Mothers of young ladies universally agree. A great fault exists in the management of young men’s education when one receives all the goodness while another, all the appearance of it.
Late Spring 1812
Darcy closed his book and peered through the carriage windows. They had made Meryton in good time, just before the heat of the day. From all indications, the temperatures would become considerably less comfortable as the morning wore into afternoon.
Bradley, his friend and vicar, craned his neck and looked out the side glass. “What a lovely, quaint, little place, just as Mr. Pierce described. I think his cottage is quite close to your new home, Bingley.”
Darcy squirmed in his seat and tugged at his collar. “I imagine the society is something savage.” He snorted and returned his attention to his book.
Bingley clapped his shoulder. “Come now, Darcy! You must leave this stuffy attitude of yours behind.”
“Must I?” Darcy rolled his eyes and folded his arms over his chest. “Mayhap I must send you out of my coach and back to your own where you may impose your improvements upon your sister and her maid.”
Bingley laughed and stretched his long legs along the floorboards. “Louisa banished me here as she wanted to sleep on the way this morning. Besides, you no longer impress me with your ‘Master of Pemberley’ mask.”
Bradley smiled his wry, paternal smile. “He is right. Your glare scares off a goodly number of people.”
“I believe that is his intention.” Bingley winked and grinned most annoyingly. “He dons this particular visage often enough, especially when he must mix with strangers.”
“Bingley—” Darcy grumbled. His forehead knotted. Though his closest friend, Bingley played the role of a most annoying sibling quite effectively. Perhaps it was best Darcy had no younger brothers.
“Your glower no longer frightens me.” Bingley brushed the idea aside. “I will not allow you an excuse for avoiding unfamiliar company.” He nudged Darcy’s foot with his.
Darcy crossed his legs and looked away. For Bradley’s sake alone, he curbed the colorful words that danced on his tongue. “I am not fond of company.”
“I would not be so fastidious for a king’s fortune.”
“I am not fastidious. Can you not allow for differences among people? I do not enjoy making small talk and milling about.”
Bingley’s eyes twinkled, tiny creases wrinkling their corners. “And what of dancing?”
“Tolerable enough, I suppose, when one knows his partner, but with a stranger…” Darcy suppressed a shudder.
“A half hour can feel like a very long time when forced to perform for company. It becomes an eternity for one struggling for conversation with someone unfamiliar.” Bradley rubbed his jaw.
“Thank you.” Darcy tipped his head.
This discussion had been repeated often enough, and on this point Bingley would not concede. He remained determined to make Darcy enjoy society.
Bingley leaned forward on his elbows. “Given your way, you would find a woman as fascinated by estate management as you. You could sit at tea and discuss seed drills and crop rotations! No small talk regarding the weather at meals or in the drawing room. Tenant disputes and the price of wheat will dominate your dinner table conversation.”
“Pray tell, why am I wrong to prefer useful dialogue to mindless fluff?” Darcy huffed and slouched against the cushions.
Bradley flashed a quick glance at Bingley and reached across the coach to slap Darcy’s shoulder. “No one says you are wrong.”
Darcy sighed and tucked his chin to his chest.
Bingley wrinkled his nose. “Come now, you have nary a thing to worry about whilst you visit here. None know you, and once you leave, you will never encounter any of them again. I can think of no more perfect place for you to spread your wings and learn the gentle art of sociability.”
“You cannot expect me to expose myself in such company.” Darcy squirmed.
Bingley dropped back, hands laced behind his head. “Meeting agreeable people is not the same thing as exposing yourself. You will enjoy it.”
That smug smile Bingley wore tried his patience. What had he been thinking when he agreed to this ridiculous adventure? Darcy pinched the bridge of his nose.
“I will help you the way I did at school. While I occupy Netherfield, Louisa and I will host dinners, parties, perhaps a ball. We will assist you in becoming acquainted with the neighborhood—”
“Already you talk of meeting the neighbors and hosting gatherings, and you have not yet seen the house? You put the cart before the horse.” Darcy looked from Bingley to Bradley.
Bradley smiled and pressed his lips together tightly. His shoulders quivered slightly.
“I have every faith it will be as the solicitor described. I say, you need not be so gloomy.” Bingley pushed hair away from his eyes.
“I am not gloomy. I am a realist.”
