“How did you enjoy the guests we entertained today, Miss Elizabeth?” Darcy inquired as they sat on the sofa in the sitting room connected to Georgiana’s bedchamber.
“I was pleased to see how generous you were to each family. Everyone received the same basics items, but you made sure there was something special for each of the family members. Be it socks for the men, a toy for each of the children, thread and needles for one of the mothers, sheet music for one of the young ladies who has been practicing playing the pianoforte at the church. Everyone felt appreciated and that you cared.”
“All of my life, I have respected the fact that, without the tenants, staff, and servants, Pemberley and Darcy House would not function as they do now. If I expect hard work and dedication, I must lead by example.”
Elizabeth smiled. “That is the way all masters should look at life. Unfortunately, you are a rare gem in a pile of ordinary stones.”
“How did your father run Longbourn?”
“He was not as generous as you were today, though it was due to Longbourn being smaller and the income was not as grand as what I expect Pemberley enjoys. But my father was a kind man, and believed much the same as you. Those of upper class could not function if they had to do all the work themselves, so it is wise to appreciate those who make their lives easier.”
“You were taught a valuable lesson, Miss Elizabeth. Now, let us discuss your family returning to Lambton tonight. You know there is no need to do so, you are welcome to remain here.”
Lightly chuckling, Elizabeth shook her head. “No, Mr Darcy, if we remain here, you will never be rid of my family.”
“There is no reason they would have to move elsewhere. As is obvious, there is plenty of room here for your sisters, your aunt, and cousins. And, if they choose to live in a separate house, the dower house has not been used in some years. It could be made livable in short order.”
“Mr Darcy, you make the offer so tempting. But it would not be appropriate for us to remain here longer. I have agreed to you courting me, but I still worry what will happen when you grow tired of me.”
Darcy lifted one of her hands to his lips. “My dearest, loveliest Elizabeth, there will never come a time that I tire of being with you. Can you not see my devotion to you? Can you not see how dear you are to me?”
Tears began to well in Elizabeth’s eyes. “After all we have endured over the past months, I do not dare to dream of the future. If I did, when reality returned, I would not be able to function. As much as I wish to have a future with you, it is a fairytale. No one could feel so loved and treasured as I do when I am with you.”
“Allow yourself to feel treasured. It is not a fleeting fancy, it is a true and devoted love, one that will last a lifetime. I do not wish to see you suffer for another day, dearest. You wished for time to know me better, and I will give you all the time you desire. But I can tell you, my feelings will never diminish, they will only grow stronger with each day that passes. I have never met any lady like you. Beautiful, even when you are dressed as a young man. It is a beauty that shines in you. You are intelligent, caring, devoted, loving, and wise. Why would I not wish to spend the rest of my life at your side?”
“Lord and Lady Matlock may have accepted us, and your cousins also have no difficulty with my family, but what of the rest of society? I could not bear to have you ridiculed and tormented for choosing me. We will not meet with what is deemed proper in society.” Elizabeth looked into the eyes of the man who loved her. She felt as if she could see, clear to his very soul, the devotion he felt for her. Knowing her arguments were lame, she was not certain why she truly had fought against his desire to make her his wife. All she could think was that it was a fairytale. And fairytales did not come true for people such as Elizabeth Bennet, formerly of Longbourn. But his eyes pleaded with her, begged her to relent, asking her to take a chance.
“I care not for the opinions of others. I care only for my own happiness, and the happiness of those who are near and dear to me. Please, Elizabeth, allow me to prove to you how dear you are to me.”
Elizabeth reached her hand to cup the side of his face. “I know you care, M…Mr Darcy, but I need time. Please, allow me the time to know you better. I need to find the courage I once had, before I lost my loved ones, before I pretended to be a man. Perhaps, by Twelfth Night, I will be able to answer you better. But know this, my heart has cared for you far longer than I care to admit. You are very dear to me.”
~~ ** ~~
Darcy and Georgiana stood at the base of the stairway outside their front door, waving as the carriage pulled away from them. Both were sad to see the Bennets and Gardiners leave, as they wished the ladies and children would remain at Pemberley.
Mrs Gardiner had claimed they needed to finish unpacking their home and business, especially if they planned to open the tea shop in just a few days. Though Darcy and Georgiana had done much of the organization prior to the family arriving from Town, there was still much to accomplish before their grand opening. And Mrs Gardiner wished to have her children in their new home, surrounded with furnishings and such that they had known all their lives. As grateful as she was to the Darcy and Fitzwilliam families, she found the thought of being surrounded by her personal belongings to be a comfort.
