Chapter 9

            “Charles, you must see that it would be perfect. If I were to marry your best friend, he would be your brother. You could search for an estate near Pemberley. Mr Darcy would assist you in searching for a proper estate.”

            “Caroline, I have already told you. Darcy does not wish to have you as his wife. He has told me he would not marry you, no matter what you did to force him into an arrangement. My friend is in love with his fiancé.  You are engaged to marry Viscount Taaffe, and it is time you prepare to leave for your wedding. Taaffe is waiting for you to arrive. The ship you were to sail on is leaving in a week, so it is best you return to London and finish your preparation for your journey.” Bingley tried desperately to control his temper.

            “I…I have decided on ending my engagement. The viscount is not what I thought he was when I agreed to the arrangement.” Caroline held her chin high as she spoke.

            Bingley stared at his sister. “What do you mean? What did you learn about the viscount?”

            “The man is a fraud; he is not wealthy. What he owns is not worth discussing. He wished to marry me for my dowry, nothing more. His father is penniless from gambling, so they have sold most of their property to cover their debts.”

            “You are engaged, I have signed the contract. Do you expect to leave the arrangement with your dowry? He would be within his rights to demand satisfaction by your dowry.” Bingley hoped he could convince her to go through with her wedding and leave Darcy alone.

            “He cannot expect me to go through with the wedding when he lied to me. The man is not what he led me to believe. If he was respectable, he would have been honest about the situation prior to proposing to me.”

            “You were in a hurry to marry the man and become a viscountess. I told you to take your time and know him, but you stated you knew all that was important and wished to marry. I sign the marriage articles, Hurst has them to give Viscount Taaffe.”

            “Then we can burn them, and Franz will have nothing to hold me to the arrangement.” Caroline could feel hope rising. “That will allow me to marry Mr Darcy. Please Charles, you must see that what I say would be the best outcome. Allow me to show the Darcys and Lady Elizabeth that I would be the perfect wife for Mr Darcy. It would be the best arrangement.”

            “No, Caroline. I will hear no more of your desire to marry Darcy. You do not listen to me and I have come to the end of my patience with you. This is the last time I will discuss the matter with you. If you insist on ending the arrangement with the viscount, return to London and we will set up an establishment for you. Or you could live with Aunt Agatha. Either way, it will require you to live within your means, as I will no longer cover your debts if you overspend.”

            “How can you be so heartless? Our father left you the responsibility to protect me, yet you would abandon me to live the life of a spinster. Your actions would have disappointed Father tremendously. It is in your power to give me the finest life possible and you refuse to do so. You should be ashamed of yourself.” Caroline fled the room, running to her rooms and slamming the door.

            “My relations have abandoned me to live a cruel life. Why does Charles despise me so much that they would wish me to be a spinster? How could he think I would live a life like our aunt?  Our parents would be furious with him for not aiding me to marry well.” Frustrated, Caroline flung herself across her bed. “I will not give up on my goal. I will be Mrs Fitzwilliam Darcy, if it is the last thing I do.”

                                                            ~~ ** ~~

            “Lizzy, I have had the phaeton prepared so I might take you on a tour of the area. You have spent far too much time inside, with Mother and Grandmother, planning the wedding. It is time for some fresh air and to be with your favorite gentleman.”

            “Your father is joining me?” Elizabeth teased.

            “Very funny. Come, my minx, your chariot awaits.” William scooped his betrothed in his arms and carried her from the room before she could utter another word, leaving Lady Anne and Lady Elizabeth chuckling.

            Placing Lizzy in the phaeton, Darcy made his way around to the other side of the small carriage to climb on, taking the reins from the groom who had been standing nearby.

            The couple made their way around the estate, with Darcy pointing out various points of interest. “Father and I plan to fish tomorrow in the stream over there. Bingley is pleased to have someone with whom to fish and hunt. Mr Hurst is not fond of such activities. His interests are eating and drinking.”

