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MY FOREVER VALENTINE

by Wendi Sotis

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Chapter One

~Friday, December 27, 1811

The moment Miss Elizabeth Bennet had anticipated with both joy and dread these past three weeks had arrived. Tears welled in her eyes, even as her lips stretched into a smile so wide, her cheeks ached.

It was time to say goodbye to her treasured confidant, dearest friend, and roommate — her elder sister, Jane.

After the happy couple bid adieu to the neighbours and all the other family members, Elizabeth stepped forward.

“I wish you the greatest joy, Mr. and Mrs. Bingley!”

“I am the most fortunate man alive.” Charles Bingley beamed at his new wife, the sweetest lady who had ever walked the earth.

A wave of compassion came over Elizabeth, knowing this amiable man had been abandoned by his sisters, Miss Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, as well as his best friend, Mr. Darcy, on his wedding day. Poor Charles had resorted to asking Sir William Lucas to stand up with him at the ceremony.

Jane raised an eyebrow at her husband. Charles nodded, bowed to Elizabeth, and turned away from them.

Elizabeth smiled. Married only two hours, they were already communicating without words.

The ache in her chest at the thought of losing Jane deepened. She took two rushed steps towards her sister and folded Jane into her embrace.

From this day forward, Charles would always come first to Jane. And even though Jane’s new country residence would be a mere three miles away from her former home, the Bingleys would reside there for only part of the year, electing to spend a good portion of each winter in London.

Guilt nagged at Elizabeth. Her musings were selfish. Jane’s happiness should be more important than her own, especially today.

She pulled away from her sister and wiped a tear from her cheek. “You deserve the best of everything. I am sure you and Charles will have a wonderful life together.”

Jane radiated joy. “I only wish you could be this happy, as well.”

Elizabeth forced a smile. “Perhaps someday, dearest.”

“Will you come upstairs with me for a moment, please? There is something in our bedchamber I must retrieve before we leave.”

Elizabeth followed Jane up the stairs and into their shared room.

No… now this room would be hers alone.

Elizabeth straightened her spine. There would be no more tears from her today, at least not until she was alone.

Jane closed the door, walked over to the bed, and picked up a pair of gloves.

Why would Jane need help retrieving something she seemed to have left there on purpose?

“Lizzy,” Jane said. “Charles spoke to Papa, and he has given his permission. Will you come to us in February, after you visit Charlotte in Kent? I am afraid of how much I will miss you if you do not come.”

Relief coursed through Elizabeth. Her worries had been silly; of course, she would always be an important part of her sister’s life. She nodded. “I would love to.”

“I will need your advice. You must help me decorate Charles’s new townhouse.”

Elizabeth laughed. “You do know it is your townhouse, too.”

“Our new townhouse.” Jane seemed lost in her thoughts for a few moments, and then she smiled. “It seems so strange to say it aloud.”

Elizabeth asked hesitantly, “Will anyone else be coming to assist you?”

“Lizzy, I have been a simpleton.” She raised her head. “Had I only listened to your warnings about Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, their snub would not have come as such a shock, casting a cloud over our happiness today. Even now, a small part of me is trying to make excuses for their behaviour.”

Jane’s eyes filled with tears. Elizabeth retrieved a handkerchief from a drawer and handed it to her sister.

Jane continued, “When I saw Charles yesterday, he had already admitted defeat, but up until the moment Papa walked me down the aisle and I noted their absence, I trusted my new sisters would forego their journey to Mr. Hurst’s family, only for a few days, in order to attend their brother’s wedding.”

Jane blotted her cheeks. “The part of me that knows this was done out of spite is growing stronger every minute. Charles insisted he must do what was best for himself and us, whether his family approved or not. He vowed that if they did not sanction our marriage by attending our wedding, they certainly would not be welcomed to our home until they have apologized to us both.”

“Good for Charles!” Elizabeth exclaimed.

“But this situation distresses me so very much.” Jane sighed deeply. “You may have noticed I hesitated when it was my turn to say, ‘I do’?”

Elizabeth had noticed, and it had surprised her. “I thought you were so overcome with joy, you could not speak.”

“No.” Jane said a bit too loudly. “And I was not having an episode of nerves, like Mama told half the party downstairs. I knew that the moment I said, ‘I do,’ the breach that has developed in the Bingley family would become permanent.”

“Oh, Jane!” Elizabeth took hold of her sister’s hand and squeezed it.

“But I am selfish. I could not envision a future for myself without Charles, so I made my vows. But Lizzy, now I wonder… Should I have said, ‘No’?”

Elizabeth’s mouth dropped open. She hesitated a moment to recover. “Listen to me, Jane. When we first met Charles, I could never imagine his acting against the wishes of either of his sisters, or those of his friend. But the hope of someday marrying you had greatly improved Charles’s character. He matured into a man who would risk anything to gain the affections of the woman he loved.” Elizabeth took a deep breath. “If it helps, it is my opinion that it was Mr. Darcy who instigated it all. Once the sisters are away from him for a while, they likely will come around.”

“Why would Mr. Darcy have done such a thing?” Jane shook her head. “If one overlooks his unkind comment about you before we were introduced, I have never seen him in such a dark light as you have. Neither does Papa. And Charles has forgiven his absence at our wedding, so I have, as well. Apparently, Mr. Darcy had important business in London, and it could not be delayed.”

“Mayhap Charles is right.” Elizabeth did not think so, but she did not wish to argue the point and put an even greater damper on what should be the happiest day of her sister’s life. “Dearest Jane, you and Charles belong together. I promise you will be very happy. You should not allow his family — or yours, for that matter — influence what you both know is right. Please do not permit anyone to ruin the joy that should go along with your love match.”

“Thank you, Lizzy. You always make me feel better.” Jane changed the subject. “Charles has said he will arrange to send our carriage for you the first Monday of February.”

Elizabeth giggled at Jane’s over-exaggerated accent on “our.”

