Hell Hath No Fury

Darcy leant one forearm against the marble balustrade and tried to pretend that the night-chilled stone was having an effect upon the temperature of the rest of his person. The Assembly was always a terrible crush and the flat lemonade the patronesses had the outrage to call a refreshment could hardly divert his mind from the fact.

"Mr Darcy, I thought I saw you slip this way and presumed to intrude on your solitude."

"Your presence could not be counted as an intrusion, Miss Bingley."

Caroline Bingley smiled as she came towards him. When she reached the edge of the balcony, she turned so that she could lean back against the balustrade and keep watch over the flushed and noisome crowd inside. She toyed with the fan she carried in one hand.

"I meant to tell you, Mr Darcy, upon your recommendation I took up Mr Dante's poetry. I am now limping through Purgatorio since concluding my time in the Inferno last week. I am not at all certain I shall finish. These Italians! So melodramatic, don't you agree?"

"Perhaps, but surely excitement is better than deadly doldrums." His glance encompassed the ball behind him and she acknowledged the hit with her fan, a signal she must have learnt from her brother.

"A truly insipid affair. However there is something irksome about Infernothat I cannot quite put my ..." The sentence trailed off as her attention was caught by something inside. Her smile grew markedly into something approaching a grin. "Now, Mr Darcy, I know it is the mode for gentlemen not to admit to noticing a female's toilette, but if you tell me you failed to apprehend Lady Margaret's lamentable choice of puce satin, and an ostrich feather that will be the blinding of someone before the night is out, I shall denounce you as a liar."

He angled his head towards her in a slight bow. "As you say, Miss Bingley, I am a gentleman, and I can tell you most comprehensively that I have not noticed Lady Margaret this evening. Nor have I requested her indulgence for the name of her modiste. And I most certainly have no notion of blacklisting from Georgina's patronage any such establishment that would allow that abomination to sally forth upon a wholly unsuspecting and innocent ton."

The fan Caroline flicked open to hide her mouth did nothing to disguise the unholy amusement in her eyes. Snapping it shut again, she murmured, "You are wicked, Mr Darcy, I do believe that is why I like you so particularly."

"Wicked?"

"Not very wicked – only so as those who know you best would notice."

"I believe you bring it out in me, Miss Bingley."

"Do I?" She shifted nonchalantly to look out over the moonlit garden, bringing herself closer to him. Not touching, but near enough that he could feel the warmth of her arm on his. "Do you know, that is the best compliment I have received all evening. I shall have to think up one for you in return."

She made a great production of thinking and assessing his person, but in the end she gave a sigh and collapsed in elegant defeat against the balustrade.

The corners of his mouth tipped upwards. "I am almost afraid to ask, Miss Bingley."

Her sigh was once again inconsolable. "So you should be indeed for I promised a compliment but all I have is criticism."

"You strike terror in my heart."

"A single compliment is far beyond my means for you are quite simply too perfect for only one."

"I am far from that, Miss Bingley."

She glanced up at him. "You are mistaken, Mr Darcy. For myself, you are perfect."

He stiffened and considered her beneath lowered brows. "And what of my flaws?"

"Why, Mr Darcy, don't make such jokes at my expense. You have no flaws and any that may arise must be so trifling as to not signify a jot."

"I am not joking or trifling, Miss Bingley. I am speaking of the true nature of my character – which you should be aware of as one of those who know me best?"

Her fan flicked open and closed, and then again. "I am not sure I know what game you are playing, Mr Darcy."

"I am bucking the trend of fashion and attempting to be serious."

"How very dull but perhaps I shall endeavour to be likewise because it is you that asks."

"I count you as a friend, Miss Bingley."

"Well, I'm sure I should be desolate if you did not."

"As only a friend, Caroline."

The change to her expression was minute; a whitening of the skin about her mouth and a scalding sharpness in her gaze. Her aspirations fought fiercely against her wounded pride, and he could not tell which would win.

"And I hope we shall remain so, Caroline."

Her social smile snapped into place, bright and brilliant, hard as the diamonds which glittered around her neck. "Why, Mr Darcy, how could you doubt it?"

"My wish was to avoid hurting you."

Her fan snapped out to brush away his comment as it would an annoying fly. He imagined if the edge had caught him at that moment it would have cut like a razor.

"Let us talk of things less sentimental and infinitely more interesting, Mr Darcy. My brother has newly acquired a property somewhere in the vicinity of Hertfordshire. Louisa, Mr Hurst, and I are to see it over and sample some of the local atmosphere in a se'ennight. My brother will expect you also, though most like I have pre-empted his invitation."

"I knew of the acquisition, but I am afraid business may make it impossible for me to take up any invitation Charles may extend."

"Your business has sprung up quite suddenly, I'm sure. I hope it is not this conversation that has you running scared?"

She watched in satisfaction as the Darcy pride swept over his countenance.

"A challenge, Miss Bingley?"

"Whatever can you mean, Mr Darcy? I was merely expressing a sincerely, friendly hope – what you make of it is your own affair entirely. Charles shall be so disappointed if you don't come, and we shall be such a very, very merry party."

She tapped her closed fan once against his lapel and swept back towards the ballroom. As she reached the French doors, she turned back to look at him and smiled.

"You know, I have just now struck upon the reason for my dissatisfaction with Dante's Inferno. His vision is so very blatant, so ... unsubtle in its infernal ministrations. If a woman could write upon such a subject the result would be a much more delicate work of art. Exquisitely torturous, I might hazard a guess to say." She laughed. "What strange topics the mind finds for itself when there are no greater matters to engage it!"

The party at Netherfield Park would be very merry indeed.