It’s Kitty’s turn for romance in this excerpt from Twelfth Night at Longbourn, part four of the Given Good Principles series.
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Twelfth Night at Longbourn
Twelfth Night—a night for wondrous things to happen.
At least for other people.
In the months after her sisters’ weddings, nothing has gone well for Kitty Bennet. Since Lydia’s infamous elopement, her friends have abandoned her, and Longbourn is more prison than home. Not even Elizabeth’s new status as Mrs. Darcy of Pemberley can repair the damage to Kitty’s reputation. More than anything else, she wishes to leave the plain ordinary Kitty behind and become Catherine Bennet, a proper young lady.
Her only ray of hope is an invitation to Pemberley for the holidays. Perhaps there she might escape the effects of her sister’s shame.
Getting to Pemberley is not as simple as it sounds. First she must navigate the perils of London society, the moods of Georgiana Darcy, and the chance encounter with the man who once broke her heart. Perhaps though, as Catherine, she might prove herself worthy of that gentleman’s regard.
But, in an instant all her hopes are dashed, and her dreams of becoming Catherine evaporate. Will Kitty Bennet’s inner strength be enough to bring her heart’s desire?
On an ordinary night perhaps not, but on Twelfth Night, it just might be enough.
Kitty smoothed her dress and patted her hair one last time. Their guests would arrive soon. It would have been nice to dine at an earl’s house, but at least here, she would be surrounded with people who were not examining her to find fault. Uncle and Aunt entertained in true Gardiner fashion. It would be a merry evening.
Her beautiful evening gown remained folded in her trunk, her hat in its box. Instead, she wore a pretty dinner dress pieced from an old dress of Jane’s and one of Lizzy’s. Although the muslin, marcella and jaconet she used were not new, she had carefully cut around the few stains and tears. With new ribbons, some lace, and the most fashionable patterns, the dress might well have been made for Catherine by a Bond Street modiste. Hopefully, Mr. Bingley would approve.
She paced the room, wringing her hands. He had been so kind to invite her to travel with them, even without Miss Darcy, but he was thoughtful and kind to everyone. It did not necessarily hold that he felt anything more than friendship for her. More likely it was friendship for Mr. Darcy. Still, back in Hertfordshire, he seemed to prefer her company. At least he did once he had stopped staring at Jane.
She turned on her heel and pumped her fists. Oh, this whole business was most vexing indeed! Perhaps she might draw Louisa away for a few minutes and ask her thoughts on the matter.
The clock chimed a quarter to the hour. Enough nervous fluttering, she must get below stairs.
All the Gardiners gathered in the parlor. The children were dressed and polished, pretty as china dolls. Silas tugged at his lacy collar and kicked his feet along the front of the settee whilst little Thomas squirmed beside him, eyeing Silas’ breeches. Poor little boy wanted a skeleton suit of his own so badly. Alice whispered something to her younger sister, Margaret, and they tittered. Perhaps breeches would be presented to Thomas for Twelfth Night. She must ask Aunt if it were so and offer to add a bit of embroidery or other fancy work to the suit.
“Oh, Kitty, you look beautiful.” Margaret rushed to Kitty’s side. Pudgy little fingers spread her skirt and traced the embroidered scrolls.
“Your dress is so elegant.” Alice peered over Margaret’s shoulder.
“Did you embroider it yourself?” Aunt asked.
“I did. I remade it from my sisters’ old gowns. I saw two different patterns and could not choose between, so I combined them into this.” She twirled to show the back of the dress.
“Oh, oh! You must show me how to do the lacework on the sleeves!” Alice ducked behind Kitty and ran her fingertips along the delicate work. “You are so very clever.”
“I will be happy to teach you. It is not so hard—”
The housekeeper appeared. “Mr. and Miss Richards.” They stepped in.
He was a young man in a suit neither made nor tailored for him. It hung too loosely on his slight frame. Not so much as to be shabby, but enough to give him the air of a younger brother not quite fitting into his brother’s old clothes. Around his arm he wore a black band. The suit must have been his father’s. That would also account for the tiny sad lines around his eyes that persisted despite his smile.
His sister was clearly cut of a different cloth. Despite her black shawl and black trimmed bonnet, her smile held no traces of grief. The children rushed to greet her, and she crouched to meet them eye to eye. Little Thomas wrapped his chubby hand in hers and was rewarded with a kiss on the cheek.
“Come in, come in.” Uncle went to meet them. “Kitty, may I present Mr. and Miss Richards.”
“Do sit down.” Aunt fluffed a pillow on the settee.
Kitty sat beside Aunt. “I understand you are a clerk for my uncle, sir.”
“Yes, I have worked for him these three years now.”
“And I have been pleased for every one of them.” Uncle grinned.
