Chapter 3

            “I forgot to tell you, there is an assembly in Meryton tonight. Sir William Lucas came yesterday and invited us to attend. You have only just arrived, I know, but I thought you would still join me.”

            “If it is not asking too much, I would prefer to remain here and rest.”

            “You realize that if Caroline discovers that you are remaining here, she will also wish to stay, to keep you company.”

            Darcy shuddered at the thought. An evening alone, with Caroline Bingley, was not his desire at all.  “No, it would be wise for me to join you. I cannot remain here with your sister. You know my opinion of her.”

            “I know, and I am deeply sorry for her showing up as she did. When she entered the house this morning, I was furious. But what was I supposed to do? There was only one other place to send Caroline and that was to our aunt Agatha in Scarborough. Caroline detests Aunt Agatha, as she would have to behave if she were to go there. Aunt Agatha used to teach at a girls’ school and she has always stated that my sister is spoiled.”

            “Perhaps she should spend some time with Agatha, so she can learn proper manners. She will not be welcomed at Pemberley when we go there for the festive season. My mother will never tolerate such vulgar manners in a guest.”

            “I will speak with her again. No matter what Louisa and I say, Caroline has convinced herself that she will be the perfect wife for you. Aunt Ethel is to arrive tomorrow, perhaps she can get through to Caroline and convince her to give up this foolish notion.”

            “Let us hope it will be so. It would be harmful to you and the Hursts if I were forced to give your sister the cut direct, but I will if she does not control herself. I will never offer for her, no matter what she might do to cause a compromise. If she were to do such a foolish thing, it is your family who will be forced to live with the consequences of being shunned in the society Miss Bingley craves to enter.  Remember that when you speak with her.” Darcy cautioned his friend. The Darcy family could weather a scandal such a scheme would cause, but the Bingley family could not.

            “Shall I have a tray sent up to you or will you join us in the drawing room?”

            “I will come down to the drawing room shortly. If it would be easier for you, we can speak to your sister together. Perhaps if she hears from me, she will accept what she is being told.”

            “You may be correct. Hearing from us, Caroline can claim we are keeping you from her due to jealousy. If she hears directly from you, I am certain that she will accept the truth.”

            Darcy had his doubts, but he did not speak of them. This would be Caroline Bingley’s last warning.

            Within half an hour, Darcy had changed from his traveling clothes and washed the dirt of the road from his person.

            “Mr Darcy, I pray you are well. Shall I pour you some tea?” Miss Bingley inquired.

            “I am well, and yes, a cup of tea would be nice.”

            “The cook has prepared some biscuits and tarts. She is not the best cook in England, but she makes tolerable treats.” Miss Bingley handed the cup of tea, fixed the way Darcy preferred.

            “Caroline, I wish to remind you that Aunt Ethel will be arriving tomorrow to act as my hostess.” Bingley stated. “I am grateful for your acting as such for the day, but I know you would rather be in London with your friends.”

            “Nonsense, I would prefer to remain here. You should have spoken to me before bothering our aunt, as I can act as your hostess.”

            “No, Caroline, Aunt Ethel is to be my hostess. If you remain here, you would need to comport yourself as a guest, not in charge of running my home. Do you understand? That especially goes to your behavior towards my invited guest, which you were not invited.” Bingley gave his sister a glare with his final statement.

            “Charles, watch your words. Do you wish to offend Mr Darcy? Or are you attempting to embarrass me in front of your friend?”

            “Your brother is attempting to convey my desire not to be importuned by unwanted attention. I am here to aid your brother learning how to run an estate.”

            “Of course, Mr Darcy. I would not stand in the way of my brother becoming a member of the landed gentry. It was our father’s most favored wish.”

            “Then allow me to be blunt with you, Miss Bingley. I have never desired to make a match with you. Your brother and sister have attempted to dissuade you from your obsession with becoming my wife. Yes, I am aware of your desire. You have spoken openly to many of your friends. Everything I despise in the ton, I find in you and your behavior. So, I am telling you, as you have refused to accept the truth from your siblings, I will never offer for your hand in marriage. Not even if you were to be found naked in my bed. No attempt to compromise me will lead me to marrying you.”