“Then it is settled,” answered Elizabeth. “Believe me, anticipating my visit with you and Charles in February might be the only way I can survive the many ridiculous speeches I expect to hear from our cousin, beginning the very instant I arrive at Hunsford Cottage.”

~%~

~Saturday, December 28, 1811

As the coach made a turn leading away from the main road, Sir William Lucas turned towards Elizabeth and Maria Lucas. “This lane leads to Hunsford Cottage, the home of my daughter and her new husband.”

Elizabeth smiled politely. Did he not know that when her cousin, Mr. Collins, had visited the Bennets, he had never stopped speaking about Hunsford Cottage, running on about how his home was separated only by a narrow lane from Rosings Park, the grand estate owned by his benefactor, Lady Catherine de Bourgh? Mr. Collins had tried and failed to lure one of the Bennet girls to marry him, and her good friend Charlotte Lucas had accepted his proposal.

Elizabeth examined the view out the window, watching the passing scenery in an attempt to remain alert. Not for the first time, she wished Charlotte’s father and sister had delayed their visit to Charlotte a few days instead of planning to leave the very day after Jane’s wedding.

The past month had been absolute Bedlam at Longbourn, beginning with Netherfield’s ball on November 26th, followed by Mr. Charles Bingley travelling to London to accomplish some “urgent business.” Once Caroline Bingley’s letter to Jane had been received, which arrived that same day, the Bennet family — except for Elizabeth — was certain Mr. Bingley would never return. Jane’s hopes had been crushed, as were their mother’s, and it took all of Elizabeth’s energy to keep her mother from having to use her smelling salts more than once an hour, and to keep Jane from falling into melancholy.

As Elizabeth had predicted, before that week was out, Charles had completed his transaction and returned to Netherfield, quickly followed by a visit to Longbourn, where he proposed to Jane.

During his interview, their father had discovered that Charles had been in London to sign the contract to purchase a townhouse in London. Apparently, in his mind, owning property in Town would better prove to Mr. Bennet that he could properly provide for Jane.

A hearty family celebration had followed, during which plans were made. Since it was necessary that Charles travel northward to take care of business and see his family for the whole month of January, he wished that Jane should accompany him. They decided to marry as soon as the banns were read, sending Mrs. Bennet into an intense, though out of necessity, quite short, fit of nerves. When she recovered, the house was put into an uproar between decorating for Christmas and planning Jane’s wedding.

The ceremony and wedding breakfast the day before had been a success, after which Jane and Charles left for their new house in London, to spend a few days before heading north.

At least, Elizabeth had been so busy last night, and so fatigued, she had given little time to grieving the loss of Jane as she packed for this trip.

Elizabeth was pulled from her memories as the coach turned again, this time into a courtyard adjacent to a handsome cottage next to an immaculate garden. Mr. and Mrs. Collins promptly came out to greet them. The building and grounds were exactly as she had pictured it, proving her cousin’s description had been wholly complete, down to the very last window and shutter.

Half an hour later, after listening to her cousin prattle on and on, Elizabeth followed Charlotte Collins into the small, yet serviceable bedroom that Elizabeth would occupy for the next four weeks.

Elizabeth judged her dear friend had taken pains to provide Maria’s and Elizabeth’s rooms with a hint of the things they enjoyed so they would be more comfortable. Maria’s bedchamber had a series of flower watercolours adorning the walls. In Elizabeth’s room, a small painting of a Hertfordshire landscape, which Elizabeth remembered Charlotte had done herself, hung above the mantelpiece, and a small vase of dried roses were displayed on the dresser, similar to the pattern in the carpet and bedcovering.

Charlotte walked deeper into the room, surveyed it with a critical eye, and then turned to Elizabeth with an expectant expression.

Elizabeth smiled. “The house is lovely, Charlotte. You have accomplished so much in so short a time.”

Charlotte beamed. “I have enjoyed adding a hint of my own partialities to every room, except my husband’s study, of course, though I have done a bit of rearranging there to enhance his ease of use, as well.”

“Unquestionably, Mr. Collins appreciates your transforming his house into a home.” During his tour, he had detailed several changes Charlotte had made, but it seemed it had only been the ones of which his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, had approved, for he noted the great lady’s comments on everything he pointed out.

Elizabeth wrapped her arm around the bedpost and leaned against it. “And how do you like being a clergyman’s wife?”

Charlotte met Elizabeth’s gaze. “I adore having a home of my own, Lizzy. The parishioners have been very welcoming, and it is a joy to visit with them and anticipate their needs.” She hesitated. “Lady Catherine is a most attentive neighbour to us, as she is to all the area.”

Knowing Charlotte so well, the slight rise of her brows as she pronounced the last told Elizabeth that the great lady was perhaps a bit too attentive at times, but instead of being annoyed by the behaviour, as Elizabeth would have been, Charlotte found it amusing.

Elizabeth held back a smile. “Undoubtedly, your father and sister are impressed with your new situation. It seems the perfect situation for you, dear Charlotte. I am very happy for you.”

Charlotte approached her. “Thank you, Lizzy. I find I am quite content.” She paused. “But you must be exhausted from travelling, so I will leave you to yourself and allow you rest now. Sally will be available if you need anything, just ring.” She touched the bell-pull by the hearth. “I will see you at supper.”

“Before you go…” Elizabeth removed her bonnet and pelisse, laid them on the dresser, and turned her back to Charlotte. “Will you unfasten my buttons, please?”

Charlotte complied.

Because the Collinses had only one maid, Elizabeth refused to distract her from her duties by asking her to help her undress when Charlotte was at hand. The Bennet daughters had always shared a lady’s maid, and to speed things along, they often helped each other dress. She knew the Lucas family had been in a similar circumstance, so it seemed natural to ask Charlotte to do her this service.

Charlotte laid Elizabeth’s travelling gown and outerwear over her arm. “I will take these to Sally to remove the dust from the road.”

