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It Only Stands to Reason
"I do not see how you can disagree, Fitzwilliam." Lady Catherine bounced down on the overstuffed chair and folded her hands in her lap. Her features settled into well-worn creases, lips pressed tight, eyes narrowed and staring down her nose. She settled her shoulders into the soft cushion.
Fitzwilliam Darcy sighed. When his mother-in-law wore that expression, only a fool would attempt to argue.
"Why, if my dearest Anne were still with us, she would agree—"
"With what would she agree?" Richard Fitzwilliam poked his head in the doorway.
Darcy jumped and wrenched around in his seat. "I swear you will drive me barking mad if you do not stop doing that!"
"Doing what?" Richard sauntered into the room. His heavy boots barely whispered against the carpet.
"Sneaking up on me! I swear one day I will—." Darcy rose and crossed his arms.
"Balderdash!" Richard smirked. "You would do no such thing, and even if you did, you would stand no chance—."
"Yes, yes, I know, against a retired colonel of His Majesty's army. I know. You have said it only a hundred times." Darcy pinched the bridge of his nose.
Richard chuckled and dropped onto the settee, stretching out his long legs. "You are just unhappy that George and David have learned from their uncle, the hero. What have they done this time?"
"He spilled the inkpot all over his desk and his precious papers when the boys snuck up on him." Lady Catherine leaned forward. "Really, Richard, I do not think you should be teaching my grandsons—"
"They are boys, madam, and if I have anything to say about it, they will be permitted to act like boys." Richard crossed his ankles and his arms, leaning deeply into the corner of the settee.
"Your Lady Mother never—."
"No, she did not, and I vowed never to see the same inflicted upon any boy in my influence. In fact, I think it is high time I taught them to fence." Richard grinned and winked at Darcy.
She groaned and pinched her temples.
"So then, Aunt, what is it you insist Anne would agree with you about?"
Darcy grumbled and sank back into his chair.
"Yes, that is right." She sat up a little straighter. "I am sure you will agree with me as well. After all, it only stands to reason—"
"No, madam, it does not." Darcy leaned toward her and braced his hands on the arms of his chair.
"What stands to reason?" Richard licked his lips.
"A widower in possession of children and an estate—."
"And a good fortune," Darcy muttered under his breath.
"Well, of course, a good fortune, that goes without saying." Lady Catherine's lips wrinkled into a peculiar little frown.
"What about such a gentleman?" Richard stroked his jaw with his knuckles. The corners of his lips twitched.
"Well, he must be in want of a wife, of course." Lady Catherine sprang from her seat and wandered to the large picture window on the far side of the room. "A retired admiral of the White, a Rear Admiral Thomas Bennet, a widower with four children, two daughters and two sons—"
"And five thousand a year," Darcy snorted. He glanced at Richard and rolled his eyes.
Lady Catherine shot him a look certain to sour milk. She turned her shoulder to Darcy and looked at Richard. "He has purchased Alston Hall. I am told he will move in this week."
"Ah, so that was the to-do I saw on the road today," Richard said.
"You saw him?" Lady Catherine rushed to the settee and looked over the back at Richard.
"Indeed, I have. Spoke with him myself. Seems a most amiable gentleman, for a sailor that is." Richard turned to stare at Darcy with a raised eyebrow. "Though I know you do not approve of the navy, something about it bringing people of obscure birth into positions they do not deserve."
Darcy huffed and muttered something untoward under his breath. Richard never was one to forget any comment he could use out of context.
"What a very fine thing for our family." She clapped her hands softly and turned to Darcy. "You must visit him, of course,as soon as can be arranged."
"How is this a fine thing for our family?"
"You must think of the boys and Georgiana. Your sister pines for the company of other young women, and you yourself have complained how there are none in the neighborhood fit for her to keep company with, and here this Bennet fellow has two daughters. Your boys are desperately in need of playmates their age to go do…,well, boy-things with, and now two are come into the neighborhood."
"And how, madam," Darcy pulled himself up from his seat, "precisely do you know that any of this family are fitting company for the Darcys? For all you know, this admiral could be a shopkeeper's son with tawdry morals and a mouth like…like a sailor."
"You are simply impossible, Fitzwilliam. I do not know what has come over you. You will go and visit our new neighbor, or, I swear to you, I will do so myself without you." She harrumphed and stomped out of the room.
Both men stared after her.
"She was right about one thing," Richard said. "What has come over you?"
Darcy blew out a deep breath and dropped back into his seat. "I have already met the man."
"I believe it was shortly after you encountered him. George and I were riding and encountered their coach stuck in the mud. We helped them loosen it and gave him directions to his estate on roads more passable."
"And I found him a very amiable gentlemen. Both his sons were well-mannered youngsters who will make excellent playmates for George and David." Darcy sighed.
"So then why the kerfluffle you just created with…?" Richard glanced toward the doorway.
