The Meryton Assembly was a hopeless crush. The Netherfield party—Lady Anne, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley, Miss Bingley, and Mr. and Mrs. Hurst—arrived as the musicians were tuning their instruments before the dancing began. The public rooms were overflowing with sound and people and their attendant laughter and scents. Darcy was overwhelmed by the latter when he walked into the room. Someone ought to tell the woman who had bathed in rose water that felling any gentlemen who came within sniffing distance ought not to be her goal.
Sir William Lucas had called on Bingley when he first arrived in the neighborhood and he now made his way to the party of newcomers, a broad smile on his face and his blue coat straining at the buttons.
“Mr. Bingley! We are delighted you could join our little assembly!”
Bingley introduced his party, then Sir William introduced his family—a rather plain but sensible looking daughter, another less plain and less sensible daughter, and a wife from whom the overwhelming rose scent seemed to be originating.
Before Darcy knew what had happened, he was promised to dance with Miss Lucas, after she completed the first set with Mr. Bingley. His mother smiled at him knowingly, and he resisted the urge to roll his eyes. It would do him no good regardless. His mother would be appalled if he refrained from dancing while ladies were sitting down. He must do his part as a gentleman, even if he hated every moment of it.
Sir William then led them to a pretty woman near his mother’s age and said she was Mrs. Bennet of Longbourn, the largest estate in the area after Netherfield. This woman proceeded to gush effusions on the guests, but thankfully Darcy was far enough behind the other members of his party that he did not hear everything she said. He did, however, feel his mother pulling his cuff and stepped forward to be introduced to the Bennet daughters where he dutifully asked the eldest to dance. She was engaged for the first set, and the second was promised to Bingley, but she offered him the third with a demure smile and dip of her pretty head, and he was relieved to know he would have at least one passable partner.
His mother’s fingers pinched his wrist and he looked at her, seeing her eyes dart toward another young lady standing before them. Besides the mother, there were three other girls, the pretty eldest he had already engaged for the third, a shorter brunette he had glanced over, and a bored looking girl who didn’t look much older than Georgiana and seemed to wish she were anywhere else. Assuming she wanted him to dance with the middle daughter, he looked at her questioningly, hoping she understood that he had not heard the young lady’s name.
“Miss Elizabeth,” said Lady Anne, “I do love the shade of your gown. That fabric is so elegant.”
The one called Miss Elizabeth thanked her and said she had gotten it on her last trip to town.
Before his mother could pinch him again, Darcy said, “Miss Elizabeth, might I have your hand if you are not engaged for the next?”
“I am not engaged, sir.”
Lady Anne smiled happily and sent the young couples off to dance, happy with her work for the moment.
“Such a handsome man is your son, my lady,” said Mrs. Bennet.
Anne was surprised it was said so quietly, as everything else that lady had said had been at a volume designed to be heard over the musicians. At least Anne hoped that was her reason. She was glad to know the lady could speak at a more discreet level. And was that wistfulness she heard in her tone? Or was she imagining things?
“Yes, he is a very handsome young man, though I shouldn’t boast of my own child,” said Anne with no little pride.
“Tosh! Mothers ought to be able to boast of their children amongst each other. We’ve earned that right.” Mrs. Bennet shifted her weight and pursed her lips, looking like a hen on her roost.
Lady Anne smiled. “Yes, I suppose we have. Your daughters do you credit. They are very beautiful and such graceful dancers.” She looked to the dancers moving down the line.
“Yes, they are lovely girls. My Jane is the beauty of the county, everyone says so, though I have a mother’s partiality. Elizabeth has the look of her father’s mother about her, but she is pretty in her way.”
Lady Anne looked carefully at the young lady they were speaking of as she danced down the line with her son. “That she is. She seems a happy sort of girl,” she added with a tilt of her head. Miss Elizabeth smiled broadly at the ladies she was standing in a circle with as they danced about, then turned back to her partner. Did Fitzwilliam nearly crack a smile? Such joy would be contagious, Anne thought.
“Oh, yes! My Lizzy is very cheerful. Always laughing and singing and scampering about. She has been that way since she was young. She has not Jane’s figure, but she is lively.”
“I think her figure light and pleasing,” said Lady Anne. Miss Elizabeth was not voluptuous, but neither was she boyish. Though compared to her sister, Anne could see why Mrs. Bennet referred to her as she did. Miss Bennet was everything feminine and lovely. Honey colored hair, bright blue eyes, ivory skin with cheeks pink from dancing, and a figure that kept her partner’s attention riveted to her neckline.
Mrs. Bennet was about to respond that Elizabeth was too thin, but looking at her very slim conversation partner, she wisely, and uncharacteristically, closed her mouth before she could say something that would insult the lady. After all, Lady Anne was the daughter of an earl and the mother of an eligible son. Who knew how many nephews and cousins she knew who might be in need of pretty young wives?
Wanting to find out more, she said, “Your son seems an excellent dancer. Is he your eldest child?”
“Thank you, and yes, he is my eldest. I have a daughter waiting for us at Netherfield—she is only fifteen and not yet out, and two more sons. Nathaniel is away at Eton, but Luke is here in Hertfordshire.”
There was that wistfulness again. She was sure of it this time. “Do you have a son, Mrs. Bennet?” she asked softly.
Mrs. Bennet looked away, then back at her feet. “No, I do not. There was once—but he—but it was not to be.”
Lady Anne knew that look well. She recognized the pain on the other woman’s face and impulsively reached out and grasped her hand. Mrs. Bennet raised her head in surprise, and the two ladies shared a look of understanding before Lady Anne released her hand.
“You have three healthy daughters. That is something to be proud of.”
“Three! Oh, my lady! I have five! My two youngest were in the other room when we were introduced. They are just there dancing. The tall one with the blue ribbons is Lydia, and the one in the pink dress is Kitty.”
Lady Anne nodded as she found the giggling girls in the crowd. “Five daughters is quite the accomplishment.”
Mrs. Bennet beamed and wanting to return the compliment, said, “Your son has a very noble look about him. Does he take after your side of the family?”
“No, he is nearly the image of his father, though George was rather larger.”
“Larger?” Mrs. Bennet squeaked before she could stop herself. She clapped a hand over her mouth, hoping she had not offended the lady. But really? Larger? Than Mr. Darcy? The man who stood a full head above Jane who was quite the tallest woman in the area. He towered over poor Lizzy. The top of her head only reached his shoulder!
Lady Anne smiled and shook her head. “I know. Mr. Darcy was a very tall man.” And broad and strong and warm and wonderful, but she need not say all of that to a new acquaintance. “My son does have my eyes, though.”
Mrs. Bennet nodded, not knowing what to say that would not offend and still shocked that such a man could exist, or that such a lady would want him. Why, how could a lady lie next to such a man without fearing he would roll over and crush her in her sleep? Thankfully, she was saved a response by a pause in the music and clapped for the musicians. Seeing her friend pass near, she seized the opportunity.
“Let me introduce you to Mrs. Goulding.”
I am curious about the reactions to this chapter. I have some thoughts of my own, but I want to see if you guys think the same.
As promised, here is a family tree to help you navigate the story. I’ve also gone back and added it to chapter 1. A lot of these people are not mentioned for a while, if ever, but what can I say? I’m thorough. The characters we spend the most time with are in bold.
