England is overrun by dragons of all shapes and sizes. Most people are blissfully unaware of them and the Pendragon Treaty that keeps the peace between human and dragon kind. Only those born with preternatural hearing, like Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet are able to hear and converse with dragonkind.
When the first firedrake egg laid in a century is stolen from Pemberley, the fragile dragon peace teeters on collapse. Darcy has no choice but to chase down the thief, a journey that leads him to quaint market town of Meryton and fellow Dragon Keeper, Elizabeth Bennet.
Elizabeth shares a unique bond with dragons, stronger than anything Darcy has ever experienced. More than that, her vast experience and knowledge of dragon lore may be the key to uncovering the lost egg. . But Elizabeth can’t stand Darcy’s arrogance and doesn’t trust him to care properly for a precious baby firedrake. After all, he already lost the egg once. What’s to prevent it from happening again?
Can he win her trust and recover the stolen egg before it hatches and sends England spiraling back into the Dark Ages of Dragon War?
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Jane Austen’s Dragons, Book 1
Pemberley: Mr. Darcy’s Dragon
Fitzwilliam Darcy’s horse stood in a nondescript little meadow along a nondescript little path, near a house Darcy had neither heard of nor cared about until now. Until it had become central to everything.
He shaded his eyes and looked up into the bright morning sky. Walker, circled high above, silhouetted against the thin clouds.
“Your fondness for that bird is entirely baffling.” Charles Bingley pulled his horse alongside Darcy’s. His boyish smile and energy might have been contagious had other concerns not been so pressing. “You care so little for people or society, but for that bird you would move heaven and earth itself.”
“Do not sell yourself short, my friend. You come in a close second.”
Bingley laughed, but it was true. Bingley was a very good friend, but not as good as Walker.
Walker had been with Darcy since Darcy’s birth. He had comforted Darcy through the loss of both his parents; kept him company through the lonely days at school. What more faithful friend could there be? Of course Darcy would do anything for him.
“See there, over that hill, I believe that is Netherfield Park.” Bingley pointed into the rising sun. “A beautiful prospect, I should say.”
The dark shadow of a house rose out of the landscape. It would suit Bingley’s purpose well enough. But it suited Darcy’s needs far more.
“The house is handsome enough at a distance.” Darcy stared into the woods. The local landscape showed all the signs of karst terrain. No doubt there were several caverns nearby. Some might be large enough—
“But you will scold me that I should not accept anything sight unseen. I assure you I will not. I have an appointment with Mr. Morris, the solicitor for the property at half past ten. He has consented to tour the house and grounds with me. In the meantime though, I should like very much to peruse the woods a bit and see the grounds I may be hunting for myself.”
Good, he had taken Walker’s suggestion easily—perhaps a little too easily. It was uncanny how well Bingley took dragon direction. Then again, perhaps not. He was awfully apt to follow the opinions of anyone who presented them strongly enough.
“Far be it from me to suspend any pleasure of yours. Take the lead, and I will follow.” Darcy gestured for Bingley to ride on.
With any luck, Bingley would happen upon the dragon caverns without realizing what he discovered. And if not, Walker was there to convince him there was nothing of interest to be seen.
The bridle path led into the deeper woods, just right for hunting. The game trails suggested a substantial herd of muntjacs roamed the wood. Enough to feed a wyvern.
So the local dragon-estate had connections to the Duke of Bedford. No other way to have got a herd here. Was the Dragon Keeper was simply frugal, preferring his dragon to feed off wild deer instead of his own flocks or did the dragon prefer wild game to mutton?
Something tiny, blue and fast zipped past Darcy’s face. He started. His horse shied and bolted.
“Mary! Look out!”
A flash of white caught his eye and rushed toward a red cloaked figure standing with her back to him and pulled her away just in time.
He reined in his horse and returned to survey the damage.
“You are a better horseman than that! Pay attention!” Walker dove through the trees and landed on a branch several arms’ length above him.
Two young women panted beside the trail. The one in white peered up, past him and into the trees toward Walker.
“Trespasser!” The blue blur buzzed past him and between the young women, disappearing somewhere behind them.