"He still grieves his esteemed wife. He lost her and a daughter in that flu outbreak last winter. He does not deserve the machinations of my mother-in-law." Darcy raked his hair. He could hardly think of any man who deserved the dedicated attentions that a well-born and once wealthy widow might afford him.
"And his daughters? Are they pretty?" Richard wagged his eyebrows. "What of their dowries?"
"I do not know. I did not meet them," Darcy grumbled under his breath. "Besides, I do not believe, 'Hello, I am pleased to meet you. Are your daughters suitably attractive, or do their dowries make up for their facial deformities?' is considered a polite way to make an introduction, even here in the wilds of Derbyshire."
"How could you fail to assess the—?"
"Enough, Richard, enough. You will be able to see for yourself soon enough."
"So you are going to visit them?" Richard guffawed and slapped the pillow beside him.
"No." Darcy pushed himself up and strode toward the window. "Alston Hall has been closed down for some time. It would take a full staff two weeks at least to make the place livable. Their housekeeper stayed with their former residence. They only brought two man servants, a governess, a maid, a driver and a groom with them."
"So, I invited them to stay at Pemberley. Mrs. Reynolds and Mr. Wickham can help them hire a proper staff."
"You did what?" Richard sprang out of his seat and in two strides was at Darcy's side.
"They did not accept the invitation yet. But after they have visited Alston Hall, I am certain they will come on to Pemberley."
"You invited them to stay? Here? A stranger and a sailor no less?" He craned his neck around to try to catch Darcy's eye. "What has come over you? You are not a great lover of company, particularly that of strangers."
Darcy turned his head toward the window. A young shepherd drove a small flock of lambs along a nearby path. "We have both read of his exploits, his pedigree and his reputation. To call him a stranger is hardly fitting." He shrugged and snuck a quick glance at Richard. "Besides, he reminded me of Father."
Richard shook his head. "I'll be damned." He chuckled. "I'll go let Mrs. Reynolds know to expect company. I think Aunt Catherine could use a surprise though."
"Are we almost there?" Francis Bennet clambered over his father's lap and pressed his nose against the side glass. "You said we would be there before supper time. I'm hungry."
Elizabeth stretched across the coach, reaching for his arm, but he squirmed out of her reach. It was high time that Francis learned not to speak every thought that crossed his mind.
"No 'Lisbet! I want to see!" He bounced on his father's knee.
Bennet grimaced and caught him around the ribs, lifting him slightly off his lap.
"Come here." Jane caught his hand and pulled him toward her. "You know Papa's leg pains him."
The little boy looked down at his hands and shuffled his feet. "I am sorry, Papa."
Admiral Thomas Benet nodded and ruffled the boy's hair.
Francis lurched across the coach, stumbled and fell into his identical twin's shoulder. "Oh, oh! I see it, I see it!"
"Look, Papa." Philip tapped the glass. "It must be Alston Hall. It is just as you described. See the gables and look—look there's the turret. Might that room be ours, Papa?"
"We shall see." Bennet kneaded his thigh.
Philip slid away from the window until he was pressed against his father's side. "It is just as grand as Papa said, isn't it Jane?"
"Why not sit beside Jane so you can get a better look." Admiral Bennet gave him a gentle push across the coach.
Jane caught him and settled him into the seat beside her, her arm laid over his shoulder.
"I think it looks horrid." Francis crossed his arms and scowled. "I still do not see why we had to leave Longbourn. I liked it there, and you said we would not have to move again." He stuck out his bottom lip.
"That is enough!" Elizabeth hissed and glanced toward her father.
His brows knotted and ground his teeth. "We left because my nip farthing, ninnyhammer brother, Collins, insisted on installing his worthless son and his French wife in water colours* there."
"He wanted to bring a painting to Longborn?" Phillips asked, huddling close to Jane. "We could have stayed, and let him hang the painting."
Admiral Bennet harrumphed and shook his head.
"It is a little more complicated than that, dear." Jane patted his shoulder.
"Bloody, rank, white livered…"
Elizabeth caught his eye and scowled.
Bennet grumbled again. "Giving us less than a month to leave was not the action of an honorable man."
Elizabeth laid her arm on his hand. "Let it go. You always say a man should be master of his own ship, on land or on sea. Now that Alston Hall is yours, you are once again master. You were never happy at Longbourn with the spectre of Uncle Collins hanging over your head."
His expression softened and melted into a smile. "My voice of reason." He patted her hand. "Using my very own words against me, no less, clever lass."
"I still think—."
"Francis!" Jane and Elizabeth cried in unison.
The coach slowed as it trundled up the gravel lane to the front of the great house. The pale stone elevation with great dark windows glowered down at them, daring them to approach.
"Let us see if she floats." Admiral Bennet pushed the door open before the coach came to a complete stop. He jumped down, grimaced and clutched his knee. The boys bounded out after him. The girls waited for the coach to come to a proper halt. By that time, though, their father was long gone.