“There is no rush, Charlotte. I will not travel again until the third of February.”

Gratefulness shone from her hostess’s eyes. “It is so good to have you here, Lizzy. Enjoy your nap.”

~%~

~Monday, December 30, 1811

“Darcy?”

Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy feigned sleep, hoping his cousin would think he had been lulled by the rocking of the coach.

A boot pushed at his leg. “Darcy! Wake up.”

With his own first name being the same as his mother’s family name, most of his relations called him by his last name, Darcy, and he used their first names — otherwise things could get rather confusing with all the Fitzwilliams around.

“Stop kicking me, Richard.”

“I did not kick you. You should know the difference by now, Cousin. That was a shove,” Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam chuckled.

Darcy tapped his hat upwards, off his eyes. “Whatever you might call it, I would be grateful if you would desist. You might not wish to savour these last few miles’ worth of peace before being forced to endure Aunt Catherine’s interrogations for a fortnight, but will you at least allow me that enjoyment?”

“Ha!” Richard chuckled. “With that attitude, it serves you right.”

Obviously, his cousin was not going to give up. Richard never could sit quietly for more than a few minutes at a time. “What serves me right?”

Richard gestured toward the window. “You missed catching a glimpse of one of the loveliest creatures I have ever seen. I wonder who she is.”

Darcy huffed out a breath. “You sound like Bingley.”

Richard raised his eyebrows. “Did not Bingley marry recently?”

“When he was single, he could not stop himself from uttering that very phrase every time he met a young lady.” Darcy sniffed. “And yes, against my advice, he has married the most recent loveliest creature he had ever beheld, one who will surely make him miserable.”

“Why is that?”

“She and her mother were only after his fortune.”

“Are you certain? I passed him on the street yesterday. He seemed blissfully content.”

Darcy stared up at the ceiling. “I am certain, in time, he will regret his decision.”

“According to you, all ladies are only interested in gentlemen for their fortunes.”

Most were, as he had discovered just after he had inherited one of the most prosperous estates in England. The moment he stepped foot into any sort of gathering, whether in London or the country, marriage-minded mamas and their single daughters descended on him, swooping in for the kill. The only women he could trust were his cousin Anne, his Aunt Adelaide, his housekeepers in Town and at Pemberley, the wives of friends, and… well… Miss Elizabeth Bennet, who had never forced her attentions upon him, even when they had spent several days together in the same house. His hostess at the time, Miss Caroline Bingley, was an entirely different story.

Drat! He had made up his mind not to think of Elizabeth again, but she had wormed her way back into his thoughts once again. Well, at least he had made it a whole ten minutes this time—his best effort yet.

Richard continued, “I, however, believe there are love matches. Look at your own parents and mine.”

“My parents and yours were married first. Their affection for one another came later.”

Richard harrumphed. “I will trust what I saw with my own eyes. Bingley is happy.”

“Imagine what you will.” Darcy shook his head. Bingley was a fool, as was Richard, apparently.

“When was Bingley’s wedding?”

Darcy sighed. “Two days ago.”

Richard reclined against the seat back. “You did not remain in Hertfordshire long.”

“I did not attend.”

“You did not bother to be present at the wedding of your closest friend? How could you—”

“I could not leave Georgiana alone in London. Your parents did not return until yesterday.”

“You do not trust the new companion my mother found for us…what is her name?” Richard snapped his fingers. “Mrs. Annesley.”

“After Mrs. Younge’s betrayal at Ramsgate? Are you mad?”

Richard frowned. “I suppose you are right. But I thought you and my mother checked with Mrs. Annesley’s prior employers—”

“Yes, yes. The companion’s references bathed her in a most radiant light, but if she had not expected they would be complimentary towards her, she would not have given us their names in the first place. Until she proves herself trustworthy, Georgiana and Mrs. Annesley will stay with me or your parents, where someone can keep a watchful eye on them both.”

Richard raised one eyebrow. “And you could not have taken them with you to Bingley’s country house, I suppose?”

“No, I could not. Bingley understood my reasons.” If he told Richard his objection, would his cousin borrow a horse from Aunt Catherine’s stables and ride directly to Hertfordshire to take care of the matter personally? He had threatened to do so after that same good-for-nothing swine had tried to elope with Georgiana last summer.

“Ah, but I do not understand, and I am her half-guardian.” He waited a few moments. When Darcy did not elaborate, Richard said, “You know very well that I will hound you without mercy until you do explain fully, so you might as well give it up now.”

Darcy flared his nostrils. “When I visited in the autumn, I recognized a man from our past in Meryton, the village located one mile from Bingley’s house. I felt it best not to expose her to such a reprobate.”

“Wickham!” Richard sat upright quickly. His hands fisted.

How did he decipher the man’s identity from that statement?

Darcy nodded once. “Apparently, Wickham has joined the militia. His regiment is quartered in Meryton for the winter.”

“Hell’s bells. No wonder you did not attend.”

Richard traced a nasty scar on his chin with his thumb. When questioned about it, Richard’s visage would darken, and he would name it as a battle scar. Usually the listener wrongly assumed it was gained in service to the Crown, but in truth, it had been obtained years ago when Richard and Wickham had been embroiled in one of their many brawls as boys. Wickham had taken to wearing the ring that caused Richard’s scar all the time after realizing what a good weapon it had been. And Darcy had been appalled to see a matching welt on the cheek of the too-trusting daughter of Pemberley’s washwoman who had been abused and left with child.

“I did not have the opportunity to warn the gentlemen of the area about him, though, and I am feeling the error deeply,” said Darcy.

“You mean ‘Keep your eye on your daughters around that one’?”

Darcy nodded. “And there was already evidence that the ladies of the area were affected by his red coat.”

“Yes, the coat is good for that. The more gold braiding, the better.” Richard wiggled his eyebrows, then frowned. “In the case of gentlemen, it does not mean more than a guarantee for some flirting whenever they wear it, but in Wickham’s case, it could be a real danger.”

