‘Come, Darcy, I would have you join us.’
Dragging his gaze from Elizabeth as the song ended, Darcy looked over to where Sir Walter pointed: a seat beside Miss Elliot. With little choice in the matter, he reluctantly crossed the room and took the indicated chair, noting his cousin engaging Anne and Elizabeth in conversation and envying his easy manners as he escorted them to join the Musgroves.
Miss Elliot’s smile was gracious. She was a handsome woman, Darcy supposed, if one did not object to the excessive over-ornamentation of hair.
‘Darcy has sound experience with estate management, my dear.’ Sir Walter addressed his eldest with a complacent air. ‘I am hoping to benefit from his guidance over the winter, to make the most of our assets.’
Taken aback, Darcy stared at Sir Walter. Confound the man! He had no intention of getting involved in matters at Kellynch.
‘You are too kind, sir.’ Miss Elliot spoke as though he were conferring some great favour on them. ‘Your advice will be invaluable, I am certain, for Cartwright is not the best steward.’
Darcy shook his head. ‘I am master of my own estate, ma’am. Of another man’s, I can offer little assistance.’
‘Yes, yes,’— Sir Walter waved away his words. ‘Be that as it may, we shall welcome your presence on the estate these coming months. My daughter, in particular, is gratified by your attendance upon us.’
Uncomfortable with the implication, Darcy was thankful for the entrance of two footmen wheeling an ornate glass and gilt cart stocked with decanters and a coffee pot, and Sir Walter summoned one of the servants over.
‘A glass of Madeira for Miss Elliot. Darcy?’
‘Coffee, please.’ He turned to Sir Walter. ‘If you will excuse me for a moment, sir? My cousin leaves early on the morrow, and I must speak with him. I shall return directly.’ He rose swiftly from his chair and made his way over to the colonel, who had excused himself from the ladies and the Musgroves and was hovering near the drinks cart.
One of the footmen handed over Darcy’s coffee, then turned to the colonel.
‘Two brandies.’ He smirked at Darcy.
Colonel Fitzwilliam all but rolled his eyes. ‘One is for you, dunderhead.’
Once furnished with their respective glasses, however, the colonel fixed Darcy with a meaningful stare as they moved away.
‘We must join our hosts, but I caution you: do not let your admiration for one lady be noted by the other.’ He spoke quietly, and Darcy frowned.
‘I cannot comprehend your meaning.’ Darcy placed the brandy on a side table and sipped his coffee.
‘You can and you ought to heed it.’ The colonel took a slug from his glass, but Darcy had no intention of reacting.
‘You still plan to leave at first light?’
‘Indeed.’ They both turned their steps towards the company, albeit rather slowly. ‘I must be with my regiment by noon.’
‘I shall break my fast with you.’
‘Excellent!’ The colonel beamed around as they took seats within the grouping either side of the hearth. ‘An early morning start oft brings fresh perspectives. Do you not think so, Mrs Musgrove?’
As his cousin engaged the lady in conversation, Darcy considered the other occupants of the room. Elizabeth had paid him no mind when they had approached and appeared deep in discussion with her friend. Charles Musgrove was listening intently to the colonel’s chatter with his wife and Sir Walter and Miss Elliot, who—damn it, had her eyes fixed on Darcy— were smiling attentively in his direction.
‘I trust we shall make this a regular occurrence, Darcy. You are welcome to dine at the Hall whenever you wish.’
Darcy inclined his head to Sir Walter. With Elizabeth in residence, the temptation to commit to dining there every evening was compelling.
‘You must meet all our acquaintance, Mr Darcy.’ Miss Elliot’s air was fawning. ‘For we are to hold a ball on twelfth night—an annual event—and we would not have you in want of a partner.’
‘It would be an honour, ma’am.’
It would be horrendous.
‘The Yuletide season will be upon us directly!’ Charles Musgrove beamed genially around the room. ‘The ball last year was the highlight of the local season, Mr Darcy. How could one not delight in the anticipation?’
‘I suspect you will delight more in the following day’s shoot, Charles.’ Anne was soft-spoken, but her words pleased her brother-in-law whilst drawing a scowl from Mrs Musgrove.
‘To be certain, I do not know how I am to cope. I shall be in need of constant attention by then.’
Darcy noted the small smile exchanged by Elizabeth and her friend, but Anne quickly attended to her sister, assuring her of any support she may require.
‘You will join us, Colonel.’ Sir Walter’s request sounded more like a command, but the colonel merely inclined his head.
‘A kind invitation, sir. I anticipate a return to Somersetshire for Christmas, but whether I am able to stay for any duration I cannot say at present.’
