not worry, mother, I am thinking about what I heard.”

 

“What happened?” Edmund asked.

 

“Mother is correct, Jules. Do you not recall how Grace introduced us and Mr. Darcy calling mother Mrs. Sakville?” Celia asked flippantly.

 

“Oh, this is all my fault,” Miss Darcy said with tears glistening in her eyes. “I am so very sorry.”

 

Juliet was surprised to hear Miss Darcy speak. In her rage, she had momentarily forgotten they had an extra passenger.

 

“I will ask again, what happened?” her brother asked.

 

“Before we explain, Miss Darcy, allow me to introduce you to my son, The Marquess of Milham Edmund Sakville. You may call him Mr. Sakville in company or Master Sakville if my husband is in residence. Edmund, I am sure you remember our trips to Pemberley. Georgiana is the daughter of Mr. Darcy.”

 

“It is nice to meet you, Miss Darcy. Now, please tell me what you are all referring to.”

 

Juliet allowed Celia to tell their brother about the encounter for the rest of the trip to Netherfield. Her mother led them to the parlour and requested refreshments.

 

“Miss Darcy, would you please tell us why you feel your cousin’s comment was your fault?” Edmund asked.

 

“My aunt, Lady Matlock, is impatient for grandchildren and is very vocal about it. JT and Richard, her sons, are very particular and both dislike typical society ladies. They respect people not for their rank, but for their good sense, intelligence, and kindness. JT was not expected until Monday so I was happy to see him this morning. I immediately told him I was eager for him to meet my new friends and then Richard walked in and started teasing him. Poor JT arrived at Haye Park very late, woke up early, and had his brother tormenting him relentlessly while we broke our fast,” Miss Darcy explained.

 

“I, too, have acted unthinkingly in similar situations,” Edmund said. “Being hunted for a title and having to worry about being compromised is disheartening, for sure. However, that does not absolve him of guilt. He should have vented his frustration on his brother instead of lashing out at unknown ladies.”

 

“I am sure you never took your anger out in such a public place or on unsuspecting parties,” Juliet said sharply. Edmund nodded at her with a smirk on his face.

 

“You are correct, son. I have heard stories from your father about how he was treated before he married. Knowing the circumstances surrounding Lord Halburn’s outburst may make it easier for Juliet to forgive him. Eventually, after making him grovel sufficiently, of course,” her mother grinned.

 

Juliet was unsure if there was enough recompense Lord Halburn could achieve to make her think kindly of him.

 

“JT does not know who you really are. Richard did not inform him, but he did manage to tell him about all of the unattached ladies in the area. I have also heard my brother and cousins complain about women who hound them relentlessly,” Miss Darcy added.

 

Georgie was clearly trying to help her cousin. Juliet could understand familial devotion and was loathe to admit it did speak well of Lord Halburn. That his young cousin apparently cared for him greatly, was not something to dismiss lightly.

 

“Again, I have been there,” Edmund agreed. “It becomes rather tiresome.”

 

“I see where you are going with this, Miss Darcy. A very tired, frustrated, and suspicious Viscount arrived in a small country village and had women immediately brought to his attention. You also know how that feels, Jules. How many times have men approached you because of your father?” her mother asked.

 

Juliet privately agreed with them, but she certainly was not about to let the buffoon get away scot-free though. She had to make sure her pound of flesh was carefully collected. Her mother would be upset if she took it too far. Lizzy would be a good ally. Her uncle would certainly appreciate the outlandishness of the tale when she told him and probably have a fair number of ideas. If Juliet had to describe a single familial trait she shared with her cousin and uncle, it would be that they valued being diverted by the foibles of those around them. Miss Hurst seemed like another person who would understand and help her make plans.

 

“Mrs. Jane! Mrs. Jane! I am so glad you are here!” Anna squealed when she ran into the parlour and gave Mrs. Sakville a hug. “You can meet William and Mr. Hurs. I want them to marry Miss Lizzy and Miss Jane so I can throw the flowers.”

 

Little Anna was always like a breath of fresh air, it was impossible to stay gloomy around her infectious personality. Juliet loved spending time in her company.

 

“From your mouth to God’s ear, Anna,” Miss Darcy told the young girl. “What did my brother tell you about discussing marriages?”

 

“I member, he said it was not proper. What did you mean saying to God’s ear, Miss Ana? Did you notice she has my name, Mrs. Jane? It is citing,” Anna said happily.

 

“Of course, I did,” mother told Anna with a grin. “What games should we play this afternoon?”

 

“My favouritist games are pall mall, dore and cluck1, bocatch2, and I want to play graces with Miss Grace. It would be so much fun cause they both have her name!” Anna said as she jumped up and down and clapped her hands.

 

Juliet heard her brother quietly chuckle and mutter ‘dore and cluck’.

 

“Someone is happy,” Lady Matlock said before Mrs. Nichols could announce her and Lady Dobbs.

 

“Can I do the ductions?” Anna asked.

 

“Are you acquainted with the ladies?” mother asked the little girl.

 

Juliet had to bite her lip to stop herself from smiling at the look of dismay that crossed Anna’s face.

 

“No, Mrs. Jane,” Anna said sadly.

 

“How about I introduce you to the ladies and you may introduce them to Edmund? They have not met him yet,” mother offered.

 

Juliet smiled as Anna proudly introduced Edmund to the ladies.

 

“Anna, Lady Matlock is my aunt and Lady Dobbs is Mr. and Miss Hurst’s aunt,” Miss Darcy stated.

 

“That means Lady Lock is William’s aunt too, right?”

 

“William? Young lady, it is highly improper for you to speak of Mr. Darcy so informally,” Lady Dobbs said. “And it is Matlock, not Lock.”

 

This could be a fun afternoon, Juliet thought. Staying near Anna was always amusing, but Lady Dobbs seemed to be a stickler of propriety which Anna cared for not at all.

 

“But he said I could,” Anna defended herself. “Mrs. Jane, did I do bad?”

 

“Lady Dobbs is correct, Anna. It is indeed improper to be so informal with someone who is not a relative. However, Mr. Darcy gave you leave to call him William. How about a compromise?” mother asked.

 

“I like to mise,” Anna stated confidently.

 

“You should call him Mr. William,” mother stated. “That allows for the proper respect to be shown while honouring his request too.”

 

Oh yes, this will be a most entertaining afternoon. Juliet caught her brother’s eye, and they shared a conspiratorial smirk.

 

“You are mart, Mrs. Jane. I like it when you are at field,” Anna replied.

 

“Anna, please ring for a maid to escort this unknown young man to the servant’s quarters. I am surprised Mrs. Nicholls did not automatically see to his comfort,” mother stated.

 

“I apologize madam, but I go where Miss Darcy and Ladies Matlock and Dobbs are.”

 

Even better, Juliet thought. Mother is not accustomed to being disobeyed, being told no by a servant was unheard of.

 

“My goodness, you stated that very decidedly for so young a person. What makes you think I will not ask the Sims brothers to remove you?” mother asked curiously.

 

“Because my master is very fastidious when it comes to the safety of those he loves. I am following his orders. If I leave, all three ladies leave with me.”

 

“Allow me to introduce you,” Lady Dobbs quickly interrupted their exchange. “Mrs. Sakville, this is Alfie, one of the Darcy servants. When we met, he was Mr. Darcy’s personal messenger and fencing partner. To be honest I am not entirely sure what his duties are while we are in Meryton.”

 

“My main duty is the protection of Miss Darcy, however, I do whatever the master asks. He makes sure I have all of the information I need to protect his sister. For example, he informed me you were from Dorset,” Alfie said significantly. “Derbyshire is landlocked. Does your estate include an ocean shoreline?”

 

“No, it does not,” Edmund answered clearly amused.

 

Juliet was surprised that Mr. Darcy would inform a servant of her families rank when mother asked for their secrecy. He must trust this young man as much as her parents trusted the Sims family. “How long have you been employed by the Darcy family?” Juliet asked.

 

“I was born at Pemberley. My family has served the Darcy’s for many generations.”

 

“Are you the young man who took lessons with Georgie and her maid? I remember Frederick was scandalized when Mr. Darcy Sr. mentioned it once,” her mother asked thoughtfully.

 

“Yes, I am. My full name is Alfie Reynolds, I am sure you remember my grandmother and aunt, Mrs. Reynolds and Mrs. Smythe, the housekeepers at Pemberley and Darcy House.”

 

“Who could forget such wonderful and efficient ladies. The Sims family has a similar place in our household,” her mother said with a grin.

 

“I remember Mrs. Reynolds. She was always helpful when I asked for gardening tools,” Juliet said. Now she understood why Mr. Darcy informed Alfie. She could not imagine either of her parents withholding something as significant from the Sims family.

 

“Alfie has begun teaching me and Grace how to defend ourselves,” Miss Darcy shared. “We have only had one lesson, but I find the subject fascinating. I never realized before how useful a stick could be.”

 

“What a spectacular coincidence. The Sims brothers will begin teaching my nieces the same type of lessons shortly. Nathan,” her mother addressed the elder Sims twin, “Miss Darcy and Miss Hurst will be staying at Haye Park for six months. Do you think it would be worthwhile to teach one large class instead of two smaller ones?”

 

“Yes, madam, I believe so. I also advise that your daughters participate too. It never hurts to refresh previous lessons and with so many young ladies living in such close proximity, we could come up with some type of discreet signal system they could use to alert others when they feel as though they need help. There is safety in numbers.”

 

“Also, since your daughters have already been trained, they could demonstrate certain techniques to the ladies in a way that us men could not,” Alfie added.

 

Juliet laughed at the look on Nathan Sims’ face. He looked impressed at first and then almost upset that he was upstaged by a younger man.

 

“We should invite the Lucas and Long ladies too,” Celia stated.

 

“What about the mothers?” Juliet asked. “What if they wanted to learn too?”

 

“Marvellous ideas,” Lady Dobbs said. “I never thought about needing to learn before, but I must admit I was envious when Mr. Darcy and Reginald were discussing the idea. What if you get separated from your footman?”

 

“I learned with my daughters and it has served me well,” her mother offered.

 

Mrs. Nicholls walked into the room and announced, “The Bennet carriage has been spotted with another behind it, madam.”

 

 

1 dore and cluck is really Battledore and Shuttlecock. The game is a precursor to badmitton.

2 bocatch is really Bilbocatch. The game is commonly known as cup-and-ball. It is a wooden cup with a handle that has a small ball attached by a string.

Chapter Text

Chapter 16

 

Netherfield Park, Meryton
Sunday, June 9, 1811

 

Joseph Thomas Fitzwilliam was grateful for the short rest he was afforded before departing for an afternoon of games and food at Netherfield. He was disappointed in himself for how he responded to Georgie’s innocent comment. He was taught better self-control and proper manners. His mother would be furious and Miss Sakville would be well within her rights to refuse to acknowledge they had previously been introduced.

 

JT was brought out of his self-chastisement when the Hurst carriage stopped in front of a mansion he assumed was Netherfield Park. He was the last to exit and was surprised when Miss Hurst grabbed his arm and led him to the occupants who exited the other carriage.

 

“Miss Bennet, would you please introduce us to your parents?” Miss Hurst asked.

 

JT heard one of the younger ladies whisper to her mother, louder than she intended, hopefully, “Poor mama. If you have a sudden fit of nerves, you could avoid the introduction,” and saw Mrs. Bennet pat her daughter’s hand and with a stern look chide, “Lydia!” He knew this was just the beginning of what he would have to endure on this visit.

 

After they had been introduced to the last two members of the Bennet family, Miss Hurst smirked at him before saying, “Lord Halburn has taken a nap and is in a much more sociable attitude now. We would like to apologize, again, for the thoughtless tirade he delivered after church services.”

 

“I have heard all about it, young man. If truth be told, since the moment we entered our carriage to return home after church, my wife and daughters have spoken of nothing but what was said. I wonder if Lord Halburn looks at any woman and does not see a blemish,” Mr. Bennet said with a twinkle in his eye. “I imagine you will not be hungry at the picnic, My Lord. You have already consumed a prodigious amount of boot leather, and if I know my niece as well as I think I do, you will have to eat your words, most likely while grovelling, possibly with her shoving them forcibly down your throat.”

 

“Papa, you will give Lord Halburn the wrong impression of Juliet. She, at least, will act with complete propriety,” Miss Elizabeth said with a raised eyebrow.

 

“Oh, Elizabeth,” Miss Hurst quickly responded, “I am not advocating that you should all immediately forgive Lord Halburn for his insensitive and thoughtless comment, but please try to understand the circumstances. On Saturday, His Lordship had returned to his father’s townhouse in London after a trip to look at horses, with three new young foals in tow. Can you imagine how His Lordship then felt to walk into the parlour and have his father hand him an express from the Colonel asking him to travel to Meryton? Dutiful son that he is, he ignored his discomfort and left London almost immediately to be of service to his mother. I am not sure how I would have handled the situation. Truthfully, I believe I would have retired for the night and travelled on Monday.”

 

Mr. Bennet had nodded thoughtfully and, unless he was deceiving himself, the ladies looked less hostile. Miss Hurst explaining his Saturday the way she had, made JT realize how much travelling he had done on one day.

 

Miss Hurst took a deep breath and continued, “His Lordship arrived at Haye Park very late last night, the rest of the household was asleep, after travelling most of the day with three young unfamiliar horses to care for, woke very early this morning, and then his younger brother started harassing him right away.”

 

“Now wait just a moment,” Richard said.

 

“Did I say anything that was inaccurate, Colonel Fitzwilliam,” Miss Hurst asked with a glare.

 

Perhaps the visit will not go as badly as JT thought.

 

“You have the right of it, cousin.”

 

“Thank you, Harold,” Miss Hurst said.

 

“The word harassing was perhaps a bit too light under the circumstances,” Darcy added. “I probably would have used torturing, irritating, pestering, badgering, stressing, hounding, or annoying, to name a few.”

 

“Thank you, Mr. Thesaurus,” Miss Hurst told Darcy with a giggle that matched the Bennet ladies’ response. “Elizabeth, I spent a season in society with Lord Halburn and he is pursued relentlessly, as is Mr. Darcy. The three of us formed a pact to help each other avoid compromising situations. Lord and Lady Matlock are understandably anxious for His Lordship to marry and secure an heir to the Earldom. Lord Halburn was already exhausted when the Colonel started irritating him, thank you for that word Mr. Darcy, about a family full of beautiful women and, combined with his fatigue, lashed out when Miss Darcy offered to introduce him to the very same beautiful women.”

 

JT could tell the Bennet ladies were starting to soften towards him. Hopefully Miss Darcy was having as much luck inside. The thought that he was essentially hiding behind two young ladies, amused him.

 

“I empathize with you, My Lord. I do not have a title, but I was also pursued the single time I was in town for a short period of the season. I knew the moment I returned from university that I wanted to make Frances my wife, but as she is so much younger than me, I had to wait for her to grow up. Like you, my father was also eager for my sister and I to marry and secure a future for our estate by the way of grandchildren. I will be eternally grateful to my mother for her interference. She knew where my interest lay and assisted my sister when she received attention from an unwanted suitor. I also know, from living in a house full of women, how irrational people can be when they do not get enough rest.” Mr. Bennet said the last sentence with a smirk and the air of a man who expected a reaction and then laughed when his wife and daughters started to complain loudly.

 

“That is not the worst of it, Mr. Bennet,” Miss Hurst continued after Mr. Bennet’s laughter ceased. “The Colonel withheld a significant piece of information from the letter he sent to his brother.”

 

JT heard the Bennet ladies gasp and visibly transfer their ire to his younger brother. He did not comprehend what was happening.

 

“Brilliant!” Mr. Bennet exclaimed. “This day gets better and better. My brother Phillips told me your presence at Haye Park would liven up Meryton society over the summer and you do not disappoint.”

 

“I do not understand. What did Richard not tell me about?” JT was perplexed.

 

“It was not my information to share,” Richard defended himself. “As an officer, I am routinely trusted with confidential information. It is in my nature to offer as few details as possible.”

 

If the response of the ladies was any indication, his brother was in trouble. “Richard, I am beginning to think you were trying to provoke my reaction earlier, or something similar, little brother. You had best hope we do not end up as fencing partners soon.”

 

“I think it is time we go inside,” Darcy interrupted. “The housekeeper is waiting and JT calling Richard ‘little brother’ means their argument will shortly devolve to one you would expect from boys in short pants.”

 

“Shame on you for stopping them, Mr. Darcy, I was highly diverted. In Meryton we do not normally see shows as entertaining as this one,” Mr. Bennet said with a chuckle before escorting his wife up the stairs.

 

Before the housekeeper finished announcing the large group, JT had his arms full of a sobbing blonde young lady who kept apologizing for her part in his actions.

 

“Georgie, you were not at fault. I am the fool who let my tongue run away. Here is my handkerchief, please dry your eyes before you ruin my jacket. Remember, my valet will not arrive with my trunks until tomorrow,” he gently told his cousin and was pleased to hear her chuckle quietly as she stepped back.

 

JT felt the awkwardness of the situation and looked up... straight into the narrowed eyes of The Marquess of Milham. Suddenly he knew why Mrs. Sakville looked so familiar and what his brother withheld from him.

 

“Why you...” he yelled as he started moving towards Richard.

 

“Whoa there, JT,” Darcy said as he moved to block his path.

 

“This is neither the place nor the time,” Dobbs said from his position in front of Richard.

 

“You knew? You all knew Richard did not tell me and did nothing? How could you?” he asked.

 

“Georgie and I were unaware. I realized you did not know when you wondered why Mrs. Sakville looked so familiar. I thought to tell you then, but we would have been at Netherfield soon and I decided it was Mrs. Sakville’s ultimate decision whether or not you were informed,” Miss Hurst responded with an apology in her eyes.

 

“I knew last night, JT. I apologize for not making you aware first thing this morning, but never in my wildest dreams did I think you would respond as you did,” Darcy said.

 

JT thought back on what he could remember saying when Georgie wanted to perform introductions after church and was humiliated. Heaven help him, he all but accused the daughter of a duke of seeking an introduction to a gentleman with a title. It could have been worse, he supposed. At least he did not outright call her a fortune hunter.

 

“What did you do, Joseph Thomas Fitzwilliam?” his mother asked in a dangerously quiet voice.

 

“Lady Matlock, think nothing more of the interaction. Before you arrived, Miss Darcy explained to us why your son was out of sorts this morning. We do understand and empathize with his rather unique series of circumstances,” Mrs. Sakville graciously told his mother. “However, Lord Halburn, while I may have decided you are to be forgiven, my children will likely take longer.”

 

“Thank you for being so compassionate, Mrs. Sakville. If I may ask...” JT was unsure who knew the family’s true rank and whether or not to ask his question.

 

“How are we able to be addressed as we are in Meryton?” the duchess asked discreetly with a twinkle in her eye that matched Mr. Bennet’s.

 

He had a flash of inspiration and stated definitively, “Mr. Bennet is your brother.”

 

“Very good, Lord Halburn. Yes, I was raised in Meryton. My husband inherited Netherfield from his maternal grandmother whose primary residence was her husband’s estate. My father always referred to her as the ‘Old Bird’ when she made her semi-annual visits. She was by all accounts a right proper harridan who tried to force my father to pay for all repairs when issues were on shared property, such as fences and bridges. My husband was able to take possession of his inheritance with his background completely unknown. I fell in love with Mr. Frederick Sakville and did not find out about his eligibility until the minister pronounced us as man and wife using our titles. Meryton is a small town and none of the residents are active in society. Our privacy has been easy to maintain.”

 

“Fascinating! If I had not seen it in action for myself, I would have thought the concept unbelievable,” JT said.

 

“Aunt Phoebe, Alfie picked up the post from Reginald’s townhouse and I received letters from Clara and Lady Sheldon. The Sheldon’s must leave London on a family matter and asked if Clara may visit Haye Park for a month until the Owens family returns from Scotland. Mr. Darcy was concerned there would only be two chaperones for three young ladies living in a household with five unmarried gentlemen,” Miss Hurst explained to her aunt.

 

“I agree with Mr. Darcy, it would not be entirely proper with Mrs. Annesley visiting her family, although we must help if we can. Lady Sheldon turned to me because she trusts me. After all, having been raised on neighbouring estates, we have been friends our entire lives as have you and Clara. I cannot let them both down,” Lady Dobbs said with a nervous look between Miss Hurst and Richard.

 

“Lady Dobbs, if my parents agree, Miss Hurst, Miss Darcy, and Miss Owens could stay at Longbourn,” Miss Elizabeth offered. “It would leave us with one guestroom.”

 

“I would not want to imposition your household, Miss Elizabeth,” Lady Dobbs answered politely.

 

JT saw Mr. and Mrs. Bennet share a look he had only ever seen happily married couples use. After a moment, Mr. Bennet discretely nodded to his wife.

 

“What a wonderful idea, Lizzy. Lady Dobbs, it would be our pleasure to host the young ladies at Longbourn for a month,” Mrs. Bennet offered with a sincere smile. “If Miss Darcy’s companion returns before Miss Owens’ family retrieves her, we will discuss whether she moves into the remaining guest room at Longbourn or if everyone returns to Haye Park.”

 

“You would allow complete strangers to stay with you for a month,” Lady Dobbs asked, surprised.

 

“My sister has known you, the Darcy’s, and the Matlock’s for many years, My Lady. She told me after church that Miss Darcy was a pleasant young lady and that Miss Hurst improves upon acquaintance. I also could see that my sister was about to make the same offer. You must admit, with my nephew in residence at Netherfield, it makes perfect sense to have Longbourn entirely full of young ladies. Afterall, with my five daughters in residence, we are unlikely to notice three more females. If the girls do not get along well, we will discuss other options,” Mrs. Bennet said.

 

“Thank you, Mrs. Bennet,” Lady Dobbs said gratefully. “Mr. Darcy, may we send Alfie to London first thing in the morning to escort Miss Owens to Meryton?”

 

“May I go too, Reginald?” Miss Hurst asked. “I know it will be a long day of travel, but I would like to do some shopping and keep Clara company on the way back. I will stop and see Mrs. Mayes and pick up your post.”

 

“I want to go, brother,” Georgie begged. “We would bring Angus along for our protection. Please!”

 

JT could see Darcy was about to refuse. “Darcy, Richard must report for duty on Monday anyway. If they leave at first light, he could escort them and we could send a maid along for propriety’s sake. The ladies would be able to have a few hours shopping with a friend and then escort her back. We had planned to spend most of the day reviewing the records for my estate and the ladies would be left to their own devices.”

 

“I will be happy to ride with them if the Colonel needs to travel at a faster speed,” Dobbs offered. “I received a letter from a former shipmate who is in London for a few weeks. While the ladies are shopping, I will be able to meet Doyle and catch up on our lives and mutual acquaintances.”

 

“We will discuss the particulars later, but I see no problem with Grace going,” Mr. Hurst said.

 

“I agree,” Darcy stated. “It might be best if the ladies stay at Darcy House overnight and return on Tuesday, I will send a note for Mrs. Smythe. Dobbs, you should stay at Hurst’s townhouse.”

 

“That would not be possible, Mr. Darcy,” Lady Dobbs said. “All of the bedrooms at Reginald’s townhouse are being renovated.”

 

“Mr. Dobbs may stay at Matlock House with Michael,” JT’s mother said. “In fact, all of the ladies should stay there under the Earl’s protection. If it would make you feel better, Darcy, Mrs. Smythe may temporarily fill the role of companion.”

 

“Oh, mother, may I go too?” Miss Celia asked.

 

Mrs. Sakville thought for a moment before responding, “Celia, it would be better if you did not. You would potentially be recognized in town, but my dear think about how many people a carriage can comfortably accommodate. It does not make sense to take two carriages for a short trip to London. Perhaps we can all take a longer trip to London, say at the end of June or early July.”

 

“Georgie’s fifteenth birthday is in July,” Miss Hurst said before a devious smile crossed her face. “That would be a nice treat and Mr. Darcy could not deny her a shopping trip.”

 

“My birthday is at the end of June,” Miss Lydia said with a smile. “We are very close in age Georgie.”

 

“The season continues through to 24th July. You should all discuss what you would like to do while in London. Remember, we will be going for one week only and you must not plan every moment of every day, you will need time to rest. If Mr. Darcy would prefer to stay in Hertfordshire, Miss Darcy and Miss Hurst are welcome to join us at Dorset House. With the Bennet’s in residence, and depending on whether or not I can cajole a second trip to London out of my husband, we would have two married couples as chaperones.”

 

“I appreciate the offer, Mrs. Sakville, but I will send a note to Michael with Alfie informing him we will not leave for Matlock until after your trip to town. Georgie and Grace may stay with us at Matlock House,” JT’s mother offered.

 

“Very well, you have all convinced me. We will discuss the specifics of the week-long trip once a departure date has been agreed upon,” Darcy said. “JT, we should wait to look over the books for Halburn and Bouldermoss until Dobbs is back. There is no reason we should familiarize ourselves with his estate if he is not here to help. Also, reviewing both sets of books will help him learn faster.”

 

“I agree completely, Darcy. We can be gentlemen of leisure tomorrow and go for a ride and fence,” JT answered.

 

“Fencing, you say?” Mr. Sakville asked with a devilish smile. “Would you like a third opponent?”

 

Darcy smirked at him before answering, “I would, but I cannot answer for my cousin.”

 

JT chucked ruefully, “I welcome another competitor. I have fenced with you in town before I insulted your sister, Milham. I am not so sure I want to face you with a sharp object in your hand now.”

 

The occupants of the room laughed at his statement thinking it was a joke.

 

“I seem to recall my brother Phillips mentioning Mr. Dobbs had received a slight inheritance from his parents. Bouldermoss? Since when is an estate considered a slight inheritance?” Mr. Bennet asked with what JT assumed was a signature twinkle in his eyes.

 

“That is what I thought,” Hurst said with a grin. “Slight, indeed. My cousin is unassuming, Mr. Bennet. He also had the benefit of hearing me, Darcy, Halburn, and the Colonel complaining about the more audacious young ladies in society who attempt to ensnare any single gentleman with a title or an estate.”

 

“You decided to hide your light under a bushel? Smart man,” Mr. Bennet laughed.

 

“He did so with my blessing, Mr. Bennet,” Lady Dobbs explained. “My son has spent his entire adult life on a ship. Harold was only going to be in town for a few short weeks and learning the strategies necessary to endeavor to survive a season without being compromised takes a while. I have since made him join Miss Darcy’s lessons for her come out. He will be prepared next year.”

 

“Do not worry, Mr. Dobbs,” Miss Celia said, “Next season you will have five more ladies to run interference for you. You see, my cousin Mary and I are to come out.”

 

“Better and better, undeniably,” Mr. Bennet said through his chuckles. “Do any of you play chess?”

 

JT was deep in thought as the conversation continued around him. He was uneasy with the looks Miss Sakville was still giving him. He was not naïve enough to believe she would forgive him immediately, but he was hoping for less outright hostility.

 

“Miss Sakville, allow me to humbly apologize for the insult I levied at you this morning. My statement should never have been said regardless of the circumstances. Even though Mrs. Sakville told her not to worry, I am sure my mother will take me to task later for my thoughtlessness. I was ill at ease and only intended to deter my cousin and brother from attempting to matchmake,” JT said regretfully. “I truly did not mean for my comment to be overheard nor was it directed at any person in particular.”

 

“You were mean to Miss Juliet?” the little girl, Anna, asked loudly. “You must be a mean man.”

~*~

Netherfield Park, Meryton
Sunday, June 9, 1811

 

Juliet Sakville had watched Viscount Halburn discreetly since the moment he entered the parlour. Miss Darcy’s story had been verified and she could well understand how someone would lash out under the circumstances. He seemed genuinely contrite. Perhaps she should not be as hard on him as she originally planned.

 

“Anna, quite frankly, I am amazed you managed to keep silent as long as you did,” Juliet told Anna with a smile on her face to soften the rebuke. “I appreciate your desire to protect me, however, Lord Halburn is not necessarily a mean man.”

 

“But Miss Juliet, he said he sulted you and that is mean,” Anna said, clearly confused.

 

“Yes, insulting a person is mean and ungentlemanly,” Juliet said looking at Lord Halburn. She took a certain amount of perverse pleasure in seeing him lower his head and blush. She turned her attention back to Anna and continued, “His Lordship was tired and said things he did not mean because he needed a nap. Do you understand?”

 

“I think so,” Anna admitted reluctantly. “Miss Lizzy calls me a little monster when I am cranky and then she makes me take a nap. Maybe Lord Burn needs a naptime fore he visits people? I think he should hafta sit in the naughty chair fore he can play dore and cluck or bocatch. It is only proper to punish him.”

 

“That is a good idea,” Juliet agreed solemnly as she heard the rest of the room snicker. “Although it may not be easy to make a grown man sit in a naughty chair.”

 

“Miss Darcy said he is Lady Lock’s son,” Anna proudly informed her. “I bet his mama could make him sit.”

 

Juliet caught her Uncle Bennet’s eye and it took all of her power to turn her attention back to Anna. She was afraid if she attempted to speak, she would burst out laughing so she nodded in agreement. She was thankful to Mrs. Nicholls for entering the room and telling her mother the garden was ready.

 

As the occupants of the room started following her mother outside, Lizzy gave her a wink and approached.

 

“Come along, Anna,” Lizzy said while taking the little girl’s hand. “We should go outside and play a game of bilbocatch.”

 

“Yay, Miss Lizzy! It is so much fun,” Anna said while jumping up and down. “Mr. William, you hafta come with us to get quainted with Miss Lizzy. Miss Jane and Mr. Hurs need to talk too.”

 

“Anna, that is enough,” Lizzy gently admonished.

 

“But Miss Lizzy, I didn’t talk about you getting married to Mr. William this time,” Anna pouted.

 

Juliet had to turn her head and bite her lip but unfortunately caught her uncle’s eye again and burst out laughing. She picked Anna up.

 

“Come along, you little monster, it is time for you to go outside.” It was cowardly and petty, she knew, but if she was able to keep Anna with her all afternoon, it would prevent Lord Halburn from trying to apologize directly to her.

~*~

Netherfield Park, Meryton
Sunday, June 9, 1811

 

Reginald Hurst was at the edge of the garden standing by himself and watching as the games continued. The spectacle in front of him was highly amusing. He should write a book. It would have to be a comedy for sure.

 

Lady Matlock had immediately cornered Lord Halburn alone and given him a stern talking to and continued to give him looks that promised more on the subject later. She then performed the same service with her younger son. Once free of his mother, the Colonel was putting himself in front of Grace and trying to lead her to the side of the garden, presumably to ask for forgiveness. His mischievous sister knew what the Colonel was about and frustrated him at every opportunity. Lord Halburn seemed to be trying to get Miss Sakville out of the hearing of the others for the same reason. Grace and Miss Sakville refused to acknowledge the brothers and stayed with Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth, Miss Darcy, and Anna. Darcy stood quietly next to their little group staring at Miss Elizabeth and spoke only to answer his sister and Miss Elizabeth when they attempted to pull him into their discussion. Anna, blissfully unaware of everything happening around her, was a delight to watch. She threw herself wholeheartedly into every game she played.

 

“It is not too hard to guess the subject of your reverie, Mr. Hurst,” Miss Celia said as she approached from his side. “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.

 

“Quoting As You Like It again, Celia?” Mr. Bennet asked with a shake of his head approaching them from behind. “Just because my sister named you after one of the main characters, does not mean you are unable to quote other works of Shakespeare.”

 

“True, Uncle Bennet, however you must admit it is apropos in this instance,” Miss Celia responded pertly with a wicked grin.

 

“I do agree. I suggest you help Mr. Darcy out by separating Lizzy from Anna. If the two of them settle into a comfortable conversation, you may walk away and leave them to speak privately,” Mr. Bennet told his niece.

 

“You are almost as bad as Aunt Bennet,” Miss Celia responded with a bright smile. “It would be my honour to help their mutual attraction along.”

 

“Just do not let Lizzy know what you are doing,” Mr. Bennet warned.

 

“I am wounded, uncle,” Miss Celia said before walking away.

 

“The little imp,” Mr. Bennet grinned.

 

Reginald chucked along with Mr. Bennet.

 

“Mr. Hurst, do my eyes deceive me or are you another gentleman who is interested in one of my daughters?” Mr. Bennet asked. “Perhaps my Jane?”

 

He was not sure how to respond to Mr. Bennet’s question. Was he attracted to Miss Bennet? Definitely. Was he ready to think about marriage? That was not as easy to answer.

 

“Mr. Bennet, have you heard I am in half-mourning?”

 

“Yes, Mr. Hurst. You have my sympathies.”

 

“Thank you. What you may not know, is that my full year of mourning does not end until the twenty-sixth of November. While in half-mourning, I will be socializing and attending assemblies. The one thing I will not do, Mr. Bennet, is dishonour my wife’s memory by beginning a courtship before propriety allows.”

 

“I understand and am pleased to hear you plan to mourn the full year. So many young people nowadays care only about their own pleasure and comfort. It is reassuring to hear your convictions,” Mr. Bennet said. “I must point out though, I did not hear a denial that you were interested in my Jane.”

 

“I am intrigued, I will admit,” he said. “I am in no position to allow myself to feel more. It would be ungentlemanly to raise expectations I am unable to fulfill at present.”

 

“Again, I am pleased to hear that. You have yet to answer my original question. Are. You. Interested. In. My. Jane,” Mr. Bennet asked very slowly.

 

“I could be, very easily,” he finally admitted.

 

“That is what I suspected. I do not believe I would be breaking any confidences to tell you that Jane is intrigued with you too. What my Lizzy told me what happened when Jane saw you with young Reggie in the garden at Haye Park and what the maid Sally unintentionally intimated. Jane’s response, told me all I needed to know,” Mr. Bennet informed him with a smile. “My family knows you are in mourning for five more months. My Jane is very patient. I do not believe she would expect you to declare your intentions until you are free to do so. Take that time to become better acquainted with her.”

 

“I am worried Miss Bennet may become too attached and will end up hurt by me,” he admitted quietly. “Five months is a long time.”

 

“That is a possibility, I am afraid. As I said, I do not think Jane will expect you to offer more than friendship while you are in half-mourning. If, at any time, you realize you are falling in love with her, or either of us feel it would be in Jane’s best interest, we will sit down with her and explain why you are holding back,” Mr. Bennet said.

 

“I would prefer to be upfront and inform Miss Bennet of my interest and situation. I feel that she needs to know I will not be free to make any promises until my mourning period has ended. May I call on you at Longbourn tomorrow, sir?”

 

“I would be honoured, Mr. Hurst,” Mr. Bennet told him with a kindly smile.

 

“Heaven help us,” Mr. Bennet muttered.

 

“Sir?”

 

“Two of my nephew’s cousins have arrived, unexpectedly I believe,” Mr. Bennet answered with a discreet nod. “The gentleman on the left is The Marquess Brundel, John Sutton, and on the right is The Viscount Dover, Matthew Rogers. The three cousins are close in age and share a bond similar to that of Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 17

 

Walking paths, Meryton
Monday, June 10, 1811

 

Elizabeth Bennet, older by one month, was enjoying a morning stroll along the paths near her home with her cousin, Juliet. The cousins were very similar in intelligence and their sense of humour, but in appearance and demeanour, Juliet more closely resembled Elizabeth’s sister Jane.

 

The cousins lessened the pain of their lengthy separations and strengthened their cousinly bond by maintaining a very frequent and most unreserved correspondence. They were apprising each other of the happenings in their lives since they parted ways after their presentations, things that were not easily conveyed on paper.

 

“Juliet, we have been circumventing the most significant event to occur. What do you think of Lord Halburn?” Elizabeth asked hesitantly.

 

“I could ask the same of you, Lizzy. What do you think of Mr. Darcy?”

 

“You will not dissuade me. I will answer your question when you answer mine.”

 

“I do not know, Lizzy, truly. He is tall and devastatingly handsome, to be sure, but, Lord Halburn is him! And,” her cousin sighed, “after all of the daydreaming I have done about what would happen when we are finally introduced, he insulted me and our entire family. How do I reconcile the image I built in my head with the reality?”

 

“Are you certain, absolutely certain? Never mind, do forgive my question, of course you are sure. He made quite the impression on you in London for someone you never actually met. At least now you know his name and that he is not the son of an insignificant country gentleman or tradesman,” she joked.

 

“Lizzy, do be serious. It would not have mattered to me who he was and you know me well enough to be certain of that. I may know his name, but how am I to move past our beginning? Will I ever be able to forgive and trust him?” her cousin asked quietly.

 

“I do not know, Jules. I would like to believe it is possible. You must remember my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure,” she said as a movement in the field caught her attention. Two men were racing their horses. “If I am not mistaken, there are Mr. Darcy and Lord Halburn.”

 

“It appears to be, yes.”

 

The cousins watched as Mr. Darcy took the lead and heard him give a whoop of joy.

 

“Lizzy, let us walk back to Longbourn before they see us.”

 

“Too late, they are riding this way,” she informed her cousin.

 

“Do not dare leave me to converse alone with Lord Halburn,” Juliet threatened while grabbing a hold of her cousin’s arm.

 

“You will have to speak with him eventually,” she said gently.

 

“I know. However, I am not ready yet.”

 

“We should continue walking. We do not know for certain that we are their destination,” Elizabeth said.

~*~

Walking paths, Meryton
Monday, June 10, 1811

 

Fitzwilliam Darcy directed his horse to intercept Miss Sakville and Miss Bennet. He was unsure if his cousin had seen the ladies, or if it was a good idea, but he was eager to speak with Miss Bennet.

 

“JT, we are about to come upon Miss Sakville and Miss Elizabeth Bennet. If Miss Sakville refuses to speak to you, let it be. I have found that with Georgiana, letting her work through anger is best. It bodes ill if I press her to speak with me, before she is ready,” Darcy warned his cousin.

 

“Now that you mention it, I have noticed the same thing with my parents. After they have a disagreement, father waits for mother to approach or initiate conversation with him. I will do as you suggest,” JT agreed.

 

As they approached the cousins, William whispered to his own cousin, “Steady, JT.”

 

William took in the scene at a glance. Miss Bennet looked glad to see them while Miss Sakville looked apprehensive and was holding on to her cousin’s arm with a fierce determination.

 

“Miss Sakville and Miss Bennet, how do you do this fine morning?” he asked after they had dismounted.

 

“We are well, Mr. Darcy, thank you for asking. Did you enjoy your race?” Miss Bennet asked with a smile.

 

“Yes, it was exhilarating. I enjoy letting my horse have free rein,” he responded.

 

The sound of a twig snapping nearby startled the group. William quickly put himself in front of Miss Bennet whilst his cousin stepped in front of Miss Sakville with his hand in his pocket. When two large men exited the woods, he followed suit and put his hand in his own pocket to ready his pistol.

 

“We are in no danger, Noah,” he heard Miss Sakville say quickly. “My parents approve of both men. Mr. Darcy hails from Pemberley and Lord Halburn is his cousin. They were out riding and came across me and Lizzy walking.”

 

He saw the older of the two men nod and then move out of earshot while keeping the ladies in sight.

 

“I apologize. My parents require me to have an escort while walking and Noah is training his younger brother, Allan, to perform the same service for my cousins,” Miss Sakville explained quietly.

 

“No apologies are necessary, Miss Sakville. You may remember, I assigned Alfie to look after my sister. It would be hypocritical of me to judge your parents for doing the same thing I did.”

 

“Yes, how could one forget him telling mother no,” Miss Sakville responded with a slight smile.

 

William cringed when he heard his cousin start speaking.

 

“Miss Sakville and Miss Bennet, Darcy told me to not to say anything yet and I know I should listen to him because he has much more experience with women than I could ever hope to have,” JT said. “But I can no longer stay silent.”

 

William was shocked. What was his cousin saying? He saw Miss Bennet look at him with wide eyes and take a step back. “JT, have you lost your senses? I have little experience with young ladies. You know I keep my distance for fear of being compromised.”

 

“What are you going on about? I do not know for certain when Uncle George first became ill, but you have raised Georgiana, almost single-handedly, at least these past five years,” JT stated looking confused.

 

He turned to Miss Sakville when he heard her giggle and saw her patting Miss Bennet’s hand. JT looked at the ladies and blanched.

 

“Oh, goodness... I did not mean to imply... I have no sisters...” JT stammered. “I only meant that the experience of raising a much younger sister should have given you some insight into how the female mind works. With Georgie not returning to school after the holidays, Miss Hurst staying at Pemberley with her brother, and Lady Dobbs acting as a chaperone, you would have to be even more knowledgeable than previously.”

 

“We understand, Lord Halburn,” Miss Sakville stated with a genuine smile on her face. “My brother has said something similar before.”

 

He could not believe what he had just witnessed. How had JT managed such a feat so quickly? Miss Sakville was already showing signs of forgiveness.

 

“Darcy told me to wait, but I want, nay I need, to apologize to both of you, but most specifically to Miss Sakville. I was quite honoured and humbled when Georgie and Miss Hurst took on the role of my defenders yesterday, and, given the magnitude of my mistake, I felt it was best to stay silent instead of making the situation worse. While it may not help my case, I must also admit that, as an older brother, it was quite amusing to see them join forces against Richard,” JT said with a slight smile. “In truth, the situation was entirely my fault. I chose to leave London after a long day of travel instead of waiting for Monday. I chose to go to church instead of taking the opportunity to rest further. I chose to let my brother’s teasing irritate me. I made assumptions about the reason behind the introduction. I let my tongue run away from me. I have no one to blame but myself and I am heartily ashamed of my conduct. Whether you were the daughter of a blacksmith or a duke, you should have been treated with respect. I will never forgive myself for the unkind words I spoke about young ladies.”

 

William watched the ladies during JT’s speech. Unless he was mistaken, his cousin had just passed the most significant impediment on the path to forgiveness.

 

“If you will excuse me, I must return to Haye Park so my mother and Lady Dobbs may continue to berate me, as I so rightly deserve. Darcy, I will see you later,” JT said before bowing, mounting his horse, and riding away.

 

“May I join your walk?” he asked them.

 

Miss Sakville let go of Miss Bennet’s arm, stepped to the side, and told him, “Of course you may.”

 

William had been walking with a lady on each arm chatting amiably for at least twenty minutes, when Miss Sakville returned to the topic of his cousin.

 

“Mr. Darcy, we have met at least once a year while growing up. With that in mind, I hope you do not find my next question too bold.”

 

“Miss Sakville, our parents’ yearly meeting meant I saw you and your siblings more often than some of my extended Darcy family. Please, feel free to ask me anything and know that I will not take offense.”

 

“Your cousin is a singular man, Mr. Darcy,” Miss Sakville started. “He did not plead his case or try to pressure us into saying we forgave him. Is Lord Halburn as contrite as he seems because he now knows my father is a duke?”

 

“If I am being completely honest, I would have to say your father’s rank does have some effect on his remorse in so much as there are possible tangible political repercussions he is worried about. Unfortunately, we do live in a world with a strict class system and it is hard to let go of things you have been taught your entire life. Having said that, Matlock is not too far from Pemberley and my mother was sister to the earl. I have been an intimate of JT my entire life. We do not have a bond as strong as Richard and I, but JT is still one of my closest friends. He may be a bit harsh to people he feels are overstepping their place or are putting someone else down, but in all our years, I have never heard JT speak the way he did yesterday, about anything or anyone, regardless of their sex. If anything, he is more likely to come to the aid of someone who is being trodden upon. It truly was a conflagration of smaller things that caused an outburst for which he is honestly remorseful. As soon as we got into the carriage, he was beside himself with regret. He even called it the most embarrassing moment in his life. I will only add, he did not know your father’s rank until we arrived at Netherfield.”

 

William saw Miss Sakville was thinking about all that he said, so he turned to Miss Elizabeth and asked her a question about the upcoming assembly that he had heard his sister mention.