“My thoughts exactly.” He had relied on Bingley’s warning Mr. Bennet about the rascal, but he wondered if Bingley had been too distracted by the wedding plans. Perhaps he should write to Mr. Bennet himself? Or Sir William?

“But you know,” Richard said thoughtfully, “Wickham is not the type to do well in the militia. Having to take orders, the drills and living in tents… army food. Additionally, the wages are not high enough to account for his tastes.”

Richard left unsaid that Wickham had no supplemental income, as Richard had.

“Agreed,” Darcy answered.

“I predict that, before long, the rat will abandon his post and end up in prison for desertion.” Richard seemed satisfied.

Darcy grinned. “One can hope.”

Darcy breathed easier. If his cousin had confronted Wickham, Richard would wind up in prison for killing the man. It was the only reason he had not challenged the scoundrel to a duel himself. While Wickham excelled in charm, he had never been good with pistols or swords.

As Richard laughed, his attention was caught by something outside the window. “Look there.” He waved.

Darcy glanced in that direction but missed the sight. “Who was it?”

“I am not sure, but judging by Anne’s description of their new parson in her letters, the man’s clothing, and the depth of his bow, it must have been he.”

“Collins.” Darcy rolled his eyes. “It sounds as though Anne’s portrayal of him to you has been similar to those in her letters to me. She was correct in every respect.”

“Really? Where did you become acquainted with such a man?”

“Bingley’s ball.” His heart squeezed at the memory of how a certain lady’s blush had brightened her visage when that same clergyman proceeded in the direction opposite to which the dance required. This recollection was followed by another: her eyes sparkling with humour and intelligence as she challenged Darcy to converse with her during their own set. The memory of her tinkling laughter was next, which had haunted him ever since she had stayed at his friend’s home when her sister, now Mrs. Bingley, had fallen ill there. He could almost smell a hint of jasmine and lavender that filled his senses whenever she was near.

So lovely, so clever. He had never been bored in her company.

Elizabeth…

He closed his eyes for a moment. Lately, almost every subject led his thoughts to Miss Elizabeth Bennet.

The very reason he had left Hertfordshire.

“Well. Bingley certainly kept you busy,” said Richard.

Darcy’s eyes snapped open. He had almost forgotten where he was.

“But what was Aunt Catherine’s clergyman doing in Hertfordshire?”

“Visiting a relation. Apparently, he will inherit an estate near Bingley’s when its current owner passes.”

Then Elizabeth would be left without a home, as he had heard Mrs. Bennet mention several times before Collins came to town. Tossed into the hedgerows to starve. Unless Collins had his way… He had been paying too much attention to his cousin at the ball for his interest to be merely familial.

Darcy could not imagine Elizabeth accepting an offer from that man, but he also knew quite well that a lady did not always have a choice. He did not know Mr. Bennet well enough to judge whether he would ignore her protests and force her into a marriage against her will.

A shudder passed up his spine.

No, it was too disgusting a prospect. He must put that image out of his mind.

Bingley would care for his new sisters and mother-in-law, if it came to that. Even though that was probably the only reason Jane Bennet married Bingley, the thought that there would be no hedgerows in Elizabeth’s future gave Darcy a bit of comfort.

“I understand Collins has brought home a bride. Anne enjoys her company.”

Darcy’s started. “I did not hear about this.”

“I believe it is a lady from the area Collins was visiting recently.”

The coach turned into the drive of Rosings Park and slowed to a stop before the manor house.

Stomach churning, Darcy heartily hoped this new addition to the neighbourhood was not the same lady who had occupied his thoughts since they had met four months prior.

 

Chapter Two

~Tuesday, December 31, 1811

By the morning meal, Elizabeth had learned that Mr. Collins’s manners had improved slightly since he had stayed at Longbourn, though she was certain his progress had come about only through gentle prompts from Charlotte.

After breaking their fast, Mr. Collins took his father-in-law on a tour of the neighborhood in his gig. Elizabeth bundled up against the crisp December air and walked out, leaving Charlotte and Maria alone for a sisterly chat.

The Park belonging to Lady Catherine de Bourgh was delightful, and Elizabeth spent a few satisfying hours exploring an interesting path.

Upon her return, Charlotte informed her of some news. “You must make haste to get ready, Lizzy. Miss de Bourgh stopped by to invite us to Rosings Park for tea this afternoon. Lady Catherine wishes to meet our guests.”

“So soon?” At the fall of Charlotte’s expression, Elizabeth quickly continued, “I am happy to attend. I must say, after hearing Mr. Collins’s description of Rosings Park’s inhabitants, my interest is piqued.”

“I shall be interested to hear your first impressions.”

Elizabeth only nodded, then excused herself to return her outerwear to her room.

Would Charlotte truly wish to hear her opinions?

When both ladies were single and living in Hertfordshire, Elizabeth had been in the habit of offering her unguarded thoughts not only to Jane, but also to Charlotte, who in years past had been entertained by Elizabeth’s quest to discover the ridiculousness in their neighbours’ behaviours. But now that Charlotte was married and resided here in Kent, Elizabeth was unsure about what to say to her. Was her friend looking for someone to confide in, or would she prefer Elizabeth point out only what she found favourable? Though she felt Mr. Collins was a silly, nonsensical man, it was polite to no longer share her views of her cousin with his wife, even that he was also innocuous and loyal to a fault. But would this same rule apply to Charlotte’s new neighbours, as well?

~%~

Darcy and Richard entered the Red Drawing Room. Red it was: red velvet wallcoverings, red draperies, red upholstery, and red carpets, all trimmed with gold embroidered patterns and braiding. Poor Anne’s pallor was accentuated by the overpowering background.

“You are two days early,” Lady Catherine de Bourgh bellowed.

As Darcy straightened after his bow, he saw his cousin Anne stiffen and felt Richard, next to him, do the same.

