"London! Truly?" Kitty incredulously exclaimed.
"Yes, Kitty, London," Elizabeth wearily replied. Her head already ached and Kitty's answering squeal of delight only added to her misery.
Kitty bolted out of Elizabeth's study, barreling into Georgiana who was emerging from the music room.
"Oh! Sorry Georgiana!" She called as she raced out of the room, eager to send a letter to her love and criticize her entire wardrobe.
Georgiana entered the room shaking her head. She grew concerned when she noticed Elizabeth was clutching her head.
"Are you well? Is there anything I can do?" She asked softly, taking the chair closest to her.
"No, there is nothing you can do, unless you can prevent Kitty from making those wretched noises," Elizabeth replied, clearly irritated.
Georgiana hid a smile. "I am afraid I cannot. Would a walk around the lake be helpful? It would only be us and nature's solitude."
Elizabeth considered this proposition. She was rather tired, but the sound of Kitty barging into the room again settled her opinion.
"A walk would be lovely, Georgiana. Let me get my things," she answered, rising stiffly from the chair.
"Lizzy! When are we leaving and how long are we staying? Charles said he would take me to a play the next time I was in town, would that be alright?" Kitty rattled off breathlessly.
Elizabeth closed her eyes and composed herself.
"We leave at the end of the week and we shall be there about a month. I do not know if we shall visit Netherfield or not, but I am sure Mr. Bingley will be happy to take you to a play whenever he can," Elizabeth offered in a dangerously even tone.
"La! How silly you are, Lizzy! I meant Mr. Stafford, not Mr. Bingley! Thank you, Lizzy!" Kitty laughed as she flew out of the room again.
Georgiana giggled softly and Elizabeth gave her a weary smile, deciding not to dwell on Mr. Stafford.
"Come, let us fetch our things and have a few moments of peace!" She declared, marching resolutely up to her room.
Georgiana smiled softly at these events as she fetched her own bonnet until the weight of what had been revealed to her sank in. They were returning to London, the place she dreaded almost as much as Kent. She sighed as she tied on her bonnet. Society would forever be her greatest fear. She wished she never had to endure it.
More melancholy thoughts accosted her as she blindly traversed the halls to meet Elizabeth at the main doors. Kitty's obvious excitement and continuing relationship signaled that she would, in all likelihood, be shortly engaged. Elizabeth would have her baby and then, if all went well, there would be more children. Soon she would just become an added burden in the house. She knew both Elizabeth and her brother loved her, but she would feel like a burden nonetheless. She had no obvious connections in society and had no marriage prospects. Yes, she was a fine catch, but no one seemed to be doing any catching.
At least she had the consolation of her friend's wedding to look forward too. Miss Rowndell had sent the invitation and charmingly asked Georgiana to be one of her bridesmaids. Elizabeth had even promised to buy her a new gown to entice her to London.
Then she had received a letter from Anne, who also asked her to be a bridesmaid. Anne knew how much it might pain her to come, but she had so few friends that she dearly wished she would accept. Georgiana's compassion led her to accept her cousin's offer; after all, it was her wedding day. She knew the day would not be easy, but it would be necessary. There was no possibility of a future with Lord Rocheford, but she hoped that perhaps they might develop a friendship.
"For Heaven's sake, Georgiana, I must have been waiting for hours!"
Elizabeth was waiting impatiently in the entryway.
"Sorry, Elizabeth," she replied sincerely.
Elizabeth's anger suddenly deflated. "No, I am sorry Georgiana. My temper has always been short, but it has become so much worse lately."
"I have been told that it is not uncommon when one is with child."
"I know. You all have been so wonderful about my tempers. A walk will set up me up perfectly."
They descended the steps and headed for the garden. Georgiana did not wish to mention that the sky looked frightfully cloudy. It was not until they passed under the arbor that the first bit of thunder rumbled warningly above then. Looking up, Elizabeth fixed the gloomy clouds with a very decided scowl and unleashed a warning of her own.
Georgiana blushed and hid her head. She had never heard those words before...
The eternal London rain drizzled down the window panes, the steady drumming forming a constant music to everyday life. Legan House stood somberly, muffled sounds of servants and the repetitive ticking of the gleaming grandfather clock adding to the muted cacophony of London. Both master and mistress had removed to the library and the cozy fireplace. One of the young mistresses was out while the other forced creativeness in the parlor. The bustle of horses and a carriage at the steps amplified the servant noises, but did not penetrate the sphere of the creative. With obsessive frustration, she labored on, diligently practicing an archaic art.
"Good afternoon, Kitty. Your painting is coming along wonderfully! The lessons with the painter are really helping your colors," Georgiana exclaimed as she entered the parlor, a soft smile remaining from her visit.
"Thank you," Kitty replied distractedly, obviously pleased, but still perturbed by something in her project. "How was Miss Rowndell?"
"Very well. Mr. Campwell was there, as well as his sister. They invited us all to the concert on Thursday. A fine singer from Italy is to perform."
"I suppose we must go then..."
Kitty looked up to see Georgiana's nod before giving an angry sigh and returning to her paint.
"Kitty, I know you do not particularly care for Miss Rowndell, but it would mean a great deal to me if you came as well. You could even invite Miss Whitney if you wish."
Kitty's eyes lit up and she was instantly more agreeable to the plan. Perhaps she could persuade Charles to go as well.
"Was it all wedding talk?"
"No. They did talk about it, but not exclusively."
"Why are they having their wedding in London? It's so odd. I thought it was always from the lady's home?"
"Well, the Rowndells chiefly live in London."
They drifted into silence, Kitty continuing her painting and Georgiana picking up her embroidery. Georgiana could not concentrate. She redid the same stitch five times and bit her lower lip in thought. There was troubling news and no easy way to say it, but she could not leave it unsaid.
"Are... are you still writing to Mr. Stafford?"
Kitty's hand stilled as her head pivoted to stare at Georgiana. "Perhaps."
Georgiana's eyes turned downward, unable to look at Kitty and utter her next words. "I-I have learned a great many things a-about him. He has not been idle while we have been away. H-he has been seen about town with many other women."
Kitty inflated in indignation. "I'm sure they were just acquaintances! Just because I have been dragged off across the country doesn't mean he can't socialize!"
Georgiana took a deep breath, fortifying herself for the next move. "Kitty, he has been seen in very private situations with many of these women."
