Everyone has a past. Oftentimes it behooves one to think of the past only as its remembrance gives one pleasure.
“I do not see how you can disagree. Truly, I do not.” Lady Catherine’s features settled into the familiar expression of a school mistress who knew best: lips pressed tight, eyes narrowed and staring down her nose. She perched on the overstuffed chair and folded her hands in her lap.
Fitzwilliam Darcy opened his mouth to comment but shut it before the words escaped. When his mother-in-law wore that expression, only a fool considered arguing. The dear woman possessed the Fitzwilliams’ hallmark stubbornness in far greater measure than her petite stature implied.
“If my Anne were still with us, she would agree—”
“With what would she agree?” Richard Fitzwilliam poked his head in the doorway.
Darcy jumped and twisted around in his seat. “I swear you will drive me barking mad!”
“How so?” Fitzwilliam sauntered in. His heavy boots barely whispered against the carpet.
“Sneaking up on me! One day I will—” Darcy rose and shook a pointing finger.
“Balderdash! You would do no such thing, and even if you did, you would stand no chance—”
“Yes, yes, I know, against a retired colonel of His Majesty’s army. I know. You say it often enough.”
Fitzwilliam chuckled and dropped onto the settee. His long legs stretched into the center of the room, perfectly situated to trip the unsuspecting. “You are merely unhappy George and David have learned from their uncle, the hero. What have they done this time?”
“Ask the butler who is cleaning the ink spilled on my desk, and coat, and breeches.”
Lady Catherine leaned forward. “Really, Fitzwilliam, retired colonel or not, I am not sure you should be teaching my grandsons—”
“They are boys, madam, and if I have anything to say on the matter, they will be permitted to act like boys.”
“Your dear mother, Lady Matlock, never allowed—”
“No, she did not, and I vowed never to see the same inflicted upon any boy in my influence. In fact, it is high time I taught them to fence.” Fitzwilliam brandished an invisible foil.
“They are full young for that.” She groaned and pinched her temples.
Fitzwilliam grinned his maddening cocksure smile. “So then, Aunt, on what do you insist Anne would agree with you?”
Darcy grumbled and sank into his chair.
She smoothed her skirt over her lap. “I am sure you will agree. It only stands to reason that—”
“No, madam, it does not.” Darcy pressed his eyes with thumb and forefinger.
“What stands to reason?” Fitzwilliam asked.
“A widower in possession of children and an estate—”
“And a good fortune,” Darcy muttered.
“Naturally, a good fortune, that goes without saying.”
“What about such a gentleman?” Fitzwilliam enjoyed this far too much.
“Why, he must be in want of a wife, of course.” She sprang to her feet and wandered across the room, stopping in front of the large picture window. “A retired admiral of the White, Thomas Bennet, a widower with four children, two daughters and two sons—”
“And five thousand a year.” Darcy rolled his eyes.
Lady Catherine shot him a look certain to sour milk. “He purchased Alston Hall and will move in this week.”
“Ah, that explains the to-do on the road today,” Fitzwilliam said.
“You saw him?” Lady Catherine brightened.
“Indeed, spoke with him myself. Seems a most amiable gentleman, for a sailor.” Fitzwilliam winked. “Though I understand you do not approve of the navy, Darce, something about it bringing people of obscure birth into positions they do not deserve.”
Darcy drummed his fingers along his jaw. Fitzwilliam never forgot any comment he could later use out of context.
“What a fine thing for our family.” She clapped her hands. “You must visit him, of course, as soon as may be arranged.”
“How is this a fine thing for our family?”
“You must consider the boys and Georgiana. Your sister pines for the company of other young women, and you yourself complain the parish lacks fitting companions for her. Here this Bennet fellow has two daughters. Your boys desperately need playmates of their own age to do … well, boy-things with, and now two are come into the neighborhood.”
“And precisely how, madam,” Darcy clutched the arms of his chair until the fabric threatened to give way, “have you ascertained any of this family are fitting company? For all you know, this admiral could be a shopkeeper’s son with tawdry morals and a mouth like … like a sailor.”
“What has come over you? You are simply impossible! Go and visit our new neighbor, or I promise you, I will do so myself without you.” She harrumphed and stomped out.
Silence lingered in her wake as they both watched the door. Darcy held his breath, a little trepidatious of her return.
“She was right about one thing,” Fitzwilliam said. “What has come over you?”
Darcy let his head fall back against the chair. “I already met the man.”
“Shortly after you encountered him. George and I went riding and came upon one of their coaches stuck in the mud. We helped them free it and suggested an alternative road.”
“And I found him an amiable gentleman with well-mannered sons who will make excellent playmates for George and David.”
“So, why the row you created—” Fitzwilliam pointed his chin toward the doorway.
“He still grieves an esteemed wife, lost only last winter, and does not deserve match-making machinations.”
“And his daughters? Are they pretty? What of their dowries?”