“Pray excuse me. My horse was startled. It is not at all like him.” Darcy bowed from his shoulders. It would not do to blame the iridescent blur for all the mischief. Did the women even realize what it was?
“Indeed, nor is it like you, Darcy.” Bingley rode up to them. “Pray forgive us for startling you. I have come to see Netherfield Park. Do you know it?”
“Indeed we do, sir, the grounds border my father’s estate, which you are currently traversing.” The woman in white’s eyebrow rose and she cocked her head in a most impertinent fashion.
Walker squawked and flapped his wings. “Do not stare, Darcy. Females of your kind take on all manner of ideas when you do. Follow me, and I shall lead you back to the Netherfield’s grounds.”
“Your … falcon, sir?” Her eyes narrowed just a bit and she slipped her arm over the red cloaked woman’s shoulders.
“I should caution you, my uncle’s falcon is apt to hunt free on our estate. He does not always take well to others in his territory.” She adjusted the market bag on her shoulder.
Something about the way she said ‘falcon’ and stared at Walker made the skin on the back of his neck prickle. If she was a daughter of the estate, then it was entirely possible she knew Walker was no falcon.
“I will keep that in mind. I would not wish to see any conflict between our … birds.” Darcy glanced up at Walker.
“Yes, she does hear, and I am not a bird,” Walker squawked.
“If you follow the path to the left, it will take you back to Netherfield.” She pointed to the fork in the path.
“Then we will be on our way. I hope to properly make your acquaintance soon.” Bingley bowed his head and headed off.
“Get on with you.” Walker launched from the branch and made a low pass over his head.
Darcy hesitated one more moment, then turned to follow Bingley. Walker was right. He had business more important than investigating a woman who heard dragons. Distractions of any kind—and time—were certainly the enemy now.
“So we have met my new neighbors.” Bingley clucked his tongue. “Unofficially of course, but still. They were both very pretty young ladies, unmarried too.”
“Always the first two things you notice about a woman. Really, Bingley, you are as marriage minded as any of the mamas of the ton.”
“I am tired of all the raised eyebrows and recommendations that I marry. They come from all sides now, men, women, sometimes I swear even the horse would tell me so.”
“I would not,” Walker screeched.
“You see, even your bird agrees.” Bingley threw his hand up toward Walker.
“I am not sure he agrees, Bingley. Besides, when have you begun taking advice from everyone and their horses?”
Bingley stopped his horse and turned to look at Darcy. “I am lonely. My sister is an adequate housekeeper, but I want more than that to come home to. Her tongue and temper are sharp. I want a friend and a comfort, not a litany of complaints and dissatisfactions when I come home.”
“It sounds like you want a good hound, not a wife.”
“Just because you are content to be by yourself, does not mean that all men are. I intend to make the acquaintance of our neighbors and every young woman in the neighborhood. I intend to find a wife. What better place to do it than close to home.”
“So you have decided to take Netherfield sight unseen after all?”
Bingley grumbled and urged his horse into a fast walk.
Though the decision might be rash, and not even in Bingley’s best interest, it could prove helpful. What better excuse for Darcy to stay nearby than to offer Bingley help in leasing his first estate? He might also accompany Bingley in meeting with the local estate’s owner, attracting as little attention as possible to his own presence. Exactly what he needed most right now.
Elizabeth held her breath as the two men disappeared into the forest. The clop of their horses’ hooves faded into the noises of the woods. At least one of them was a Dragon Mate, perhaps even a Keeper, it was difficult to tell. Papa would certainly need to know.
“Well that one was certainly a cross patch.” April darted out from the silk flowers of Mary’s bonnet. “But what can you expect from someone who keeps a ratty old cockatrice as a companion?”
“Do be fair.” Elizabeth held her hand up for April to perch. “You were being most incautious, flitting about here and there. You look like a tasty snack to one who does not know you. I know you do not like to be told what to do, but if you do not be more careful I will keep you indoors where you are far safer.” Elizabeth covered her ears.
April was in such a temper she might well draw blood.
