Ok, so I’m not being very patient. I can’t wait to share these with you. So, I’ll be posting a new chapter every two weeks on Saturday until the book is published. (Don’t forget, comments really do inspire me to write faster…just saying…)
Find previous chapters HERE
Elizabeth enjoyed two dances with Mr. Wickham prior to taking Mr. Collins as a partner. He was no better a dancer at Longbourn than he was at the Netherfield ball. Not only did he tread upon her toes and hem, but he caused her to twist her ankle when he went right and the rest of the dancers went left. Phoenix suggested the injury was an excellent means to avoid dancing with him further. And since she had already danced all she could with the only other partner she cared to engage with, it proved a very good idea indeed.
Mr. Wickham was everything that Mr. Collins was not. Engaging, truly thoughtful, considerate—Mr. Collins could not think beyond how things might appear to his superiors and how they might relate to him as a result. Everything, absolutely everything was about him, his opinions, his reputation, the condescension he enjoyed. Had there ever been a more self-centered man?
He was such a man, and yet, neither mama nor papa ignored a single opportunity to throw them together. As if that would inure her to his flaws.
“You seem to have enjoyed Mr. Wickham’s company a great deal tonight.” Aunt Gardiner brought her a stool to prop her foot and sat in the far corner with her.
The vantage point afforded her an excellent view of the bright, greenery-draped drawing room and the company that danced and made merry around her only somewhat exaggerated her discomfort.
“He is an excellent dancer.” Elizabeth shrugged and glanced at Lydia and Mr. Wickham as they skipped down the line of dancers.
“I grant you that. And that, of course is a sure sign of a man’s character and his fitness as a friend.” Aunt cocked her head the way she did at her children.
Elizabeth squirmed, no doubt Aunt’s intended effect. “You did not find his company pleasing?”
“Of course I did, and that is perhaps what concerns me the most. No honest man is quite so pleasing, tells quite so carefully crafted a tale. Honestly, I thought I was reading some novel’s account of a much abused hero. No true story is so … perfect.”
“That sounds alarmingly cynical, something I believe you have warned me of more than once.”
“Not cynical, but cautious, my dear. You must grant that I have a great deal more experience to draw from. Something about him just does not ring true to me.”
“And the only faults you can find in him are that he is too handsome and his trials too lamentable?” Elizabeth’s head fell back against the edge of the settee and she stared at the crack in the ceiling plaster.
“Mr. Collins is not the only man with faults.” Aunt pointed her chin toward the fireplace where he held Uncle and Colonel Forester hostage to his long-windedness. “And he is not without his admirable qualities.”
Elizabeth’s jaw dropped. “You are not suggesting—”
“By no means! I am merely offering that your views of Mr. Wickham might be unduly colored by comparison to others.”
“It matters little what I think of either one. Papa is unmoved by my opinions and insists on having his way.” Her throat clamped down over her words, so tight they barely escaped.
“I know, my dear. You must believe that your Uncle and I are pleading your case to him. But even as we do that, I must ask you to be careful in bestowing your affections too freely. It is not helping our cause with your father for you to be seen expressing so much interest in Mr. Wickham.”
Her interest was unacceptable? Hers? Not Kitty who followed him around like a lost puppy or Lydia who laughed and cavorted so loudly half the town was talking about it? No, their behavior was beyond reproach, but hers, no that was the problem.
But Papa was not trying to marry them off to please the estate dragon.
Blast and botheration.
Why did Aunt have to be so sensible … and so right?
And it was not as though there was any possible future with Mr. Wickham, given how Mr. Darcy had impoverished him. Was a passing flirtation too much to give up for the hope Papa would take her dislike of Mr. Collins seriously? If only Mr. Wickham was a more eligible man.
Why did it seem Mr. Darcy was once again at the source of her misery?
Boxing Day business allowed Elizabeth to urge Mr. Collins toward keeping Papa company in his bookroom whilst the ladies managed the steady stream of tradesmen and sent boxes to the alms houses and less fortunate.
How surprising that Papa did not find the experience as pleasant as the rest of the family did. But did he really have to lock his study door after dinner? Watching Mr. Collins as he stood outside knocking and trying the door was painful at best.
“If your father was unhappy with Collins’ company, it serves him quite right, pushing you toward that ninny.” April chittered in her ear as she pinned her hair into place. “Maybe that will help him rethink this horrible plan.”
“Do not ruffle your feathers over him. You know that attitude always makes Longbourn angry.”
“Well, he is a selfish ninny as well.” April stroked Elizabeth’s ear with her cheek.
“You are very sweet. I can think of no better defender than you.”
April chirruped a bit of a laugh. “Phoenix would be ready to try though. I have never seen a fairy dragon so convinced he was capable of taking on anything that came, even a major dragon.”
“As I understand, that is a trait they all share. Possibly why male fairy dragons always seem in short supply.”
April snorted and preened her tail.
Come spring, Elizabeth might be forced to do something about the shortage of male fairy dragons in Hertfordshire. April was coming to an age where finding a proper mate would be an issue.
Lovely, one more business she would have to find a way to explain to Mr. Collins.