            Lizzy laughed. “I must admit that I did not have a high impression of the man when we met him. From what Lucy has said, the staff have noted a decrease in Mr Bingley’s liquor stock.”

            “I am not surprised. What do you think of the estate?”

            “They have kept the house and grounds are in good order. What of the tenant homes?”

            William smiled. “That is what I love about you. Not only beautiful, you have one of the sharpest minds I know. You know what it takes to run an estate, far more than any other woman. Well, except Mother and Grandmother. The neighbors consider them to be odd for knowing the details of a working estate.”

            “Do not forget, I own an estate of my own. Though I am rarely there, I have met with the steward and your father frequently. Mr Lawrence is a good man, but I want to know everything that happens at Wilton Hall. The tenants have been devoted to my family for many years, I cannot neglect them.”

            Darcy wrapped an arm around his betrothed. “Your parents would be proud of you, my love. Uncle Edwin loved Wilton Hall, the land and the people. Mother said that Aunt Ethel felt the same. She took care to see that they cared for the tenants and staff for.  One tenant had a little girl who fell from the loft of their barn. Your mother sent for the physician and made sure the girl had everything she needed for her recovery.”

            “Amy Withers. Her loyalty to the estate is remarkable. Mr Lawrence has given her a position in the manor house. There are a few who maintain the house, though I have not lived there in years. Should we spend time there, after we marry?” Elizabeth inquired.

            A smile greeted her. “It would be pleasant to have you all to myself for some time. Perhaps a few months there would be the perfect beginning to our marriage.”

            “You are wicked, William.” Elizabeth swatted him on the arm.

            “Can you blame me? I have had to share you with others our entire lives. This is the first time in weeks I have been able to steal you away for just a little while. You and I deserve to have time to ourselves.”

            “I will send word to Mr Lawrence to inform him of our decision. The news should make the staff pleased.”

            The weather was cold, though nothing compared to the cold accustomed to the Darcy and Fitzwilliam families in Derbyshire. After an hour, Darcy returned them to Netherfield’s manor house, as he feared Lizzy taking a chill. As they entered the foyer, they regretted their return.

            “Mr Darcy, I pray you have not taken a chill in this dreadful weather. It would not be good for you to become ill from being here.” Caroline Bingley came forward, clutching Darcy’s arm after he had placed Lizzy in her chair. “Come and sit by the fire in the drawing room. I requested tea brought there.”

            “Forgive me, Miss Bingley, but I wish to return my betrothed to our family. My parents and grandmother are waiting for us.” Darcy pulled back sharply, breaking the connection with the woman’s hand.

            “The footmen could take your cousin to her rooms. She must wish to rest after such an outing. In such a frail condition, it must be difficult to be out for so long a time.” Caroline feigned concern for Lizzy.

            Lizzy was aware of women like Caroline Bingley and how to handle them. “You do not need to fret, Miss Bingley. William and I had a lovely ride about the estate. The ride has left me quite refreshed. Besides, I need to build up my strength for after our wedding. We will be extremely active when we arrive at Wilton Hall.”

            Caroline nearly gasped at Lizzy’s flagrant words. “Wilton Hall? Is that a spa to regain your health?”

            “Wilton Hall is my estate. William and I plan to stay there for several months after we wed. It is a lovely estate near to Pemberley. After spending my life living at Wilton Hall, Pemberley or visiting Matlock, Netherfield is a quaint little place to visit. But, your brother is new to running an estate, so Netherfield is perfect for him first attempt. The house has been well maintained, though I would suggest he have someone look at the fireplace in William’s bedchamber, as it seems to need cleaning. The bridge at the river, near the large oak tree, requires an inspection.”

            William was hiding his face to contain his laughter. His beloved was never one to back down from a challenge. She had always claimed that her courage rose when provoked. Knowing that Caroline deserved everything Lizzy gave her, William kept from commenting.

            Her mouth opened and closed several times before Caroline could find words. “Mr Darcy, you informed my brother of these issues before you spoke to Miss Fitzwilliam, did you not?”