~*~

Longbourn, Hertfordshire
Friday, June 14, 1811

 

As Elizabeth Bennet was preparing for the Meryton Assembly, she thought about the past week and how eventful it had been. Grace, Georgie, and Clara had arrived from London on Tuesday and got along with everyone so well, that Juliet and Celia had begged their mother for permission to stay at Longbourn too. Aunt Jane had only relented when Elizabeth assured her that she and Jane would prefer to share a room for a month if it meant their cousins would be allowed to reside under their roof.

 

Elizabeth’s parents had good naturedly allowed all ten young ladies to take over Longbourn’s larger parlour, with Mrs. Waldron to act as chaperone, with Mrs. Tucker’s help occasionally, and Mrs. Bennet accepted callers in the smaller, lesser-used parlour. The ten ladies jokingly referred to themselves as the Longbourn Dieci, or either LD or dieci, to honour the group decision they had made to increase their fluency in the Italian language.

 

At dinner the previous evening, her mother had told their father she needed a bigger food budget and asked if the estate could afford to hire another footman, maid, and cook’s assistant because of all of the gentleman callers every day. Once the laughter ended, Elizabeth had to assure Georgie that her mother was simply teasing.

 

They had spent the past few days getting to know each other, accepting calls, and riding along the countryside on their horses, with and without the gentlemen, but always with Allan, Angus, and Alfie following at a discrete distance. Elizabeth thought she saw one or both of the Sims twins a few times, but kept that to herself.

 

All ten of the ladies were excited about the assembly for similar but slightly different reasons. One thing they all agreed upon was that it would be an entertaining evening with all of their relatives and friends. It was also a good chance to practice their dancing skills without the pressure of society’s eyes judging them.

 

With so many family members in the vicinity, Georgie and Lydia had easily been granted permission to attend. They could only dance with gentlemen agreed upon in advance and were expected to return immediately to Mrs. Waldron or Mrs. Tucker’s side. Elizabeth’s own father and Mr. Darcy had told the girls that they may dance with any male staying at Longbourn, Haye Park, or Netherfield, including Mr. Phillips. It was perhaps a liberal use of the term relative, but it suited them all comfortably. Lydia and Georgie would not be obliged to sit out any dances due to a scarcity of approved gentlemen. Lydia would be dancing the first with their cousin Edmund and Georgie with her cousin, Lord Halburn.

 

Kitty was still becoming comfortable in Meryton society and appreciated that Lydia and Georgie would be there to speak with if she did not feel like dancing. Uncle Stewart had asked for Kitty’s first set. Usually the Phillips’ danced the first together, but with so many young ladies in attendance, Aunt Evelyn had encouraged her husband to ask their niece.

 

Clara Owens was a delightful eighteen-year-old girl who was right between Elizabeth and her sister Mary in age. Like Georgie, Clara’s only sibling was an older brother who had recently turned one and twenty-years-old. Mary and Clara had formed an immediate friendship which deepened the longer they were acquainted. Like Juliet and herself, the prior season was also Clara’s official presentation in society. Clara had been asked to dance the first by Edmund’s cousin Matthew Rogers, Viscount Dover, whom she had met briefly in town.

 

Mary was the most apprehensive about attending, Elizabeth knew for certain. Surprisingly, her sister had divulged the reason to their new friends instead of keeping her own confidences. John Sutton, The Marquess Brundel, in his matter of fact way, without putting pressure on Mary, had expressed his interest in the middle Bennet daughter a year prior. He had been disappointed when Mary decided to defer her presentation by a year, but was certainly not discouraged. The first thing he did upon arriving at Netherfield, even before greeting his own cousin, was to ask Mary for the first set.

 

Celia was such a social being, that she enjoyed every opportunity to make merry with her cousins and new friends. Mr. Dobbs had confessed that this would be his first country assembly as a civilian where he would be expected to dance. Mr. Dobbs’ friend, Mr. Doyle, who accompanied him back from London, confessed he had not attended many dances since he left his service to the crown shortly before Mr. Dobbs. Grace and Georgie had taught Mr. Dobbs the common country dances the prior week but Mr. Doyle admitted he was afraid to humiliate himself by dancing. Celia had taken the initiative to arrange an afternoon of dancing. With all the young people from Longbourn, Haye Park, and Longbourn attending, their group was larger than some dinner parties. With Mrs. Waldron and Mrs. Tucker available to alternate between playing the piano and fulfilling the duties of a chaperone, they were able to ensure both gentlemen knew how to move in a larger group formation. To show his appreciation, Mr. Dobbs had asked Celia for the first set.

 

Juliet had, since Monday morning, been able to avoid speaking with Lord Halburn. With so many people in the parlour and riding horses, it was easy to do without being obvious to anyone but Elizabeth, who knew her so well, and perhaps Lord Halburn. Juliet had admitted to softening towards His Lordship, a little bit, but she told Elizabeth that she was not ready to interact with him. Juliet’s father had to be in London for the Parliament vote on Wednesday and had needed a few days to take care of some estate and business work with his solicitor. Instead of going directly to Dorset, Uncle Frederick had decided to visit his family at Netherfield for the weekend and attend the assembly. Juliet had originally planned to dance the first with Elizabeth’s father, until her own father had unexpectedly showed up at Netherfield earlier this same day and declared he would be Juliet’s partner.

 

Grace confided in the group that she had spoken with the Colonel on Sunday after dinner. She had made him understand that she truly did not blame him for his brother’s outburst, but she made certain he realized she felt he had contributed by his relentless teasing. The Colonel had confirmed, in a letter to Georgie, that he would be able to attend the assembly and had verified Grace held the first set on her dance card for him.

 

Jane was very excited for the assembly. She had confessed to Elizabeth and Juliet why her father had called her into his study on Monday after tea. Jane expressed to her sister and cousin how much more she admired Mr. Hurst after their conversation. Learning that Mr. Hurst was determined to honour his full year of mourning, and was unwilling to risk hurting her, made Jane declare him just what a young man ought to be. Jane acknowledged he was responsible, sensible, honourable, good-humoured, reliable, and naturally handsome. Before leaving Mr. Bennet’s study, Mr. Hurst had asked Jane for her first set.

 

Elizabeth’s excitement was rivalled by Jane’s. Jane thought to be the more excited of the sisters, but Elizabeth claimed the title because Jane only smiled while she was so happy she laughed. Mr. Darcy had taken to visiting his sister at least once a day at Longbourn and her mother managed to convince him to stay for dinner on Wednesday and Thursday. Before he left her and Juliet at Longbourn after their walk on Monday, he had asked her for the first set.

 

Elizabeth smiled as she watched Betsy, the maid she shared with Jane, finish her hair. “Perfect, as always. Thank you.”

 

“You are welcome, miss. Shall I go see if Missy needs help with your younger sisters’ hair or dresses?” Betsy asked.

 

“Yes, that would be helpful. I am going to see how my cousins and our guests are coming along,” Elizabeth responded.

~*~

Haye Park, Hertfordshire
Friday, June 14, 1811

 

Fitzwilliam Darcy certainly missed his sister Georgiana, but allowing her to temporarily move into Longbourn had been a wise decision. In addition to allowing Georgie to develop strong friendships, he now had a valid reason to see Miss Elizabeth every day without raising the expectations of the neighbourhood. He had instantly been attracted to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and the more time he spent with her, the more this attraction increased.

 

William was sitting in the parlour of Haye Park with JT, Hurst, Dobbs, and Doyle discussing the evening to come. Two of the five men were eager, impatient even, to leave for the assembly and the other three varied from apprehensive to outright fear. Socializing was not William’s favourite way to spend an evening, it is true, however he was looking forward to dancing the first set with Miss Elizabeth and then the second with his sister. Hurst was excited to dance the first with Miss Bennet and the second with his own sister.

 

“Doyle, I will be sad to see you leave tomorrow,” William told his newest friend.

 

“So will I, Darcy. I am glad I did not follow my initial response and decline Dobbs’ invitation. He was certainly correct. You lot are good friends to have. Although, at this assembly I will be as handy as a cow in a spitkid1.”

 

“Doyle,” Dobbs chastised, “you know the moves and performed very well at Longbourn. You are not clumsy nor will you make a cake of yourself. Think of it as another practice session. There will be enough ladies present who you have already met, that you do not have to dance outside of our party.”

 

“Too right. My goodness there are a gaggle of beautiful women in the vicinity. It makes me think about going AWOL for a while, but since my brother’s accident, father would be upset if I did not return to the estate as soon as our solicitor has completed the contracts I was sent to London to collect. I have not felt this adrift since I was a new recruit.”

 

“It will pass, trust me. You may have left the service before I did, but I spent a week in London with my mother dragging me to meet her friends, and their daughters,” Dobbs added with a slight eye roll. “I had to get my bearings quickly. Thankfully, I had the gentlemen here to assist me, along with the Earl and Colonel who you will meet later, whereas you had to make do with your father as your sole means of advice.”

 

William was surprised when Mrs. Stanley entered and announced his aunt and cousin. “Lady Catherine and Cousin Anne, what do you do here?”

 

“I was invited, William,” his cousin responded pertly.

 

“Neither Lady Dobbs or Aunt Olivia informed me they had extended an invitation,” he said. How could Aunt Olivia do this to him? She knew that even though Anne had ousted Lady Catherine as mistress of Rosings, his aunt would still take every opportunity to insist it was his duty to marry his cousin. He could not allow her to harm his burgeoning relationship with Miss Elizabeth.

 

“It was not Aunt Olivia who invited me but your sister. Georgie extended an invitation to join her at Longbourn,” his cousin explained.

 

“I cannot believe my sister invited you to another person’s home. I thought she had a better understanding of propriety,” William said.

 

“Georgie sent me a letter that contained a note from Mrs. Bennet with an invitation. Apparently, she told the Bennet’s about me and they all decided I should not be excluded,” Anne told him.

 

“But where will you stay?” JT asked. “I remember the conversation about Longbourn’s bedchambers. Now that Miss Sakville and Miss Celia are staying there, Longbourn has no available rooms.”

 

“The youngest sisters have agreed to share a room so I may have my own. I am quite determined, cousins. I enjoy my solitude at Rosings, but the chance to meet so many agreeable ladies is a dream come true,” Anne said.

 

“William, I demand to meet these people before Anne accepts,” Lady Catherine said forcefully.

 

“Allow me to introduce you to Hurst, Dobbs, and Doyle,” Darcy stated. Once propriety was satisfied, he asked, “Lady Catherine, must we go over this again? Anne is legally of age and has accepted her inheritance as mistress of Rosings. She is beholden to no one and you can no longer order her to do anything.” He was discomposed when his aunt did not respond and simply stared at him.

 

“Lady Catherine, are you well?” JT asked tentatively.

 

“Why do my nephews and niece call me Lady Catherine while my sister is referred to as Aunt Olivia by all?” Lady Catherine asked softly.

 

“Anne?” Darcy asked, confused.

 

“William, my mother and I had a long talk on our way here. She will no longer insist we marry,” Anne stated definitively.

 

“What makes you so certain, Anne?” William asked.

 

“Anne, no offense intended to Lady Catherine,” JT interjected, “but Darcy, and his father before him, have been telling your mother that he will not marry you for as long as I can remember. Why should Darcy believe your mother would stop now?”

 

“Besides the fact that I have reached my majority and have been running Rosings for two years?” Anne asked flippantly. “William, how many times have you spoken with my mother since I assumed the role as mistress? Zero! When I took over, we replaced the previous Rosings steward with Mr. Grey’s assistant and I have been bringing the books to town for you to review.”

 

Had he really not spoken with his aunt in two years? He glanced at JT and saw his face looked as guilty as he suspected his own did.

 

Again Mrs. Stanley entered and announced more arrivals. “General Robert Trevor, Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, and Dr. Mark Withers.”

 

“At least I was expecting two of you, this time,” Darcy said wryly. “Richard, please introduce everyone.”

 

Once Richard had completed the introductions, he turned to his cousin and asked, “Anne, what have you done to yourself? I have never seen you look so healthy.”

 

“Thank you, Richard,” Anne responded with a smile. “When I took over my inheritance, Uncle Michael and Aunt Olivia demanded I get a second opinion on my health. The very same Dr. Withers you arrived with is responsible for my good health. He suggested a change to my diet and that I walk every day.”

 

“That is almost the same advice Mark gave me,” Hurst said. “Oh, I do apologize for being so familiar. My Aunt Phoebe is a result of my grandfather’s second marriage. She is much younger than my father and is only ten years my senior. We both grew up together on our family’s estate, more like cousins. Dr. Mark Withers is my aunt’s maternal cousin. When Mark would visit, they would let me tag along on their adventures.”

 

“You did so very energetically, Reginald,” Lady Dobbs said as she entered the room with Darcy’s aunt and uncle. “Welcome Mark, I am so very glad you were able to accept my invitation. Mr. Darcy, I apologize for not letting you know about the invitation, it was a rather last-minute decision and you were out riding with the other gentlemen.”

 

“Cathy, it is a pleasure to see you and Anne. How was your trip?” Uncle Michael asked his elder sister.

 

“It was pleasant enough. Thankfully the weather cooperated,” Lady Catherine responded.

 

“We will have time to speak later, Catherine,” Aunt Olivia said. “Michael and I promised to leave early and stop at Netherfield to transport Mr. and Mrs. Sakville and Mrs. Tucker to the assembly. It will afford us the opportunity to visit with Mr. Sakville before he returns to their estate.”

 

“Aunt Catherine,” William said softly, “would you and Anne like to freshen up before the assembly?”

 

With tears glistening in her eyes at his form of address, his aunt answered, “That would be appreciated, thank you.”

 

“Olivia, may Lady Catherine use your room?” Lady Dobbs asked. When Lady Dobbs received a nod in response, she continued, “Mrs. Stanley, please take Lady Catherine to the Matlock’s room and Miss de Bourgh to mine. I apologize, ladies, but, just like at Longbourn, with so many guests, there are no extra bedrooms at Haye Park. Mr. Doyle is scheduled to leave tomorrow. I will barter with Lord Halburn and the Colonel to see what it will cost me for them to share tonight. I imagine cook will be baking some tasty desserts over the next few days.”

 

“Phoebe, we will speak with Mrs. Sakville at the assembly. With her daughters staying at Longbourn and her nephews visiting her son, I am sure she would extend an invitation to my sons for the evening,” Aunt Olivia said.

 

“Well done, Olivia, I am sure you are correct. Again, I apologize to the de Bourgh ladies for the inconvenience.”

 

“It is understandable, Lady Dobbs. I will only be here for a short while, I did not expect to be assigned a room,” Anne said.

 

“I will have Angus deliver your trunks to Longbourn when we are at the assembly, Anne. When you arrive at Longbourn with the Bennet’s, your belongings should have been unpacked by your maid,” William told his cousin.

~*~

Netherfield Park, Hertfordshire
Friday, June 14, 1811

 

Olivia Fitzwilliam was nervous as she followed Mrs. Nicholls to the study to meet with the Sakville’s. She took comfort in the fact that Michael seemed unperturbed. Her husband knew the duke from parliament, but she was still uncertain what to expect.

 

When they were seated, she hesitantly raised her eyes and saw the duke smiling at her. “Be at ease, Lady Matlock.”

 

“Thank you, Your... Mr. Sakville,” she blushed at her near slip.

 

“You may speak freely, Lady Matlock. Two of the Sims brothers are ensuring our privacy. David, standing behind me, is my personal footman, but you could really call him my body-guard. As his Uncle Walters before him, David has been trained in the finest establishments to guarantee my protection. His younger brother Nathan is outside the door making sure we are not interrupted,” His Grace said.

 

“Thank you,” Lady Matlock said quietly.

 

“Matlock, my wife tells me our families may soon be connected through marriage, maybe more than one,” His Grace said with a smirk.

 

Olivia was shocked. Marriage? Certainly, she noticed how much attention William paid to Miss Elizabeth, even if he tried to hide it, but Lady Juliet disliked her son, justifiably in her opinion, even if JT was her own flesh and blood. To her knowledge, Miss Hurst was not related to the Sakville’s. Could he be referring to JT and Lady Celia?

 

“You are understandably confused, Lady Matlock,” Her Grace said. “You see, this past season, our families attended some of the same outings. While they were not introduced, my Juliet certainly noticed your son, Lord Halburn. She has kept her confidence from me, but I am sure my niece knows it all. Juliet’s eyes were drawn to your son as Mrs. Tucker and I have never seen before. If he manages to apologize sufficiently, and keeps his other foot out of his mouth, they have a chance at a wonderful relationship. Allow me to further explain my reasoning...”

 

Olivia was left with much to think upon as the carriage pulled away from Netherfield.

~*~

Assembly Room, Meryton
Friday, June 14, 1811

 

Fitzwilliam Darcy managed to get one step closer to dancing with Miss Elizabeth. The Hurst and de Bourgh carriages from Haye Park had pulled up at the assembly room, finally, with the Matlock and Sakville carriages from Netherfield right behind them. They had all arrived a little bit early and were enthusiastically met by Sir William Lucas.

 

“Mrs. Sakville, how kind of your large party to join us this evening,” Sir William welcomed the group with wide eyes.

 

“There are more to come, Sir William,” Mrs. Sakville said with a laugh. “We arrived at the same time that Mr. Darcy arrived from Haye Park.”

 

“Mrs. Sakville, at my count, including your family, because Netherfield is not your primary residence, and the ladies housed at Longbourn, our two parties total three and twenty. We visitors are to bring eleven ladies and twelve gentlemen to the assembly,” William said with a smirk.

 

“This will certainly be a charming assembly for the young people who live in Meryton. I believe this night will be spoken of for months to come,” Sir William, their gregarious unofficial host, said.

 

“Allow me to introduce you to our newcomers, Sir William,” he said and then performed the introductions.

 

Thankfully, another family arrived shortly after they did, so they were allowed to fully enter the hall. They stood together waiting for the Longbourn party to arrive.

 

“Mr. and Mrs. Sakville, did you know the Duke of Dorset shares your last name?” his Aunt Catherine said. “I am most attentive to such things. The last name is not terribly common so that must mean your family tree intersects with the duke’s noble line some generations in the past.”

 

How William held his laugh in, he knew not. Richard, JT, and Dobbs were unable to, but they indicated they were sharing a story.

 

Mrs. Sakville answered his aunt with a delighted twinkle in her eye, “Yes, I suppose it must.”

 

1 spitkid - A kid is a small tub, usually of wood, or any small container. The naval expression “as handy as a cow in a Spitkid” is adequately descriptive of clumsiness.

Chapter Text

Chapter 18

 

Assembly Room, Meryton
Friday, June 14, 1811

 

Lady Catherine de Bourgh was disturbed. She was unsure what it was, but she knew that something odd was occurring in Meryton. She recalled the Darcy’s speaking of their friendship with Mr. and Mrs. Sakville, but nothing on the subject of that couple’s background or financial situation. She was surprised at the quality of clothing worn by the entire family, even their daughters’ companion. It was obviously expensive material that was assembled in the newest styles by very talented tailors and seamstresses. If she did not know better, she would have suspected it came from the continent.

 

Her brother, as an Earl, was far above Mr. Sakville in rank and consequence, yet he was treating Mr. Sakville as the superior. What was even more perplexing, was that Lady Matlock and Lady Dobbs were also being deferential towards Mrs. Sakville.

 

While she had been studying the interactions of the titled persons in the room with Mr. and Mrs. Sakville, she had caught William’s eyes a few times. William, she sighed. She had such hopes that he would fall in love with, and marry, her daughter Anne. He would have taken care of Anne and Rosings better than she had been able to.

 

William kept sneaking glances at the assembly room doors as if he was waiting for someone specific to arrive. She gasped at the realization that he must have found a young lady to admire in the neighbourhood. He must have heard her, because William looked up with a guilty expression on his face before looking at the door again. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

 

Anne exerting her independence and taking over as mistress of Rosings, had been an eye-opening experience. Her daughter had essentially exiled her to the farthest suite in the family wing and ordered Mrs. Jenkinson to be her new companion. Two months later, after having dined outside of her room only once and being completely smothered by Mrs. Jenkinson, Catherine understood what her daughter’s previous life had been like. She wrote a letter, two sheets of letter-paper long, apologizing for her actions and asking for a chance to be a part of Anne’s life. Building the relationship she now enjoyed with Anne, was a long, gut wrenching process. Catherine had been forced to face how her past behavior had not only affected her daughter, but her extended family members, servants, and anyone she interacted with.

 

Anne had been running Rosings for almost a year when she had helped Catherine realize the letters she received were always short, impersonal, and solely written out of duty. Catherine had tried to show her family members and friends how she had changed via letters. She thought she had been partially successful, but William and Joseph’s clear mis-trust of her objective when she arrived at Haye Park, proved she had much work to do, but she was determined to carry on with her altered behaviour.

 

“It was bound to happen eventually, mother. Please do not ruin it for William,” Anne whispered quietly into her ear.

 

“I am right? William has found a young lady?”

 

“Yes, according to Georgie, he is besotted,” her daughter confirmed gently.

 

“What else am I unaware of?”

 

“I am uncertain what you are referring to, mother.”

 

“There is something strange going on in this neighbourhood. Watch how the Matlock’s and Lady Dobbs interact with the Sakville’s. Does that seem appropriate to you?” she asked her daughter.

 

“Now that you mention it, no. Uncle Michael is usually much more careful about observing the proper protocols of rank. Not to imply he is an elitist,” her daughter quickly added, “but being a member parliament, he must maintain a certain façade.”

 

“My point exactly.” Catherine caught her nephew’s eyes again as he looked back and forth between her and Anne before he approached Mrs. Sakville. She watched as they had a brief discussion, both looking at her and Anne a few times, before Mrs. Sakville nodded her head and they walked towards her and her daughter.

 

“Aunt Catherine, before it becomes crowded, would you and Anne favour us with your company for a moment? There seems to be a modicum of privacy over by that window,” William suggested with a wave of his hand.

 

Catherine followed her nephew across the room with a sense of unease. When they arrived, she noted that William positioned her so she was facing the wall and the rest of the guests could not see her facial expressions. She knew this would be an unpleasant conversation.

 

“I know I am not going to be fond of whatever it is you have brought me here to disclose, William. My character has ever been celebrated for its sincerity and frankness, and at such a moment as this, I shall certainly not depart from it. I insist you get it over with immediately. Tell me this instant why you dragged us away from the rest of the attendees,” she ordered before mentally bracing herself.

 

It was unsettling to see her nephew also defer to Mrs. Sakville. Heaven and earth, what was happening? Had he lost the use of his reason? Had her brother and sister too? Why was everyone... All at once, in a flash of inspiration, similar to the glow-worms1 that are seen in the woods of Rosings this time of the year, she understood.

 

Catherine looked up into the curious face of Mrs. Sakville.

 

“Are you well, Lady Catherine? Your mind seemed to be engaged elsewhere for a few moments.”

 

“Do not worry, Mrs. Sakville, I am perfectly in control of my faculties. I found myself suddenly imagining I was ignorant of your connections. I was wondering, how long ago, exactly, your husband’s family tree intersected with the duke’s line,” she stated confidently. It was the only thing that made sense.

 

“I do believe we will get along famously, Lady Catherine,” Mrs. Sakville said with a grin.

 

She listened to Mrs. Sakville’s history with rapt fascination. To think, a duke and his wife wanted people to be unaware of their rank. It defied belief.

 

“What do you find so amusing, Anne?” she asked her daughter.

 

“How many times have I heard you ask people ‘Do you know who I am?’ and here we have a family, of a rank you could not hope to aspire, who want nothing so much as their privacy,” her daughter barely managed to answer through her mirth.

 

William offered Anne his arm and escorted her towards the rest of their party. Giving into the juvenile desire, she rolled her eyes at her laughing daughter and nephew as they walked across the room.

 

“Lady Catherine, how long will you be residing in Meryton?” Mrs. Sakville asked her as they slowly took a turn about the room.

 

“I am unsure, Mrs. Sakville. Certainly, until my Anne is comfortable, past that, I do not know,” she replied.

 

“Where will you reside? Meryton has become an enormously popular summer destination. I wonder if it will soon rival Bath and Ramsgate as the en vogue place to be,” Mrs. Sakville told her with a quiet laugh.

 

“My nephews will make room for me at Haye Park,” she responded confidently.

 

“My husband will be returning to our main estate on Monday. Would you like to be my guest at Netherfield Park? At the very least, you must agree for tonight as I understand Mr. Doyle travels back to London tomorrow. We will either get along famously, as I previously predicted, or hate each other with a spectacular passion,” Mrs. Sakville offered with a devious grin.

 

“From what I have seen so far, I do believe the former is more likely,” Catherine responded with a smile.

 

“There is an elderly resident in Meryton, Miss Thomlin, who inherited her father’s house and occasionally takes in boarders to supplement her income. She would never rent rooms to a single gentleman, but a fellow widow with her daughter, and maybe even her nephews, should be welcome.”

 

“I thank you for the information, it may become useful as I understand the Bingley’s are leasing Netherfield Park starting after Michaelmas.”

 

“Miss Thomlin is over by the refreshment table. I will introduce you to her before the evening ends,” Mrs. Sakville offered.

 

Catherine noticed a disturbance at the front doors, heard the murmur of conversation halt, and stopped walking. She saw a distinguished looking older gentleman walk in with a lady on his arm who could be none other than his wife and a large number of young ladies behind them. When she spied her niece, Georgiana, she knew it must be the Bennet family. She witnessed the moment her nephew caught sight of a stunning brunette. The looks on their faces told her more than she wanted to know.

 

She was taken aback to see genuine pleasure on the face of Mr. Sakville and the Phillips’ as they greeted the Bennet’s. Who was this family? She had never encountered another of their rank that were less pretentious. She watched as the brunette approached her nephew and then blush when he spoke to her. “Besotted, indeed,” she muttered.

 

“My niece, Elizabeth Bennet.”

 

“I would have to be blind to miss that William and Richard are infatuated. Who is the young lady next to the Colonel?”

 

“That would be Miss Hurst,” Mrs. Sakville answered.

 

“Aye, I have heard about her from acquaintances who spent the season in London. She was presented some years ago but was relatively unknown before last season when she came into her full inheritance. She caused quite a stir with her spectacular dowry and an estate that brought the mercenary families scurrying for an introduction. One acquaintance, whose husband retired from the navy, described it to me as being reminiscent of rats fleeing a sinking ship, only in reverse. Fortunately for Richard, he actually managed to find a young lady who seems to appear able to tolerate him and who has a large enough dowry to keep him in the style of living in which he has been brought up,” Catherine observed.

 

“Oh, Lady Catherine, you are a treasure. Please, call me Jane in private.”

 

“And you must call me Catherine.”

 

“Are my eyes deceiving me, Jane, or is my other nephew, Lord Halburn, enthralled with the young blonde lady who is studiously avoiding him?”

 

“That is my eldest daughter, Juliet. You are correct she wants nothing to do with him. I shall tell you how they met. Prepare yourself for something very dreadful,” Mrs. Sakville told her with a devilish grin.

 

Lady Catherine listened to the tale in amazement before letting out a loud unladylike guffaw. “Simply marvellous! I would undoubtedly have suspected Darcy capable of making such a monumental blockheaded mistake,” she said while shaking her head. “It sounds like something that could have leapt off the pages of those wretched gothic novels that are so popular with young people.”

 

“You know that from first-hand experience?” Mrs. Sakville asked with a raised brow.

 

“Obviously not. I would never place an order at the bookshop in advance of an expected publication date. Nobody would think to pay extra for said novel to be brought to Rosings immediately upon its delivery. I would also certainly not ever read a novel all the way through without putting it down, regardless of the number of candles I burned through,” Catherine said haughtily.

 

“I understand completely, Catherine. It would be unconscionable to have such a frivolous guilty secret to be kept hidden,” Mrs. Sakville solemnly agreed. “Finding someone else who indulged in the same horrible taste in literature, now and then of course, would be an amazing thing. I do wonder if you have managed to acquire a copy of the latest volume of Tales of Fashionable Life?”

 

“Indeed, I read it last month. I do believe you are correct. We will get along famously,” Catherine said with a grin. “Now, Mr. Hurst there also appears enchanted with the other blonde lady. I must say, she looks enough like your daughter Juliet, that she must be another a one of your children or perhaps a niece?”

 

“My niece, Jane Bennet,” Mrs. Sakville said before informing her of Mr. Hurst’s circumstances.

 

“Very admirable. Most young men would not think to make their sentiments known in such a subtle way,” Catherine said.

 

“Yes, I was very pleased when my brother told me about the conversation Mr. Hurst insisted they have with Jane to protect her from possibly being hurt.”

 

“What other possible matches do we have developing? I must know it all if I am to be of use,” Catherine stated.

~*~

Assembly Room, Meryton
Friday, June 14, 1811

 

Fitzwilliam Darcy was apprehensive. He escorted his cousin back to their party and asked, “Should we have left them alone, Anne?”

 

“Everything will be well, William. Mother has resigned herself to the fact that we will not marry each other. I promise.”

 

“I do trust you, Anne, but she has demanded our match for so long, it is hard for me to believe she would simply abandon hope,” he said.

 

“I understand,” his cousin said gently. “Mother and I have been talking about this for almost two years. It does not seem sudden to me. She is different now, William. All I ask is that you give her a chance to prove it to you. Please, consider all I have said before you react negatively towards her.”

 

Thinking back, he had noticed a shift in the tone of Aunt Catherine’s letters. He would do as Anne requested.

 

The cousins were almost to the rest of their group when they came upon Charlotte Lucas walking towards the refreshment table.

 

“Miss Lucas, it is nice to see you again. May I introduce you to my cousin, Miss Anne de Bourgh? Anne, Miss Charlotte Lucas is the eldest daughter of Sir William,” William said while the ladies curtsied to each other.

 

“Mr. Darcy, I see you have had even more friends join you. The women of the neighbourhood, matron and maiden alike, appreciate you, more than you could ever fathom,” Miss Lucas teased with a grin. “My mother and sisters were grieved over the number of ladies rumoured to be in your party, but they were comforted when they heard more gentlemen had arrived.”

 

Anne laughed and said, “Oh, Miss Lucas, we are sure to be good friends.”

 

“Mr. Darcy, I recognize the Colonel, but who is the other gentleman in uniform?” Miss Lucas asked.

 

“I may not be a military man myself, Miss Lucas, but even I know marching orders when I hear them. Come, I will introduce you,” Darcy said before offering an arm to his cousin and to Miss Lucas. “General Trevor, allow me to introduce you to Miss Lucas. Her father is Sir William whom we met at the door.” William smiled when the general seemed eager for the introduction. His smile slipped a little when the general seemed disappointed as Anne excused herself to speak with Dr. Withers.

 

“General, I have read your name in the paper, more than a few times. You have had a distinguished career,” said Miss Lucas.

 

“Miss Lucas, I pray to God daily that I have fought my last battle. My current orders have me stationed in London for the foreseeable future training our new recruits,” the General informed her.

 

“An admirable, and very important, duty,” Miss Lucas responded.

 

William was pleased to stay silent and let them continue their conversation. He was shocked at how informed Miss Lucas was regarding military matters. It was the work of a few moments to see the General was clearly fascinated. Lady Dobbs had noticed the conversation taking place in front of him and offered a conspiratorial smile.

 

Miss Lucas had just mentioned to the General that she read an article about a supply issue and asked him a question when a hush fell over the room. William looked up to see the Bennet’s had arrived.

Elizabeth. She came into sight and took his breath away. She looked up, caught his eyes, and smiled beautifully at him. He was undone at the thought of dancing with her.

Darcy was sure this would be one of the most important assemblies in the lives of quite a few people.

~*~

Assembly Room, Meryton
Friday, June 14, 1811

 

Elizabeth Bennet was annoyed. It was joyous to have her cousins and new friends staying at Longbourn, at least it was, until it was time to get eleven ladies ready for an assembly. Their departure was delayed almost twenty minutes by too many trips to retrieve forgotten items or to repair their attire or hair. Finally, she sent her parents out to the Bennet carriage with as many people as would fit. When Georgie returned downstairs with her reticule, she all but pushed the rest of their party out the door into the Sakville carriage.

 

It took a few moments for the footmen to help everyone exit the carriages in front of the assembly and, in that time, Elizabeth was able to speak with her elder sister.

 

“I know you are excited, Lizzy. Take a moment to compose yourself before walking inside,” her sister Jane teased.

 

“Thank you, Jane,” she responded before doing as her elder sister ordered.

 

“Come along girls. We do not want to miss the first set,” mama ordered as papa escorted her up the stairs.

 

Elizabeth entered the room, searched for Mr. Darcy, saw him standing with Charlotte, and sighed in contentment before smiling. His answering smile drew her to his side as if she was a bee and he was the hive.

 

“Miss Elizabeth, you look lovely this evening,” Mr. Darcy complimented, causing her to blush. “Allow me to introduce you to Richard’s commander, General Trevor.”

 

“It is a pleasure to meet you, General,” she acknowledged. “Charlotte, how are you?”

 

“Very well, Eliza. General Trevor was answering the questions we discussed when we read the article about the army’s supply issues,” Charlotte answered.

 

“Truly? I would enjoy hearing what the army is planning to do about the grain shortage,” she said. “The rain last year destroyed a fair number of crops.”

 

“How singular,” the General said. “I have never met young women who were so knowledgeable regarding current affairs.”

 

Elizabeth heard the band start to practice and looked up at Mr. Darcy with a smile.

 

“Miss Elizabeth, I have been looking forward to our dance all week.”

 

“Me too, Mr. Darcy.”

 

“Miss Lucas,” the General said, “would you honour me with the first dance?”

 

“It would be my pleasure,” Charlotte answered.

 

~*~

Assembly Room, Meryton
Friday, June 14, 1811

 

Jane Sakville was standing with Lady Catherine, Lady Dobbs, and her sister Bennet as they watched the first set progress through the forms. She was sure the smile on her face was enormous. This trip to her childhood home had definitely been fruitful. Her daughters, always wary of ulterior motives when deciding whether to extend an offer of friendship, had made three new friends. And, unless she was mistaken, her children had all found the companions of their future lives.

 

Juliet was clearly enamoured of Lord Halburn, even if she was fighting the attraction with everything that she had. Jane knew it was only a matter of time before her daughter’s mind gave way to her heart. Quite a few first circle society matrons would be disappointed that the much sought-after daughter of a duke, with an enormous dowry, had captured the much sought-after heir to the Matlock Earldom, with its deep coffers.

 

Celia seemed to be determined to gain the heart of Mr. Dobbs, regardless of his opinion. As soon as Celia was presented to the queen, the poor man would be courting and then engaged before he knew what she was about. Mr. Dobbs was a quiet and thoughtful person. Much like Mr. Darcy, they both needed spouses with vibrant personalities who could help ease their discomfort in society.

 

Poor Edmund. He was the most inconspicuous of her children, but she could tell that he was smitten with Miss Darcy. He would have to wait two years, maybe three, for Miss Darcy to have her season in London before he could approach her. She would have to discuss with Frederick ways to keep their son from becoming melancholy. Sending him to Scotland for a summer or two would help keep him occupied as the time passed. Perhaps when Lizzy and Mr. Darcy married, assuming they did, Edmund could spend time at Pemberley occasionally. It would allow him to be near Miss Darcy in an acceptable manner.

 

“Oh Jane, three daughters likely to be married soon. I can think of nothing else! I am sure Mary will fight it the longest, but Jane and Lizzy are both clearly captivated. I am so pleased! So happy!” Fanny exclaimed, breaking her out of her ruminations.

 

“Frances, do speak lower,” Jane warned her sister urgently. “You do not want to dissuade the gentlemen because of gossip, do you? You will never recommend your daughters by so doing.”

 

“Your sister is correct, madam. It is best not to scare them away,” Lady Catherine advised. “You know how some men fear losing their independence. I have never seen my nephew as intrigued by another woman as he is with your daughter Elizabeth, but if he feels his hand is being forced, his pride may encourage him to return to London.”

 

“I agree, Fanny,” Lady Dobbs added. “My nephew Reginald is still in half-mourning. It could potentially affect his reputation if people think he is courting a lady so soon. Also, he spoke to your husband about his wishes. Reginald will mourn for an entire year. It would not be wise to start raising expectations.”

 

Jane was suddenly reminded what Fanny was like when they were younger. As the daughter of the widower village solicitor, she was a spoiled girl of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When the younger Fanny was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. A very young Mrs. Waldron, recently widowed, had been hired as the Bennet nanny as soon as they found out Fanny was with child. Supposedly, she was hired early to learn the routine of the household and her employers’ preferences regarding the raising of their children. Truthfully, Jane had demanded Thomas hire someone to teach his wife proper manners. She had not seen Fanny this excited in many years.

 

“Fanny, Mary has not been presented to the queen. You know nothing can come of Lord Brundel’s attraction for a year, at least. Calm yourself and let Mary enjoy the last vestiges of her childhood,” Jane demanded.

 

“I know you are right. Jane. I am overcome with...”

 

Jane watched in concern as Fanny stopped mid-sentence, opened her eyes wide, and put her hands over her abdomen.

 

“Oh my, I thought I was too old. Lord bless me,” her sister said quietly.

 

“Fanny? Truly? After all these years? Can it be?” Jane whispered excitedly.

 

“I have just felt the quickening. I had been so hopeful. Oh, Jane, if this child is a son, Longbourn is saved,” Fanny said with tears in her eyes. “Of course, I will love it regardless of its sex, but Thomas would be so happy if his hard work over the past twenty years would not surely be undone in six months by his distant cousin.”

 

“I hope I find out soon too,” Jane said quietly to herself.

 

“Jane, am I to understand that Fanny has had confirmation she is with child and you believe you are too?” Lady Catherine asked quietly.

 

“I may be,” Jane admitted in a whisper. “It makes sense for us to be in a delicate condition at the same time, now that I think about it. In late February, our husbands were in London for three weeks helping the Gardiner’s deal with issues surrounding business matters and moving into their new home. I have not had my courses since Frederick returned.”

 

“I also have not had mine since Thomas returned from that trip,” Fanny told her just as quietly.

 

“From your comments, Fanny, I am guessing Longbourn is entailed, then?” Lady Dobbs asked.

 

“Yes,” Fanny said reluctantly. “We have never met the heir presumptive, but Thomas told me his father was a horrid man.”

 

“We did meet Cousin Collins senior once,” Jane said. “He made me very uncomfortable. Thomas is correct, he was horrid. If I am being generous, his son would probably run Longbourn to the brink of ruin within a year. I would greatly appreciate Longbourn not falling into the hands of anyone from that family.”

 

“If you are also with child, it doubles your chances of having a new heir for Longbourn.”

 

Lady Catherine’s statement caused Jane and Fanny to gasp. In all of Jane’s hopes of being with child again, the fact that a son would be next in line to inherit her childhood home had not occurred to her. It should have though. Obviously, her son would be a much closer blood relation to Thomas than a third cousin.

 

“Oh, Fanny, how wonderful would it be for both of us to have sons? The Collins family expectations would be quite altered,” Jane said with a wicked grin.

 

“I must tell Thomas tonight. We have been trying since Lydia went to Scotland and had all but given up hope on another child. He will be entirely unreasonable in his efforts to protect me from harm. I will be lucky to be allowed to walk into Meryton for fear that I would trip,” Fanny said sadly.

 

“Frederick will be worse than Thomas,” Jane said reluctantly. “If I am fortunate, I will not feel the quickening until next week. I do not feel obligated to tell him of my suspicions, but should it be confirmed before he leaves, I would be honour bound to. If I am with child, it will be a battle to convince Frederick I can chaperone the girls on our week-long trip to London. We should meet to discuss the best arguments to use.”

 

“Do not worry ladies, everything will turn out well,” Lady Catherine told them gently. “With the four of us thinking of valid reasons for you to make the trip while increasing, your husbands do not stand a chance.”

 

“Lady Catherine, is it my imagination, or is your daughter smiling a bit too much at my cousin?” Lady Dobbs asked in an obvious attempt to lighten the mood.

 

Grateful for the change of topic, and seeing that Catherine was looking between the prospective couple, Jane added, “I wondered at that myself. What do you think of the possible match, Phoebe?”

 

“Mark is the second son of an earl and has been chased for years. For him to be showing this much partiality to a young woman, is quite frankly unheard of,” Lady Dobbs said.

 

“Now that you mention it, Anne has been bringing up the good doctor with a greater frequency of late,” Lady Catherine said thoughtfully. “He is the son of an earl you say?”

 

“Yes, he is,” Lady Dobbs confirmed.

 

“More importantly, is he a good man? Our interactions to date have been limited, but nothing I know about him has caused concern,” Lady Catherine stated.

 

“Mark and I have been close our entire lives,” Lady Dobbs said. “He is a very upstanding man.”

 

“The first set is ending,” Jane pointed out. “Frederick and Thomas are on their way to claim us for the next dance, Fanny.”

 

“It was so nice to see all of the young people dancing the first,” Lady Dobbs stated. “Mark is to favour me with the second set.”

 

“Joseph asked me for the second,” Catherine said. “Darcy is dancing with Georgie and Richard asked one of the younger Bennet sisters.”

~*~

Haye Park, Hertfordshire
Friday, June 14, 1811

 

Reginald Hurst was content. The unmarried gentlemen of Haye Park, which included Darcy, Dobbs, Doyle, Withers, the Colonel, Lord Halburn, General Trevor, and himself, were enjoying a drink after the assembly.

 

He thought the evening had passed off pleasantly for everyone who attended. Although, it was with regret that he watched Miss Bennet enter her carriage. He would have liked to have been able to dance more than one set with her. Propriety could be a fickle thing and was often at odds with what a person desired.

 

“I would have liked to danced twice with Miss Elizabeth,” Darcy said wistfully.

 

“How odd,” he said. “I was literally just thinking the exact same thing about Miss Bennet,” he said with wide eyes. “Propriety can be a gentleman’s worst enemy sometimes.”

 

“I wished I could have danced at least once with Miss Sakville,” Lord Halburn all but pouted.

 

“I heard what you said about her before you were introduced,” the General responded. “You are lucky she acknowledges you the little that she does.”

 

“I know,” Lord Halburn sighed.

 

“Miss Celia thinks she is clever enough to pull the wool over my eyes,” Harold said. “I have been wondering if I should continue to play ignorant regarding her plans to become Mrs. Dobbs or take the offensive next season.”

 

“What do you mean by that?” Darcy asked.

 

“Honestly, Darcy, are you blind man?” Lord Halburn asked incredulously. “Miss Celia is sly, but she obviously has her sights set on Dobbs. Did you think she speaks with him at every opportunity for no reason? What about the afternoon of dancing she arranged?”

 

Reginald choked back a laugh at the dumbfounded look on Darcy’s face. “Come now, Darcy, surely you cannot be that surprised. Miss Celia made sure to partner with Harold every chance she found during her dancing lessons. All under the guise of making sure he knew the steps, of course.”

 

“To be fair, the lessons were for my benefit too, and much appreciated,” Doyle said. “Miss Celia seems like a nice, cheery lad. I agree, she has Dobbs in her line of fire. He needs to decide if he is willing to be caught.”

 

“Miss Hurst looked lovely tonight,” the Colonel broke in with a sigh. “The last time I saw her she was displeased with me. It was comforting to be back after a week, especially since she was delighted to see me.”

 

“My sister can be a tricky one, Colonel,” he responded. “She has tempered her acerbic responses ever since she narrowly avoided a set down by Mrs. Sakville. I think her friendship with the Bennet and Sakville sisters has been good for her. She seems to have legitimately had a slight adjustment of character, for the better. She does appreciate your teasing nature, Colonel, but you go too far sometimes. You would do well to restrain yourself somewhat.”

 

“What about you, Dr. Withers? Do my eyes deceive me or are you interested in my cousin, Anne de Bourgh?” Lord Halburn stated confidently.

 

“Your cousin is my patient, Lord Halburn. It would be unethical to start a relationship with her,” Mark replied.

 

“That was not my brother’s question, doctor. I noticed it too. Do not try to deny it,” the Colonel said.