“Good afternoon to you, Aunt Catherine. Anne,” Darcy said. Richard repeated the sentiments.

Aunt Catherine narrowed her eyes but said nothing in response.

Darcy cleared his throat. “You did not receive the note I sent by Express, Aunt?”

“I did not.” Aunt Catherine raised her chin.

Anne’s widened eyes told him that her mother had received the letter.

Interesting. Why would his aunt lie?

Anne glanced at the ceiling. He supposed that indicated she would explain when they met her in her sitting room, as they usually did after they had changed out of their travelling clothes.

He returned his gaze to his aunt. “I apologize, madam, for it is entirely my fault.” He bowed again. “Richard’s regiment returned to London two days before it was expected, and since you had expressed a disappointment at our original arrival date being later than you wished, I suggested we leave as soon as was possible.”

“I forgive you, Darcy, and you too, Richard, though I must say this is most inconvenient. If I had known you were coming today, I never would have made arrangements to have guests for tea this afternoon.” Aunt Catherine frowned.

Richard spoke up, “Anyone we know?”

“Mr. Collins, my new rector, who has mentioned meeting Darcy on one or two occasions. He will be accompanied by his new bride and a few of their relations. And Mr. Gibbs, Anne’s physician.”

Darcy glanced at the clock and swallowed hard. He had thought he would have more time with Anne before meeting Mr. Collins’s bride. Exactly who was expected at tea?

“Well, then. If you will excuse us, we should refresh ourselves before meeting your guests.”

~%~

As Darcy approached Anne’s sitting room door, he heard Richard’s deep laughter from within. Darcy knocked, and the door swung open.

“We have been waiting for you.” Richard gestured for Darcy to enter.

Anne’s chamber was cozy and tastefully decorated with muted tones, and she seemed comfortable sitting in a high-backed, over-stuffed chair with her feet up on an ottoman. A blanket was draped over her lap and a light-green shawl around her shoulders. She appeared almost healthy. Mrs. Jenkinson, Anne’s companion, sat near a window, tending to some embroidery. He bowed his head to the woman, and she smiled and nodded.

Darcy approached his fair cousin and held out a parcel wrapped in brown paper and tied with a red ribbon. “Georgiana sent this for you.”

Anne’s face brightened. “Thank you.”

“Are you not going to share the contents of the package?” asked Richard.

Anne’s colour rose. “Oh, uh… just some drawings.”

Darcy suspected they were not just some drawings, but he could not imagine what else it could be.

“You look well, Anne,” Darcy said.

“Ever since my new physician—” She blushed even deeper than before. “—Mr. Gibbs, prescribed some remedies to drink five times daily, I have been feeling much better. Stronger. He predicts I will be as healthy as any lady my age within a year. Maybe sooner.” She smiled heartily, then went on, “But we have little time before tea, so if you please, I would like to speak with you about a serious matter. Thank you for coming now instead of at Easter, as you usually do. Will you not take a seat?”

Both gentlemen did so.

“I am concerned about Mother.”

“Concerned?” Darcy asked.

Anne nodded. “I believe you saw my reaction when Mother mentioned she had not received your letter, Darcy. The truth is, I was with her when she received it, as was Mrs. Jenkinson, though as far as I know, she did not read it. Her forgetfulness is becoming progressively worse. When reminded of something she has forgotten, she becomes agitated, so I have ceased bringing it up. In fact, I almost never speak in her presence any longer except to agree with her, though I have asked Mr. Gibbs about it.”

Anne’s colour rose once again when mentioning her physician. Hmmm. He had met the man during his last visit. He seemed dedicated to his calling.

“Mr. Gibbs has eased my mind, stating that becoming forgetful is common when one is in their golden years, as he put it, but it would be necessary for him to examine her to be certain that is all it is. When I suggested to Mother that Mr. Gibbs should assess her health, she became quite angry and refused.”

Darcy’s aunt’s memory had always been what was convenient. When proven wrong by experience, she insisted she had been right all along, even if her views actually changed during the process. It was one of her defining traits. If challenged, she could become verbally brutal.

“The reason I have asked you to come to Rosings now is because, in the past, you both have voiced misgivings about our steward’s business practices and urged Mother to find a new steward. Although Mother has never believed Mr. Tulk is anything but an upstanding businessman, I thought it might be a good idea for you to inspect the books early this year, in case Mr. Tulk has also noticed Mother’s forgetfulness and has taken advantage of it somehow.”

Darcy said, “I am sorry to hear Aunt Catherine is not at her best. It was no trouble to come early.”

“It was not a falsehood when I told your mother that the timing of this visit was better for me.” Richard said. “I leave for the continent again in March, and while I cannot go into the specifics, I can say that having a detailed plan in place before we leave England is critical. I could not have been spared to accompany Darcy later than this.

“But I have been thinking,” continued Richard, “perhaps it would be better to examine Rosings accounts more than once a year. Though my father is of the same generation, he is eight years younger than his sister, and his mind is still sharp as a tack. Mayhap Father can visit Rosings as soon as the Season ends and give the books the once over when he does. I will speak to him.”

“Could your brother also visit after the harvest at his own estate, Richard?” Darcy asked.

Richard replied. “I am convinced he will comply, as well.”

“That would be wonderful! Thank you so very much.”

Richard laid his hand on Anne’s. “I am sorry that I am away from England so often lately and you cannot rely on me to do the same, but if you find you need me whilst I am at home, contact me. If I am able to come, I will.”

“I know I can rely on you, Richard.”

A feeling of dread suddenly settled in Darcy’s stomach. “My only remaining question is, does Aunt Catherine remember the long talk we had with her during my visit last year?”

That conversation was one of the most difficult in his life. He would not want to repeat it.

Anne shook her head. “I am sorry, but she has indicated that still believes you and I shall honour her wish that we shall marry.”

Darcy groaned. He and Anne were close, yes, but to marry her would be like marrying his sister.

“I am not happy about it, either,” Anne said.

