‘I think Richard is here!’
Darcy looked up from his book and smiled. Georgiana, who had been keeping watch at the drawing room window since breaking their fast, shot out of the door.
Putting the volume aside, Darcy got to his feet and walked to the window. To his surprise, a carriage had entered the gates and was slowing to a halt on the gravel sweep before the main entrance. Even as he watched Boliver, his butler, make his stately way down the steps, Darcy saw Georgiana hurry out of the doorway and overtake him, hovering as one of the footmen lowered the steps and opened the door.
He turned away, picking up his sister’s discarded shawl and went out to join them, thankful for his cousin’s prompt arrival. Much as Georgiana’s health was slowly improving, her spirits remained quite low, and the burst of pleasure she had shown was a welcome sight.
By the time Darcy reached the top of the steps, the colonel and his sister were making their way up them, and the carriage was moving away. He tucked the warm shawl about Georgiana as they entered the house.
‘You made good time.’ Darcy turned to look at his cousin. ‘I did not expect you to come by conveyance.’
‘A colleague is on his way to Bristol and offered me a ride as he planned to break his journey in Somersetshire. Seemed churlish to refuse the ease and comfort. Hereward should be in the stables, assuming my man has arrived?’
Georgiana, who had yet to relinquish her cousin’s arm, nodded. ‘Mrs Reynolds mentioned he was installed in his quarters.’ She covered her mouth as her cough made itself known. ‘You will find your rooms pleasant, though not as spacious as Pemberley.’
The colonel grinned as Boliver relieved him of his travelling cloak.
‘I am accustomed to coping with the hardship of basic accommodations.’ He turned to Darcy. ‘You are well situated. I had not expected such a modern and airy property.’
‘Built but five and twenty years ago as the dower house for the present incumbent’s mother. She did not live to see it completed, but I believe the late Lady Elliot furnished it and made regular use of it.’
The colonel smirked. ‘Probably hopeful of living in it herself one day. Shame she did not live to do so either.’ He raised a brow. ‘So, Darce, how do you find the air of Somersetshire?’
Darcy pulled a face and the colonel laughed.
‘Do not tell me. You find the company confined and unvarying.’
‘It is like any other away from Town.’
‘Including Pemberley, Brother.’ Georgiana’s impish smile appeared briefly. Then, she sighed. ‘I do miss our home, much as we are well settled here.’
‘We have a dozen of the Pemberley staff attending us, Georgie.’
‘I know, Fitz, but this scenery is so sedate and predictable. I miss the drama of the peaks.’
The colonel smiled as they turned for the drawing room. ‘You will not miss the winter weather. Mother’s latest says snow is forecast. Ice is forming on the lakes, and the livestock is already quartered in the barns.’
Darcy frowned. ‘I have heard nothing from Peters. I trust he has all in hand at Pemberley. After the wet summer and the poor harvest, the last the farmers need is a harsh winter.’
‘Peters always has matters in fine shape, Darcy, as well you know.’ The colonel looked around the charming and comfortable room. ‘You are simply feeling the boredom of being a tenant yourself, with no steward to order around.’
‘Richard’—Georgiana tried to clear her throat—‘How long will you stay?’
‘I must return to Blandford in eight and forty hours, but I am not far distant. I have some leave due to me during the festive season and was hoping for an invitation?’
He looked to Darcy, who had resumed his seat.
‘Of course. You would be most welcome, for it will be a quiet Yuletide this year.’
‘Had you not thought to invite your friend, Bingley?’
Darcy stirred uncomfortably in his seat. He did not like to think of the morose Bingley he had last seen.
‘Permit me some leeway before I consider the social whirl of the season.’
‘It will be upon us before you know it.’ The colonel stretched his legs out in front of the roaring fire. ‘And how do you find Sir Walter Elliot as a neighbour?’
‘Tolerable, I suppose.’
‘And Miss Elliot?’
‘Richard.’ Darcy’s tone held a warning as he flicked a glance at Georgiana, who was listening intently.
Colonel Fitzwilliam merely smirked, so Darcy continued.
‘Should you have the opportunity to become reacquainted with Sir Walter during your brief stay, you can be certain he will introduce his daughters to you.’
‘All three of them? Is not the youngest married?’
Georgiana nodded. ‘Mrs Musgrove suffers with her health, thus, she has not paid a call here, for fear of contracting my cold. They live at Uppercross, two miles across the parkland.’
‘Miss Elliot has called once with her father,’ added Darcy. ‘Though Georgiana did not meet them, and we have yet to make the acquaintance of Miss Anne Elliot. She has been travelling, we are told, and will return shortly.’
‘I shall look forward to the acquaintance.’ The colonel settled more comfortably against the cushions. ‘A soldier is oft in need of female companionship to soothe his rougher edges.’
Darcy all but rolled his eyes. ‘I doubt the daughters of a baronet are quite the right company for such a purpose, Richard.’
‘What do you mean, Brother?’
Shaking his head, Darcy smiled. Nothing to concern you, my dear. Would you be so good as to ring for refreshments?’
‘Whatever is the matter?’
Elizabeth eyed her mother in surprise as she came bustling into the room bearing a note, thrusting it at her daughter, then waiting for her to open it.
Recognising Charlotte’s hand, Elizabeth scanned the words.
‘Well, Lizzy? What is it?’ Mrs Bennet flapped her arms. ‘The boy insists on waiting.’