 

“As I said, she is my patient. As much as I do admire her, I could never act. It would not be in the best interest of my patient to refer her into the care of another doctor at this stage in her healing. I have yet to meet anyone willing to try unconventional treatment methods when the traditional ones are having no effect,” Mark admitted.

 

“I may know of someone,” the General responded. “He is a good man and a phenomenal doctor who has almost completed his service. I would be willing to introduce you. If you feel confident enough in his abilities, and decide to pursue Miss de Bourgh, he might even be interested in becoming a partner in your practice.”

 

“You seem to know him well, General,” Reginald noted.

 

“He has been my personal battlefield physician for a number of years and he saved my life during my last battle. I have complete trust in his abilities. What do you gentlemen know about Miss Lucas?” the General asked.

 

The gentlemen spoke about the ladies of Meryton until the wee hours of the morning.

 

 

1 Lampyris Noctiluca - William Wordsworth wrote a poem about glow-worms in 1802 AMONG ALL LOVELY THINGS MY LOVE HAD BEEN. His sister, Dorothy Wordsworth, kept diaries from 1798-1803 that are available online and reference seeing glow-worms multiple times.

Chapter Text

Chapter 19

 

Netherfield, Hertfordshire
Thursday, June 20, 1811

 

Phoebe Dobbs thought back on the week since The Assembly. It had already been established in Meryton lore. There had been so many invitations and visits, she was quite certain the horses knew how to travel the roads and trails between Longbourn, Haye Park, and Netherfield without direction from the carriage coachmen or riders. It was a pleasure to see some of the young ladies blossom, and an older one too.

 

Miss Owens had enjoyed a childhood friendship with her niece. However, Grace was sent to school when she was ten-years-old and Miss Owens was seven. As they grew older, they saw each other infrequently during the summers when they were both on their fathers’ estates. Having grown up without sisters, Miss Owens seemed to thrive in the female-heavy environment at Longbourn. It was clear to all that she had formed a lifelong friendship with Miss Mary that began because of their shared love of music.

 

Miss de Bourgh’s transformation was the most noticeable. She was being taught how to ride a horse and went on daily walks. The exercise made her gain stamina and her skin glow. She was so happy, her smile fairly blinded everyone. Miss de Bourgh had been presented to the queen, but her ill health had made a coming out ball and a season impossible. She was excited for the upcoming trip to London. Participating in the season, even if it was only for a week, especially with so many friends, was another dream come true for the shy young lady.

 

In the six months Phoebe had known Georgie, her confidence had been slowly building, but the two weeks she had stayed at Longbourn had seen the most drastic increase. When she came out in London, Miss Darcy of Pemberley, with her £30,000 dowry, would be more than capable of handling the intricacies of navigating her first season.

 

Lady Catherine de Bourgh had been the biggest surprise. Phoebe had heard of her of course, few in London society had not. She had expected to meet an arrogant, loud, opinionated, domineering harridan who wanted nothing more than to see her daughter marry her nephew, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Most of those adjectives were still true, but they had been softened with a significant amount of thoughtfulness. Lady Catherine still commanded a room, to be sure, but she was more approachable and did not attempt to control the lives of those around her as flagrantly as before anyway. She had made a decided effort to further her acquaintance with Miss Elizabeth and Dr. Withers in anticipation of welcoming them into the Fitzwilliam family one day.

 

Over tea a few days prior, Mrs. Sakville had informed the group of matrons that she wanted to allow her brother a quiet dinner at Longbourn with only immediate family members in attendance. With that goal in mind, she had invited her daughters, Miss Hurst, Miss Darcy, Miss Owens, Miss de Bourgh, and the residents of Haye Park to dinner and an evening of cards at Netherfield.

 

The ladies had moved to the parlour after eating, while the gentlemen indulged in port before joining them. Phoebe laughed at the story Lord Halburn had just told. His playful exaggerations of situations he had encountered in London were always enjoyable.

 

“Joseph, that story is absurd. There is no way his cloak had seven cape layers. And, by the bye, if his cravat knot was tied as many times as you claim, it would have been bigger than his head! Such outlandish nonsense. I already thought you had to have taken leave of your senses before stepping foot into Hertfordshire and that story confirms it!” Catherine said with a glare at her nephew.

 

“Well, maybe his cape only had six layers, but it was certainly extreme, Aunt Catherine. Why, he even had a scarf draped around his shoulders and was wearing a velvet vest,” Lord Halburn claimed with a smile on his face. He was clearly enjoying how riled his aunt was becoming.

 

“We are not about to fall for that nonsense. I do believe you tell these stories because you are bored and that means it is about time you set up your nursery, young man. I am always glad to assist a young person in finding a match. I have heard you say before that beauty will not play a role when you finally decide to make an offer. I was so pleased to hear that as it allows me to bring Miss Vozey to your notice. She would do our family proud. Her father’s line is honourable, respectable, and ancient, though untitled, and, to that, she adds something more by her extensive studying. Your children would surely not be simpletons.”

 

Phoebe ducked her head slightly to hide her smile when Lady Matlock agreed with her sister-in-law. She almost felt sorry for Lord Halburn, but he brought that on himself and the look on his face was highly entertaining. It was well known that, as an infant, Miss Vozey had contracted a severe case of smallpox from her nurse which left her with a face disfigured from scars. It was perhaps not proper to bandy her name about with no real intention of making an introduction, but Catherine had made her point. Lord Halburn would think twice about purposefully antagonizing his aunt.

 

Mrs. Nicholls entered the room and approached Mrs. Sakville. “An express was delivered to Haye Park for Lady Dobbs, madam, and that young Alfie brought it over right away.”

 

“Thank you, Mrs. Nicholls,” Mrs. Sakville said, before accepting the letter and handing it to her.

 

“It is from Isabel, Miss Owens’ mother,” she told the room as she opened the envelope. “Clara, your parents appreciate that I took you under my protection and ask if you may stay longer than originally planned. There is a letter enclosed for you that explains the problem they encountered at the estate.”

 

“Thank you, Lady Dobbs,” Miss Owens told her as she started to read the letter from her parents.

 

“Mr. Darcy, do you mind if Clara stays with us for a while longer?” she asked.

 

“Not at all, Lady Dobbs. Since Mrs. Annesley returned, I feel comfortable having Miss Owens staying with us at Haye Park,” Mr. Darcy answered. “If you do not mind my asking, what issue did they run into?”

 

“Their best guess is that sometime during the last winter, a few of the roof tiles broke off,” she explained and heard Mr. Darcy groan. “Of course, this spring, as the snow melted, the roof leaked into the attics. A few days before they received the packet of letters Lady Sheldon sent, the ceiling plaster in the parlour gave way and collapsed.”

 

“That certainly is a mess,” Mr. Darcy said sympathetically. “A few tiles not being replaced immediately, caused the roof to start leaking into the attic, which in turn created any number of interior problems of which they may yet have found the full extent. If I may be so bold, I would suggest they look into replacing their steward. At the absolute minimum, they need to address their responsibility list for post-winter. The first thing Grey does as soon as the snow melts, is to inspect the estate and outbuildings for obvious damage. Roof tiles are one of the things that are repaired immediately.”

 

“I will be sure to let them know of your recommendation,” she told Mr. Darcy. “Clara, what is your preference? Do you want to stay with us until your parents return? If not, I will arrange for your travel to Scotland in my own carriage with protection.”

 

“I would like to stay here, Lady Dobbs. I do miss my parents and brother, but Scotland is rather boring and I would just be in the way. I have enjoyed my time here so very much,” Miss Owens said with pleading eyes. “Miss Mary and I are working on a particularly difficult piece of music by Beethoven.”

 

“Oh, I am so happy,” Miss de Bourgh said. “Lady Dobbs, if, at any point, you are unable to host Clara, my mother and I will take her under our protection.”

 

Phoebe saw Catherine look at her daughter incredulously before agreeing with her suggestion.

 

“That offer goes for us too, Phoebe,” Mrs. Sakville told her. “I do hope this means Miss Owens will be going to London.”

 

“Will you be going to London? I did not mean to eavesdrop, but I unavoidably heard the beginning of the discussion with your husband,” Catherine admitted quietly. “I was surprised you were allowed to stay at Netherfield.”

 

“Frederick has not outright forbid me going to London, yet,” Jane told her new friends quietly. “Whether or not I go with all of you will depend on if he can get away from the estate to escort me.”

~*~

On the road to London
Monday, July 8, 1811

 

Jane Sakville looked out the window of the carriage and sighed. Mercifully, she had won, barely. The quickening had been felt before Frederick left for their estate, and she informed him of the glorious news. He almost made her cut their trip to Netherfield short and return to Dorset immediately.

 

Frederick had allowed her to accompany the girls to London. It had taken a considerable amount of time to convince him it was the correct thing to do. Without the aid of Catherine and Phoebe, she was unsure she would have been successful.

 

Jane Sakville leaned into her husband and whispered, “Thank you, Frederick.”

 

“I am not exactly thrilled we are going to London instead of Dorset, but I understand your need to order a new wardrobe and purchase items for the babe,” Frederick said. “All I ask is that you do not over exert yourself.”

 

“I know you are unhappy, but it is a necessary trip and the longer we wait, the more uncomfortable travel will become. I promise I will be cautious and you know Matilda will hold me to that,” Jane said.

 

“I certainly shall,” Matilda confirmed with a martial gleam in her eye. “You will be spending the majority of your time in Dorset House and I will escort the girls to their entertainment choices.”

 

“Hoisted on your own petard,” Frederick told her while chuckling. “You might have thought I did not realize you were manipulating me into allowing the trip, but I assure you I knew. The only reason I agreed, is because I knew Mrs. Tucker would be more effective at restraining you than I would ever be.”

 

“I will certainly be of assistance. My Sister Matlock and I will insist on helping perform escort duties so Jane may rest,” Catherine declared. “I was just thinking. A duke’s townhouse being reopened at the end of a season, is bound to be noticed. Are you sure you should not stay at Darcy House? If a few of the sisters share a room, there are enough chambers and I would be willing to act as hostess for everyone.”

 

“Thank you, Lady Catherine. I believe you are right. The gossips will enjoy speculating why we returned. I can only imagine the frenzy that will erupt when all of you start shopping for infant items,” Frederick stated.

 

“We could head some of the gossip off,” Catherine offered with a wicked grin. “Your family is expecting two babes after all. What would be more natural than a wealthy aunt-to-be shopping for her brother’s new addition?”

 

“Thank you for reminding Jane of that, Lady Catherine. My pocketbook appreciates the thought,” Fredrick stated dryly. “Getting back on topic, I would rather stay at Dorset House. I already have adequate security measures in place and have ordered extra footmen from Cloverdale to temporarily relocate to the townhouse. This also gives us the added benefit of having them to escort us back to Dorset,” Frederick said. “Larger parties are less likely to be bothered.”

 

“When we are in town, there is also Alfie and Angus from William’s staff, Miss Hurst’s new footman, Tylor, and Richard will be introducing us to Anne’s new footman, Jones. As much as I dislike his chosen occupation, having a nephew in the military service is helpful. The girls should be well protected no matter where we go,” Catherine said.

 

“We will make sure they are,” Matilda added confidently. “I do love my two honorary daughters and the Bennet sisters tremendously, but it has been nice to have an even larger number of personable young ladies to look after and care for. They have already become dear to me.”

 

“Having grown up with only one brother, it was certainly a pleasant experience to see the amicability my daughters and Bennet nieces had while growing up. The addition of four new people concerned me at first, but they seamlessly integrated into their group. It will be highly entertaining to read the speculations in the society columns over the next week,” Jane said with a laugh.

 

“We should peruse them while breaking our fast every morning,” Catherine stated. “Knowledge is power.”

 

“Well said, Lady Catherine,” Frederick said. “We have been in the practice of doing what you suggested ever since we married. It has served us well. We are on the outskirts of London. We should arrive shortly.”

 

“Perfect,” Jane said. “That will allow us time to rest before our appointment with Mademoiselle Brodeur.”

 

“Mademoiselle Brodeur?” Catherine asked in awe. “How did you manage to get an appointment last minute during the season?”

 

“She is a friend,” Jane said simply. She met Mademoiselle Emilie Brodeur more than twenty years prior when she was in Paris on her belated honeymoon. Emilie was an orphan whose fiancé died when his fishing ship went down with all hands aboard. Jane fell in love with Emilie’s designs and intricate embroidery. It was easy to convince the young seamstress to allow the Sakville’s to relocate her to England and to loan her the funds to set up a shop on Bond Street, with an extremely generous repayment plan.

 

Mademoiselle Brodeur’s shop became an instant success. The first time the Duchess of Dorset wore one of her new dresses in London, Emilie had so many people request appointments, she had to turn most away until she hired more shop girls and finished setting up her shop. Being granted an appointment, let alone being seen in one of Brodeur’s creations, instantly gave ladies consequence in society.

 

Emilie had kept up a correspondence with a couple of the shop girls she worked with in Paris, both of whom now also owned their own shops. She exchanged semi-annual letters with them, which kept her knowledgeable regarding the styles on the continent and gave her the knowledge needed to directly access the French manufactures of accoutrements instead of using an import agent. She had been dressing the Sakville and Bennet ladies since she opened her doors. The Bennet sisters were careful not to wear her designs while in Meryton, unless it was a special occasion.

 

“I have been trying to get an appointment with her for ages,” Catherine said. “Am I included, or do I ask too much?”

 

“Yes, you are, my friend,” Jane said with a smile. “Thankfully, I asked Mademoiselle to send a shop girl to Longbourn after twelfth night to take measurements for Elizabeth and to confirm the information on file for Jane was accurate before she started on their dresses for this season. While there, I requested they update the measurements for my younger nieces too and had one new dress made for each of them before the season started just in case they convinced my brother to take a trip to London. Mademoiselle remembers everyone’s preferred style of dress and colours. My daughters and nieces have long trusted her to make all the necessary decisions when they are unable to choose. I delivered the dresses for the three youngest nieces when Elizabeth and Jane were returned to Longbourn after we left London the first time. I made sure to tell them to pack a few of her older creations, if they had not grown out of them, and the newest.”

~*~

Hyde Park, London
Sunday, July 14, 1811

 

Grace Hurst and the group from Meryton had left at daybreak on Monday. When they arrived in London, they rested for a short while before making their way to the modiste the Sakville ladies patronized. The first night, they enjoyed a quiet dinner at home.

 

Tuesday midday, the young ladies visited Vauxhall Gardens with Lady Catherine, Lady Dobbs, Lady Matlock, and Mrs. Tucker. Tuesday evening, the entire Meryton party was invited to dine with the duke’s sister, The Duchess of Westrose, and her family.

 

Wednesday midday, the girls visited The British Museum with Lady Dobbs, Mrs. Annesley, and Mrs. Tucker. There were so many exhibits to see, they only made it part of the way through. They had hopes of returning before leaving, but acknowledged it was unlikely they would find the time. Wednesday evening, the ladies who were not yet out, stayed home with Mrs. Annesley while everyone else attended Almack’s with the Westrose family.

 

Thursday midday, the girls visited the Royal Menagerie with Lady Catherine, Mrs. Annesley, and Mrs. Tucker. Thursday evening, everyone attended a performance at Astley’s Amphitheatre.

 

Friday midday, all of the women visited Bond Street to browse the shops and attend their appointment for their final fitting. On Monday, Mademoiselle had accepted a commission, that Grace assumed to be huge, to get dresses ready by Saturday for Clara, Anne, Georgie, Aunt Phoebe, Lady Catherine, and herself. Friday evening, the duchess reciprocated and invited the Westrose family to dine at Dorset House.

 

The ladies all stayed home Saturday reading, playing music, and resting in anticipation of a late evening at the theatre. That evening, the entire Meryton party, including the Duke and Duchess of Westrose and their sons, attended a play at Covent Garden using the Sakville and Darcy boxes. Grace had never felt more beautiful than she did when she put on her completed Brodeur dress for the first time with her hair styled and jewellery the duchess loaned her that matched perfectly.

 

They were approaching the end of their time in London and everyone had enjoyed themselves immensely. Anne, in particular, had thrown herself into their activities with a joie de vivre Grace had never before seen.

 

Sunday midday, Grace and her friends, with their ever-present entourage of footmen and chaperones, including the duke, were taking pleasure in an afternoon stroll through Hyde Park. There were so many people in their party, that they had separated into groups. She was walking with Lady Catherine, Juliet, Elizabeth, and Clara and they were discussing the play they had attended the previous evening. Lady Catherine seemed to have formed a fondness for herself and Elizabeth, most likely because they were both intelligent, witty, and could keep up with the quickness of her mind.

 

“It was very nice of Their Graces and Mr. Darcy to allow us to use their boxes,” Clara said. “I never before thought I would sit in a duke’s box at the theatre.”

 

“Now that I know how much you enjoy attending, Clara, I will be sure to invite you to a production next season,” Juliet offered.

 

“It was very smart of your mother to demand all of the younger ladies, who are not out yet, sit in their box,” Lady Catherine told Juliet. “I was available as a proper chaperone in my nephew’s box, but I defy anyone to start gossip about any of them when they were in a box with two dukes and their wives. William would have preferred to have Georgie in the Darcy box, but I convinced him it would be better to allow society to see her in the presence of two dukes and their families. I made sure to speak with a few of my acquaintances and spread the fact that she had been in company with your family for a month complete.”

 

“I know that sounded worse than you intended, Lady Catherine, or at least I hope it did,” Juliet said with a sardonic grin. “You are entirely correct though. Mother told me she has often heard the matrons with unmarried sons discussing the girls who would be presented in the next few seasons. Georgie’s name is apparently bandied about frequently, and not just by those who need an influx of cash. Her dowry and lineage are quite impressive and it is a well-established fact that the Darcy’s are a highly respectable family. It will certainly benefit her to show people she has a close connection to the Dorset Dukedom. The relationship, even though it is built on genuine friendship, will certainly help keep some of the scoundrels in society away for fear of my father.”

 

“I have so enjoyed this quick jaunt to London,” Elizabeth wistfully. “Not that I did not enjoy being presented, but it was stressful and it felt like a never-ending parade of balls and dinners. Getting to choose our own outings based solely on our preferences, without a care for invitations, was glorious.”

 

“I agree,” Juliet said. “Mother had already declined all of our invitations because we had left.”

 

Grace froze when she saw her parents approaching their group with determined looks on their faces.

 

“What is wrong, Grace?” Elizabeth asked. “Who are those people?”

 

“My parents,” Grace responded. Reginald had insisted everyone be made aware of the possible threat his parents and Cousin Alfred posed. Grace was unsure how she felt about seeing her parents. In the short time she had been at Haye Park and Longbourn, Meryton felt more like home than Whitemeadow ever did.

 

“All will be well,” Lady Catherine told her quietly. “We will not let them abuse you. Besides, you must remember Tylor is following us inconspicuously, probably with at least one of those strapping Sims brothers to help blend in with the other people out to enjoy a beautiful day in the park.”

 

“Grace Madeline Hurst!” her mother admonished. “How nice of you to finally show your face. How could you ignore your mother?”

 

“Grace,” her father said sternly, “you will accompany us back to our townhouse for a discussion.”

 

Grace took a step forward and answered her parents confidently, “I have reached my majority and you have no legal right to order me to do anything. I have asked Reginald and Aunt Phoebe to screen all my letters from you and burn the ones they feel unworthy of my notice.”

 

“I signed a betrothal contract with Earl Camfield,” father stated forcefully. “You will marry him.”

 

“That makes your situation more pitiable, but it means nothing to me. Even if I had not reached my majority, there is nothing you could have done to force me to marry him. I never would have said ‘I do.’”

 

“Do you think your fancy titled new friends will save you?” mother asked. “Do not think us strangers to the particulars. Oh, yes, your father and I have been forced to read about your exploits this past week in the society columns. In the newspaper, mind you! Do you have any idea how mortifying it was to have someone ask me why I was not with you at Vauxhall Gardens? I tried to change the direction of the conversation away from you, but it soon became clear to everyone in the parlour that I did not know my own children were in London! Could you not have invited us to join you either the previous time you were in London or this most recent visit?”

 

“What hubris,” Grace laughed. “You think I could extend an invitation to someone else’s home? Besides that small matter, why would I invite people into my life who only care for their own comfort? You tried to force me to marry a man who, instead of caring for me, would have been a danger to my life.”

 

“You WILL marry him! I am pleased he has been understanding thus far.”

 

“No, father, I will not. This conversation has ended,” Grace said determinedly.

 

“Not so fast, little miss high and mighty. You are still our daughter and as such you will return to our townhouse and come back under our protection. We will all join the remainder of your outings with the duke’s family,” her mother stated, then reached her right arm out to grab Grace’s left arm.

 

Before Lady Catherine could finish yelling, “Unhand her!” Grace acted on pure instinct. As taught, she turned her hand palm down, pulled out of her mother’s grip, through her fingers, whilst she rotated her hand in a counter-clockwise motion to grab the hand that had previously held hers. When she had a firm grip on her mother’s hand, using her palm, she pushed down on the knuckles and twisted slightly until she heard her mother gasp.

 

“I am applying very little pressure, Venetia, I warn you not to struggle. Never, in all the time I spent learning how to defend myself, did I think I would be required to use the knowledge on my own mother,” Grace said before releasing her grip as Tylor stepped in-between them. She noticed one of the Sims twins was next to him.

 

“How dare you assault your mother and then call her by her given name,” her father exclaimed.

 

“Miss Hurst, are you well,” the duke asked as he walked up quickly with Aunt Phoebe, Cousin Harold, and Celia.

 

“I am unharmed, Your Grace.”

 

“I am thankful,” the duke replied with a comforting smile before turning towards her parents. “Now I have seen it all. To think you would be reckless enough to attack someone under the protection of a duke? I wonder if this act could be used as justification to have you declared mentally incompetent and allow Mr. Reginald Hurst to inherit your estate before your ineptitude brings it to ruin.”

 

“You will never succeed in your ultimate desire,” Aunt Phoebe hissed at her elder brother. “Even if you somehow, no doubt through underhanded means, managed to force Grace to marry the obnoxious earl, none of you would ever gain control of so little as one farthing of her fortune. Reginald and I have made sure it is protected from whomever her future husband ends up being, without a care to the manner of the wedding. Grace, we should visit your grandmother’s cousin, Judge Fielding, to inform him of this altercation.”

 

“I will also have a conversation with my cousin, the Lord Chamberlain,” the duke threatened.

 

She knew it was spiteful, but Grace was not upset to see the looks of fear that crossed her parents’ faces.

~*~

Bingley Residence, Yorkshire
Friday, July 19, 1811

 

Caroline Bingley was going insane. How could her brother do this to her? To drop her off at their uncle’s house like she was a sack of potatoes?

 

She paced the small bedroom that was assigned to her and fumed. Five paces across! Five! It was barely big enough for a bed and desk and did not have sitting or dressing rooms, just one small closet that fit very few of her dresses. Charles knew her uncle’s house was tiny. Uncle Wilbur could surely afford a much bigger residence, but he was stingy. His favourite saying was spending is quick, earning is slow.

 

Charles had taken all of her funds when they arrived in Yorkshire and told their Uncle Wilbur that she had overspent her allowance through the next quarter. With Charles demanding she repay the overages, she was without funds until September. Uncle Wilbur refused to give her an allowance or pay for her to attend the assemblies he infrequently attended.

 

The only chance she had to escape the house was a short walk in the garden. Her Aunt Lucile declared she could not spare their single manservant to escort Caroline around the town and her Uncle Wilbur refused to allow her to go with only her maid. What was Charles thinking? She would never survive two more months of this.

 

Charles had been gone for a month and had yet to write. They expected him to express a note to Yorkshire letting them know that he arrived safely. Uncle Wilbur had tried to talk Charles out of visiting France by reminding him that there were many other countries on the continent. He told Charles it would be better to visit Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, or the Netherlands, but Charles had his mind made up.

 

She had written to her friends in London but her uncle had refused to pay the cost of their replies. Uncle Wilbur also refused to pay for the newspapers from London to be delivered. She was living in isolation from society and it was intolerable.

 

Why, she was even unable to get information from the bootblack boy she paid to set up his stand on the street near Darcy House. Charles had made them leave London in such a hurry, she was unable to inform him she was leaving and give him her new directions. Although, it was doubtful the little urchin would know how to read and write anything other than ‘Darcy home’, let alone send a letter through the post. She had also lost her informant in the Hurst townhouse when her brother-in-law and that aunt of his let the maid she was paying for information go without a reference.

 

How was she to survive with no information regarding what was happening in London! She missed the beginning of the season because she was still in half-mourning, but to spend the remainder in Yorkshire was insupportable! How was she going to make Mr. Darcy see that she was the only acceptable choice to be his wife?

 

She went down for dinner because her aunt and uncle demanded her presence. She hated living here. The food was bland, what few choices that were offered, and the service was atrocious. Why did her aunt refuse to hire more help? She had attempted to make Caroline help in the kitchen, until she accidentally broke a few dishes.

 

She sat without assistance in her assigned chair, why pay to have extra footmen to do something you are capable of doing yourself after all, and prepared herself for a tedious dinner listening to her uncle chatter on about menial issues related to running his business, while her aunt prattled on about the unvaried society in Yorkshire. She was never more annoyed! The insipidity, nothingness, and self-importance of all of these people. It was insupportable to pass her evenings in this manner.

 

“Caroline,” her uncle addressed her, “you received a package from London today. Lucky for you, whomever sent it paid the cost in advance.”

 

“Well, where is it?” she rudely asked.

 

“Unless you hold your tongue, I will return it even though it was already paid,” her uncle threatened.

 

“I apologize, Uncle Wilbur,” Caroline said while gritting her teeth. “May I please have my package?”

 

“I will give it to you after the evening ends,” he responded. “I do expect your behaviour to improve, Caroline. You will not be allowed to carry on in the wild manner that your brother lets you do in London. This is my house, my town, my friends, and my business. Not that you leave the house very often, but when you do, your superior attitude has harmed my local business and relationships.”

 

“I now know why you are not married,” Aunt Lucile started on her favourite topic. “How could any reasonable man be expected to deal with your attitude, I know not. You do realize, I hope, that you are a tradesman’s daughter, not the product of an earl? One would never know it based on the airs you put on.”

 

After a horrible dinner filled with little beyond criticisms of her, Caroline retired to her room and tore open the package only to be disappointed that it was from Miss Sylvia Peaton, whom she had met at seminary. Both were daughters of wealthy merchants with large dowries, the only difference was, Miss Peaton’s mother was a gentleman’s daughter. They had a spectacular rivalry over the years, even ending up in the headmistress’s office for getting into a row in the dinning hall over who would sit at the head of a table.

 

Caroline could not imagine why she would send her a package, let alone one paid for in advance. She contemplated disposing of it, but she could not resist opening the box. Inside, she found a letter and a collection of newspapers from London. Oh, to be able to read the society pages would be wonderful. She wanted to start by putting the issues in order and reading them chronologically, but her time was limited. Miserly Aunt Lucile would notice the missing candles and would demand an explanation. She opened the letter to find out why Miss Peaton felt it necessary to write. It was sure to be unpleasant and spiteful.

 

Tuesday, July 16, 1811

Dear Caroline,

I am sure you are curious how I knew to pay for this package in advance. I am pleased to tell you that everyone in our circle of society knows your brother left you with relatives, who cannot afford to pay for post charges, and departed the country. Really, did you think the gossip would not spread?

Shall I guess what you did to deserve your fate? Oh wait, I do not have to guess, your behaviour towards Ladies Matlock, Sheldon, and Jersey is still being spoken of by absolutely everyone.

 

“My behaviour? What could she mean by that?” Caroline wondered. How was it wrong of her to greet her future aunt? Mr. Darcy should have done his duty and introduced her to Lady Matlock immediately. Her current situation was entirely his fault.

 

I feel it my duty to inform you of two occurrences, different in nature, but still entirely connected. The first is that, regardless of your feelings that he should be in half-mourning, Mr. Hurst has returned to town to take part in more of the season, and the other, that Mr. Darcy, whom you repeatedly claimed was on the verge of offering for you, has also returned to town and has been seen in the company of many beautiful, EXTREMELY eligible, and rich single ladies.

 

“What!” Caroline screeched. How could Mr. Darcy do this to her? They were meant to be. She was tempted to read the society pages Prissy Peaton sent, but was more interested to read the rest of the letter.

 

The town was shocked when word started circulating that Darcy House was to be open a second time in preparation of Mr. Darcy’s return the following week. Mr. Hurst and Mr. Darcy, for I am sure you realize they have become the closest of friends, arrived at Darcy House as expected. Along with them, came Lady Catherine de Bourgh, to act as hostess, Lady Phoebe Dobbs, Mr. Harold Dobbs, and a gentleman I have not been fortunate enough to be introduced to for he is certainly very handsome, fit, and expensively dressed.

 

Lady Catherine arrived with Mr. Darcy? What about Miss de Bourgh? It was just like Prissy Peaton to neglect the most important piece of information. She worried that Lady Catherine had carried her point and insisted Mr. Darcy married his cousin. Why was the horrid Prissy Peaton tormenting her by not getting right to the point?

 

The tradesmen gossip mill is churning with news that the Hurst townhouse is being fully renovated in the latest convenience. With the Dobbs townhouse being leased for the entire season, it was only natural for Mr. Darcy to offer to host the family of his most intimate friend.

 

“His most intimate friend, indeed!” Caroline scoffed. Everyone knows that Charles is Mr. Darcy’s best friend. What about Miss de Bourgh?

 

I do not recall if it was spread before you were so spectacularly exiled or not, but did you know that Miss Hurst’s dowry is larger than yours by more than two-fold? Added to that, she has inherited an estate. The compromise attempts were numerous before the information was known, but now, your brother-in-law had to hire a footman to accompany his sister everywhere. Mr. Hurst and Lady Dobbs had to make it known to everyone, in every circle, that Miss Hurst’s inheritance is fully protected and her future husband would have no rights to any of it, not even a single farthing.

 

“It is not possible!” Caroline whined. Mr. Hurst is an absolute drunkard and his father’s estate is miniscule. She was sure Miss Hurst must be exaggerating the situation to trap some poor gentleman of the first circles into marriage.

 

It is all true, I assure you. My cousin is a manager at Mr. Hurst’s bank and handled all of the transfer paperwork himself. Not only is Miss Hurst fabulously dowered, but Mr. Hurst’s income is larger than your brother’s and should increase significantly when he inherits his family estate.

 

“WHAT! No, that is impossible!” Caroline yelled. Prissy Peaton must be mistaken. Louisa surely would have told her if that husband of hers was that wealthy. It did not make sense. It was a well-established fact that Mr. Hurst Senior approached her father about a marriage between their children because he needed Louisa’s dowry to save their estate.

 

“Caroline, open the door this instant,” she heard her uncle say.

 

“Yes, Uncle Wilbur?” Caroline said after opening the door.

 

“Why are you yelling? Your aunt and I are trying to sleep.”

 

“I apologize, uncle. I received a distressing letter from my former school mate,” Caroline responded.

 

“If you cannot hold your tongue, I will be forced to take the package and return it with a note telling them not to ever write again,” her uncle threatened.

 

“I promise I will be quiet,” Caroline assured her uncle. She would have promised anything to be able to read the society papers tomorrow in the light of day.

 

“You had best finish your letter. You have almost burned your candle out and you will not be given a second one today,” her uncle said sternly before returning to his chambers.

 

Now, to the topic I am sure you are most eager for, Mr. Darcy. He returned to town with his sister, but she has been residing at Dorset House with Miss Hurst and Miss Owens, who is a neighbour of the Hurst estate and niece of Lady Sheldon.

 

Caroline felt herself paling. How was it possible? She was unaware of Mr. Darcy being acquainted with the Duke of Dorset. Unless she was mistaken, one of the duke’s daughters came out into society this season. Oh, this was very bad.

 

The entire party was only in London for a week complete, but the occupants of Darcy House and Dorset House made a splash about town attending events every evening and either spent their afternoon at attractions or walking the park.

Immediately upon arriving, the female residents of Dorset House arrived at Mademoiselle Brodeur’s shop for a private appointment. I heard, from someone who was browsing the hat and gloves department, that Mademoiselle greeted the duchess, her daughters, and her nieces as long-time friends. At the theatre, all of the ladies staying at Dorset House, including Misses Hurst, Darcy, Owens, and de Bourgh, arrived in her creations. Never had so many Brodeur dresses been seen together at one time. I thought I was looking at a page of La Belle Assemblée! Did I mention Miss Darcy, Miss Hurst, Miss de Bourgh, and numerous other young ladies sat in the Duke of Dorset’s box with his sister and brother-in-law, the Duke and Duchess of Westrose? Their families obviously have a very close relationship.

 

Caroline could barely continue reading, her hands were shaking so badly. Miss de Bourgh was in town and staying at a duke’s townhouse? Oh, if only she knew whether or not Mr. Darcy was engaged to her.

 

Caroline had never been admitted into Mademoiselle Brodeur’s shop and had only seen one of her dresses from a distance. How did Miss Darcy, who was not even out, manage to have one made? Noticing how far down the candle was, Caroline rushed to finish.

 

Miss Darcy, and all of the ladies, have been seen in the presence of many eligible and notable gentlemen, including Mr. Darcy, Mr. Hurst, The Marquess Milham, The Marquess Westrose and his brothers, Lord Halburn, Viscount Dover, and The Marquess Brundel. Mr. Darcy has been spotted escorting all eleven Dorset House ladies at one time or another. Mother anticipates many happy announcements being published in the near future.

It really is such a shame you could not be here to see all of this in person. Anybody who is anyone has been talking about their trip back to town and speculating whom Mr. Darcy favours. I took the liberty of sending you copies of the newspapers for the past week. One thing that is not in any of the articles, did you know Mr. Darcy has dimples? I thought I might faint when I saw him smile and laugh at a stunning brunette who was on his arm at the theatre.

I do hope I am blessed enough to be the one to break this information to you and hope my letter makes you as miserable as you made me all throughout seminary.

Do enjoy the rest of your time with relatives. Everyone else in society certainly appreciates your absence,

Sincerely,

Sylvia Peaton

 

Caroline managed to finish just as the candle burnt out. Oh, what was she to do? This travesty could not be allowed to continue. Mr. Darcy was hers and Charles was to marry Miss Darcy.

 

She silently railed and cried herself to sleep. When she woke up, she re-read Prissy Peaton’s letter before reading all of the articles in the society columns. When she was done, she started planning. When Mr. Darcy visited them at Netherfield, she would have unfettered access to his person.

 

She would become Mrs. Darcy.

Chapter Text

Chapter 20

 

Churchyard, Meryton
Saturday, September 21, 1811

 

Reginald Hurst looked at his sister and her new husband and sighed. Over the past nine months he had thoroughly enjoyed his newfound closeness with Grace. He hoped her marriage would not severely alter their relationship again.

 

The former Colonel, or Richard now that they were brothers, had heard about the confrontation Grace had with their parents in Hyde Park, almost certainly from Tylor, and rushed to Darcy House that same day to ask him and Aunt Phoebe for their blessings to request Grace’s hand in marriage. He was hesitant to say yes, he wanted to demand a courtship period first, but Aunt Phoebe wore him down. The couple had known each other for nine months and Grace was of age and he was not sure what she would do if he withheld his blessings. He truly had no objections, other than losing his sister. He wrote a note to the Sakville’s granting Richard permission to have a private audience with Grace that very evening. Everyone was happy for the new couple and an announcement was sent to the papers.

 

The Sakville’s left London for Dorset first thing Monday as planned. Mr. Sakville wanted his wife home for the remainder of her condition and would hear no arguments about returning to Netherfield or attending the wedding. Mademoiselle Brodeur had agreed to grant Grace an appointment early on Monday, before she officially opened, to pick out the design of her wedding dress and one for Miss Darcy as the maid of honour. As soon as the ladies were done, the Meryton party also left London.

 

Grace, Miss Darcy, Miss Owens, Miss de Bourgh, and Lady Catherine had moved into Haye Park, leaving them with no free bedrooms. Aunt Phoebe continued as the official mistress of the estate. She had tried to defer to Lady Catherine, but the latter was afraid of falling into old habits and declined.

 

The past two months had been spent planning and preparing for the wedding. Aunt Phoebe and Lady Catherine quickly realized that Grace truly had no opinions, other than who the groom was and that she preferred to be married in Meryton. Mrs. Bennet was delighted to be asked to join them because she knew the particulars of Meryton society and the merchants. Grace gave the three of them free rein to do as they pleased. Most of the young ladies had suggestions or requests to offer, especially Lydia who had an eye for colour combinations. Everything had turned out exceptionally well.

 

Richard, to the relief of his family, had sold his commission and, as their wedding gift to the couple, Mr. and Mrs. Sakville had allowed him to move into Netherfield for the two-month period until the Bingley’s lease started. It was improper for him to stay at Haye Park with his fiancée, and there were no free bedrooms anyway, but it also gave them the extra space required to house the wedding guests and a larger venue for the breakfast.

 

The day before Michaelmas, the new couple planned to relocate to Haye Park. Reginald was surprised they were not leaving for Cherry Grove immediately. He was touched when Grace finally confided in him that she was worried for his state of mind and wanted to be there as support when the Bingley’s arrived.

 

In a way, he was glad the wedding was over. The engagement teas, dinners, and parties had taken their toll on him. One thing he was certainly appreciative of, was the amount of time he got to spend with Miss Bennet and the number of dances they were able to share.

 

He noticed Darcy standing next to the church and started chuckling silently. He was staring at Miss Elizabeth Bennet, who was speaking with Miss Darcy, with a love-struck look on his face. He could not pass up the ability to tease his friend and walked over.

 

“Darcy, your thoughts are written plainly on your face. It is not hard to guess you are wondering how long until you can make Miss Elizabeth sister to Miss Darcy,” he told Darcy with an impish smile.

 

“Your conjecture is completely accurate, Hurst. She has bewitched me,” Darcy admitted quietly.

 

“I feel the same way about Miss Bennet. The next two months will go very slowly,” he told Darcy. They had never vocalized their feelings, but he was absolutely certain Miss Bennet’s feelings matched his own. He did not know how he would survive when Bingley arrived. As the most beautiful woman in almost any room she was in, Miss Bennet was exactly the type of lady his brother-in-law would not be able to resist. It would be torture watching Bingley pay his attentions to Jane. He wanted to inform Bingley he had an informal understanding with Miss Bennet, but that would be dishonest, and it would most likely cause Miss Bingley to make a scene.

 

“You are brother to my cousin, so, in a roundabout way, we are now cousins too. Please, call me William.”

 

“And I would be honoured if you would address me as Reginald.”

 

“According to his lease, Bingley takes possession of Netherfield next week Sunday. Does knowing the Bingley siblings may arrive soon cause you concern?”

 

“I am reconciled to it, William. I refuse to step foot in Netherfield while Miss Bingley is mistress. Please do not ask it of me,” he pled. He would not be held responsible for his actions if she started to berate him and he could not easily escape.

 

“Reginald, we both know Bingley’s social nature. He will eventually want to host a dinner party or a ball for his new neighbours. Would you turn down any opportunity to dance with Miss Bennet and leave her at Bingley’s mercy? You know he will focus his attentions on her, do you not?” Darcy asked gently.

 

“Believe me, the thought had crossed my mind. If Bingley decides to throw a ball, I will attend,” he decided with a determined sigh. “I will, however, refuse any dinner invitations that are issued from Netherfield while Miss Bingley is hostess.”

 

“I understand,” Darcy said, “it would be easier to limit your contact and avoid them, without being obvious, at a ball.”

 

“How am I to pretend nothing happened?” he asked despondently. “Miss Bingley all but murdered my wife. I have not had to look at her face since we left for Pemberley. True, we saw them at the park, but Miss Darcy and I turned around as soon as she recognized who was approaching.”

 

“You know it is inaccurate to say Miss Bingley murdered Mrs. Hurst,” Darcy said gently and compassionately. “While I do not dispute that she contributed to your wife’s death, it was an accident. Yes, it could have been avoided if she had shown the slightest bit of common decency, but you, better than most, know what Miss Bingley is like. Everything is all about her wants and her needs. She despises tradesmen and is outright rude to them while conveniently forgetting to tell people in society how her father made his fortune. She seems to think her attitude is acceptable and that she can buy her way into society with the amount of her dowry. I hope you remember that you could still demand Bingley to pay you £7,000 more out of her dowry. If my math is correct, that would decrease its value to £8,000. Although, I have yet to hear it spread around London that it is now £15,000, so I highly doubt she would tell people if it decreased any further.”

 

“Yes, she cast some serious aspersions on Grace’s character that day in Hyde Park. If our aunts and Lady Sheldon had not stepped in, my sister’s reputation could have been irreparably ruined. It definitely counted as gossip against the Hurst family. I wonder if it would have been vile enough for a slander lawsuit?” he asked.

 

“At minimum, you could threaten to look into the possibility,” Darcy responded. “As far as I am aware, there was no time limit listed in the contract that was signed with the Bingley’s. I would advise that you have a serious discussion with Bingley to remind him that he needs to keep his sister under control. As much as you do not want to see her, it might be best to demand she is present. I am unsure if you can count on Bingley to relay the message with the severity it requires.”

 

“I appreciate the advice. It is my turn now. If I was in your position, William, I would request to officially start calling on Miss Elizabeth, or better yet, you have known her long enough to request a courtship directly. Before the Bingley’s arrive,” he warned sternly. “You were entirely correct, I know my sister-in-law very well and she plans to be your wife, regardless of your feelings on the matter. From the first moment Miss Bingley sees you with Miss Elizabeth, she will have no doubt where your affections actually lie. Do you think she would not attempt to cause trouble between you and Miss Elizabeth? She would most certainly tell half-truths, give misleading information, or tell outright falsehoods in an effort to separate you, if not worse.”

 

He could see the colour drain out of Darcy’s face just at the thought. “You need to make sure Miss Elizabeth is absolutely, without a doubt, aware of your intentions. You would do well to inform her what type of person Miss Bingley is so she is on her guard. Also, under no circumstances, at all, are you to stay at Netherfield overnight if Miss Bingley is in residence or even retire to rest. EVER! I do not care if we have to carry you to the carriage, you will sleep at Haye Park or Longbourn.”

 

“You think she would attempt to compromise me?” Darcy asked, looking shocked.

 

“Clueless as ever, William,” he said ruefully. “Of course she will!”

 

“I hate to admit it, but you are correct. I had thought to wait to approach Miss Elizabeth until...” Darcy trailed off.

 

“Were you waiting for my mourning period to officially end?” he asked incredulously. Darcy’s response was a sheepish look. “Of all of the ridiculous... You are too bloody honourable, William.”

 

Hurst heard a giggle behind them and turned to see the swish of what appeared to be a child’s skirt turning the corner of the building. “Did you see who that was?”

 

“No, I did not. Although, from the height of the skirt, it had to have been a child,” Darcy answered.

 

Hurst started laughing and then laughed even harder when he saw confusion on Darcy’s face. “I am sorry, William. I had a sudden thought that Anna was the one to overhear our conversation. Could you imagine what would happen when she meets Miss Bingley if it was indeed her?”

 

He smiled as Darcy started laughing too.

 

“There is Mr. Bennet. Let us ask if Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth may ride with us to Netherfield in your carriage. It is a short enough distance and if we leave the windows open the sisters can chaperone each other,” Hurst suggested. “It is a shame the wedding breakfast had to supersede our week to host the after-church meal and games. We should ask the sisters to take a stroll after the wedding breakfast to be able to spend more time with them. We could offer to escort them back to Longbourn. Do you think three miles would be too long of a distance to walk?”

 

“Good idea, Hurst. I know Miss Elizabeth could easily handle the distance. Miss Bennet will be the unknown. I could have almost kneeled at Lady Dobbs’ feet when she offered to continue hosting every other Sunday meal at Haye Park in Mrs. Sakville’s absence. I will certainly miss the fun when the weather turns too cold,” Darcy said.