Margate, August 1811
“I hear you have found an estate, Mr. Bingley,” said Lady Anne at breakfast.
“Yes, in Hertfordshire. Blackwood recommended it. The owner may wish to sell if the terms are agreeable, and it is an easy distance to Town.”
“I am pleased for you. When will you view it?”
“Tuesday next. If all is agreeable, I will sign the lease and my sister will act as hostess. I may take possession by Michaelmas.”
“Wonderful! You are well on your way to fulfilling your father’s wishes, Mr. Bingley,” added Lady Livingstone. She had taken her time warming up to the un-landed gentleman, but Bingley had won her over after a summer of smiles and guileless amiability.
“Thank you, my lady. My sisters are well pleased.”
“Are they in the country at present?”
“Yes, they are staying with my brother Hurst’s family. They have an estate in Suffolk. I will travel there when I leave Hertfordshire.”
“We will be sad to lose your company, but it is good for family to be together,” said Lady Livingstone.
Bingley smiled and thanked her, and barely managed to restrain his laugh when Marianne rolled her eyes at her mother’s condescending well wishes.
“You will be missed, Mr. Bingley, and we wish you well with your new endeavor,” she said sincerely.
“Thank you, Lady Marianne. I wish you a safe journey to Town. Have you heard from Colonel Pickering recently?”
“I had a letter from him this morning,” she said brightly. “Campaign season will be coming to a close just before the babe is due to be born. He believes he may arrive in London in time for the birth.”
“That is excellent news,” said Bingley.
Lady Livingstone sighed. “I do not know why you must have your confinement in Town. It is so much more pleasant in the country.”
Bingley blushed in discomfort and Marianne made no effort to hide her expression from her mother.
“Because I do not wish for a long carriage ride when I am so close to my confinement, and because Henry would never make it all the way to Staffordshire in time for the birth. I wish to see him as close to his arrival as I may.”
“An understandable wish, of course, dear,” interjected Lady Anne. “Now let us speak of more gentleman-friendly topics before Mr. Bingley matches the jam.” She smiled at her son’s friend and Bingley laughed, wondering where Darcy and his brothers were.
Bingley viewed the estate in Hertfordshire, called Netherfield, decided it was perfect for his purposes, and signed the lease immediately. He left for Suffolk to collect his sisters and brother and planned to return in September.
He wrote to Darcy of his plans and invited his family to visit, even if it was only to break the journey north. The Darcy family had shown him great hospitality and he wished to repay the favor. Lady Anne agreed and added a note to her son’s letter, saying how proud she was for Mr. Bingley that he had taken this step. Darcy thought his mother was being overly sentimental, but Lady Anne thought Bingley would appreciate the gesture since he had no living parents to look up to. Incidentally, she was right. Young Charles Bingley was one of Lady Anne’s greatest admirers.
The Darcy and Livingstone families traveled to London together, leaving Lady Livingstone and Lady Marianne at their home in Town to await the latter’s husband and confinement, hopefully in that order. Lady Anne stayed long enough to see her goddaughter settled and began the journey north. She had no great love for Town and only suffered the Season as much as she must. She blatantly refused to participate in the Little Season, and she felt great pity for her brother and cousins who were required to be in Town longer for their duties to Parliament. Once Darcy House was sufficiently closed, they headed north to Hertfordshire with no plans to return until spring.
Bingley stood outside the stately house, bouncing his heels on the steps. His sister Caroline stood beside him, nervously twisting the rings on her fingers. She had only met Lady Anne once, at a ball hosted by a Darcy family friend. The great lady was everything Caroline hoped to be, and she had been so nervous when she met her that she barely said three words. Lady Anne had been gracious and kind but had quickly moved on to talk to her friends. Now she was staying at Netherfield, and Caroline was to be her hostess. It was a dream come true and a nightmare all rolled into one. Would Lady Anne be pleased with her apartments? Would she be put off by the outmoded decoration? Would the menus be to her liking? What of the servants?
Caroline shook her head and told herself to stop worrying. There was nothing to be done now but be as gracious as she could be. She looked up from her study of the steps when she felt a hand on hers. Charles looked at her with earnest eyes the same blue-green as her own.
“You’ll be wonderful, Carrie. Don’t worry. Lady Anne is gracious, and you are a talented hostess. All will be well.”
She smiled in relief and her shoulders visibly lowered. “Thank you, Charlie.”
A carriage pulled onto the drive and they turned to face it, heads held high. It stopped before them in a flutter of dust and a flash of a family crest. The Bingleys stood a little straighter and smiled when Darcy handed down his mother and sister.
“Welcome to Netherfield.”
Darcy joined Bingley in the study once he had seen his family well settled. “How do you like having an estate?”
“I like it very well!” he cried. “The neighborhood has been very friendly.”
“I’m sure half the men in Hertfordshire have come to call on you,” said Darcy.
“A good many certainly have. I have returned a few calls myself but haven’t met many families.”
“You mean many gentlemen’s daughters,” said Darcy with a grin. “You never change, Bingley.”
“I am dependable in this, at least,” he said with good humor. “There is an assembly tomorrow in Meryton. I told Sir William I would come if my party did not object. He knows you have only just arrived. We need not go if you do not wish it.”
“I shall ask Mother. She might enjoy a night of dancing. She occasionally attended assemblies in Lambton or Kympton.”
Bingley’s expression showed his surprise. “I would not have thought that,” he said carefully.
“With an estate as large as Pemberley, one has a duty to the local towns and villages. They rely on Pemberley’s continued prosperity for their livelihoods. It is good for them to see us and know we are thriving, and it gives them an opportunity to talk to us of their concerns. It encourages loyalty and discourages poaching, among other things. The Darcy family has always been a force for good in Derbyshire—the people there must know that we care for them and will take care of the villages. That is hard to accomplish if we never show our faces.”
Charles nodded his head with an expression that showed he wished he had been writing all this down. “You make an excellent point, my friend. I shall ask Lady Anne if she would like to go.”
Lady Anne accepted the invitation and encouraged Mr. Bingley to make the most of this opportunity. If he was considering purchasing Netherfield, he must become acquainted with the local landowners. They would have to work together on occasion, and they would be his source of company in the months he spent in the country. It would be wise to make friends where possible. She said the same to Caroline, who was sitting on a chair near her.
“Miss Bingley, you should befriend the young ladies of the area. One can never have too many friends when living in the country.”
Caroline was quick to agree with her and assured Lady Anne of her willingness to be kind to the country ladies of Hertfordshire. She was sure they would be in much need of direction in their fashions and behavior. Caroline was all too ready to help. Her sister Louisa agreed with an absent look and a jangle of her bracelets. Lady Anne merely looked at them for a moment before changing the subject.
The following morning, Lady Anne joined the gentlemen for breakfast before the other ladies came down. Unsurprised, she smiled at the young men and proceeded to ask them about the estate. Bingley was all excitement and eager to tell her of his accomplishments. She indulged him and encouraged him, while Fitzwilliam looked on with a suspicious look in his eye. If he had not known better, he might have thought Bingley was flirting with his mother. Bingley was solicitous and attentive, and there was adoration in his eyes when he looked at Lady Anne.