Of course, she would not be. Anne had made it perfectly clear that she felt the same way about him. However, there was something more in her expression, concern that had never been there when they discussed this subject in the past.

Was there someone new in her life, someone she did wish to marry? Mr. Gibbs, perhaps?

He and Richard would have to make certain Mr. Gibbs knew that although Anne had no brothers and her father was deceased, she was not unprotected.

A knock came upon the door and a maid entered, telling them their presence was required in the Gold Parlour. Richard offered his arm to Anne, leaving Darcy to escort Mrs. Jenkinson.

Only as Darcy stepped into the corridor did he realize he had not had time to ask Anne the names of the guests they were about to meet.

~%~

Since they were going only for tea, Elizabeth wore her third-best gown, saving her second- and first-best in case they were invited to dine at Rosings, or anywhere else for that matter.

Charlotte beamed her satisfaction with Elizabeth’s appearance.

However, when Mr. Collins first saw her, he voiced disappointment in her attire, though he rallied in time, stating that it was best to preserve rank. Sir William nodded profusely at the proclamation. If their expressions had not been so serious, she might have felt insulted, but as it was, she was forced to stifle laughter.

As the party walked to the manor house, Mr. Collins never stopped chattering on and on about the splendors of Rosings Park — the number of windows and chimney pieces, the elegance of the building, and the superiority of its occupants.

As the house came into view, Elizabeth agreed it was large, though not as handsome as her cousin continued to boast, even now. The angles were sharp and awkward, it seemed pieced together from several designs, and there were far too many elaborate battlements for her taste.

Inside, well… to say all was overstated would be an understatement.

Once divested of their wraps, their group was shown into the Gold Parlour, which lived up to its name. Mr. Collins offered her the arm opposite the one Charlotte already clung to, and it was a good thing he had, for the chamber nearly made her dizzy. Elizabeth’s attention could not settle on any one thing, for her gaze flitted from one gilded carving-covered wall to another, between which were wooden panels most likely put there by the craftsman to provide any onlookers a bit of relief. Lady Catherine, however, had covered every inch of them with gold-framed paintings. Elizabeth decided that a week in this room would still not provide enough time to thoroughly examine every busy aspect.

Mr. Collins hurried them along down a long chamber, and Elizabeth forced her eyes to concentrate on a group of figures silhouetted at the end of it by the very large windows behind them. Between the shadowed profiles were two chairs, boasting almost as many turrets as the house itself.

As they approached, Elizabeth’s vision adjusted to the light, and she was able to focus on the people themselves.

She assumed the older of the ladies seated was Lady Catherine, who sported a severe expression as she regarded them with a haughtiness Elizabeth almost expected.

Though Miss de Bourgh was pastier than most, even in the winter, she smiled and had a pleasantly intelligent sparkle in her eye. Elizabeth’s first impression was that she was going to like Miss de Bourgh. To the side and slightly separate, seated in a plain wooden chair, was another woman, whom Elizabeth assumed was Miss de Bourgh’s companion.

Behind the ladies of the house stood two gentlemen. The one in the uniform leaned over to say something to the other — Oh! What was Mr. Darcy doing here?

Her surprise was short-lived for her memory served her well. She recalled her embarrassment at Mr. Collins’s introducing himself to Mr. Darcy at the ball at Netherfield.

Upon thinking of her sister’s new country home, irritation coursed through her. Following Mr. Darcy’s unforgiveable slight of her sister and new brother’s wedding, she had hoped to go her whole life without having to see the gentleman ever again, let alone having to be polite to him in company.

Heaven help her, she had almost forgotten how handsome he was.

He may be handsome, she reminded herself, but his selfish disdain for the feelings of others—namely Jane and Charles, as well as his treatment of almost everyone in the neighbourhood of Meryton — is proof of his arrogance, conceit, and pomposity.

He met her gaze and bowed his head. Realizing she had been staring at him, Elizabeth’s face heated. She raised one eyebrow and looked away.

Charlotte made most of the introductions, but since she did not know one of the gentlemen, and Mr. Darcy was acquainted with the entire party, he concluded by presenting his cousin, Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam.

After all she had heard from her cousin, it was no surprise to Elizabeth that Lady Catherine presided over the company as if she were an empress engaged in an inquest. She supposed it might be an efficient way for everyone to get to know each other, but she would have preferred conversation that evolved naturally.

Maria, Charlotte’s younger sister, somehow managed to shrink into the couch even though she sat completely erect, answering in one-word whispers when it was her turn to be questioned. Even Sir William seemed in awe of his surroundings.

Lady Catherine then turned to Elizabeth. “I understand it was at your family’s home that Mr. Collins stayed in the autumn.”

Catching Charlotte’s lead while her friend had endured her own questioning, Elizabeth answered very briefly. “Yes, Lady Catherine, he did.”

“And Mr. Collins is to inherit the estate when your father passes on.”

Elizabeth blinked. Being acquainted with the lady’s nephew, Elizabeth already knew that being of the upper ten thousand certainly did not preclude rudeness, but even so, this question was a bit of a shock. “Yes, madam.”

“Although it will work out well for Mr. Collins someday, I do not agree with entailing family estates away from the female line. Anne’s husband…” She glanced at Mr. Darcy. “…will inherit Rosings Park.”

Elizabeth looked at Mr. Darcy, whose colour had risen and was obviously none too happy. Her gaze naturally fell next to Miss de Bourgh, who, interestingly enough, shook her head a little.

Elizabeth bit back a smile. Even his own cousin did not like him.

Lady Catherine went on with the questioning, dissecting any of Elizabeth’s opinions that the lady allowed her time enough to pronounce, and she did not give up her inquiries until she had made clear her determination that Elizabeth’s parents had made many errors in her upbringing. They had done a dreadful job of rearing her four sisters, as well, especially when compared to her own choices in raising Miss de Bourgh.

Glances at Charlotte during all this showed she was being entertained quite nicely.