 

“Me too. Come, let us ask. I will make sure you and Miss Elizabeth stay just out of earshot of me and Jane on the walk to Longbourn,” he said.

 

“Jane?” Darcy asked with a raised eyebrow.

 

“Come now, like you do not call her Elizabeth in your mind? I will be careful not to slip in her presence. For another two months, in any case,” he said with a roguish grin as he started walking towards Mr. Bennet.

 

“Mr. Bennet, did you enjoy the wedding?” Darcy asked.

 

“Not as much as I should have, I believe. It made me start dreading the day, if it ever arrives, that gentlemen start coming to me for my daughters. I am quite at leisure most days after tea, perchance that information becomes useful to any gentlemen I know. Now, please tell me the plan you two came up with to spend more time with my daughters so I may approve it and send you all on your merry way,” Mr. Bennet said with a twinkle in his eyes.

 

Reginald explained their plans before adding, “As to your other unspoken question, you know my current situation. William, however, needs to speak with you a moment before we leave.”

 

“You have my permission, as long as you take Anna with you in the carriage. And Mr. Darcy, you have my permission to ask Lizzy for a courtship, for it certainly is about time,” Mr. Bennet replied with a smirk.

 

“Very well put, sir,” he said while clapping Darcy on the back. “We were having an eerily similar conversation a few minutes ago. We shall find your beautiful daughters and Anna. Thank you.”

 

Hurst was still chuckling when they approached the eldest Bennet sisters.

 

“What have you found so amusing, sir?” Miss Bennet asked with a smile.

 

“Your father is a sly old fox,” he mused and noted the confused looks on the faces of the sisters. “We asked for permission to transport you to Netherfield in the Darcy carriage, and your father allowed it to be so on the condition we bring Anna.”

 

Both ladies laughed before Miss Elizabeth said, “Yes, she would willingly tell father any transgression that might possibly cause him concern.”

 

“Your father also gave us permission to walk back to Longbourn with you after the wedding breakfast. Would that be too far?” Darcy asked the ladies.

 

“Not for me,” Miss Elizabeth said. “Jane?”

 

“A long walk would be lovely,” Miss Bennet said while looking at him and blushing. “Lizzy and I always keep an extra pair of boots in the carriage. You never know when rain or the desire to walk home will strike.”

 

“Mr. William and Mr. Hurs, I am so very glad I found you,” Anna said after she had run into their group. “Did you see me throw the flowers? Miss Grace let me throw the flowers! Look! I have a new dress. It’s the prettiest dress I own!”

 

“She is Mrs. Fitzwilliam now,” he said a little gruffly.

 

“Fiswilliam? But that is Mr. William’s first name. How can it be Miss Grace’s second name now, Mr. Hurs?”

 

“My mother was Anne Fitzwilliam. When I was born, they made my mother’s last name my first name,” Darcy explained. “And that is a very pretty dress.”

 

“I think I stand. That means when you and Miss Lizzy have children, the first boy will be named Bennet?” Anna asked curiously with her head tilted to the side.

 

Hurst watched as Miss Bennet smiled, Miss Elizabeth blushed, and Darcy’s face was overcome with a dumbfounded look for a moment before he too blushed. He knelt down in front of Anna and said, “Mr. Bennet has allowed me and William to bring Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth to Netherfield in the Darcy carriage if you are along to chaperone. Would you like to ride with us instead of in the Bennet carriage?”

 

“Yay!” Anna said while jumping up and down and clapping. She threw her arms around his neck to give him a hug before pulling back and announcing, “We hafta bring Reggie too. Mrs. Sally says I am a super good sitter. I promised to help sit when she works at the wedding breakfast.”

 

He stood up, grabbed Anna’s hand, offered Miss Bennet his arm, and asked, “Sally and Wiggins are over by the carriage. Shall we go collect my godson?”

 

Miss Bennet smiled sweetly at him as she accepted his arm.

 

“We must stop by the Bennet carriage for our boots first, Mr. Hurst,” Miss Bennet reminded him.

 

Hurst and Darcy handed the sisters into their carriage and back down a few moments later. Reggie saw them approaching the Darcy carriage. The nine-month old started kicking his legs, babbling, and reaching towards him, obviously requesting to be held.

 

“Come here, young man,” he said to Reggie while taking him from his mother’s arms.

 

“Wiggins,” Darcy addressed his coachman, “Mr. Bennet has given us permission to transport Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth to Netherfield.”

 

“Very good, sir,” Wiggins replied. “Would you like Sally to ride inside with you or on top with me?”

 

“What do you prefer, Sally?”

 

“I think with Anna and Reggie in the carriage, the sisters will be well chaperoned. I would appreciate the chance to spend the alone time with Evan,” Sally answered.

 

“Mrs. Sally, did you see me throw the flowers?” Anna asked. “Miss Grace bought me a pretty new dress!”

 

“I did see you, Anna. You did a wonderful job on the flowers and your dress is beautiful,” Sally responded.

 

“It is Mrs. Grace now, Anna,” he gently reminded the little girl before he handed Miss Bennet into the carriage and passed Reggie to her.

 

The group had a grand time chatting all the way to Netherfield, it was hard to stay sombre with Anna and Reggie near.

 

“Mr. Hurs, why does everyone say you are morning? Why can’t you be in the afternoon?” Anna asked.

 

“Not morning as in the early part of the day, Anna,” Miss Elizabeth explained. “Mr. Hurst is mourning the loss of his wife. Mourning, with a u, means you are sad that someone died. Do you remember when your mother got sick and passed away? You wore black dresses and your father wore a black armband.”

 

“Yes, I member. I was very sad, but you and Miss Jane helped me,” Anna said. “What happened to your wife, Mr. Hurs?”

 

“Anna! That is a very improper question,” Miss Elizabeth admonished.

 

“All is well, Miss Elizabeth. I know Anna is a curious child,” he assured her. He was uncertain if he should explain until he glanced at Miss Bennet and saw her nod. “Anna, my wife, Louisa, was outside when it was cold, wet, and slippery. She fell, hit her head, went to sleep, and never woke up,” he explained gently to all of the curious ladies who were in the carriage.

 

“I am sorry, Mr. Hurs,” Anna said before jumping down to give him a quick hug. “You don’t have a black armband on now. Does that mean you can marry Miss Bennet?”

 

“Anna!” Miss Elizabeth said sharply before taking a breath and continuing at a calmer tone of voice. “I have told you, too many times to count, that it is not proper to talk about two people getting married. You could raise expectations and harm reputations. I realize it is a complicated set of rules, but you are intelligent and old enough to understand and adhere to them, especially after being told so often.”

 

“Mr. William, did I do bad?” Anna asked him.

 

“Not this time, Anna. However, Miss Elizabeth is absolutely correct that talking about two people, who do not have an established understanding, getting married is not proper. You must be very careful what you say when you are in public,” Darcy warned.

 

“Anna, to answer your earlier question, no, I cannot marry Miss Bennet right now. Society dictates that I mourn for an entire year but I was able to remove my armband after six months. To honour Louisa’s memory, I will comply with the full period.”

 

“I stand. But when the year is over, I get to throw the flowers,” Anna said with a huge grin. “Watch, Reggie knows how to play peek-a-boo.”

 

The rest of the carriage ride was spent watching Anna play with Reggie and listening to their giggles.

 

The wedding breakfast was perfect. The food was plentiful and pleasurable. The company was pleasing. Grace and Richard had flitted about the room accepting congratulations from their guests until the last carriages had departed for London.

 

“Congratulations, Grace,” Reginald whispered into his sister’s ear before he released her from a hug. “Richard, I trust you will take care of my sister.”

 

“You have my word,” his new brother-in-law answered. “And when she is not with me, Tylor will be nearby.”

 

Reginald offered his arm to Miss Bennet and walked out the doors of Netherfield feeling sad. He directed her towards the Darcy carriage so the sisters could change their shoes for the planned walk.

 

“Wiggins, please arrive at Longbourn in an hour,” Darcy told his driver.

 

He gave Darcy a significant look and nod at Miss Elizabeth when she directed them to the trail to Longbourn.

 

“You have not lost a sister, Mr. Hurst, you have gained a new brother,” Miss Bennet said gently, breaking the silence after a few minutes.

 

“I know,” he admitted. “It is just... Grace and I have never had a true relationship before. I was at school when she was born, then when I graduated from university, she was already at school, and afterwards father arranged my marriage and mother would not welcome us to the estate. The past nine months have been wonderful. I enjoyed meeting the woman my sister grew to be.”

 

Hurst saw Miss Bennet open her mouth and then close it without saying a word.

 

“You are curious why my mother would not invite me and my bride to my childhood home?” he stated.

 

“I would never presume to ask you such a personal question,” Miss Bennet answered quietly.

 

“Allow me to volunteer the information,” Reginald said then disclosed how his marriage came about.

 

“You were sold to save your estate?” Miss Bennet asked with wide eyes.

 

“Do you know, that is almost exactly the same thing Miss Darcy asked me when I first told her my history? I will respond just as I did before. It was my decision to marry to save my family’s estate. I had attained my majority and was not dependent upon my father for an allowance,” he told her. “Louisa and I were happy, at first, until her siblings moved in without my knowledge.”

 

“They must have asked your wife,” Miss Bennet offered.

 

“I am not certain. My wife was older by five years and for her entire life was ordered to make sure her younger siblings were safe and well cared for. It created a very unique family support scenario. I can see them deciding they were moving in and Louisa, out of habit, not arguing,” he said.

 

“I am so sorry for everything you went through, Mr. Hurst. I cannot imagine my father requesting me to marry someone I did not love.”

 

“Thank you, Miss Bennet. That means a lot coming from you,” he said softly.

 

They walked in companionable silence for a few moments until he noticed Darcy had stopped walking and followed suit. When Miss Bennet looked at him questioningly, he said, “Miss Bennet, I feel that I must bring up the conversation I had with you and your father in his study.”

 

“I would be happy to hear anything you wish to say to me. However, I fully understand, and approve of, the limitations you are under,” Miss Bennet said with a blush.

 

“I freely acknowledge I will honour my late wife and am not currently able to make any formal promises, but I need you to know how much I have grown to care for you. On November 26th, I will arrive at Longbourn to speak with your father.”

 

“I am so very glad to hear that. I look forward to that day with hope and anticipation,” she said with glistening eyes.

 

“Now it is my turn to say I am glad to hear that,” he said with a smile. “Now to the unpleasant part of what I need to communicate to you. The Bingley siblings will most likely be arriving after Michaelmas. I must warn you Miss Bingley is not to be trusted,” he said with a serious look on his face.

 

“Grace and Georgie have mentioned a few things regarding Miss Bingley. I have the impression that she is not a genuine person,” Miss Bennet responded.

 

He noticed Darcy and Miss Elizabeth’s conversation seemed to become intense before William abruptly stepped back, put her hand on his arm, and started walking again. He slowly followed as he said, “Allow me to explain my history with Mr. and Miss Bingley.”

~*~

Walking trails, Hertfordshire
Saturday, September 21, 1811

 

Fitzwilliam Darcy had been asked by Richard to be his best man. He was honoured, certainly, but he felt envious during the entire ceremony. He knew Reginald and Mr. Bennet were right. It was past time he asked Elizabeth for a courtship.

 

He saw Hurst shoot him an expressive look and a nod towards Miss Elizabeth as she directed him towards the path to Longbourn. He did not understand why this was so difficult. He knew how much he cared for her and could tell they were meant for each other, but he still could not form the words. He sighed in disappointment.

 

“I thought it was a beautiful ceremony too, Mr. Darcy,” Miss Elizabeth said.

 

Realizing she must have thought his sigh was from contentment rather than frustration, he answered, “It was a beautiful ceremony and they are obviously very much in love. I am thrilled for Richard and Grace.”

 

“It seems odd hearing your change of address to be less formal and more intimate,” Miss Elizabeth commented.

 

“Grace is now my cousin by marriage and she insisted I use her given name,” he answered with a smile.

 

They walked in a companionable silence for a few minutes until Miss Elizabeth spoke again.

 

“Something has been troubling you recently, Mr. Darcy. A problem shared is a problem halved. I am here if you would like to discuss anything,” Miss Elizabeth told him quietly.

 

“I am... concerned about the upcoming arrival of the Bingley’s,” he admitted hesitatingly.

 

“Would this concern have something to do with Mr. Hurst?”

 

“You are very perceptive, Miss Elizabeth.”

 

“I am a studier of human nature, Mr. Darcy. I have noticed that Mr. Hurst seems uncomfortable whenever they are mentioned, especially Miss Bingley.”

 

“Also true,” he sighed. “I should start at the beginning, I suppose. I met the current Mr. Bingley shortly after his father died and, as macabre as it sounds, we bonded over our shared life experiences.”

 

“That sounds entirely reasonable,” she responded.

 

“Mr. Bingley’s father had just arranged a marriage between Hurst and the previous Miss Bingley, Louisa, before he passed away. The engaged pair spent her deep-mourning period becoming acquainted through letters. They were actually happy for a while until conflict started to arise early into their marriage.”

 

“Would that conflict have been in the form of his in-laws?”

 

“Yes, it would most definitely. The strain of having Mr. and Miss Bingley living in their household was too much and their relationship disintegrated until Hurst was very unhappy. I must ask you to keep this next part to yourself.”

 

“It is not my story to tell, Mr. Darcy. I will listen and not reveal what I have heard,” Miss Elizabeth told him.

 

“Well, to be completely blunt, and I hope this does not give you the wrong impression of Hurst, he became a sloth of a drunkard who overate and slept as much as possible to avoid his miserable life,” he explained.

 

“I find that very hard to believe!” Miss Elizabeth exclaimed. “Not the Mr. Hurst I have met in Meryton.”

 

“The death of his wife changed him, Miss Elizabeth.”

 

“I believe there is more to the story than what he told us in the carriage, too.”

 

He sighed and shook his head before giving her a quick summary of what happened in front of Darcy House. “So you see, he could not stand to be in London and had no idea where to go or what to do with himself. He was so lost, I offered him the chance to mourn at Pemberley and Richard and I helped him come back to his former self. Better than before, if you believe Reginald.”

 

“That was very admirable, Mr. Darcy,” she said quietly with tears glistening in her eyes.

 

“I feel I must also warn you specifically about Miss Bingley.”

 

“I believe I have her measure already, sir, from things Georgie and Grace have let slip. Miss Bingley is determined to be Mrs. Darcy and will use whatever means at her disposal to ensure it happens,” she stated confidently.

 

“You are a marvel,” he said appreciatively as he came to a stop. “I hope you know, Miss Elizabeth, that I never gave Miss Bingley any indication that I favoured her. In fact, I did everything possible as a gentleman to discourage her. Hurst and I are worried she will see where my affections lie and try to cause problems.”

 

“Your affections?” she asked quietly looking up at him with watery eyes.

 

“Yes, Miss Elizabeth, my affections,” he responded gently before taking hold of her hands. “In the time I have known you, I have come to realize you are everything I have been looking for in a partner. You are intelligent, compassionate, lively, playful, witty, good natured, strong willed, caring, loyal, and absolutely perfect for me. I spoke with your father earlier, and he gave me permission to ask my next question. Would you, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, allow me to court you with the intention of making you my wife?”

 

“Yes, Mr. Darcy, it would make me very happy,” she responded with a tear slowly trailing down her face. “I have long thought you were perfect for me too. You are honourable, intelligent, liberal-minded, rational, caring, the best of brothers, loyal, and handsome as a young man ought to be,” she finished with a tease and a smile.

 

“Miss Elizabeth, if you keep teasing me so, and looking at me like that with your fine eyes, I may lose all my restraint and do something ridiculous.”

 

“What would that be?” she asked him pertly with a teasing smile and sparkling eyes.

 

“Right now, I am thinking I would like to take you in my arms, kiss you senseless, and then get down on one knee and propose to you,” he practically growled.

 

“Oh my,” she muttered breathlessly with wide eyes.

 

“Perhaps it is best if we continue to Longbourn,” he said before putting her hand on his arm and starting to walk again. “You should be made fully aware of what has occurred between Hurst and the Bingley’s these past nine-months, if you are to help me shield your sister and my friend from any potential unpleasantness.”

~*~

Bingley residence, London
Wednesday, October 2, 1811

 

Charles Bingley was again in a carriage with his sister and at the end of his patience. He was beginning to suspect his parents did Caroline and himself a disservice by indulging their every desire. His sister was proving to be uncontrollable and, he worried, not quite right in her mind. Was she delusional or was she simply raised to expect everything she wanted would just appear? Could he break through her armour of self-importance?

 

He had arrived in England three weeks ago weary from his travels and tribulations. He had been unable to warn his driver when his ship was due in, so he hired a carriage to transport him to London and then travelled to Yorkshire to pick up his sister and visit with his aunt and uncle before leaving for Hertfordshire.

 

What he found in Yorkshire was even more discouraging than he feared. Caroline had immediately asked him to escort her on a walk, supposedly to stretch his legs after a long carriage ride. She spent the entire time harassing him for leaving her with their Bingley relatives. After dinner, he spent the rest of the evening listening to his uncle complain of Caroline’s behaviour.

 

By the time the siblings left for London, he was ready to escape listening to his sister argue with their aunt and uncle. Uncle Wilbur claimed Caroline’s behavior since he arrived was his fault. Apparently, Caroline never dared backtalk to their aunt and uncle when Charles was on the continent. He did not know what to believe anymore.

 

As they approached his leased townhouse in London, he took a deep breath and fortified himself for the eruption he knew was to come.

 

“Charles, do you intend to renew the lease on the townhouse? I would think you should see if you can find one in a better neigbourhood,” Caroline said.

 

“If you recall, Caroline, I did not have much time to look at properties in December after your despicable behavior with Louisa’s jewellery. Besides, I rather like the location of this townhouse,” he defended his decision. His sister huffed and started to put on her gloves.

 

When they entered the house, his sister instantly became upset.

 

“What is Mrs. Verdier doing here?” Caroline hissed.

 

“Caroline, Aunt Lucile pointed out to me, quite correctly, that you must have a companion,” he explained.

 

“That does not explain what she is doing here!”

 

“Mrs. Verdier is the sister of our aunt. You will not speak of her disparagingly,” he warned. “Caroline, you must acknowledge that you cannot continue living with me without a companion or suitably married woman in residence. When Aunt Lucile brought this oversight to my attention before I left on holiday, I tasked her with finding a suitable and trustworthy person. Our aunt offered her sister the opportunity to join our household as a favour to both of us. Mrs. Verdier keeps her status as a gentlewoman, and it allows her to live for free and save her marriage settlement for her care later in her life, while it allows you to maintain respectability and accept callers in Meryton.”

 

“Charles, her husband’s estate was only worth £900 a year. What could she possibly know about the society we have become a part of? I insist you send her away immediately!” Caroline ordered.

 

“Not another word, Caroline, until we are in my study,” he threatened as he took her arm and directed her down the hall. When all three people were in the room, he began, “Caroline, do not try to challenge this. You have very few options available to you. First, you may continue to live with me and Mrs. Verdier. Two, you may use your inheritance to set up your own establishment and hire a companion of your choice, to be paid out of your funds. Three, you may beg Uncle and Aunt Bingley to let you live with them, although I doubt they would accept you. Those are your only options and they are non-negotiable.”

 

Caroline looked furious. She opened her mouth to speak when Mrs. Verdier beat her to it, “Miss Bingley, I suggest you take the evening to think about your options. Your family is doing me a favour, it is true, however I do not need your charity and will not tolerate any form of verbal abuse. I warn you, if I leave, I will not come back.”

 

“Caroline, Mrs. Verdier is correct. We will be leaving for Meryton Friday morning to allow me time to complete some business. I need to know your decision by Thursday evening to ensure I have time to make alternate travel arrangements if needed. Make no mistake, I will be going to Meryton, with or without you, and you will not be allowed to stay here alone while I am gone,” he told his sister in as firm a tone of voice as he was capable. “Mrs. Verdier, I have already informed my staff, but we are not at home to visitors and my sister is not allowed outside of this townhouse. For any reason.”

 

“Unlike my sister and brother-in-law, I do subscribe to the London paper. I know exactly what she did to require your abrupt departure in June. I will do my best to stop her.”

 

“I am of age!” Caroline spat. “You cannot order me about like this.”

 

“Perhaps. I do, however, control your access to the one thing you may actually care about. Money. I do not have to give you an allowance from the interest of your dowry. I could instruct my man of business to reinvest the quarterly interest. What do you think Caroline, shall I do that? Your dowry would start to rebuild if I did,” he threatened.

 

“What do you mean, rebuild?” Mrs. Verdier asked with narrowed eyes.

 

“You did not inform our aunt and uncle that your dowry is now £15,000?” he asked mockingly.

 

“How did that come about?” Mrs. Verdier asked. “If I am to live in your household, I must know everything that has occurred.”

 

Charles told her everything, from the accident outside of Darcy House, to the confrontation in the haberdashery.

 

“To think, your parents wasted all of that money on a fancy education. Your sister is foolish,” Mrs. Verdier stated harshly. “Even the wife of a gentleman with an estate only worth £900 a year, knows how to act within the bounds of propriety.”

 

Caroline looked furious and opened her mouth to respond, but only managed to produce unintelligible sounds.

 

“Mr. Bingley, I demand that you stop at a bookshop and purchase a book on propriety or etiquette, preferably both,” Mrs. Verdier ordered. “Your sister and I will spend a good portion of every day reviewing what any young child already knows.”

 

He could see his sister was ready to explode. “Caroline, have you thought about what would happen to you if I refused to let you live with me and denied you an allowance? Remember, according to our father’s will, I do not have to release any funds to you until you are thirty-years-old or married. Whether you like it or not, you are beholden to me,” he said with narrowed eyes.

 

Charles was pleased to see he might have actually found a way to exert some form of control over his sister. Would he have the strength to persist?

Chapter Text

Chapter 21

 

Haye Park, Hertfordshire
Saturday, October 5, 1811

 

Fitzwilliam Darcy leaned over the current account book for Cherry Grove and finished his calculation. Richard, Grace, Reginald, and Dobbs were in the study with him at the table they set up to discuss business as it related to their estates. With the exception of Richard, the other parties all had attained a decent understanding of what was required to run an estate, but said it lessened the monotony to work together as a group.

 

“See right here, Richard? The amount spent on coal for the winter is a little higher than I would have expected. It might just be a difference in suppliers or that I get a discount because of the volume I purchase for Pemberley, but it is something to look into. Everything else appears to be in order.”

 

“Thank you, William. Father made sure I was taught how to run an estate, but it has been many years since I have had to use the knowledge.”

 

“Richard,” Grace said, “I told you the training would come back in time.”

 

“I know, my dear, and it has already started to. It was easy to convince me to stay in Meryton because I knew my cousin and your brother would willingly help me familiarize myself with your estate,” Richard told his wife.

 

Our estate, Richard.”

 

“Not according to trust your brother and aunt set up and our marriage articles,” Richard responded determinedly. “Grace, it is your estate. I do not want anyone to think that I married you for the possessions you inherited. The estate will transfer directly from your trust to our first-born son, if we are so blessed.”

 

William listened as the couple continued the argument they had been having since their engagement. He shared a smile with Reginald and Dobbs. Richard was just as stubborn as his wife. Darcy, Reginald, and Dobbs, and even Lady Dobbs, Anne, Miss Owens, and Aunt Catherine had placed wagers on how long the discussion would last. Darcy believed they would finally stop bringing it up as soon as the first child was born, Dobbs thought it would be around the anniversary of their first year of marriage, and Reginald was certain it would playfully continue for the rest of their lives.

 

Mrs. Stanley knocked on the door and told him, “General Trevor is here to see Mr. Fitzwilliam, sir. Shall I show him in?”

 

“Yes, please do,” Darcy answered. “General, we were not expecting you to be visiting Meryton today.”

 

“Mr. Darcy, I thought Fitzwilliam would be here. You are correct, I was not supposed to be here.”

 

“What happened, Trevor?” Richard asked the general. “It must have been serious to send you on a last-minute journey.”

 

“I received my orders,” the General said simply.

 

“Orders?” Richard said with confusion. “I thought you were permanently stationed in London. Are they sending you to the continent?”

 

“Yes,” the General answered to a now silent room.

 

William was upset. If Richard had not resigned his commission, he would be leaving for the continent too.

 

“If I had to guess, I would say the sensible Miss Lucas is what caused you to pack a duffel and set your sails for Meryton,” Dobbs stated.

 

“She said yes,” the General told them with a grin.

 

“Congratulations,” Darcy said, relieved for his friend.

 

“Well done, old man,” Richard stated. “Does this mean you will finally be resigning your commission?”

 

“Old man?” the General laughed. “I am only two and forty-years-old.”

 

“Miss Lucas is a lucky woman,” Dobbs said.

 

“She is a lucky soon-to-be Countess,” Richard said with a smirk.

 

“General, you are an earl?” Dobbs asked.

 

“I am,” General Trevor said with a nod, “but I never expected to be. I am the third of four sons. My eldest brother died a year and a half ago in a carriage accident and my second eldest brother was killed in battle on the continent shortly afterwards, unaware of his change in circumstances.”

 

“I am sorry for your losses,” he said softly.

 

“Thank you, Mr. Darcy. It is a shame, really. My youngest brother is actually more suited to be an earl than an old military man like myself,” the General said deprecatingly.

 

“What profession did your youngest brother choose?” he asked.

 

“He studied the law, Mr. Darcy. He is very good and his services are sought after constantly,” the General answered. “What he excels at, though, are maths and investments. My brother can look at a proposal and figure out if it should be profitable. He has been in charge of my investments since he graduated university. Even without inheriting the title, I could have retired comfortably instead of going back to the continent.”

 

“General, does Miss Lucas know about your title?” he asked.

 

“Yes, I told her everything after she accepted my hand, Mr. Darcy,” the General answered him with a smile. “I wanted, nay I needed, to know she would marry just plain me, an ordinary general who would either leave her when I went to war or drag her along to who knows where, and not an earl.”

 

“I imagine that sent the wind up her sails,” Dobbs said good naturedly.

 

The General laughed and nodded.

 

Mrs. Stanley entered the room again. “Mr. Bingley is here to see you, sir. Shall I escort him in too?”

 

“I will go spend time with my godson,” Reginald announced immediately before leaving the room.

 

“It seems as though there is a story behind Mr. Hurst’s response. I called to inform Fitzwilliam of my good fortune before returning to London. I will leave and allow you to speak privately.”

 

“There is no need, General. You are marrying Miss Lucas. You will be introduced to Bingley eventually,” Darcy replied. “Escort him in, Mrs. Stanley.”

 

Darcy looked at Bingley closely when he walked in. There was something different about him. He looked... he could not quite put his finger on what it was. Harder, perhaps. Less like a little lost boy?

 

“Bingley, we expected you to arrive earlier this week. I assume you remember the former Miss Hurst?”

 

“Former?” Bingley asked while looking between himself and Grace.

 

He decided to have a little bit of fun with his friend. “Grace has married recently,” he said and shot her a quick wink when Bingley was not looking.

 

“Grace?” Bingley asked softly.

 

“As family, it is proper for William to use my first name amongst friends in the privacy of his home,” Grace said with an innocent smile. “It is nice to see you again, Mr. Bingley. I am sorry to be so blunt, but you must be informed that the contract you entered into with my brother in regards to gossip being spread about the Hurst family still applies even though I am now Mrs. Fitzwill...”

 

“Grace,” Dobbs interrupted his cousin with a crooked smile, “the General and I have not been introduced to Mr. Bingley.”

 

Darcy noticed that Richard looked torn between being amused and furious, Dobbs was clearly entertained and helping, and the General had sat back to watch the show with a smile upon his face.

 

He introduced the unknown parties and asked, “Did you enjoy your holiday to the continent, Bingley? Did you visit Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, or maybe you toured all of them in the three months you were gone?”

 

“I went to Paris,” Bingley responded.

 

William felt like he had been punched in the stomach. Paris? He heard Grace gasp and saw her put her hand over her mouth.

 

“Pardon me,” Richard said softly, “but did I hear you correctly? You went to Paris, while we are at war with France?”

 

What had he done? He told Bingley to go to the continent, but never in his wildest dreams did he think he would have gone to France.

 

“Yes,” Bingley replied. “I did not think it would be an issue because the fighting is in Spain and Portugal right now.”

 

“How long did it take for them to arrest you?” the General asked quietly.

 

He saw that Grace looked confused, but the other two military men in the room seemed to expect the General’s question.

 

“On my third day in Paris,” Bingley responded.

 

“Arrested?” Grace asked. “I know it would not be safe to travel to France, but why would they arrest you?”

 

William was wondering the same thing. To his knowledge, it was not illegal for an Englishman to visit France.

 

“Grace, Great Britain has been an ally of Portugal, and recently Spain, in the Peninsular War against France,” Harold explained.

 

“I know that, cousin. I do read the newspapers,” Grace responded with a roll of her eyes. “Did they actually think you were a spy, Mr. Bingley?”

 

William cringed at the slightly insulting tone Grace used. She did have a point though. How could anyone think that carefree and amiable Bingley was a spy?

 

“Yes, they would have, Grace,” Richard answered his wife. “Think about it in reverse. We were at war and a young single man from the opposing country shows up in London and, I am assuming, starts flashing money and visiting tourist attractions. How do you think we would react?”

 

“I should have spoken with you before I left, Colonel,” Bingley stated.

 

Richard raised an eyebrow, probably at the use of his former title, but did not correct him. “What happened, Bingley?”

 

“When I arrived in Calais, I hired a driver to deliver me to Paris. I told him I was there to see the sights and asked to be taken to a busy part of the city with the most to see,” Bingley said, causing the military men to groan.

 

“I would wager the driver was part of an intelligence network. Did he approach you?” the General asked.

 

“Now that you ask, yes, he did approach me, General,” Bingley answered while nodding. “He brought me to a hotel near the large park with gardens and a museum.”

 

Jardin des plantes?” Dobbs asked.

 

“That sounds familiar,” Bingley agreed.

 

“Then they took you to the Sainte-Pélagie Prison when you were arrested?” the General guessed.

 

“Yes,” Bingley said with a look of awe on his face. “How did you know?”

 

“Where you were interrogated for two months,” the General added then looked at Bingley critically before saying, “maybe only one month.”

 

Darcy was growing even more concerned as the conversation progressed. He heard Grace gasp when the General mentioned being interrogated and felt like he would become sick.

 

“No,” Bingley responded, “they never interrogated me.”

 

Darcy and Grace both blew out sighs of relief.

 

“I should have been more specific. You would not have been interrogated in the common sense of the word. Were you separated from the rest of the prisoners and assigned a single guard to watch over you?”

 

Bingley nodded with wide eyes.

 

“Did he ask you all sorts of questions to get to know you?” the General asked and Bingley nodded again.

 

“After your interrogator, make no mistake that is who your guard was,” the General said, “felt certain you were no threat, he helped you escape?”

 

“How do you know all of this?” Bingley asked quietly.

 

“I have heard something similar before, Mr. Bingley, and more importantly you are here and not still in prison or dead. Did your guard escort you to Brussels and stay with you for the remainder of your trip?” Bingley nodded again and the General said, “Did he convince you it was finally safe to go to the port and book passage back to London after you received a large packet of letters from home? With broken seals?”

 

Bingley did not answer. He continued to stare at the general with wide eyes.

 

“I cannot stress how very fortunate you were, Mr. Bingley. I have heard stories about the man who must have been your interrogator. Rumour has it, he has a history of assisting his prisoners with their escape, only if he is convinced, beyond a doubt, that you have nothing to do with the military or government,” the General informed him. “Something in your letters must have been persuasive enough to allow him to fully release you from his custody.”

 

“Now it is my turn to wager a bet. How vitriolic was Miss Bingley’s letter?” Richard asked with a wicked grin.

 

“Letters,” Bingley answered roughly before coughing and continuing, “and very. As were the letters from my Aunt and Uncle Bingley. When I disappeared, my valet sent an express to Yorkshire with our directions. My family assumed I was sowing my wild oats and that I had turned up before the express arrived in England.”

 

“This may be one of those unique times where you thank your sister for being a shrewish harpy.”

 

“Richard!” Darcy admonished.

 

“No, Mr. Darcy, Fitzwilliam is correct. Letters that contained nothing but good news and hopes for Mr. Bingley’s safe return, would have been scrutinized and most likely disbelieved. If Miss Bingley’s letter confirmed what Mr. Bingley had already told the interrogator, that would probably have been the final thing to fully sway him,” the General said.

 

“I believe it was,” Bingley said slowly. “I remember him asking a lot of pointed questions about Caroline and our relationship, almost as though he did not believe me. When the letters arrived, as he handed me the packet, he told me he pitied me for my sister. I did not understand the comment at the time. I sailed home two days later, after being lectured about needing to take control of my life from my sister.”

 

The room was quiet for a few moments before Darcy asked, “Bingley, you mentioned an aunt and uncle. I thought Reginald told me your parents were both only children.”

 

Bingley’s eyes widened again when he referred to Mr. Hurst so informally.

 

“Hurst is correct, my parents were both only children. Uncle Wilbur is actually my father’s cousin, but they were about the same age and lived in the same town, similar to you and the Colonel. When you have children, will they call your cousins Uncle Joseph and Uncle Richard?”

 

He smiled and replied, “I am sure they will. Are you well, Bingley?”

 

“Yes, Darcy. You have all given me a lot to think on. I believe it is time I return to Netherfield,” Bingley answered.

 

“Do you plan to attend services in the morning?”

 

“No, I think we will worship quietly at home tomorrow, Darcy.”

 

“That is understandable,” he said gently. “Your arrival has caused a stir among the local population. I would expect the calls to start next week.”

 

“Thank you for the warning.”

 

“Bingley, in case nobody remembers to inform you, there will be an assembly next Friday. Anyone who wants to come is invited,” he informed Bingley. “I am sure Sir William will tell you how tickets may be purchased.”

 

“Thank you, Darcy,” Bingley said before standing up and walking to the door. “Oh, I almost forgot. Caroline has been asking me numerous times a day when you will be arriving at Netherfield.”

 

“You did not tell her I made other arrangements in the area?” William asked, utterly shocked.

 

“You said you were staying here for the summer,” Bingley defended himself. “Now that it is getting colder, the family should return and you, Miss Darcy, and Hurst will move to Netherfield.”

 

Darcy could not believe what he was hearing. Did Bingley realize he just essentially cut everyone else who was staying at Haye Park by not extending an invitation for them too?

 

“Funny you should mention that,” Richard answered when he had paused too long. “William just received a letter from the Goulding’s earlier this week.”

 

He shot Richard a grateful look and said, “Yes, I did. They have enjoyed being close to their family so much, they are looking to quit Haye Park. We have kept up a steady correspondence so they know how much I have enjoyed my time here. I have been offered the opportunity to purchase the estate before they look for a selling agent.”

 

He heard a few sniggers in the room but Bingley just stared at him. He thought Bingley looked disappointed and slightly afraid. It was making him uncomfortable, so he added, “I am unsure if I will accept the offer, but regardless, I will not be moving to Netherfield. You must inform your sister. Also, I ask that you remind her that I would never offer for her, even if I could.”

 

Bingley continued to stare at him, but now with panicked eyes. William had enough and pulled on the cord to summon the manservant. “Ah, Mr. Stanley, good. Mr. Bingley here is ready to leave. Please have him escorted out.”

 

“Please follow me, Mr. Bingley,” Mr. Stanley said, then closed the door behind them.

 

“That was an interesting meeting,” the General commented.

 

“Yes, it was,” William agreed. “And slightly alarming. I need to speak with Alfie. His duties might have to be expanded to include keeping an eye on what Miss Bingley is doing. It is a good thing we have a good relationship with the servants at Netherfield.”

 

“I may know a man, Mr. Darcy. He is an expert at blending into any situation and ferreting out information,” the General said. “I do plan to be back for the assembly. If you are interested, I will ask him to come back with me and perform introductions.”

 

“That would be very much appreciated, General,” William answered.

 

“I was wondering if you would have a room for me until the Monday following the assembly?” the General asked.

 

“Allow me to send a note to Mrs. Bennet,” Grace said. “Perhaps she will let Georgie, Clara, Anne, and Mrs. Annesley stay at Longbourn again. They will have fun getting ready for the assembly together as a group.”

 

“Would you like to join them instead of Mrs. Annesley?” Richard asked with an indulgent smile.

 

“I would,” Grace answered with a tender smile.

 

“Grace, write a note to Mrs. Bennet and send it with Tylor. While you do that, Darcy will write letters to Brundel and Dover,” Richard stated.

 

“I will?” he asked his cousin with a raised brow.

 

“Come now, Darcy. Those two pups were upset to leave Miss Mary and Miss Owens. If they found out that we had extra bedrooms but did not invite them to join us?” Dobbs left the question hanging.

 

“Clara and Mary, although they would likely not admit it, would be happy to see them, William,” Grace told him.

 

“I had planned to invite them when you mentioned the ladies staying at Longbourn again,” he responded with a roll of his eyes.

 

“William does not like to be told what he is going to do,” Richard informed his wife with a wink.

 

“Very few people do,” the General said with a smile. “I am very glad I stopped to pay a call on Fitzwilliam. If you will excuse me, I must get back to London and start the process of resigning my commission.”

 

“I hope you do not encounter any trouble, General,” Richard said.

 

“It is unlikely. When I inherited my family’s title, I was strongly encouraged to retire. It is quite possible I might return with just my civilian title, Lord Palmrich, the Earl of Palmrich, master of Wadmer Castle,” the General finished in a sarcastic tone.

 

“Do you think your title had anything to do with your orders?” Richard asked thoughtfully.

 

“That is an interesting theory,” the General said slowly. “A rather devious one, if you think about it. Yes, I am sure you are correct, Fitzwilliam. I made my desire to stay in London very clear.”

 

Grace started giggling which turned into full blown laughter.

 

“Care to inform us what you find so amusing, cousin?” Dobbs asked.

 

“Miss Bingley,” Grace sputtered then managed to calm herself slightly. “I can imagine her complaining to her brother about coming to the wilderness of Meryton with its limited and savage society filled with country nobodies.”

 

Richard started laughing with his wife. “When she arrives at the assembly, with her nose up in the air, she will immediately try to attach herself to Darcy.”

 

“Who is courting an amazing young lady and will be sure to have all of his dances promised in advance,” William cut in with a glare.

 

“Then, if we are so very lucky, she will make cutting remarks about Meryton and the people in present, not caring to lower her voice, before realizing the room holds a marquess, an earl, and a viscount,” Grace finished with tears in her eyes.

 

“That is not very nice, Grace,” he said while trying to hold back his own laughter.

 

“I noticed you said nothing about the accuracy of my projection?” Grace countered playfully. “Besides, I was not the one who started Mr. Bingley along the path to thinking that we were married.”

 

He felt himself blushing and was forced to admit she was right. “Well, yes, I did do that, but that was before I knew what he had been through in France.”

 

“There could be two earls and two viscounts attending the assembly if I write a letter to my parents. If mother has shopping to do in London, they may return to town for a week. If they come, and if JT has not left for Halburn yet, may he bunk with you, William?” Richard asked.

 

“Yes, and Anne would likely share a room with Georgie at Longbourn to make room for Mrs. Annesley,” he responded. “It sounds like we have a lot of letters to write while we wait for Mrs. Bennet’s response. In the meantime, the General needs to return to London.”

 

“I have time, Mr. Darcy. I would be honoured to bring your letters to London and arrange for their delivery. I would also recommend writing to my soon-to-be in-laws. They enjoyed meeting Lord and Lady Matlock. I can almost guarantee they would be more than willing to host them,” the General said. “While you are waiting on a response from Longbourn, I will ride to Lucas Lodge and ask.”

 

“I would wait, Trevor,” Richard said. “I am almost certain TJ has left Matlock. The only chance he has not left for Halburn would be if weather delayed his departure on Wednesday. Besides, it is unlikely mother and father would need to return so soon unless mother decides to order her wardrobe for next season early.”

 

“I would still enjoy chatting with you gentlemen a little longer before I leave. Besides, it would be good to allow the temperature cool a little bit before riding to London,” the General said.

~*~

Assembly Room, Meryton
Friday, October 11, 1811

 

Fitzwilliam Darcy drummed his fingers on his thigh. He was eager to arrive at the assembly room and see Elizabeth. He wished the carriage would move faster. It was too soon, he knew, however he yearned to propose. Miss Elizabeth Bennet was everything he had dreamed of finding in a woman. The only thing that held him back was the fear that he was rushing her unduly. His spontaneous comment about kissing her and proposing when he asked for a courtship had clearly unnerved her.

 

“Darcy, calm down and stop fidgeting man,” the former General, now known as Palmrich to his friends, ordered.

 

“I am sorry, Palmrich, I know I am out of sorts. On one hand, I am exceedingly impatient to arrive and dance with Miss Elizabeth and, on the other hand, I would just as soon not encounter Mr. and Miss Bingley,” William replied.

 

William had seen Bingley twice more since he arrived at Netherfield. He could tell Bingley was annoyed with him. Not only for refusing to accept his invitation of a room, but he also would not meet Bingley in the study at Netherfield to go over the books. Instead, he met Bingley at a bridge and they rode the property together. The first time, he familiarized his friend with the estate and told him the types of things he would need to look for. The second time, he tried to metaphorically step back and let Bingley take the lead, but, as he expected, he had to tell him what was wrong and what needed to be done to have it fixed.

 

“Is it really that bad?” the Marquess of Brundel asked.

 

“Compared to what our friendship was before?” Darcy asked. “No, unfortunately it is the same. I guess my problem is that I have gotten used to having... more equal, adult conversations if you will, with Hurst and Dobbs. Does that make sense? Bingley wants me to tell him what needs to be done and then fix it for him as if he was still in leading strings.”

 

“Have you explained to him that you are not his steward?” Viscount Dover asked.

 

“Not that bluntly,” he sighed, “but I may need to.”

 

“Cheer up, we have arrived,” Palmrich told him with a grin.

 

William exited the Palmrich carriage with a sense of purpose. With so many ladies staying at Longbourn and Haye Park, he had only had to request a set from Miss Lucas to ensure he was committed all evening. He was almost certain Miss Bingley would make sure they arrived after the first set had started. He would have to greet the Bingley’s before the second set started and then if he spent the time between sets with his former and next partners, he would hopefully escape a lengthy conversation with both siblings.

 

He walked to the de Bourgh carriage behind them and handed down his Aunt Catherine while Hurst handed down his own aunt.

 

“Everything will be well, William,” Aunt Catherine told him. “Phoebe, Fanny, and I will run interference as much as possible. You have made many friends here and are courting a wonderful young lady who is a favourite amongst her neighbours.”

 

“I never would have thought to hear such nice words from you about a young lady I was courting, Aunt Catherine.”

 

“I never thought I would say them, William. When Anne took over as mistress of Rosings, she made it abundantly clear that she would never marry you. It also helps that Elizabeth is perfect for you,” his aunt said with a smile. “I see the Bennet, Darcy, and Fitzwilliam carriages approaching. Go help Mr. Bennet and Richard with all of those beautiful women.”

 

He gave his aunt a quick kiss on her cheek before he hurried to the Bennet carriage, thanking Richard with a quick nod for indicating which carriage to approach. Elizabeth always took his breath away in her finery, but tonight, the way the light from the lantern mounted on the building nearby hit her hair, made her look incandescent. He was, in a word, undone.

 

“Mr. Darcy, do you intend to hand me down?” the dryad asked with a lopsided grin, raised eyebrow, and eyes twinkling in the candlelight.

 

“My apologies, Miss Bennet. I was momentarily struck dumb at your loveliness,” he responded.

 

“How like you to come up with such an impeccable excuse, sir,” she stated while holding her hand out.