Turning his gaze to his mother, he saw indulgence, affection, and pride in her eyes, not unlike the expression she often gave her younger sons. She turned and met her eldest son’s eyes and one brow quirked up while her lips pursed. Realizing he had been caught staring and more importantly, been caught in the wrong by his mother, he nodded in recognition of defeat and she turned her attention back to Bingley.
Who would have thought? His mother had a soft spot for Bingley, and she had been right about him: Charles valued her opinion and looked on her not quite as a mother, but with sincere admiration and more than a little awe. Like a favorite aunt who is beloved and familiar, but with the distance that comes from not sharing a home. Fitzwilliam could only smile to himself and shake his head. He was happy to share his mother with Bingley. His friend’s parents were both deceased and Charles often lamented the loss of both their affection and guidance. It would be terribly stingy of him to begrudge his friend a little maternal affection. Besides, Lady Anne was clearly enjoying his company. When he thought about it, he realized Charles was about the age his brother George would have been, had he lived more than a fortnight.
Feeling suddenly melancholy, he turned his attention back to the conversation at the table. Caroline and Louisa came in, both dressed in stunning morning gowns with hair fixed much more elaborately than he would have thought appropriate for a simple morning at home.
“Good morning. I trust you all slept well?” Caroline asked.
“I did, thank you, Miss Bingley,” answered Lady Anne. “My rooms are quite comfortable in every respect.”
Miss Bingley flushed and thanked her guest. Lady Anne was in the best room Netherfield had to offer. It had been Caroline’s own room, but when her brother told her of their guests, she quickly realized no other room would do and moved her things into the guest wing. Mr. Hurst had protested all the moving about when she insisted all the family move as well, but Louisa had agreed that their guests must be comfortable, and the two ladies made quick work of directing the change.
“Do you know how often the assembly is held?” asked Lady Anne.
“I believe it is quarterly,” answered Bingley.
“And what is the size of Meryton? Are there many prominent families about and are they likely to be present this evening?”
Bingley was unsure of the exact size, but Fitzwilliam believed it was a little bigger than Lambton. As far as the families went, Bingley knew there were several with small estates and that Sir William Lucas would be hosting the night’s festivities. A Mr. Bennet owned the next largest estate, called Longbourn, but he did not recall meeting or hearing about anyone with any titles in the area or homes larger than Netherfield.
“That will make choosing my gown for the evening much easier. Thank you, Mr. Bingley,” said Lady Anne.
“I am always pleased to help a lady with her attire,” declared Bingley good naturedly.
“We must show these country ladies what true fashion looks like,” said Caroline. “They must be in want of a guiding hand.”
“On the contrary, Miss Bingley. I asked about the neighborhood so that I might choose my attire appropriately, not to make the ladies of Hertfordshire look out of fashion. I would never go into someone else’s home or ball and attempt to make them feel unworthy. A true lady leads by example, not disdain.” She smiled kindly at Miss Bingley while Caroline stared at her wide-eyed.
“Perhaps you might be willing to assist me in choosing something appropriate?” Caroline asked uncertainly.
“I would love to! Let us go up after breakfast.”
Two hours later, Caroline’s bed was piled high with gowns of every imaginable color. Louisa sat on a chair near the fire, unsure what to think about this exercise, while Georgiana happily helped her mother sort through ribbons, turbans, and feathers.
“What about this one?” Caroline held a peach gown up to her shoulders and looked in the mirror, then turned to face Lady Anne and Miss Darcy.
Georgiana’s nose wrinkled slightly. “I think the blue looks better with your complexion.”
“Yes, I agree.” Lady Anne looked at the gown critically, then turned Caroline toward the mirror. “For someone with your complexion, pale pink is better than peach. You have such lovely ivory skin. You should wear something to complement it.” She reached into the pile of gowns on the bed and pulled out a beautiful pale green ball gown. “Here. Try this one.”
Caroline looked at the gown doubtfully. It had been suggested by the modiste, but when it was delivered, she thought it too simple and had never worn it. “Do you not think it plain?” she asked.
“No!” declared Lady Anne. “I think it just right for a country dance. You do not want to be overdressed, but neither do you want to be overlooked. This brings out your eyes. See.”
She held the gown near to Caroline’s face and the younger woman looked in the mirror, surprised to see how bright her eyes appeared next to the fabric.
“Yes, and it is lovely with your hair,” added Georgiana. “Jade pins would be perfect.”
“What a wonderful idea, Georgiana!”
“I have just the ones!” Caroline cried, now agreeing that the gown was splendid on her.
Lady Anne left Caroline in peace and planned her own attire for the evening, satisfied that she had done right by the motherless girl. Miss Bingley was not the most pleasant young woman, but she had some potential. If Lady Anne was going to be thrown into her company, she must draw it out—if for nothing but her own sanity.
So what do you think? I know today’s chapter is a bit short, but they will start coming more quickly in a couple of days. Thanks for reading!
“Rachel Connelly, who are you getting all fancied up for?” asked Rebecca as she entered the small room.
“No business of yours,” she said with a smile.
“Just as well. Keep your secrets. I won’t tell you who asked for a dance this evening.”
Rachel looked at her cousin, wondering if she was telling the truth or just trying to make her jealous. “We’d best be going,” said Rachel.
She stood from the dressing table and removed her shawl from the peg. She pulled it around her shoulders, trying to make them look a little less broad, and carefully arranged two bright red curls to drape over the pretty blue fringe.
Rebecca slipped a delicate pink shawl over her equally flattering dress and pinched her cheeks in the mirror, her bright blue eyes shining large in anticipation of the party. Rachel swallowed a sigh and refused to be bothered by her cousin’s effortlessly superior beauty. Samuel Wickham had returned in one piece. Nothing could mar her happiness this night.
The cousins walked into the assembly room together and as they always did, every male eye turned toward Rebecca Appleby. She looked around the room, receiving their admiration as her due and searching for an agreeable partner.
“Who shall I make fall in love with me tonight?” she teased quietly to her cousin.
“Shh, they might hear you,” scolded Rachel with a smile.
Rebecca sighed. “Very well. I will spread out my attentions amongst them all.”
They laughed together until a young man approached and asked Rebecca for a dance. With a wink to her cousin, she was off. Rachel smiled at her antics and scanned the room, looking for the one face she had hoped to see this night. Finally, she saw a thick mop of sandy hair near the punch table and made her way thither.
It was him. He was thinner than when she had last seen him, and though she had expected him to be taller, he seemed the same height as ever.
“Mr. Wickham?” she said quietly.
He turned to face her, their eyes nearly at the same level, and looked at her quizzically. “Yes? Miss—?”
It was clear he did not remember her name, but she was too happy to see him to care.
“Connelly. Rachel Connelly.”
“Rachel Connelly!” he exclaimed in surprise. “You’re a woman now!” He reddened at his outburst and she blushed and laughed with him. “Forgive me, Miss Connelly. Of course, you grew up. It has been six years. You were what, thirteen, when I left?”
“Yes, just barely,” she said softly. “How are you?” Her eyes were full of concern and he smiled lightly.
“I am well enough. A little worse for the wear, but I hope to be set to rights soon enough. How have the years treated you?”
“Very well, thank you.”
They exchanged pleasantries and reminisced about their shared childhoods. He eventually told her of the canon fire that had permanently injured his leg and caused a constant limp, though he assured her it was no longer as painful as it had been. She giggled softly when he showed her his trick—when he stood on his right leg, he was merely an inch taller than her, but when he stood on his left, he grew two more.