‘I do wonder at Lady Russell always absenting herself at this time of year.’ Miss Elliot’s voice was plaintive. ‘She has failed to attend the ball since Mother’s passing; it is eleven years. You would think she might have recovered from the loss of her friend by now.’
A small sound came from Anne Elliot, whose hand was instantly taken by Elizabeth, a gesture which touched Darcy, and he was contemplating the lady with some pleasure when Sir Walter addressed him again.
‘Lady Russell is an old family friend, Darcy.’ He stirred in his seat, then took a sip from his glass. ‘She has passed the winter in Bath for many years, but she lives at Kellynch Lodge. You will meet her when she returns in the spring.’
‘Oh, how I wish it was this time last year.’ Mrs Musgrove threw her husband a wistful look. Charles Musgrove’s expression was blank.
‘Your marriage, Charles. Your wedding day was the 16th?’ Anne spoke softly again, but all eyes turned upon Mrs Musgrove, who was continuing.
‘It was such a wonderful day, for all the stresses and strains in the weeks beforehand.’ She turned to Elizabeth. ‘I had the most beautiful gown. The highest quality silk, with a fur-lined cloak of cream satin. It was the envy of the entire neighbourhood, I assure you.’
‘And how was the service?’ Elizabeth’s voice was kind, as was her expression, and Darcy watched her with some complacency. ‘Which hymns did you choose?’
‘Oh, I dare say I cannot recall.’ Mrs Musgrove waved an airy hand. ‘But the wedding was talked of for many months. No expense was spared.’ She laughed. ‘Was it not splendid, Father—quite the contrivance in the end?’
All eyes turned upon Sir Walter, and Darcy frowned. The gentleman’s face had become extremely guarded as he exchanged an unreadable look with his eldest daughter. The moment was fleeting, however, and as Sir Walter launched into a panegyric on the finery of his brocade wedding coat, Darcy’s mind drifted to more pertinent matters.
The evening had delivered beyond his expectations, but how this change in circumstances affected him, he had been unable to establish. Elizabeth Bennet. The woman Darcy thought he had relegated to the past was sitting across the room from him, as alluring and unattainable as she had ever been and raising inexplicable emotions in Darcy that he struggled to conceal, let alone comprehend.
Darcy and the colonel had walked up to Kellynch, and they welcomed the chance to stretch their legs, despite the bracing wind as they strode back to Meadowbrook House under the light of a full moon.
At first, Colonel Fitzwilliam amused himself with observations on the Elliots, none of which required a response. When silence fell between, them, however, he nudged Darcy on the arm.
‘You do see the lady’s purpose?’
‘What do you mean?’
Did Elizabeth have a purpose? A strange sensation filtered through Darcy.
The colonel tapped his cane on the ground. ‘Methinks I begin to see the lay of the land.’
Darcy threw his cousin a puzzled look. ‘What land?’
‘Miss Elliot’s intentions. Or rather, she and her father’s. You may believe yourself not to be their target, but whatever your belief, it is their purpose.’
‘Honestly, Richard, how can you discern such a thing on so short an acquaintance?’
The colonel shrugged. ‘It does not take much to ascertain the advantage to Sir Walter in leasing you a property for the winter. It must have seemed as though the best of good fortune had befallen him. Your fortune, to be precise.’
‘Perhaps Miss Elliot has no desire to secure a situation,’ Darcy mused as they continued along the rutted lane. ‘As I understand it, she has been mistress since she succeeded to the position when but sixteen.’
‘Indeed. There is only Lady Russell who walks before her into all the dining rooms of the county, as the lady was prompt to inform us. After laying down the domestic law at Kellynch these many years, Miss Elliot must be ready—more than ready—to be mistress of her own manor, to lead the way, not follow.’
Darcy sensed his cousin’s pointed attention upon him. ‘Of course, on the surface, Miss Elliot is the solution to your dilemma, Darce.’
‘What dilemma?’ Darcy peered at the colonel warily through the darkness.
‘The continuation of the estate at Pemberley. Even you must own Miss Elliot to be the perfect candidate for the role.’ The colonel chuckled. ‘If one puts aside her disposition.’
‘I am not seeking—’
‘You are in need of a wife, whether you chose to acknowledge it openly or not. Pemberley needs an heir, and the lady has excellent credentials.’
Unlike Elizabeth Bennet. The thought swept unbidden through Darcy’s mind, and he stopped in his tracks.
Marriage to Elizabeth had never been a consideration, much as he admired her and was drawn to her company. Marrying a woman of inferior birth went against Darcy’s upbringing, and when one added in the appalling family… Miss Elliot’s situation was to the contrary and included a considerable dowry.
