The repast that was prepared for Pemberley’s family and friends was far grander than they could have imagined. Everyone enjoyed the food, with roasted goose, pork pies, partridges, carrots, turnips, potatoes, cheeses, and more. There were many types of biscuits made with many types of jams, which had been provided by the Bennet family. There was syllabub, gooseberry cakes, baked apple pudding, Christmas pudding, and Christmas fruitcake. There were so many dishes of delicious food, no one would leave the table hungry.
“If I eat another bite, I will be as round as the ball Master Edward received this day.” Lord Matlock announced. “I will be unable to do anything for the rest of the day.”
“Henry, you promised to read stories to the children.” Lady Matlock stated. “We will give you an hour to rest, and then we will expect you to be prepared to read to them.”
“I believe it would be best if William or Richard read to them.” Lord Matlock suggested. “If I begin reading, I will most likely fall asleep.”
“You have no one to blame but yourself, Henry. You knew you should not have indulged in that second helping of dessert. If I am not mistaken, you sampled each dish the kitchen brought forth.”
Lord Matlock chuckled. “My dear, you know how much I despise food going to waste.”
“You are a silly man, Henry Fitzwilliam.” Lady Matlock lightly swatted her husband on the arm.
The sound of footsteps hurrying towards the dining room made everyone look towards the doorway. It was not long until Mrs Reynolds entered the room.
“Master William, forgive me, but there are some unexpected guests who just arrived.”
Darcy frowned, his brows nearly connecting. “Who could be here on Christmas? No one else was expected.”
“It is Mr Bingley, his sisters, and the husband of one of his sisters. They are in the foyer.” Mrs Reynolds was nervous.
“I will come to speak with Bingley.” Darcy replied.
As the Master of Pemberley approached his friend, Miss Caroline Bingley stepped forward towards Darcy. “Mr Darcy, Happy Christmas! I told my brother that you would not stand on formality when it comes to close friends, such as we are.” She took hold of Darcy’s arm, clinging to him as if her arms were tentacles.
Bingley showed true signs of regret when he moved to speak with his friend. “Darcy, please forgive our intrusion. Our carriage had damage after suddenly coming in contact with a rather large hole. One of the wheels was ruined, and we stopped in Lambton to have repairs made. Unfortunately, the repairs cannot be done for a few more days, due to the holidays. I insisted we go to the inn, but Caroline had already hired a carriage to bring us here. I pray we have not caused you any inconvenience.”
“Think nothing of it, Bingley. Accidents happen. But why were you traveling on Christmas? I thought your last letter stated you were spending the holidays with your father’s sister, in Scarborough.”
“Yes, well, Caroline and our aunt had a disagreement, and we were forced to leave Scarborough earlier than expected. And there is a storm brewing to the north, coming this direction.”
“As much as we hate to inconvenience you, Mr Darcy, I was certain that you would not wish to see your dearest friends forced to stay in the inn, especially on Christmas. I was telling Louisa how dear a friend you are to our family, and that you are such a generous man. You would never allow us to be forced to remain in a shoddy inn.” Caroline literally purred.
“I believe we have a few spare rooms, though they are on the third floor, near the nursery. My sister and I are hosting relations and friends, so there is very little room left.” Darcy attempted to control his distaste for his friend’s sister. Caroline may have desired Darcy to make her an offer of marriage, but Darcy had no such desires.
The news took Caroline by surprise. “Your relations? Would that include your uncle, the earl?”
“Indeed, he is here with my aunt and cousins.” Darcy announced.
“And friends? You said relations and friends, did you not?”
Darcy nodded his head.
“Then we must know them, as you and Charles are the best of friends. You would only invite your dearest of friends to join you for the holidays.” Caroline was attempting to understand how she and her relations had not been invited, though other friends had been welcomed.
“I doubt you know them, as your brother has been in Scarborough for some weeks.” Darcy was thinking of how to introduce the Bennets and Gardiners. “Please, come in the dining room. There is plenty of food for you to enjoy.”