Rachel couldn’t remember when she’d enjoyed an assembly more.
Rebecca had danced three in a row and went in search of something to drink. Rachel was standing near the punch bowl, talking to some disheveled man she didn’t recognize.
When Rachel saw her cousin approaching, she made the introductions. Rebecca had moved to Lambton the same month Samuel joined the army and neither remembered the other. Rebecca said she was glad he was returned safely and went off to find another partner. Rachel thought she had been a little rude, but she wasn’t sad to have Samuel to herself again and said nothing. She happily spent another quarter hour in conversation with him, with barely an interruption.
Before she knew it, the assembly was over and her grandmother was herding them toward home. Wickham said how good it had been to see her and that he hoped he would see her in the village soon. She assured him they would meet before long and with a shy smile, she bid him goodnight.
Rachel was elated. She had seen Samuel Wickham nearly every day for a month and she was sure she was in love with him. She thought he held her in some affection as well. She knew she wasn’t pretty; her complexion was ruddy and her hair was wild, and she had the height and shoulders of a man. Her bosom was pleasantly full, but instead of adding to her attractions, it made her appear all the larger. She knew she was quite homely in comparison to her cousin Rebecca. Becky was possessed of the sort of delicate beauty that drove men wild. Even had she not had shiny hair and a perfect smile, Rachel thought she would have compelled them through sheer force of personality alone. Rebecca had made an art of flirtation, and somehow, though Rachel could never see how she did it, she made whatever man she was speaking with feel like he was the greatest, bravest, most attractive man in the world.
Rachel had tried it once herself with disastrous results. She had only recovered by telling the poor man she had attempted to flirt with that she was unwell and thought she might be developing a fever. She had left the party quickly with a flushed face and the sting of humiliation in her eyes.
But Samuel Wickham was not like that. He was a good man, a kind man. He didn’t mind that she was nearly as tall as he was and just as stout. He had even told her that her hair looked like fire dancing atop her head. She had thought he was teasing her, but then he had looked at her in such a way, and smiled self-consciously, that she realized it was a compliment. She had thanked him and looked down, filled with nervous pleasure.
She encouraged him as much as she could. She even baked him a pie last week when she heard his brother was ill. Technically, it was for the whole family, but he had complimented her cooking and she had beamed with pride when he told her he’d never tasted better. She thought he might even offer for her. Surely he would, if things continued to progress in the same direction. He wasn’t the sort to toy with a woman’s affections.
“He’s a fine lad, Darcy. You must be very proud,” said Wickham as he looked at his oldest friend’s infant son.
“Thank you. I’m grateful it ended well. There was a little while when we thought,” he trailed off and looked toward the window. “It’s no matter now. Lady Anne is on the mend and Fitzwilliam is proving to be a healthy babe.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t name him after yourself,” said Wickham with a smile as his friend handed the babe over to a waiting nursemaid who whisked him away.
“We discussed it, but Anne’s family will appreciate the gesture.”
“I’m sure the old earl will be right pleased with his grandson.”
Darcy guffawed. “The old earl is pleased by very little. He already has two grandsons and his second daughter will be brought to bed any day, and he doesn’t seem any more pleased than he was before.”
Wickham made a noncommittal noise of agreement and Darcy poured them both a small glass of brandy.
“So what are you going to do with yourself now you are back, healthy and hale?” asked Darcy.
“I haven’t sorted that out yet. My brothers are using me a bit in the shop, but it can’t support three men, so I won’t be able to stay there long.”
Darcy nodded. “Have you thought of another line of business you’d like to go into?”
“I’ve toyed with a few ideas here and there, but nothing seems right just yet. Lambton doesn’t have many empty shops. There was talk Mr. Smith was going to sell his inn, but his nephew has decided to take it on.”
“Oh? Do you want to be an innkeeper then?”
“Not particularly, but it was an idea. I don’t know that I’d do well with all them stairs,” he said with a shake of his head. “My legs aren’t what they used to be.” He took a sip of his brandy and swallowed, inhaling sharply as it burned down his throat. “I’ve a fine head for numbers, always have, and my captain had me tracking supplies in America, so I wouldn’t be completely at sea in business, but I haven’t settled on anything yet. I hate to leave Lambton now that I’ve just got back, but I may need to in the end.”
Darcy nodded thoughtfully. “You’re a clever man, I’m sure you would succeed in any endeavor.”
Wickham smiled. “Thank you, friend. Now I just need to be lucky as well as clever.”
Darcy smiled enigmatically, and Wickham asked him what was so amusing.
“I have been thinking of something, but I am not sure if it would interest you.”
“Oh? What is it?” asked Wickham.
“My steward is retiring next year. He will need to be replaced soon. We have been looking for someone suitable to begin training with him, but the two men we have interviewed won’t do. Then you came back and I have been wondering, would you like to be a steward?”
Wickham stared at him open-mouthed. “A steward? Me?”
“Steward of Pemberley?”
Darcy nodded again. “You could begin training with Mr. Sanders immediately. There is a cottage on the estate for you to use and a horse, of course. He would teach you everything you need to know. I am sure you will do well—you said it yourself: you’re very good with numbers, and I know you’re clever besides. You already know most of the neighbors and tenants and the merchants in Lambton, and you have their respect. But most importantly, I trust you.”
He looked at Wickham seriously and his friend looked back at him, his expression thoughtful.
“I’m honored you would think of me,” Samuel Wickham said quietly. “But are you certain? Steward is an important job, and I would hate to damage such a fine estate as Pemberley.”
George smiled. “You have confirmed I’ve chosen the right man. Pemberley has been in good hands for some time and won’t crumble to the ground with a few mistakes. You’ve proven you put the good of the estate in front of your own personal gains. That’s exactly the sort of man I want for the job.” Seeing Wickham’s doubtful face, he added, “Let us begin the training. If you find you are not suited to it, you may walk away with no amity between us.”
“I will say the same for you. If you find me unsatisfactory in any way, you must tell me and send me off. Don’t let our friendship stay your hand.”
George smiled and reached out a hand to his oldest friend. “So we have a deal? You will begin training as Pemberley’s steward?”
“Yes, we have a deal.”
“Is that him?” Rebecca nodded to the men across the busy Lambton street.
“The one talking to Samuel Wickham?” confirmed Rachel.
“Yes, that’s Mr. Darcy.”
“Why’s he talking to Wickham?” asked Rebecca.
“They’re old friends, of course.” At Rebecca’s look of surprise, Rachel said, “Oh, I’d forgotten you didn’t know them then. We all played together as children, the boys mostly, but I saw them racing to the horse chestnut tree nearly every afternoon. Samuel and George Darcy were always friends, since they were wee boys.”
Rachel wondered at the strange look in her cousin’s eyes but said nothing about it. “Let’s go into the shop. Mr. Simmons got some new ribbons in.”
Rebecca looked at the men a minute longer, then followed her cousin inside.
“How long will you be gone?” asked Rebecca.
“Only six weeks. Miss me already?” teased Rachel.
“I’m just wondering how many of your ribbons I can wear before you get back,” returned Rebecca. She smiled at her cousin and folded Rachel’s blue shawl and put it into the small trunk.