“Where are you from, Miss Bennet?” Miss Richards asked, settling Thomas in her lap.
“My family lives in Hertfordshire, near Meryton.”
“Meryton! One of my favorite towns. I love to visit, when we are able to get away from London for a bit.”
“Our Aunt Goulding, my mother’s sister, lives in Meryton,” Mr. Richards said.
Kitty sucked in a short breath before she could stop herself. No, it was not possible. Of all people, did it have to be Mrs. Goulding?
Silas ran to the window. “Look, another carriage!”
“Our other guests must be here.” Uncle rose.
“Only one carriage worth, sir?” Mr. Richards chuckled. “I expected you to exceed the two dozen of last year with fifty at least.”
“If I did, you might find me on your doorstep for Boxing Day. My dear wife is patient, but even saints have their limits!”
“Indeed we do.” Aunt rose and shook out her skirt.
They laughed heartily.
The housekeeper appeared again. “The Bingleys.”
Mr. Bingley and Louisa entered, he grinning broadly, she a bit more shyly.
“I say, that is precisely the sound I would be greeted with. Do share the joke with me that I might partake as well.”
Uncle bowed and made introductions. “We just learned Richards has ties to Meryton.”
“Indeed? A lovely little town it is.” Mr. Bingley dropped into a chair between Kitty and Mr. Richards. He stretched his long legs and balanced his elbows on his knees. “Do tell me of your connections. Have you spent a great deal of time there?”
“Not as much as we would like in recent years. We spent our childhood summers in the country with Aunt Goulding,” Miss Richards said.
“They were memorable ones. So lovely to be away from the confines of the city.” Mr. Richards shifted in his seat. “What are your links to Meryton?”
Mr. Bingley glanced at Kitty and smiled the sparkling-eyed smile that sent her heart fluttering. “We met Miss Kit—Bennet several months ago whilst we let a house there. Are you familiar with Netherfield Park?”
“Oh, yes,” Miss Richards said. “It was a lovely place as I remember, though I thought the owner, Mr. Bascombe, something dreadful.”
Mr. Richards wagged his brows. “We were playing along the banks of a small stream and must have wandered onto his property. The poor man was so cross with us. He scolded until he turned quite red in the face.”
“I thought he might suffer an apoplexy in the middle of the meadow.” She giggled.
Mr. Bingley gazed at Miss Richards.
Kitty bit her knuckle. Did he find her attractive? She was uncommonly pretty and charming.
“He has not changed considerably. That sounds much like the man with whom I negotiated the lease.”
Miss Richard’s lips bunched into a tight frown. “Our Aunt mentioned a fire at Netherfield in one of her letters. Someone killed falling out a window? Do tell me that was not during your tenure.”
Mr. Bingley tugged his collar.
“Forgive me for interrupting. I believe dinner is ready.” Aunt rose.
“We must not keep the food waiting.” Mr. Bingley jumped to his feet and offered her aunt his arm.
Kitty bit her lip. He was only being polite, escorting his hostess. Why should that cause her chest to pinch so? Mr. Richards escorted Louisa. Thomas toddled to Miss Richards and dragged her toward the dining room. Silas bowed to Kitty with great solemnity, leaving Uncle to escort his daughters.
By the time they reached the dining room, Thomas was in Miss Richards’s arms, chatting softly to her. Her ease with Thomas only added to her beauty. No wonder Mr. Bingley kept looking at her.
Kitty hung back as the party seated themselves. Louisa caught her gaze and nodded toward the chair next to Mr. Bingley. Kitty blushed and took the seat.
Candles glittered among the heaping platters of roast boar’s head, cod and a huge roast goose. A tureen of mock turtle soup sat near Aunt, surrounded by stewed cucumbers, roast potatoes and beans ragooed with parsnips.
Uncle carved the meat and served slices. The adults nearest the children assisted them.
“Is this Mama’s soup receipt?” Kitty asked.
Aunt winked. “Actually it came from your great grandmother Carlson who passed it to your Grandmother Gardiner, who gave it to your mother, who gave it to me.”
“It will pass through yet another generation as I copied it to my own book—for someday.” Kitty dropped her gaze.
“I wish my mother kept such a book to share with me.” Miss Richards sighed.
“Did something happen to it?” Louisa asked.
“No, I fear she did not read and write herself.”
“I do not like to read and write.” Silas sat crossed his arms over his chest.
“Hush.” Alice elbowed him. “How can you be like Papa if you do not read?”
“You enjoyed the last story I read to you.” Miss Richards wagged her finger at him.
Mr. Richards chuckled. “I enjoy the way you allow the children at the table for Christmas dinner. They are delightful. Have you any brothers or sisters, Miss Bennet?”
“Yes, I am the fourth of five sisters.”
“Where are they?”
“They…they are with their husbands.”
