"Shall we try again, Georgiana?" Olivia asked of her friend. They sat across each other underneath the tent, wind teasing their hair and ruffling the edges of the blankets.
Georgiana nodded vigorously. "Please. I will beat you yet, you cheater." She rearranged the game pieces on the checkered board, placing each carved piece deliberately. She looked at Olivia with narrowed eyes; her friend stared solemnly back.
"I never play falsely," Olivia said in mirth, "I just read your mind. A parlor trick, I assure you, that anyone can do."
Georgiana rolled her eyes playfully, finishing up with the board. "Will you be white or black?"
Olivia sighed. "Black—I'll let you start this time." Georgiana snatched at a white marble pawn and slipped it forward two paces on the board. Olivia smirked and did the same.
Mr. York, who lay sprawled out on the other end of the blankets, watched them with amusement. He pulled his hunting hat lower on his head to disguise the fact that his eyes were on Miss Darcy.
She had long ago set her bonnet aside, letting her hair catch what wind came her way. He could smell something sweet, which he was sure was coming from the patch of flowers nearby, but he allowed himself to imagine that she smelled just as fine. He almost sighed, but stopped himself short. He was not a love-sick puppy, he told himself; maybe just an interested one.
Anne set aside her painting with a groan of frustration. Surely she was not destined to be a famous artist. To her left, amongst the trees that lined the water, came the sound of voices. She lifted her head to see who it was and blushed afterwards for doing so. She had caught sight of Mary and Aubrey who, coming back from their walk, had paused beside a thick tree to embrace one another.
Anne ducked, spreading herself thin against the grass to avoid being seen. She was deeply embarrassed and strangely moved. What if she found herself a husband? Would he kiss her like that? She chuckled to think about it, imagining a prim Lady Catherine who had slept in a separate bed when she was married. How she was conceived never failed to stupefy Anne.
Lady Catherine's voice floated into her ears, a memory from long ago when Anne had her coming-out ball: "—and don't let anyone near you, my dear, else your reputation be ruined! Why, even married couples are never seen showing affection or kissing as you young people call it! 'Tis most scandalous to kiss one's spouse, even in private."
Anne laughed again, grabbing up her things and going back to the tent. The sudden splash of a droplet of rain on her arm told her they would soon head back to Pemberley.
Mary found herself clutched once more with someone's arms around her. Kitty's vicious grip around her middle cut more into her ribs than any corset could. No amount of shifting or moving eased the pressure, and she prayed they would get back to Pemberley soon.
The infrequent dribbles of rain turned steady, and Kitty shrieked. "It's raining!"
"Is it? I didn't notice, Miss Kitty," Mr. York said, his pitch-black horse drawing up beside Mary's mount.
"We shall fall off with the horse getting so wet," Kitty breathed quietly into Mary's ear. Aloud, she turned to Mr. York with a beaming smile, replying, "You jest, surely."
He bowed. "Of course."
"Do you enjoy getting wet, Mr. York?" she asked, eyebrows rising up prettily, noticing he'd divested of his cloak.
"Not usually, Miss Kitty," he replied, he tipped his hat and fell back a little with his horse, not quite behind them yet not there beside them either.
Kitty, finding him short of words and not at all droll, turned her thoughts to pleasanter venues, such as warm fires and scalding-hot tea. She wiggled in anticipation. "Would you stop that? Nobody's looking at you," Mary muttered.
Kitty frowned. "I could care less if no one ever looked at me," she pouted—and then straightened her spine as Mr. York appeared beside them again. She nodded primly at him, one of her hands bravely flying up to adjust the delightful bonnet ribbons tied underneath her chin.
"Changed your mind, did you?" Kitty pressed him, fluttering her long lashes.
He looked startled, and shook his head. He looked over at Mary until she was compelled to return his stare. "Good afternoon," she said to him in greeting.
He dipped his head in a shy return of pleasantries. "I wonder, might I speak with you once we return to Pemberley?"
She narrowed her eyes, thoughts flying back to Georgiana who rode just behind her. "Might I ask why, Mr. York?"
He blushed suddenly. "I suppose I could ask you now." Mary nodded encouragement. He leaned towards her and lowered his voice. "Are Miss Darcy's—are her feelings captured? I mean, has she a tendre for someone?"