“The difference hardly signifies.” Bingley’s lips creased into a small frown.
The coach lurched to a stop.
Bingley peered out the side glass. “The Green Swan—what a curious name for an inn.”
“You are certain Bascombe told you to meet him here?” Darcy asked.
“How many establishments by the name of Green Swan can be in a town this size?” Bingley laughed and pushed the door open. “Are you coming?”
Darcy glanced at Bradley. “Not now. Get your sister settled. I will continue on to accompany Bradley to Pierce’s. Expect me for dinner.”
Bradley raised his eyebrow.
“Capital! With any luck, I will be able to talk with Bascombe and arrange a tour before you return.” Bingley touched the brim of his hat and ducked out.
Darcy leaned out and instructed the driver. He shut the door and settled into his seat. Without Bingley’s refreshing—albeit maddening—cheer, the afternoon’s heat turned stifling.
Bradley slid the windows open. “You are troubled.”
“Is it so clear?” Darcy rested his head against the seat.
“I fear this trip is a mistake.”
“How? The timing could not be better. Your sister stays with your aunt, and the spring planting is finished.”
“You are well aware that is not the issue.” Darcy squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. “I am not fit for company. I never have been.”
“Your friends in Derbyshire might disagree.”
“I have known them all my life.”
“Are not the Lackleys recently come to Derbyshire? If I recall correctly, he purchased the estate two years ago.”
“It is not the same.”
“No, it is not. You met them in Coopertons’ home, surrounded by friends who eased the way for you to become acquainted.”
“Neither Bingley nor I know anyone in Hertfordshire. What am I to do?”
Bradley extended an open hand. “Let Bingley assist you. He will soon be introduced to everyone here and make certain you are as well.”
“It was one thing at Cambridge, but we are no longer in school. It is not fitting for—”
“Someone of his social standing to assist you?”
“No—well, yes.” Darcy raised his hands. “I am the one who should make introductions for him.”
Bradley nodded and scratched a spot behind his left ear. “So, you are too proud to accept the help of someone beneath you.”
Darcy harrumphed and retreated into the squabs. “I will see the house as I promised Bingley, then I will go home. Write me when you are ready to return, and I will—”
“You will do no such thing.” Bradley slapped the seat beside him.
“Stop behaving like a child. You have spent far too much time holed away on your estate. How can you ever find a wife—”
“A wife? Here in the quaint little village of Meryton, a wife? Surely you jest.” Perhaps Lady Catherine was correct. He allowed his vicar too many liberties.
“I do not expect you to find a wife here. It is, though, a good place to practice those disciplines which will make you acceptable to young ladies of your circles. Do not look so offended! You say yourself you cannot manage small talk. Practice! You do not like to begin conversations with strangers. Polish those skills here. You complain you would rather not dance with ladies who are unfamiliar. Here is the place to become accustomed to the activity.”
“You cannot be serious! It would be a punishment.”
“A punishment for your improper pride?”
Darcy rubbed his temples and rolled his eyes. “You, of all people, know it is not pride.”
“You are shy as was your father before you. I well understand.”
“You sound unconvinced.” Darcy glared at him.
How was it Bradley humbled him into a mere school boy with only a glance? He looked aside.
“I wonder if shyness is not in itself a form of pride.”
Darcy grumbled and elbowed the seat back. “I do not comprehend your meaning.”
“Shyness thinks of its comfort first and foremost. Is that not pride?”
Darcy shook his head sharply. Knots settled between his shoulders.
“Have you considered how uncomfortable others are in the presence of an aloof, arrogant man?”
“I am neither one of those things.”
“Your father was regarded as a cold, distant, prideful man by those unacquainted with him. You will have the same reputation if you do not practice things that do not come easily to you.” Bradley tapped his foot.
Darcy sagged and hid his face in his hands. “I will make a fool of myself.”
“If that should happen, and I honestly cannot imagine how, you may leave. None of your circle will be the wiser. The company here is not the company you keep in London. I believe your reputation would be undamaged.” Bradley clapped Darcy’s shoulder. “The only way you learn to do something difficult—”
“Is through practice. You say it often enough.” The corners of Darcy’s lips turned up in spite of himself. How many years had Bradley been challenging him? Far too many to count. “You may be right, but I do not have to like it.”
“Of course, you do not.”