Mr. Piper handed them out and offered them his arms on the way up the steps. Frightening scars puckered the old sailor-turned-valet's face and his eyepatch lent him a menacing air that he cultivated at every turn. All the Bennets knew better. He had been with Admiral Bennet for as long as the girls could remember. The two men had saved each other's lives so many times, neither of them kept count any longer.
Mrs. Hill, their longtime housekeeper, and Miss Iola Wexley, the boys' long-suffering governess, met them at the front door.
"Permission to come aboard, Cap'n?" Mr. Piper saluted and winked. Squeezing his good eye shut drew his cheek and lip in something that looked like a snarl.
The boys saluted and laughed.
"Permission granted." Admiral Bennet turned the doorknob hard. It creaked as the door inched open. The hinges groaned and squealed in protest. He took his sons' hands and stepped over the threshold. The rest followed.
Elizabeth sniffed the stale air, musty and dusty in her nostrils. Jane sneezed twice.
"At least they kept the furniture properly covered," Mrs. Hill muttered. "I best go find the kitchen." She trundled off.
Elizabeth bit back her giggle. Mrs. Hill was the only one who dared wander off without awaiting the Admiral's orders. He gave her a wider berth than anyone else on his staff, even Piper. No one wanted to raise the sturdy woman's ire.
"Miss Wexley, take a turn about the servants' rooms. No use bringing in a staff if the place isn't fit to house them." Bennet turned to Piper. "Take the boys and reconnoiter the west wing. Perhaps you can find a school room and nursery there."
The boys groaned.
"Yes, sir." Piper saluted. Francis and Philip mimicked him and followed him upstairs.
Elizabeth cleared her throat.
"Ah, Lizzy, do not say it, not yet. Go look through the house first. You and Jane take the west wing. I will survey downstairs and send the grooms to the barns. I trust you will find the house meets your standards yet."
She sighed and nodded. Jane at her side, she trudged toward the stairs.
"It is a lovely house, is it not?" Jane whispered with a backward glance at their father.
"The architecture is beautiful, I fully grant you that." Elizabeth clutched the stair rail in one hand and her skirts in the other. "But that truly has little to do with whether it is currently livable."
"The roof and the windows appear sound." Jane offered a pressed-lip smile and a lift of her brows.
"A fine beginning, indeed." Elizabeth landed her foot on the final step a little more loudly than strictly necessary. "If you are correct, I am grateful. But it is not enough." She led Jane into the east wing.
The hall stretched on and on, nearly disappearing into the horizon. A chill wind whistled and moaned past them.
"My goodness." Jane rubbed her arms briskly. "This is a very grand place, indeed."
Elizabeth shrugged and wrenched open the first door they came to. "These look like family quarters."
They stepped inside. Elizabeth pulled the dusty sheets off the press in the corner. When she yanked open a drawer, a moth flew out. She frowned, pulled out a pile of unevenly folded linen, and pressed it to her face. "Musty," she grumbled under her breath. "Everything will have to be washed before it can be used. And much of it will probably need mending too." She wrinkled her nose.
Jane wandered to the bed and pulled back the dust covers to reveal an elegantly carved frame. When she sat down, the mattress caved in and swallowed her. Jane yelped.
Elizabeth ran and pulled her out of the sagging bed. "That will need some work too."
"Perhaps we should rig some hammocks between the bed posts." Jane giggled.
"I have no doubt Piper still sleeps in one. He probably has several." Elizabeth winked and beckoned Jane to the next room.
Half an hour later they met back in the foyer.
"There is neither coal nor firewood to be found in storage." Mrs. Hill shook her head, "and if you be askin' me, it be far too early in the spring to be without the option of a good fire, not to mention the cooking fires." She harrumphed.
"There is no bedroom fit to occupy right now." Elizabeth crossed her arms firmly and leveled a stern gaze at her father. "We have no choice. We must take Mr. Darcy up on his offer of hospitality—"
"No. I will arrange rooms at the Bull in Lambton. I stayed there when I came to see the place in—."
"Mr. Darcy said there had been a fire at the inn and repairs were not complete. They only have three rooms to let and have no vacancies currently." Elizabeth tapped her foot softly on the dusty marble floor.
Elizabeth grabbed his hand and pulled him aside. "Jane and Philip are still weak. Remember what the doctor said. They have not fully recovered from the influenza last fall. It is not safe for them to stay in all this cold and draft without even a proper bed. We cannot risk their health."
He grimaced. "You are right. I do not like it; however, we have little choice but to impose on our neighbor's hospitality. I will send the groom on ahead."
A quarter of an hour later, two carriages, laden with trunks, headed for their nearest neighbors on Pemberley estate.
*A mistress, or concubine; water colours being, like their engagements, easily effaced, or dissolved.