 

He managed to pull himself together enough to hand Miss Elizabeth down and then his sister out of the Darcy carriage and escort them into the building. It felt wonderful to enter with the two most important ladies in his life on his arms. He noticed more than a few indulgent smiles sent his way and matrons whispering behind their fans. The news that he was courting Miss Elizabeth had barely caused a ripple in the society of Meryton. Most people thought they had an understanding that was unannounced.

 

“Aunt Olivia!” he heard his sister exclaim.

 

He followed Georgiana’s line of sight and saw his aunt and uncle. As he approached he said, “I did not know you would be here. I must send Mrs. Stanley a note to prepare your room.”

 

“That is appreciated but unnecessary, William,” Aunt Olivia responded. “We are staying at Miss Thomlin’s house with Lord and Lady Sheldon.”

 

“Oh, that is too bad,” Georgie pouted. “I will be sad to see Clara leave. She has become like another sister to me.”

 

“Her parents will not be back for a fortnight and the Sheldon’s must return to their own estate soon. Miss Owens will be here for a little while longer,” his aunt said gently.

 

William noticed Viscount Dover approaching Lord Sheldon with a determined look on his face and smiled.

 

“Clara will be very happy,” Miss Elizabeth whispered, her eyes on the two gentlemen across the room.

~*~

Assembly Room, Meryton
Friday, October 11, 1811

 

After assisting Miss Bennet from the carriage, Reginald Hurst watched William walk up the stairs to the assembly and silently chucked at the proud look on his friend’s face. He noticed Miss Bennet observing them too.

 

“They will certainly make an entrance,” he told her quietly and his breath caught when she smiled up at him.

 

“Lizzy is very happy,” Miss Bennet told him quietly.

 

“So is William,” he whispered back before escorting her up the stairs. “Are all of your sets taken, Miss Bennet?”

 

“Almost,” she answered him with a questioning look. “Why do you ask?”

 

“I know my brother-in-law. Let us greet some of your neighbours,” he said, determined to have her dance card full before Bingley arrived.

 

He circulated around the assembly room, greeting people, and enjoying the feeling of Miss Bennet on his arm. They met up with William and Miss Elizabeth and chatted until the musicians were ready for the first set.

 

Reginald took his place across from Miss Bennet and sighed in contentment.

~*~

Assembly Room, Meryton
Friday, October 11, 1811

 

Dorothea Verdier looked at the exasperating young lady sitting next to her and shook her head in disgust. She had been making Miss Bingley read every day but the discourteous girl had yet to alter her behaviour. She claimed that as a member of the first circles, she could act however she wanted. She had yet to realize, society would not tolerate such actions from the daughter of a tradesman.

 

She looked at the young gentleman sitting across from her and was just as frustrated. She had high hopes when she met the siblings in London. Mr. Bingley seemed to realize his sister needed to improve, but other than purchasing whatever books she demanded, he did nothing to assist her.

 

Her sister, Lucille, had been completely honest with her. She knew exactly what she had agreed to when she accepted the role of chaperone in their household. If she had to hear about Mr. and Miss Darcy once more, she would scream. How could anyone be so deluded to believe a gentleman, who had known her for years, would suddenly propose? She could not seem to make Miss Bingley realize her dream was just that and it would never happen.

 

Their carriage pulled in front of the assembly room and they could hear the music playing inside.

 

“How typical. Thank you for making us late, Caroline,” Mr. Bingley said peevishly. “I told Sir William we would be here! Our neighbours are going to believe we snubbed them.”

 

“Nonsense, Charles,” that man’s sister replied. “Being late is fashionable in London. These country nobodies are fortunate we have attended their silly little assembly.”

 

Dorothea closed her eyes and silently groaned. It would be a miracle if the siblings made it through the night without making a cake of themselves. She was not looking forward to entering the room.

 

“Caroline, I have told you before and I am reminding you again, LEAVE DARCY ALONE! He will never marry you. Set your sights lower. I could introduce you to any number of friends in town.”

 

“I will not, Charles. I am to marry Mr. Darcy. We are perfect for each other,” the self-important woman answered.

 

“I waited to tell you this until now, but I believe Darcy is unavailable.”

 

“What do you mean?” that man’s sister all but screeched.

 

“I am warning you that, from things Darcy has said this past week, he has formed an attachment with a young lady. You will do nothing to hinder their relationship. I used to be his closest friend and it is humiliating that I am unaware of what is going on in his life. I have not found the proper opening to ask if he is engaged or married, but either way, there is absolutely nothing you can do. Move along, Caroline. Let the poor man be,” Mr. Bingley hissed at his sister.

 

Mr. Bingley helped them down and escorted them to the closed doors of the building. One of the footmen opened the door, they put their outerwear in the cloakroom, and walked into the hall. She was trying to pay attention to what Miss Bingley was muttering, but could not resist the temptation to watch what happened when they entered.

 

The musicians caught sight of them first. The violinist leaned over to see better and his bow started playing on the cello, causing the entire band to stop playing and stare which, in turn, caused the dancers to stop to see what the disruption was.

 

Dorothea heard a collective gasp and did not blame them. Miss Bingley looked utterly ridiculous. The stupid girl would not listen to her and had insisted on dressing as though she was going to a formal ball in town. Her beautiful gown was made grotesque by the shade of orange and was cut low enough to cause Dorothea to blush. If the color was not jarring enough, it was matched with a green turban and feathers dyed to match, making the thin Miss Bingley look like a giant walking carrot.

 

She and Mr. Bingley had tried to convince the girl to change or stay home. She heard Mr. Bingley mutter ‘I wish Louisa was here’, and realized this must have been a recurring issue in their household. Miss Bingley was adamant she needed to be at the assembly in case the Darcy’s went directly there and that her clothing was the height of fashion. She was right, the modiste had assembled a flawless dress but the unfortunate color combination was the only thing people would notice.

 

A gentleman approached them and greeted Mr. Bingley.

 

“Mr. Bingley, how good of you to show up at last.”

 

“Sir William, it is nice to see you. I apologize for our tardiness. A household issue caused my sister to run late. Allow me to introduce you to the rest of my party,” Mr. Bingley said before performing the service.

 

The band had started playing again as soon as Sir William had greeted them. As the gentlemen conversed, she heard Miss Bingley was still muttering to herself.

 

“Who is Mr. Darcy dancing with? He should have waited for my arrival. There is that ghastly Colonel Fitzwilliam dancing with that tart Miss Hurst. What is Miss Darcy doing dancing? She is not yet out! I must make sure she dances with Charles tonight. Of course, my brother’s eyes are drawn to the most beautiful woman in the room, but who is that man she is dancing with? From the looks of his clothes, he must be wealthy. That must be the man Prissy Peaton said was staying at Darcy House. She was right, he is handsome and incredibly fit. The way his jacket hugs his shoulders and tapers at his trim waist is tantalizing.”

 

When the dance ended, a few couples headed their way. From Miss Bingley’s ramblings, Dorothea knew the gentlemen were Mr. Darcy, the Colonel, and Mr. Darcy’s friend, who reached them first.

 

“Oh, Prissy Peaton was right. He gets even more attractive the closer he gets and his clothing looks even more expensive than I thought,” Miss Bingley muttered. “Perhaps I should use him to make Mr. Darcy jealous.”

 

 

“Bingley, how good of you and your sister to join us. Will you introduce me to your other guest?”

 

Dorothea held her breath and waited for the explosion. She was not disappointed.

 

“Do you know who we are?” Miss Bingley said, causing everyone at the assembly to stop talking and turn towards them. “I do not know how things work in this fashionless backwater hole my brother forced me and my dear Mr. Darcy to attend, but in the first circles, people do not approach their betters without an introduction. Charles, I insist we return to London at first light. Mr. Darcy, I apologize for my brother. He had no right to demand we come to the wilderness of Meryton, to an assembly filled with nobodies. We will retire to Netherfield immediately and you and dear Georgiana will only have to spend one evening in this horrible town,” the red-haired harridan finished.

 

“Caroline, hold your tongue. Neither I or Mrs. Verdier will take you back to Netherfield. You will have to reap what you have sown with our new neighbours,” Mr. Bingley hissed at his sister but his eyes never left the gorgeous blond in front of them.

 

Dorothea was not sure what was happening. Instead of looking angry, the crowd looked highly entertained. The lady on the Colonel’s arm looked up at him and, if she was not mistaken, mouthed to him that she was right. She saw three older ladies, who were all impeccably attired, approach and heard Miss Bingley gasp.

 

“Your sister-in-law is right, Mr. Hurst. People from the first circles would certainly never approach three titled ladies in the haberdashery if they were not previously introduced.”

 

“As the wife of an earl, you would certainly know, Olivia. As the daughter of an earl, and widow of a baronet, I find it unconscionable when people try to quit the sphere in which they have been brought up. Gently bred ladies would certainly never bandy about misinformation in an attempt to force a gentleman’s hand.”

 

“She is just as inappropriate as she was in the haberdashery. Come, let us forget her unfortunate statement and enjoy the rest of our evening. Olivia, what do you think about asking Miss Thomlin to serve carrots for dinner tomorrow?” the third lady asked with an enormous grin.

 

The reference to carrots made Dorothea snicker. She must have been heard, because all three older ladies shared a smile with her.

 

She knew the name Hurst. Louisa’s former husband must be standing in front of her. He certainly did not look like a drunken slob any longer.

 

“Hurst?” Mr. Bingley sputtered.

 

“No, it is impossible,” a very pale Miss Bingley whispered.

 

This was certain to be an entertaining evening. She was tempted to walk out of the hall and take the post home as soon as possible. This was going to be scandalous. Hopefully the gossip would not make its way to London.

Chapter Text

Chapter 22

 

Assembly Room, Meryton
Friday, October 11, 1811

 

Reginald Hurst could not believe what he was seeing. What possessed Miss Bingley to wear those two colours together? He was a man, and even he could tell it was not smart to use them in that particular proportion. Depending on your body structure, a pumpkin, squash, or carrot would immediately come to mind, especially with the green feathers.

 

The musicians commenced the music and the dancers resumed the set. He noticed Miss Bingley scanning the crowd before her gaze landed on him. He felt uncomfortable with, and disgusted by, the way Miss Bingley was scrutinizing him. What could she mean by it? Previously, she had treated him with disdain and looked at him with revulsion clearly in her eyes. Almost worse was the way Bingley was staring, very nearly leering inappropriately, at Miss Bennet.

 

“You seem unnerved, Mr. Hurst,” Miss Bennet said quietly when they came together. “May I assume the Bingley’s have arrived?”

 

“Yes, they have,” he answered at the next opportunity.

 

“If you believe it will help, or bring you comfort, I will be happy to be at your side when you greet them,” was the sweetest response he had ever heard.

 

The dance ended before Reginald could respond. He looked down at her, smiled, took a deep breath to prepare himself, and responded in a whisper while walking towards his in-laws, “I most gladly accept your company, my love. This is bound to be unpleasant.”

 

Miss Bennet faltered for a moment and he looked down at her and noticed her face was flushed and her eyes were wide. “Are you well? Is it too hot in here?”

 

“I am fine,” she whispered as they reached the Bingley’s.

 

He really did not want to interact with them, but knew it was his duty until he decided whether or not to cut ties with them permanently. Miss Bingley was still looking at him peculiarly and it was exceedingly unnerving. If he did not know better, he would have thought the looks she was giving him were impassioned.

 

He greeted his in-laws and was shocked speechless when Miss Bingley started ranting. It soon became clear that she did not recognize him. That meant... he felt like he was going to lose the contents of his stomach.

 

He saw the astonishment on the faces of the siblings when Lady Matlock referred to him by name and then how they paled as Lady Catherine and Lady Sheldon took further digs at Miss Bingley.

 

“Bingley,” he tried again, “are you going to introduce me to your guest?”

 

“Hurst? How...”

 

If Bingley would stop looking at Miss Bennet every few seconds, perhaps he would be able to form a coherent sentence. “Sir William, would you do the honours?”

 

“Of course, allow me to introduce you to Mrs. Verdier.”

 

Reginald remembered hearing about the sister of their Cousin Lucile but they had never met before. “It is a pleasure,” he said before turning to Bingley. “You will be hearing from my representative regarding the contract we created this past December. I was generous in April, but no more,” he said with a hard look at Miss Bingley.

 

He heard Miss Bingley gasp as they walked away.

 

“I hope you are not upset that I did not introduce you to the Bingley’s,” he told Miss Bennet.

 

“I am sure you had your reasons,” Miss Bennet stated confidently. “Miss Bingley is even worse than the various stories led me to expect.”

 

“Certainly. You are a very kind young woman who always gives people the benefit of the doubt. I have never seen her look at me like that. It was... unpleasant.”

 

“She did not seem to recognize you. Have all of your activities and exercises altered you so drastically?” Miss Bennet asked.

 

“I told you what my life was like during my marriage. What I did not tell you, was the effect the environment had on me. I truly owe Darcy and Fitzwilliam a debt I could never pay. If I continued down the road I was on, I am not sure what my future would have been,” he said before explaining what his married household was like.

~*~

Assembly Room, Meryton
Friday, October 11, 1811

 

Fitzwilliam Darcy stopped dancing when the music ceased abruptly and looked around the room. Only his years of experience being in society kept his jaw from resting on his chest.

 

“What an... imaginative colour combination,” Miss Elizabeth whispered after staring for a few moments. “The apparel oft proclaims the man.1

 

“Fitting in this case,” he agreed softly.

 

The musicians started playing and dancing recommenced.

 

He groaned when he noticed that Bingley had fixated on Miss Bennet.

 

“Mr. Darcy, this may be an improper comment to voice out loud, but there seems to be something weird about the way Miss Bingley is looking at Mr. Hurst.”

 

“We are courting, Miss Elizabeth. I want you to feel able to say anything to me. In this instance your observation is accurate.” What was Miss Bingley thinking? It was disgraceful to stare at Reginald with desire clearly apparent on her face. Bingley was only marginally better with the way he was staring at Miss Bennet.

 

When the music ended, they were on the opposite side of the room.

 

“Reginald and your sister are heading toward the Bingley’s. We should follow,” William told her.

 

“I believe you said Mr. Hurst has not seen the Bingley’s since last December and that he had lost a lot of weight in the intervening time. Could Miss Bingley not recognize him?” Miss Elizabeth asked.

 

“I believe you are correct,” he said as they were getting close.

 

William heard Reginald speak to Bingley and listened to Miss Bingley do what she did best, spew vitriol. That woman would never learn to think before speaking.

 

He was proud of Reginald for discreetly hitting back at his in-laws before walking away and enjoyed hearing the three ladies putting Miss Bingley in her place.

 

He took a few steps closer and glared at Bingley. He was pleased to see him flinch. “What did we talk about that first day at Haye Park, Bingley? You were instructed to tell your sister we were not staying at Netherfield, among other things. How could you allow her to insinuate that she is an intimate of mine? My dear Mr. Darcy? I will not allow her to force my hand. If Miss Bingley’s reputation is harmed by her actions, I will not assist you,” he stated firmly. “As I have told you twice, I will NEVER marry your sister,” he hissed quietly.

 

He felt bad, nearly, when he saw Miss Bingley pale even further.

 

“If you do not exert control over your sister, I will be forced to publicly end our friendship and cut you,” he said quietly.

 

He did not think it was possible, but Bingley’s eye got wider.

 

“Come, my dear. Let us go see if Reginald is well,” he told Miss Elizabeth before walking away.

~*~

Assembly Room, Meryton
Friday, October 11, 1811

 

Frances Bennet stood in a group with Lady Matlock, Lady Sheldon, Lady Dobbs, and Lady Catherine watching the assembly room. She smiled to herself as her daughters all positioned themselves for the first set. Kitty and Lydia were dancing with Mr. Bennet and Mr. Phillips, respectively, Mary with Marquess Brundel, Lizzy with Mr. Darcy, naturally, and Jane with Mr. Hurst.

 

Fannie was undecided how she felt about the anticipated arrival of the Bingley’s. She had heard such different accounts of Mr. Bingley that puzzled her exceedingly.

 

Jane and Lizzy had told their younger sisters stories of what had happened during their season in London. She and Thomas felt it was good for Mrs. Waldron, Jane, and Lizzy to inform the younger girls about incidents they might encounter during their seasons. Meryton society was nothing compared to London, but the lessons could still be relevant to the assembly they were currently attending and would also help prepare them for their future as members of London society. Her daughters had only slipped and used a name once, but she remembered the stories they had read and heard about Mr. and Miss B.

 

She had been excited, at first, when her sister Jane told her that Netherfield had been let to a single young man, what a fine thing for her girls, until Jane had told her his name. Mr. Bingley did not seem capable of controlling his sister in a London park. How would he handle being the head of the family when he had a wife and children to protect?

 

With dismay she recalled the few years she and Mr. Bennet had fallen into indifference. They had allowed the wishes of their youngest daughter and their own desires to consume their lives. If two such strong minded people as her and Thomas could fall into such habits, what would life be like to live with someone who was already weak-willed?

 

She had decided to do everything in her power to make sure her daughter Jane did not become enamoured of their soon-to-be neighbour.

 

Then, the Goulding’s made it known they were exchanging houses with a young man from Derbyshire for the summer. The letter her daughters received from Dottie and Martha, after their short stop in London, excited her greatly. Two rich and single young men with their sisters and other family members! In her lifetime, Meryton society had never had such additions to their ranks.

 

Mr. Darcy and Mr. Hurst had warned her eldest daughters about the Bingley family. It sounded to her and Lizzy as though Mr. Darcy was wavering regarding his acquaintance with Mr. Bingley. The two gentlemen had been friends for years, but recent incidents had eaten away at their relationship. Mr. Darcy did admit Mr. Bingley had some redeeming qualities, but in her mind the bad severely outweighed the good.

 

Grace and Georgie, as she had been invited to call them, had warned everyone what to expect from their new neighbours. Grace had rarely met the Bingley’s, but over the winter at Pemberley her brother had shared a great deal of what his married life was like with her. Miss Darcy’s stories were similar, but certainly gave them a greater insight into the previous actions of Miss Bingley.

 

During the planning of Mrs. Fitzwilliam’s wedding, Lady Dobbs and Lady Catherine mentioned the Bingley’s and gave her even further understanding about the possible issues they would encounter. Mr. Bingley, they said, was known to fall in and out of love quickly, but, to her, Miss Bingley sounded like the biggest threat. She decided a forthright discussion with all of the young ladies was required in the morning before church services. She was not certain what Miss Bingley would do when she found out that Mr. Darcy was officially courting Lizzy or how many titled gentlemen were in the area. Desperate people did desperate things.

 

Fanny sighed and realized there was really nothing she could do about any of her concerns, no matter how valid. Everyone at Longbourn was well aware of the possible difficulties and that they must be prepared to assist each other, if needed.

 

She wished Mary would have allowed herself to be presented with Juliet and Lizzy. Lord Brundel would surely have gotten her to the altar by now. All in good time, she supposed, as long as his hand was not forced. The man was undoubtedly captivated with her middle daughter.

 

It had been equally obvious that Lizzy and Mr. Darcy were immediately fascinated by each other. Although, Mr. Darcy surely waited long enough to ask for a courtship, she huffed to herself. Ten thousand a year, and likely more. ‘Twas not as good as the lords they were acquainted with, but, most importantly, Lizzy assured her that they cared for each other deeply. They were well matched in intelligence, integrity, and connections.

 

Mr. Darcy would most certainly be the main prey in the scheme they all expected Miss Bingley to put into effect. Certain precautions should be put into place right away. Why did she not think of the need before?

 

Then there was Jane and Mr. Hurst. Thomas assured her Mr. Hurst was interested in Jane and was in a financial position to care for her. She understood and empathized with the position he found himself in. That a young man, who was heir to his family’s estate, without his own heir, and had met a young lady he cared for, was determined to finish mourning his deceased wife, spoke well of the man. She had been leery at first, but the more she saw them together, her fears were eased. They would do well as a couple.

 

She noticed the doors opening and could not believe what walked in. “Oh, that poor girl. Someone should explain that orange clashes with her hair,” she muttered to herself.

 

“Lord help us, the Bingley’s have arrived,” she heard Lady Matlock say quietly as the music stopped.

 

“I do not even know what to say,” Lady Catherine commented.

 

Lady Sheldon simply laughed behind her fan.

 

As the music started up again, Lady Sheldon said, “We should position ourselves near the Bingley’s. It is certain Mr. Darcy and Mr. Hurst will have an unpleasant meeting. And, by the bye, Fannie, Grace informed me Miss Bingley’s colour preferences were previously mitigated by the former Mrs. Hurst. Since her sister’s passing, Miss Bingley seems to have been purchasing her own, increasingly outlandish, wardrobe.”

 

“If I was her modiste,” Lady Catherine said, “I would refuse to make a gown of that shade for someone with hair like hers. Or truly, for just about anyone.”

 

Fannie followed slightly behind her friends. She determined Mr. Bingley was good-looking and had a pleasant countenance. Miss Bingley appeared to be a fine woman in elegant gown with an unfortunate sense of fashion. The unnamed guest was older than the siblings with clothing that was of lesser quality. Her sister Evelyn had told her they were orphans. She assumed the companion was a widowed aunt to retain respectability when they had male guests.

 

“What could Miss Bingley mean by gazing at Mr. Hurst so? Why, it is practically indecent. Is she a woman of loose morals?” she quietly asked no one in particular.

 

“In some ways she is, but I do not know how far her depravity extends. I do not believe she has seen my nephew since just after Mrs. Hurst died. Reginald has lost a significant amount of weight and looks healthier than he has since attending Cambridge,” Phoebe said.

 

“It is true. I almost did not recognize him and, by virtue of growing up on the estate next to his and being good friends with Phoebe all throughout our childhood, I have known him his entire life,” her newest friend, Isabel Sheldon, said.

 

“Indeed, Miss Bingley does not recognize him,” Lady Catherine chortled quietly. “She is looking at him as though he is a favourite dessert she cannot wait to try.”

 

“My daughters are already dubious of both Bingley’s,” she admitted. “I will try not to influence them too much. However, I do not know if Thomas and I should allow our family to socialize with them.”

 

“My biggest concern is what she will do as soon as she learns that William is courting Elizabeth,” Lady Catherine declared. “Miss Bingley has been chasing my nephew for the past five years. She is nearly on the shelf and, as we have all seen, desperation can make women of a certain age do dangerous things.”

 

After the set, Mr. Hurst and Jane reached the Bingley’s first. She saw ladies Matlock, Sheldon, and Catherine take a few steps closer and quickly glanced at Lady Dobbs, who had stayed next to her, to see Phoebe looking amused. She heard Mr. Hurst’s greeting and listened to Miss Bingley’s response with growing horror.

 

The nerve of this woman. First, she berates poor Mr. Hurst for greeting his family. Then, she insults the entire town before she insinuates a close relationship with Mr. and Miss Darcy! Country nobodies and horrible town indeed! Their betters? First circles? Miss Bingley either had a skewed sense of self-worth or she was insane.

 

She heard Phoebe laughed and commented softly, “You do not seem surprised by her reaction.”

 

“Not in the slightest,” Phoebe shook her head as Mr. Bingley responded.

 

“I have never met Miss Bingley but based on what I was told, that is exactly how I should have supposed she would have responded,” she said while shaking her head.

 

“Yes, that sister of his rules their roost.”

 

“You were correct. Miss Bingley seemed shocked when your nephew was identified,” she muttered. Olivia had told her about their encounter in the haberdashery and the brazenness still amazed her. “Can you believe Isabel said that out loud? She is right though, Miss Bingley really does look like a carrot,” Mrs. Bennet murmured in amusement to Phoebe.

 

“I will never be able to look at that particular vegetable the same way again,” Phoebe snickered quietly.

 

Her friends started back towards them without asking for an introduction and Mr. Darcy approached the newcomers. Fannie could only hear a little of what he said, but Mr. Bingley looked upset and Miss Bingley appeared stricken at his last few words.

 

After Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth followed after Mr. Hurst, she decided to ask for an introduction to the shocked siblings.

 

“Sir William, please introduce me to the Bingley party,” she asked her neighbour. He raised an eyebrow but complied with her request.

 

“Mr. and Miss Bingley, I have heard a lot about both of you. Mrs. Verdier, it is a pleasure to meet you. We were not forewarned of your presence at Netherfield,” Fannie said.

 

Mrs. Verdier smirked slightly before responding, “My sister is married to one of the Bingley cousins. I agreed to join the household to fulfill the role of chaperone as needed.”

 

“Did you say, Bennet?” Mr. Bingley asked. “I met your husband.”

 

“Yes, he told me of his visit,” she responded diplomatically. Thomas had very few positive things to say afterwards. “It must be challenging to learn how to be the master and mistress of an estate for the duration of your lease.”

 

“I was very impressed when the agent told me about Netherfield and signed a lease immediately,” Mr. Bingley responded, already seeming to be the normally cheerful self she had heard about.

 

Mrs. Bennet raised a brow and said, “I was told you leased it without even taking a tour. I thought they were having a go at me, but having met you, I find I finally believe their story to be true.”

 

“Whatever I do is done in a hurry,” Mr. Bingley responded with a large grin, apparently missing her point. “Therefore, if I should ever resolve to quit Netherfield and Meryton, I should probably be off to London in less than five minutes. At present, however, I consider myself as quite fixed here. The society here certainly agrees with me. Quite nicely, without a doubt,” he finished with an almost disconcerting look at Jane.

 

What could possess him to stare at Jane in that manner. Why, it was very nearly indecent. Miss Bingley was not any better with the way she had been starting at Mr. Hurst. Yes, a discussion with Thomas was in order. Perhaps her sister Jane or Mr. Fitzwilliam knew of another footman to hire for her daughters’ protection.

 

“Miss Bingley, my sister Phillips told me Mr. Bingley’s unmarried sister was to keep house for him. I must say, I was ever so surprised when I saw you walk in with him.”

 

“Why do you say that, Mrs. Bennet?” Mr. Bingley asked, looking confused.

 

“I assumed your sister would be younger than you, Mr. Bingley. By the time I was what I suspect your sisters age to be, I had been married for ten years and had just found out I was expecting my fifth child.”

 

“I have heard something similar before, Mrs. Bennet,” Mr. Bingley said cheerfully. “My sister is a very particular woman. She has yet to accept a courtship from any of the men who have asked.”

 

She noticed he did not say gentlemen. Miss Bingley must think too much of herself. She was done with this conversation and regretted asking for the introduction. Fannie had watched Mrs. Verdier try and hide her amusement as the conversation with the Bingley’s progressed. After the last gibe, Mrs. Verdier lost her restraint and desperately tried to cover her laugh with a cough.

 

“Mrs. Verdier, allow me to escort you to the refreshment table. The roads are terribly dusty this time of the year,” Fannie said lightly.

 

“Mrs. Bennet, I understand you have five daughters,” Mr. Bingley said, completely ignoring his guest’s discomfort. “Are they all present? If they are, I would be agreeable to dancing with them.”

 

“They are all here, however my youngest three have not been presented and are only allowed to dance with family and close friends. My eldest two have all of their sets promised,” she replied.

 

“Presented? To the queen?” Miss Bingley sputtered.

 

Now she was directly insulting the Bennet family? Did Miss Bingley think her daughters were not worthy of being presented? Or that their family could not incur the cost of a season? What presumption!

 

“Yes, Miss Bingley, presented to the queen,” she said slowly. She felt like throwing her brother Frederick’s rank in Miss Bingley’s face, but calmed herself, slightly.

 

“The Bennet’s are descended from a noble line. Longbourn was built for a second son and has been in my husband’s line for many generations. My own father was the second son of a gentleman. Father studied the law and took a gentleman’s occupation. Given your familial background, you may be unaware that when young gentlewomen reach an appropriate age, it is not uncommon for them to be presented to the queen and take part in London society.”

 

“I do not remember reading about, or meeting, anyone named Bennet being presented last season,” Miss Bingley stated rudely.

 

“I am sure you would not have attended the same events. Unless you somehow managed to get a voucher to Almack’s,” Fannie replied flippantly to the haughty woman.

 

Mr. Bingley, having missed the undertones of their conversation, laughed and said, “My sister was never presented and would give her best feathers for an Almack’s voucher.”

 

“Our father felt saving money for our dowries was more important than spending it on frivolous dresses. He managed to save £40,000 to be split between his two daughters,” Miss Bingley sniffed.

 

Mr. Bingley finally looked uncomfortable but she was starting to become amused. “Hmm, it may have started out at twenty, but if my understanding of Mr. Hurst’s parting comment was correct, your dowry’s current total is significantly less and about to get even smaller,” she said quietly.

 

After a few uncomfortable moments of silence, with Miss Bingley gaping at her, Mr. Bingley asked, “Mrs. Bennet, I understand your elder daughters’ dance cards are full. The musicians seem to be preparing to start the next set. Would you introduce me to them after the dance?”

 

“Of course. My eldest, Jane, is standing next to Mr. Hurst. Their relationship is established but not official. He has been calling on our family for a while and singling her out with his attentions. We expect an announcement of some sort in late November. My second daughter, Elizabeth, is next to Mr. Darcy. They have been courting for three weeks. I am certain he will propose to her the moment he thinks Lizzy is ready,” she responded. It was not a gracious response, but she enjoyed the look of horror on Miss Bingley’s face.

 

“It is not true,” Miss Bingley stammered. “Mr. Darcy would never ask to court a country nobody.”

 

Her amusement vanished with one sentence and she no longer felt guilty for how she had treated the siblings.

 

“Country nobody?” Lady Matlock scoffed from behind her. “Elizabeth is a gentlewoman with numerous acquaintances in the nobility. Did you not just hear Fannie say she was given a voucher for Almack’s?”

 

“She is as well connected, if not better, than my nephew,” Lady Catherine added scornfully.

 

“Miss Bingley, the Longbourn and Haye Park households went to London for a week recently. We had a trip filled with fun and entertaining events, including a trip to the theatre and a ball at Almack’s. At the theatre, Elizabeth was invited to sit in a duke’s box with another duke in the party,” Lady Dobbs informed the now red-faced woman.

 

“Only someone who is touched in the head, would consider the daughter of a man who made his fortune in trade to be higher placed in society than a gentlewoman,” Lady Sheldon said spitefully. “Elizabeth was presented to the queen and spent this past season in those very same first circles you implied you are a part of. A nobody, indeed!” With that parting shot, Lady Sheldon turned to Fannie and asked, “Would you introduce us to this interesting woman?”

 

“If you will join us, we will take you to get something to drink,” Lady Catherine told Mrs. Verdier after the introductions were done.

~*~

Assembly Room, Meryton
Friday, October 11, 1811

 

Charles Bingley felt self-conscious when he heard a loud gasp and the assembly room went silent. Everyone stared at them with varying degrees of shock on their faces. Thankfully, Sir William greeted them and the musicians started again.

 

He spotted Darcy on the dance floor, his friend’s height made it easy, before his attention was seized by a magnificently beautiful blond lady who seemed mesmerized, unfortunately, by her dancing partner. She smiled at her partner and he realized she was everything he was looking for in a woman. He wondered how serious their attachment was and whether or not he stood a chance of gaining her affections.

 

“How has your first week at Netherfield been, Mr. Bingley?”

 

“It has been challenging, Sir William. Darcy makes estate management look so easy. I was not expecting to have so many things that needed my attention.”

 

“Mr. Darcy seems to make everything look easy. His entire group has integrated into the society of Meryton seamlessly. My eldest daughters enjoy having four extra ladies in the area. In fact, they begged me to allow them to join their friends at Longbourn to prepare for the assembly. It took three carriages to transport all of the ladies here,” Sir William laughed.

 

“That certainly sounds hectic. How does Mr. Bennet do it?” he chuckled. “What type of activities do the young men in Meryton enjoy partaking in?”

 

He listened to Sir William with surprise. Darcy and Hurst were mentioned in many of his examples as if they had grown up here.

 

He heard his sister speaking to herself quietly, but he could not make out what she was saying. The music ended and he saw the beautiful blonde approach on the arm of a handsome and fashionably dressed young man. They reached him and the man greeted him as though they were acquainted.

 

He listened to his sister’s rant with growing dread. Darcy was going to be furious with him. Why did he not insist she stay at Netherfield? He saw the shock and dismay on the blond lady’s face and rebuked Caroline for her actions.

 

He noticed Lady Matlock and two more women approaching and knew it had gone from bad to worse.

 

Hurst? The man in front of him looked nothing like the Reginald Hurst he saw last December. This man was physically fit, even more so than he was, and looked healthy, confident, and... completely sober.

 

“Hurst?” he sputtered and heard his sister utter her surprise at his identity as the ladies walked away. He vaguely heard Hurst ask for an introduction again but could not form a response other than, “Hurst? How...”

 

Sir William performed the introduction in his place before his brother-in-law turned to him with scorn clearly visible as he quietly made him understand he would be demanding the remaining £7,000 the contract said he was owed from Caroline’s dowry, causing her to gasp, before he too walked away.

 

Darcy approached him with a hard look on his face which caused him to flinch. This would be worse than when he was last at Darcy House.

 

And it was. Charles knew he deserved Darcy’s contempt. He had been told many times, and by many people, that he needed to exert control over his sister and he did not. It had been easier to leave her with his Bingley relations and then give the responsibility to Mrs. Verdier.

 

Charles knew he should have been more forceful with his sister and told her about Darcy’s living arrangements and warnings earlier than he had.

 

He was surprised when another older woman approached and requested an introduction.

 

Bennet? He had been visited by Mr. Bennet. The other gentleman who visited told him the five Bennet daughters were the beauties of the area.

 

Mrs. Bennet confirmed he had met her husband and discussed the lease on Netherfield and his impulsivity. He looked at the blond lady and thought perhaps he would not be as quick to give up this time.

 

Mrs. Bennet also confirmed she had five daughters and then shocked his sister by mentioning they had been presented. Caroline took advantage of the chance to bandy the original amount of her dowry to the village. What was she thinking? She knew it was down to £15,000 and would shortly be £8,000. He did not like his sister purposefully misleading people but was surprised when Mrs. Bennet refuted her claim. How was it this woman was intimate enough with the Hurst family to know about the reduction of his sister’s dowry?

 

He knew his sister would say something untoward soon, so he asked about her daughters and listened in horror that beautiful blond was attached to Hurst. His sister reacted just as badly to hearing that Mr. Darcy was courting his lady’s sister.

 

He saw Lady Matlock approaching again and prepared for more polite insults.

 

He felt like the blinders had been ripped from his eyes. His sister was an insufferable snob. She was the daughter of a tradesman not a duke. What right did she have to look down on the good people of Meryton. Why, everyone in this room probably outranked them.

 

As the ladies walked away with Mrs. Verdier, he looked at his sister and mentally prepared himself for the unpleasant conversation he knew they needed to have.

 

“Sir William, I believe my sister is feeling unwell and needs some fresh air. When we return, would you be willing to introduce us to some of the local families?” he asked.

 

After a moment spent scrutinizing Caroline, Sir William nodded his agreement.

 

“Come along, Caroline,” he said as he took his shocked sister’s elbow to escort her to get her wrap and then outside.

 

It was alarming to hear Darcy threaten to end their friendship. He knew his friendship with Hurst had deepened, but he never thought it would become stronger than theirs previously was. Darcy never called him Charles.

 

He pulled her to a private area to the side of the building’s doors.

 

“Thank you for taking me back to Netherfield, Charles,” Caroline said.

 

“I told you after your first outburst that we are not leaving. You will go back inside and face that room full of our neighbours, Caroline,” he said sternly. “I warned you, numerous times, that Darcy would never marry you. I also told you, just before we arrived, that he was unavailable. You MUST give up this ridiculous fixation you have with him. You are making a fool of yourself!”

 

“Charles,” his sister whined, “Mr. Darcy has to marry me.”

 

“No, Caroline, it will never happen. I do not care what you do, I will never make him marry you,” he hissed at her. “I have been wondering if the woman with Lady Matlock is correct, that you are touched in the head. Seriously, Caroline, Darcy is a gentleman unquestionably of the first circles with an earl as an uncle. What could possibly make you think he would marry the daughter of a tradesman?”

 

He saw his sister’s eyes start to get angry and pressed on. “You went to a private seminary for how many years? Did they teach you about propriety? What caused you to approach three titled ladies you were not acquainted with? And do not dare tell me Lady Matlock is your soon-to-be aunt! You know that is nonsense.”

 

“I deserve to be in the first circles,” Caroline answered forcefully.

 

“Deserve? Nobody deserves to be in the first circle. You are either born there or marry into it. What about you makes you more special than anybody else?” he said mockingly. “I have let this behaviour go for too long. I had hoped making you repay your allowance overages would help. Then I handed my problem off to our aunt, uncle, and Mrs. Verdier. Make no mistake, I count you as a problem.”

 

“Why are you so angry with me?” Caroline asked with slightly glossy eyes. “Mr. Hurst is the one who deserves your ire. He is in half-mourning and is all but courting a young lady? A young lady who, if I am not mistaken, has caught your attention. It is insulting to the name Bingley.”

 

“I do not agree, Caroline, and you will not be able to convince me otherwise. I am pleased Hurst has waited this long. You know society overlooks widowers remarrying before their mourning is over,” he scoffed at her. “Besides, you delude yourself if you think the name Bingley means anything to society other than fodder for gossip.”

 

He pressed on. “I want an answer, Caroline. Why do you think a man as proud of his heritage and estate as Darcy is would marry the daughter of a tradesman? There is nothing you can do to change the fact that our father was in trade. Your place in the ranks of our society has long since been established.”

 

“But Charles...”

 

“No, Caroline!” he hissed. “Do you understand and accept that Darcy will never marry you?”

 

“Yes, I do,” his sister whispered.

 

That was too easy, he thought to himself. He would have to keep an eye on her but now was not the time. “We are going back inside and you will smile and act like you are having a good time.”

 

1 Hamlet

Chapter Text

Chapter 23

 

Assembly Room, Meryton
Friday, October 11, 1811

 

Elizabeth Bennet stood in a group with Jane, Grace, Anne, and Charlotte while the musicians were resting. They had sent the men for refreshments and were eager for a brief conversation.

 

“Jane, I want to know what my brother said to you as you were approaching the Bingley’s,” Grace said quietly, as soon as they were alone.

 

“Of all the things that have happened tonight, that is the first thing you mention?” she asked with a raised brow.

 

“The Bingley’s mean nothing to me,” Grace said dismissively. “My brother is the closest family I have.”

 

“He told me he appreciated my accompanying him to greet the Bingley’s,” Jane said with a blush.

 

Grace looked skeptical. “If that was all, what made you stumble and blush, as you are doing again at the mere mention of his actions?”

 

“You do not have to tell us if you do not want to,” Anne said with a disapproving look at Grace.

 

“I am sorry, Jane. Anne is correct,” their friend admitted abashedly.

 

“I understand. If it was Lizzy, I would want to know right away,” Jane spoke quietly. After a pause, she continued, “I do not think he realized he said it, but he used a term of endearment when thanking me.”

 

“Jane, you cannot be uncertain of Reginald’s affections for you,” Grace said gently. “Can you?”

 

“I think my official courtship was harder on Jane than she is letting on,” Elizabeth stated. She loved her sister, but Jane tended to hide her disappointment so she did not make people feel guilty. She knew that, intellectually, Jane understood what was holding Mr. Hurst back. Nevertheless, it had to have affected Jane that her courtship with Mr. Darcy was official and had been announced to their neighbours.

 

“Robert told me that Mr. Hurst has a calendar in the study at Haye Park. Every morning, he eagerly crosses off the day, as if he is waiting for something to arrive,” Charlotte informed them with a mischievous smile.

 

“Is that true?” Jane asked with a hopeful look on her face.

 

“I have been sworn to secrecy,” Grace said regretfully.

 

“Ha! That means it is,” Anne stated definitively. “If it was not, she would have denied it outright instead of prevaricating.”

 

Grace just smiled.

 

Something unexpected caught Elizabeth’s eye. “Is that Betsy, Susie, Maggie, Tylor, Allan, and Alfie walking towards us? What are they doing here?”

 

“Your mother spoke with me as soon as the second set finished and requested their presence. I must say her concerns were valid,” William answered while the men were walking up with their beverages. “Your parents are hesitant to refuse to associate with the Bingley family for fear of damaging their reputations in Meryton without irrefutable proof of wrongdoing on the siblings’ part. However, they were both concerned with the actions they witnessed here tonight. We all felt extra sets of eyes would be beneficial.”

 

“Susie looks very uncomfortable,” Grace commented. “Are you sure she was the best choice?”

 

“I think Susie will surprise you,” William responded with a smile. “You realize, I was hesitant to agree to your request to offer her a position in your household? That question makes me second guess my decision.”

 

“I know how protective you are of the Reynolds family members,” Grace grinned. “I promise Susie will be treated well and looked after. And, I think romance may be brewing with Tylor.”

 

“I think it a marvellous idea they are here. The maids can accompany you ladies into the retiring room where the men cannot. Charlotte will need to hire a maid and I am contacting a few of my former soldiers to find her a footman,” the Earl of Palmrich said. “Maybe two. I could not bear it if something happened to her.”

 

Elizabeth grinned as Charlotte flushed at the proof of the former general’s admiration.

 

“Let us not forget, Alfie and the footmen can help protect you gentlemen from possible compromise attempts,” she said pertly.

 

William shuddered theatrically. “I have supped full with horrors.”1

 

“What do you think about Miss Bingley’s change of attitude?” the Earl of Palmrich asked with a huge grin.

 

Whose tongue soe’er speaks false,” Richard quoted.2

 

“Why do you men keep quoting Shakespeare around each other?” Grace asked.

 

“It is an inside joke that started before you arrived at Pemberley, sister,” Mr. Hurst responded with a grin. “Darcy started giving me books to read in the evenings and Shakespeare quickly became a favourite, just as it is for himself and your husband. We spent many evenings at Pemberley speaking in quotes.”

 

“I do not trust Miss Bingley’s appearance of humility. There is something about the look in her eyes when she stares at us that discomforts me,” Anne said.

 

Elizabeth noticed her mother joining their group, dragging a reluctant looking Mary and Lord Brundel with her.

 

“Heads up, dears. Now that the cavalry has arrived, the Bingley’s will be brought over for an introduction,” her mother informed them. “This arrangement simply will not do. I want Lizzy and Jane next to each other with Mr. Darcy and Mr. Hurst on their other sides. Grace needs to be next to her brother with her husband. Anne, I want you next to Mr. Darcy then Mary, Lord Brundel, Charlotte and Lord Palmrich. I will stand next to Lord Palmrich.”

 

Her sisters and Charlotte all followed Mama’s directions immediately while the men and Grace looked confused.

 

“Now, gentleman,” Mrs. Bennet hissed quietly. “I arranged this in advance with Sir William. Their approach is imminent.”

 

“You are devious, madam,” Lord Palmrich whispered to Mrs. Bennet after they had adjusted positions.

 

“Oh Lord Palmrich, how you do go on,” her mother tittered more loudly. “You promised to attend our get together after church. I have not forgot, you see. I assure you; I will be very much disappointed if it rains.”

 

Elizabeth could just imagine her mother with a handkerchief in her hand, flapping it all around for effect. She was prepared to watch the rest of her mother’s performance. It was bound to be better than any actress on the stage.

 

“Mrs. Bennet, the Bingley’s asked to be introduced to your daughters,” Sir William said with a smile after they had arrived. He had positioned himself next to Mama and the group all turned to the newcomers.

 

She noticed Miss Bingley was looking between her and William peculiarly. That Miss Bingley looked contrite was a certainty, but there was something in the set of her countenance that indicated it was all for show. Unless she was mistaken, Miss Bingley was thinking about ways to end her courtship with Mr. Darcy.

 

“To my undeniable knowledge, you are acquainted with Mr. Darcy, Mr. Hurst, and the Fitzwilliam’s. Allow me to introduce you to my three eldest daughters, Jane, Elizabeth, and Mary Bennet and this is Anne de Bourgh, Charlotte Lucas, the Earl of Palmrich, and the Marquess of Brundel.”