The mere mention of food won the approval of Louisa’s husband, Mr Gilbert Hurst. Darcy led their way to the dining room, with Caroline still clinging to his arm. Caroline was displeased to see the young ladies sitting at the table. She was further displeased to see one of the young ladies was seated next to Mr Darcy.
Being motioned towards the seat near the far end of the table, Caroline had already made the determination to remain at Pemberley until she could right the situation. It was her goal to be the next Mistress of Pemberley, and no one would be allowed to steal her goal from her.
“Everyone, it appears that we will be joined by the Bingley family. My friend Charles Bingley, his sister Miss Caroline Bingley, his other sister, Mrs Louisa Hurst, and his brother-in-law, Mr Gilbert Hurst. Bingley, Miss Bingley, Mr and Mrs Hurst, allow me to introduce Lord and Lady Matlock, Viscount Lyndon, Colonel Fitzwilliam, Mrs Helen Gardiner, Miss Jane Bennet, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, Miss Katherine Bennet, and, of course, my sister, Miss Georgiana Darcy.”
Once seated, Caroline found herself next to Albert Fitzwilliam, Viscount Lyndon, and facing Kitty Bennet. “Viscount, I do not believe I have met you before. I am familiar with your brother, as he is friends with my brother, Charles.”
“I have heard of your family, Miss Bingley. I am several years senior of my brother and cousin, so have not spent time with your brother.” Albert Fitzwilliam knew that Caroline was a fortune hunter, as he had heard his brother and Darcy discuss the Bingley family. He did not wish to encourage her in conversation, thus turned his attentions towards his mother, who was seated beside him.
Realizing her conversation would go no further with the viscount, Caroline looked to Kitty Bennet. “And you are Miss Bennet?”
“I am Miss Katherine Bennet, though my family and friends call me Kitty. My eldest sister, Jane, is Miss Bennet.”
“You must be longtime friends with the Darcys, to be invited to dine with them on Christmas.” Caroline prodded for more information.
“Not long, though we are close to Mr and Miss Darcy, and the Countess has been very kind to us. We just recently moved to Lambton, and Jane is Miss Darcy’s companion.”
Caroline was flabbergasted. The family of Miss Darcy’s companion were guests to dine with the Darcys and Fitzwilliams? How could such be possible? “You…you are sister to Miss Darcy’s companion? But how did you come to be invited to dine here, and on Christmas no less?”
Kitty was not thinking much on her words as she spoke. “We were invited to stay here, at Pemberley. We arrived yesterday, and are to remain until the day after tomorrow.”
Such news caused Caroline to choke on her drink. The viscount moved away, as Mrs Hurst patted her sister on the back. After a moment, Caroline motioned to her sister that all was well.
“You are staying at Pemberley, as guests?” Caroline looked at Kitty, anger boiling under the surface. It took nearly every ounce of her strength to keep from screaming her displeasure at the situation. “I am surprised that Mr Darcy would have you staying here, as you say you live in Lambton. That is not far from here, if memory serves me.”
“The village is only five miles from here, but Mr Darcy insisted our family remain here. It has been delightful, and the Darcys have been so kind to our family. My cousins have been thrilled to stay here, and the gifts they received from everyone were wonderful.”
“Your cousins?” Caroline frowned.
“Yes, Mrs Gardiner is my aunt. Her children are in the nursery.”
Those words were the last straw for Caroline. She began to rise from her seat, turning towards the head of the table. “Mr Darcy, am I to understand that these friends are the relations of your sister’s paid companion? They reside in the market village of Lambton, yet they are residing under your roof?”
Darcy was displeased. His fury was barely contained as he replied. “Miss Bingley, as they are my invited guests, unlike yourself, they are very welcome to be here. I am grateful to have the Bennets and Gardiners staying with us for Christmas. If this is too difficult for you to accept, I am certain that we can have a tray sent to your room.”