"I thought you were above gossip, Georgiana! Pray, where did you hear all these falsehoods?"
"From Miss Rowndell and Mr. Campwell, Kitty, and they--"
Kitty screamed in rage, her livid face contorting into a hideous mask. She flung her brush to the floor, scattering cerulean on the fine rug, and marched across the room.
"Them? Them?" Her voice was climbing towards hysteria. "They hate me, Georgiana! They despise me! I'm not like any of you and they just can't accept that. Of course they would spread falsehoods about Charles! They probably think I'm overstepping my place!"
"Kitty, please, they do not think that! Sit down, calm down--"
Instead, Kitty let out another scream and turned abruptly toward the door. She swept out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
Georgiana sat there stunned, immobile. Her heart was beating erratically, her breath coming in short gasps. A sudden shout from the street below jolted her into the present. She glanced quickly at the window before repressed tears crashed through her. Covering her face with her hands, she sobbed. The scene she had just witnessed was unfathomable and she suddenly wished she did not have a sister.
Elizabeth let out a sigh of overwhelming frustration. The calming social pace at Pemberley made her unused to the mounting demands of London. She was always eager for a dance or entertainment, but good Lord, the amount of invitations awaiting them when they entered Legan House was baffling! Fitzwilliam let her plan their social engagements as he did not want to tax her in her condition. Elizabeth found this endearing and loathsome. She appreciated the sentiment, but not the work it entailed.
As she weighed the merits between Mrs. Fienley's soiree and Lady Hargreve's dinner party, a maid entered with some welcomed refreshment.
"Thank you," Elizabeth greeted, accepting the tea with a sigh.
"Is aught amiss, ma'am?" The maid offered, looking at the cluttered disorder of the mistress' desk.
"Nothing more than the social demands of every house in London," Elizabeth replied. "I would as soon stay at home than traipse around town."
"I daresay, ma'am, if it is not bold to say... That is..." The flustered maid paused, not continuing until Elizabeth had given her an encouraging look. "I daresay, ma'am, that your condition would allow you to remain at home."
Elizabeth smiled. "Yes, it would, but it would not be kind to leave Mr. Darcy with all the burden of socializing. He would probably anger half the town!"
The maid offered a small laugh, joining her mistress.
"Your kindness, Elizabeth, knows no bounds," the master stated dryly from the doorway.
The maid instantly paled, schooling her features into a blank slate, dipping her head low. Elizabeth's mouth twisted in amusement as she rose to greet her husband.
"As always, my dear, just as your ability to frighten others with that stern look of yours." She laughed as his stern look faltered. The maid managed a smile at this still unusual sight of her master being teased. Elizabeth kindly excused the maid who eagerly vanished to tell the tale downstairs.
"So, have you finished booking my social engagements while you recline gracefully at home?" Fitzwilliam teased as he held her in an embrace.
"Have you written your aunt regarding future engagements while I slave away all day?" She retorted good-naturedly.
"Yes, I have," he replied, his abhorrence of the task apparent.
"Good. I have engaged us to attend the Shevingtons' ball and join the Rowndells at the opera on Thursday. Would you prefer Mrs. Fienley's soiree or Lady Hargreve's dinner party?"
Darcy made a face in disgust. "Must I choose?"
Elizabeth laughed. "Yes, you must. I know nothing of these people."
"Mrs. Fienley inherited money through trade and tried to win my favor during her first Season. Her mother was good friends with Lady Catherine. Lady Hargreve I know no ill of, but her husband and I were often at odds with each other at school."
Elizabeth smirked. "So it really becomes a matter of who will be more irritated by the evening."
"Then we should go to Lady Hargreve's," Fitzwilliam answered hurriedly, relieved that his wife laughed instead of being offended.
"I am rather temperamental," she admitted playfully, then sobered and continued seriously. "I do appreciate you tolerating my... extremes."
Fitzwilliam laughed a true deep laugh, causing his wife to smile. "'Extremes' is a very pleasant way of wording it, love. I can tolerate any extreme because I know what a precious gift you are carrying."
His hand rested on her stomach, which was showing noticeable signs of the special commission it was charged with. He looked at it and then at Elizabeth in wonder. Elizabeth smiled gently and leaned up to give her husband a kiss. They stood there sweetly in an embrace, taking advantage of the simple moment that somehow did not occur as often as they wished.
Soon after, a bustle at the door indicated an arrival. They reluctantly moved apart and watched as Kitty and Georgiana entered. Kitty rushed in with an energetic air, barely able to contain her excitement. Georgiana was troubled.
"Lizzy! May I go? Please say I may!" Kitty burst out, her face a picture of perfect glee.
"Go where, Kitty?" Elizabeth questioned, annoyance clearly written in her face and tone.
"Oh! Well, let me tell you," Kitty replied in rapture. "Miss Whitney invited me to a private dinner party at her home tomorrow and to a play in the evening."
"Who else will be attending?" Elizabeth asked shrewdly. She knew Kitty could not be so joyous over a simple dinner party.
"Heaven if I know! She only said some close family friends that have would be stopping in London on their return home. I believe they had been visiting in Bath or Lyme or some such place," Kitty answered carelessly. "May I go?"
Elizabeth looked at her husband, his reserved countenance revealing nothing, even to her. He was watching Georgiana, who remained troubled. Left relying on her own judgment, she agreed, but not without a feeling that it was not the correct answer at all.
Kitty overflowed with happiness and rushed up to give her sister a tight embrace. She nearly danced out the door and left the room much more sedated than when she entered.
"What is the matter, Georgiana?" Elizabeth immediately asked, turning to her other sister.
"I... I cannot quite explain it," she answered softly, her attempt at a smile more of a grimace. "I do not feel so easy about Kitty. Do you know if she is engaged?"
Elizabeth started and Fitzwilliam instantly looked at her. "Why do you think that? No one has asked for her hand!"
Georgiana grimaced again. "People have noticed her attachment to Mr. Stafford a-and some people have been questioning its propriety given that there is no public engagement."
Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam looked troubled. "I will have a talk with her then," Elizabeth sighed, envisioning that conversation with dread.
Her eyes clouded with sadness and her whole figure slumped with this knowledge. A painful memory crossed her mind, adding to her dejected aspect. Lydia...
Her husband wordlessly hugged her, offering whatever comfort he could. The attempt at a smile that creased her face betrayed how perturbed she really was
"Will we see anything of Jane when Mr. Bingley comes to town?" Georgiana boldly asked in an effort to distract her sister from her troubles.