 

Elizabeth saw shock on the face of both Bingley’s. They obviously did not expect such august personages to be in attendance.

 

“Frances, I am so very glad to see you,” Lady Jersey said from behind her mother, interrupting the rest of the introductions.

 

Mama turned around quickly and started. “Sarah? What do you do here? We were not expecting you.”

 

Elizabeth did not think it was possible, but both Bingley’s looked even more surprised to see Lady Jersey. To hear them using first names, made Miss Bingley look like she had just sucked on a lemon.

 

“Olivia and Isabel invited me to stay at Miss Thomlin’s house with them,” Lady Jersey said, stepping in-between their group and the Bingley’s. “I could hardly resist such an invitation. Sir William, I have not seen you at St. James’s in a while.”

 

Sir William bowed at her and replied, “I am sure you will see me in London next season, Lady Jersey. Charlotte is engaged to Lord Palmrich.”

 

“Congratulations, Miss Lucas. Cousin Mary dear, please tell me I get to sponsor you next season,” Lady Jersey pled with her hands together as though she was praying. “I was ever so disappointed that you declined this year, as I am sure Lord Brundel was too.”

 

“I certainly was,” that man replied with a grin at Mary.

 

“Silence3, are you making trouble already?” Papa said from behind her.

 

“Thomas! I have not seen you in two years. How is one of my favourite cousins?” Lady Jersey asked after she turned.

 

“Peddle your wares elsewhere, My Lady. You forget, I know you too well. You are transparently eager to spend my money on my daughters’ attire for the season and to escort them around town,” Papa rolled his eyes and sighed dramatically. “I assume Lady Matlock, Lady Dobbs, or, more likely, Lady Sheldon wrote you a letter and you could not resist butting your nose in?”

 

She noticed Miss Bingley had looked upset when Lady Jersey first appeared, but now both siblings were clearly confounded by Papa’s response.

 

“Pish tosh, flattery will get you nowhere,” Lady Jersey said with a recognizable gleam in her eye.

 

Elizabeth certainly remembered that look. Cousin Sarah thoroughly enjoyed sparring with Papa. Their debates were legendary in the family.

 

“Our great-grandmothers were sisters. I have less than ten blood relatives if I do not count your family,” Lady Jersey continued. “Besides, you only came to town last season long enough to attend Lizzy and Juliet’s coming out ball. Next season, Jane and Fannie will both be busy with your upcoming additions. Someone needs to sponsor Cousin Mary.”

 

Elizabeth smiled and laughed on the inside, having heard this argument before. For a completely unknown, too young to be presented, country lady to take the Duke of Dorset off the marriage market was not looked upon kindly. Lady Jersey’s mother, the then Countess of Westmorland, had taken an immediate liking to Jane Sakville during her first season in London. When the Countess realized the new Duchess shared an ancestor with her, even if it was too many generations past to be relevant, she made the connection known amongst the town and helped ease her way into society.

 

“I second that statement,” Lord Brundel said with a grin.

 

“I would be honoured, Cousin Sarah,” Mary told her.

 

“Cousin Sarah?” Papa asked, dragging their argument on.

 

“Unquestionably,” Lady Jersey said dismissively, moving to stand next to Mr. Bennet. “How many times have I told you that I count you all as family?”

 

“Too many to count, My Lady,” Papa said sardonically.

 

“Truly, Thomas, if I did not know better, I would worry about your mental acuity in your dotage,” Lady Jersey said as she swatted Papa’s arm.

 

Thankfully, the musicians started warming up, signalling the next set would begin soon, and interrupting the discussion. She saw Viscount Dover and Clara walking towards their group and greeted them.

 

“Clara, I have not had a chance to speak with you since we arrived,” she said.

 

“We have come to claim our partners for the next set, Miss Elizabeth,” Viscount Dover said before turning to Jane. “Miss Bennet, shall we?”

 

“Of course, Lord Dover,” Jane responded as she finally let go of Mr. Hurst’s arm.

 

Miss Bingley noticeably sucked in a breath, presumably at the knowledge that yet another titled person was in Meryton and known to the Bennet family.

 

The group broke up, leaving the Bingley’s standing alone, apart from her father and Lady Jersey. When she walked away with Lord Brundel, she heard Lady Jersey say, “Thomas, did I tell you about the appalling trip I took to the haberdashery this past season with Lady Matlock and Lady Sheldon?”

~*~

Churchyard, Meryton
Sunday, October 13, 1811

 

Fitzwilliam Darcy exited the Meryton church proudly with Georgiana on one arm and Elizabeth on the other. Reginald and Miss Bennet were following just behind them. Once they were outside, Georgiana excused herself to speak with the younger Bennet sisters and Maria Lucas and Darcy walked towards an English oak tree. He stopped underneath the leaves that had started to change colours.

 

“Fall is my favourite time of the year,” Miss Elizabeth announced with a sigh.

 

“You like that the weather is mild,” Miss Bennet told her sister.

 

“Undeniably I do,” Elizabeth replied glibly. “The spring has similar temperatures, but it can be too wet. In autumn, the leaves change to form brilliant displays.”

 

“It also does not hurt that apple and pumpkin are among your favourite flavours,” Miss Bennet said with a grin.

 

“Especially when they add nutmeg and cloves,” Elizabeth responded with a sigh, closed eyes, and an expression on her face that nearly did him in. “I love the spices used by cook over the next few months.”

 

“My favourite is gingerbread,” Grace said as she joined their group with Richard.

 

“Like Miss Elizabeth, I am partial to dishes made with apples,” Richard told them.

 

“What is your favourite, William?” Elizabeth asked him.

 

He heard a gasp and looked up to ascertain the Bingley’s were approaching. He felt Elizabeth pat his arm comfortingly and realized he had tensed and donned the mask of indifference he displayed in the society of London. He was sure his face had lost all expression and he had adopted an air of aloofness.

 

“Bingley,” he acknowledged his friend with a nod.

 

“No!!!!!” Darcy heard before Anna ran into their group and positioned herself in front of them, facing the Bingley’s, with her feet and arms spread wide.

 

“Anna, what is wrong?” Elizabeth asked, sounding worried.

 

“I heard William and Mr. Hurs talking and I member bout Miss Bingley. She is a mean lady! She made her own sister die!” Anna practically screamed. “I will protect Miss Jane and Miss Lizzy from her. William too, so he will not have to marry the mean old lady if she tries to mise him.”

 

William was shocked and could see that everyone else was as well. He glanced at Hurst and they shared a look, Anna had indeed been the one listening to them after church the prior week. He noticed that Bingley looked oddly guilt-ridden, maybe even haunted, while Miss Bingley’s expression was dark, more irritated than distraught.

 

“Anna, calm down,” he told the little girl.

 

“NO, William! She can’t mise you! You hafta marry Miss Lizzy and Mr. Hurs must marry Miss Jane. I don’t want her to hurt my favouritist friends.”

 

Anna was so upset she was visibly trembling. He walked around Anna, dropped to one knee, and hugged the distraught girl.

 

“Do not worry sweetheart,” he assured Anna as he stood up with her in his arms. She wrapped her arms and legs around him and held on tight. He put a hand on her back and patted her comfortingly.

 

“But she will try to mise you and hurt Jane and Lizzy,” Anna argued.

 

“No, she will not,” he glared at Miss Bingley, and gave a pointed look to Bingley before he continued. “I will not marry Miss Bingley, regardless of any situation she engenders. Bingley, I have told you this before, and I truly am sorry if this finally means an official end to our friendship, but if your sister does attempt something, I will not yield, no matter the harm to her reputation, and I will be forced to give you both the cut direct.”

 

He saw Miss Bingley blanch and a look of uncertainty crossed her face for the briefest of moments.

 

Anna put her hands on his cheeks and leaned back to look at him in his face.

 

“But she will try to hurt Miss Jane cause Mr. Hurs wants to marry her and then Miss Lizzy because you want to marry her.”

 

Elizabeth walked up, put her hand on the little girl’s shoulder, and said into her ear, just loud enough for him to hear, “Anna, William is absolutely correct. No harm will come to me and Jane and Miss Bingley will not be able to compromise him. Look behind William. Do you see Alfie and Allan?”

 

“Yes,” Anna said softly.

 

“They will not let anything happen to us,” Elizabeth explained.

 

“Are you sure?” Anna asked with narrowed eyes.

 

“Absolutely,” he quietly responded confidently. “Alfie has instructions to protect me and Georgie just like Allan protects the Bennet’s. Mr. Bennet is going to hire a few more footmen to guard his daughters and their maids, Betsy and Missy, will make sure they are safe when just the ladies are present. I will avoid going to Netherfield as long as possible and will make sure Alfie is with me when I have to. Nothing bad will happen. Do you trust me?”

 

“Yes, William,” Anna admitted quietly.

 

“Good,” he said in a normal voice. “May I put you down now?”

 

“Do you hafta? I like being up high,” the little imp teased, displaying an amazing resiliency that was unique to children.

 

“I suppose I could hold you for a little longer,” he told her with a grin.

 

“Good. You know, if you were to marry Miss Lizzy right away, nothing bad would happen for sure. Member, I get to throw the flowers,” she giggled.

 

“Anna,” Elizabeth admonished her with a sigh.

 

“Oh, Cousin Elizabeth, do not rebuke this precocious little girl. You must introduce me to this glorious child,” Lady Jersey said while joining their group. “From your own experience, you know how much I appreciate bold girls.”

 

“Ductions? I like to do the ductions. I wish I could duce you to me,” Anna said.

 

“Why, that sounds like a wonderful idea. You have my permission to do so,” Lady Jersey offered.

 

He put her down and Anna performed flawless introductions, once she was told her new friend’s name.

 

“Come with me, Anna. You must tell my cousins, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, all about this wedding you have planned. What kind of flowers do you want to throw?”

 

“That is a match made in heaven,” he heard Elizabeth grumble to herself as the new acquaintances walked away.

 

“Bingley, did you have a purpose in approaching us? If not, it is time we leave for Longbourn,” he told his friend.

 

“No, Darcy, we just wanted to greet you.”

 

“Very well, consider your task accomplished,” he said before taking a few steps closer to the siblings and lowering his voice. “I am sorry some of your personal history came out in such a public setting. Hurst and I had no idea Anna was listening in on our conversation. However, I meant what I said. I will never marry your sister,” he hissed. “As you have seen, the Bennet’s have numerous powerful friends and relatives in the first circles, maybe even more than I do. If Miss Bingley attempts to force my hand, in any way, I cannot be held responsible for what will happen to her reputation in London.”

 

He stared Bingley down until he dropped his head in embarrassment. He made note that, with a tilt of her nose upward, Miss Bingley seemed to dismiss his warning.

 

“I advised you in London that you needed to take your sister in hand. At least you no longer seem to expect me to offer for her. I hope you were not fooled by Miss Bingley’s easy acquiescence at the assembly because, I assure you, none of us were. I watched her very closely during both encounters, then and now, and she, as much as she tried to hide her anger both times, failed miserably.”

 

He looked at Bingley closely and was not sure if his point had been made. Miss Bingley merely looked even more offended and haughty.

 

“Bingley, what do you see when you look at your sister right now?” he asked and noticed said lady became even more tense. When his friend did not respond, he commented, “Can you see the fury that is vibrating through her? The way her eyes are pinched with the corners crinkled, nostrils flaring, lips pursed, and hands balled into fists? Does any of that mean anything to you?”

 

Bingley stared at him with wide eyes and mouth opened. Miss Bingley, if possible, seemed to become even more angry. “I doubt this will penetrate, Bingley, but I feel honour bound to reiterate that I will end our friendship if I have to. It would pain me to give up the years I have invested in our relationship, but I will not allow anyone to force me into anything I do not desire.”

 

He searched Bingley’s face for a moment before turning to Elizabeth, offering her his arm, and walking away.

~*~

Longbourn, Hertfordshire
Thursday, October 18, 1811

 

Elizabeth Bennet sat in the smaller parlour at Longbourn to read a letter from her Cousin Juliet which caused her to smile. Lord Halburn, with the help of Lords Dover and Brundel, had managed to form a friendship with her Cousin Edmund who, it seemed, approved of a match between his sister and the Matlock heir. Juliet was severely annoyed with her brother for continuing to bring up the person who had publicly snubbed her.

 

It would certainly be interesting to see what happened in London next season. Between Lord Halburn seemingly deciding to pursue Juliet and Lord Brundel’s obvious attempts at wooing Mary, it would be a memorable few months.

 

Thinking about next season brought to mind her mother and Aunt Jane’s conditions. She hoped, for both of her parent’s sake, that her mother or aunt carried the new heir to Longbourn. Their family was fortunate that the five sisters and their matriarch would all be well cared for should anything befall her father. However, she knew the thought of Longbourn being passed to a distant branch of the family weighed heavily on her father.

 

Then she thought about the current situation in Meryton. The Bingley’s reception into the local society was tepid, at best. Anna’s outburst had been heard by many people and rumours had begun to spread like wildfire. She was sure the only reason the siblings were not being ostracized, was because the Longbourn, Haye Park, and Lucas Lodge residents would still recognize them.

 

There had been a party at Lucas Lodge earlier this week. It had been uncomfortable after the Bingley’s arrived, until they were greeted by Mr. Darcy and papa. Whether or not they would be fully accepted, would be determined by their continued behaviour.

 

Miss Bingley, even with her limited exposure to Meryton, had already managed to offend a few residents without even speaking. Her attitude, especially to the servants of Netherfield, was not acceptable in polite company, at all, but she seemed to find nothing wanting in her comportment.

 

“Ah, there you are Lizzy,” her father said, startling her out of her contemplations. “I ask that you join the rest of the family in the main parlour. I have something I need to discuss with everyone.”

 

“Of course, Papa,” she replied, before putting her letter in her pocket and following her father.

 

When everyone was gathered, Papa said, “I received a rather singular letter today.”

 

“Who is it from, my dear?” Mama asked.

 

“It is from a gentleman and a stranger,” he replied. “A person whom I never saw in the whole course of my life.”

 

“If you have never seen them, and they are a stranger, it was improper of them to write you a letter,” Lydia stated, causing their father to smile at her.

 

“Very good, Lydia. I can see you are taking your studies with Mrs. Waldron more seriously,” papa complimented her youngest sister. “This time it may be forgiven because, as much as I wish it was not so, the writer is related to us.”

 

“Oh,” Mama all but wailed, “you must mean Mr. Collins. Pray do not talk of that odious man. I do think it is the hardest thing in the world, that your estate should be entailed away from your own children. Thomas, how I wish this child is a boy, nevertheless I vow to love it no matter the sex.”

 

“My sentiments exactly, Fannie. Perhaps, if we have an heir, it will clear Mr. Collins from the guilt of inheriting Longbourn. Listen to his letter. I am sure you will find it as diverting as I did,” Papa said with a wicked gleam in his eye.

 

“Kates Boardinghouse, London, 15th October.

“Dear Sir,—

“The disagreement subsisting between yourself and my late honoured father always gave me much uneasiness, and since I have had the misfortune to lose him, I have frequently wished to heal the breach; but for some time I was kept back by my own doubts, fearing lest it might seem disrespectful to his memory for me to be on good terms with anyone with whom it had always pleased him to be at variance. My mind, however, is now made up on the subject, for having received ordination at Easter, I have not been so fortunate as to be distinguished by the patronage of a valuable rectory in the Church of England. My lodgings are paid through the next month, but I am then depleted of funds. There is no one else for me to turn to as you are my closest family. With me being the heir to Longbourn, I am sure you would welcome me with open arms. As a clergyman, moreover, I feel it my duty to promote and establish the blessing of peace in all families within the reach of my influence; and on these grounds I flatter myself that my present overtures are highly commendable, and that the circumstance of my being next in the entail of Longbourn estate will be kindly overlooked on your side, and not lead you to reject the offered olive-branch. I cannot be otherwise than concerned at being the means of injuring your amiable daughters, and beg leave to apologise for it, as well as to assure you of my readiness to make them every possible amends—but of this more hereafter. If you should have no objection to receive me into your house, I propose myself the satisfaction of waiting on you and your family, Monday, November 18th, by four o’clock, and shall probably trespass on your hospitality until I inherit when you go to your eternal reward.—I remain, dear sir, with respectful compliments to your lady and daughters, your well-wisher and friend,

“WILLIAM COLLINS”

 

Elizabeth was shocked, and from the looks of it, the other women in her family were too.

 

“Go to your eternal reward, indeed. Wretched, wretched man,” Mama spat out.

 

“An olive branch?” Mary asked quietly, after a moment.

 

“I think he means to offer for one of you girls,” Papa said.

 

“Allow me to respond for myself and my sisters,” Elizabeth said. “None of us will ever marry him. Jane and I are likely to be engaged very soon, as much as she tries to deny it, Mary is attached to Lord Brundel, and Kitty and Lydia are years from being old enough to wed.”

 

“I should never have parted with any of you to someone as unworthy,” Papa assured them all. “I wanted to discuss how I would respond.”

 

“You seem to have an idea, my dear Mr. Bennet. Please share it with us.”

 

“Fannie, what do you think about writing to my sister Jane and seeing if my nephew, nieces, and Mrs. Tucker were willing to visit again?”

 

“Brilliant,” Kitty said. “If there are no rooms available, you could honestly tell him we are unable to host him. Hopefully, by the time he writes again, he would have found other accommodations or a living.”

 

“I do feel for the position he finds himself in,” Jane stated sadly.

 

“Is it our Christian duty to take him in?” Mary asked.

 

“No, Mary,” their father responded kindly. “While he is related to us, we cannot be expected to open our home to someone we have never met.”

 

“Not to possibly cast aspersions on someone I know nothing about, but I completely agree with your father,” mama said. “We are a household that contains five maidens, all of whom are truly of marriageable age if publicly compromised. Even with both of us and Mrs. Waldron to act as proper chaperones, I would be wary of inviting an unmarried man into our midst without knowing him better.”

 

“That was my major concern too,” papa said while nodding.

 

This new avenue of thought caused Elizabeth concern and she could see her sisters were also worried to varying degrees.

 

“I am sure Allan would appreciate a chance to visit with his parents,” Jane said, breaking the silence.

 

“That is a perfect idea, Jane. Send Allan with the express, Papa. It would allow him to spend the night with his family and he can return the next day. A few days delay in your response to Mr. Collins would not appear odd, would it?” Lydia asked.

 

“Also, if he leaves tomorrow morning, he would have to spend all day Sunday at home with his parents, would he not, Papa?” Kitty asked.

 

“Very well done, girls. Yes, it takes two days to reach Cloverdale on horseback. Nobody could ever accuse you of being the silliest girls in all of England,” Papa replied. “That is exactly what we will do. My other concern was whether or not I should tell him of your mother’s and aunt’s conditions.”

 

“I think not,” Jane said, surprising everyone. “If both babes are born female, you would cause him undue concern for nothing. If either is a boy, the result would still be the same without the two months of worrying.”

 

“I am continually amazed by your kindness, sister. Papa, if our cousins are unable to travel, we could invite the Gardiners. Even if Uncle Edward could not escape for a visit, Aunt Maddie could join us and bring the children along with their nanny and governess. We do not have to put them in the nursery,” Elizabeth responded with a devilish grin.

 

“A well-planned defence to being invaded, and possibly held captive, by an idiot, to be sure,” Papa chuckled. “His style of writing is very pompous. What could he mean by apologising for being the next in line in the entail? It is utterly ridiculous. Then, he invites himself to live in our house for the rest of my life? I almost hope we have a boy just to spite him and ruin his expectations.”

 

“Do not forget, Papa, even though Clara would have returned to her parent’s house by then, we could invite Georgie, Anne, Grace and Mr. Fitzwilliam, and Mrs. Annesley to visit,” Kitty mentioned.

 

Elizabeth winked at her sister. She was sure Kitty was trying to distract their father from his rant.

 

“My beautiful girls, how you do your father proud.”

 

1 Macbeth

2 King John

3 According to the Wikipedia page for Sarah Sophia Child Villiers, Countess of Jersey in 1811, her nickname was Silence because she was famous for talking almost nonstop.

Chapter Text

Chapter 24

 

Walking trails, Hertfordshire
Thursday, October 24, 1811

 

Fitzwilliam Darcy ambled along the walking trails towards Meryton with Elizabeth on his arm and Reginald and Miss Bennet in front of them. He thought back over the past few weeks with fondness. There had been many chances for him to see Elizabeth. They frequently took walks, went riding, were together almost all day on Sundays, and attended the same dinner parties.

 

He was proud of Reginald for honouring the full year-long mourning period for the former Mrs. Hurst, even though it severely hindered his attempts at furthering his understanding with Elizabeth. He was impatient to propose, but knew how much Elizabeth worried about her sister’s tender feelings. It was doubtful Elizabeth would accept his hand until Reginald was free to propose to her sister. He was a man of action, but he could be patient, when he had no other choice.

 

The Bingley’s were still being tolerated, barely, but they were not being outright excluded from society. Miss Bingley’s behaviour had changed. He was undecided if Bingley had managed to exert some control over his sister, if Mrs. Verdier had demanded Bingley assist her more actively, or if Miss Bingley had become more adept at hiding her feelings. At the end of the day, the reason for the alteration of her behaviour was inconsequential. Her improvement may be fooling her brother, but it was still clear to him that Miss Bingley was unhappy with the current state of affairs.

 

He was ready to cut ties with Bingley, but felt there was a slight chance for his friend to redeem himself. They would never be as close as they once were, but if Bingley exerted himself in the slightest, they could remain on friendly terms. Ultimately, the remainder of their time in Meryton would determine the future of their relationship.

 

“I will be sad to see you leave,” Elizabeth said, breaking the companionable silence.

 

“So will I,” Miss Bennet added.

 

“We should only be gone for a fortnight, maybe a few days longer,” he tried to comfort them both.

 

“I wish we did not have to go,” Reginald said. “I must admit, it was dashingly convenient of my Uncle James to find estates within twenty miles of each other for Grace and Harold. I will be sad to see them leave Haye Park.”

 

“Will they return?” Miss Bennet asked.

 

“Grace and Richard have said they will remain at Cherry Grove. They are anxious to start their married life. Richard is nervous about not being on hand to prepare their estate for the winter,” he said. “I am sure it will surprise you ladies to hear this, but I must apprise you that Richard has an issue trusting others to complete tasks.”

 

He was pleased to see both sisters take no pains to hide their mirth.

 

“I will miss my sister terribly. Living in the same households as Grace these past ten months, has been like a gift from God,” Reginald added. “My Cousin Harold is unsure what he will do. As Aunt Phoebe refuses to leave Meryton at present, I am confident he will return with us to Haye Park.”

 

“Why did Lady Dobbs decide to stay in Meryton, William?” Elizabeth asked.

 

Reginald answered in his place. “My uncle was ill for most of his life and did not leave his estate very often. Aunt Phoebe married young and spent the majority of her time in Surrey. To this day, she misses my uncle, deeply, but she seems to have become very comfortable here. And, I am sure it will make William blush, but I think she is staying for his benefit. She has become very fond of him and is concerned Miss Bingley will try to cause trouble, perhaps by compromising him or causing mischief with your courtship.”

 

As Reginald expected, he could feel his cheeks heating up. “I have become very fond of Lady Dobbs. To add to Reginald’s very thorough explanation, I do not believe Dobbs feels ready to make decisions regarding Bouldermoss by himself yet. Richard was taught estate management with his brother when he was younger and Reginald started training Georgie and Grace in March. You must remember, Dobbs spent the majority of his life on a ship. Not only has he been learning how to run an estate, we have also been teaching him how to navigate society and the skills all country gentlemen are expected to have.”

 

“Like riding a horse, hunting birds, holding a fox hunt,” Elizabeth said. “He would have learned how to shoot pistols and swordplay in the navy.”

 

“Exactly, my dear. There is also the art form of making sure you are not intentionally or accidentally compromised during the season,” he added with a grin.

 

“I never thought about it like that before,” Miss Bennet said. “In a way, men have accomplishments just like we women do.”

 

“I hope you will forgive me if I do not agree with that statement,” Reginald told the elder sister with a grin.

 

“If we had a brother, I imagine he would have learned some womanly pursuits,” Elizabeth said with a wicked grin. “Especially if he was the youngest.”

 

“Even though I am the elder sibling, I can testify to the accuracy of your conjecture,” he admitted, then delighted in Elizabeth’s laughter.

 

“Which accomplishments can you boast of, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth asked cheekily.

 

“I have absolutely no idea what you are speaking of, Miss Elizabeth,” he said with a dimpled grin.

 

“What about Lady Dobbs, Anne, and Lady Catherine? Will they be joining you?” Miss Bennet asked.

 

“Yes and no,” William answered. “Lady Dobbs is enthusiastic to see the estates and, more specifically, to help her son make sure the household servants are performing their duties diligently. My Aunt Catherine had suggested the de Bourgh’s return to Rosings soon, but Anne said she wanted to remain in Meryton. I suppose they will return to Kent eventually, but, as Anne has said many times, she grew up in a lonely household and has enjoyed the female companionship.”

 

“Anne is very fortunate that she was able to inherit and remain in her childhood home,” Elizabeth said, sounding slightly bitter.

 

“Is something wrong, Mr. Hurst?” Miss Bennet asked.

 

“No, Miss Bennet.”

 

“Mr. Hurst, my sister is correct. You give the impression that you have a question or statement to make. Please, do not feel that you will upset us,” Elizabeth said gently.

 

After a short period of silence, Reginald started speaking.

 

“The only restriction on who may inherit Whitemeadow was in my grandfather’s will. Because grandfather knew my father’s disposition so well, the estate passed to my father on the condition that it was then inherited by his eldest grandson or the eldest granddaughter if I was no longer alive. If my father ever changes his will in an attempt to disown me, his inheritance would be void and the estate would pass to me anyway. I am not certain of the legality of the terms, but it has kept my father in line, not that there are many cousins he would want to leave it to instead. Darcy has never mentioned any restrictions in connection to Pemberley. I was wondering how the entail on Longbourn came about.”

 

“You do not have to answer,” William said when he noticed the sisters were blushing.

 

“It is not a secret in Meryton. It is merely a trifle embarrassing,” Elizabeth confessed.

 

“I apologize for indirectly asking for such personal information,” Reginald said quietly.

 

“Truly, Mr. Hurst, you could hear the story from almost any older resident of Meryton,” Miss Bennet said with crimson cheeks. “It started with our great-grandfather. He was not very... judicious with his funds.”

 

“Oh, Jane, there is nothing for it but to tell them. William and Mr. Hurst will not think less of us,” Elizabeth said. “Our great-grandfather was a gamester, sirs. There, I have said it. He gambled away all of the estate funds.”

 

“Miss Elizabeth is correct,” Reginald said. “I do not think less of you for the actions of your ancestor. My own father has come close to losing our estate due to his indifference to estate matters and his reliance on the servants.”

 

“When our great-grandfather died, in a disgraceful duel over a gambling debt no less, our grandfather was still in university. When he inherited, grandfather was almost forced to sell or break up Longbourn because he would not have been able to pay the annual taxes. Grandfather was in love with, and courting, a young lady with a large dowry. He confessed all to her before he proposed and she accepted him regardless. They worked together and made Longbourn prosperous again and actually increased the income. The entail was created shortly before our parents were married. Papa and Aunt Jane have told us so many stories about that time period,” Elizabeth said with a sigh.

 

“It was a distressing time in their lives,” Miss Bennet said quietly. “Grandfather had just found out he was dying and did not inform his family. Neither of his children were married. Papa had recently attained his majority and graduated from university so grandfather knew he would not be able to impose his will on his son. He tried to force Aunt Jane to marry a vicar, who was older than he was, just to possibly have grandchildren before he died.”

 

“I assume he failed,” he said gently. “Mr. Sakville does not see that old.”

 

“I am very pleased to hear you say that, William. I will be sure to let Uncle Frederick know you think he is in fine health and looks younger than he should,” Elizabeth said with a saucy grin.

 

“Oh Lizzy,” Miss Bennet said whilst shaking her head. “Papa told us they were all surprised when his father started acting odd. They found out shortly after Aunt Jane met Uncle Frederick that grandfather did not have much time left. Besides trying to make Aunt Jane marry, one of the things he did right after his diagnosis was set up the entail.”

 

“We never met our Bennet grandfather, but growing up we had a close relationship with our grandmother. She told us that grandfather’s desperation for grandchildren was what made him pressure Aunt Jane to marry. She also assumed it must have influenced his decisions regarding how the entail was set up,” Elizabeth said.

 

“I cannot agree with his reasoning, but, given his history, I can understand his desire to make sure the estate was protected and kept complete,” he said. “Your previous statement makes me think there is something odd about the entail.”

 

“Not necessarily odd,” Elizabeth said. “Uncle Phillips told me it is actually quite common. You see, the Bennet family has a long-established history of having few pregnancies and only one child, a son, survive to adulthood. You can imagine the joy of my grandparents when Aunt Jane was born and thrived. My father is known to publicly jest about how lucky he is to have five such beautiful daughters, but, in private, he has told us many times how blessed he is to have all of us.”

 

“The Darcy family has a similar history, one or two children per generation,” he admitted. “I have never thought to wonder why that was. Most of our neighbours have large families.”

 

“Our Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Stuart were never blessed with any children. Based on comments I heard the adults make, I think my aunt suffered many disappointments. The Phillips’ have always acted as surrogate parents to us. Every time one of our siblings was born, they would take the older children to London to visit our Gardiner relations. They would spoil us and allow our parents the time to bond with their newest daughter,” Elizabeth remembered with a fond smile.

 

“That was very nice of them,” he told her with a gentle smile.

 

“When our grandfather was told his prognosis, he scoured the family bible and found out the last time two children survived to adulthood was the generation after Longbourn was established. He hired a private investigator to trace the sole Bennet daughter, his nearest blood relative, and, since her family stayed in the same town, he was able to find out fairly quickly there was one other male alive with Bennet blood,” Elizabeth told them.

 

“Grandfather wrote the entail so that his grandson, whether from our father or Aunt Jane, would inherit.”

 

“I apologize for interrupting you, Miss Bennet. What about your Cousin Edmund?” Reginald asked with a confused look on his face.

 

“Edmund is not Aunt Jane’s blood son, Mr. Hurst,” Miss Bennet replied quietly.

 

“Our cousin is from Uncle Frederick’s first marriage. His mother was the daughter of a duke,” Elizabeth added. “Our aunt met Edmund when he was two months old. She could not love him any more if he came from her body.”

 

“If there was no grandson from our grandfather’s children, the estate would go to the distant male cousin the investigator found, or, if he predeceased papa, it would be inherited by his son,” Miss Bennet said.

 

“I never understood why he set it up that way,” Elizabeth complained. “Why could papa’s eldest daughter not inherit?”

 

“You know why, Lizzy. Aunt Jane explains it every time you get upset,” Miss Bennet gently admonished. “Our grandfather was a good man and loving father, but he had certain notions about the way a family functioned. I might add his attitude was very common for the time period. Both of his children have told us the surest way to upset him was to challenge his authority. Our aunt was not surprised in the slightest when she found out how the entail was set up.”

 

“I do not mean this statement to sound indelicate,” Reginald said hesitantly, “but your uncle is a duke.”

 

William smiled when the sisters laughed.

 

“Uncle Frederick has offered to have the entail forcibly broken many times but Aunt Jane will not let him. Papa agreed with his sister and said it would not work anyway because one of them would need to have a son to break it,” Elizabeth said. “I understand their decision may seem odd to you, but even if we lose Longbourn, we would never be thrown into the hedgerows. Aunt Jane prefers to honour her father’s wishes, even if she does not agree with them.”

 

“I am not an expert, but it sounds as though your grandfather set up a strict settlement, not an entail,” he said.

 

“What makes you believe it is a strict settlement, whatever that is?” Elizabeth asked inquisitively.

 

“The main difference is that a strict settlement needs the person currently in possession, your father, to join with the legitimate heir who has reached their majority, your grandfather’s blood grandson, to break it, whereas an entail could be broken by a common recovery, such as your uncle offered to achieve,” he explained.

 

“You mean even if mama or Aunt Jane have a son, if he does not survive to adulthood, we would still lose Longbourn to the other branch of our family?” Elizabeth asked.

 

“Granted, I do not have all of the details, but from what you have told us, yes, I expect that to be true,” he answered. The group walked for a few moments, thinking about what they heard, before Elizabeth spoke again.

 

“Grandfather had a copy of the paperwork sent to the possible heir to make him aware of the situation. Papa and Mama told us a few years ago that the man and his young son had turned up at Longbourn. Jane and I were very young and Mary was an infant. I do not remember the visit,” Elizabeth explained. “Papa told us that they got into an argument because his relative, Mr. Collins, thought that, with three daughters born in succession, the Bennet’s should vacate Longbourn immediately. He felt that his family would certainly end up inheriting in the near future and wanted to start making long term improvements right away. Mama told us their argument became so heated, she had to send a footman for the magistrate.”

 

He whistled and responded, “That showed a lot of disrespect.”

 

“What if the son of the current heir presumptive does not survive to adulthood?” Reginald asked.

 

“That is an intriguing thought,” he replied. “What would happen?”

 

“I do not know,” Miss Bennet admitted. “It was never mentioned.”

 

“It is a moot point, anyhow,” Elizabeth added. “He is dead and his son, who has reached his majority, is very much alive. In fact, he recently wrote papa a ridiculous letter.”

 

He shot Reginald a questioning look, but he shrugged his shoulders in response.

 

“You have seemed troubled these past few days, Elizabeth. Might I presume that missive was the cause? You know, I have heard that a problem shared is a problem halved,” he quipped and smiled when she laughed.

 

“Touché, William,” she responded and told them about the letter.

 

“He actually invited himself to live at Longbourn?” Reginald asked incredulously.

 

“Yes,” Miss Bennet responded. “Papa was most put out.”

 

“He was livid, Jane,” Elizabeth corrected her sister. “He felt Mr. Collins was being pompous.”

 

He looked at Elizabeth closely and prompted, “I feel as though there is more to your story than what you have told us so far, Elizabeth.”

 

“The more I think about what Mr. Collins wrote, and more importantly the specific words and phrases he used, the more I wonder if he is simply naïve. He must have graduated university to become ordained, but if his father was as domineering as papa described...” Elizabeth trailed off.

 

“He might not have known better than to invite himself to become a resident of your household?” he asked.

 

“Exactly. Think about it. His father was brazen enough to try and force his way into managing Longbourn when our parents were obviously still building their family. It makes me wonder what type of family life our cousin, for lack of better word, was exposed to,” Elizabeth tried to explain.

 

“I believe I understand,” he assured her. “You feel that, with the right influences, he might improve?”

 

“The thought had crossed my mind.”

 

“I wonder...” Reginald stopped, looking embarrassed.

 

“Please continue, Mr. Hurst,” Miss Bennet encouraged.

 

“If his letter was really as bad as you disclosed, and he implied a need to make amends by marrying a Bennet daughter, do you think he will heed your father’s refusal?”

 

William sucked in a breath. “What did your father’s response say, exactly?” he asked.

 

Elizabeth just stared at them for a moment before responding, “He did not show it to us before it was sent, but I believe that has been the source of my unease. I can absolutely see the person who wrote that letter showing up and expecting us to rearrange our guests to accommodate his desires.”

 

“We will speak to your father when we return you to Longbourn. We should come up with a contingency plan for his possible arrival,” he suggested.

 

They walked along in silence until they could see the first building of Meryton.

 

“I wanted to discuss one more thing before we arrived,” William said.

 

“What is on your mind?” Elizabeth asked.

 

“I am worried about Anna. I wanted to ask your opinions before I speak with Mr. Sayers,” he admitted.

 

They stopped walking and Elizabeth asked, “What about Anna?”

 

“Elizabeth, please do not take this as criticism, because I know that everyone has made the best of a bad situation. Nevertheless, I think she needs more structure in her life. I am hopeful that with Miss Thomlin back in Meryton, Anna will have a normal schedule instead of being passed to whatever neighbour is available. She needs to be taught, preferably in a school setting. I would hate to see her become the wife of a tenant by default because she did not know enough to give her a variety of opportunities,” he said, then grew uncomfortable with the way everyone stared at him.

 

“What would you suggest?” Elizabeth asked, looking confused.

 

“I would request to be allowed to sponsor her at boarding school. When she has absorbed the subjects they teach, and based on her personal preferences, she could be any number of things. She could go into service as an upper servant. My housekeeper, for example, is still in fine health, but in another ten to twenty years, I would need to find a suitable replacement. The same would be true for when I get married or have children. My wife may need a maid and the children would need a nanny and then a governess. She could also go into the medical field and become a midwife or nurse. If she finds teaching, sewing, or artwork to be her passion, I would help her set up an establishment of sorts...” he noticed everyone else in the group was now looking at him with wide eyes and he stopped talking.

 

“You dear, sweet, kind, and gentle man,” Elizabeth told him with tears glistening in her eyes.

 

“She reminds me of Alfie,” he said quietly. “I would hate to have Anna not be given a chance to realize her potential. I comprehend, and appreciate, that Alfie is doing exactly what he enjoys. I want to give Anna the same opportunity. Would I insult her father by making the offer?”

 

“If you explain it to him the way you did to us just now, he will be honoured,” Miss Bennet surprised him by answering.

 

“I agree,” Elizabeth said looking at him as though he hung the moon. “He will miss her, terribly, but the future you are offering is what I know he would want for her.”

 

“Knowing the little imp, she just might become an author and give Mrs. Wollstonecraft a run for her money,” Reginald joked. “We should continue walking. I see a few townsfolk looking our way.”

 

They made their way into town and approached Clarke’s library, where they saw soldiers from the widely anticipated militia.

 

“Colonel Forster, how nice to see you,” Elizabeth welcomed the commander they had been introduced to at Lucas Lodge.

 

“Miss Elizabeth,” the Colonel nodded in greeting. “It is nice to see you all again. Allow me to introduce you to some of my men. This is Captain Carter, Lieutenant Denny, and just over there is Lieutenant Wickham.”

 

“Wickham!” Darcy was surprised to see his childhood friend. He was unsure what was going on. He was suddenly reminded of their concerns from last December. Did Wickham join the militia because he knew he was here with Georgiana?

 

“Darcy, I did not know you were in Hertfordshire,” Wickham said, seeming genuinely surprised to see him.

 

“You two know each other?” Colonel Forster asked curiously.

 

“My father was the steward of the Darcy estate and his father was my godfather. We grew up together,” Wickham answered.

 

“Ah,” Colonel Forster responded with a nod of his head.

 

“It is nice when old friends meet unexpectedly,” Miss Bennet said kindly.

 

“It is almost serendipitous,” Elizabeth suggested with a raised brow.

 

Reginald asked Colonel Forster a question about the militia’s arrival that started a conversation.

 

Darcy caught Wickham’s eye and walked to the edge of the library.

 

“Wickham, what are you up to?” Darcy growled.

 

“Nothing, Darcy, I swear to you.”

 

“Do you plan to run up debts in Meryton? I told you at Cambridge the last time, I would not cover for you again.”

 

“Darcy,” Wickham sighed, “I have been trying to improve my behaviour. Our talk a year ago cleared up many of the issues I had with you.”

 

“Just like that?” he asked incredulously. It was hard to believe.

 

“No, it was not as easy as it sounds for me to let go. I verified what you told me with the servants on pension row and did a lot of thinking.”

 

“You did not believe the journals you read?” he asked incredulously. “You knew the writing was my father’s.”

 

“I was so certain I was correct, Darcy. Your information was a revelation. I needed time to process everything and think. It changed everything I thought about myself,” Wickham finished quietly.

 

William thought back on that visit.

~*~

Pemberley, Derbyshire
Wednesday, October 31, 1810

 

“Sir, Mr. Wickham is asking to see you,” Mr. Reynolds told him.

 

“Escort him in,” William said while preparing himself for whatever Wickham had come to request.

 

Wickham waltzed in as though he was master of the estate and sat down without waiting to be offered a seat.

 

“Darcy, my circumstances are exceedingly bad. The law has turned out to be a most unprofitable study, I am sorry to say. I know there are no other family members you must provide for. I am certain that you have not forgotten your revered father’s intentions,” Wickham said with a smarmy grin. “I am now resolved on being ordained as soon as possible. I trust there could be little doubt you should offer me the living at Kympton now that Mr. Annesley has passed away.”

 

William could not believe what he was hearing. “Wickham, you accepted £3,000 and signed away all rights to the living and were given your £1,000 legacy.”

 

“As I said, my circumstances are dire. The living will do nicely,” Wickham said. “I would, naturally, need some funds to take the examination.”

 

“Have you investigated the requirements to become ordained?” he asked.

 

“I have a university degree and I must take the examination. What else is there to know,” Wickham said mockingly.

 

“I have learned a lot of details regarding the giving of a living since I have taken over Pemberley. Did you know that, in addition to your university degree, you have to spend an entire year serving under a parish priest? You would have to live the entire time sober and maintain a godly life? You would have to submit proof of this to the bishop, including testimonial letters from the community you served, before he would allow you to take the examination,” he said.

 

“You will just have to have the rector from Lambton fulfill the duties and I will spend a year working under him. I am sure you would both be willing to write me a letter when the time comes. Is the bishop not one of your Fitzwilliam relatives?” Wickham said, as if it was the most natural solution.

 

“You are unbelievable. You think I would leave the people in the village of Kympton to your stratagems? You squandered £4,000 in three years and then turn up asking me to grant you the living you were already compensated for? Leave, Wickham. You will not receive another farthing of Darcy money.”

 

“I am three weeks older than you.”

 

“Yes, Wickham, I know that. You have spent our entire lives trying to one-up me with that fact,” he said frustrated, with his fingers pinching the bridge of his nose. He continued and gestured with his hands, “The wind blows. Water is wet. Shall I continue listing unchangeable facts? What is your point?”

 

“I was not allowed to attend the will reading or review the will.”

 

“What are you blathering on about now? Why would you be at the reading of my father’s will? Besides that, need I remind you that your father was involved in creating said will and was present at the reading? If, as I suspect, you are insinuating that I would tell untruths to conceal a larger inheritance, do you not think your father would have verbalized my misdeeds?” William was pleased to see Wickham appear less confident for a moment.

 

“Not necessarily. I wonder if he knew what I did?”

 

“I have been outside with Grey all morning making sure the preparations for winter are on track to be completed before the first expected snowfall. I am exhausted and would like a respite before dinner. State the reason for your visit,” he said bluntly.

 

“I am saying that, as the elder brother, I am sure our father left Pemberley to me and you paid Mr. Wickham to keep the secret.”

 

William could not believe what he had heard. It was rubbish. It was absolutely impossible. Wickham sat there, looking at him smugly, like he had played a trump card and won the pot. He could not help it, he started laughing.

 

“It is useless to hide it any longer, brother,” Wickham spat. “If I have to, I will call the magistrate, but I will get what is mine.”

 

When he got his mirth under control, he asked, “Do you know how long a babe takes to be born?”

 

“I have heard it is nine months,” Wickham answered, looking confused.

 

“Close enough. Do you know when my parents were married?”

 

“How could I forget. Their anniversary was always a week before my birthday,” Wickham said bitterly. “Everything was always centered around their special day instead of mine.”

 

“Were you aware that my father was persuaded to take my mother on a honeymoon to the continent immediately following their wedding? Grandfather wanted them to spend the first six months of their marriage touring the continent, but they had to return early because my mother started getting sick in the mornings.” He could almost see the wheels turning in Wickham’s head and saw the moment the truth washed over him.

 

“No, it is impossible. You are trying to stay in control of my birthright.”

 

“I enjoy reading my father’s journals. They are a major source of comfort when I particularly miss him and are a wealth of information on how he handled issues that came up when he was master. I keep them on the shelf behind me,” William said. He turned around, located the correct volume, and found the relevant time period. “Here it is, the day before the wedding. You are familiar with my father’s writing. Would you like to read the next few months’ worth of entries? While you do that, if you want, I will have Mrs. Reynolds retrieve mother’s journals from my sister’s chambers. Did you know my father’s habit transferred onto her? When they arrived in Paris, father bought my mother a journal and they spent their evenings writing down what they had seen that day.”