Rachel playfully emptied her drawer of every ribbon and put them into her trunk, and she and Rebecca dissolved into peals of laughter.
Soon enough, she was ready to depart. Rachel’s maternal uncle had invited her to visit some time ago, and she was finally making the trip. His daughter was approaching her lying in and Rachel would assist with her younger cousins while her aunt attended the birth. Her uncle was a successful carriage maker in Clayton, a town thirty miles west of Lambton. She would enjoy a nice visit with the family she only saw every few years and be of help to her aunt and cousins in the process. Fortuitously, a local shop keeper was traveling within five miles of her uncle’s home and had offered to let her accompany him and his wife. Rachel was happy for the opportunity and bid her grandmother, great-aunt, and cousin goodbye.
When she told Samuel Wickham she was going, he had seemed sad to hear it and said he would look forward to hearing all about her adventures when she returned. She could hardly allow herself to hope, but she thought she was not too amiss to expect him to declare himself when she returned in July. She could only hope her absence would make him realize how much his happiness had come to depend on her.
Pemberley, Derbyshire, July 1784
“How is the training coming, Wickham?” asked Mr. Darcy.
“It’s coming along well, Mr. Darcy,” answered Samuel.
“What’s this Mr. Darcy business?” he asked. “You’ve always called me George, or Darcy.”
“Things are different now. You’re my employer.”
Darcy nearly laughed, but stopped himself when he saw the serious expression on his friend’s face. “Very well, Mr. Wickham, if that’s how you want it.”
“It is, sir,” Wickham replied.
Darcy gave him a small smile and asked about his mother, and the conversation moved on.
Rachel stepped off the coach, looking around her eagerly. It was so good to be home! The streets were familiar and the shopkeepers waved at her with a smile. Visiting her uncle had been pleasant, and she had enjoyed their company and especially seeing all the new sights, but nothing quite compared to Lambton for her. It would always be home. Her grandmother’s neighbor caught her attention. He had come to fetch her trunk with his cart. She pointed it out to him, thanked him kindly, and began the short walk home.
Ten minutes later, she was stepping into her grandmother’s rooms above the bookstore with a smile on her face. She found her grandmother and great aunt in the parlor, sewing with a pile of lace and ribbon on the sofa between them.
“Rachel! You’re back!” cried her grandmother. She rose and embraced Rachel, followed by her sister, and the two older women talked over each other trying to inform her of everything that had happened in her absence.
“Oh, but you haven’t heard the news!” cried her grandmother.
“Shh, Hannah, Rebecca will want to tell her herself,” said Great Aunt Appleby.
“Tell me what?” asked Rachel, bewildered.
The two women looked at her with matching expressions, deep-set blue eyes in gently lined faces, lips pinched as if to stop them from opening without permission.
Rachel continued to stare from one to the other, until finally her grandmother burst out with, “Rebecca is to be married!”
“Oh, hush, Abigail. She’ll find out soon enough.”
Abigail Appleby pursed her lips but was soon caught up in the tale her sister was telling. He had come to deliver firewood. Wasn’t that nice of him? And Rebecca had invited him in for tea. He had accepted—of course he had. He was a kind young man and Rebecca was so lovely. Who could resist her? They had had an easy conversation, and he had met her in town on several occasions, and she had spoken to him for above half an hour at the last assembly. Next thing they knew, they were betrothed. Wasn’t it wonderful?
Rachel followed the story with amused eyes, glancing back and forth between her aunt and grandmother. She had no idea whom they were talking of, but it all sounded regular enough. Though one’s only granddaughter does not marry every day, so she supposed it was due more excitement than she was allowing it.
Her Aunt Appleby continued. He had a good position lined up. He was in the early training period now, but soon enough he would have his own cottage, and a right nice one at that, and be surrounded by beautiful countryside. He would be given a horse to do his work and they were sure he could use the carriage sometimes, or perhaps the master would sell him an older one for a good price. They had a good relationship, always had. Everyone remarked on it. The master would be willing to assist such an old friend, surely. Look what he had done already? And there was no reason to think he would desist. Quite the contrary. They would grow closer than ever, with nearly daily proximity, and that could only benefit their Rebecca.
Rachel’s heart began thudding in her chest and a sick feeling filled her stomach.
“Who is the man? The man Rebecca will marry?”
“Why, Samuel Wickham, of course. Didn’t we say that?” said Aunt Appleby with a confused look at her sister. Not waiting for an answer, she continued on with details of the wedding and the gowns they were making for Rebecca, for surely she would sometimes be in Mrs. Darcy’s company, and the daughter of an earl was sure to always be dressed in the height of fashion.
Rachel felt her cheeks growing hot, and then her neck and ears until her scalp was tingling. She sank back on the cushions out of a sudden inability to hold herself upright. Samuel! And Rebecca! She had only been gone six weeks. What had happened? How had it happened? Rebecca knew Rachel was sweet on Samuel, she always had. She had teased her about it mercilessly.
How had it all gone so wrong?
Rachel was hanging her last gown in the closet when Rebecca waltzed in, all smiles and easy grace.
“Hello, cousin! Was your journey pleasant?” she asked airily.
“It was uneventful,” said Rachel plainly. She took her favorite blue shawl, the one she had been told made her eyes look like the clear Derbyshire sky in high summer by a drunken dance partner once, and draped it over the peg by the door.
“How was your family? Is everyone well?” asked Rebecca, as if everything was exactly as it had always been.
“They are perfectly well, thank you. They send their regards.”
Rebecca fixed her hair in the small mirror over their shared dressing table. Satisfied with her superior appearance, she turned to her cousin and said, “So Aunt and Gran have told you my news?”
She smiled expectantly, clearly waiting for praise and congratulations from her cousin. Rachel thought she would be sick.
“Yes, I heard. You are to be married.”
“In three weeks!” cried Rebecca. “The banns were read last Sunday in church for the first time. I was so giddy when they called my name; I had gooseflesh all over.”
Rachel looked at her skeptically, then turned away to place her neatly folded petticoat in a drawer.
Rebecca continued on, oblivious to her audience’s lack of reception. She spoke of the bonnet she had purchased for the occasion—it cost an entire month’s allowance, but it was her wedding, after all—and the dress her gran was making for her. It would be cornflower blue, to bring out her eyes. She thought they were her best feature, did her cousin not agree?
“And you must stand up with me, of course!”
“What?” Rachel whipped around, her face clearly expressing her shock.
“Of course, you must! You are my cousin—we share a home. We are almost as sisters!” She crossed the small room and took Rachel’s cold hands in her own. “Say you will stand by me on the last day I am an Appleby. It will be a lifelong memory and I want you to be in it,” she said earnestly.
Rachel looked at her, her mind in riot, before finally saying, “Yes, Cousin, I will stand up with you.”
Rebecca beamed at her while Rachel barely held back the bile rising up from her stomach.
There were a few teas and a party thrown by Mrs. Simmons, the milliner’s wife, but otherwise Rachel stayed away from all society until the wedding. She had not seen Samuel since before she visited her relations—when he had told her he would miss her. When she had been so sure there was something between them, that this thing she felt was not hers alone. But she had been a fool. Samuel Wickham had never thought of her. Why would he? Her hair was red and wild, her shoulders too broad, her height too high, her arms too strong to be feminine but not strong enough to be useful.