“Do you think the fair haired one really will take Netherfield?” Mary untied her bonnet and inspected it.
Her hands still trembled, poor dear. She lacked the constitution for such excitement.
Elizabeth took the bonnet. “Oh, really? Another hat picked to pieces? Must you?” She waved it at April.
“I have told you a hundred times—no more than that, I am sure. If you would simply leave me a place to perch—”
“On a hat?” Mary asked.
“Where else? I am certainly not going to ride in your reticule.”
“Enough, enough. We are not here to argue fashion or even to gather gossip about the new neighbors. Though I think it behooves us to discern if both of them can hear, that can wait. We have a clutch to find—assuming it has neither been eaten by a visiting cockatrice, hawk or weasel, or hatched on its own.” Elizabeth tweaked the bonnet and passed it to Mary. “I will repair it for you when we get back.”
“Come along then.” April hovered in front of Elizabeth, then darted ahead.
They wove deeper and deeper into the woods until thick branches obscured the sunshine and dropped the temperature. Cool loamy smells with a hint of several varieties of dragon musk, filled her nostrils. Papa found the scent unpleasant, but it comforted her soul like nothing else.
The path faded into something narrow and ragged that only the muntjacs would use. Was that—yes—a broad, clawed footprint nearly obscured by the swipe of a tail. Longbourn had been here recently, too.
April lit on a tree trunk. “Here.” She gestured upward with her wing.
The branches began ten feet up. The little nest was at least twenty feet high.
“You do realize we do not have wings,” Elizabeth muttered.
“You never asked how high it was.”
April was such a twitterpate.
“What are we to do? I know you are willing to climb trees, but this is too much even for you.” Mary peered up at the nest.
Elizabeth looked about. Nothing to stand upon. The brood mother had made a good choice of nesting sites. That boded well for the intelligence of the hatchlings. Only a winged creatures, a weasel … or a tatzelworm could reach that.
She pulled the market bag off her shoulder and opened it.
“Why are you holding a bundle of dried cod in the air?”
Not merely dried cod, dried cod with a touch of salt, and a sprinkle of white wine.
“Do put those away! They stink!” April sniffed and sneezed.
Elizabeth waved the fish though the breeze. “There is a tatzelworm that lives in these woods. He is excessively fond of dried cod and a scratch behind the ears.”
“A wild dragon? Why would you call one to us?” Mary gasped and covered her mouth with her hands.
“Not wild. He has no Dragon Mate, but he imprinted. Papa says he hatched in the Longbourn barn. Our great grandfather assisted the hatching.”
“But why does he not live with us then?”
“Our great grandmother detested cats. They kept terriers to deal with the rats.”
“But could not the tatzelworm convince her that he was anything but a cat?” Mary glanced at April.
“I might be able to, for I have such a sweet voice.” April preened her wing. “But most have to content themselves with lesser persuasions.”
A nearby shrub rustled. Elizabeth crouched and peered into it. Two large, emerald eyes peered back. She separated pulled a piece of cod from the bundle and tossed it toward the bush.
Raspy rumbles, quite like purring, erupted from the bush. Two large, thumbed paws and a furry head emerged and inched toward the fish, snatched it and pulled back into the branches.
“Good day, Rumblkins.” Elizabeth extended another fish, but did not toss it. “I am pleased to see you still enjoy my offering.”
“It would not hurt for you to bring them to me more often.” His deep voice was coarse and rough as he spoke through a full mouth.
“You could come to the house more often.”
“Not since your housekeeper threw a shoe at me.” He swallowed a huge gulp and emerged from the bush in all his glory.
His face and tufted ears were decidedly feline. Striped tabby fur with white tips on toes and ears covered his whole front half. Magnificent large paws, with extra toes giving the impression of thumbs, sported razor sharp claws. Behind his shoulders though, the fur faded into deep brown scales that covered the length of his long, thick, snake-like body.
“It was not our housekeeper, but my grandmother’s. The current housekeeper, Mrs. Hill has quite the soft spot for cats and will put out a pan of milk if she sees one. Rub yourself around her ankles and purr and you shall have fish any day you like.”