 

He watched Wickham read a few pages and then scan through half the journal until he looked up.

 

“We look so much alike, that cannot be a coincidence.”

 

“Alike? Yes, we both have brown hair, brown eyes, and are of a similar height, if you consider a three-inch difference to be close. Other than that, we do not have any similarities. Look at our noses and our hairlines. I look exactly like my father and you look like yours, with your mother’s eye colour,” William said. “How many times have you heard people say you look like Mr. Wickham? How could you think my father was yours?”

 

“But I was so certain. Why else would he offer to be my godfather or sponsor my education?”

 

“Because, like us, our fathers grew up at Pemberley together as friends. Your father was the closest thing to a brother my father had. He felt that if he did have a nephew, or niece, he would have offered to pay for their education.”

 

“But I had so many characteristics in common with him. We both butter our bread in the same way, enjoy strawberry jam, dislike mutton, and prefer fly-fishing to bait fishing,” Wickham said, as though he was grasping at straws.

 

“George,” he said with a sigh, “those are all learned traits. Anyone who spent enough time with my father was bound to share some of his likes and dislikes while managing to pick up some of his idiosyncrasies. I had just as many things in common with your father and you never suggested we were switched at birth. However, I sound like my father, am just as tall, and have the same build, nose, hair and eye colour. If you noticed, all of the physical characteristics I just listed apply to you and your father. If you really think about everything we have discussed, objectively, and take into account the journals you are reading, there can be no denying the fact that we are not brothers. It is unquestionably not feasible.”

 

He allowed Wickham to flip through the rest of the father’s journal before asking if he should have his mother’s fetched.

 

“No, I need to think of all we have discussed and what I have read. I really am completely out of funds, Darcy.”

 

“With the condition that you speak to the rector at Lambton before you leave, I will give you twenty pounds, Wickham, to honour our fathers, but no more,” he said as he rang the bell for Mr. Reynolds to escort Wickham out. “You have known Mr. Rook your entire life, he knew both of our fathers, and most importantly, he was present at my parents wedding. He can testify to the fact that my parents were out of the country for almost five months. I will have my carriage take you to the nearest post stop, after it stops in Lambton.”

~*~

Meryton, Hertfordshire
Thursday, October 24, 1811

 

“What was the result of your introspection?” William asked.

 

“That I squandered the gifts my godfather provided me,” Wickham sighed. “With the twenty pounds you gave me, I bought a ticket to London and became friends with Denny. He was joining the militia and suggested I did too.”

 

“I cannot imagine you being a soldier,” he shook his head.

 

“Neither can I, but I seem to be good at it. I confessed everything to Colonel Forster, without names, and he mentored me. He put me in for a promotion recently, but has not heard back on whether or not it was granted.”

 

William was shocked at how proud Wickham looked at the praise from his superior officer. “Richard has told me the militia is rife with corruption. I would not be surprised to find out that his superiors are holding out for a bribe.”

 

“That was my thought too. Can you imagine? Me, a Captain in the militia?” Wickham asked with a rueful grin.

 

“I would be worried about the fathers that may end up filing complaints with the Colonel,” Darcy said dryly.

 

“I have learned to be more circumspect, Darcy,” Wickham replied, clearly dismayed. “I also drink a lot less spirits and only play cards for low stakes. I truly have been trying.”

 

“How often do you get sent to London on an errand?” he asked, fishing for information.

 

“Often,” Wickham responded. “For certain communiqués, Colonel Forster only uses men he trusts.”

 

“Where do you play cards when you are in London?”

 

“Why are you asking me about my habits?” Wickham asked with narrowed eyes.

 

William looked at this man closely. Visually he appeared to be the man he grew up with, but he was beginning to think maybe Wickham really had started to change. Richard would be able to tell if his reformation was sincere. Richard had never trusted George, even when they were children. If his cousin was persuaded he was improved, it would go a long way towards convincing him of Wickham’s sincerity.

 

“Would you and Colonel Forster have time to meet Richard and I for tea later?”

 

“Richard Fitzwilliam?”

 

“Yes, he is in Meryton too, but we are leaving tomorrow to visit his wife’s estate. We would need to speak with you today,” William said.

Chapter Text

Chapter 25

 

Longbourn, Hertfordshire
Tuesday, November 12, 1811

 

Jane Bennet sat in the large parlour of Longbourn with her family in the morning after they had broken their fast. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Mr. Hurst was to return to Meryton this very evening. She could hardly keep still in her chair. Her eyes kept being drawn to the grandfather clock in the corner as though she could make time advance more rapidly by continuously looking at it and wishing the hands would spin faster.

 

She longed to see Mr. Hurst, very much. He was Reginald in her hopes for the future. She was careful not to think of him by his first name too often for fear that the informal address would slip out while she was in company. She would be severely mortified to publicly imply an understanding which did not exist. Formally. In her heart, she knew they were committed to each other.

 

That Mr. Hurst was resolute about mourning for the full year, made her care for him even more. He was steadfast, loyal, and honourable. She knew he would propose the moment he could. She would be patient. He was certainly worth the wait.

 

The past fortnight had been difficult for her and Lizzy. They were both missing their particular gentleman. To keep occupied, they had thrown themselves into their duties and planned ahead. All the tenants had been visited and follow-up visits, where required, were forthcoming. The account books were up to date. They had prepared Longbourn for the Gardiner’s upcoming visit. They had decided what items their family would put into their boxes this year on boxing day. Sadly, they were having difficulties thinking of additional ways to keep busy.

 

Her parents were currently discussing what they needed to accomplish this day and her sisters were deciding whether or not to complete the follow-up tenant visits. It seemed likely to rain and they did not want to get caught in a downpour on their way back.

 

Jane heard one of her sisters say Mr. Collins and could tell her father heard them too. Papa was unsettled anytime the man was mentioned. He had sent Allan Sims to deliver a letter to the Sakville’s explaining the situation and asking if they could find the time to visit Longbourn. As Jane anticipated, her Uncle Frederick had responded in the negative because they all wanted to stay close to her Aunt Jane.

 

They had decided, as a family, to ask the Gardiner’s to visit before the Haye Park ladies. Thankfully, they had accepted the invitation for Mrs. Gardiner and the children. Uncle Edward would escort his family to Longbourn on the Monday Mr. Collins was expected and return to London at dawn the next day.

 

When Mr. Darcy heard their plan, he demanded that Georgie, Anne, and Mrs. Annesley spend a week at Longbourn as their guests to ensure there were no free bedrooms. Jane caught the look Mr. Darcy exchanged with her father and realized they were holding something back. She had tried to get Mr. Hurst to confide in her, but he would not. Lizzy had no better luck with Mr. Darcy.

 

Her eyes were drawn once more to the grandfather clock and she realized not even ten minutes had passed since the previous time she had looked.

 

“Lizzy, do you think Miss Thomlin could use our help teaching Anna her letters?” Jane asked. Anna’s personality was cheerful enough to liven up anyone’s day. The question caught the attention of her parents.

 

“I think you should be more worried about Lady Catherine at the lesson scheduled for tomorrow. Lady Dobbs, too, if she returns tonight,” father responded with a twinkle in his eyes and a smile on his face.

 

“Mr. Darcy certainly has done a lot for the Sayers family,” her mother said. “He is a very good man. You have chosen wisely, Lizzy, my dear.”

 

“I am not sure that I envy Anna, mama,” Kitty announced. “Lady Dobbs seems like a stickler for rules and Lady Catherine, while she has a wonderful name, can be so forceful she makes me uneasy.”

 

“How can you say that, Kitty?” Lydia asked, clearly upset. “Lady Catherine has been nothing but kind to us. Yes, she can be a little... intense, however, while blunt, she is never cruel. Lady Dobbs does not like things that are improper, and will not hesitate to give you a lecture, but again, she is as kind as she can be while doing so.”

 

“I know that, Lydia. I was not being critical,” Kitty tried to explain.

 

“We are all clearly fond of and respect both women. I do not think that is in dispute. I do understand the point you were trying to make, Kitty,” Jane said and smiled as her sister nodded her appreciation. “We have similar personalities, while Lizzy and Lydia are more assertive. To them, Lady Catherine is a kindred spirit. To us, you are right, intense is an accurate word. I imagine Mary has found a like-minded individual in Lady Dobbs.”

 

“I have,” Mary agreed with a nod. “I like to debate what I have read with Lady Dobbs. Our thoughts usually match up well. I have so much to discuss with her when she returns. She helped me see that papa was right to take away my copy of Fordyce’s Sermons.”

 

“Thank heavens for that,” her father declared.

 

“Mama, what did you mean when you said that Mr. Darcy has done a lot for the Sayers family?” Lizzy asked with narrowed eyes.

 

“He has not informed you?” her mother asked, looking confused.

 

“Fanny, I just talked to Mr. Sayers yesterday afternoon and Mr. Darcy does not return until today.”

 

“How silly of me! This child is making me sleepy and forgetful,” mama said while rubbing her large stomach. “Well, as you all know, Mr. Darcy talked to Mr. Sayers about Anna before he went to help the Fitzwilliam’s move into their estate. It has been decided that Anna will enter a boarding school as soon as one is located that meets their educational requirements and will accept a student of her age.”

 

“That he cares enough for a tenant’s daughter, who does not live on his estate, shows Mr. Darcy’s Christian generosity,” Mary said with a smile. “I would be honoured, should the opportunity arise, to call him brother one day.”

 

“But what about the rest of the family?” Elizabeth asked, blushing because of Mary’s comment.

 

Jane was curious to hear the answer herself.

 

“One look at Mr. Sayers should be enough for almost anyone to infer he is unhappy with the current status of his life. Apparently, he has also been rather vocal about wanting to make significant changes. He approached me yesterday because he had a visit from his deceased wife’s younger brother.”

 

“That tells us little more than we knew previously, papa,” Lydia observed. “Why did he visit you?”

 

“To inquire if I would object to his brother-in-law appropriating his lease and working the plot of land.”

 

“What did you say?” Kitty asked.

 

“Where would the family go?” Mary wondered out loud.

 

“I think the answer to your question is obvious, Mary,” Lydia stated definitively with a smug grin.

 

“Oh really?” their father asked playfully. “Out with it then, young lady. Where will they go?”

 

Jane thought Lydia was right, it was incredibly obvious. In her mind, she answered at the same time Lydia did.

 

“To Pemberley, of course, papa,” Lydia replied flippantly with crossed arms and an exaggerated roll of her eyes.

 

Jane laughed along with the rest of her family and Mrs. Waldron. She was very fortunate to be part of a loving family who all enjoyed being with one another. She could not imagine what her life would be like if her parents did not get along well, or if her father hid away in his study and did not pay attention to his daughters, letting their behaviour deteriorate to that of immoderate hoydens. The two years her parents seemed to have lost their way was an eye-opening experience. She knew she was blessed to have such a loving family, but the experience made her even more grateful.

 

“Was Lydia correct?” Elizabeth asked.

 

Jane shook her head. She was surprised her sister felt the need for confirmation. Mr. Darcy seemed to enjoy offering solutions to the problems of other people.

 

“Yes, Lizzy,” her father answered with a strange look on his face. Jane was certain he was also astonished at the question being asked. “Mr. Sayers has no sons or desire to remarry. He is worn-out and no longer wishes to expend so much energy farming such a large plot of land by himself.”

 

“What else would he do?” Mary asked.

 

“It seems his passion is cultivating herb gardens,” their mother answered.

 

“Yes!” Lydia exclaimed loudly while grinning.

 

“Do you care to enlighten us by adding to that pithy statement, Lydia?”

 

“Sorry, papa, I just remembered a few months ago when Mrs. Hill was thinking about cultivating more thyme plants next spring. I heard her tell Mr. Hill that she needed to speak with Mr. Sayers before a decision was made.”

 

“He is somewhat of a local legend with herbs,” father agreed while cleaning his spectacles. “He was very excited to find out Pemberley has a conservatory. For years, the cook has been asking Mr. Darcy to hire a gardener with an extensive knowledge of herbs. The estate’s herb garden has grown far too large and wide-ranging for the cook to take care of while performing her other duties.”

 

“What about Anna’s sister Molly?” Kitty asked. “Would she stay working as a maid at Netherfield?”

 

“No,” mother answered. “Mr. Darcy will be hiring father and daughter. There will be room for advancement at Pemberley because the family is in residence most of the year, whereas my sister keeps a lighter staff at Netherfield because it is not their primary estate.”

 

“Mr. Darcy hinted that Lizzy and Jane would both need maids when they marry. He was spot-on. Since the girls currently share Betsy, one of them will have to engage a new maid. I suppose he means to suggest Molly since Lizzy already knows her and she is fiercely loyal to our family,” father explained with a raised brow and grin.

 

“It definitely makes sense,” mother added. The younger sisters looked confused so she continued, “It is common for new brides to bring their own maid rather than promote from within.”

 

“Why, mama?” Kitty asked. “I think it would be good for the servant’s morale to promote from within.”

 

“What would be the benefit of bringing in a maid from outside the household, Kitty?” their mother asked.

 

“Well,” Kitty said, clearly thinking as she was speaking, “they would know you and your preferences. And, I must admit, it would be comforting to have someone you know, other than your husband. But they would not be able to tell you about your new home or help you figure out where the rooms are.”

 

“That is all very true,” mother agreed.

 

“Let us hypothesize for a moment, Kitty,” their father broke in. “If you had an elder brother, who had just gotten married, and his wife promoted a maid from our household, what would happen?”

 

“The maid would be able to help her, a lot! With her being a local and familiar with the house, she would know where to go for items that were requested and who to go to with any questions she could not answer,” Kitty said, unmistakably embracing the scenario Jane knew to be a lesson on household matters. “She would also know the layout of the estate and Meryton. The maid could introduce her to people in Meryton and show her where to go shopping for the best wares. And, maybe the most beneficial thing, explain the temperaments of the neighbourhood residents. You would not want to inadvertently put two women near each other at a dinner if they had a bad history.”

 

“All very good points, Kitty,” their father said proudly.

 

“What about gossip?” mother asked. “Do you think a maid from Longbourn could unintentionally, or be pressured to, tell her friends, family, or other servants information about her mistress that should have been kept private? What about how the household runs? The personal servants of the master and mistress of an estate have a place outside of the normal hierarchy of the household. How do you think Mrs. Hill would react to taking orders from someone who used to report directly to her?”

 

Jane smiled when her younger sisters all looked stunned at their mother’s question. While they thought of a response, she asked, “Lizzy, what do you think about Molly possibly becoming your personal maid?”

 

Her sister was prevented replying by the entrance of a footman with a note for Jane.

 

“A note arrived for Miss Bennet,” Allan told them. “It came from Netherfield and the servant was told to wait for an answer, no matter how long it took.”

 

“Thank you, Allan, please wait a moment,” her mother told him as she reached for the portable writing desk that was kept next to her preferred chair. “Jane, before you break the seal to read the note, and tell us what it says, I must write a note of my own.”

 

“Yes, Mama,” Jane replied, confused. She looked at Lizzy, but her sister shrugged her shoulders slightly in response.

 

After a moment, her mother handed her own note to Allan and said, “Please ask the servant from Netherfield to wait and then use a horse and personally deliver this to Haye Park as fast as possible and wait for an answer yourself. Very well, Jane. Who is it from and what do they say?”

 

“It is from Miss Bingley,” she said after a moment, and then read it aloud.

 

My New Friend,

If you are not so compassionate as to dine today with Mrs. Verdier and me, we shall be in danger of hating each other for the rest of our lives, for a whole day’s tête-à-tête between two women can never end without a quarrel. Come as soon as you can on receipt of this. My brother is to dine with the officers.

Yours ever,

Caroline Bingley

 

Jane was torn. She did not want to be rude, however, Miss Bingley made her uncomfortable. She was not sure why, but Miss Bingley had been singling her out and paying her undue attention. Lizzy thought she was trying to get information about their family in order to cause trouble, but Jane was not convinced that was her motive. It did not make sense to her. From the assembly, Miss Bingley knew they were related to Lady Jersey and that they were on friendly terms with numerous other titled personages. What could she think to gain by asking so many questions about their family, specifically her mother’s relations? It was also clear that Miss Bingley was frustrated Jane would not disclose the amount of the Bennet sisters’ dowries. She had tried to explain that she did not even know the amount, but Jane could tell Miss Bingley did not believe her.

 

She was grateful that Mr. Bingley had stopped looking at her so disconcertingly, yet it was still generally evident whenever they met, that he admired her. It was equally evident, to everyone but Mr. Bingley, that she was not yielding to his preference. He seemed to be aiming to exploit the absence of Mr. Hurst to his advantage. She wished Mr. Bingley would accept her heart was no longer hers to give and cease his attempts to turn her affections towards him. She tried to be circumspect and show her preference by bringing Mr. Hurst up whenever they spoke, but Mr. Bingley seemed to be wilfully misunderstanding her.

 

“Jane, my dear,” her father said, “How do you want to respond?”

 

“No, Thomas, I am sorry, but Jane could not accept even if she was so inclined. I need her assistance to prepare for tonight. At the time the note was read, I had extended an invitation to Lady Catherine and Anne de Bourgh to join us for dinner at Longbourn. Jane cannot possibly accept Miss Bingley’s invitation,” her mother stated sternly.

 

Jane crossed the room and kissed her mother on the cheek. She whispered, “Thank you, Mama.”

 

“I would not want you to be uncomfortable, Jane dear,” mama whispered back.

 

Jane was surprised to see Allan enter the room so quickly after he left.

 

“Lady Catherine and Anne de Bourgh are here to pay a call. They had just finished saddling my horse when their carriage pulled up.”

 

“Show them in.”

 

“Lady Catherine and Miss de Bourgh, how nice to see you,” her mother said.

 

“Young Sims assisted us from the carriage and delivered your note,” Lady Catherine informed them after they exchanged greetings. “I am afraid we must decline your invitation. You see, we are here to extend one of our own. My nephew was thoughtful enough to send an express rider with a note confirming his arrival tonight. If your family is free for dinner, we would like you to join our welcome home party. If you accept, the Bennet’s will be the only guests so your youngest daughters may attend.”

 

“I am happy to respond in the affirmative for Mrs. Bennet and my four younger daughters,” her father said. “Unfortunately, my eldest, Jane, will not be able to accept. She was invited to spend the day at Netherfield with Miss Bingley. You understand, I am sure.”

 

Jane heard many people in the room gasp and agreed. She could not believe what her father had just said. He knew she did not want to go to Netherfield.

 

“Naturally,” Lady Catherine agreed solemnly. “I can tell Miss Bingley is exceedingly attached to Miss Bennet and vice versa. I would hate to make Miss Bennet feel the loss of her newest friend for the evening.”

 

“Conveniently enough, Miss Bingley’s note invited Jane to arrive as soon as possible after it was received. She could go now, spend the day with her dearest friend, and return in time for dinner at Haye Park,” her father stated with a wicked grin.

 

“A mighty fine compromise. I am certain Miss Bennet appreciates you putting forth the suggestion,” Lady Catherine deadpanned with a nod.

 

“I am sorry to contradict you, Mr. Bennet. I was hoping Jane and Elizabeth would spend the day with me at Haye Park. With my cousins gone, I have been lonely for feminine companionship. I am sure you understand,” Anne said with a sly grin.

 

“Yes, we discussed the possibility earlier this week,” Elizabeth said quickly.

 

Jane smiled at her sister. It was true, basically. Anne had mentioned, in passing, that she was missing Georgie and Grace and that it would be fun to spend a day together.

 

“Jane, write Miss Bingley a response then you and Lizzy need to pack a small trunk containing your clothes for dinner,” their mother ordered before shooing them from the room before their father could speak.

~*~

Haye Park, Hertfordshire
Tuesday, November 12, 1811

 

Lady Catherine de Bourgh laughed at the story Miss Bennet had just told about her sister Elizabeth climbing a tree and getting her skirt caught. She was in the parlour at Haye Park with her daughter Anne, Miss Jane Bennet, and Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Her nephew and niece, along with Lady Dobbs, Harold Dobbs, and Reginald Hurst, were expected to return within a half-hour.

 

The door opened and all four ladies looked up to see William walk in to the room. Catherine smiled as Elizabeth stood quickly and hurried to her nephew’s side. William looked as though he wanted to wrap his arms around Elizabeth and kiss her senseless. Thankfully, he restricted himself to holding her hand and whispering, in a soft voice he thought would not carry, “Elizabeth, I have missed you terribly.”

 

“Let us give them a moment,” she said softly to Anne and Miss Bennet. “Miss Bennet, you were telling us about the tenant visits you made. Is there anything we can do to assist the families? Anne has a deft hand with a needle and I knit very well. I am proficient because I have been practicing my entire life.”

 

William nodded his appreciation and a few moments later sat down with Elizabeth at his side.

 

“I assume you rode ahead?”

 

“Yes, Aunt Catherine. Harold, Dobbs, and Alfie said they would stay with the ladies and practically insisted I ride ahead,” William responded.

 

“William, you did not ride alone, did you?” Elizabeth asked with wide eyes.

 

“He better not have,” she said sternly. The boy was not an idiot. She hoped his eagerness to see Miss Elizabeth had not made him take unnecessary risks.

 

“Murray rode along with me.”

 

“Your valet is ever so faithful,” Anne said with a grin.

 

The group chatted for another twenty minutes until they heard what sounded like two carriages arrive. Catherine smiled to see Miss Bennet exit the room first, eagerly making her way outside to greet them.

 

By the time they made it out the front door, only one carriage was visible and Mr. Hurst had handed down Georgiana and was performing the same service for his aunt. The moment he saw Miss Bennet, his expression changed. His eyes blazed with passion and the corner of his mouth twisted into an appreciative half-smile. Miss Bennet’s face lit up at the sight of him and she started to take a step forward but seemed to catch herself just in time. Lady Catherine caught Phoebe’s eyes and they shared a smile. It was clear the pair missed each other very much.

 

“Phoebe, I am sure you would like to stretch your legs after the long ride. William you will join us with Miss Elizabeth and Mr. Hurst with Miss Bennet. We will take a few turns about the yard,” she magnanimously demanded.

 

She approached Phoebe who whispered, “That was nice of you, Catherine.”

 

“Shall we pretend we do not see Mr. Hurst’s hand covering Miss Bennet’s? Or the fact that their fingers are intertwined?”

 

“Yes, I believe we shall,” her friend said with a devious grin. “After all, they are doing no real harm and they are in plain sight of everyone, with two chaperones following them.”

 

“Those dear girls missed them so much, it was painful to watch.”

 

“You should have seen our nephews,” Phoebe told her quietly. “There were a few times I thought Richard or Grace would tie them to a chair just to get a break. They were trying to finish everything as quickly as possible while still being diligent.”

 

“William normally operates that way. If Richard was at the point of exhaustion, it must have been exceedingly bad,” Catherine said before laughing mirthfully. “You should ask the Bennet sisters what they have accomplished this past fortnight. With their family addition ready to make its appearance in December, I am sure Mrs. Bennet appreciates not having to worry what to do for Boxing Day.”

 

“No!” Phoebe exclaimed before airily chuckling.

 

“Do you think your nephew will be able to wait a fortnight before proposing?” she asked.

 

“It would be most ungentlemanly if he did not wait,” Phoebe responded. “After all, he has been rather vocal regarding his intentions.”

 

“Everyone knows he did that to stem the gossip surrounding his relationship with Miss Bennet. There were a few matrons who were upset that the eldest Bennet sisters captured the two wealthy new residents. They tried to plant the seed that he was trifling with the eldest Miss Bennet.”

 

“I still cannot believe the nerve of them. I think Reginald handled the situation perfectly,” Phoebe said proudly. “Look at that! I would be shocked if Reginald did not just ask Miss Bennet for a private interview first thing in the morning, in a fortnight. Do you see how she is blushing?”

 

“I do believe you are right, Phoebe. Did you make a stop at Longbourn before you arrived?” she asked.

 

“No, but if I know my nephew, he asked Mr. Bennet months ago for permission to propose,” Phoebe responded.

 

“And if I know Mr. Bennet, he made him squirm a bit before giving his blessing,” she said with a smile. “They really are a unique family. With their connections, they could have easily turned out as arrogant as I used to be. I need to thank Anne once again for taking control of Rosings and making me see how I treated everyone.”

 

“On a happier note, what say you to a double wedding? I know Reginald will not allow his mother to help plan, so I do believe that makes us the mothers of the grooms by proxy,” Phoebe said with a mischievous smirk.

 

“Oh, Phoebe, I do adore the way you think.”

~*~

Longbourn, Hertfordshire
Monday, November 18, 1811

 

Fitzwilliam Darcy was anxious to arrive at Longbourn to see Elizabeth. He understood Mr. Bennet’s desire to welcome their relatives in privacy. Staying away from Longbourn for the entire day, especially since his sister was in residence, had been torturous.

 

“Calm down, William. We will arrive shortly,” his Aunt Catherine scolded. “You are overwrought for no reason. There is no evidence to suggest their cousin will ignore Mr. Bennet’s refusal.”

 

William stared at his aunt for a moment before he caught the Earl of Palmrich’s eye and shared a commiserating look. There was no way his aunt believed what she was saying any more than he did.

 

“Lady Catherine is correct,” Dobbs said with a grin. “There is no reason to worry. Mrs. Bennet invited us to spend the afternoon at Longbourn and join the family for dinner. If he does show up at four o’clock, we will know he has no sense.”

 

“His letter said he would arrive by four o’clock, not at four,” he stressed. “What if he is there right now?”

 

“There is nothing you can do about the situation if he did arrive earlier than expected,” Lady Dobbs said kindly. “It takes roughly four hours to travel from London. Most likely, he did not want to leave earlier than midday.”

 

“That is a valid point,” Palmrich said.

 

“I want to thank you, again, for coming with us,” William told his friend.

 

“Being here allows me to see Charlotte once again before our wedding,” Palmrich said with a smile. “Besides, given your description of this Mr. Collins, you will need all the help you can get. I have had men like him serve under me before. It is hard to break the habits of a lifetime, but it can be done. I am actually looking forward to the challenge. Civilian life has become a bit boring and tedious.”

 

“Here we are,” Reginald said. “There, you see, Miss Elizabeth exited the house and she is smiling. All is well, William.”

 

He sighed when he saw Elizabeth. He felt as though his heart would burst.

 

“Look at William, Phoebe,” his Aunt Catherine said in a stage whisper. “He has a wistful look on his face and his eyes are burning with desire. I think seeing Miss Elizabeth with a little boy holding her hand has made his mind wander to the future.”

 

He heard them both titter like old biddies and ignored them, thankful his sister was in residence at Longbourn and not in the carriage to hear them speaking.

 

“You had better be careful, Darcy,” Dobbs joked. “It looks as though someone may have supplanted you in Miss Elizabeth’s affections.”

 

“Miss Bennet looks to be occupied with another young lad,” Reginald said softly. “I empathize with what William must be feeling.”

 

The carriage came to a complete stop and William could not wait for the footmen to open the door. He handed his Aunt Catherine out and immediately walked to Elizabeth.

 

“How are you today, Mr. Darcy,” said the sweetest sounding voice.

 

“I am well, Miss Elizabeth, thank you for asking. Would you introduce me to your acquaintance?” he asked gently.

 

“It would be my pleasure, sir,” she said with luminous eyes. “This is my cousin, Master Andrew Gardiner. Andrew, this is, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. We are courting.”

 

“It is nice to meet you, Mr. Dawcy,” the young man said very properly with a bow.

 

“I am very pleased to meet you, Master Gardiner. Miss Elizabeth told me you would be visiting.” He noticed Elizabeth’s cheeks were slightly pink.

 

“Lizzy is my most favourite cousin, Mr. Dawcy. She reads to me, takes me to the park, and taught me how to make a fort in the nursery. If I give you my blessing, will you make sure she is cared for like my papa does for my mama? She must be loved, happy, and protected at all times,” Andrew said seriously.

 

Elizabeth was as red as a tomato now. He kneeled in front of Andrew to be at eye level and told the boy, “I grew up with a wonderful example of a father. My excellent father made sure my mother was loved, happy, and protected every day. It has always been my intention to follow in his footsteps. I solemnly promise to you, that I will care for Miss Elizabeth just like you would.”

 

“Lizzy and Uncle Thomas told me you were a good man. I will believe you. If you do not keep her safe, I get her back,” Andrew informed him.

 

“We have a deal, Master Gardiner,” he told the child as he extended his hand. After they shook, he stood up and looked at Elizabeth.

 

“I apologize, sir. He is four-years-old and is having trouble pronouncing his r’s,” she explained, clearly mortified.

 

“I understand, it is quite common, as is his desire for you to stay at Longbourn. Shall we go inside?” he asked, offering her his arm. He smiled when he saw Reginald with Miss Bennet and the younger boy preceding them into the house.

 

In the parlour, he saw an elegant couple he had not been introduced to previously.

 

“Mr. Gardiner?” he heard Dobbs ask. “What do you do here, sir?”

 

“Mr. Dobbs, it is nice to see you again. We are here to visit family. You see, Mrs. Bennet is my sister,” the man he assumed to be Mr. Gardiner answered.

 

He grew concerned when Dobbs stood there staring at the gentleman.

 

“What is wrong, Harold?” Lady Dobbs asked.

 

“Apparently, Mr. Dobbs knows this Mr. Gardiner and is shocked at his connection to the Bennet family,” Lady Catherine said. “If I may be so bold, Mr. Dobbs has spent most of his life on a ship and you do not look like a former sailor. How do you know him, sir?”

 

“Allow me to perform introductions,” Mr. Bennet broke in. “This is my brother and sister, Mr. Edward Gardiner and Mrs. Madeline Gardiner and their four children. Seven-year-old Emily, six-year-old Sophia, four-year-old Andrew, and three-year-old Philip.”

 

“Miss Thompson, is that you?” William asked in surprise after the introductions were completed.

 

“Yes, Master Darcy. I am surprised you recognized me after all of these years,” Mrs. Gardiner said with a smile.

 

“How could I forget? You used to help your father run the general store in Lambton and would give me sweets when I came in with my mother.”

 

“Yes, until father inherited my uncle’s estate and turned the store over to his youngest brother. My uncle still runs the store.”

 

“Yes, my friend Mr. Hurst purchased a few journals there last December,” William said with a grin. “Dobbs, you have not explained how you know Mr. Gardiner.”

 

He was intrigued when Mr. Gardiner shared a look with Mr. Bennet before the latter man answered, “I believe they met in the office of his business, Mr. Darcy.”

 

“The only business interest Dobbs has, that I am aware of, is our investment in SBG Shipping...” he faltered and looked back and forth between the two men. “Richard told me SBG was started by three brothers by marriage. Sakville, Bennet, and Gardiner?”

 

“I told you he would figure it out, Edward,” Mr. Bennet said with a grin.

 

“We must ask that everyone in the room keeps that information to themselves,” Edmund Sakville said from the doorway. “My father does not appreciate his private business being fodder for the gossip mill.”

 

Darcy noticed that his sister was blushing at the mere presence of Mr. Sakville and silently groaned.

 

“Edmund, we were not expecting you,” Mrs. Bennet said while trying to stand up.

 

“Please, Aunt Fannie, do not try and stand. You look just as large as my mother,” Sakville said with a grin as he bent down to hug Mrs. Bennet.

 

“Oh, no, my boy,” Mr. Bennet joked. “No matter the reason, you never tell a woman she is large. The ladies may get away with it, but you will get into trouble.”

 

“Thomas is right, Edmund,” Mr. Gardiner confirmed with a grin. “If you wish to keep in their good graces, you tell them they are glowing and look wonderful.”

 

“I will remember that sage advice, thank you Uncle Thomas and Uncle Edward,” Sakville said with a bow.

 

“Out with it, Edmund. What has brought you here?” Mr. Bennet asked with a grin.

 

“Mother made me travel to London to purchase some of her favourite sweets that she is craving. Since I was going to be so close, she demanded I be here this afternoon in case you need my assistance. The more time that passes, the more she worries that Mr. Collins will show up and try to ingratiate himself into life at Longbourn,” Sakville said.

 

“What does she propose you do to help?” Elizabeth asked her cousin.

 

“My mother asked me to remind her brother that he is not obligated to tell Mr. Collins the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” Sakville explained with a devilish grin. “If he shows up, I am sure Mr. Collins will be unsettled when he sees Aunt Fannie is with child. I know this will not sit well with Darcy, but if he does arrive, what would happen if you remind him of the terms of the entail and that you also have a sister who is with child? Then you let him know your sister has married, her name is Jane Sakville, and then introduce me as your nephew, Edmund Sakville?”

 

“Oh, that is brilliant. I see Jane is as intelligent as she ever was,” Mr. Gardiner said with a delighted chuckle. “Everything you say would be completely true, but would obfuscate the relevant details.”

 

 


Chapter Text

Chapter 26

 

Longbourn, Hertfordshire
Monday, November 18, 1811

 

Reginald Hurst sat comfortably in a chair in the parlour of Longbourn. He caught Miss Bennet glancing at the grandfather clock again and smiled. It was now a quarter-hour past four o’clock and Mr. Collins had not arrived. The gentlemen were relieved while the ladies were still nervous.

 

“Miss Bennet,” he said gently, “it appears as though Mr. Collins heeded your father’s response and stayed in London. All is well. We were concerned over nothing.”

 

“It is possible he encountered an issue along the way and will be arriving shortly,” Miss Bennet replied with a worried look.

 

“Are you enjoying your tea?” he asked.

 

“My tea?” Miss Bennet asked, sounding confused.

 

“Yes, your tea. I noticed you have yet to refill your cup,” he told her.

 

“Jane does enjoy tea, but she prefers chocolate,” Miss Elizabeth told him with a grin.

 

He thought back to his previous life and said, “Louisa believed that the answer to everything was in a good cup of tea. She would have consumed an entire pot by now.”

 

“Louisa was your wife?” Miss Elizabeth asked tentatively.

 

He nodded, too embarrassed to speak. He had not meant to bring her up in front of Miss Bennet.

 

“Were...” Miss Bennet started to ask a question, stopped, and blushed furiously.

 

“If I was Jane, I would have been about to ask if you were happy together,” Miss Elizabeth said gently.

 

“That is a difficult question to answer,” he admitted honestly. “At first, yes we were very happy. Our personalities fit well together and we started to turn my townhouse into our home. After her siblings moved in with us, our affection for each other decreased exponentially the longer they were in residence. I was not jesting when I told Miss Bennet what I was like almost a year ago. I certainly would have drunk myself into an early grave trying to hide from what my life had turned into.”

 

“I understand,” Miss Bennet said kindly. “You would not have recognized my parents either, had you met us a year ago.”

 

“I find that hard to believe,” he said with a smile.

 

“It is true, sir,” Miss Elizabeth said with a sad smile. “Looking back, it happened so gradually, I cannot figure out exactly when it began. Mama caved to Lydia’s demands once, then, again. She started encouraging us take over the management of all household matters. My father started spending more time in his study reading books and letting Mr. Miller run Longbourn without his input. If Aunt Jane had not stopped here on her way home from London, I am sure you would have both left Meryton as fast as you could.”

 

“I doubt that,” William told her with a grin.

 

They continued the discussion, trading familial stories that got more outlandish as the time passed, until he saw Miss Bennet look at the clock again. He looked at William and nodded slightly at Jane.

 

“Miss Bennet, unless he has his own carriage, Mr. Collins travelled by stagecoach or post. Even if he purchased a ticket for the latest available departure time and walked to Longbourn from Meryton, he should be here by now. It is a quarter till five. I believe Mr. Hurst is correct, there is no need to worry about Mr. Collins,” William said for the benefit of both ladies.

 

“Do you really, truly believe that?” Miss Elizabeth asked.

 

“I do,” William answered softly while staring into her eyes.

 

Reginald looked at Miss Bennet and nodded at his friend and her sister, causing her to giggle quietly.

 

“Even if he does turn up, Mr. Phillips is here to help your father deal with the oafish ordained,” he told Miss Bennet with a comforting smile.

 

“Do not worry, Jane,” Sakville, who had recently joined their group, told his cousin. “I agree with Hurst and Darcy. It is unlikely he would show up almost an hour late.”

 

“Thank you, Edmund,” Miss Bennet replied. “How is Aunt Jane?”

 

Reginald listened to the conversation the cousins were having regarding their mothers’ shared condition as his mind wandered. It seemed odd to him that the sisters were old enough to be married with children of their own and were preparing for the birth of a sibling. Thinking about babes made him contemplate the future possibility of having children with Miss Bennet. He forced his mind to pay attention to the conversations around him before he completely embarrassed himself.

 

Aunt Phoebe, Lady Catherine, Mrs. Bennet, Mrs. Gardiner, and Mrs. Phillips were discussing the upcoming addition to the Bennet household and the preparations to the nursery. There had not been a new infant in residence in fifteen years and the room needed to be cleaned and updated with the modern amenities. Miss de Bough, Miss Darcy, and Misses Mary, Kitty, and Lydia were sitting together discussing music, the latest fashion plates, and their social plans for later in the week. Palmrich, Dobbs, Mr. Gardiner, Mr. Phillips, and Mr. Bennet were discussing several investment opportunities and trying to figure out which ones would be the most profitable.

 

He started admiring the tastefulness of the décor and realized there was not an empty seat in the parlour. He looked at Mrs. Bennet speculatively and wondered if the seating in the room was purposeful or accidental. Lady Catherine caught his eye and gave him an enormous grin. The other ladies stopped talking and stared at him with varying degrees of amusement on their faces. He used his hand to perform a bow whilst sitting down.

 

“I think Mr. Hurst just noticed the sitting arrangements,” he heard Miss Elizabeth tell her sister.

 

“What are you referring to, Lizzy?” Sakville asked, looking confused.

 

William looked around the room for a few seconds before he started chuckling. “Your mother is ingenious,” he said.

 

“She is, isn’t she?” Miss Elizabeth replied proudly.

 

“I do not understand what you are talking about,” Sakville said with an annoyed look on his face.

 

“Look at the room, Edmund. Does anything strike you as odd?” Miss Bennet asked her cousin.

 

“Now that you mention it, there is usually another settee over there, is there not?” Sakville asked with his eyes scrunched up as though he were trying to recall how the furniture was placed previously.

 

“Yes, and there are usually two chairs, you are currently sitting in one of them, that are near the fireplace this time of the year,” Miss Elizabeth responded.

 

“Why is that significant?” Sakville asked.

 

“If Mr. Collins were to arrive, where would he sit?” William asked.

 

“Where, indeed,” Sakville said while shaking his head. “Diabolical. I thought it odd that a footman had to bring another chair in when I arrived. We have had bigger groups in this parlour before and seating was never an issue.”

 

“I wonder...” Darcy started just as the door opened and Mrs. Hill walked in.

 

“I am sorry to interrupt. There is a Mr. Collins here, ma’am. He says he is expected,” Mrs. Hill told them.

 

“Show him in,” Mrs. Bennet said as she was trying to stand up.

 

“Stay seated, my dear. I do not want you to strain yourself greeting someone who was not invited,” Mr. Bennet ordered as he stood. “Bring him in, Hill.”

 

Reginald looked at Darcy and Sakville before standing up to greet the newcomer. This would not be a pleasant visit. Hopefully, their plan worked.

 

He walked in and Reginald was shocked. Mr. Collins was a tall young man. Miss Bennet had mentioned her cousin was five-and-twenty. His clothes hung off him in a way with which Reginald was intimately acquainted. This man had lost a significant amount of weight recently. His air was grave and stately. In short, he appeared to be everything they expected from his letter.

 

The most astonishing things about Mr. Collins, were that he seemed to be injured and he was absolutely filthy. It looked like the man had rolled around in a barn stall. There was a red, blotchy patch of skin on the left side of his neck that stretched all the way to his chin. His right pant leg was torn and stained, possibly with his blood. Also, for some reason, his hands and part of his face were covered in red scratches.

 

Mr. Collins seemed surprised to see the parlour was completely full. Reginald noticed his eyes stopped on Mrs. Bennet for a moment before he looked at Mr. Bennet as the housekeeper introduced them.

 

“Mr. Bennet, this is Mr. William Collins. He said you were expecting him,” Mrs. Hill said before leaving the room.

 

“Mr. Collins, I was not expecting you. When I responded to your missive, I specifically told you a visit would be impossible. What are you doing here, sir?” Mr. Bennet asked sternly.

 

“As I told you in my letter, I have no one else to turn to and I am destitute. Since I am the heir to your estate, you cannot possibly object to teaching me what I need to know. My late father always bemoaned the fact that you would not allow him to start making the necessary improvements which would see to increasing the annual income of my future estate,” Mr. Collins said.

 

Reginald groaned. He had been trying to make Miss Bennet smile previously, but he truly was an oafishly ordained man. How could anyone be so arrogant while asking a favour? This was going to be worse than they thought.

 

“I believe I will regret mentioning this, but introductions are in order before we can get to the crux of the matter,” Lady Catherine said.

 

“You are correct, My Lady,” Mr. Bennet said.

 

Reginald smiled when Mr. Collins’ head swivelled to look at Lady Catherine when she was addressed as ‘My Lady.’

 

“You will have to forgive my wife for not standing. You see, she is heavy with a child that should arrive near our Lord’s birthday. Mrs. Bennet is sitting right there,” Mr. Bennet said with a smirk while using an arm to indicate which woman was his wife.

 

He heard Sakville and Miss Elizabeth snicker quietly at the look on Mr. Collins’ face.

 

“But... But... No, I do not believe you. It is impossible. You have three daughters and I am the heir,” Mr. Collins said desperately with wild eyes. “I will live at Longbourn and you will teach me how to run the estate.”

 

“No, sir, I have five daughters and another babe on the way. It is understandable that your father did not know about the rest of my children because I have refused to communicate with him since the last time you were at Longbourn when he attempted to take over my estate. In order of age, my daughters are Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Catherine, and Lydia,” Mr. Bennet said as each daughter curtsied when their name was called. “Have you even read the legal document that was sent to your father?”

 

“No sir, he told me what I needed to know. It makes no difference, I am sure this child will be a girl too,” Mr. Collins said frantically. “There is no reason I cannot take my rightful place in the household.”

 

“The order of succession is quite clear, Mr. Collins,” Mr. Bennet said severely. “Longbourn would be inherited by my son first. If I do not have a son, the second in line to inherit would be the son of my younger sister, Jane. If neither of us have a son, then, and ONLY then, would it be inherited by your father. Since your father predeceased me, the document allows Longbourn to pass to you if my father does not have a grandson. My sister Jane is unable to be here because she is also heavy with child, but she sent a representative of her family. Allow me to introduce you to my nephew, Edmund Sakville.”

 

He was afraid Mr. Collins was going to have an apoplexy until the man turned green, started to sway, and fell flat on his face. His collapse shocked the entire room, except for the Earl of Palmrich, Mr. Bennet, William, and Miss Elizabeth.

 

The Earl of Palmrich, Miss Elizabeth, and William had started moving the second Mr. Collins swayed. Miss Elizabeth rang for a servant then walked towards the door of the parlour. The Earl of Palmrich was closer and reached Mr. Collins before William did. The earl immediately turned the prostrated man on his side and started checking his face for obvious injuries.

 

“I must remember to thank him for missing the rug,” Mr. Bennet said sardonically as he reached his cousin.

 

“Thomas, that is inappropriate,” Mr. Gardiner said disapprovingly as he moved to comfort his upset wife.

 

“It was a valid observation,” Dobbs said. “My mother recently took me to look at house furnishings. Rugs are expensive.”

 

Miss Elizabeth shot her father and Dobbs an annoyed look before she opened the parlour door and almost bowled over the housekeeper who was personally answering the call. “Mrs. Hill, Mr. Collins has fainted and hit his head on the floor. Please have Allan fetch Mr. Jones and have warm water and towels brought in right away.”