Realizing his sister was near the point of losing all control of her emotions, Bingley stood and walked around the table, taking hold of his sister’s arm. “Come, Caroline, the journey has been long and difficult for you. It would be best for you to retire for the night. We will have a tray sent up to you.”
Caroline struggled for a moment, then realized there was no use remaining in the dining room. She knew she had to plan how to deal with those friends of Darcy’s servant. Finally, she allowed her brother to lead her from the dining room and towards the grand staircase. Mrs Reynolds was nearby, and readily agreed to escort Miss Bingley to her room.
As the two women neared the bedchamber Mrs Reynolds had decided for Miss Bingley, a maid exited a door across the hall. With the door open, the sound of children’s voices could be heard.
“Who are the children in the nursery?” Caroline wished to have confirmation of what she had heard in the dining room.
“The children are the Gardiners. Their mother is Mrs Gardiner, who was in the dining room.” Mrs Reynolds replied.
“Why would Mr Darcy invite them to stay here? It is unbelievable to think of those children, being in the nursery, where Mr Darcy spent his youth. Are the Gardiners wealthy landowners? Where is Mr Gardiner?”
“Pardon me, Miss Bingley, but I do not discuss matters of gossip. Mr Gardiner is deceased, leaving Mrs Gardiner and her children. The family have been the most pleasant guests we have had here in many years.” With that being said, Mrs Reynolds turned to leave. Then she spoke over her shoulder, not wishing to even look at Caroline. “I will have a tray brought up to you. Good night, Miss Bingley.”
~~~~~~~ ** ~~~~~~~
Caroline marched into the bedchamber and flung herself on the bed, staring up at the ceiling of the room. How had everything gone so wrong?
Caroline Bingley was furious. How had all her plans come to nothing? She was certain that Darcy would have been miserable and lonely during the holidays. Remembering back to a discussion she had overheard a couple years previous, Caroline was confused as to how they had come to Pemberley to find so many people being guests.
Caroline had crept through the passageway, towards the hidden door that led to her brother’s study in his townhouse in London. Having used the passageway previously, she was able to quickly make her way to eavesdrop once again on her brother’s conversation. She knew that Fitzwilliam Darcy was in the study, and wished to know more about the man. Her desire was to learn how to win his hand in marriage, thus making her one of the most important ladies in England.
“Charles, I envy your plans to be with family for the holidays. Since my father’s death, it is usually Georgiana and myself in our huge, lonely house at Pemberley. We enjoy Boxing Day, and handing out the gifts to the servants and tenants. The children, when they receive even the smallest gift, are such a delight to watch.”
“I have always enjoyed watching children during the holidays. We had a Dutch cook when I was younger. She always spoke of Sinterklass, which was like our Father Christmas. She would make many sweets, and give them out to the servants for their children. One year, we had all the servants bring their children on Boxing Day, and it was such a pleasure to see the children when they saw the treats they were to receive. That was the year before my mother died. Mother was fond of children, and it had been her request to have the children brought to the townhouse to receive their treats.”
“My mother died when Georgiana was just a babe, and after Mother’s death, Father did not wish to celebrate. His mourning was so strong, he could not bring himself to enjoy his children. So we were left to our own celebration. I made certain that Georgiana was given gifts, and that the house was decorated appropriately. But I am just an older brother, not her parent, and though she never spoke of being disappointed with our father, I am sure she was.”
“Your mother’s family celebrated with you, did they not?”
Darcy took a sip from his glass before responding. “They did. Richard always made sure that he was with me on Christmas Day, which was a blessing. His parents tried to spend the holidays with us, though Father did not wish to have guests at the house, so it depended upon the weather if Aunt and Uncle were able to visit.”
“I pray that one day you will have your wish, having a family with which to share the holidays. A wife and children gathered around a fire, celebrating together, sounds delightful to me.” Bingley smiled. “Well, on to other matters. I have some questions on the subject of owning an estate.”