“I believe that is Mr. Pierce’s home. He said he lived on the outskirts of Longbourn estate.” Bradley pointed toward a neat cottage off the lane.
“It seems well kempt,” Darcy mumbled. “Are you sure you will be comfortable staying with a veritable stranger? You are more than welcome to take rooms with Bingley and me at the inn.”
“I appreciate your offer, and I will keep it in mind should the need arise. However, I can hardly suggest you do what I am unwilling to.”
The coach slowed to a stop. Darcy pushed the door open and jumped down. He helped Bradley disembark.
“I will send your trunk along this evening.” Darcy held Bradley’s elbow until he gained his footing on the gravel path.
“Thank you. I fear you are spoiling me for traveling post!” Bradley shook Darcy’s hand. He turned toward the man who approached. “Mr. Pierce, I trust?”
The man was tall and lean, simply but neatly dressed. He walked with easy assurance and a peaceful confidence so like Bradley—could the two men be related?
“I am indeed. Mr. Bradley?” He bowed. “Welcome to my home.”
“Thank you kindly, sir.” Bradley glanced back.
“Good day.” Darcy tipped his head and returned to the waiting coach.
The carriage wheels crunched along the road. He gazed at the pastoral landscape and chewed his knuckle. Bradley’s words still rang in his ears. Many had thought Father proud and distant. Now Bradley intimated he might bear the same reputation. Father had not been unduly proud. Those close to him understood him to be reserved and uncomfortable in company, as was his son.
Darcy’s chest pinched and stomach roiled. He wrapped his arms around his waist. His friends were few. What did others see? Would they call him arrogant and unfeeling?
How did one breathe in such beastly heat? He rapped on the roof and jumped out as the coach stopped. “I have been confined too long today. Return to the inn. I will make my way on foot.”
The driver turned to look at him. “Are you certain, sir? I can wait here while you refresh yourself.”
“There is no need. Inform Mr. Bingley of my plans.”
“Very good, sir.” The driver slapped the reins, and the horses walked on.
Darcy gulped the fresh, cool air that tasted of youth and freedom. A small path into the woods caught his eyes. A walk was just the thing to clear his mind. He hurried along the tree-lined trail.
An old oak stretched out to cover the worn footpath and shook hands with elms on the other side. Matlock had a similar path. He cringed. The last time he had walked it was the day he had overheard Uncle Matlock defend Father to Aunt Catherine. She had called him a heartless, conceited man. Even the family mistook Father’s true nature.
Perhaps Bradley was right.
His footsteps crunched through the deadfall. He threw his hands up and groaned. Of course, Bradley was right! When had that blasted man ever been wrong? He kicked a small stone.
A trio of birds burst from a clump of bushes. Raspberry bushes! He darted off the trail.
How long had it been since Mother took him to the berry patches near the stream? Father sometimes joined them on a picnic, and they would feast on berries after. Somehow, the fruit always tasted better by the riverbanks than from silver bowls on the dining table.
He plucked some raspberries and pricked his fingers. Their sweetness was worth the sting. Bradley often said the sweetness of righteousness was worth the sting of correction. Gah! He tossed his head. How could that man’s words follow and torment him everywhere he turned? He cast about for a place to sit and settled himself on a fallen log.
Practice! Bradley said to practice. He combed sticky fingers through his hair. Did Bradley believe he might one day be like Bingley? He gazed at the clouds and cringed. Producing the volumes of empty conversation Bingley did would surely be the death of him. Perhaps, though, he could become recognized as a quiet man instead of a proud one. But how?
Enough woolgathering. Bingley was waiting for him. He needed to get back. His quest for berries had taken him off the path. Now the trail was nowhere in sight. Bloody foolish move! Even his footprints were lost in the undergrowth.
A sweet laugh rang through the woods, and a feminine voice broke out in song.
His heart pounded wildly. Could salvation be so easy? “You there! Pray, excuse me!”
Branches rustled nearby.
“Who calls me?” the sweet voice cried.
“Here, please. I am in need of assistance.” His cheeks burned. The Master of Pemberley lost in a stranger’s woods? How humiliating!
“Have you a name, sir?” A face—a lovely one—appeared in the bushes, the girl herself a moment later.
Her fine gown and the well woven basket she carried declared her a gentlewoman, and he without a proper introduction.
