Georgiana smothered a laugh as Boliver returned with the visitors.
‘Miss Elliot, Miss Anne Elliot, and Miss Bennet, sir.’
Darcy drew in a sharp breath as an urgent tug came on his sleeve.
‘I did not foresee my curiosity being so amply satisfied.’ Georgiana’s voice was a whisper as Miss Elliot swept into the room with an air of familiarity.
Darcy took his sister’s hand and placed it on his arm.
‘Nor did I.’ He straightened as Anne Elliot joined her sister, trying not to seek out the third of their party. ‘But be at ease. I will bear the burden of conversation.’
At least, if he could retain coherent thought…
Acknowledgements were exchanged, and no amount of inner reprimand could prevent Darcy’s gaze from lingering on Elizabeth Bennet’s fine figure and sparkling eyes. The lady, however, seemed vastly interested in Georgiana, and he frowned at the mild surprise upon Elizabeth’s face.
He glanced at Georgiana, but she had performed her curtsey prettily and was now waiting on the introductions.
‘Mr Darcy’—Miss Elliot stepped forward—‘I felt it incumbent upon me to call this morning and pay my respects to Miss Darcy, as I have not yet made her acquaintance.’
Darcy, who longed to say the lady would do better to not feel incumbent on their account, did what he was obliged to.
‘Miss Elliot, Miss Anne Elliot, Miss Bennet. Permit me to introduce my sister, Miss Georgiana Darcy, to your acquaintance.’
He led his sister forward two steps, and she performed another curtsey, but contrary to her studying the floor, as was her tendency in the embarrassment of making new acquaintances, she was staring at Elizabeth with rapt attention. Damn it, had she recalled the name Bennet from his letter? How foolish of him to have made such a slip.
Darcy gestured towards the chairs grouped around some small tables. ‘Ladies, please, be seated.’
He led Georgiana over to a chaise and waited for the ladies to settle before sitting beside her. He took her hand and she squeezed it.
‘I trust we find you in good health this morning?’ Darcy spoke the words instinctively, but a flicker of emotion passed over Elizabeth’s features, recalling him instantly to their exchange the night before.
‘As you see, sir, I am in extraordinary good health.’ Miss Elliot’s smile was condescending.
‘The walk was invigorating, I trust?’ Darcy skimmed over all three ladies, refusing to linger on Elizabeth Bennet, then turning to his sister as she burst into hurried speech.
‘Oh yes. Was the weather obliging? It appears quite dry, though there is a lack of sun today…’
Miss Elliot, however, raised a finely arched brow. ‘Walk? The lane is in far too poor condition. Fortunately, the carriage is always at my disposal.’
‘Miss Bennet and I chose to walk and found the air quite invigorating, Miss Darcy.’ Anne Elliot lifted a hand towards the window. ‘It has dropped very cold overnight, so the ruts are quite solid.’
‘Though you would question the elegance of our gait as we teetered on the uneven ground.’ Elizabeth’s intelligent eyes were sparkling much as Darcy remembered them when she was in conversation with…well, anyone other than himself. ‘We held our arms out akin to walking a tightrope. It was a most stimulating exercise!’
Georgiana seemed as though she wanted to respond, but her cough returned to plague her, and Darcy put an arm about her.
‘My sister has been a little unwell. I came to the West Country in the hopes of finding milder weather.’
‘I am afraid we are in for a bracing winter, sir.’ Elizabeth regarded Darcy as he tucked the shawl more securely about his sister’s frame. ‘There was talk of it in Hertfordshire before we left. I believe we shall see snow before too long.’
Darcy frowned. He had not expected it so far south.
‘You do not favour the snow, Mr Darcy?’
Anne Elliot’s expression was politely enquiring, but Darcy smiled. ‘As a child, it was my delight. When one has an estate to manage, crops to consider, and stock to care for, it is less desirable.’
There was a small interruption as the tea paraphernalia was brought in, and knowing it would occupy her, Darcy encouraged Georgiana to prepare the beverage and fill several cups before he walked over to offer one to Miss Elliot.
‘The tea is a little dark for my taste.’ The lady handed the cup back, which Darcy knew would mortify Georgiana.
‘Permit me.’ Darcy returned to the table and, after a moment, picked up exactly the same cup and offered it again to Miss Elliot.
‘Oh, that is quite perfect, sir. Thank you for looking after me.’ Miss Elliot looked at Darcy as though he had saved her life, before refusing milk but accepting two generous lumps of sugar into the cup.
Once everyone was served, Darcy meant to sit beside his sister again, but Miss Elliot had taken the vacated seat, and he was left with no option but to take the only remaining place, beside Elizabeth Bennet.
For some reason, he found he no longer knew how to sit at ease. Though the talk continued at a gentle rhythm around them, Darcy realised, unless they conversed directly, he could no longer look at Elizabeth without making it was obvious he was staring.
The lady seemed perfectly unaware of his dilemma, her attention all upon Georgiana, and Darcy was puzzled. What did the lady find quite so fascinating in his sister?
‘We anticipate with pleasure receiving you at Kellynch Hall, Miss Darcy.’ Miss Elliot inclined her head graciously. ‘It is reportedly one of the finest Elizabethan buildings in the country.’
Georgiana brightened. ‘I am fond of history. I should be most grateful to see it. My brother tells me the building is quite beautiful.’
Darcy had also decried the way it had been decorated, but he knew his sister had better sense than to bring that up.
Miss Elliot straightened. ‘Kellynch has been in our family for many generations. We respect the age of its exterior, but I feel it is my duty, as the present mistress, to ensure the interior always reflects the latest fashion.’ She sent a complacent look at the company. ‘Such grand apartments warrant only the best, of course. My present project is to redecorate the dining room.’