Kitty overheard the question. "Of course not, Mr. York!" Spit from the eager girl's lips hit the back of Mary's neck, though she barely registered the fact seeing as it was pouring rain dreadfully. The sky, darkened by thunderclouds that seemed to reach astronomical heights, was lit up by a quick, violet flash of lightning.
"Shhh!" Mary scolded her younger sister over the sound of the return shot of thunder. She turned back to the young man. "Not that I am aware of, Sir."
"Fabulous. Could you, um, give her this for me?" he asked of Mary. She took the proffered note which was dampened by Mr. York's wet glove and slipped it into her reticule.
Kitty, catching a whiff of his cologne (for he had leaned quite closely to the girls), breathed deeply, closing her eyes and turning her nose to follow the man as he turned his horse round once more, mud spraying up from its hooves. "He has expensive taste," she observed. "Is he rich, do you know?"
"Not particularly," Mary told her younger sister, hoping her sister would lose interest. She could almost feel Kitty's face fall as the girl's shoulders slumped and rested her chin on Mary's shoulder. Rain trickled down her dress, collecting wetly onto her underclothing; she tried not to mind it, but she couldn't stop the shivers that crawled over her. It was just so wet!
The young women were ushered to the kitchen while fires in their rooms were being made up. The large stone hearth roared and crackled, logs shifting as they burned and turned to smoky piles of ash. Cups of warm cider were pressed into their wet hands as they waited. Though the season was far from being winter, the thought of one of the girls catching a dangerous head cold worried everyone. After all, just a few years ago Jane had suffered from a ride in the rain and was bedridden for days.
"I don't like cider," Kitty pouted. She morosely sipped from her cup, every now and then spitting back what she had swallowed so reluctantly.
"It's good for you," Jane pointed out, "and you need only drink that to satisfy our mother."
Anne yawned, held back a cough with her fist and looked behind her to see if her mother was lurking. She wasn't. "Wasn't that a most enjoyable outing?" she asked them all.
Mary smiled in return. "Supremely."
"It was going along just fine until it started raining," Kitty drawled from her side of the fire. Her cheeks were rosy from the heat and her hair began to curl wildly as it dried itself.
Elizabeth, sitting beside Jane, said, "If I remember correctly, we didn't tie you up to the horse and force you to come with us." Kitty stared hard at her elder sister and then rolled her eyes.
Georgiana had finished her cider quickly and was leaning beside the window, watching the rain wiggle down the glass. She pressed her brow to the cold pane, and then turned around. "I'll go to my room, if you all don't mind. I feel…tired."
Mary stood to follow her. "I hope you are not falling ill, Georgiana."
"Yes, well, I had best be careful then," Georgiana replied softly. "You need not come with me. I can manage on my own."
"Don't think on it," Mary quickly said in turn. "I have something to tell you by the by."
Georgiana nodded resolutely, preparing herself for the worst. They had arrived at her door, and when they entered the room the fire was already warming up and the servants had vanished. Mary shut the door behind her and grinned. "You see—," she began, stepping forward.
"I think I can guess at the nature of your sudden excitement," Georgiana cut in. She wrapped her fingers around the post of her bed and twitched her skirts with her other hand.
Mary paused. "Did he talk to you already, then?"
"What is it then that you think I've come to tell you?"
"This Mr. York—well, I saw him with you while we were coming back home. I assumed you were just talking about, you know, nothing in particular, but then I saw him hand you something."
"Oh, this!" Mary cried. She fished it out of her habit's pocket. It was still damp and more worn than before, but it was legible enough. She held it out to Georgiana who immediately pushed it away with one trembling hand. "Is everything alright, Georgiana?"
"I am sure that a man's attentions are most flattering when they are directed towards you. I can understand the feeling—the sort of excitement one gets when one knows—or imagines—they are the object of someone's fascination. But don't you think one is enough? Isn't Aubrey good enough for you?" Georgiana looked everywhere but at Mary's face.
Mary froze. "Pardon me?" she asked.
"You heard me, Mary," her sister-in-law replied. Her hands had found their way to a tight hold on her elbows. "Aubrey is a very kind man. His affection for you is what you've always wanted. I can't imagine him hearing that you are exchanging notes with his friend—or what he'd do to the poor man. Remember his cousin, Miles!"