            “These were Lizzy’s observations, not mine. She has always been knowledgeable of how to run an estate and being able to manage a house and staff. At Pemberley, all the servants and tenants adore Lizzy for her kindness and compassion.”

            Unable to think of how to respond, Caroline decided the safest topic was dinner. “I have spoken with the cook and she will have dinner ready to serve early tonight. Will your family be joining us to dine?”

            “I do not think we will, as our grandmother will wish to retire early, and we dine with her. We are used to country hours. Grandmamma is still in mourning, so she will not wish to socialize outside our family.”

            “But…you dined with my brother’s neighbors before our arrival.” Frustration was overwhelming Caroline.

            “Yes, Grandmamma wished to make a good impression on Mr Bingley’s neighbors and did not feel it would be proper manners to slight them. Lady Elizabeth Fitzwilliam is nothing if not proper. Mother does not feel comfortable leaving her mother alone to dine.”

            “Mother…I thought…your parents are dead. My brother informed me you are an orphan.”

            “Mother is my soon to be mother-in-law. She has always been like a second mother to me, especially after my parents and sister died. I love Aunt Anne and Uncle Gerald and look forward to them being my parents after the wedding. Hopefully soon, we will refer to them as grandparents. Mother told me she would love to have grandchildren.”

            Caroline’s eyes bulged. “You are a cripple. You could not carry a child.”

            “Miss Bingley, it is none of your business, but I will tell you, anyway. The only thing wrong with me is my legs were both broken in the carriage accident that took my family from me. The bones nearly shattered and did not heal completely. I can stand and take a few steps, but cannot walk far. There is no other reason for my using a wheeled chair. Never refer to me as a cripple again, as I am just as much a woman as you. Perhaps even more of one.”

            Deciding that the ladies were near to the point of scratching each other’s eyes out, and knowing his dearest love would triumph over Miss Bingley, Darcy put a stop to the conversation. “Miss Bingley, we will dine with our family in our rooms. Please forgive us, we will make our way upstairs to change from our dusty clothes.”

            Once out of view of Miss Bingley, though not far enough away to keep their voices from carrying to her, William and Lizzy broke into laughter. “My dear, remind me never to cross you. You can be wicked when you wish to be.”

            “She needed to be put in her place, Will. Otherwise, she will always believe you married me for pity. Miss Bingley needed such a lesson.”

Chapter 10

            “Oh, how I wish I could have been there to witness such a putdown.” Lady Anne laughed. “Lizzy, you are nothing like Miss Bingley expected.”

            “Mr Bingley, please forgive me for speaking so rudely to your sister, but I could not stop myself.” Lizzy pleaded with her eyes.

            Bingley had also been laughing. “My only displeasure is that I was not witness either. If you give my sister another dressing down, please send for me to be present.”

            A chuckle escaped from Lizzy. “You have my word, Sir.”

            “I believe it is time for me to turn my sister over to my aunt’s care. Aunt Agatha has lived a frugal life and holds to high standards. My father was close to his sister. I used to spend holidays from school at Aunt Agatha’s home. She should arrive tomorrow afternoon. Caroline will despise having to answer to our aunt, but I will enjoy watching every moment.”

            “Do you believe your sister will remain at Netherfield? Would she not return to London?” William suggested?

            “Possibly, though I am sending a message to my solicitor and banker in London. It is no longer my responsibility to see to Caroline’s bills, especially when she overspends her quarterly allowance.” A smile grew as Bingley spoke.

            “They might wish to send word to the dressmaker and milliner, warning them that Miss Bingley will no longer have free rein to spend as she desires.” Lady Anne suggested.

            “Thank you for the suggestion. I will include it in my letter. Tomorrow, will you join us for dinner, to welcome my aunt?”

            Lady Elizabeth nodded her head. “Of course, Mr Bingley. I, for one, look forward to meeting your aunt.”