“Like this you mean?” He circled her ankles, rubbing his cheeks over her feet and rumbling.
She offered another fish. “Exactly.”
He ate more slowly this time.
“Perhaps, you would be willing to assist us with a task of vital importance. I have an entire bundle of cod to offer.”
He looked up, a fishtail hanging from one side of his mouth. “What do you want?”
“Above us is an abandoned fairy dragon nest with three eggs near hatching. It is too high for me to reach. We want to bring the eggs back to the house so they can imprint when they hatch.”
Rumblkins licked his broad paw and washed his face. “I like eggs. Almost as tasty as fish.”
April swooped over his head, chittering. “You will do no such thing. I did not bring any of you here for a meal!”
Rumblkins reared up and swiped, not trying very hard to hit her.
“You are a horrid, flea-bitten bundle of fur.”
“And you are a senseless bit of flying fluff.” He batted at her again, clipping the edge of her tail.
April spun and wove drunkenly, colliding with Elizabeth. She caught hold of the edge of Elizabeth’s spencer and clung hard.
“Do you really want your woods populated with wild bits of senseless winged fluff?” Elizabeth asked as she righted April on to her shoulder.
“I could just eat the eggs.”
“But then you would not have an entire bundle of cod.”
Rumblkins chirruped in that funny way cats did and curled his serpentine tail around his forepaws. “You have a good point. If I bring the eggs to you, will you keep them away from the woods after they hatch? That would be far less effort than catching them and eating them.”
April squawked and plunged her face under the collar of Elizabeth’s spencer.
“We cannot force them, but they will be made very welcome and encouraged to stay. Some of them might even become companions to my Aunt and Uncle’s family and move to London.”
Rumblkins’ eyes widened and his mouth gaped in a feline rendition of a smile. “And you will give me the fish?”
Elizabeth patted the market bag. “You can smell them, I am sure. They are yours when we have the eggs, safely. There will be no fish if the eggs are damaged.”
His long, forked tongue flicked out and licked his lips. “I like fish very much.”
Elizabeth opened the bag and showed him the contents.
He drew a deep breath, eyes half closed, and rumbled. “I will bring the eggs.”
His front half walked to the tree and his back half slithered to keep up, an odd, awkward looking movement on the best of days. He pulled up with his claws until his tail wrapped around the trunk, then quickly disappeared into the branches. If there was something a tatzelworm could do well, it was climb.
Elizabeth held her breath. This was risky. He could decide to eat the eggs easily enough and April might never forgive either of them for it. As much as he loved fish, he might just do that for the sport of it. Dragons, tatzelworms in particular, were not entirely predictable, nor reliable.
But there were few options. She could not climb herself. Cockatrices loved eggs, so appealing to Rustle for assistance would have been certain disaster.
She squeezed her eyes shut. Hopefully the stranger’s cockatrice had not—
Mary leaned into her ear and whispered. “He comes, and I think I see an egg.”
Rumblkins’ decent was far slower than his ascent, but when he made it to Elizabeth’s feet, he placed a tiny, mottled blue egg at her feet.
She picked it up and replaced it with a small piece of fish. “Thank you. How many more are in the nest?”
He held up one paw. “One for each paw. Must I get all of them?”
“Only if you wish not to have wild fairy dragons disturbing your peace.”
He bared his teeth and growled as he made his way back up the tree.
Elizabeth rewarded him for the second egg and produced the promised bundle of cod for the third. Rumblkins pounced on it with savage glee.
As much as she loved dragons, it was difficult to watch them eat.
Mary collected the eggs into her padded reticule and tucked them inside her spencer. “The shells are quite warm. I do not think it will be long before they hatch.”
“Thank you for your help. Remember, you are welcome at the house anytime you wish.” Elizabeth curtsied.
Rumblkins lifted his head and shook it, sending bits of dried fish flying. “I shall keep to my woods if you have a flock of senseless flits about, thank you.”
April squawked, but remained hidden in Elizabeth’s spencer.