She could not even remind herself of her bright blue eyes—eyes like the Derbyshire sky in high summer—or of her pretty smile or easy disposition. She only saw hands that were worn from helping in the kitchen, and a face that was a little too broad to be pretty. She would never look like a delicate lady. She was too much like a man to be wanted by one. She was doomed to be a spinster and there was no use pretending otherwise.
The morning of the wedding, she wore a green dress and walked to the church with her grandmother. Rebecca had wanted to put her in yellow—a color that always made her look sallow and splotchy—but her grandmother had refused. Yellow may have been Rebecca’s favorite color, though Rachel didn’t remember her ever loving yellow before, but Hannah Connelly refused to let her granddaughter look ridiculous at her own cousin’s wedding. She had worked all hours making a beautiful green dress for Rachel. It had simple lines and was gracefully decorated with embroidered flowers and a tiny bit of lace trim. Rachel had never looked more lovely. How ironic that it was for her cousin’s wedding to the man she loved, instead of her own.
She entered the church with her head held high and swept to the front of the chapel. She heard appreciative murmurs behind her, but she kept her eyes on the vicar and did not look away. When she took her place at the altar, she thought she felt Samuel’s eyes on her, but she refused to look at him. She would completely break down if she did, and she refused to humiliate herself in front of the entire town.
Mr. Darcy seemed to recognize her need for privacy and shielded her first from Samuel, then from the crowd around them. When everyone had dissipated and it was time to go to the breakfast, Rachel gave him a watery smile in silent thanks and he returned it, patting her hand gently and looking at her with a strange expression.
It would take her some time to comprehend it, but she eventually recognized the look in Mr. Darcy’s eyes. It was pity.
Hello loveys! I’m doing something I’ve never done before – posting a long story (also known as the one about to be a book) on this site.
I’ve been working on this one for a while now, and you may have seen me reading excerpts at the JAFF in June conference hosted by Austen Variations. This story is long and involved, with a lot of characters and plot-lines and spanning a few decades. There are date markers to help keep everything straight, and I am making family trees to insert here and there.
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A few housekeeping details:
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**Family Tree Added**
Sons of Pemberley
By Elizabeth Adams
Lambton, Derbyshire, Summer 1769
Samuel Wickham walked through the woods with his fishing pole over one shoulder and a string of fish over the other. His mother would be pleased with his catch; he could almost hear the grease crackling in the pan on the old stove. He was lost enough in his imaginings that he didn’t hear the footsteps running towards him until he was nearly bowled over by a boy a little smaller than himself.
“Oy! Watch yerself!” cried Samuel.
“Pardon!” cried the boy. “I must fetch help!”
The boy took off running again and Samuel called after him, asking what the problem was. The smaller boy yelled over his shoulder, “My cousin! At the pond!”
Wickham’s eyes grew wide. He dropped his pole and fish and sprinted in the direction the boy had run from. The Dark Pond was a quarter mile away, just on the boundary of Pemberley and another small farm. Samuel could run like a deer and he was at the pond’s edge before he lost his breath.
He scanned the surface of the water, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. Then, so suddenly it made his breath catch, a pale hand shot up out of the water, followed by a gasping mouth that quickly sunk back into the pond.
Samuel shucked off his shoes and pulled his shirt over his head before diving in. The water was murky and filled with reeds and other plants. He could hardly see an arm’s length in front of him. He swam toward where he thought he had seen the flailing arm, but he had to resurface for air and find his bearings. Finally, he saw what looked like an opaque wall where he knew the center of the pond to be. He hoped the cloudiness of the water was caused by someone attempting to swim free and pushed down his fear of creatures lurking on the muddy floor. He felt his way through the cloud and soon came into contact with flesh. He grabbed an arm and pulled the limp body toward him. Soon he had reached the surface and swam as fast as he could to the ledge.
He laid the small body on his side and pounded the boy’s back as he had seen his father do. He said a prayer, then another, and continued to hit the boy high on his back as he balanced him on his side, water trickling from his mouth.
Finally, when Samuel had all but given up, the boy coughed and spluttered and spat up the pond water. He fell onto his stomach, continuing to spit and hack, and pushed himself up on his elbows.
“Are you well?” asked Samuel.
The boy turned his head and looked at him with dazed eyes.
“Can you speak?”
The boy continued to stare at him and Samuel began to worry.
“Your cousin has gone to fetch help. Someone should be along soon.”
Samuel sighed in relief. “You can talk!”
“Of course, I can talk,” said the boy, looking mildly insulted.
“Well you cannot swim. It didn’t seem much of a stretch to think you couldn’t talk either.”
The boy looked at him in shock, his mouth dropped nearly to his chest. After a minute of silence, his shoulders began to shake, and he laughed breathily, interspersed with coughing, until he was shaking and guffawing loudly. Samuel Wickham joined him and shook his head until the other boy quieted.
“George Darcy of Pemberley,” said the boy with a hand outstretched. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Samuel Wickham of Lambton. Pleased to meet you.”
Lambton, Derbyshire, Summer 1776
“I hear Master Darcy’s back from Eton,” said Michael.
“Yes, he wrote he would arrive soon,” replied Samuel.
“You two still writing letters?” asked his brother.
“Of course,” replied Samuel Wickham. “Why wouldn’t we?”
Michael gave him an eloquent look and Samuel looked away.
“We’ve been friends near our entire lives. George is loyal,” Samuel defended.
“Aye, that he is, I’ll say that for him. He sent mother a basket of fruit this morning.”
“He did?” asked Samuel in surprise.
“Aye. Straight from the Pemberley orangery.”
His brother smiled and Samuel looked away again. The disparity in their situations had never bothered the two young boys when they were running across Pemberley’s fields or racing to the village green. But as they got older, Wickham couldn’t help but see the differences in their stations. His uncle was a gardener at Pemberley and his family had a small cottage in Lambton. George’s father owned Pemberley—an enormous mansion surrounded by miles of land all belonging to them and more besides.
Some days, he was surprised George Darcy still wanted to be his friend. But his brother Michael was right: George was nothing if not loyal.
“Come back here, George Darcy!”
“You’ll have to catch me first, Wickham!” George ran down the slope, his legs flying beneath him.
Wickham finally caught up to him by the creek on Pemberley’s eastern border and George reluctantly gave back the hat he had swiped from his friend’s head. They cooled themselves and sat in the soft grass, talking like childhood friends are wont to do after a long separation.
After nearly an hour of easy conversation, Samuel looked away and told his friend his news: he was leaving Derbyshire.
“What? Why are they sending you away? Can you not be apprenticed here?” asked George.
“I’m not being apprenticed. I’m joining the army.”
“The army! But why?”
“Because Michael and Gabriel will take on father’s business, and David has already joined the navy. I can’t stay home like my sisters. I have to earn my way.”
George shook his head. “They’ll send you to America.” Wickham looked away and George exclaimed, “What if you get shot?”
Wickham smiled his crooked grin and said, “I’ll try not to. I imagine it’s fair unpleasant.”
George shoved his arm as his friend laughed, then sighed and looked at him in resignation. “I wish you well, Samuel Wickham.”
“Same to you, George Darcy.”
London, Spring 1811
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young man can refuse any woman who wishes him to dance when he would rather not—except his mother.