“Your younger sister is married too? I did not think it the way of the gentry,” Mr. Richards murmured.
Kitty’s face burned. She turned aside.
“My sister, their mother, does not hold to that convention.” Uncle said. “My dear, shall I call for the second course?”
“Yes, I believe we are finished.” Aunt cast a meaningful look at Kitty who ducked away.
The housekeeper and maid cleared the first course and tablecloth beneath, decorated with drips of sauce and gravy. Platters and bowls and plates, including one heaped with minced pies, appeared on the pristine new cloth.
“Oh, my favorite!” Margaret squealed, pointing to the black butter.
“It is a favorite of mine too, Miss Margaret.” Miss Richards smiled and spooned some onto Margaret’s plate.
“You are a clerk for Mr. Gardiner?” Mr. Bingley asked. “I never had a head for detail. I leave that to my friend Darcy. I find I prefer making plans and—”
“Dreaming up new ideas.” Louisa grinned, eyes twinkling to match his. “Our father was much the same. It made him successful in business.”
“I hope to own a business someday,” Mr. Richards said.
“Really? What kind of business?” Mr. Bingley dabbed the corner of his mouth.
“He wants to work his way up to be partner to me.” Uncle leaned across the table and clapped Mr. Richard’s shoulder.
“That is many years off I am sure. I would prefer to begin a bit sooner. Something small perhaps. I wish my sister to stay home with me and help keep shop rather than hire out as a governess out of the reach of my protection.”
“My brother is too kind and exceedingly protective.”
“One cannot be too protective of a young lady’s reputation or person.” Mr. Richards folded his arms over his chest.
Kitty held her breath. What decided opinions he professed and so freely too!
“What kind of shop had you in mind?” Mr. Bingley braced his elbows on the table and rubbed his palms together.
Mr. Richards and Uncle launched into an animated discussion of options to which Alice, Margaret and Silas added their share to the conversation.
As they finalized their plans for the first confectionary-toy-bakery-haberdasher’s shop in all London, Aunt cried, “Christmas pudding anyone?”
The children clapped and shouted as the housekeeper brought in a spectacular flaming pudding and placed it in the center of the table. Thomas’s eyes grew round and he barely breathed, staring into the dancing blue flames.
When the last one flickered away, Uncle set to serving it.
Silas immediately took a large spoonful.
“Do be careful.” Aunt pointed to the pudding. “Remember the charms inside.”
Silas stopped his spoon midway to his mouth and returned the large morsel to his plate. He split it with a resounding metallic clink. He squealed and held up a penny.
“Look! I will be rich!”
“I want one too!” Thomas cried.
“Eat your pudding and perhaps you will find something.” Miss Richards handed him a spoon.
Kitty hesitated. Butterflies fluttered her belly. Last year, a spinster’s thimble appeared in her pudding. Mama and Lizzy laughed it away. Dear Mary suggested it stood for her love of needle work, not spinsterhood. Lydia, though, tormented her about it for months, secreting the charm in the most unexpected places. Oh please, let there be no a charm at all this year.
“Oh, look!” Alice cried and held up a tiny shoe.
“Where shall you travel? Perhaps a grand tour?” Mr. Bingley asked.
Louisa dangled a miniature horseshoe over her fingertip. “I do believe I have already felt my good luck.”
“Her betrothed is returning from the continent sooner than expected.” Mr. Bingley nodded at her.
No thimble, yet. Kitty ate slowly, savoring each rich bite. The more the piece on her plate shrank, the less likely it contained that dreaded—
“Oh, ow!” Mr. Richards pressed his cheek and pulled a petite thimble from his mouth.
Margaret laughed and pointed. “He should not have that. A man cannot be a spinster.”
Mr. Richards set the charm on the edge of his plate. “Too true, Miss Margaret. Perhaps you would like it.”
“Oh, no! Not me! I shall have a handsome husband one day.”
“Give it to Kitty!” Silas shouted.
Kitty choked on a bit of her pudding, coughing so hard tears stung her eyes.
“Silas!” Aunt glared at him. “If you cannot be pleasant company at my table, you may take yourself to the nursery.”
“I am sorry,” he mumbled.
Kitty gulped a bit of wine and forced a smile. She took her last bit of pudding. Something hard met her tongue, and she gasped at the odd metallic tang. She spat the small object into her hand and cleaned it with her napkin.
“A ring!” cried Thomas.
“Kitty found the ring.” Margaret rose up on her knees to get a better view.
“Lucky!” Alice pouted.
“But who will she marry?” Thomas asked, peering up at Miss Richards.
Louisa smiled at her brother. Was that a wink, too?
“A delightful pudding, my dear. Even better than last year’s.” Uncle pushed back from the table and patted his belly. “We should say our grace now.”
Everyone bowed their heads as he offered a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving.
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