As Fitzwilliam did not reply, Elizabeth was forced to shake off her thoughts and answer.
"Oh. Unfortunately not. She cannot bear to be away from Beth and will not hear of traveling with the child." Elizabeth smiled as she recalled the protective mother Jane had become.
"I suppose it is all for the best. Hopefully we shall visit them soon in Netherfield."
"Perhaps we shall see them at a more convenient location," Fitzwilliam offered. His face betrayed no hint of his meaning, but the sparkle in his eye alerted Georgiana that something was afoot.
"A more convenient location? Brother, do tell me! You know I cannot tolerate surprises!" Georgiana pleaded.
"Well," Fitzwilliam began slowly, eager to prolong his sister's suspense. "There may be an occasion in the future where Netherfield will cease to be a place of interest."
"Cease to be..." She echoed, puzzled. Elizabeth was smiling in conspiracy and would not give anything away. Suddenly, Georgiana smiled, her eyes remaining hesitant. "Are they moving from Netherfield?"
Fitzwilliam laughed. "You were always too clever. Yes, to the estate in Lincolnshire that Mr. Epworth informed us of. It almost pains me to admit that he has been of great use."
"Brother!" Georgiana exclaimed as they all laughed. "Truly, Mr. Epworth is not as horrible as you make him out to be. You just cannot abide him because he caters to fashions and loves to bait you."
"Those seem to be perfectly legitimate reasons to dislike someone."
Georgiana fixed him with a look that eerily reminded him of Elizabeth. "Brother, you know that logic is not sound."
"Perhaps not... but as long as I am civil to him, you do not need to quarrel with me. Elizabeth makes sure I keep my bad humors to myself."
"True, if you mean that by keeping them to yourself, you are keeping them to me instead," Elizabeth teased.
Fitzwilliam tried to look affronted as the girls laughed.
"Come Fitzwilliam, do not be annoyed. We love you even with your bad humors."
"Thank you, Elizabeth," he answered dryly.
Georgiana smiled as she watched them banter. It was refreshing to see her brother without his frigid composure. The genuine smile that graced his face when he was around Elizabeth was something she used to only rarely see. Sometimes she wondered that he was not offended at the liberties Elizabeth took with him, but she supposed love was the answer to that. She quietly excused herself and left them together, wondering if she would ever be as fortunate to find a love like theirs.
A few days found Georgiana reluctantly following her brother and sister through a gilded doorway. The Shevingtons' ball glittered before her, flickering candles, sparkling jewels, and bright feathers curling upward toward the gold inlaid ceilings. Various perfumes and colognes swirled together to create a putrid musky sweet smell that increased her nausea. Gossip weaved around them; Georgiana could feel its insistent web already tangling her. There was nothing for it. There was no way to escape this crush of refinement and repressed hostility.
Kitty, however, plunged headlong into the throng after dashing through the required necessities. Her head was full of her beloved and nothing else would halt her quest. The haphazardly affixed feather she had perched on her head vanished amidst the crowd and soon Georgiana was left to follow mutely behind her siblings once again. They joined the almost stagnant crowd meandering towards the ballroom. She turned her gaze and dipped a small bow whenever society demanded she pay homage to some slight acquaintance. Lingering in distant musings, she concluded that her situation was uncomfortably akin to that of an animal being lead to slaughter. It was not a comforting notion.
The ballroom burst upon them, conversation dispersing into an ever-present hum, a welcome relief compared to the deafening roar in the crowded rooms. Servers in muted livery floated about with glasses of wine and the grand matrons sat in state by the punch. Georgiana's gaze quickly looked away and fell on the dancers in the center of the room. Miss Isabel and Mr. Campwell were clearly enjoying their last days of courtship, dancing the scandalous waltz with months of pent up desire. Mr. Levine was there with his newly betrothed, and the Miss Whitney's were both enjoying the attentions of two of the newest dandies. As the amorous set kept moving, Georgiana realized her brother and sister were making their courtesies to a friend of her brother.
She performed her curtsy and endured a few good-natured comments on how she had grown into quite the young lady. Then the couples drifted into their own conversation and Georgiana returned to silently surveying the room. She remained thus for a good while, causing increased speculation about her haughtiness. It was not until she noticed a couple approaching her did she stir from her reverie.
"Amelia?" Her surprised expression matched her tone.
Amelia smiled amusedly and replied, "Yes, Georgiana and do stop staring. I am not that frightful a sight."
"N-no, of course not!" Georgiana hastily answered. "I-I was just very shocked at seeing you here. Were you not supposed to be in Derbyshire?"
"We were, but we left for town a few days before you left. Nathaniel was invited to the wedding of a college friend. Mr. Campwell, was it not?" She finished, turning to her brother.
"Yes, Amelia. I haven't seen that chap in well over a year. I don't know where he hides!" Mr. Epworth declared, smoothly gliding into a deep bow. "We find ourselves in quite a formal setting, Miss Darcy. Very much removed from our larks in Derbyshire. I shall never get used to you becoming 'Miss Darcy' now."
Georgiana blushed while Amelia admonished her brother. "You have been calling her 'Miss Darcy' for a few years now, Nathaniel," she stated in a withering tone. "You have no need to embarrass her by voicing your stupidity."
Mr. Epworth looked at his sister in amusement, but her chastisement had the intended effect. "Of course, sister. I am heartily sorry, Miss Darcy, that you had to bear witness to my extreme bout of stupidity and insensitivity. Would you allow me to make amends by dancing the next set with me, if you are not otherwise engaged?"
Georgiana, caught between amusement, terror, and shock, managed a meek 'yes' in response. Mr. Epworth smiled jovially and turned to catch the interest of her brother and that party. Miss Epworth placed a hand gently on Georgiana's arm and gave her a comforting smile.
"You know he is just teasing you, Georgiana. You do not need to be alarmed. One dance will satisfy the old hags in the corner for a while and if Nathaniel does not have you smiling and at ease by the end of the dance, then I shall forever despair of him."
Georgiana calmed at her words and was able to introduce her to the rest of the party with little hesitation and embarrassment. She offered her opinion on the new play they had seen, but was otherwise silent. The conversation was entertaining enough and she thought that perhaps the ball was not the set up for ruin.