“Fitzwilliam, I must have you dance. Allow me to find you a partner.”
“Yes, Mother,” he said dutifully.
She smiled at his reluctance and led him to his cousin, Lady Arabella Dryden. He smiled at her in thanks and led his cousin to the floor.
“Are you enjoying the Season, Cousin?” she asked.
“Not as much as you,” he replied.
She laughed. “Be careful, Darcy, or it might become known you have a sense of humor.”
“Have you made any conquests yet?” he asked, ignoring her teasing look.
“Of course!” she cried. “Lord Epping has called on me twice, but I don’t think I could bear to look at his face across the breakfast table every day, so I will let him down gently.”
“How kind of you,” said Darcy dryly.
“And of course there is Mr. Arlington. You remember him from last Season. He is a very determined man. No matter how many times I tell him I am not interested in his attentions he insists on pursuing me. He is forcing me to be rude.”
Darcy shook his head and separated from her for a minute.
“Are there any gentlemen you wish to encourage?” he asked when the movement brought them back together.
“Well, there is one,” she said slyly. “But mother will not like him. His estate is small and he has no title. But he does have the loveliest smile,” she sighed and turned around him and Darcy barely resisted rolling his eyes.
His young cousin was pretty, rich, and well connected—her father was an earl and her mother was the daughter of one of the wealthiest peers in the realm. Her family had high expectations of her marriage and she was determined to enjoy a few Seasons before settling down to a Life of Sameness as she called it. Her first Season had been wildly successful. She had been invited to every party, soiree, and ball, and danced every dance. Eligible gentlemen were falling over themselves to court her and she turned them all down, with a smile and an offer of friendship. She had introduced two of her would-be suitors to the ladies they eventually married—and she had no qualms taking credit for the matches.
In short, she was a force to be reckoned with and one he was glad was on his side—as long as she didn’t turn her match-making skills on him.
“Will Mr. Bingley come to Pemberley this summer?” asked Lady Anne at breakfast.
“I have invited him, but his plans are not fixed. He should let me know soon enough.”
She nodded. “Is he still planning to lease an estate?”
“You should send him to Blackwood. He may know of something.”
“I already have,” he said with a smile before biting his toast.
She returned it with an almost identical smile of her own. “I should have known. My ever-capable son.”
He nodded in thanks and they ate quietly until Lady Anne said, “What do you think of the seaside?”
“In general, or for a specific purpose?”
She ignored his impertinence. “I have thought of taking the children this summer. Luke was so young last we went I doubt he remembers it. Georgiana has been longing to go since her friends from school went last year and told her all about it. I have never seen her so envious as when she was recounting their adventures.”
“Did you have somewhere in mind? Brighton or Ramsgate?”
“I had thought Margate. Brighton will be terribly overrun and even Ramsgate will be crowded. Margate will be peaceful and idyllic, don’t you think? Your father and I stayed there in ninety. It was lovely.”
“That was twenty years ago.”
She shot him a look. “I am sure the sea is still there, Fitzwilliam. I will write to my cousin and see if she wishes to join us.”
“Very well. I will ask Jones to inquire about renting a cottage.”
“Thank you, my dear, but that won’t be necessary. I’m sure my uncle will grant us the use of his house. You are welcome to join us, you know. If Mr. Bingley has not committed to a visit yet, it may be the perfect time to adjust your plans. The children would love it if you came—Luke especially.”
“I will think about it, Mother.”
She smiled and left the table.
The third week of June, the Darcy family left London and made their way to Margate. Darcy, his closest friend Mr. Bingley, and his brothers Nathaniel and Luke rode alongside the carriage. Lady Anne Darcy, her daughter Georgiana, her cousin Lady Julia Dryden, the countess of Livingstone, and that lady’s daughter Lady Marianne Pickering rode inside.
Lady Julia and Lady Anne’s mothers had been sisters; Anne and Julia had grown up together, gone to school together, come out together, and married within a month of each other. Their friendship was a steady one, and they spent much time together over the years.
Lady Julia’s eldest daughter, Marianne—born a month after her cousin, Fitzwilliam—was expecting her third child and spending the summer with her mother and aunt. Her sons were with her husband’s parents in Shropshire—at their insistence—while her husband himself was on the peninsula. He was a colonel in the eighty-second light division. She would have followed the drum as she had done in previous summers, but her pregnancy kept her in England until the babe was safely delivered.
Lady Marianne could have done better than a second son and a colonel—with her dowry and connections she could have gotten a first son and heir, or so her mother lamented, but she would have the colonel and none other, and his father was an earl, so her parents could not object too much. Privately, Marianne thought herself too plain to bring a high price on the marriage mart, but she would not point this out herself if others were disinclined to notice it. Her youngest sister was toying with the heir of a marquess; that would have to satisfy her mother’s plans for matrimonial greatness.
They arrived in Margate with little hassle and made themselves at home in the rambling house. Lady Anne had been born a Fitzwilliam; her mother, and Lady Julia’s mother, had been born Digbys, of the Somerset Digbys. This house was owned by her maternal uncle, Sir Colin Digby, and Lady Anne smiled to see the family crest framed simply in the vestibule.
“Where do you want me, Lady Anne?” asked Marianne in her straightforward manner.
Anne smiled. Marianne spoke as plainly as she dressed, yet she could not help but find it refreshing. “Let us see if Mildred has ruined anything with her redecorating,” she answered as she led the way up the stairs.
Mildred Digby was her cousin’s wife, who, with Colin Digby’s declining health and increasing years, had begun redecorating his homes as if they were already hers. It was terribly indelicate, and Anne felt no shame in despising her for it. Her Uncle Digby was greatly loved and valued by his family, and she found anyone who wished his death a moment earlier than God ordained it to be unworthy of her time and heartless in the extreme.
“Let’s put you here,” she said to Marianne. They entered a breezy room with large windows facing the sea. “If Fitzwilliam says anything about you getting the best room, tell him pregnancy earns you precedence. And then send him to me.”
Marianne returned her mischievous smile and began to settle in. Her mother’s maid bustled in shortly to help her unpack. Marianne refused to keep her own maid; it was impossible to have one always with her on campaign—one of the lower soldier’s wives was usually happy for the little work she gave them, and when she was with her family or her husband’s there was always someone who would do to help her with what she couldn’t manage herself. She would much rather save the expense—and herself the trouble of elaborate hairstyles and ridiculous gowns.
The women in her family were horrified by this, naturally.
Lady Anne settled everyone into their rooms, Nathaniel and Luke sharing a chamber at the back of the house and Fitzwilliam and Charles Bingley in linked rooms far from the ladies.
Lady Anne rather liked Charles Bingley. He was not who she would have originally chosen as a close friend for her son, but he was a significant improvement over George Wickham, whom she thought was not worth the breath one wasted in talking of him. Bingley’s fortune had come from trade, but she was not so blinded by prejudice that she could not see how kind he was, and how genuine his affection for her son. His father had educated him as a gentleman and he was looking to purchase an estate of his own. All of this would of course make him more acceptable to her circles, and she would do what she could for the boy. It was rare to find someone so pure of heart, so utterly bereft of malice. His situation was not ideal, but his character was exactly what her son needed in a friend. And she could admit to being a little beguiled by him herself.