“You could be bothered to bring me some of these more often, you know.” He crunched on a fish head.
“I shall consider it. Perhaps you might catch a few of the rats that are plaguing the hens.” Elizabeth tucked the empty bag over her shoulder.
“Perhaps you should get a cat.”
“I am sure he would like fish as well as you, and be far easier to deal with.”
Rumblkins grumbled and growled. “If the housekeeper throws anything at me, I swear to you I shall bite her.”
“You will find her very amiable.” Elizabeth leaned down and scratched behind his ears. “Bring her dead rats and she shall give you a pillow by the fire and all the fish you can stuff your fanged, furry face with.”
He leaned into her hand so hard, he nearly fell over, eyes rolling back in his head.
“I will let her know where you like to be scratched. Good day.” Elizabeth curtsied once more, and they turned back for the house.
“Do you think it was a good idea to invite him to the house?” Mary asked.
“A house cannot have too many dragons. Mrs. Hill is a gentle soul who is easily persuaded. Between that and her love for cats, I think they could make each other very happy—and take care of the rat problem in the poultry eaves.”
Mary laughed and pressed her hand over the reticule in her spencer.
“You are not carrying chicken eggs.” April flew between Mary and Elizabeth. “You do not need to be so dainty.”
“Though it pains me, I must agree with her,” Elizabeth said. “The eggs are more leathery than brittle. Unless you fall atop them, there is little chance you can damage them.”
“I know you meant to comfort me, but knowing that, I now have one more thing to worry about.”
Elizabeth put her hand on Mary’s shoulder and stopped her. “What is troubling you?”
“Nothing at all. Why do you think—”
“Mary, please. You do not have to play that game with me. I am not Mama and will not scold you for your concerns.”
Mary’s eyes brightened and she dragged her hand down her face. “How do you do it?”
“The dragons. Every single one I have seen you deal with, they all like you. You know where each of them lives. You know the right things to say and do to make them happy. You always seem to know what they want and need. What is your secret?”
“You hear them just as well as I do. There is no secret.”
“I could never have convinced Rumblkins to help us, I would not even have thought of it.” Mary glanced down toward the eggs. “I know Papa has in mind for me to be Dragon Mate to one of these little ones, but I have no idea how I will do it. Why would a hatchling like me in the first place, not when you, Aunt Gardiner and even the children are about? Who would not prefer their company? Rustle is so grumpy to me. Longbourn hardly speaks to me at all. I may be able to hear them, but what matters that if none of them care to speak to me?”
Elizabeth gestured at a fallen log and sat down. She slipped her arm over Mary’s shoulder. “There is no secret, truly. Dragons are very much like people. The only difference is that they do not hide their thoughts or feelings as we do. We are taught to be polite and reserved, but they have no such impediments. If they think it or feel it, they will say it. Their wants are simple and they will let you know them if you ask.”
“You should have heard what Longbourn said to me the last time I went to groom his scales. He did nothing but complain and criticize. How do you tolerate it when they can be so … difficult?”
“I prefer to regard them not so much as critical, but honest.” Elizabeth tipped her head back and peered through the branches into the sky. “All told, I try to appreciate it for the gift it is.”
“You are speaking in riddles.”
“How many times have you wondered what someone was truly thinking? You know that they do not mean what they say, but you do not know what they truly think. Does that not bother you?”
“Of course it does.” Mary dusted a leaf off her skirt.
“With the dragons, you always know what they are thinking. I find it refreshing, and far safer than dealing with our own kind. If you treat a dragon as you wish to be treated, without false civility and ceremony, but with honesty and respect, you will find them very agreeable creatures.”
“You make it sound so simple.”
“I suppose that having a touch of impertinence makes it all a bit easier. But I am certain you are quite up to the task.” Elizabeth rose and pulled Mary to her feet. “Come, we should bring the eggs to Papa. He is probably pacing the floor waiting for us even now.”