The burn in his cheeks crept along his jaw to his ears. He bowed. “Forgive me, madam. I am Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley in Derbyshire.” His coat caught on a thorny cane, and he fumbled to release it.
“I am pleased to meet you, Mr. Darcy of Pemberley.” She curtsied. “I am Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourn, the estate you trespass upon.” Her eyes twinkled and lips turned up in a dainty little bow.
The last of the branches released him. He stumbled near her. “Please forgive my trespass.”
“How have you come to be lost in my father’s woods, so far from the main road?” Her teasing voice belied her arched brow.
Her smile cooled the heat in his face. “We arrived from Derbyshire this morning. I left my friend at the cottage not far from here to visit with—” He glanced over his shoulder.
“Yes, that was the name.”
“He is our curate and my father’s tenant. Is your friend the vicar from Derbyshire?”
“How came you to be in these woods, sir?”
Her eyes held him, compelled him to keep her attention, though in the same moment, stealing away his powers of speech.
He shook his head sharply. “Ah, yes. I needed to stretch my legs, so I decided to walk to town and sent my driver ahead. A small path off the road caught my eye and followed it.” Already he had spoken to her more than to any young woman outside his circle in a year at least. Bradley would be impressed.
“You became distracted by the loveliness of our woods and, before you knew what you were about, you lost your way?”
He dug his toes into the soft dirt.
“I should laugh at your misfortune, but I strive to avoid hypocrisy. I will show you to the main road.” She beckoned him to follow.
“I am quite in your debt. Usually, I am far more observant.”
“Long hours in a carriage cause my mind to wander. I am most sympathetic.” She pushed her basket through the bushes ahead of her.
Where had she traveled? She must be a most agreeable travel companion.
“Might I be of service, madam? May I carry that for you?” He reached for the large basket.
“An empty basket is hardly any trouble. If you desired to be truly gallant, you should have lost your way several hours ago.” She laughed, but allowed him to take the hamper.
“This would hold a meal for quite a large family.” He held it in front of him, turning it this way and that. Surely it must be the heat—what else could make him sound so much like Bingley?
“It did. I brought soup and other comforts to two of my father’s tenants who are taken with colds.”
She visited her father’s tenants. His heart skipped a beat. Bingley would find this rich.
“I hope their ailments were mild. Only recently we lost our previous vicar to a cold that settled into his lungs.”
“So, your friend has only recently become vicar?” She gazed at him. A little crease formed between her eyes.
What a delightful expression!
“Yes, he served as curate for almost all my life. We rely upon his wisdom regularly.”
“He sounds like our Mr. Pierce.”
“Does your curate deliver a good sermon?”
“That would depend upon whom you ask. He writes his own sermons. Many speculate during the week as to what he will speak about on Sundays.”
Darcy snickered. “Forgive me. My aunt’s ridiculous parson once waxed most philosophical on the sinful arrogance of a man who writes his own sermons. I imagine his sermons are also much discussed, though for different reasons. No one accuses him of dispensing wisdom to his parish. His flock is truly safe from those unsettling influences.”
Miss Bennet’s expression softened, and she laughed, the ring of gaily pealing bells in the morning sun.
“We have reached the main road, Mr. Darcy of Pemberley.” She pointed through a break in the branches.
“I am in your debt, Miss Bennet of Longbourn.” He forced his fingers to release the basket into her hands. “I hope to make your acquaintance again, so we may be properly introduced.”
Her cheeks colored with a dainty blush. Should that make him smile so?
“Thank you for the compliment, sir. If your stay here will be of some duration, we will likely meet in town, or perhaps at one gathering or another.”
It was still too soon to let her go. What else could he say? “The other friend I traveled with expects to take a lease on Netherfield Park. Is that property near your father’s estate?”
“Netherfield is our nearest neighbor. My sisters and I will certainly call upon his wife—”
“His sister will keep house for him.”
“Then we will pay her a call soon.”
He would see her again! If his heart beat any louder, she would surely hear. Bingley must take Netherfield.
She pointed down the road. “A short walk will bring you into town.”
“I am much obliged.” He bowed and set off along the lane. What an asset a pair of fine eyes was in the face of a lovely young lady. Bradley did not need to know that, net yet. Darcy chuckled under his breath. Bradley would be satisfied that he planned to continue his stay in Hertfordshire.
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