“You are finally ready to follow through on your father’s dream?” Darcy smiled. Bingley’s wealth had come from trade, which was barely tolerated amongst the ton. Bingley’s father had built his empire in the mills of Scarborough, but died before he had accumulated enough to reach his goal of becoming a member of the landed gentry.
“My aunt wrote to me about the mills, and that her cousin wished to purchase them from us. If I was to accept his offer for the mills, I cannot see anything blocking my way forward in becoming a country gentleman, such as yourself.”
Darcy thought for a moment before replying. “You realize that country life is far less lively than city life. Would your sister not wish to remain in Town?”
“I have been thinking on that matter. Perhaps it is time she had an establishment made for her. I do not wish to be cruel, but she is unbearable with which to live. And Louisa and Hurst are not much help when it comes to distancing myself from Caroline. If only she would accept an offer of marriage, but she is determined to have you for a spouse.”
Choking on his drink, Darcy spilled part of the liquid on his clothing. Bingley quickly rang for a servant to bring toweling, though Darcy declined the offer, stating his desire to return to his home. Caroline was determined to find a way to spend the holidays with the one man who could make all her dreams come true. She must find a way to spend Christmas with Fitzwilliam Darcy at his estate. If he could see her filling the emptiness he felt during the holiday season, surely he would wish for her to become his wife.
It had taken her two years to find a way to be at Pemberley for Christmas, but she was finally fulfilling her dream. How was she ever to rid the estate of the interlopers? She knew it would be difficult, but the sooner she rid Pemberley of the Bennet sisters and their relations, the better it would be for her. But she would need to know more of the family, and their connection to the Darcys, besides the one being a paid companion to Miss Darcy. Caroline was eager to speak with her sister, as she prayed Louisa had the sense to learn more of the young ladies.
~~ ** ~~
Louisa Hurst was shocked as she listened to the conversation at the dining table. Mrs Gardiner was the wife of a tradesman, the daughter of one as well. And she was opening the tea shop in the village of Lambton, with her nieces. How had these people come to be guests of Pemberley?
Knowing Caroline would wish her to learn as much as possible about the Bennets and Gardiners, Louisa listened to everything. It was clear that Lady Matlock was impressed by the young ladies, especially Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Why would the Countess of Matlock wish further connections with those of tradesman’s class? There had to be more to the story.
As the women left the men to their cigars and brandy, Louisa trailed behind the others. She listened carefully, hoping for someone to say something of why they were so close.
Entering the drawing room, Louisa overheard the dreaded news. Lady Matlock took Elizabeth’s hand and gently placed it on her forearm. “My dear girl, we will need to speak with the seamstress in Lambton. You will need more gowns made, especially for the harsher weather we have here. And you will be consorting with a completely different circle of society to which you are accustomed. There will be many who will wish for you to be thwarted, as my nephew is highly sought after. Wealth, his own estate, and handsome, most ladies have been praying for a connection to him for years.”
“We are only courting, Lady Matlock. Surely society will allow us to have time to know each other better. After all, we are in the country, not in Town.” Elizabeth replied.
“Lizzy, Lady Matlock is correct. Men such as Fitzwilliam Darcy come around rarely. He is considered one of the biggest catches in England. Fortunately, he wishes to have a marriage of mutual affection, not one of convenience.”
Kitty leaned towards her eldest sister. “And Jane, did you not see how Mr Bingley looked at you throughout the meal? I believe he finds you beautiful.”
“Hush Kitty.” Jane said, looking towards Louisa. “You must not say such things.”
“My brother is easily swayed by a pretty face, Miss Bennet. He falls in and out of love frequently.” Louisa wished to stem any ideas of the Bennets might have for a connection with Charles. Caroline was adamant that their brother should marry Georgiana Darcy, bringing the families closer. It was Caroline’s belief that Darcy would see his sister happily situated with his close friend, and offer for Caroline’s hand.
“Forgive my sister, Mrs. Hurst.” Jane spoke as she gave Kitty a pointed look. “Our family has had many struggles over the past year, and it is one of the first times we have allowed frivolity to roam freely.”