After their guests had left, Darcy and Georgiana returned to the sitting room, where their relations and Bingley remained.
“Bingley, I am surprised you decided to remain here, as your relations and Miss Bennet are to be in Lambton.” Richard stated, teasing his friend.
“I did not wish to make it appear that I was overanxious to spend time with Miss Bennet. It would have delighted me for her to remain here, with Miss Darcy, but I understand her desire to assist her family in preparing for their opening. I will be sure to be one of the first people to enter their shop at their grand opening.” Bingley smiled.
“You will have to wait your turn, Mr Bingley.” Lady Matlock stated. “I will be their first customer in their new establishment.”
Darcy chuckled. “You have already placed your order, Aunt, and you expect to be first in line?”
“Of course, as I wish for everyone to know of their quality. I plan to send all of my friends to Gardiner’s Tea Emporium.”
Lord Matlock slapped his sons’ on their backs. “Well, there goes your inheritance, boys. Your mother will have spent it all at Gardiner’s Tea Emporium. Perhaps you should both inquire if there would be jobs there, so you can earn some of your mother’s spending back for Matlock.”
Everyone laughed at Lord Matlock’s jest. They also knew how lonesome it was in just the short time it had been since the ladies and children left in their carriage for Lambton.
“William, I wished to speak with you on the new crop rotation you were planning to implement this coming spring.” Viscount Lyndon said. “Father was attempting to tell me, but you know his memory.”
“Come, let us not bore the ladies with such talk. Come to my study, and I can show you the plan we have drawn up.”
With the men removed from the room, Georgiana sat next to her aunt. Having never known her mother, Georgiana had always felt close to her Aunt Rebecca. It was a blessing for both of them, as Rebecca had never had a daughter, and was able to indulge a mother’s need for a daughter.
“Well, since Miss Bennet will be away from here for the next few days, it is up to me to see that you continue your lessons.”
“Aunt Rebecca, you know very well that Miss Bennet and my brother decided I could have a break from lessons until Miss Bennet returns next week.” Georgiana whined.
“But what of your music? I wish to hear you play the pianoforte, as it brings me such comfort.”
“I will practice the pianoforte, but I will not do history lessons or mathematics. Those subjects can wait until next week.” Georgiana conceded. “Do you think Miss Elizabeth will marry William?”
“How do you feel about the two of them?” Lady Matlock inquired. They had only briefly discussed the possibility.
“I would love to have Elizabeth be my sister. It would also make Jane and Kitty my sisters. William is wonderful, but he is a man. He cannot understand a woman’s heart, not like they can.”
“I can understand your logic. And I agree, your brother and Richard have done a wonderful job seeing to your needs, but there are times they are not able to assist you, as they are men.”
“You should have had a daughter, Aunt Rebecca. You are surrounded by men, and it would have been nice if you had had a daughter.”
Lady Matlock smiled and leaned over to place a kiss on her niece’s head. “I have you, my dear girl. And, as Lady Anne was one of my dearest friends, I am pleased to be a mother figure for you.”
“I am grateful for your love, Aunt. I would have been devastated if you had been anything like Aunt Catherine. She scares me horribly. And to think, William wished for us to visit Rosings several weeks ago.”
Lady Matlock was surprised. “He said nothing to me. When was it that he wished to go to Catherine and Anne?”
“It was a few weeks past. Before he received word that Mr Collins had returned to Hunsford Parish. Brother was pleased with receiving Aunt Catherine’s letter, but he seemed happier by the words of Mr Collins more than the fact that we would not need to make the journey immediately.”
Lady Matlock had never learned exactly what had happened for William to realize Elizabeth and Elijah were one in the same. Now it all made sense. Mr Collins was the heir to the Bennet family’s estate in Hertfordshire. With information about the man, his family and happenings to most of the members, it would have been simple for William to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
“I am pleased to know you did not have to journey to Rosings, as it might have delayed your being here for Christmas. And I am well aware that Christmas is not a holiday you ever wish to share with Catherine. Or with Anne, for that matter.”
“Why do we not make our way to the music room? I will allow you to choose the music you wish for me to practice.” Georgiana placed a gentle kiss on her aunt’s cheek then rose from the sofa. Lady Matlock nodded her head, following her niece from the room.
