A/N: Waterbaby and I are extremely gratified by all the positive reviews our story has received so far. Thanks for taking the chance! And as an English teacher, it also warms my heart to find there are so many Jane Austen fans, and that our fic is encouraging some of you to either reread her novels or even watch the movies (which are also great). Who would have thought fanfiction could be educational too?
Now, here is…
"Why, yes, Lord Mashburn. A happy coincidence," Teresa agreed, avoiding Jane's eyes, though she knew they held a glint of annoyance in them she found extremely satisfying. "Do sit down, my lord. How was the hunting?"
The elegant man sat along with the others, taking in everyone's emotional reactions to his presence with one glance—a skill he shared with Jane, he had found. His eyes lit with humor as he refused with a polite waft of his hand Miss Lisbon's offer of tea.
"Spectacular, Miss Lisbon. I was just thanking your father for the opportunity to participate in my favorite pastime on such a lovely piece of land."
Lord Virgil nodded in gratitude. "Anytime, Mashburn, anytime indeed."
"Do not be surprised if I take you up on that," replied Mashburn, his eyes remaining pointedly on Teresa. She flushed prettily and Mashburn's charming smile spread slowly across his face. He felt Jane's eyes bore into his back like heated daggers.
"I was just telling Miss Lisbon about the young man in our hunting party today," Jane said, deftly changing the subject. "A Mr. Rigsby, was it?"
"Yes, yes. Pleasant fellow. My late father was friends with his uncle. When his uncle recently passed, and Rigsby moved here, I felt a familial obligation to look out for him, you understand. He should have no trouble at all finding a wife to stock that fine new house of his."
The men laughed at Mashburn's suggestive pronouncement, while Teresa's lips turned down slightly, though not for the reason Mashburn thought at first.
"Forgive me, Miss Lisbon. A morning in the company of men has made me forget my more...gentile manners."
"Oh, please, think nothing of it. I'm quite used to being in the company of Mr. Jane."
Mashburn threw back his head and laughed. "She's got you pegged, Jane. But speaking of which, I must say I find it rather...unusual that you would be alone with Mr. Jane in this room without a chaperone. Is that a common occurrence?"
The room grew awkwardly silent, and Mashburn could feel Jane's tension coming off of him in waves. It was difficult for Mashburn not to laugh aloud again. Lord Virgil was the first to comment, however, partly in embarrassment for what must seem a fatherly oversight.
"I do apologize if the situation between Mr. Jane and my daughter seems inappropriate, Lord Mashburn. I suppose I have gone quite lax where Mr. Jane is concerned, but I assure you, there are no improprieties here. We think of Patrick as a member of our family, and as such, Teresa's adoptive brother. They have been boon companions since Teresa's infancy, so I'm afraid I don't even consider how this must appear to a visitor. Forgive me, sir."
"Oh, forgive me, Lord Virgil. I didn't mean to seem critical-far from it. I was just curious, you see. Jane does seem to feel quite at home on your lovely estate. I was simply wondering if he has some prior claim here."
His meaning was more than clear to everyone, and Lord Virgil puffed up with paternal pride at the thought that such an important man had taken an obvious interest in his daughter. Mashburn, despite the distant rumblings of his rumored improprieties, was just the sort of powerful, well-spoken, man's man who would be able to tame Teresa's wild nature, yet never allow her to lapse into ennui.
"Only a claim to lifelong friendship," Lord Virgil hastened to reassure him, turning an affectionate smile toward Jane.
Jane could say nothing to that, of course, without seeming to presume much upon Lord Virgil's previous kindness. Indeed, Teresa's father had been more of a father to him than his own could ever have hoped to be. He supposed he couldn't blame the man for thinking that an adoptive brother would not be a suitable husband for his daughter.
And from where had that disturbing thought emerged?
"I am honored, Lord Virgil," Jane managed. "He has described my relationship to this family quite perfectly." He resolutely avoided Teresa's eyes in that moment, but he could imagine her amusement at his discomfort. Jane would have been surprised, however, at Teresa's rather serious and thoughtful glance at him.
"Very good," said Mashburn, obviously pleased. "Then I hope I might request the opportunity to call on your lovely daughter again, very soon. If Miss Lisbon has no objections, of course."
"Naturally you may, Mashburn," replied Lord Virgil almost gleefully. "You needn't even have asked, need he, Teresa?"