The current dance ended and Mr. Epworth artfully excused them. Fitzwilliam's face was one of surprise and barely disguised anger. He unconsciously drew himself higher as he surveyed Epworth's charming face.
"Come, come, Darcy," Epworth laughed. "Save your piercing stares for the true vagabonds trying to steal your sister away. One dance between long friends should have no occasion to bring up your ire."
Georgiana sent her brother a small smile that managed to pacify him. He turned so he could watch their progress in the dance. His sister moved gracefully and Epworth was an admirable dancer, although he loathed admitting it. They complimented each other well and he even saw his sister genuinely smile at some remark made by her companion. It was just the remedy she needed, but that it should have come from Epworth's hands was a bone of contention.
"You will frighten away any other partners with your incessant staring," his wife gently reminded him.
"The better for her!"
Elizabeth fixed him with a look that meant he was being childish and she was getting annoyed. Stifling his anger, he turned back to the group. He would be foolish to test the volatility of his wife's temper. The conversation could not satisfy him until the dance was ended. Epworth and Georgiana returned, Epworth entreating the others to voice their opinion on the topic they had been discussing. Fitzwilliam noticed that his sister was much more at ease and willing to converse following the dance.
A short while later, theEpworths and Georgiana departed to visit with Miss Rowndell and Mr. Campwell. Fitzwilliam became absorbed in the conversation and the next time he sought out his sister, it was to see her dancing with a man he recognized, but did not know. A hand on his arm distracted the protective anger welling up in him.
"He is Sir Arthur Dencourt from Somerset. He graduated from Cambridge with a good amount of awards and has been running his estate ever since. I heard he rarely comes to London. His younger brother has run up quite a few gambling debts, so I imagine he has come to settle those on this trip. I have heard nothing ill of him personally, though."
Fitzwilliam stared at his wife in amazement. She was unaware of his attention as she was observing the couple on the floor.
"How do you know all this?"
She gave him a sly smile. "I listen, Fitzwilliam."
"Well, he should have come and introduced himself to us first," he groused.
"But you still would have found fault with him. We have had this discussion before, Fitzwilliam. You cannot prevent her from dancing. She has more discernment now and we are constantly together. I would not wish you to not feel protective, but you must not let it control you so much. You are going to have to trust her judgment."
Fitzwilliam sighed. "You are right, as usual, Elizabeth."
She laughed, a sight and sound that always lifted his spirits. "Not 'as usual,' but often enough, I grant you. Be civil, Fitzwilliam."
This last was said in a warning tone as the dancing couple came over. Sir Arthur Dencourt bowed graciously and they chatted pleasantly for a while. He was a well-travelled man and they compared the various natural beauties of England. Fitzwilliam found himself reasonably entertained, yet the tension dissipating from his shoulders was the only sign of approval.
Georgiana soon found herself dancing again with a friend of Mr. Campwell whom she was acquainted with. Elizabeth smiled happily at Georgiana's progress, especially given her recent setback with Lord Rocheford. Even Fitzwilliam was able to appreciate Georgiana's ease. This was the young lady she had been on the way to becoming before she had been waylaid by certain events he would not dwell on. Finally she was achieving it.
The ball continued with admirable success, but Elizabeth soon worried at Kitty's lack of appearance. She had only seen her dancing twice, both times with Mr. Stafford. The reports she was hearing of that man only made her uneasy. While she had full confidence in Georgiana's discernment, she still had little faith in Kitty's. Lydia's influence remained firmly entrenched.
Fitzwilliam noted his wife's distraction and used his imposing height to his advantage. They entered the dining room arm in arm and he covertly looked around for that wayward pink feather. He looked in vain. The crowd in the room was such that no one could be discerned from anyone else and he found that pink feathers were apparently more en vogue than he believed possible. Servants floated around, serving delectable dishes, and still Kitty's place at the table remained empty.
Elizabeth was quite obviously worried. Mr. Epworth had at least asked their leave to escort Georgiana to supper and they had watched the pair join Mr. Campwell and Miss Rowndell's party. The last ices melted as the young dancers were rejuvenated and returned to the ballroom. A few groups drifted to the conservatory to admire some rare flora while some of the older patrons wandered over to the card tables.
The Darcys returned to the ballroom, hoping to find the missing girl among the throng. A lively dance made up the first set and still no Kitty appeared. Elizabeth was hard pressed to conceal her agitation. She managed to keep herself composed, if quiet, when accosted by acquaintances and make vague answers to inquiries of her sister. Finally, during the fifth set, Kitty appeared again with Mr. Stafford.
Elizabeth kept her eyes trained on the pair, allowing them no room to escape at the conclusion of the dance. The intimacy between them was obvious and she could not like it. Their amorous presence among the dancers made their previous absence more noticeable and gave rise to hushed speculation. Kitty caught sight of Elizabeth and practically dragged her beau the scant feet to her sister. Her high spirits spun amusement, so she countered her sister's glare with a laugh.
"Oh Lizzy! Trying to frighten the dancers away? You're becoming quite as fierce as Mr. Darcy!" Kitty giggled, hanging tightly on the arm of her beloved.
Elizabeth's glared hardened. "I am doing no such thing, Kitty. Where have you disappeared to?"
"We were on the tour of the gallery, ma'am," Mr. Stafford glibly replied as Kitty dissolved again into giggles.
"It is a fine gallery. Which piece is your favorite?" Mr. Epworth asked, suddenly joining their group with a glass of wine for Elizabeth. The sternness in her face did not abate as she continued to stare down the couple before them.
Kitty instantly looked alarmed, but Mr. Stafford smiled back in challenge. "The charming landscape by ____. I heard it was quite a recent acquisition."
Kitty's open relief did nothing to aide her sister, whose wine glass was now on the verge of combustion from intense pressure. Mr. Epworth smiled knowingly, but did not pursue the issue. He asked for Kitty's hand for the next set and she instantly claimed fatigue.
"Come, Miss Bennet, surely one dance has not put you out of spirits! It is but a calm dance, nothing scandalous, I assure you," he directed toward Mr. Stafford.
Since her beloved made no resistance, Kitty reluctantly accepted Mr. Epworth's proffered hand. By this time, Mr. Darcy had entered their circle, carefully taking in his wife's demeanor. He gently removed her glass and his immovable countenance stayed Mr. Stafford from escape.
"You have made yourself quite scarce this evening," he stated coldly, drawing up his imposing figure to new heights.