Yes, it had been a wonderful Christmas. With hope in her heart, Lady Matlock gave a silent prayer that the next Christmas would see William and Elizabeth married, and perhaps a child of their own on the way.
~~~~~~~ ** ~~~~~~~
Elizabeth and Kitty had fallen asleep on the bed that was in what was to be Kitty’s room. They had carried items from the living quarters into the shop for what seemed to be hours. Their personal belongings were still primarily in the living quarters behind the shop, but the sisters had wished to paint the apartment above the shop prior to moving their belongings inside. They had placed an order for the paint and supplies before they went to Pemberley for the holiday.
Both of the sisters were excited, as they had enough funds to decorate their apartment above the shop. It would be the first time for them to be on their own, even though they were near enough to where their aunt and cousins would be living. The young ladies had purchased some fabric the week before, fabric they were planning to use for curtains. Elizabeth had chosen a lavender fabric with small pink roses scattered. Kitty had picked her favorite color of mint green, with darker green along the base. She planned to make tie backs for the curtains from some darker green, and even stitch some flowers along the base of the curtains.
They had both decided on cream colored paint for the walls of their apartment and were excited to begin decorating their new home. Kitty, Jane, and Mrs Gardiner had gone together to order a desk made for Elizabeth, though it was not expected to arrive until after the New Year. The ladies were thrilled to purchase such an item for Elizabeth, as a gift for all she had done and sacrificed for her family.
Once all the shop inventory was placed in the dining area, the sisters organized what items were to be placed where in the shop. Kitty was busy setting up her kitchen to be ready for her to begin baking over the following days. They would not have a lot of time until their opening day, and Kitty wished to be used to her new surroundings before she baked for the grand opening.
The family all enjoyed a light repast of cold meats and cheese, some jam tarts, and some lemonade, all which had been sent with them when they left Pemberley. Mrs. Reynolds knew how much work they would have before the opening, and she made certain to give them one less chore to worry about, sending enough food to tide the family over until New Years.
Jane had been with her sisters, giving her opinion on the way to set up the displays. Rather than sleep on the floor in her sister’s room above the shop, Jane elected to sleep with her youngest cousin, as Julia wished for just one more story read to her. The one more story became three by the time the child finally fell asleep, with Jane following close behind.
Edward Gardiner fell asleep on his mother’s bed, and Mrs. Gardiner had no desire to disturb his peace, so she laid beside him on the bed, with Martha on the other side of Edward. It was a cozy example of family life, and would have been idyllic if it were not for one person.
And that person had slipped from her room in the inn, carefully so as not to wake her guards. Unfortunately, Caroline’s window had a trellis along the south side. She was able to climb down and make her way across the street, undetected by all the people slumbering in the small market village.
Unaware that the Bennets and Gardiners had returned to their shop and living quarters, Caroline wish to destroy their business before they could begin. In Caroline’s mind, if they could not make a living, the Bennets and Gardiners would have to move somewhere far away from Pemberley, and far from Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Having learned in her youth how to pick locks on doors, Caroline was soon inside the Tea Emporium. She sneered at all the boxes and crates which were piled in several areas of the business. Picking up a lid from one of the boxes, she found teas and small boxes which appeared to contain packaging materials. Caroline piled the paper and wood in the center of the room, then struck a match. The fire started small, in the middle of the dining parlor of the Emporium. At first, it was slow burning. Picking up items from the top of the counter, Caroline threw them on the pile.
“Kitty, I am certain I heard something.” A voice was heard from the top of the stairway. Caroline heard footsteps, and she panicked at being caught. She spied an oil lamp and rushed across the room, picking it up, and throwing it on the pile, causing the flames to burst forth.
As the flames grew rapidly, it cut Caroline from exiting out the front door. She had no option but to flee through the back, even though it meant confronting the people she could hear, as they came from the back of the shop.
Elizabeth spied the flames and rushed forward. Picking up a towel she had used earlier in the evening, she began beating the flames, while Kitty stood in shock, unable to move, until Caroline Bingley attempted to push the younger lady out of her way.
“Miss Bingley, what are you doing here? What have you done?”
Caroline had no intension of being caught. Struggling to break the hold that Kitty had on her arm. “Let me go. I insist you let go of my arm.”
“What are you doing here? Did you start a fire?” Kitty could see the flames that had now grown quickly. Nothing Elizabeth did slowed the flames from hungrily consuming anything it could. The flames were climbing the walls and spread to the ceiling.