Papa was indeed waiting most impatiently, with a hatching box stuffed with straw already sat near the fire in his study. Close by, a basket overflowed with flannels and old towels. A treacle and blood sausage—a meat most easily digested by dragon chicks—hung by the fireplace, ready to feed to the hungry hatchlings and a kettle stood ready on the hob. In honor of the occasion no doubt, many of the customary stacks and piles had disappeared, leaving the walkways clear and the desk piled high.
He carefully studied each egg, holding them up to a candle, then to his ear. Faint cheeps could be heard from each one. A very good sign indeed.
A few days, a sen’night at most for the hatching. The eggs must not be left alone, not even for an hour. Their social plans must be curtailed until the hatchlings were past their need for hourly feedings.
Thankfully that only lasted a few days. With any luck at all, it would be Mary and Aunt Gardiner cast with managing that task. The last thing Elizabeth needed was another fairy dragon turning to her for companionship. April’s demands quite filled her days.
Two mornings later, soft morning sunlight streamed into the morning room as the family gathered for breakfast. The room was tidy and snug, with crisp white curtains and soft blue-green walls. The round table and plain chairs took up most of the space, with a neat sideboard pushed tight along the wall opposite the window. No matter how few people were in the room, it always felt rather full of company.
Aunt and Uncle remained upstairs, breakfasting with the children where the little ones might chatter and giggle as much as they wished without earning raised brows and dark scowls from Mama. No doubt Uncle would be enlivening their meal with a few dragon tales as well.
Ham, scones and porridge graced the table, with tea and a pot of coffee on the sideboard. Papa’s s usual mug of willow bark tea steeped beside his plate. It was his large mug—his pain must be particularly bad this morning.
With him hiding behind his newspaper, Jane and Mary quietly sewing, and Kitty and Lydia poring over the latest edition of La Belle Assemble, the tableau epitomized domestic familial bliss.
At least for a moment.
Mama swept into the morning room, a vague look of triumph in her eyes. “My dear Mr. Bennet!”
Elizabeth swallowed a gulp of too-hot tea and nearly dropped her tea cup.
Jane reached across her place and helped her set it on the table. Kitty leaned over Lydia’s shoulder and whispered something. They both giggled.
Papa winced. That introduction always preceded a flurry of social plans, none which would accommodate needy baby dragons.
“Have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last? Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”
“Is it not early for her to be paying a call?” Papa’s eyebrow rose archly over his mug.
Mama waved his question away. “Mrs. Long came to me yesterday and she says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune, from the north of England, by the name of Bingley. A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”
“How so? How can it affect them?” Papa snapped his newspaper back into its creases and set it aside. His eyes sparkled—he enjoyed this little game perhaps a bit too much.
“How can you be so tiresome!” Mama snorted and took her place beside him. “You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Our girls are so very agreeable, it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them. Therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes.”
The light faded from Papa’s eyes and his shoulders stiffened.
Jane’s eyes widened and she cast an alarmed look at Elizabeth. She detested conflict. Little got Papa’s back up faster than being told he must do something—unless of course it was a dragon who told him so.
“A visit you say?”
Jane squeezed her eyes shut and bit her lip.
“My dear, you must indeed go and see Mr. Bingley. Consider your daughters. Only think what an establishment it would be for one of them. Sir William and Lady Lucas are determined to go, merely on that account, for in general, you know they visit no newcomers—”
“Enough, enough my dear Mrs. Bennet. You can cease your endless entreaties.” Papa leaned back, tension flowing away.
What was he about?
Mama huffed and threw her hands in the air. “You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion on my poor nerves.”
Papa sipped his willow bark tea, looking far more smug he ought. “You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.”
“You do not know what I suffer!” Mama dabbed her eyes with her napkin.
“Nor have I any idea what I shall endure as I have actually paid the call just hours ago. The family was not there to visitors, so I left my card, and one of yours as well, Mrs. Bennet. We cannot escape the acquaintance now.”
Mama clapped and squealed. “Well, how pleased I am! I was sure you loved our girls too well to neglect such an acquaintance. Such a good joke, too, that you should have gone this morning, and never said a word about it till now. And so early!”
Mary glanced at Elizabeth who shrugged.