He reminded her of her husband, and of her son Luke. So cheerful and unguarded. Fitzwilliam was more like herself—reserved, thoughtful, preferring intelligent discussions and debates to light conversations on inconsequential topics. She and George Darcy had been good for each other that way. She had grounded him when he became too carried away by his own joie de vivre; he had lifted her out of what could have become a depressing well of silence and introspection.
She hoped Mr. Bingley would be as lightening an influence on her son as her husband had been on her.
The beach was perfect. Darcy took his brothers swimming with Bingley and only had to fish Luke out of the deep water once. His youngest brother had come up spitting and gasping, declaring that he would have righted himself in a moment and his brother’s interference had not been necessary. Darcy had laughed, then apologized for doubting Luke’s aquatic abilities.
Georgiana split her time between the pianoforte and her cousin Marianne. She was fascinated by her cousin’s life. Marianne had been on the peninsula several times since she married seven years ago, traveling with her husband’s regiment. Marianne had seen the troops prepare for battle, and even assisted the surgeon by organizing supplies for operations. She had slept in a tent, and been on a ship, and ridden across Portugal on a horse.
Georgiana peppered Marianne with questions while stitching a cap for the baby; she adjusted her cousin’s shawl, brought her a cushion when she looked uncomfortable, and always poured her tea exactly the way she liked it. Lady Anne and Lady Livingstone found it terribly amusing, but they never let Georgiana see for fear she would be embarrassed and cease to be so entertaining. Lady Anne would never admit it out loud, but she too enjoyed hearing stories of life following the drum. It was so very different from what she had always known; she couldn’t help but be fascinated.
“I am not hiding,” he said, straightening his back on the bench he was sitting on.
“Of course, you aren’t. You are merely sitting on a bench by yourself behind a hedge in an empty garden. I can’t imagine why I thought you were hiding.”
He glanced sideways at his cousin and gave her a half smile. “You are too observant for your own good, Marianne.”
“Out with it. What has you hiding from your dear mama and mine?”
He looked into the empty garden and said nothing.
“Shall I guess?” He gave her another look and she continued, “Your mother has found the perfect woman for you to marry, from a good family and with a respectable dowry. If it wasn’t for her hair, her face, and her personality, you would be thrilled with the match.”
“Am I right?”
She looked at him expectantly.
“Her hair is tolerable.”
Marianne burst out laughing. “Poor Fitzwilliam!” After she had calmed a bit, she touched his arm gently. “I am sorry. I know it’s awful when they play matchmaker.”
“How did you stand it?” he asked after a few minutes of silence.
“I chose my own husband before they could get too far in their scheming.”
“Mother wasn’t happy he had no estate, but at least the connection was good. And I think she was beginning to think I wouldn’t marry at all,” she added ruefully.
“You were twenty when you married Pickering. Hardly an old maid!” Darcy replied.
“It was my third season and she had wanted me to marry my second. Remember Josiah Cuthbert?”
Darcy groaned. “How could I forget? I can’t believe she considered him.”
“If that’s what you thought of him, imagine how I felt! Thank God for Father. He put him off before he could propose. Though I have wondered if it was because he didn’t like him, or if he thought I would refuse him and cause a scandal,” she said thoughtfully.
“I imagine it was a little of both.”
“Yes, likely so.” She turned to face him again and put one hand on her protruding belly. “You will not distract me so easily, Cousin. Why not simply choose a woman to marry yourself? You’re attractive, respectable, wealthy. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find a decent woman to marry you.”
“Thank you for the glowing praise,” he said. He looked heavenward and sighed. “It is not that I am averse to marriage altogether, but…” he trailed off.
“But you have not met anyone you wish to be married to?”
“A wise choice, Cousin. Marriage is for life; it’s better to frustrate your family a little now than frustrate yourself for the remainder of your life.”
“I cannot disagree with you.”
“Take it from a woman who has been married some time now. Your choice of partner may be the most important decision you make in life. There is so little we have control over. We know not when or where we will be born or die, if we will have children or how many,” she said with a rub to her belly. “So much is left to chance. This is one arena where you may exercise some discretion. I suggest you take it.”
“Did you learn that in a tent in Portugal?” he teased her.
“You may laugh, but some of the happiest times of my life were spent in Portugal, splattered with mud, bone tired, alone in a tent with Henry. I can’t imagine being half as happy in the same circumstances with anyone else.” She watched her cousin’s thoughtful expression for a moment. “May you find a woman you wouldn’t mind spending months in a tent with.” She smiled and left him to his thoughts.
“Care to share your thoughts, Fitzwilliam?” asked Lady Anne quietly as she sat next to her eldest son on the beach.
He looked out across the water, watching his brothers and Bingley chase a crab along the surf. They darted in and out of the waves, laughing and calling to each other in excitement.
“Sometimes I think Bingley is more like Nathaniel and Luke than I am,” he said thoughtfully.
“They are full young. You were not so very different when you were their age; you simply do not remember it as such. And you have a great many responsibilities, thrust on you when you were very young.” He turned to face her, and she brushed the hair off his forehead tenderly. He smiled gently at the gesture and she looked at him with soft eyes. “You are more like me, Son. Reserved, calm, as likely to observe as to participate. It is no less estimable than one who is lively. I daresay your quiet nature will serve you well in the years to come. It has certainly kept you out of trouble thus far.”
They shared a rueful smile and she continued, “Your brothers are more like your father. Careening wildly through life, looking for something to anchor them, though they do not know it yet. I was that anchor for your father, and I perform a similar office for your brothers, alongside yourself. All too soon they will grow up and marry shy, blushing ladies I can only hope will be the steadfast companions they need.”
They watched the young Darcys running on the beach quietly for a few minutes.
“I do not think you would suit a quiet woman,” Lady Anne finally said.
Darcy turned to her in surprise. “Oh?”
“Just as I needed your father’s joy in life, his optimism, you need a woman who can make you laugh, who will not allow you to remain silent for three days together.” She nudged him gently with her shoulder and he shook his head, his hair falling over his brow again and ruffling in the breeze as they continued to watch the waves roll in, falling into silence as they so often did. “It is a mother’s prerogative to see her children well-married. I know you have been considering it of late.”
His head snapped toward her with wide eyes and she looked at him knowingly. He finally hung his head in recognition of his mother’s understanding. “I, I do not…” he tried to speak, but could not form the words he wanted to say.
“I am sorry I pushed you,” she said. He looked at her in surprise again, wondering if this was a day for astonishment. She gave him a guilty smile. “You are my eldest son, the heir, my firstborn. You have a special place in my heart, Fitzwilliam, more than you will ever know.”
She looked at him with watery eyes and he nodded, leaning over to kiss her cheek softly. He knew of what she spoke. He remembered long afternoons spent reading with her on her bed when she was too ill to rise. He had seen the tiny graves in the churchyard.
“I know, Mother. We are of a kind, you and I.” They sat quietly for some minutes before Fitzwilliam spoke hesitantly, “I should like to marry a good woman. One I hold in affection.” He squinted into the waning sunlight and whispered, “I should like to be happy.”
Lady Anne rested her head on her son’s strong shoulder and watched her children frolicking, a soft sigh escaping her.
“Very well. I will leave you be.”
“Promise me something. Do not leave it forever. I would like to see grandchildren while I am still young enough to hold them.”