Although Elizabeth disliked displaying what she thought of as her lack of talent in company, she was so relieved when the grand dame ended her examination by ordering her to demonstrate her skill at the pianoforte, she thanked the lady.

As Elizabeth searched through the sheet music for something to play, Colonel Fitzwilliam approached, offering to turn the pages.

When she began to play a piece she knew fairly well, the colonel said quietly, “Brava, Miss Bennet. My aunt can be intimidating, but your courageous performance during that initial skirmish was extremely impressive. I have seen hardened soldiers break down under interrogations only half as comprehensive as the one you just endured. You came through it without batting an eyelash. I applaud you.”

Elizabeth chuckled. “Why thank you, Colonel Fitzwilliam.” She breathed more easily. It was a blessing that this gentleman was not as pompous as his cousin. “Perhaps I have missed my calling. Should I become a spy and join the fight against Napoleon, do you think?”

The two continued a lively banter as Elizabeth finished her song and began another which she knew almost as well.

~%~

Darcy’s whole being, nay his very soul, sighed. Miss Elizabeth Bennet was not married to her sycophant cousin, as he had feared when he saw her walk in on his arm.

Thank you, Lord.

Darcy had spent the months of October and November while at Charles Bingley’s estate in Hertfordshire trying to avoid her, but it had been a useless endeavour. Anywhere she was in a room, in a house, he would find himself drawn there like a moth to a flame. However, she was wrong for him, he knew. She was lacking all the qualities that were expected of the woman he married. Her place in society was well below his station in life, she had no fortune, and her family was an embarrassment.

So, he had left the country behind and returned to London, hoping if she was out of sight, he could put her out of mind. He would forget her. He must. He could do anything if he put his mind to it.

Therefore, he had not seen her in a month — three and thirty days, if he was to be precise.

Three and thirty days of accepting every invitation, hoping to stay so active, he would forget her. Three and thirty days of making a fool of himself wherever he went because he was distracted by thoughts of her instead of what he was supposed to be doing. Three and thirty days of imagining he heard her tinkling laughter in every crowd, and then spending the remainder of the evening searching scores of faces, hoping to catch a glimpse of her.

In other words, three and thirty days of pure torture.

Now she was in his aunt’s parlour, of all places, visiting her cousin and his new bride, formerly Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth’s particular friend.

It all made perfect sense, and yet it made no sense at all.

But that did not matter; she was here, and somehow, she was even lovelier than he had remembered. It seemed impossible, but it was true.

Though he had been tempted to interrupt when some of his aunt’s questions became too personal, Elizabeth had handled the situation with grace, and he suspected only Mrs. Collins and he had understood some of her answers had double meanings.

Now, she sat at the pianoforte performing a song he had heard her present once before at Lucas Lodge. At that time, although her performance had not been executed perfectly, he had taken much pleasure from it. Now it was spoiled by the smile she aimed at Richard, who turned the pages for her.

“Is that not correct, Darcy?” Aunt Catherine asked, but he had no idea of what subject she had been speaking.

He glanced at Anne, who stifled a smile. Mr. Gibbs sat next to her, his eyes shining with repressed mirth.

Was his inattention that obvious?

Anne’s nod was faint. He hoped that was a signal as to what his answer should be.

“Yes, of course, Aunt,” Darcy replied.

He looked at Mrs. Collins.

Elizabeth’s friend found even more humour in the situation than Anne and Mr. Gibbs did.

Aunt Catherine did not seem upset. She probably thought Mrs. Collins was smiling in appreciation of whatever advice she was dishing out, which he had just agreed to. She had been talking about caring for chickens earlier, but sometimes her instruction flitted from one subject to the next.

After what Anne had said about her mother’s memory, he only hoped whatever guidance he just supported was something appropriate for mixed company.

When Aunt Catherine turned her head, Anne gestured towards the pianoforte. Before his aunt began speaking again, he took his cousin’s suggestion and excused himself.

Once Elizabeth was in his sights, he could not take his eyes off her. He headed straight to the pianoforte, or as straight as one could in Aunt Catherine’s cluttered parlour.

A bit of jealousy coursed through him. Richard was always so smooth with the ladies, and as the party from the parsonage entered, Richard had leaned in and whispered to him that this was the dark-haired angel he had seen walking near the road on their way here. He hoped Elizabeth was not as taken with his cousin.

Elizabeth was laughing when she fixed hers eyes on him. His heart skipped a beat.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Darcy,” she said.

He hoped his deep intake of breath did not show. Whenever she said his name, he had a similar reaction.

He liked it much better when she was Miss Elizabeth. Now that Elizabeth was the eldest unmarried Bennet daughter, he would have to call her Miss Bennet in public. However, he would always call her Elizabeth in his thoughts.

“Miss Bennet.” He bowed.

“Colonel Fitzwilliam just asked how we met. I was telling him about my meeting you at the assembly ball in Hertfordshire, sir.”

“Were you?” Good grief, could he not muster up something better than that to say?

“Yes, shall I tell him all, sir?”

“Darcy can keep no secrets from me, Miss Bennet. I always sniff them out.” Richard threw a meaningful look his way, but Darcy could not sort it out.

Darcy nodded to Elizabeth. No matter what she said next, it would be worth being on the receiving end of the smile she now directed at him.

“Even though gentlemen were scarce, and more than one lady was left without a partner, Mr. Darcy danced only two sets, and those were limited to the ladies in his own party.”

Richard’s eyes widened. “Ah, I can believe that of Darcy. He is not one to dance with ladies he is not already acquainted with.”

“And of course, nobody can be introduced in a ballroom.”

Darcy summoned his voice. “You may remember I danced more than twice at Charles Bingley’s ball.”

“Three times,” she said, “but at least there were more gentlemen in attendance that evening than at the assembly ball, since the officers from the militia were in attendance.”