“I believe we crossed paths with Mr. Bingley whilst Lizzy and I were walking the day before yesterday.” Mary kept her eyes on the tablecloth.
“And you told me nothing of this? What happened?” Mama leaned toward her.
“A horse, out of control, almost ran over us on the path near Oakham Mount. Another man returned to check on what happened. He said he was here to see Netherfield Park, and that he hoped he would be able to properly make our acquaintance soon. I must conclude he was Mr. Bingley.”
Lydia leaned across the table. “Oh, oh! Was he handsome?”
“What of the other man with him. The one who could not handle his horse?” Kitty nearly knocked over her teacup with her elbow. “It is even better if there are two gentlemen.”
“Do not keep us waiting child, we must know.” Mama waved her hand at Mary.
Mary’s eyes bulged. Her conversation never attracted this much attention.
“I do not think he was a poor horseman. I think something startled his horse.” Elizabeth glanced at Papa.
“On, not that foolish little bird of yours, Lizzy. You must keep it to its cage or better yet, turn it out of the house, and let it fly free. What will our new neighbors think of such a creature following you about? Really, that is too peculiar.”
“Mrs. Bennet.” Papa spoke through gritted teeth.
Mama’s mouth opened and closed several times, but she knew well enough not to cross Papa when he used that tone.
They all did.
Mama leaned back, shoulders sagging. “Well, we must make the most of our acquaintance with him—”
Mrs. Hill trundled into the room with cards on a small silver platter. “A Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy to see the family.” She curtsied.
Mama sprang to her feet and pounced on the cards. “Look how elegant. The printing, the paper, so refined!”
“Perhaps we should greet the men themselves rather stand about admiring their cards.” Papa offered her his arm and ushered her out of the morning room.
Jane followed, and the rest in turn.
Hill had installed their guests in the parlor where they stood near the fireplace waiting. Both men were finely dressed, but not dandies, conservative and refined. The parlor, with its faded fabrics and worn woods, looked a little shabby beside them.
They spoke in hushed tones that even Elizabeth’s sharp hearing could not discern.
“Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy I presume?” Papa bowed from his shoulders.
“Mr. Bennet! I cannot tell you how sorry I am that the housekeeper did not direct you inside. We would have been most happy to have received you this morning. We had to come immediately and return your call. Allow me to present my friend, Mr. Darcy of Derbyshire.”
Darcy bowed, a mite stiffly. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Bennet.”
When he straightened, a glint of gold caught her eyes. His pocket watch flashed in a sunbeam. An embossed wyvern, the sign of the Blue Order, emblazoned the cover. A signet ring with the same figure encircled the small finger of his right hand.
A Dragon Keeper from Derbyshire. He must be the Keeper of the Lambton Wyrm, Keeper of the missing egg!
Papa’s eyes flashed to the pocket watch and back to Darcy’s face. He glanced toward Bingley’s watch. No such decoration. He probably could not hear dragons at all.
What a strange companion for Mr. Darcy to travel with, given his errand.
“May I present my wife, Mrs. Bennet, and my daughters.” Papa gestured toward them. “Miss Jane Bennet, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia.”
They curtsied in turn.
Bingley bowed again. He was a handsome man to be sure, and his temper seemed open and agreeable, just what one would wish for in a single man of good fortune. “Delighted to make your acquaintance, indeed.”
Beside him, Darcy made a small bow but said nothing.
“Please sit down, be comfortable. I shall call for some tea.” Mama rang the bell for Hill.
Bingley sat down on the settee. Mama waved Jane and Lydia to his side as she took the chair nearest.
Of course Mama would direct her favorites to him. They were free to marry for normal considerations—affection, money, connections—but Elizabeth had no such privilege. As the eldest Dragon Hearer, she had a responsibility to the estate and to Longbourn.
Elizabeth swallowed hard. Jealousy was not attractive. All gifts came with a price. And hearing dragons was worth it.
Papa lifted an eyebrow at Mr. Darcy and twitched his head toward the door.
Elizabeth sidled between them and the rest of the company. Best make their escape as easy as possible. “So, Mr. Bingley, how to do you find Meryton?”