"But I'm not!" Mary laughed. She jabbed the note at the young woman. "This is not some clandestine missive, Georgiana—well, not for me anyway!"
Georgiana swallowed, eyes narrowing. "Give it to me then. I shall see for myself."
"If it were any other person calling me out in such a manner, I'd've planted tehm a facer," Mary told her half-seriously as she let the note slip from her fingertips into Georgiana's. "As you can see that is a note addressed to you."
Color rushed to the girl's embarrassed face. "This—it's from—the—him?" she brokenly asked her friend as she unfolded it and perused the contents.
"I swear on my honor as your closest sister by law and love that I did not read not one letter nor one punctuation mark on that paper," Mary avowed, crossing her heart emphatically. Georgiana was silent. "But, might I ask—dearest, closest friend—if I could read it?"
Mary was startled when the girl burst into tears. "I'm so sorry for what I said!" burbled Georgiana. She was encased in Mary's friendly, ever-forgiving embrace. They sat on the edge of her bed, upsetting the carefully placed pillows, but they hardly noticed for Georgiana plowed full steam ahead. She was eager to put in her word before Mary could utter one syllable.
"I convinced myself," she sniffed ashamedly, "green-eyed that I was, that the item given you was meant for your eyes only. I never considered it was meant for me."
"Though I am the best catch in Derbyshire," Mary funned, "Mr. York has had his thoughts only turned to you, my dear. As for Aubrey, he agrees with me."
"About what?" queried Georgiana curiously whilst drying her eyes.
"He was looking at you the entire time you danced with Mr. Pierson and the rest of that gaggle of men surrounding you last evening."
"I thought—I thought he didn't want to further an acquaintance with me because I was wealthy. You said so yourself."
"Never!" Mary denied, outraged. "However, I do remember telling you he asked about your fortune, and he looked disappointed because I thought he felt he couldn't measure up to your other swains."
"You said no such thing, Mary. Besides, I do not have swains. No one's affected me like Mr. Wick—at all, that is, not until Mr. York gave up his precious seat for me yesterday."
Mary measured her friend carefully with her eyes. "I at least intended to tell you that, but Aubrey hadn't arrived yet and I was being a worrywart."
Georgiana was flushed once more, her bloodshot eyes were nothing compared to the cloud of color spread over her face and to the tips of her ears. "Of course," she casually said. "Shall we go downstairs? I'm sure everyone has warmed up enough to venture out of their rooms. I know I have!"
She was forced to keep her seat by the sudden imprisoning hold of Mary's hands on her slumped shoulders. Mary looked intently at her. "Did you love him deeply?" she asked quietly.
Georgiana licked her lips. "I wouldn't say love. That is too strong a word to use. At the time I was in George's company all I could think of were his lips, his eyes—even the sound of him breathing! It was like he cast some sort of enchantment on me that made me vulnerable to his advances." She unconsciously touched her mouth. "I don't lay blame on him entirely, for I was ready to fall in love—and fall I did, but into obsession. He was all I could think about, and not his kind ways or his mannerisms."
"Was he terribly handsome by then? When I saw him he was looking quite well."
"Last time I saw him he was, and I'm sure he still is. I fell in 'love' with his countenance, the way he tied his cravats, the shine of his boots and the fit of his coats to his broad shoulders. I'm ashamed to even say it!
"He acted the besotted suitor on the sly. We sent each other notes, and when I was left in Mrs. Younge's care he took advantage of the absence of my brother. Apparently he had known her quite well a couple of years back—how well, I can only guess. Suffice it to say, I nearly eloped to Scotland."
"That was his idea, of course," intoned Mary.
"Why yes it was," Georgiana told her.
"And I'm sure that's how he lured my sister to her current situation—a dissatisfied and poor wife of an immoral and unstable ex-militiaman."
"Indeed." The girls grasped hands mournfully and then gave each other a quick hug.
"Promise me you won't flee to Gretna Green with Mr. York," Mary pleaded to her friend. "Your brother would be livid, and I think Lady Catherine would faint."
"Faint? She would decline rapidly after a sudden fit and never be seen in society again."
"Hmm," Mary wondered aloud, "for the better—sounds delightful."