It was Teresa's turn to feel distinctly uncomfortable. "That would be very…pleasant, my lord," Teresa said blandly.
"I look forward to it," replied Mashburn, his eyes caressing her. She felt a brief chill shiver down her spine at the boldness of his look. Mashburn turned away then, releasing her from his spell, and picked up with her father their earlier conversation about fishing. She and Jane remained unusually silent.
She covered her discomfort by reaching for the teapot again, wishing heartily that it was Kristina's strong Irish coffee she'd been allowed to sip when she was down with the ague.
Her father had never behaved in such a manner before, blatantly offering her up as she'd seen him attempt to sell one of his prized mares. Why was her single state so important to him all of a sudden? He'd certainly allowed her to lapse out of her teens with no attempts to push her into the marriage mart, and Teresa had enjoyed the freedom to socialize as she pleased. Perhaps it was his newfound happiness as a twice-blessed man that was causing him to wish similar contentment upon her. Yes, that must be it. Despite his concern for her welfare, however, she didn't have to like it. (Teresa somehow missed the hypocrisy of her mental protests, given her recent wager with Jane.)
She felt Jane's speculative eyes upon her, and she risked meeting them. She was surprised to see, instead of the expected humor at her plight, the blank expression he put on when he tried to bluff her at whist.
"More tea, Mr. Jane?" she asked softly.
"By all means," he muttered, offering forth his favorite blue cup for a refill as if he were begging for fortifying brandy.
It was the only teacup of its kind among all the other expensive tea sets in the household, and Jane insisted it was as well-balanced and sturdy as any of her father's finest pistols-despite a chip or two and a hopelessly tea-stained interior-and he would refuse to drink from any other if that one was available to him. She always had it on hand when she was expecting his company, and it made her smile to think how like he was to this bit of mismatched china.
She was relieved to see Jane smiling back at her in return, and, as always when he looked at her in such a way, her cares seemed to lift from her troubled heart. She was mightily grateful in that moment to have as dear a friend as Jane in her life.
He toasted her mildly with his blue cup, echoing her earlier salute, and settled back against the settee cushions, crossing his legs as was his wont, his own fears momentarily assuaged. The reason behind his recent fearfulness, however, was something he wasn't quite ready to contemplate.
Teresa was excited for the diversion that night that would come with Mrs. Emmaline Dean's dinner party in honor of her visiting niece, Miss Imelda Dean. A few weeks prior to Imelda's arrival, Mrs. Dean had invited Teresa to tea to seek her advice on the guest list for the party. The story was that Mrs. Dean's sister-in-law, much despairing that her daughter had not been a smash in London society, might find her prospects more likely in a country setting, given her shy, awkward ways. Mrs. Dean had therefore enlisted Teresa's aid in inviting a few respectable families whose households included some of the most eligible young men of this and surrounding parishes, as well as young ladies who might be suitable companions to an impressionable girl of nineteen years.
Because of this happy circumstance, Teresa knew the guest list intimately (thankful that it would not include Lord Mashburn), and was anxious to introduce Miss Van Pelt to the gentleman whom she believed would be her very soulmate. She recognized that Miss Imelda Dean must then be steered away from the worthy bachelor—a young vicar who wished to settle down—and that this would take considerable finessing on her part. One never knew where one's heart would lead, and it would be an unmitigated disaster should Imelda set her sights on the vicar, or the vicar on Imelda.
Teresa, her father and new stepmother arrived early to help Mrs. Dean with last-minute preparations, and she was pleased to see that Miss Van Pelt was already there as well, given the younger girl's new friendship with Miss Imelda Dean. The two girls greeted the ever-popular Miss Lisbon with bubbling anticipation of the evening.
"Miss Lisbon," Miss Dean said, curtsying shyly. "It is an honor to meet you at last."
"The honor is mine," replied Teresa. "I do apologize that we did not have a chance at last night's ball. Your aunt has sung your praises to the rooftops, so I am sure we will become fast friends."
Miss Dean flushed, suitably flattered by the regard and attention. At that moment, Miss Dean's aunt called her away, leaving Teresa alone with Miss Van Pelt.
"Miss Van Pelt, I am so glad to find you here as well. I am certain this will prove a lovely party, and that you and Miss Dean shall find the company quite engaging."
"Thank you, Miss Lisbon. I feel so welcome here already, but I admit I much prefer smaller, more casual gatherings."
"Perhaps you might entertain us on the piano forte later. Mrs. Shettrick has done nothing but brag on your musical abilities."