            Caroline was having a difficult time controlling her emotions. “I do not understand why you would be so cruel to me, Mr Darcy. I have only wanted the best for you. As a dear friend of our family, I have only thought of you as cousin.”

            “Forgive me, Miss Bingley, if I have been mislead. But my statements stand. I will never offer for you to be my wife. Not now, not ever. I pray you will accept what has been said here. It is my hope to never have to cause your brother the shame of seeing you disgraced by an attempted compromise on me. My family could withstand the scandal it would cause, your family could not. I would not wish to be forced to give you the cut direct. Do I make myself clear?”

            Both the men could see that Caroline was nearly bursting with fury.

            “Of course, Mr Darcy. I understand you completely.” With that, Caroline rose from her seat and stormed out of the room, up the stairs and into her bedchambers.

            Darcy and Bingley remained in the drawing room, though they heard Caroline shouting and the sound of shattering glass.   

            “Well, time will tell if she will accept what you have said.” Bingley shook his head. He knew Caroline was stubborn and rarely gave up when she was determined to have something.

            “If she does not wish to be an outcast in society, she had best heed my words.” Darcy replied.

            “Will you join me in the study? I will show you the map of the estate.”

            “Of course.”

            The two men made their way to the study. Little did they know, Caroline’s maid was spying on them, at the request of her mistress. Betsy had not liked working for Caroline Bingley, as the woman was vulgar and hateful. Miss Bingley had been through many maids before Betsy, which the young maid could understand. It was her desire to retain her position, so she offered to aid her mistress by any means. That included spying on Mr Bingley and his guest. Caroline’s obsession with Darcy was well known, and Betsy was certain her own position would be raised if she were the maid to Mrs Darcy.

            The men looked over the map, with Bingley showing the farms and the cottages. They decided to wait until the following morning to ride around the grounds, but Darcy was better informed after seeing the map.

            Time came for the men to prepare for the evening at Meryton. They were dressed in finely tailored clothing. Darcy was certain that they would be over dressed for a country gathering, so he did not wear his formal attire. He joined Bingley in the foyer, waiting for Miss Bingley to come down.

            It was clear that Miss Bingley wished to show up the ladies of the community, as she dressed as if she were attending an event of the ton. She apparently thought she looked the picture of perfection, though the color of her gown clashed terribly with her red hair.  The feathers worn in her hair were standing high above her head, bouncing as she moved. Darcy had a difficult time keeping from laughing at her.

            The three entered the carriage, with Bingley handing his sister in. Once seated, the carriage was off for Meryton.

            When they had arrived, it was noted that they assembly had already begun. Charles descended from the carriage first, then Darcy. Caroline had hoped Darcy would turn to hand her down, but he stepped aside to allow her brother the duty.

            As the trio entered the building, the current dance was coming to an end. People stopped and looked at the newcomers, taking in their style of clothing and making first impressions of the Bingleys and Mr Darcy.

            Sir William Lucas of Lucas Lodge was the first to move to the trio. “Mr Bingley, how nice to see you again. We are so grateful to welcome you to our assembly.”

            “It is a pleasure to be here, Sir William. Might I introduce you to my sister, Miss Caroline Bingley, and my dearest friend, Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley. Darcy, Caroline, this is Sir William Lucas. He is the magistrate in the community and one of the leading members of the landowners.”

            “Welcome, welcome, it is a pleasure to have you join us. Come, I will introduce you to some of your new neighbors.”

            Darcy followed the Bingleys as they were led to an elderly lady standing with several young ladies. Not being extremely comfortable, Darcy stayed back from most of the people.

            A sudden movement caught Darcy’s attention and he turned his head to notice a young lady with dark chocolate colored hair, leaning towards another lady, speaking with her and laughing. The pair seemed to be enjoying some sort of humor.

            Something about the young lady kept his eyes locked on her. Her gown was pale green, which enhanced her appearance. When she looked in his direction, he was able to notice her dark eyes that sparkled. Though the lady was not what the ton would consider a beauty, her attributes were more matched to Darcy’s preference. The gentleman could not take his eyes off of her.

            Darcy missed the introduction of the family with many daughters. As their party continued to be introduced to the neighbors, Darcy continued to watch the young lady.  Never had he been captured by any other female. She kept back from where Sir William was speaking with another family. Finally, the two young ladies stepped forward.