The colonel came to a halt as he realised he had lost his companion and walked back to stand before his cousin.
‘You are eight and twenty, old man. Time to do your duty to the estate.’
Darcy could not deny it. ‘I accede. Pemberley is in need of an heir, but—’
‘Before that, the estate needs a mistress.’ The colonel grinned. ‘You do know they go together, Darce? A bit like a horse and carriage? You need both to make it work?’
‘And we are agreed, Richard. Miss Elliot is an untenable proposition.’
Darcy set off at a fair stride. He may have been raised to do his duty, but that woman? Something deep within Darcy rebelled against the notion.
‘Not so fast, Darce.’ Colonel Fitzwilliam stayed Darcy with his hand as they reached the driveway to Meadowbrook House. ‘There is something else we need to talk about.’
‘There is no—’
‘Oh.’ Relieved, Darcy peered at the clear sky. The temperature had plummeted way below the mild weather he had sought for his sister. ‘Out here? It is sufficient to freeze one’s bones.’
‘I am willing to compromise. As I shall be on my way to Blandford as soon as dawn breaks, we can continue this by the hearth, if that is your wont.’
It was not his wont. Following his cousin into the house, Darcy’s head was still swirling with a maelstrom of thoughts, ones that had only swelled in their confusion and…yes, he must own, anticipation of what the next few days and weeks might bring.
Within five minutes, they were ensconced in the room Darcy had taken as his study, each nursing another glass of brandy from their armchairs beside the hearth.
‘Your health.’ The colonel raised his glass and Darcy followed suit, then shifted under his cousin’s scrutiny.
He took a sip from his glass. ‘What is it you wished to discuss regarding Georgiana?’ Darcy frowned. ‘The hard winter was forecast in the north, but I had not anticipated the milder West Country being so affected.’
They discussed the potential impact of the harsh weather at Pemberley for a while, with the colonel sharing his father’s preparations for their own Derbyshire estate, but then silence fell upon the room. Darcy’s eyes were upon the crackling logs in the hearth; the colonel’s were upon his cousin.
Draining his glass, Colonel Fitzwilliam stood up and held out a hand for Darcy’s. ‘Come on. Knock it back.’
Darcy stared into the fire whilst his cousin replenished their glasses. Though he could hear the slosh of liquid as it hit the glass, the clink of the decanter stopper being replaced, his thoughts were some distance away. One mile away, to be precise.
He had not had chance to speak to Elizabeth after dinner, but at least he had learned how she came to be at Kellynch and that her stay would be of some weeks. How singular that the friendship had been formed in Hertfordshire of all places.
Darcy’s mind flew swiftly back to the county and his short acquaintance with it. Well, he had successfully extricated his friend some a poor alliance, for that he must be thankful.
And does not Miss Elizabeth Bennet fall into the same class of people?
‘I know not where your mind has taken you, Darce, but I would advocate closing a door on it. Your countenance has rarely been more conflicted. Here.’
The colonel thrust Darcy’s refilled glass under his nose, and he took it, taking a quick sip as his cousin settled back into his seat.
‘Speak to me of your concern regarding Georgiana, for I assume it is a concern?’
The colonel laughed. ‘It is more for you, old man.’ Darcy raised a brow, as his cousin continued, ‘Despite Georgiana’s need for rest and recuperation, she will soon make the acquaintance of the ladies up at the Hall, including Miss Bennet.’
Georgiana meeting Elizabeth!
Darcy sat up so sharply, he almost spilled his drink.
‘And there it is. All the evidence I require.’ The colonel took a slug of brandy before placing his glass on a side table and leaning forward, his elbows resting on his knees. ‘So, Miss Elizabeth Bennet is the lady from Hertfordshire, the one whose name comes involuntarily to your lips.’ He waggled his eyebrows, smirking.
‘For heaven’s sake, Richard. What of it? So we are previously acquainted. It was of a passing nature and, as you could see from this evening, we had hardly a word to say to each other.’
‘Taciturnity is your staple in company. It signifies naught. It appears quite the opposite for the lady, although interestingly, she had little enough to say to you.’
Darcy got to his feet. ‘I have had sufficient of your blethering. I am for bed. I will see you at breakfast.’ He drained his glass. ‘To quote Homer: There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.’
The colonel stood up as well. ‘And Shakespeare said, we are such stuff as dreams are made on. I will wager there will be more dream than sleep this night, Darce.’
Chapter Nine can be found HERE!!
Copyright © 2020 Ada Bright & Cass Grafton