Miss Van Pelt colored again, and Teresa was pleased to see how becoming such a blush was on her, brightening her eyes and only vaguely clashing with her dark red hair.
"She is too kind, yet much given to exaggeration," replied Miss Van Pelt.
"Well, then, we must prove her wrong then, hadn't we?" Teresa said with a grin.
Other guests began arriving, including Mr. Kimball and his mother; Mr. Craig O'Laughlin and his father, John, along with a few other young people, handpicked from Teresa's long list of acquaintances. And then, of course, arrived the man Teresa was most pleased to see—Mr. Luther Wainwright, vicar of their local parish church.
Tall, slim and boyishly handsome, he cut a fine figure in his parson's robes each Sunday, and he had expressed to Teresa on numerous occasions his desire to find a bride to complete his household and occupy the impressive though empty house provided him by the church. He had called on Teresa often, and had accompanied her on her various charitable visits to the poor and infirm in the parish. Teresa saw him as charming and rightfully proud of his important position at such a young age. She could not wait to introduce him to Miss Van Pelt.
"Miss Lisbon. How delightful to see you," Mr. Wainwright greeted her fondly, taking her hand and bowing gallantly over it.
"Mr. Wainwright—just the man I have been longing to see." She took him aside in a private corner of the candlelit drawing room, missing utterly how his eyes lit up at her kind words and familiar manner. "I have recently met a new young friend, who has seemed rather at a loss of late. You see,"— she stepped closer to the vicar so that her whispered words might be better heard—"she comes from an…unfortunate background, and is uncertain as to how she will be received in society."
"Oh?" he managed, heart picking up speed as he looked into Teresa's earnest green eyes, so close to his. Her delicate scent of violets nearly made his head swim.
"I would consider it a personal favor should you show a special interest in her. Those of the parish would follow your lead, for if Miss Van Pelt is acceptable to the vicar, then…well, you take my meaning, I'm sure."
"Yes, of course," he managed. "But might I say that the mere fact that the highly beloved Miss Lisbon has befriended her is more than enough of a recommendation—"
"Ah, but you are a gentleman, as well as our vicar. There is truly no better stamp of approval than that, you see."
"Why, thank you, Miss Lisbon," said the young man, fairly beaming. "And I am most anxious to do anything in the world to contribute to your happiness. Please, introduce me to the lady at once."
"Oh, Mr. Wainwright! You have made me exceedingly pleased! This way," she said, taking his hand in such a way that, were she not the beloved Miss Lisbon, others would deem highly improper.
Teresa's excitement faded considerably, however, when she happened upon the newly arrived Mr. Jane, in the process of introducing an unknown gentleman to Miss Van Pelt. Teresa stopped so abruptly that Mr. Wainwright unceremoniously ran into her back. She barely noticed the slight bump.
"Pardon me, Miss Lisbon," Mr. Wainwright muttered breathlessly. Teresa watched Jane and the others, oblivious to the vicar, momentarily frozen by rage as Miss Van Pelt blushed at the stranger's attentions. As if feeling the weight of her stare, Jane inclined his head toward Teresa, his expression so haughty and amused that she had the very unladylike desire to run at him and strike him squarely in the nose, especially when he had the further audacity to wink at her.
"Come, Mr. Wainwright," she commanded, pulling her charge along toward the trio with new determination.
"Miss Van Pelt!" she called, her interruption bordering on rudeness. "I have someone I just know you will want to meet."
Jane stepped aside in amusement, and the rather tall stranger awkwardly dropped Miss Van Pelt's hand. The young lady, unused to such demands on her attention, turned to Miss Lisbon and the harried vicar she had in tow.
"Miss Van Pelt, may I present Mr. Luther Wainwright, whom you might recognize as our vicar. Mr. Wainwright, Miss Grace Van Pelt."
Dutifully, Wainwright stepped forward and bowed in greeting over her white gloved hand, taking special care to show her every gallant courtesy, well aware of Miss Lisbon's intent appraisal.
"A pleasure to meet you," said Grace, curtsying in a manner worthy of her name.
Jane was doing his best not to dissolve into triumphant laughter at beating Teresa to the punch. He remembered his manners long before the infuriated Miss Lisbon.
"And a hearty good evening to you, Miss Lisbon," he said dryly. "Miss Lisbon, Mr. Wainwright. Might I present the newest member of your parish? Vicar, Mr. Wayne Rigsby, recently of Stockton-on-Tees. Miss Lisbon, Mr. Wainwright-Mr. Rigsby."