            Sir William was pleased to introduce the two females. “Ah, here are two of my favorite gems of our community.  Mr and Miss Bingley, Mr Darcy, this is my daughter, Charlotte Lucas, and her dearest friend and our neighbor, Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Charlotte, Lizzy, this is Mr Charles Bingley, Miss Caroline Bingley, and Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy.”

            Darcy stepped closer.  “It is a pleasure to meet you ladies. Miss Bennet, are you available for the next set of dances?”

Chapter 4

            Both the Bingleys were shocked at Darcy’s behavior. Never had either of them witnessed the gentleman ask to dance with a young lady he was not accustomed. Caroline instantly took a dislike to the dark haired nobody. Why would Mr Darcy request a set from this female when he had not yet asked her for a set?

            “I have no other partner for the next set. It would be my honor.”

            Realizing he had singled out this lady, he turned to the other. “Miss Lucas, might you be available for the set following?”

            “Thank you, Mr Darcy.” Charlotte smiled at the kindness. It was instantly noticed that the gentleman had eyes for her friend.

            Darcy offered Elizabeth his arm, which she accepted, and he escorted her to the dance floor.

            Speaking to the young lady was difficult, as he was naturally shy and did not know how to speak with young ladies. His attraction to her had also left his tongue unable to function. Finally, Elizabeth spoke.

            “Come, Mr Darcy, we must have some conversation. Perhaps I could comment on the weather or the number of couples in the room.”

            Her words made the gentleman smile. “Do you make it a habit to have conversations while dancing?”

            “It would be a dull set if there was no conversation at all. Where are you from, Mr Darcy?”

            “Pemberley, which is in Derbyshire.”

            “My aunt lived in Derbyshire when she was a child. She has told me of the natural beauty of the county. Next year, my aunt and uncle plan to journey there in the summer, to visit family and friends who still live there. They have invited me to join them.”

            The steps in the dance parted the pair. When they returned to one another’s side, Darcy spoke. “Where in Derbyshire is she from?”

            The dance moved them apart once again. “They plan to visit some of the grand estates in the area near the village of Lambton.”

            Darcy was stunned at the name of the village. “Lambton is but five miles from Pemberley.”

            Elizabeth nearly missed the next steps of the dance. “Goodness, it is so close to your home. Who would have thought we will be visiting near Pemberley?”

            “I hope you will find as much pleasure as I do in the area. Pemberley is my favorite place to be, as it has such diverse natural wonders. Lakes, rivers, mountains, and more.”

            “Your home must be heavenly. As I am fond of being in nature, such a place would make me very happy.”

            The first set ended and the next prepared to begin. Darcy had never felt so at ease with a new acquaintance. He smiled at the joy he felt, which made his face lighten and his dimples to show.

            As the second dance began, Elizabeth was struck with the man’s appearance. “You should smile more.”

            Unaware of how much he was smiling, Darcy gave a quizzical look. “Why is that, Miss Bennet?”

            “When you first entered the building, you looked so stern that my friend and I were laughing. I bet her that you would not ask anyone to dance. Seeing that you can smile as made me feel better about having to pay my debt.”

            “What did you wager?” Darcy inquired, his mood light.

            “Next time I attend a dinner at Lucas Lodge, I will have to perform for their guests.” Elizabeth gave a dramatic sigh.

            “Do you play the pianoforte or sing?” Darcy was curious to know more about the young lady.

            “Both, though not very well. Why my friend feels the need to torture her guests, I will never understand.” Elizabeth chuckled at her statement.

            “I look forward to hearing you perform.”

            “Do you enjoy being tortured?”

            “If you lost your wager on my account, it is only fair that I suffer with you.” Darcy found himself looking forward to hearing the young lady perform. How he wished he could ask Sir William when they would host a dinner party.

            The dance came to an end and Darcy escorted Elizabeth back to where Charlotte had remained. “Miss Bennet, might I request a second set this evening?”

            Elizabeth looked into Darcy’s eyes. She was silent for what the gentleman thought was an eternity. Finally, she spoke. “I will accept your request on one condition.”

            “Anything.”

            “As my sister is the eldest, I am not Miss Bennet. If you would call me Miss Elizabeth, I would save the final set for you.”