Stafford's face imparted only satisfaction, happiness, and a total innocence of any wrongdoing. "I am very ashamed if my actions have made that impression, sir. I was merely enjoying the company of your sister. She is a very pleasant girl."
"She has high spirits, sir," Elizabeth interposed in a tone that commanded strict attention. "She is like any impressionable young girl who is desirous to fall in love. A woman's reputation is very fragile. Miss Bennett is very dear to all of us."
"Naturally,ma'am. I am very fond of my own sister. You have no worries on my score, I assure you."
"Perhaps you might remain in the ballroom this evening then. Your absence has been noticed," Fitzwilliam added. His frigid eyes almost made Stafford start.
"Of course, sir. I am afraid my high spirits have made me rather forgetful. As you wish, sir," he replied with a deep bow.
The dance ended and Kitty returned full of obnoxious anxiety to be with her beloved. Mr. Epworth was surprisingly somber. She instantly attached herself to Stafford and declared loudly that she was parched. He smoothly removed them from the group who remained in sober reflection.
Mr. Epworth broke the silence first with a noise of disgust. "Watch him. He has her head all wrapped in fog."
Fitzwilliam nodded while Elizabeth stared unseeingly. Mr. Epworth gave a bow and departed as well.
"Elizabeth?" Fitzwilliam gently nudged the glass of wine into her hands. She shook her head to rearrange her thoughts and accepted the glass with a small smile.
"Wool-gathering. Nothing more," she replied, her smile wider, but lacking the brilliance that usually accompanied it.
"A ball is not a place for wool-gathering," he countered, trying to urge her back into spirits. "Would you like to dance?"
Her lips parted in a surprised laugh. "Fitzwilliam! You know I cannot dance!"
"Now that is a complete falsehood, Mrs. Darcy. I never knew you told tales! Is it because you find your prospective partner barely tolerable?"
She raised her delicate eyebrow in an attempt to look stern, but the amused quirk of her lips negated it. "Not at all, sir. I do not find him tolerable at all."
Fitzwilliam laughed, startling their neighbors and instantly alerting the gossips. Fitzwilliam Darcy laughing was an unheard of spectacle. His face was much more handsome when the proud lines were softened by the amusement and love only his wife could command. There was a marked difference in his manner since marriage. He was more amiable and willing to join in the mundane conversations he so loathed. The haughty, distant demeanor was slowly crumbling, revealing the true man beneath the plaster. Although his present happiness was to be credited to his life, society still failed to believe that such an unequal marriage would bring lasting happiness. They calculated with glee the day scandal would rip the couple apart and provide the hungry gossips with sustenance to their claims.
"Kitty," Elizabeth called, knocking on the door to her room. "May I come in?"
"Just a moment," Kitty answered. Elizabeth heard the distinct thunk of the writing desk being shut. Footsteps crossed the floor and the door opened.
"Yes?" Kitty asked as Elizabeth entered.
"Your painting is really improving, Kitty," Elizabeth began, spying the easel by the window. It was a beautiful landscape of a lake edged by lofty trees.
"Thank you," Kitty answered with a hint of irritation.
"What is the matter?" Elizabeth asked, turning to her sister.
"I was just busy when you knocked," Kitty replied tersely, her eyes straying to the writing desk.
"I see. Busy painting or writing a letter to Mr. Stafford?" Elizabeth questioned shrewdly.
Kitty's eyes went wide with shock, but her jaw set defiantly. "Painting."
"Kitty, do not lie to me. I heard your writing desk close before you opened the door."
"I know you do not approve of him. You don't want me to be happy with the man I love!"
"Kitty," Elizabeth said in a deadly even tone. "I have said nothing of the sort."
"You don't need to, Lizzy. I saw how you and Mr. Darcy treated us at the ball. It was embarrassing. You don't understand us! You don't want me to be happy!"
"Kitty, please!" Elizabeth exclaimed angrily. "Sit down and listen."
"I will not, Lizzy! You aren't Mama or Papa and I haven't done anything wrong!" Kitty stamped her foot in added belligerence.
"You are correct, Kitty. I am not Mama or Papa, but I am your sister and you are acting like a child. I am not looking for a quarrel. I would just like to speak with you as your sister."
Kitty huffed and violently sat down in the chair, crossing her arms as she slumped down. Elizabeth took a deep, calming breath as she took the chair across from her.
"Kitty," she began gently. "I have noticed your attachment with Mr. Stafford. I had not realized how serious that attachment had become until the ball and I have only myself to blame for that. Kitty, your behavior at the ball worries me. To disappear for such a long time with a man who is not family is very scandalous! Your honor and reputation are everything, Kitty, and you should not treat them so carelessly."
"I am well aware that I am penniless, Lizzy, but Mr. Stafford does not mind. He is rich enough for the both of us."
"But, Kitty, we know hardly anything of Mr. Staffod. The first time we talked to him for any length of time was at the ball and if he loves you so well, he would not be so careless with your honor!"
"He is not careless. I went willingly and he is my beau, so you needn't be concerned in my affairs!"
"He has proposed?"
Kitty paused, knowing this dart was true. Elizabeth skillfully kept her face blank.
"No, he has not, but I know he will soon!"
"Has he said as much to you?"
"No," Kitty replied, getting frustrated, "But he loves me and wants to be with me!"
"Kitty, I have no doubt that Mr. Stafford has feelings for you, but I do doubt his sincerity. He has been linked to many young women in town during our absence, and not many women of good reputation."
"They are lies, Lizzy!" Kitty exploded from her seat. "Lies spread by Miss Rowndell and all of them! I am not like them and they hate me! Why can't you all just let me be happy?"
"Kitty," Elizabeth reasoned gently. "Have you so quickly forgotten that I know how you feel? I was 'penniless' too. I know it is hard, but that is why our reputations are so much more important. Even if these are just rumors that Miss Rowndell saw fit to tell us, they are things to take into consideration. You would not like to be thought of as one of Mr. Stafford's many women, would you?"
"No," Kitty grumpily admitted.
"As much as you dislike Miss Rowndell, she would have told us the same thing had it been Georgiana's beau. We are only interested in protecting you, Kitty, and making sure you are safe and happy."
Elizabeth smiled sincerely at Kitty who could not doubt that her sister cared about her. She sighed and sat back down in her chair.