            “It will please her to meet you. Now, I shall have a meeting with my sisters and inform them of the changes I am implementing.” Bingley stood to leave the room. Before opening the door, he turned to Lizzy. “Miss Fitzwilliam, I am grateful that my sister’s foolishness did not upset you. As I told my friend, I am pleased you are marrying this man. You make him come to life in a way I have never seen. Many blessings on your union.”

            “Thank you, Mr Bingley. You would bless our wedding with your presence.” Lizzy stated.

            William stood. “I was hoping you would stand up with me.”

            Bingley’s eyes rounded. “It would be my honor, Darcy.” He held out his hand to shake William’s.

            After Bingley left to search out his sisters, they discussed wedding details.

            “Have you decided if you wished to wed at Pemberley or London?” Lady Anne prodded.

            “Or you could have the wedding at Matlock. Your grandfather always wished to have a wedding at Matlock. With your father gone, Patrick would have wanted to walk you down the aisle.” Lady Elizabeth teared up as she spoke.

            Lizzy leaned over, placing a hand on top of her grandmother’s. “It would have brought me joy to have Grandfather give me away. I am torn between having the wedding at Pemberley or Wilton Hall. As it is my home, the home of my father, it would be fitting. But Pemberley is my other home.”

            “It matters not to me. As long as you will be there, nothing else matters.” William took Lizzy’s other hand, placing a gentle kiss on its back.

            “We will have time to decide. Our mourning period has several months yet.”

            “Oh, Lizzy, your grandfather would not wish you to wait. I can hear him as if he were standing beside me. He would say, “Lizzy, marry as soon as you can. Do not waste a moment on nonsense like mourning periods. Grasp your happiness.””

            Tears escaped Lizzy’s eyes. “Very well, Grandmamma. Should we order more gowns from Mrs Brooks and skip London altogether?”

            “Stay here longer?” William asked.

            “With Mr Bingley’s aunt arriving, Miss Bingley would not be a pest.” Gerald Darcy added.

            Lizzy looked at each of her family members, seeing their love shining in their eyes. “Yes, let us remain here while Mrs Brooks designs my trousseau. To tell the truth, I do like her designs.”

            “We could send to London for anything she requires. Perhaps William and his father could ride into London to gather anything we need, such as fabric from Mr Gardiner’s warehouse. You men wished to speak with Mr Gardiner, that would give you an excuse to take a day or two away from Netherfield. Leave us ladies to our plans.” Lady Anne knew her son would be reluctant to be away from Lizzy.

            The men looked at each other. William was torn between wishing to remain with his beloved, yet desired to speak with the Bow Street Runners and Mr Gardiner’s clerk. “Next week would be best for us to go to London.”

            Gerald agreed. “Hopefully Mr Bingley will agree for us to remain long enough for the seamstress to make your gowns.”

            “When his aunt is here to run the house, Bingley will be busy courting Miss Bennet. Nothing will matter to him; he is smitten by the young lady. He will not be concerned with his guests.”

            “I pray that Miss Bennet cares for Mr Bingley. After tolerating his sister, he deserves to be loved and treated appropriately. She is ghastly.” Lady Elizabeth noted.

            “Tomorrow should be interesting, between Lizzy’s tongue lashing today and her aunt arriving. Perhaps it is wrong of me, but I am rather looking forward to Miss Bingley being put in her place.” Lady Elizabeth chuckled.

            “Grandmamma, how wicked.” Lizzy teased.

            “Well, at my age, we must find joy where we can.”

            “Mother, you are not infirm. I know your family brings you joy.”

            “Dear Anne, I am teasing Lizzy. Of course, I find joy in my family. It is my grandson that the harpy wishes to ensnare. Seeing her put in her place will be delightful.”

            “Have no fear, Grandmamma, Miss Bingley is too foolish to not to try another attempt. William, perhaps it would be wise for us to prepare for her to try a compromise.”

            “What do you have in mind?” William looked at his betrothed with curiosity.

            Lizzy laid out her plan in great detail. Her family laughed at the simplicity that would thwart the desperate tradesman’s daughter.