            Darcy bowed over her hand and could not believe his own behavior. If his smile grew larger, he was certain his face would break. He could not control his desire to have the lovely lady dance with him once again. “It would be an honor to refer to you as such, Miss Elizabeth.”

            “Then I will reserve the final set for you, Mr Darcy.”

            Holding out his arm to Charlotte, Darcy led her to the dance floor. Jane came over to her sister. “Lizzy, I saw you dancing with Mr Darcy. Everyone was watching the two of you, as you were perfectly matched. It was difficult to believe you had never danced together before.”

            “He was so kind. Did you see him smile? His dimples make him even more handsome.”

            “Do you have feelings for him?” Jane asked, surprised with her sister’s behavior. Never had Lizzy shown such a preference.

            “Jane, we just met, and have danced once. I do not know much about the man.”

            “Would you like to know him better?”

            Elizabeth watched as Darcy was dancing with Charlotte. “I would indeed like to know him better.”

            “I feel the same about Mr Bingley. He is just what a gentleman should be.”

            The sisters stood together, watching the men dancing with others. When the men turned to look in the sisters’ direction, Jane and Elizabeth blushed as they smiled.

            Little did they know that they had already taken the first step towards losing their hearts.

            While the Bennet sisters were watching the gentlemen, they were being watched from a chair along the side of the room. Miss Caroline Bingley had never experienced such anger than she did that night. First she had been humiliated by Darcy and Charles when they joined her in the drawing room. Then she is forgotten when they arrived, as her brother and Darcy had found dance partners immediately.

            The fact that Darcy had chosen to stand up with a country nobody was shocking, as she had never seen the man behave in such a manner. Caroline was furious and knew that she would have to do something about the chit. In her opinion, Darcy should have danced with her first, before all the unworthy ladies at the assembly. They were beneath her, at least in Caroline’s mind.

            “I will find a way to keep you away from Mr Darcy. He is to be mine, and I will not allow him to keep a mistress.” Caroline hissed under her breath.

            After dancing with Charlotte, Caroline was certain that Darcy would come to ask her for the next set. Her fury grew when Darcy asked Jane Bennet to dance with him, while Charles offered to dance with Elizabeth. How could this be happening? Darcy continued to watch Elizabeth, which caused Miss Bingley to fume.

            Certain that she could convince Darcy that she was the perfect choice for his bride, Caroline was certain that his words from earlier in the day were false. Why would a man such as Fitzwilliam Darcy, grandson of an earl, son of one of the wealthiest landowners in Derbyshire, if not all England, not find her perfect. Caroline fancied herself the perfect hostess, could play the pianoforte with technical proficiency, painted screens, knew the latest fashions, and was fluent in French and Italian. Besides, Caroline was also current on the latest gossip of the ton.  Obviously, at least in her opinion, she would be his perfect match.

            All Caroline needed to do was meet Darcy’s mother. Certainly, Lady Anne would be able to see how perfect Caroline was and her ladyship would insist on her eldest son marrying Miss Bingley. No matter what, Caroline was certain that Darcy would not refuse to marry her. To refuse after a compromise would ruin his dearest friend.

            Now she needed to attract Darcy’s attention away from the country bumpkin. When he was finished dancing with Jane Bennet, Caroline would make her way to him and make herself available. Surely, he would remember that he had not asked her for a set. As her brother’s closest friend and a guest in Charles’ home, it was only fitting that Darcy dance a set with her.

            Seeing Darcy and Charles return with the young ladies from the dance floor, Caroline sidled up to Darcy’s side and grasped his arm with her talon like fingers.

            “Forgive me, I cannot remember the names of your friends. There are so many people I have just met, and I can be terrible at remembering names.” She gave a smile that gave the Bennet sisters and Charlotte Lucas no doubt of her insincerity. Even Jane could not accept Miss Bingley as telling the truth.

            Darcy extricated his arm from the death grip his friend’s sister had on his arm. “Miss Bingley, these young ladies are Miss Jane and Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and Miss Charlotte Lucas. Ladies, this is Miss Caroline Bingley. Forgive me, Miss Bingley, as your brother and I are enjoying coming to know the ladies better.” With that, Darcy turned in a way which informed the others that the gentleman had no intention to spend any further time with Miss Bingley.