"You have not forgotten Lydia so quickly, have you?" Elizabeth asked gently, taking every care to make it not sound like an accusation. Kitty shook her head. "We just do not want anything similar to happen to you. We would be so heartbroken, Kitty."
"Lizzy, you do not need to worry. I am not Lydia and Charles is not Wickham!"
"I know that, Kitty, I do. But I also know very little about Mr. Stafford. We would like to have him over for dinner and have him visit you here for a while. I also want you to promise that when we are in company, you will not leave alone with Mr. Stafford again. I do not want to punish you or treat you like a child, Kitty, but I will if I have to."
"You don't leave me much of a choice," Kitty answered sullenly.
"You should be lucky this is all I have asked, Kitty," Elizabeth retorted with an edge to her voice.
"Yes, Elizabeth," Kitty agreed reluctantly.
"Do I have your word?"
"Yes!" Kitty answered forcefully.
"Thank you, Kitty," Elizabeth stated as she rose out of her chair. "Let me know when he would like to visit."
"I will, Elizabeth. Would you mind if I return to my letter?" She countered rather rudely.
"Of course," Elizabeth replied, showing herself out of the room. As she shut the door, she hoped that she had done the correct thing. The last thing they needed was a scandal.
The painter's studio was the definition of organized chaos. Various works, half covered by thick cloths, stood at idle easels with an array of colors perched on palettes beside them. One was a portrait of a haughty young couple, the second a wide expanse of fields and trees with a manor house in the distance, and the third was of the Serpantine in Hyde Park with many couples strolling along its edge. A trail of multi-hued drops marked the trail to the counter where he mixed all of his paints to get just the right shade to the easels where he applied him. Wide windows let in as much sunlight as possible, the curtains pulled back as far as they could go. Half-melted candles stood in scattered candelabra waiting for the sun to retreat. At first Kitty had found his studio intimidating, but now she had come to enjoy it.
The painter was a quiet, willowy man who looked upon conversation as an intrusion. His long, thin arms stretched forward to his various paintings as he stomped around the studio. She quickly learned to work silently while mixing her colors and applying them in just the right way. He was an invaluable teacher once she was used to eccentricities. Working quietly in his studio proved to calm her, a fact she found greatly surprising. As she methodically mixed various colors together and tried to finish the still life she was working on, she felt her anger at Elizabeth, Georgiana, and her snobby friends dissipate. She supposed they only meant well to warn her off of Charles, but really, they did not know him as well as she did. He was everything that was honorable and kind. Occasionally, she allowed, he did become negligent in his communication, but she assumed that business and other matters were often on his mind. If he were truly disinterested, he would not bother to write at all.
After two hours in the studio, she finally finished her work. The painter stomped over and surveyed it with a critical eye. Silently taking her brush, he swirled some colors on the palette and applied them in quick strokes at the base of the bowl in her painting. Instantly the shadow became more defined and the proportions corrected. With that slight correction, he replaced the brush and looked at his pupil.
"Well done, Miss Bennet. You have made much progress," he offered succinctly.
Kitty beamed and thanked him until he became irritated. Ushering her out of the studio, he returned to the refreshing silence. Kitty managed to secure a cab to take her to Hyde Park where she had already arranged to meet Charles. She waited impatiently as she was late leaving the studio and worried he might be waiting.
Georgiana let her fingers lightly drift over the rows of fabric lining the shop. She was in need of a few new muslins for daywear and a formal gown for Anne's wedding. This shop was her favorite, but she seemed to be having little luck finding anything to suit her. None of the patterns appealed to her simpler tastes and she was nearly ready to abandon her search for the day. Elizabeth was haggling over the price of a pair of dancing slippers toward the left of the shop. She was a remarkable haggler, but she would never own that she inherited this trait from her mother. Georgiana watched amusedly as Elizabeth and the shopkeeper argued good-naturedly. The shopkeeper loved a good haggler to break up the monotony.
Tabitha, the shopkeeper's daughter, approached Georgiana as she watched the display. Just a year younger than Georgiana, Tabitha's advice had been almost essential to Georgiana in all her years visiting the shop. She was one of the main reasons Georgiana loved coming there.
"Can I help you, Miss Darcy?" Tabitha asked kindly.
"Well, I am in need of some new clothes for visits during the day and something pretty for a bridesmaid's dress," Georgiana quietly replied.
Tabitha's eyes sparkled at this news. "A bridesmaid? Oh, Miss Darcy, you are very lucky. Come, we just finished this new room where we keep some of the newer fabrics. Are you looking for a specific color? Oh, I hope not. There is one cloth that will look charming on you, I'm sure!"
Grinning, Tabitha led the way to the new room, which was stacked with bolts upon bolts of cloth.
"You are very lucky, for we just finished this room a week ago. Papa keeps forgetting to remind the customers that it is here. Now, were you looking for a particular color for the dress?"
It took Georgiana a moment to catch up with Tabitha's rapid change in topic. "No, no particular color."
"Wonderful!" Tabitha exclaimed, clapping her hands together as she charged toward the cloth. Sifting through the bolts of cloth as Georgiana wandered around, she finally found what she was looking for. "What do you think?"
The cloth she held up was a pale rose, the material itself so gauzy it was nearly transparent. At first Georgiana was tempted to refuse it, but Tabitha moved so the meager light from the window could shine on it. Gold thread was woven in, giving the cloth a shimmering glow. Georgiana hesitated, knowing the cloth was quite transparent. Tabitha, with the cunning of her profession, noticed the change and quickly placed a thicker fabric of a darker rose underneath to rest her fears. The effect was startling.
"This is beautiful," she stated in awe, reaching forward to touch the material. It was smooth and soft, traits that made it endearing.
Tabitha smiled in triumph. "I knew you would love it, and I am sure it will look perfect on you. May I show it to your sister?"
Georgiana peered out the doorway to see Elizabeth chatting good-naturedly with the shopkeeper, her purchase already wrapped. After a moment's inner debate, Georgiana shook her head.
"No, thank you. I would like to try to find some muslins first and then show her all together."
"Of course, Miss Darcy," Tabitha replied with a polite curtsey, although she was a bit upset at loosing the opportunity to boast.
"I will call you when I am ready and then you may help me show them," Georgiana offered, trying to make amends for denying her friend of immediate pleasure.