‘It was renovated in Mama’s lifetime,’ Anne interjected. ‘I think it quite perfect as it is.’
‘Nonsense, Anne.’ Miss Elliot waved her folded fan. ‘The wall coverings are not in the current style and the table is démodé. I have long disliked it, for it quite taints the food upon it.’
A sound escaped the lady at Darcy’s side, but he did not look at Elizabeth for fear he might share in her amusement.
‘I have instructed the most prestigious of craftsmen,’ Miss Elliot continued. ‘The table and chairs are being made from the finest rosewood.’
Silence followed this declaration, and as Darcy could tell Georgiana knew not how to respond, he expected her to make no further contribution to the conversation. He was mistaken.
‘Miss Bennet, my brother informs me you are from Hertfordshire?‘
‘Then it must be true.’ Elizabeth smiled warmly at Georgiana. ‘The county has been my home all my life.’
‘And do you like it there?’
‘I like it well enough, and even more so when I am away.’
Georgiana looked confused, and Miss Elliot concealed a yawn behind her hand as Elizabeth elaborated.
‘I live with my parents and my four sisters. Whilst there is constant companionship, there is also a want of escape.’
‘You have four sisters!’ Georgiana leaned forward in rapt attention.
Darcy was likewise mesmerised. What was this effect Elizabeth had on people, no matter the length of the acquaintance? When had Georgiana ever been this loquacious with strangers?
‘Do not envy me, Miss Darcy. I can assure you, one sister would be quite ample.’ Elizabeth paused. ‘Provided I could choose which one, of course.’
Miss Elliot sniffed. ‘Sisters are often surplus to requirements.’ She seemed to have forgotten one of her own was in the room.
Colour had flooded Anne’s cheeks, and Darcy turned to her with a smile. ‘Georgiana has longed wished for a sister of her own. I fear I do not answer sufficiently.’
‘It is not that, Fitz.’ Georgiana sent Darcy an apologetic look. ‘I would not trade my brother for the world. But, Miss Bennet—’
‘Your home is in Derbyshire, I understand, Miss Darcy?’ Miss Elliot interjected.
‘I—er, yes it is. At least, I am established in Town, but Pemberley is where I grew up, and we return often each year.’
‘And, pray tell me, for how many generations has your family owned the property?’
Georgiana blinked. ‘There have been Darcys on the land since the 1500s.’
Darcy stepped in. ‘We are merely guardians of the estate, Miss Elliot, trusted with ensuring it is passed on to the next generation. I do not consider myself Pemberley’s owner. As for how long the family has been there, that my sister and I are able to call it home is all that matters.’
Miss Elliot, however, obviously disagreed, and continued with her interrogation.
‘But it is the principal property in the county?’
‘It is the principal property of interest to us, ma’am.’
‘May I be so bold as to request a replenishment of my cup, Miss Darcy?’ Elizabeth smiled kindly at Georgiana, who leapt to her feet with alacrity, her relief at being able to leave her place beside Miss Elliot palpable, and Darcy could have kicked himself for not finding a way to assist her.
Before he knew what had happened, however, Elizabeth was out of her seat and joining Georgiana by the tea tray, and Miss Elliot patted the vacated seat beside her.
Darcy pretended not to notice, addressing her sister instead. ‘Would you care for more tea, Miss Anne?’
‘I have not finished my first, Mr Darcy. But thank you. Do you find the house suitable for your needs, sir? There is a small annexe in the grounds, should you require more space.’
‘Yes. Willow Cottage. It is perfectly charming.’ Darcy smiled at Anne.
‘My mother fitted it out for—’
‘Had you heard, Mr Darcy, that we are connected to the Dalrymple family?’ Miss Elliot raised her chin. ‘Our cousins, the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, that is, and her daughter, the Honourable Miss Carteret?’
‘I believe it is well known, ma’am.’ It was also widely understood that they were estranged.
The lady launched into a monologue requiring no contribution, and Darcy assumed his habitual mask of inscrutability, resigning himself to his duty, whilst simultaneously wishing he could be privy to the conversation being held behind him between Elizabeth and Georgiana.
Miss Elliot, meanwhile, confirmed precisely why Darcy hated the ritual of morning calls. Much as he wished Elizabeth did not have to go, he had never been so thankful to see the ladies leave.
‘Where is the carriage?’ Miss Elliot turned to Anne in confusion as the door to Meadowbrook House closed behind them.
Anne and Elizabeth exchanged a look, but just then a stable hand came round the corner of the house.
The lad scurried forward and docked his cloth cap. ‘Yes, ma’am.’
‘Fetch my carriage this instant.’
The boy was discomfited. ‘But the carriage ‘as returned to the big house, ma’am.’
‘The big…oh, for heaven’s sake.’
Miss Elliot all but stamped her elegantly-shod foot as the hapless stable boy continued on his way to wherever he was bound.
‘It seems you must join us.’ Anne smiled sympathetically at her sister. ‘The walk will do you much good.’
‘On the contrary. I shall request the aid of Mr Darcy.’
Anne was horrified. ‘You cannot ask that he make ready his own carriage for such a short journey! We are only so recently acquainted.’
Elizabeth, on the other hand, was quite taken with the idea of Mr Darcy being plagued to do something he would rather not.
‘Let us continue, Anne. I am sure Miss Elliot knows what she is about.’
The lady in question inclined her head to Elizabeth before pulling the bell, and the two ladies walked swiftly down the driveway and turned into the lane.
Chapters Eleven can be found HERE!!
Copyright © 2020 Ada Bright & Cass Grafton