"You can't imagine!" Georgiana cried. She stood up, arms flying up in exasperation. "I love Anne dearly, but the way her mother drones on and on about her accomplishments drives me to distraction. The woman is certainly queer in the upper story."
"If I think about it," Mary began seriously after a fit of giggles, "she is comparable to my mother in some ways. They both are desperate to marry off their aging daughters to wealthy, titled gentlemen. It is just that Lady Catherine takes it a step further with the fact that she is unpleasant, bitter and thoroughly invested in the belief that she contains all the wisdom of the world. It's as if she believes herself to be the Almighty God, and we are required to worship her. My mother, on the other hand, just wants the world to see how clever she is in getting her girls all married off in consecutive years."
"Perhaps we are too harsh," whispered Georgiana guiltily.
"Oh I know," Mary agreed. "Back before we even heard of Mr. Bingley and his fashionable London set I would never have dreamed of saying such things about anybody. My tongue's so loose these days, and I admit I've only been reading scriptures just at night now. I still find pleasure in the Word, but I made myself so stiff-spined with rhetoric and spouting bombastic nonsense that I was a prickly thorn to be around."
"You're neither thistle nor bramble to me, Mary."
"My thanks," Mary said bowing low over her knees, loosened hair tumbling away from her back and over her head to hang as a waterfall would over the edge of some cliff. Georgiana smiled at her friend's antics, and as she glanced down at Mary she noticed a thin chain around the girl's neck.
"What's that about your neck?" she asked innocently, knowing full well it was probably a gift from Aubrey. Her heart panged as the note from Mr. York burned at her from its place pressed hard into her palm.
Mary snapped upwards, face red from the rush of blood to her face; her fingers clutched the neck of her dress. It was her time to turn tomato-red. "It's an early wedding gift from Aubrey," she eventually told Georgiana. She drew the chain out from its hiding place within her dress. "It's a locket that his great grandmother, Isobel, was given from her husband-to-be."
"It's practically an antique," breathed Georgiana. She took hold of the locket and folded it open. "Is that her?"
Mary bent her head closer to Georgiana's to look at the miniature paintings inside. She pointed. "Yes, and that's her husband, Sebastian. He was French, if I remember correctly."
"He's very fine-looking," observed Georgiana. "He cuts quite the dash."
"Apparently Isobel was his second choice for marriage. He arranged it all so that his first love would be madly jealous and plead for him back; then he'd refuse her and marry Isobel instead. Of course, he did that in the end, but not for revenge but for the deepest of love and affection for her."
"And what happened to his first love?" Georgiana asked, wide-eyed at the tale.
"He didn't care to find out."
"Romantic," she sighed. "Men these days just write insincere poems and foolish sonnets. No one would have enough intellect to create such a mighty and romantic courtship."
"Except," Mary interrupted, "for Darcy, Aubrey, Mr. Bingley—."
Georgiana laughed, clapping her hand over Mary's mouth. "Shh. I'm just being foolish myself. You did, however, forget to mention Mr. York."
"You stopped me short. Besides I would have done so anyway. I would not have added Mr. Collins or Mr. Wickham to the list, though."
"I agree entirely with you on that."
The door to the room suddenly shuddered as a series of frantic knocks fell upon it. "Enter!" cried Georgiana over the racket just as the door opened to reveal a much-excited Kitty.
"You shall never guess where it is we are going!" she trilled, bouncing on her heels in excitement. "Guess!"
"Russia," Mary drawled.
"Not even close!" Kitty cried, and then a puzzled look crossed her delicate face. "Where is that anyway?"
"Never mind your sister, Kitty," Georgiana said. "Please, tell us."
The younger woman looked supremely pleased with herself as she stood silently for a moment, relishing in her newfound power.
"Let me guess," Mary said after the stillness stretched far too long for her liking, "London."
Kitty's mouth dropped open and she stamped her foot. "How did you guess? Was that your guess as well, Georgiana?" Her sister-in-law nodded apologetically.
"It was written on your face," Mary told her. Kitty sniffed pertly and flounced out of the room, forgetting, as usual, to shut the door as she made her exit, sails deflated and still quite soggy.
"Now," Mary said, turning to Georgiana, "how about a peek at that note?'