Tabitha grinned and agreed, darting into the other section of the shop as the chime above the door sounded. A well-dressed lady entered with her daughter and immediately demanded to be waited on. Georgiana looked on in sympathy for her friend, but soon returned to the heaps of cloth around her. After a few minutes of searching, she found a light green muslin sprigged with clusters of pink flowers and a cream one with a printed diamond design. She was debating between a sky blue material polka-dotted white and a cinnamon colored muslin with an intricate red design when she heard a floorboard creak loudly.
Looking up instinctually, she noticed a gentleman standing a few feet from her. Her eyes began to retreat to her articles of debate when they were suddenly arrested by him. A tremor of recognition tensed her body and the last air in her lungs left in a whisper.
He instantly glanced up at the sound of his name that Georgiana had unfortunately uttered louder than she wished. His eyes found hers and were crossed with surprise, confusion, and other emotions she did not wish to see. Immediately darting her eyes down to the well-worn floor, she bobbed a quick curtsey, hoping to hide the blush she knew was dominating her face.
"Miss Darcy," he answered, years of good breeding forcing him into a polite bow.
They both straightened and seemed at a loss for conversation. Georgiana managed to sneak one glance up at him, but he looked highly uncomfortable. Knowing that they must move past this awkwardness in order for there to be a hope of less tension at Anne's wedding, Georgiana took a deep breath, steadying herself for the daring she was about to use.
"Con-Congratulations, my Lord," she began, scolding herself for stuttering at such a moment. She took another steadying breath before plunging on. "Congratulations on your betrothal to my cousin, Anne."
He looked on silently, his eyes looking at her suspiciously, trying to make out if she had any ulterior motive to her simple words.
"I do not think I have ever received a happier letter from her, and I believe you are to thank for that. It was very kind of her to ask me to be her bridesmaid. Will you have the wedding in Kent?"
Georgiana breathed in relief now that her jittery speech was over. She felt proud that she had overcome her shyness enough to makesuch a speech in such a situation. The conversation now effectively rested in his hands, and she waited to see how he would respond.
Rousing himself, he blinked a few times before addressing the question she had directed at him.
"As far as I know, the wedding is to be held at Rosings," he answered, but Georgiana could tell he was working up the courage to ask something of his own. "Will... will you and your family be joining us?"
Georgiana gave a small smile. "Of course. We would not wish to miss such an important day for Anne."
"Does Lady Catherine approve of your family's visit?" He asked as delicately as possible.
"Well, my brother has written to her, so we shall see what the result is." His face paled a little at this announcement, anticipating the scene awaiting him back at Rosings. "He has extended an invitation to Pemberley to all of you."
"Your brother is very gracious, Miss Darcy."
"Thank you, my Lord."
They both fell into silence looking around awkwardly. Quick footsteps on the few stairs that lead to the room heralded Elizabeth's voice.
"Georgiana! There you are. Tabitha said you had some fabric to show me."
Elizabeth caught the darting look Georgiana gave to her left and turned to follow it. She gave a slight start when she beheld the strange man standing there. He seemed just as surprised and harmless enough, but Elizabeth's protective instinct kicked in.
"I am sorry, Georgiana. I did not know you were talking to someone," Elizabeth stated neutrally, although there was a slight edge undercutting her speech.
Georgiana instinctively reacted, correctly interpreting her sister's insinuation. "It is quite all right, Elizabeth. This is the friend I met in Kent this past autumn who is engaged to our cousin Anne. Elizabeth, this is Lord Rocheford of Warwickshire. Lord Rocheford, this is my sister, Mrs. Darcy."
Lord Rocheford dipped into a perfunctory bow with a murmur of acknowledgement. Elizabeth performed her curtsey, using the time to adjust to this discovery.
"Well then, Lord Rocheford, I will offer you my congratulations on your betrothal. I am sure you will be an honorable addition to the family." Elizabeth politely let the sentence dangle there, forcing him to pick up the conversation, which he hastily did.
"I thank you,ma'am, and I hope I shall be a credit to your family. I am glad to hear we shall be fortunate enough for your company on our wedding day."
"Hopefully, sir, hopefully. Now, I will not interrupt your conversation further. Just be mindful, Georgiana, that we must be home within the next hour."
Elizabeth made to leave when Georgiana intervened.
"No, Elizabeth, stay. I believe Lord Rocheford and I have done our catching up. I do not wish to make us late tonight."
"Are you quite sure, Georgiana? We will still have plenty of time to make it to the opera."
A glance at Lord Rocheford's evident relief at the imminent escape solidified Georgiana's answer. "Yes, I am quite sure."
"Very well, then. Let us bring the fabric to the front, now. Good day, Lord Rocheford. It was a pleasure meeting you. We would be honored if you would come and have supper with all of us while you are in London. Mrs. Abel is ever ready for a chance to display her skill."
Lord Rocheford bowed, slightly embarrassed. "You are very kind Mrs. Darcy, but I must leave London at the end of the week."
"Surely you can carve out one evening for us. We are having a small party the day after next, will that be agreeable?"
"Yes,ma'am. That would be wonderful."
Lord Rocheford knew there was no avoiding this meeting, but he wondered what tricks the Darcys had up their sleeves. It seemed improbable that they did not despise him, but Mrs. Darcy seemed sincere. There was no air of art about her, and he felt certain that her eyes would have betrayed her. They had showed her suspicion of him before she knew who he was, and there had been the spark of recognition. He broodingly watched them as they curtseyed and went to pay for their goods. His eyes treacherously fell on Miss Darcy.
She was more beautiful than he remembered with those clear, blue eyes and her quiet, soft demeanor. He caught himself and let out a sigh. He was a man betrothed. He had no business thinking such thoughts. He knew that her tactic of civility was what was required, but he vainly wished it was not so. There was only one point on which he could rest easy. She did not blame him; she did not despise him. With that, he must be content. He was to wed her cousin, and she... she would wed some other man who would never be worthy of her.
Mr. Campwell leisurely crossed into Hyde Park from the stern black gate at Queen's-gate. He had roughly a half hour before he could call on his betrothed as he had forgotten they would be at the shops that afternoon. It was a fine day, a rarity in London, and he meant to make the most of it. He pursued a path that circled the center of the park, away from the volley of carriages that were meandering around, and was soon lost in reflections of the coming end of his bachelorhood. He was to be married in a few weeks time and as much as he was impatient for the day, he could not help but be a little frightened. It would be a change he was not fully prepared for.