Georgiana looked at her companion. “I believe Mr Bingley was attracted to you, Jane. He would be a good match for you, as he is amiable and kind, just as you.”
Louisa wished to change the subject. “As I said, my brother falls in and out of love frequently. When he weds, Caroline and I pray he will marry a young lady of the ton, as our parents wished.”
“You would not wish for your brother to wed for love?” Lady Matlock inquired.
“As you well know, your ladyship, love is not important in higher society. My own marriage, to the heir of Wendleton, has elevated our standing. In our society, marriage is a business transaction, nothing more.”
“I beg to differ, Mrs Hurst.” Lady Matlock replied. “I had a choice when I was a young lady. I could marry a young man who was heir to a dukedom, who was wealthy, and would have been quite a boon to my family, or I could marry Henry Fitzwilliam, the Earl of Matlock. I knew both of the men, and while the future duke was far wealthier than Henry, and I would have been a duchess, I did not like the man. He was tedious and condescending, and I would have been miserable. Henry was a good man, and I had known him for several years, as he attended university with my brother, Joseph. Henry is the love of my life, and I would not trade him for any other man. He has seen me through good times and bad, and been my rock when I have needed him to be strong. No, I believe that not all in the ton look at marriage to be a business transaction. Look at Georgiana’s parents. Anne Darcy could have married any young man, had a title and greater wealth, but Anne loved Gerard Darcy. She did not wish to marry any other man.”
Louisa knew she should keep silent, but she just could not do so. “You would never allow your nephew to marry someone of such an inferior society as the relations of a tradesman. It is such a silly notion.”
“Forgive me, Mrs Hurst, but you know not what you are speaking. If you have surmised my intention to support my nephew’s choice of Miss Elizabeth to be his wife, you are correct. But Miss Elizabeth Bennet is the daughter of a gentleman, and her father’s estate was passed down through the generations, for more than two hundred years. That ranks the Bennet sisters as higher society than yours, being the daughter of a tradesman.”
The men were just entering the drawing room as Louisa Hurst lost all her ability to control her tongue. “Lady Matlock, your nephew would be far better off marrying my sister, as Caroline has been taught how to be a member of the society to which Mr Darcy is accustomed. My sister is the perfect lady to serve as Mistress of Pemberley and Darcy House, as she knows how to behave properly. A better hostess you will not find.”
Gilbert Hurst was shocked at his wife’s behavior. How could she speak so to a countess? Had Louisa gone mad? He quickly moved to his wife’s side, taking hold of her arm, and tugging her towards the door. “Louisa, that is enough. I will speak with you upstairs.”
Bingley had also become flabbergasted by his sister’s behavior. Had it been Caroline, Bingley would not have been surprised, but he had always believed Louisa to have far better manners than their younger sister. As Hurst led his wife from the room, Bingley was disappointed with both of his sisters.
“Darcy, please forgive my sisters. I cannot, for the life of me, understand what has gotten into them. Lady Matlock, ladies, please accept my apologies. My sister must be distraught or ill.”
Lady Matlock shook her head. “Mr Bingley, I hold none of this against you. You have been kind and caring, and a good friend to my son, as well as my nephew.”
“Might I inquire as to what was said, before my sister behaved so poorly?”
Mrs Gardiner replied. “Mr Darcy is courting my niece. Mrs Hurst believed it to be an imprudent match, stating your other sister more qualified.”
Bingley’s expression became one of disappointment, as he looked across the room towards Jane Bennet. He had instantly become attracted to the young lady, and had assumed Mrs Gardiner spoke of the eldest.
Noticing his friend’s spirits had been dampened, Darcy slapped Bingley on the shoulder. “Charles Bingley, I should like to introduce you to the young lady I am courting, Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
~~~~~~~ ** ~~~~~~~
Ah, Caroline, Caroline, Caroline. And Louisa exposing herself, too. Looking forward to more!