‘Lady Lucas is taken ill.’ Elizabeth raised her head. ‘It is not believed to be infectious, but she requests her guest, Miss Elliot, stay with us until her departure.’
Mrs Bennet’s mouth opened, then closed with a snap. ‘Miss Elliot? She is the daughter of a baronet, is she not? A lady such as she will expect only the best. I must change the dinner course.’
She left the room, shrieking ‘Hill! Hill!’ and, sinking into a chair at the desk, Elizabeth penned a quick response, assuring Charlotte of Miss Elliot’s welcome at her soonest convenience. Once the boy had been dispatched into the wintry evening, Elizabeth sought out the housekeeper to establish the best room for Anne’s brief stay, hoping she would not find life at Longbourn too trying.
In truth, she was confident this development would bring some relief to her own situation (though wishing no ill upon Lady Lucas). Jane’s intransigence had somehow placed an invisible barrier between them, and though on the surface their relationship seemed as normal, Elizabeth felt unable to talk to her in the open way she was used to. Though Anne lacked the familiarity of a sister, she was amiable in every way and would be a comfort.
The lady had also shown herself to be as fond of walking as Elizabeth, and she anticipated them spending much of the remainder of Anne’s stay roaming the countryside and continuing to talk about books, plays, and the journeys they wished they could make. Anne seemed to have a particular fascination with the sea, and the places she wished to visit were far more exotic than Elizabeth’s, and she looked forward to hearing more from her new friend.
The colonel was keen to explore the neighbourhood, contemplating as he was passing the festive season with his cousins, and on his first morning in Somersetshire he and Darcy enjoyed a fine gallop across the fields.
Drawing in their mounts on a rise of ground, Darcy looked around appreciatively before leaning forward to pat Gunnar’s silken neck.
‘It is fine country.’
Darcy turned in the saddle and followed the direction of his cousin’s gaze as it roamed over the green landscape. The fields were bordered by a combination of the honey-coloured hamstone walls, which were common to the area, and fencing and were scattered with sheep.
To the left lay woodland and to the right, from their raised position, they could see down the valley to where Kellynch Hall lay in all its splendour.
‘Such a charming prospect. Unless one is within, I suspect,’ mused the colonel.
‘You refer to the inhabitants, I assume, rather than the internal dimensions.’
The colonel laughed as they turned their mounts and slowly made their way down the slope towards the lane, which would take them back to Meadowbrook House. ‘Yes. It is an impressive structure, and as for the long gallery, I have heard much of its dimensions.’
It was the best part of the house in Darcy’s opinion, the remainder being lavishly refurnished in recent years.
‘It reminds me of Rosings in some ways.’
The colonel frowned as they continued along a grassy track towards the lane. ‘How so?’
‘Not the style so much, but the opulence with no regard for beauty or form.’
They had reached the bridleway now, the colonel using his crop to handle the metal gate, and turning their mounts to the right, proceeded in a comfortable silence for a moment.
Then, the colonel turned to Darcy. ‘I remain curious about your precipitous departure from Hertfordshire. I admire your commitment to both your friend’s well-being and Georgiana’s protection, yet I sense there is something you are not telling me.’
‘Why, pray, would you speak so?’ Darcy’s eyes narrowed as they continued along the way. He thought he had successfully silenced his cousin on that score.
The colonel reached over and grabbed the reins from Darcy’s hands, pulling both mounts to a halt.
‘You are distracted. It cannot be Wickham, for Georgie is safe here with you. I doubt it is Bingley. I suspect it is a woman.’ The colonel grinned.
‘Do not be so asinine. Why should a woman be the cause?’
‘Hah! So, you will own to the distraction of your thoughts?’
Damn it. Darcy drew in a long breath, trying to pretend Elizabeth hadn’t come to mind in an instant. Where was she right now? Would she be out walking if this fine weather graced Meryton, or…
‘And there you go again.’ The colonel’s grin widened, and Darcy wrenched the reins from him and set off at a canter, conscious his cousin had followed suit.
Trying to outpace his thoughts was futile, and he knew it. It was what Darcy had been endeavouring to do ever since the swift removal from Netherfield. Had he not torn himself away rather than gone willingly? And why this ache in his breast even now? How could he miss a woman who hardly acknowledged his existence; who, what is more, championed his nemesis?
Darcy slowed his mount and, oblivious to his cousin having drawn alongside, the name ‘Elizabeth’ fell from his lips.
‘Good lord, Darce!’ The colonel almost choked on a laugh. ‘You are aiming high! Setting your sights on Miss Elizabeth Elliot?’
Darcy turned to his cousin. What could he possibly say? He most assuredly would not own to an interest in that lady, and he most assuredly would not own to an interest in any other Elizabeth.
Yet Elizabeth Bennet is a vastly inferior lady. The thought whispered through his mind, and he shoved it ruthlessly aside. In fortune and connections, perhaps. In character? Never.
‘Darce?’ The colonel’s amusement faded. ‘Look, old chap, I comprehend the need to secure a mistress for the estate, but Miss Elliot? I may not have made her personal acquaintance, but the word in Town is not favourable.’
Darcy shook his head. ‘I am no fool, Richard. That way, madness lies.’
His cousin, of course, knew not the truth of Darcy’s words.
Chapter Three can be found HERE!
Copyright © 2020 Ada Bright & Cass Grafton