Elizabeth still attempted to beat the flames down, though she knew it was futile. Their inventory was lost, and so was the shop. But she was determined not to lose everything her family had left.
“Kitty, we need help. Go outside and cry for help. We must protect the residence, Aunt Helen and the children, we must protect them.”
“Lizzy, come with me. You cannot do anything more, we must leave.” Kitty said, tears streaming down her cheeks. All the while, she continued her hold on Caroline, refusing to let go. “Lizzy, we must leave. I have Miss Bingley, she started the fire.”
“I did not.” Shouted Caroline. “I was outside for some fresh air, when I saw a fire starting. I came in the shop to put the fire out.”
“You are responsible, admit the truth.” Kitty argued. “I will keep you in here until you tell us the truth.”
“Kitty, take Miss Bingley with you. I have to keep fighting the fire, we cannot lose everything.”
Kitty could hear voices coming from outside. She called out, pleading for assistance. By this point, the fire was close to consuming the entire shop and Kitty was certain that it was upstairs as well. They would be fortunate to survive with the clothes on their backs. Once again, their lives would be shattered by fire. This was all they had left, how could it be that they would lose what little they had.
Two men entered the shop, calling out for anyone inside. One was Mr Hurst, the other was a footman from Pemberley.
“Is anyone in here?” Hurst called out. “Is anyone in here?”
“Over here…we are over here..” Kitty replied. The men could not make their way past the fire by the front door, so they called they would go to the back door. “Lizzy, we must leave, immediately, or we will be killed in the fire. Please, Lizzy, come with me.”
Hearing cries coming from the rear of the building, Kitty called out for assistance. Mrs Gardiner could be heard, her voice begging everyone to save her nieces. Jane’s voice could be heard calling out to her sisters. Mr Hurst had made his way inside the back door, but the flames were growing intensely.
Caroline was coughing, as he smoke had become thick. She could barely stand, and was near collapsing. Kitty was pulling on the other lady’s arm, all the while coughing herself. Elizabeth was still attempting the impossible. She was beating at the flames, though the flames were refusing to be cut down. Smoke was overtaking her efforts, causing her to stumble.
“Ladies, come this way.” Mr Hurst called out. “Come towards my voice.”
“I am…cough, cough…trying. Lizzy…cough, cough…please, Lizzy…”
Kitty could see nothing through the smoke, but she felt Caroline collapse on the floor. Kitty knew she could not bring both Miss Bingley and her sister from their inflamed building, and she was determined that if she had to make a choice, Caroline Bingley was on her own. Letting go of Caroline’s arm, Kitty stumbled back towards the last location she had seen her sister.
Though she could not see through the smoke, Kitty was able to hear her sister’s labored coughing. The smoke was overwhelming her, and from the coughing, it was clear that Elizabeth was on the ground. She was no longer able to battle the flames with the towel, and now, the flames were attempting to devour her.
Finding Elizabeth, Kitty grabbed hold of her hands, pulling her towards where the front windows would be. Finally, Kitty bumped her shoulder into the glass. She swung her arm, smashing her elbow through the pane of glass, causing the smoke and flame to rush towards the air. Men came forward to assist in pulling Kitty from the building, just as the second floor of the shop collapsed, with Elizabeth still inside.
“My sister…cough, cough…Lizzy, please…” Kitty pleaded with the workers. “Please…m…my sister.”
Kitty felt herself being carried from heat of the fire, though she was too exhausted to open her eyes. She heard the voice of her aunt, as she felt a wet cloth wiping her face. The water was soothing, cooling the skin that had endured the heat from the flames. Someone held a glass of water to her lips, encouraging her to drink.
Not knowing where she was, Kitty attempted to sit up, wishing to look around herself, praying that Elizabeth would be beside her. Her attempt was futile, as she was held down and could not see past the smoke that clouded her eyes. Words were difficult to utter, as she coughed repeatedly, her entire body spasming with each cough.
Kitty could sense the people surrounding her, though she could not understand anything that was spoken. All she could think of was her sister, as she prayed Elizabeth was found and was well. She thought she was calling her sister’s name, but she was unaware of the fact that all that she was able to say was garbled.
As she continued to cough, Kitty grew sleepier. She wanted to close her eyes and drift off, yet she could not give in to sleep without knowing if Lizzy was alive. Her eyes had not obeyed her command to open, and finally, Kitty could fight sleep any longer.
~~~~~~~ ** ~~~~~~~