Polite introductions concluded, the small group lapsed into an awkward silence, no doubt attributable to Miss Lisbon's simmering ire and Mr. Jane's mocking amusement, though the other three could not quite place their fingers upon the source of the tension.
"Miss Lisbon," said Mr. Wainwright, breaking the ice, might I get you and Miss Van Pelt a glass of punch?"
"Oh," replied Teresa gratefully. "That would be lovely, wouldn't it, Miss Van Pelt?"
"Why, yes," agreed Grace. And Teresa bestowed upon Jane a satisfied lifting of her chin.
Jane grinned in concession of her point won; it was quite a coup for a young lady to allow a gentleman to retrieve for her a cold beverage at a dinner party.
"Mr. Rigsby is a friend of Lord Mashburn," Jane interjected, and proceeded to explain Rigsby's circumstances.
"How nice for you," said Lisbon politely, "to have such an influential gentleman as your sponsor."
"Yes, miss," answered the plain-spoken Mr. Rigsby. "Everyone has been very kind to me here, particularly Mr. Jane, for obtaining an invitation to this lovely party on such short notice. I know very few people in the area."
"Oh yes," she replied. "I am quite familiar with Mr. Jane's…altruistic ways."
Jane smiled, his eyes mischievous. "Why thank you, Miss Lisbon. I am always flattered by your graceful…concessions."
At an impasse, the pair of old friends stared briefly into one another's eyes, a world of unspoken emotions passing between them. Indeed, they were quite oblivious to the pair of new acquaintances smiling at each other in humorous understanding. At that moment, Mr. Wainwright returned with the punch, and the conversation became pleasantly animated, as Jane and Rigsby related the tale of their morning hunt.
At dinner, Teresa's fury was reignited when she realized that Jane had somehow finagled it that Mr. Rigsby had been seated across from Miss Van Pelt, the vicar at the opposite end of the table, far out of reach of intimate conversation. Teresa sat in her usual spot beside Jane, fuming over her turtle soup.
"You are a golden-haired snake in the grass," she whispered rather violently to Jane. The conversation around them strangely afforded them a certain amount of privacy.
"All is fair in love and friendly wagers," he softly singsonged.
"Not if they want to remain friendly," she replied, sitting back as their first course was removed.
"The vicar," he began, as a plate of sliced mutton was laid before them, "seems a rather pointless choice, I must say."
"What? Why? He is one of the most eligible and charming bachelors available. What problem have you with the vicar?"
"Oh, none at all. Don't get me wrong-he is quite respectable, if you don't mind how exceedingly tedious, arrogant, and self-righteous he is. But that's a matter of taste, I suppose. No, my dear Miss Lisbon, I maintain that your proposed match is wasted, for he is wildly enamored of another."
She made herself close her eyes and count to ten slowly, as Jane himself had once taught her, lest her temper get the better of her and embarrass them both.
"Whom, may I ask," she ground out over a tight jaw, "do you claim has purloined my vicar?"
Jane chuckled, taking a bite of the flavorful meat. "I must say his choice for a match is rather sound, in that the lady in question is perhaps one of the most admired and beautiful in the country. She comes from a wealthy and prestigious background, and were she not in the habit of running barefoot through a pigsty, she would be a most worthy wife indeed."
Lisbon stared nonplussed at her friend, who continued to consume his mutton in ardent appreciation, his eyes sparkling merrily.
"You are stark-raving mad," she proclaimed when she was able. Her focus involuntarily shot down the table, where she immediately met the admiring gaze of Mr. Wainwright, who, while seemingly in deep conversation with the lady of the house, had barely taken his eyes off of Teresa the entire meal. He smiled brilliantly at her and Teresa flushed, then turned resolutely back to her dinner.
"Sheep dip," she said under her breath as realization slammed into her. "How could I have been so blind?"
"That, Teresa, is why you should leave the matchmaking to the tried and true experts." Catching the eyes of Lord Virgil and his perfectly matched wife, Jane gave his most charming smile and nodded politely to the happy couple, who returned his smile heartily.
"I despise you," said Teresa to Jane, though she was smiling at her father and lovely stepmother affectionately.
"And I you, my dear friend. And I, you."
A/N: I throw this back to the capable hands of waterbaby134. Thanks for reading. I'd love for you to review.