Pounding footsteps interrupted his reverie and he whirled around to see who it was. The path behind him was empty. It was then that he became aware of rapid crackling from the hedge beside him. The footsteps were coming from there! He backed away quickly, not wanting to be accosted by some fleeing criminal.
Branches from the hedge snapped as the figure tried to push through, an act which was proving difficult even at the person's momentum. He saw the unmistakable contours of a woman's dress and his puzzlement increased. In an instant, the lady had broken through the hedge and stumbled ungracefully. Reaching forward to catch her, he was stunned when he beheld her face.
"Miss Bennet?" His voice asked incredulously.
She shrank back from him like a cornered animal. He could feel her tensing and saw her gaze contemplate retreating back into the hedge. Sensing her imminent flight, he grabbed her shoulders firmly. At the increased pressure, she began to flail and twist about, screaming incoherently. One hand remained on her shoulder to restrain her while the other jerked her face, forcing her to look at him. An expression of sheer terror colored her features, her eyes still unseeing. Giving her a firm shake, he watched her eyes come back to focus. Almost as suddenly as her fit had arisen, her scream died on her lips. Tears swelled up and a deep blush raced toward her hair. She brought her hands up to cover her face as she began, once again, to succumb to hysterics.
"Miss Bennet!" Mr. Campwell ordered forcefully, holding her firmly. "What has happened? Are you ill? Can I assist you at all?"
From between her hands the disjointed moan of "home" echoed up to him. Without sparing a further thought, he held her gently and maneuvered her toward the edge of the park. The inquisitive couple down the lane started forward to offer their assistance, but he gently shook it off saying the girl had tumbled through the hedge and they were afraid of a twisted ankle.
"Oh, how horrid!" The lady cried, clinging onto her lover's arm. "Come, John, we must turn back or we will be late for the opera."
Grimacing, yet relieved that they had been dealt with, Mr. Campwell pressed onward. Kitty leaned heavily on him and he could tell that she was close to fainting from whatever gauntlet she had just finished. He moved as quickly as he could back to the road near Queen's-gate where cabs were allowed. Thankfully, he spied one, which quickly stopped before them. He ushered Kitty in and she fell into a dead faint as soon as she sat down. The driver turned with polite inquiry and asked for a direction.
"Grosvenor Square, Legan House," Mr. Campwell replied promptly, settling Kitty into a more upright position. "And have a care, please. I'll be happy to fund any extra charge."
The driver's grimy face brightened and a "G'up" signaled their sudden departure. As the hack drove forward at a modest pace, courteously avoiding the pits in the road, Mr. Campwell wondered what could have occurred to Miss Bennet. He could tell there was some foul play involved. That she was fleeing something, or someone, he knew without a doubt. Her dress was shredded due to the thorns in the hedge, droplets of blood flecking the cloth as if they were part of the original pattern. Her face was scratched as well, but there was a section on her cheek, just beneath her eye, that was starting to bruise. It was then that he noticed that the light pelisse she was wearing had been ripped open, the buttons conspicuously absent. The bodice of her dress was torn so forcefully from the sleeve that it was a miracle her chemise remained intact. He could also see the beginnings of a bruise on her collar. Honorably focusing his eyes on the scene outside, he noticed with passing delight that they had nearly arrived.
The cab stopped gently in front of the steps, and Mr. Campwell bade the driver to stay and await his return.
"I shall be no more than a quarter hour," he informed him as he struggled to get Kitty from within the confines of the coach.
The driver nimbly tied up the horse and aided in hoisting Kitty out. Mr. Campwell was able to carry her up the steps and was immediately granted entrance by a bewildered butler. Darcy passed through the hallway in time to see them troop in the door. Mr. Campwell hurried into the first drawing room and deposited Kitty on the nearest settee. A hush descended as Darcysfootsteps followed them into the room.
"What the Devil has happened?" He demanded, staring at Mr. Campwell in suspicion.
"I found her in the park, like this," he gestured at the sedate figure.
"Kitty!" A voiced shrieked from the door. White skirts rushed past and settled next to the settee. Brown curls knelt in concern before bright eyes appraised Mr. Campwell.
"I know not what caused her condition, but she stumbled upon me in the park, running madly. I believe she was trying to escape someone or something. Her gown was already torn by the time I found her. I managed to get her into a cab before she fainted, but she was gone the whole ride," Campwell narrated softly.
Elizabeth turned to her sister, her brow creased with concern and worry. Georgiana and a maid, laden with cool water and salts, appeared during this recital.
"What is your true guess, Campwell?" Darcy asked quietly as the women began to press cool cloths on Kitty's forehead, trying to gently rouse her.
"If I were to hazard anything, I would say she was fleeing someone. A couple did spy us, but I managed to convince them it was naught more than a sprained ankle."
"I hope we can be assured of your secrecy in this matter," Darcy threatened sternly, instinctual protectiveness rising within him.
"Of course!" Campwell exclaimed, his reaction bordering on offense.
"Was she not to meet with the painter and then Miss Whitney this afternoon?" Elizabeth mused louder than she intended.
All eyes turned to the still figure. An uncomfortable silence grew as they realized Kitty's deception. With a start, Mr. Campwell offered his bows and retreated. Elizabeth shooed everyone out of the room now that the true nature of the event was revealed. Her face was suffused with shame and she could not meet the eyes of her husband. Dripping water onto her sister's face, Elizabeth watched as Kitty's eyes fluttered opened. Kitty was up with a sudden start, thrashing about the blanket, her eyes frantically darting around the room. Elizabeth's arms immediately wrapped around her, preventing her from any damage while her voice whispered soothing, calming words into her ear. Her hysteria finally passed and she succumbed into noisy sobs that were punctured by heartbroken wails.
"Oh, Lizzy! Lizzy! What have I done?"
Finally an update!!
I am so terribly sorry for this mammoth delay in posting, especially after all of your kind and wonderful reviews. My schoolwork always comes before my writing and then I had a family crisis that is hopefully all taken care of. Stressed, overworked, and uninspired sums up my year. I hope you all enjoy this chapter. I don't want to ever abandon this story for as long again and I am determined to finish it. This coming semester I'm taking 21 credits, including a creative writing class, so I'm going to try my best. I will probably aim for shorter chapters, but trying for quicker updates. I want to thank all of you for sticking through with this story and my infrequent updates. I hope this chapter helps make up for lost time.