 

Reginald smiled when he heard footsteps rushing towards the back of the house and then saw Mrs. Hill turn her head and nod, followed by even more footsteps. It seemed the housekeeper was expecting the call for an entirely different reason and had brought reinforcements with her.

 

He turned and watched with the rest of the room as Palmrich used his handkerchief and then Mr. Darcy’s offered one to clean the blood off Mr. Collins’ face. The two men spent a few minutes attempting to revive the unconscious man.

 

“Miss Kitty, are you well?” he asked the pale young lady.

 

“Oh, Kitty, I am sorry for neglecting you at such a distressing time,” Miss Bennet said as she pulled her sister into a hug. “Would you like to leave the room and take a walk in the garden with me and Mr. Hurst? Miss Darcy could join us.”

 

It probably should not have, but hearing Miss Bennet offer his assistance without asking first, made him sigh in contentment. He revelled in the fact that she was comfortable enough with him to take his help as a given. Reginald felt the act signified that she was coming to rely on him the way a wife would on her husband.

 

Miss Kitty peeked around her sister and said, “I am fine now, Jane. It looks as though the earl has finished cleaning up the blood and Mr. Collins is waking up.”

 

Mrs. Hill walked in and announced, “Allan came across Mr. Jones on his way to Meryton. He rushed back through the fields to let us know that Mr. Jones should arrive via the roads soon. Is there anything I can get you, Lord Palmrich?”

 

“Just a moment, Mrs. Hill,” the earl responded. “Mr. Collins, when was the last time you ate, sir?”

 

“Yesterday,” that man responded weakly.

 

“Do you have anything baked with sugar, Mrs. Hill? Perhaps something that was served this morning?” The housekeeper nodded. “With some bread, meat, cheese, and a glass of milk please.”

 

“He has not eaten since yesterday?” Miss Kitty asked quietly.

 

“Unfortunately, that is all too common, Miss Kitty. It was something I came across many times when I was on the continent,” the earl replied gently. “Are you feeling better, Mr. Collins? Would you like us to help you sit?”

 

“Please,” was the weak reply.

 

The room was very quiet as Palmrich and William helped Mr. Collins stand and move to a chair. As they sat him down, Mrs. Hill walked in with the requested items.

 

“Eat this biscuit right away sir,” Mrs. Hill ordered.

 

“Thank you, Mrs. Hill,” Palmrich said. “Mr. Collins, when you are done with the biscuit, eat some bread, meat, and cheese. Be careful you do not eat too fast or you could make yourself sick.”

 

Everyone in the room watched quietly as Mr. Collins ate his light meal. When he was done, Mrs. Hill took his dishes and exited the parlour.

 

“Do you feel well enough to tell us what has brought you to Longbourn today?” Palmrich asked.

 

“Palmrich, I am sure the military man in you took over once Mr. Collins was in distress, but perhaps we should finish the introductions before asking the man to tell complete strangers his story,” William said dryly.

 

“Mr. Jones,” Mrs. Hill announced.

 

“Jones, thank you for coming so quickly,” Mr. Bennet said. “This is my distant cousin, Mr. Collins.”

 

“Nice to meet you, sir,” Mr. Jones stated as he approached Mr. Collins. “Lord Palmrich, given the bloody handkerchiefs in your hand, I assume you helped when he was injured. Can you tell me what happened?”

 

Mr. Jones nodded a few times as the story was told and then declared, “Well done, that is exactly what I would have suggested. Mr. Collins, do you feel better? Other than a lingering weakness?”

 

“Yes, I do. The earl condescended to help me when I fainted and bloodied my nose. I am well aware of the honour bestowed upon me by his notice of me in my time of need,” the man responded.

 

“Enough, sir!” Palmrich interrupted when Mr. Collins paused to take a breath. “By all that is holy, why do you use at least thirty words when three would do? Mr. Jones asked you a question about the state of your health. You should have answered him concisely and then waited for his next question. You do not need to waste his time by flattering me and offering meaningless platitudes.”

 

“Thank you, My Lord,” Mr. Jones said amusedly. “Mr. Collins, since the light meal seems to have taken care of your fainting spell, would you tell me, briefly, what caused this rash on your neck?”

 

When Mr. Collins did not speak, Mr. Bennet said, “Perhaps he should start with why he was late? His letter indicated he would be here over an hour ago.”

 

Mr. Bennet’s question had flustered that man’s cousin and Reginald had a flash of inspiration. “Mr. Collins, please do not be embarrassed about your answer. My good friend, Mr. Darcy, is courting your second eldest cousin and I am calling on Miss Bennet,” he said. He glanced at Jane and found her smiling beatifically at him. Saying he was calling on her was a slight exaggeration, but he felt the need to make his prior connection known. “Everyone in this room is related to the Bennet’s or has a close friendship. I promise, whatever you say, will be kept private, sir.”

 

“Introduce the poor man to everyone, Mr. Bennet, so he knows Mr. Hurst speaks the truth,” Lady Catherine all but commanded and that man complied.

 

“Now is the time, sir,” the earl ordered. “What happened on your way to Longbourn?”

 

Mr. Collins opened his mouth as though he was going to speak and then tears filled his eyes and he started crying softly.

 

Anne de Bourgh surprised everyone by giving the man her handkerchief to use. “Take your time, sir. Everyone needs to cry sometimes. You tell us when you are ready.”

 

The act of compassion seemed to break a dam inside Mr. Collins and his body was racked with heaving sobs of anguish.

 

Mr. Collins had almost finished crying when the door to the parlour opened and the Gardiner children ran to their parents.

 

“Mama,” young Philip said, “why is that man crying?”

 

“He is sad,” Mrs. Gardiner answered quietly with her arms around her sons.

 

Reginald watched in awe as the three-year-old he was introduced to earlier in the day walked over to Mr. Collins, patted his hand, and said, “You will get better. God can be your rock. He will help you.”

 

“Thank you, young man. I needed to hear that,” Mr. Collins stated.

 

Mrs. Hill walked in and announced that dinner was ready. “Shall I tell cook to hold it for a bit, ma’am?”

 

“Mr. Jones?” Mrs. Bennet asked.

 

“I think dinner would be more beneficial to this young man than anything else at this moment.”

 

“Would you like to join us? You could see to Mr. Collins’ other injuries afterwards? Unless you would prefer to eat the meal your cook left.”

 

“I appreciate and accept the offer, Mrs. Bennet. I never turn down the opportunity to have a well-cooked hot meal,” Mr. Jones replied.

 

“We will eat now, Mrs. Hill, and continue our discussion after dinner. Please add a spot for Mr. Jones,” Mrs. Bennet ordered. “I apologize, Mr. Collins. This was to be a family dinner. I invited the children to join us at the table. My brother returns to London tomorrow and I wanted to give him more time with his family.”

 

“Having children around is something I rarely get to experience. I am sure we shall have a pleasant dinner,” Mr. Collins responded with a slight smile.

 

“Mr. Collins, please follow Mrs. Hill. She will take you to a room where you may wash your face and hands before we eat,” Mrs. Bennet told her guest.

~*~

Longbourn, Hertfordshire
Monday, November 18, 1811

 

Fitzwilliam Darcy was torn. He expected to loathe Mr. Collins and he found himself feeling sorry for the man. He was obviously in dire straits and something must have happened on the man’s way to Longbourn.

 

He needed to speak with Palmrich privately after dinner. Their original plan was crafted to deal with an arrogant man who was trying to weasel his way into a comfortable situation and possibly compromise a young lady. The information they had learned since Mr. Collins’ arrival, meant he could no longer follow through. They would have to adjust their course of action.

 

William was unsure if it was the set down Palmrich had given him or that he had broken down and sobbed cathartic tears, but Mr. Collins seemed different now. Granted he had not known the man long, but there was less of the odd subservience and arrogance mix that he projected as a first impression. During the meal, his intelligence was showing through in subtle ways.

 

It was difficult to eat and not discuss what was on the mind of every adult at the table. Thankfully, the children helped. Little Philip requested that he be allowed to sit next to Mr. Collins and told him all about the games he plays with his siblings while Andrew, Sophia, and Emily kept their dinner companions entertained.

 

As soon as possible, Mrs. Bennet ended the meal. Mrs. Gardiner took her children upstairs to help prepare them for bed, Mr. Jones took Mr. Collins to the kitchen to clean his leg wound, Mrs. Bennet took the ladies to the parlour, and Mr. Bennet took the rest of the gentlemen to his study for a drink. William was able to pull Palmrich to the side of the study for a quiet discussion.

 

Once everyone was back in the parlour, he asked, “Mr. Collins, would you feel more comfortable telling your story only to your family? The residents of Haye Park will leave if you desire us to.”

 

“Thank you, Mr. Darcy, but I have come to realize Mr. Hurst was correct. You are all very close and I trust you will keep my affairs private,” Mr. Collins answered. He took a deep breath and continued. “Mr. Bennet, I owe you an apology for myself and my father. I do vaguely remember the previous visit I made to your estate. My father was very upset when the magistrate made us leave. I did love and honour my father, but I am realizing he was not all that a father should be.”

 

The ladies all gasped and Mr. Collins was quick to clarify.

 

“Please, I did not mean to insinuate my father ever physically abused me. He was not a violent man, neither was he warm. He would yell at and berate me, but he never laid a hand on me other than the times it was necessary as a means to correct my unacceptable behaviour. Father enjoyed the meaningless platitudes, as the earl called them, very much and encouraged my comments.”

 

“I know the type,” the earl said with a nod. “I served under a few of them. They use you to build up their own sense of worth, while breaking yours down.”

 

“What brought you to Longbourn and what happened on the trip?” Mr. Bennet asked.

 

“My father was not very good with his money. It is a good thing you sent him packing, Mr. Bennet, he most likely would have bankrupted the estate within a year,” Mr. Collins said dejectedly. “I was forced to sell his house when he died and barely had enough to pay off his debts. I had no money, no job, and no prospects for a job. It is hard to find work when you cannot afford paper or ink to write letters of inquiry, to pay for return post, or to travel to interviews.”

 

“Thank you for the explanation,” Mr. Bennet said. “I understand the frame of mind you were in when you wrote me that letter. Why did you ignore my refusal?”

 

“I had no choice, sir. Not unless I wanted to live on the streets. My room was only paid through last night and I only had enough money to feed myself one time a day. I was forced to sell all my books, my trunk, and most of my clothes to survive. Yesterday, I spent the last of my funds purchasing a stagecoach ticket, even though I could only afford to go as far as the stop before Meryton, and a modest morning meal. I literally do not have a single farthing to my name.”

 

“That explains why you have not eaten since yesterday and why you fainted when you arrived. Frankly, I am amazed you made it all the way to Longbourn,” the earl said. “What about your injuries?”

 

“Before you answer that question, how are you feeling, Mr. Collins?” Mr. Jones asked. “It is easy to overeat and make yourself sick when you go a full day without eating.”

 

“I feel better, sir,” Mr. Collins responded.

 

“Mr. Collins, I am so sorry for what you went through,” Miss Lydia said genuinely. “I have been fortunate enough to never truly experience hunger. The closest I came was earlier this year when my parents sent me to Scotland for a few months with a trusted servant to teach me how to behave properly. Mrs. Tucker made me walk alongside the carriage for part of one day and skip our mid-day meal. Other than a few times when I was ill, I have never been forced to go without food for an entire day. You have my sympathies, sir.”

 

“Thank you, Miss Lydia,” Mr. Collins said.

 

“Your injuries, sir?” Mr. Jones asked. “You told me what happened to your leg and I am sorry to be pushy about the rest, but the rash looks painful and I would like to start my drive home before it gets dark, if possible.”

 

“The only benefit to having few personal possessions, was that I did not have to drag a trunk almost five miles to Longbourn. Just outside of the town the coach dropped me off in, I came across three dogs fighting on the other side of the road. I tried to be as quiet as possible while passing, but one of them came after me and chased me up a tree.”

 

“Thankfully, he tore his pants and injured his leg on a tree branch,” Mr. Jones said with a grin. “Dog bites can be nasty wounds.”

 

“Do not forget that I slipped while getting down and fell into a mud puddle,” Mr. Collins offered depreciatingly. “Further down the road, a large bee started flying around my head. I tried to ignore it, but it started coming closer. I ran into the woods hoping to escape, but it stung my neck. I was disoriented and ran through a patch of thorn bushes.”

 

“Have you ever had an issue with bee stings before?” Mr. Jones asked. “It is a nasty rash, but it is not swollen.”

 

“No, sir. I cannot ever remember being stung before.”

 

“Good,” Mr. Jones responded. “None of the scratches seem bad enough to warrant a bandage.”

 

“Poor Mr. Collins,” his sister said with glistening eyes. “William, is there anything we can do to help him?”

 

“Georgiana, please let him finish,” he said gently.

 

“It took me a few minutes, but I managed to find my way back to the road. As you can imagine, I cheered when I finally saw the signs indicating I was almost to Longbourn,” Mr. Collins finished.

 

“Life is horrible sometimes,” Dobbs said quietly.

 

“Oh, you poor man,” Miss Bennet said with tears in her eyes. “Papa, Georgie is right. We must help him.”

 

“I agree, Georgie and Jane are both right,” Miss de Bourgh said. “Can we do anything, mother?”

 

“Perhaps, Anne, but let us not be too hasty,” Lady Catherine answered with a glance at him and the earl.

 

“Mr. Collins,” William said, “between the estate owners in this room, we have around twenty livings in our care.” He had to pause for a moment and smile at the look of astonishment on Mr. Collins’ face.

 

“Darcy is correct, although it might be closer to thirty. However, I believe all of us are leery to consider you for any of them,” Palmrich said bluntly.

 

“I can understand that, sirs,” Mr. Collins said dejectedly. “I made a fool of myself with the letter I wrote and then because I ignored Mr. Bennet’s refusal. I did not act the part of a prospective rector.”

 

William was starting to be impressed and could tell the former general was too.

 

“Father, please. There must be something we can do,” Elizabeth said. “Maybe he could stay here for a week and we could help him write letters to prospective employers?”

 

“I understand there are no available rooms,” Mr. Collins said. “I would be happy to sleep in the hay loft with a few blankets. Anything so I do not have to sleep outside in the cold overnight.”

 

William shared a look with Palmrich who hung his head slightly, sighed, and nodded his approval to proceed with their alternate idea.

 

“Mr. Collins, for the next few days, you are welcome to stay with us at Haye Park. My sister, Miss Darcy, and cousin, Miss de Bourgh, are staying at Longbourn to care for the children while Mrs. Gardiner helps Mrs. Bennet prepare for the babe,” he said, coming up with a valid reason on the spot. He was spending too much time with Mr. Bennet. It was not exactly a deceptive statement, Georgie had been excited to hear the children were expected and started planning what games they would play and outings she would offer to escort them on. Although, it was not the complete truth of admitting they were trying to fill rooms so they had a legitimate excuse to deny his request to visit.

 

“I am a retired general of the army, Mr. Collins. I have a set way of doing things and do not suffer fools or flattery from anyone,” the earl said with narrowed eyes. “That said, I feel obligated to inform you that the vicar of my primary estate’s church is getting older and recently suggested I start looking for a curate to assist him with the duties.”

 

Mr. Collins looked excited until the earl continued.

 

“I need to make it absolutely, without a doubt, crystal clear that there are no promises being made here. At all. If you pass Mr. Porter’s inspection, we will discuss the possibility of you becoming my curate. The living has not been promised to anyone after Mr. Porter retires, but again, whether it is eventually offered to you would depend on how the congregation responds to you. I will not have a vicar that the neighbourhood does not like or trust. I must be completely honest, from what I have seen so far, it would take nothing less than a complete about face for me to offer you the living. Assuming you become the curate, you would do well to pay attention to Mr. Porter and use his behaviour as an example of how a proper man of God acts.”

 

“I would welcome the chance, My Lord,” Mr. Collins said gratefully.

 

“I am engaged to a woman from Meryton and will be leaving for my estate first thing Friday morning. Presuming I do not change my mind before then, you may ride with me in my carriage,” the earl offered.

 

“Oh, thank you, My Lord. I cannot thank you enough for deigning to give someone as unworthy as me the opportunity to essentially interview for such an exalted position...” Mr. Collins stopped abruptly. “I apologize for my outburst and thank you for offering transportation.”

 

William saw his Aunt Catherine share a look with Lady Dobbs before she opened her mouth to speak. He could not wait to hear this.

 

“Mr. Collins,” Lady Catherine said, “you will spend some time with me and Lady Dobbs tomorrow discussing your religious dogma. You will also go riding with my nephew, Mr. Hurst, Mr. Dobbs, and the Earl of Palmrich. If you start falling into old habits, none of us will hesitate to tell you to be quiet.”

 

“I am sorry, My Lady, but I do not know how to ride a horse,” Mr. Collins said quietly while blushing.

 

William did not think it was possible, but he felt even worse for this young man and the environment he was raised in.

 

“We will give you horseback riding lessons this week, Mr. Collins,” he offered.

 

“Aye, believe it or not, a lot of the things we will probably end up teaching you, I learned this past June. I joined the navy when I was twelve years old. I was injured four months ago and found out my father bought me an estate,” Dobbs informed the man. “Palmrich, if you think it beneficial, I would be willing to join you when you return to your estate to help continue the lessons we started.”

 

Elizabeth started giggling.

 

“What is so funny, Lizzy,” her father asked.

 

“Lord Palmrich, if your vicar approves Mr. Collins becoming the curate, you may want to send him back to Haye Park for a few months before you make your final decision. It seems Mr. Darcy keeps finding people who need his help, strays if you will. Perhaps he should place an advertisement in all of the London papers. He could start his own finishing school for young men.”

 

He smiled at this vibrant woman that he was completely spellbound by. Life would certainly never be boring with Elizabeth around.

Chapter Text

Chapter 27

 

Phillips Residence, Meryton
Wednesday, November 20, 1811

 

Elizabeth Bennet looked across the de Bourgh carriage and said, “Lady Catherine and Lady Dobbs, thank you for transporting me, Jane, Mary, and Anne to Aunt Phillips’ card party and for agreeing to chaperone us. Before my aunt invited us to her party, my father had told Mrs. Annesley that she was free to have a quiet night alone to catch up on her correspondence. He would never have gone back on his word and truly appreciated that he could stay home with my mother, Kitty, Lydia, and Georgie tonight.”

 

“Do you have so little respect for my parenting, that you think I would let my daughter attend a card party without me, let alone ride in a carriage with only a maid?” Lady Catherine asked with a raised brow.

 

“Oh mama, you know I would never have been alone with a single maid for protection. Besides the Bennet sisters, there are all our maids and Allan and Jones, who, as you know, are riding alongside the carriage. There is also another Longbourn footman on the bench with the driver,” Anne told her mother. “We are well enough protected to be attending an evening party in London.”

 

“Have you girls seen Mr. Collins since Monday?” Lady Dobbs asked.

 

Elizabeth grinned at Lady Dobbs’ fairly obvious attempt to deflect the results of Lady Catherine’s poor attempt at teasing. It could have been worse, at least she did not ask what they thought about the recent weather.

 

“Briefly. The seven of us walked to Meryton yesterday,” Jane answered Lady Dobbs before turning to Lady Catherine. “Do not worry, we were accompanied by Mrs. Annesley, our maids, Allan and Jones, and I saw Alfie a few times when there was sparse coverage to be found on the countryside. While we were shopping, we came across Mr. Darcy, Mr. Hurst, Mr. Dobbs, Lord Palmrich, and Mr. Collins on a short riding lesson.”

 

“I must say, the difference in him was conspicuous even then,” Mary said. “I did not expect a noticeable change to happen so quickly.”

 

“I probably should not tell you this,” Lady Dobbs said, “but my nephew is close enough in height to Mr. Collins, that his valet was able to outfit your cousin in some of Reginald’s clothes that he could no longer wear.”

 

Elizabeth thought back on their encounter and smiled. “I think I was so amazed that his face and hair were clean, his hair was cut, his clothing was not torn, and he looked overall in better health, that I did not notice his clothes no longer fit him horribly. Now that you pointed it out, they were of better quality and not all black.”

 

“That was very nice of Mr. Hurst,” Jane said while blushing.

 

“Another young man I would be honoured, should the opportunity arise of course, to call brother,” Mary said.

 

Elizabeth could feel her cheeks burning and saw Jane was in the same condition. Anne, Lady Dobbs, and Lady Catherine laughed good naturedly at them. Thankfully, the carriage came to a stop in front of her aunt and uncle’s home before a response was required.

 

“Thank you, Allen,” she told their footman when he assisted her down. “Aunt Phillips told me you and Jones were welcome to come inside with our maids. As she said, ‘the more the merrier.’”

 

“Thank you, Miss.”

 

As they were announced, Elizabeth looked to see if the men from Haye Park had arrived. She heard Jane sigh in disappointment and had to agree.

 

“Look Jane, I think that man with Captain Carter, Lieutenant Denny, Lieutenant Wickham is Colonel Forster, and, even though we can only see the back of her, I assume his wife is here. Should we speak with them?” Elizabeth asked. She was surprised when her sister grabbed her arm tightly. “What is wrong, Jane?”

 

“Lizzy, Mr. and Miss Bingley and Mrs. Verdier are here,” Jane hissed.

 

Elizabeth was immediately concerned for her sister. Mr. Bingley had moderated his behaviour, significantly. He glanced at Jane often, occasionally was caught outright staring, and he still paid Jane more attention than her sister was willing to receive from the man, but overall, he did nothing that was objectionable. Jane appreciated that Mrs. Verdier seemed to be aware of the situation and would ask Mr. Bingley a question if he forgot himself and stared for a long period of time.

 

“I am sorry, girls,” Aunt Evelyn said quietly from behind them. “Your uncle was extending an invitation to the Colonel and his men when Mr. Bingley happened upon them. He must have thought one was forthcoming to the Netherfield party too, because Mr. Bingley accepted in front of half a dozen people. It would have ruined what little acceptance the siblings have gained if your uncle publicly informed him they were not invited.”

 

“I understand, aunt. There was nothing my uncle could do. It would have been seen as a cut to their family and it would be unlikely they would have received another invitation from our neighbours,” Jane said quietly.

 

Elizabeth also understood, but she did not like that Jane was nervous they would see the Bingley’s every time they accepted an invitation.

 

“Come along, Jane. Let us talk to the militia men. If that is Mrs. Forster, I will make sure you are next to her with me on your other side,” she said.

 

“The Colonel did bring his wife. Go quickly. The Bingley’s are walking this way. I will intercept them,” Aunt Evelyn said while gently shooing them away.

 

Elizabeth heard her aunt greeting the Bingley’s and Mrs. Verdier as she and Jane approached the militia group.

 

“Colonel Forster, it is nice to see you again. Is this your wife you have told us so much about? My elder sister, Jane, is very anxious to meet and welcome her to our community,” Elizabeth asked while manoeuvring Jane to the right of said lady.

 

The Colonel turned slightly to the left and stared at her for a moment in confusion, before something over her shoulder caught his attention. His face expressed understanding and he nodded slightly. “It would be my pleasure. Harriet was looking forward to meeting the young gentlewomen from the area.” After performing the introductions, he suggested, “You ladies should step closer to the wall and my men and I will make sure you are not interrupted while you get acquainted.”

 

“Thank you for your understanding, sir,” she said gratefully.

 

Jane fell into an easy conversation with Mrs. Forster and Elizabeth’s mind wandered. Lady Catherine had insisted on inspecting their hair and attire before leaving Longbourn, which caused them to arrive fifteen minutes late. She was surprised that William was not here. He was normally a very punctual person.

 

“If I was still a betting man, I would wager my pay this month that you were looking for Darcy,” Lieutenant Wickham said from next to her.

 

Elizabeth was unsure what she thought about this man. She heard such conflicting reports about him from William, Georgie, Alfie, Maggie, and the other Darcy servants. She decided to be cautious until speaking more thoroughly with William. “Yes, I expected him to be here when we arrived.”

 

“How long has Darcy been in Meryton?”

 

“Since June,” said Elizabeth. Then, unwilling to let the subject drop just yet, added, “He is a man of very large property in Derbyshire. His aunt, Lady Catherine, and cousin, Miss de Bourgh, are in attendance too.”

 

“Yes, I saw you enter with them,” replied Mr. Wickham. “Darcy’s estate there is a noble one, indeed. It clears ten thousand per annum, at least that is the figure bandied about London drawing rooms. You could not have met with a person more capable of giving you certain information on that head than myself, for I have been connected with his family in a particular manner from my infancy.”

 

Elizabeth could not help but look surprised. She had never expected him to offer such personal information during their first real conversation. She wondered if he knew of her courtship with William.

 

“You may well be surprised, Miss Bennet, at such an assertion, after seeing the odd manner of our meeting yesterday in Meryton. I understand you are an acquaintance with Mr. Darcy. Apparently of some duration.”

 

She had wondered at their responses yesterday. When they had unexpectedly met the riding party from Haye Park in Meryton the previous day, William suggested the men dismount to allow Mr. Collins to stretch his legs. Their large group walked a few circuits around the village while conversing and looking at the goods through the store windows. The gentlemen were getting ready to mount their horses again when a few militia men, including Lieutenant Wickham, chanced upon them. Elizabeth had happened to see the countenance of both as they looked at each other. She was all astonishment at the effect of the innocent meeting. Both men looked shocked. After a brief pause, Mr. Wickham touched his hat in greeting which Mr. Darcy returned. The militia men greeted the members of their party that were known to them and continued along their original path, with Mr. Wickham seeming eager to be in the lead. She did not know what to make of the occurrence.

 

“Not as much as I might like to be,” Elizabeth responded after a short pause.

 

“A word of advice,” Mr. Wickham said with a smile, “As boys, we all grew up hearing Lady Catherine expound on the reasons why Darcy and Miss de Bourgh were intended for each other. His aunt is not likely to give up her dreams of combining the estates of Pemberley and Rosings Park.”

 

Elizabeth smiled brilliantly when she saw William walk in with Mr. Hurst, Mr. Dobbs, and Mr. Collins. Elizabeth caught Mr. Hurst’s eye and inconspicuously elbowed her sister. She absentmindedly noticed Mr. Wickham had left her side when the Haye Park men were announced.

 

When Mr. Hurst arrived, she said, “Jane, I believe you will have to do the honour of introducing your friends to Mr. Hurst. Please excuse me.”

 

Poor William had been intercepted by Mrs. Long who asked him to introduce his new friend to her nieces. She was able to remove him from their group after a few moments without causing offense.

 

“Thank you, Elizabeth. Should we have rescued Mr. Collins too?”

 

“He will be fine. Mrs. Long paid a call at Longbourn yesterday and knows a little bit about his circumstances. She might be laying the seeds for future matchmaking plans, but knowing of his recent struggles, it is highly unlikely that she will decide to pounce tonight,” she responded with a saucy grin causing William to let out a full belly laugh.

 

Elizabeth delighted in making this reserved man laugh in public. She noticed almost everyone in the room had paused and were smiling indulgently at them, except the Bingley’s. The siblings were practically ignoring her Aunt Evelyn. Mr. Bingley kept glancing frequently at Jane and Mr. Hurst with a frown on his face while Miss Bingley was staring daggers at her and William. Mrs. Verdier had been approached by Lady Lucas and the pair were making their way to the other side of the room towards most of the matrons.

 

“Miss Bingley is seriously displeased with me,” she commented. “Let us join Jane and Mr. Hurst. I see they are still seeking the protection of the Colonel.”

 

“What do you mean, the Colonel’s protection?” William asked.

 

She explained what happened when they arrived, and his expression darkened.

 

“Apparently another conversation with Bingley is necessary.”

 

“Uncle Stuart told us at dinner yesterday that he had an appointment with Mr. Bingley earlier that day to discuss some legal matters and he took the opportunity to have a conversation with him too. Mr. Bingley’s behaviour has improved, significantly,” she assured him. “He no longer makes Jane uncomfortable. Jane is simply hesitant to give him the slightest bit of encouragement because she worries he may take it as a sign she welcomes his attentions. She prefers to avoid him altogether.”

 

“I certainly understand her reasoning. I used the same approach for another Bingley,” William admitted wryly. “Perhaps I should have been forthright with her sooner. Her behaviour previously was only a nuisance. I did not feel the situation warranted embarrassing her and possibly acting ungentlemanly.”

 

“William, I know you. It would require the best of reasons for you to behave outside the bounds of propriety,” she assured him. “It should please you to hear that Uncle Stuart said the business that brought Mr. Bingley to his door, of course he would not tell us what exactly it was, and Lydia’s conjectures are driving me to distraction, means he is taking a more active role in managing Netherfield.”

 

“That is encouraging to hear. I guess it should not surprise me. When he was at university, Bingley was widely known as the last student to master difficult lessons. He was the student who would barely pass a class until the final exam. He would actually study for the finals and usually pass with an acceptable grade.”

 

“Perhaps he realized how close to losing your friendship he was and finally decided to apply himself? Although, he still needs to take a firmer hand with his sister. She clearly did not listen to the rebuke you told me Mr. Bingley gave her outside at the assembly. Do you think he understands what she is about?” she asked curiously.

 

“I cannot discern the answer without second guessing myself and that worries me,” William sighed. “Sometimes he looks at her and I am sure he suspects something, but more often he appears oblivious to her actions.”

 

“Why were you late tonight?” she asked.

 

“A messenger arrived from Pemberley. Mr. Grey and Ward encountered a problem with a tenant house and needed me to approve their proposed solution.”

 

“I appreciate what a diligent master you are. I am not sure I would be able to respect a man who left his entire estate in the hands of his staff,” Elizabeth admitted.

 

“I do not believe I ever informed you of this fact, but when Bingley first mentioned he was looking to lease an estate, he told me and Reginald that he thought we would take care of everything for him. He actually thought he could sit back and enjoy the sports and activities offered in the country and abdicate all responsibility for estate matters to the two of us,” he told her.

 

She had suspected Mr. Bingley was weak-willed, especially where his sister was concerned, but to hear that he planned to expect his best friend and brother-in-law to run his estate was too much.

 

“Please William,” Mr. Hurst said as he and Jane joined them, “I do not want to speak of them any longer tonight. I accepted this invitation to spend the evening with the beautiful Bennet sisters.”

 

“Does you mean that you do not consider Kitty and Lydia to be beautiful?” Mary asked as she also joined them.

 

“Did you ladies enjoy the beautiful weather we were blessed with today? We managed to inspect the tenant houses of Haye Park while furthering Mr. Collins’ riding lessons,” Mr. Hurst said innocently.

 

“Well done, sir,” Mary said with a laugh before continuing quietly. “The Bingley’s are walking this way. Prepare yourselves.”

 

“Darcy, what have you been up to this week? I have not seen you since church this past Sunday,” Mr. Bingley said with a glance at Jane.

 

“Bingley,” William acknowledged with a nod while patting her hand resting on his arm. “I have been busy these past few days. The Earl of Palmrich is my guest this week while he visits his betrothed. Also, since Georgie and Anne are occupying guest rooms at Longbourn and Mrs. Bennet’s brother’s family is visiting, Mr. Bennet and I thought it best that his cousin stay at Haye Park.”

 

Elizabeth was watching Miss Bingley’s reactions closely. It was amusing to see whether or not she guessed correctly. When William did not acknowledge Miss Bingley’s presence, her eyes narrowed. She mentally counted one point. When he patted her hand, Miss Bingley’s lips pursed and her eyes were squinted so closely together, for a moment Elizabeth thought Miss Bingley had closed her eyes. That made two points.

 

“Yes, Mr. Phillips mentioned your guests,” Mr. Bingley said.

 

Then why did he ask what William had been doing? By the way his eyebrow rose, Elizabeth could tell William was thinking the same thing. As predicted, Miss Bingley rolled her eyes slightly. Three points.

 

“Miss Bennet, how are you doing this evening?” Mr. Bingley asked Jane.

 

“Well, sir,” Jane replied succinctly.

 

Elizabeth almost rolled her eyes at Mr. Bingley’s obviousness. When Mr. Hurst patted Jane’s hand comfortingly, she guessed correctly that Miss Bingley’s eyes would narrow again. Four points.

 

“Mr. Hurst, I was surprised to see you attending a card party while in half-mourning,” Miss Bigley said judgmentally.

 

“As I am sure you remember, my mourning ends in six days,” Mr. Hurst responded. “Perhaps you are unaware, but, especially in the country, it is completely acceptable for me to join society.”

 

Miss Bingley blanched and then blushed at the reminders of what happened a year ago and her inexperience with matters pertaining to a country estate. She was getting better at this. Two in a row. That made six points.

 

“You are absolutely correct, Mr. Hurst. Your behaviour would be deemed appropriate even if you were in London,” Anne said as she joined their group. “It is not as though you started wearing half-mourning colours a month early and took a very public shopping trip to Bond Street while trying to invite people you barely knew to a ball you were throwing the next week.”

 

She added two more points when Miss Bingley gasped and then paled so deeply, she was afraid the woman might faint. She was up to eight.

 

“Jane, mother asked me to fetch you and Mr. Hurst. She was telling Mrs. Long about our trip to the theatre as guests in the Dorset box. I need both of you to help me clarify a few points about both ducal couples,” Anne said with a huge grin.

 

Miss Bingley turned so green with envy, Elizabeth thought the woman would toss her accounts. Nine.

 

“Of course,” Jane said before turning to follow Anne.

 

“Miss Bennet,” Mr. Bingley said desperately, “before you walk away, I wanted to let you know that Mrs. Nicholls suggested we host a ball at Netherfield. If the weather holds, we will be delivering invitations tomorrow. I wanted to take this opportunity to ask you for the...”

 

“Mr. Bingley, there you are,” Uncle Stuart said loudly. “I have Mr. Collins with me. Yesterday in my office, you asked me to introduce him to you and your sister at the first opportunity.”

 

She stopped keeping track when Miss Bingley gasped and seemed horrified when Uncle Stuart prevented her brother from talking.

 

Mr. Bingley looked upset as Mr. Hurst took the opportunity to escort Jane away by saying, “We will let you speak with Mr. Phillips.”

 

William followed Mr. Hurst’s example and excused them. She giggled at the grateful look he gave her uncle.

 

“William, I know you and Mr. Bingley have been friends for years, and it is probably a case of opposite personalities attracting each other, but how do you account for the friendship beginning in the first place? Did he not remind you of a puppy begging for scraps?” she asked. William started laughing deeply again and she was surprised, which in turn made him laugh even harder. She patiently watched him as he brought himself under better regulation.

 

“I apologize, Elizabeth, truly. I am sure you are unaware, but you are the third person to tell me something like that. Georgie and Reginald both referred to Bingley’s actions as puppy-like,” he admitted.

 

“That is amusing,” she agreed with a smile. “We should circulate through the room and talk to the other guests. Now is truly not the time for us to have that conversation.”

 

The next hour passed pleasantly. They managed to avoid the Bingley’s without being terribly obvious, she hoped, and had some coffee and a muffin. When the card-tables were placed, they sat down with Jane and Mr. Hurst to play a few games of whist before switching to lottery tickets.

 

While playing, she noticed Mr. Wickham was approached by Miss Bingley. He looked confused for a moment and then she appeared to introduce herself. Curious. She needed to have that conversation with William about Mr. Wickham. She would demand straight answers from him. So far, she had been content with his assurances that everything was well and there was nothing to worry about.

 

When their lottery game broke up, she and William sat at another table with her Aunt Evelyn and Mr. Collins to play a game of whist. Mr. Collins was not very good, he lost every point, but he assured them he did enjoy playing and was learning more strategies than ever before. The two pairs played again till supper put an end to cards.

 

As they were waiting to be seated, she was surprised to see another woman approaching Mr. Wickham. Whatever the second woman said also appeared to confuse him for a moment until a look of recognition overcame his features.

 

“What are you looking at, Elizabeth,” William asked her quietly.

 

“Do you know who that woman talking to Mr. Wickham is? He seemed confused when she walked up to him, but whatever she said seemed to cause him to remember her. I do not believe I have been introduced to her, which is odd. The Meryton area is small and anytime someone new arrives it causes a stir,” she responded.

 

“I do not know who she is, but there is something familiar about her. I feel as though I should know her name. Perhaps she is from Derbyshire, Cambridge, or London? That would explain why he did not recognize her right away,” William offered.

 

“That is possible,” Elizabeth said, not convinced. She noticed how often William’s eyes were drawn to the woman, as though he was trying to call forth the lost memory.

 

Before William handed her into the de Bourgh carriage, Elizabeth was able to arrange to accidentally come across him on her morning walk.

~*~

Phillips Residence, Meryton
Wednesday, November 20, 1811

 

George Wickham wondered if he was dreaming. The man across the room could not be the Fitzwilliam Darcy he grew up with. The only time George had ever seen William look this relaxed was at Pemberley. Here he was talking with the relatively insignificant people of this little town and appeared to be enjoying himself? It was unbelievable.

 

His thoughts were interrupted by the approach of an elegant looking woman wearing a dress in a hideous shade of dark orange. He did not consider himself to be particularly fashionable, a dandy he was not, but even he would never be seen with a woman on his arm wearing that color, especially while in his red uniform jacket.

 

“Mr. Wickham, I understand you grew up at Pemberley.”

 

“We have never been introduced,” he stated confidently. “I am curious how you know my name and county of birth.”

 

“I am Miss Caroline Bingley. My brother Charles is good friends with Fitzwilliam Darcy. He told Charles all about you,” the woman said with a smirk.

 

She was even worse than he had been led to believe by the gossips of Meryton. She was definitely a snake hiding in the grass waiting to strike.

 

“Since you appear to have so much information about me, it is a wonder you bothered to speak to me at all,” he said.

 

“I think we have a similar problem sir,” she told him in a sickeningly sweet voice. “It seemed to me that you were quite taken with Miss Eliza Bennet and Mr. Darcy was to marry me before that country chit turned his eyes.”

 

“Why are you telling me this?” he asked.

 

“Perhaps we can help each other. Our meddling housekeeper suggested we hold a ball next week to socialize more with the community. I will make sure the militia men all receive an invitation. We will need to meet in Meryton to agree on our plans for the night of the ball. That little strumpet will rue the day she tried to take Mr. Darcy from me,” Miss Bingley said with a sneer.

 

What plans? George was astonished by the vehemence displayed by this woman. “I know Darcy is friends with your brother, but surely Mr. Bingley called him out for toying with your affections and jumping from one courtship directly into another.”

 

“Our relationship was of a peculiar sort. We were meant for each other. What is more natural than a man marrying his best friend’s sister? We had an unspoken, but certainly known to us, understanding.”

 

“I comprehend your reasons for approaching me,” he replied. She was nuttier than the fruitcake the cook at Pemberley was famous for baking. There was no doubt about it, this was a dangerous woman.

 

“We will have to be careful. I will try to slip you a note to let you know which day I will be in Meryton. I must go before we are noticed.”

 

He watched her walk away with an uneasy feeling. She would not give up. He managed to avoid Miss Bingley and Darcy after the card games started.

 

Just before dinner, he was approached by yet another unknown woman.

 

“Mr. Wickham, fancy meeting you here, in the same town as Mr. Darcy. I am sure there is a nefarious reason. We should meet again when we are free to speak at length without the risk of being overheard.”

 

“I must admit, you look vaguely familiar, but I have no idea who you are,” he said. What was it with strange women coming up to him tonight? He knew his hair was styled particularly well, but he was seriously regretting leaving his sword on his bed. He did not think he would need it to protect himself at a card party and the Colonel said since it was not a formal affair, and the house was likely to be crowded, it was a good idea to leave their swords off.

 

“I am Mrs. Younge. We met playing cards in London last December. We both expressed our frustration with a certain man from Derbyshire,” she said with a meaningful smile. “You said it would be nice to see him taken down a peg or two and that you felt you were owed more money for the living you gave up. Well, I have an idea.”

 

He noticed Darcy and Miss Elizabeth looking at him and suddenly remembered Darcy’s odd questions about his trips to London and where he played cards. Had Darcy paid someone to follow him or Mrs. Younge?

~*~

Longbourn, Hertfordshire
Thursday, November 21, 1811

 

Fitzwilliam Darcy enjoyed the atmosphere of Longbourn, very much. He hoped Elizabeth would bring some of this liveliness with her to Pemberley. He had already spoken with Mr. Bennet and received his blessing and permission to ask Elizabeth to marry him. He hoped to propose the morning of the ball, have Mr. Bennet announce their engagement at supper, and marry as soon as the banns could be read three weeks later.

 

He wanted to spend their first Christmas as a family together at Pemberley. Given Mrs. Bennet’s condition, he was not sure if Elizabeth would think travelling to Pemberley a viable option. He could see her wanting to stay near Longbourn in case her mother needed her. Being married and staying at Haye Park for the holidays was also acceptable, as long as he was with Elizabeth and Georgiana.

 

He was at Longbourn with Reginald and Aunt Catherine. Lady Dobbs and her son had stayed at Haye Park with Mr. Collins to work on etiquette lessons and protocols.

 

“Miss Bennet, you look terribly nervous. We could walk in the gardens while waiting for the Bingley’s to arrive,” he suggested.

 

“Yes, that sounds like an excellent idea. Mr. Hurst and I will join you and Lizzy,” Miss Bennet said while standing up.

 

The couples walked around the garden chatting about everything and nothing. Elizabeth had asked him many questions about Mr. Wickham on their morning walk. He could see she was unsatisfied with his answers, but he had told her everything he knew. He was certain it was obvious he was as unhappy with the situation as she was. Neither of them liked to not have full control of situations, in that they were well matched.

 

Allan was sent to summon them from the gardens not half an hour later when the Bingley’s and Mrs. Verdier arrived.

 

“Oh, Miss Bennet, there you are. I was hoping we would be able to speak at the card party last night, but you seemed to be in high demand. Please, come sit with me,” Miss Bingley said the moment they walked in. “I was distraught when you were forced to decline my invitation to dinner last week.”

 

Miss Bingley paid the rest of the Bennets little attention and asked Miss Bennet repeatedly what she had done since they last met. William had no idea what was going on, but Miss Bingley surely was up to something.

 

When Bingley was able to get a word in, he invited them all to the Netherfield ball that was fixed for the following Tuesday.

 

“Miss Bennet, might I have the honour of the first set?” Bingley asked.

 

Miss Bennet blushed before responding, “I am sorry sir, but it is unavailable. Mr. Hurst asked me last night.”

 

“The supper set then,” Bingley tried again.

 

“Mr. Hurst requested that one also.”

 

“The final?”

 

“Mr. Darcy asked me for the final set. In fact, all my dances have been promised. My uncle will be back, my cousins will be in town, and the gentlemen from Haye Park asked for the rest of my free sets. I am sure you understand that when you have grown up in a village, certain things are taken for granted. Lizzy and I have long standing arrangements with many of our childhood friends.”

 

What Miss Bennet did not know was that he and Reginald agreed to exchange the final sets. Once the couples were publicly engaged, dancing three sets was acceptable. He was very impatient for next Tuesday to arrive. Maybe he could offer the musicians an incentive to play a waltz for the final set.

 

“I was not a very sociable person growing up, I am sure that comes as a shock to all of you, but I also had arrangements in place. Although, I doubt Miss Bennet holds a dance for her housekeeper and a neighbour in her seventh decade,” he said with a smile.

 

“It could be worse, William,” Hurst said with a grin. “I grew up with Mrs. and Miss Owens and Lady Sheldon next door. Between my mother and the Owens family, a good portion of my sets were spoken for the instant a dance of any sort was announced.”

 

“I grew up in a small market town near a production mill,” Mrs. Verdier explained. “I can assure you that even in the tradesmen class, such arrangements are not uncommon. The men severely outnumbered the women in my hometown. I made sure to leave a few sets open and I varied my partners so I did not hurt anyone’s feelings.”

 

“Will we be allowed to attend, papa?” Miss Lydia aske