She squeezed her temples. One problem at a time, just one at a time. And today’s problem was chaperoning her sisters on their walk to Meryton.
“Will you come on our walk with us?” She picked up her green cloak and gloves.
“Of course. It is not nearly cold enough to keep me inside, though I would suggest that Heather remain inside. Her feathers are not nearly filled out enough to withstand the chill.”
Elizabeth chuckled. How maternal April had become since the hatching.
She headed downstairs.
Papa met her at the bottom of the stairs and beckoned her into his study. “So, Lizzy, bent on pleasure again?”
“Mama has asked me to accompany Kitty and Lydia to Meryton.” That it was not the same thing as a pleasure trip did not bear mentioning.
The stacks on Papa’s desk had been rearranged, with all the Blue Order books carefully out of sight. No doubt that was one reason for his annoyance with Collins. Having so much material which must remain concealed from him would prove trying indeed.
Heavens, she should have thought of that before sending him to Papa.
“Mr. Collins will accompany you when you go.”
Her eyes bulged and she clenched her teeth. One, two, three… best get to at least ten before responding.
He peered at her through narrowed eyes. “I said Mr. Collins shall accompany you.”
“There is no need to raise your voice. I heard you quite well.”
“I expect a response when I speak to you.”
“You do? I had no idea any response I could give you would matter.”
“Lizzie! I will not have you take that tone with me.”
“Yes, sir. Pray excuse me.” She ducked away from his gaze and wove through the tightly room toward the window.
“He spent the entire day with me, here, yesterday. He talked constantly and I do mean constantly. I have never met a man who could talk so much about so little.”
“I am well aware of his propensity.” She leaned her face out of the open window, the cool air soothed the heat in her cheeks.
“You are much better equipped to deal with him than I.”
“I am? That is quite a compliment you offer me. I do not know what I have done to deserve it.”
His solid footsteps approached. “You need not be sarcastic with me. You know very well you have a singular talent for listening to and engaging in—”
She turned to face him. “Meaningless conversation? Yes, we females are quite excellent at the little nothings that so entertain among society.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose and exhaled a long breath. “Why, Elizabeth? Why are you carrying on as if I have injured you?”
“If you do not know, then there is nothing I can do to explain.”
“We have been over this before. It is out of my hands. You know well that the decision is Longbourn’s, and he has made his choice very clear to you.” He crossed his arms and gave her a look as though that should settle matters.
Perhaps once it would have, but today … today it just sounded like the easiest solution to a problem he did not want to deal with.
“Have you chosen to ignore the changes that Uncle Gardiner—”
“Nothing has been decided and dragons are known for taking a long time to make changes. What is being discussed now may not take effect until your own children are getting ready to marry.”
“And then again, the papers may be signed tomorrow.”
“That is highly unlikely.”
“Not according to Uncle Gardiner.”
“He sees that because he wishes it to be so. Your aunt and uncle are exceedingly fond of you—a fact that has always endeared them to me. And pray remember that I am as well. But I fear that fondness has blinded him to the reality of the situation. Just because he wants things a certain way—”
“What of the letters he brings from the Secretary? Have you even read them?”
“Enough to know that I am right.”
She clutched her temples. “You have not even read them? Why are you so utterly committed—”
“To seeing Longbourn’s desires fulfilled? Because that is the role of a Dragon Keeper, as it has always been and how it always shall be. I have told you this all your life; you have always known it would be this way. Nothing has changed. Why have you become so petulant now?” He braced his hand against the window frame, leaning his head in the crook of his arm. “I should not have permitted you to read so many novels or to study so much philosophy. You have got far too many modern notions in your mind. All this rubbish about love and romance—utterly distracting to a Dragon Keeper.”
There were good reasons he believed that, but none of them would be appropriate to mention now. Possibly not ever. But what else could he believe considering the state of his own his relationships with Mama and Longbourn?
“Go now, Collins and your sisters are waiting for you. And you will be pleasant to both your sisters and Collins. You mother insists your sisters should seek out the officers in town and is quite tired of you contradicting her.”
“Do you not see the very great danger of the approach she suggests?”
“You seem pleased enough by Mr. Wickham’s company.” Did he have to employ that withering glare on her?
April popped her head out of Elizabeth’s cloak. “That is the only sensible thing you have said so far.”
You have taught your Dragon Friend some very inappropriate habits. It is no wonder that Collins does not like her.” He leaned in and glowered directly at April, but she seemed immune to its effects. “
April squawked and crouched, ready to launch.
Elizabeth covered her with her hand. “That will not help,” she whispered.
April popped her head up through Elizabeth’s fingers. “It is not me. You are of course, aware Collins does not like Heather either and she is sweet as treacle and bland as milquetoast.”
“You would do well to recognize your situation and to work to be more agreeable. Your position is not nearly as assured as Longbourn’s.” Papa shook a pointing finger at them.
“There is no call to threaten her! Nothing and no one will induce me to eject her from my home and I would thank you not to intimate that it is even a possibility.” She spun on her heel and stomped out.
Only the greatest level of self-control kept her from slamming the door behind her.
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