He glanced at Richard, who raised an eyebrow. As children, Darcy, Richard, and Anne had made up some signals to use in silent communication whilst the adults conversed, and they still benefitted from it at times like this. He understood Richard to be asking whether Wickham had been there.

Darcy slowly blinked once for no.

He could not, at the moment, inform Richard that Elizabeth had actually been defending that rat during their set that night. Both had ended their time together in an irritated mood.

If only Darcy could have explained to her the reason he despised the man, he was sure she would have a different opinion of Wickham, but he could not risk exposing his sister in such a public setting. He did try to warn Elizabeth in the best way he could with so many prying eyes and ears in the vicinity, but his words only annoyed her further. She was loyal to her friends, even those who did not deserve such dedication.

If they had been alone, the conversation would have taken a different turn. He would have trusted Miss Elizabeth Bennet with the reputation, even the very life, of his sister.

“Who was the third?” Richard asked.

Darcy blinked. He had been so lost in his thoughts, he could not remember to what Richard referred.

Elizabeth ended her song and played the first few chords from another. She met his gaze.

Ah, she took a chance that he would remember the first song they had danced at the ball at Netherfield.

He nodded his head towards Elizabeth. “Miss Bennet honoured me by accepting my invitation to dance.”

Elizabeth looked away to shuffle through sheet music.

It was now her turn to be teased. “And she kindly provided me with an interesting lecture as to what conversation should take place while dancing.”

“Lecture—” She raised her head quickly.

He smiled.

Elizabeth blushed prettily.

Richard chuckled.

“Darcy!” called Aunt Catherine. “Of what are you speaking? Anne should be included in your conversation.”

Darcy closed his eyes briefly and inhaled deeply.

“Music, Aunt,” Richard answered loudly and gestured towards the pianoforte. “We were speaking of music and dancing.”

“Miss Bennet would play better if she practiced,” Aunt Catherine said to no one in particular, as if the lady were not present.

Elizabeth’s eyes twinkled as if she found humour in the pronouncement.

It is true, and yet, I have never enjoyed any performance more than I do hers.

~%~

The gentlemen staying at Rosings escorted the Hunsford party to Lady Catherine’s carriage, which had been ordered to take them home. Colonel Fitzwilliam stepped back and allowed Mr. Darcy to assist the ladies. He handed up Elizabeth last. When she looked up at him, she had been momentarily startled by what seemed to be fire in his eyes, but then she realized it was a reflection from the carriage’s lantern.

What a strange conversation she had had with Mr. Darcy. If she did not dislike him so much, she might have enjoyed the exchange, but as it was…

When he had smiled at her, it transformed his visage into that of a different person. Gone was the aloof gentleman she had known in Hertfordshire. And he had teased her! The change in him had taken her breath away. Warmth had spread through her, and she found she could not tear her gaze away.

She was thankful for Lady Catherine’s interruption.

What Colonel Fitzwilliam had said about him was interesting. Mr. Darcy typically would not dance with strangers?

Was the conduct she saw in him tonight more like how he normally behaved amongst people with whom he was comfortable? If so, it explained something that had perplexed her from the moment she met Charles and Mr. Darcy — the gentlemen were so dissimilar, how could they possibly be such good friends?

The coach pulled up to Hunsford cottage. The footman opened the door, and Mr. Collins and Sir William Lucas got out to hand down the ladies.

None of her musings about Mr. Darcy truly mattered. It would be easy to avoid the gentleman during her stay here, for she could not see their parties mixing often. She was sure she would not see him in Town whilst staying with Jane and Charles.

She took Sir William’s hand and descended from the coach.

After all, Mr. Darcy had already publicized his disapproval of their union by shunning their wedding.

There! That was the end of it. She would think of him no more.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

If you would like to think of Mr. Darcy,

A Very Austen Valentine: Austen Anthologies Book 2

is now available on Amazon!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Six beloved authors deliver romantic Valentine novellas set in Jane Austen’s Regency world. Robin Helm, Laura Hile, Wendi Sotis, and Barbara Cornthwaite, together with Susan Kaye and Mandy Cook, share variations of Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility, featuring your favorite characters in sequels, adaptations, and spinoffs of Austen’s adored novels.

Experience uplifting romance, laugh-out-loud humor, and poignant regret as these authors deftly tug on your heartstrings this Valentine’s Day.

I Dream of You by Robin Helm
Newly-married Elizabeth Darcy has a plan: to charm her too-busy husband into desiring her company as much as he did when he was courting her. A series of romantic dreams gives her just the push she needs to put that plan into action.

Sir Walter Takes a Wife by Laura Hile
Faced with a lonely future and finding himself strapped for cash, Persuasion’s Sir Walter Elliot manfully decides to marry again. But his careful plans go sadly awry! A lighthearted Valentine mash-up featuring two of Jane Austen’s worst snobs.

My Forever Valentine by Wendi Sotis
Jane and Charles Bingley have married, even though Miss Elizabeth Bennet remains certain Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy gave his best effort to keep them apart. After Mr. Darcy refused to stand up with Bingley and did not attend the wedding, she despises the gentleman more than ever and finds his company intolerable. How will she endure her visit to Kent if Mr. Darcy turns up everywhere she goes?

Pretence and Prejudice by Barbara Cornthwaite
A chance encounter with a handsome stranger forces Elizabeth to resort to subterfuge in order to discover his true intentions.

My Valentine by Mandy H. Cook
Little Charlotte was always determined and independent, traits which served her well as she battled a serious childhood illness and later as she took on Polite Society. Will those traits now deprive her of true love? Or would her lifelong Valentine win her heart?

The Lovers’ Ruse by Susan Kaye
In this Persuasion alteration, Anne is so altered by Wentworth’s love in the summer of 1806, she refuses to give him up when both her godmother and father try to persuade her. “The Lovers’ Ruse” follows Frederick and Anne through their whirlwind courtship and their secret engagement. When Wentworth returns for his Annie girl, the cat comes out of the bag.

 

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