“They remained in the carriage.” Darcy rubbed the back of his neck. “I do not believe, ‘Hello, pleased to meet you. Are your daughters suitably attractive, or do their fortunes offer sufficient compensation for their facial deformities?’ is considered a polite introduction, even in the wilds of Derbyshire.”
“You will be able to judge for yourself soon enough.”
“You are going to visit them?”
“No.” Darcy pushed to his feet and laced his hands behind his head. “Alston Hall will require a full staff working two weeks complete, probably more, to make the place livable. They brought only a half dozen long-time servants with them.”
“So, I invited them to stay at Pemberley. Mrs. Reynolds can help them hire a proper staff.”
“You did what?” Fitzwilliam slapped the settee.
“They did not immediately accept the invitation. However, after they visit Alston Hall, I am certain they will.”
“Do I comprehend you correctly? You invited them to stay? Here? A stranger—and a sailor no less? What are you thinking? You are no lover of company, particularly that of strangers.”
“We have both read of his exploits often enough. His connections and his reputation are common knowledge. To call him a stranger is hardly fitting. I regard it an honor to host a man of his standing.” Darcy looked away and shrugged. “Besides, he reminded me of Father.”
Fitzwilliam slapped Darcy’s shoulder harder than necessary. “I’ll be damned. I shall not tell Aunt Catherine, though. She likes surprises.”
“Are we almost there?” Francis Bennet clambered over his father’s lap and smashed his nose against the side glass. “You said we would arrive before supper. I’m hungry.”
Elizabeth stretched across the coach to grab his arm, but he squirmed out of her reach. It was high time Francis learned not to speak every thought that crossed his mind.
“No ‘Lisbet! I want to see!” He bounced on his father’s knee.
Admiral Thomas Bennet grimaced and seized him around the ribs, lifting him off his lap.
“Come here.” Jane caught his elbow and pulled him toward her. “You know Papa’s leg pains him.”
He bowed his head and scraped his feet. “I am sorry, Papa.”
Papa lost his officer’s glare and ruffled the boy’s hair.
Francis lurched toward Jane, stumbled and fell into his identical twin’s shoulder. “Oh, oh! I see it, I see it!”
“Look, Papa.” Philip tapped the glass. “See the gables and look—look, there’s the turret, just as you described. Might that room be ours, Papa?”
“We shall see.” He kneaded his thigh.
Philip flattened himself against his father’s side, making room for Francis near the side glass. “It is just as grand as Papa said. Isn’t it, Jane?”
“Why not sit beside Jane so you can get a better view?” Papa gave Philip a gentle push toward the opposite seat.
Jane settled him beside her and draped her arm around him.
“I think it horrid.” Francis tossed his curls and stamped. “Why did we have to leave Longbourn? I liked it there. You said we would not have to move again.” He stuck out his bottom lip.
“That is enough!” Elizabeth hissed.
Papa’s brows knotted, and he ground his teeth.
One day Francis would learn the meaning of that expression and be far more careful about provoking it.
“We left because my nip farthing, ninnyhammer brother, Collins, insisted on installing his worthless son and his French wife-in-water-colors there.”
“He wanted to bring a painting to Longbourn?” Philip huddled close to Jane. Papa’s ire always upset him, poor boy. “Mightn’t we have stayed and let him hang the painting?”
“It is a little more complicated than that, dear,” Jane said.
“Bloody, rank, white livered …”
Elizabeth caught his eye. Philip would soon ask what all those words meant and she was not about to explain mistresses and other manly things to him. Papa could have that conversation all to himself.
Papa wrinkled his nose. “An honorable man would have given us more than a month to vacate.”
Elizabeth laid her hand on his arm. “Let it go. You always say a man should be captain of his own ship. Now that Alston Hall is yours, you are master. You were never happy at Longbourn with the specter of our uncle looming over you.”
“My voice of reason.” He patted her hand, scowl softening. “Using my own words against me, no less, clever lass.”
“I still think—”
“Francis!” Jane and Elizabeth cried.
The coach slowed as it trundled up the gravel lane. The looming, dark windows in the pale stone elevation dared them to approach.
“Let us see if she floats.” Admiral Bennet pushed the door open before the coach came to a complete stop.
He jumped down, grimaced and clutched his knee. The boys bounded after him. Jane and Elizabeth waited for the coach to come to a proper halt. By that time though, Papa was long gone. After so protracted a journey, one could by no means expect patience from him.
Papa’s man, Piper, shambled over from the other coach and handed them out. Frightening scars puckered the old sailor-come-valet’s face and his eye patch lent him a menacing air, one he cultivated at every opportunity. All the Bennets knew better, though. He had been with Admiral Bennet for as long as the girls could remember. The two men had saved each other’s lives so many times neither kept count.
Mrs. Hill, their longtime housekeeper, and Miss Iola Wexley, the boys’ long-suffering governess, joined them at the front door.
“Permission to come aboard, Cap’n?” Piper saluted and squeezed his good eye shut, drawing his cheek and lip into something resembling a snarl.
The boys saluted. “Permission, Papa?”
“Permission granted.” Papa twisted the key in the lock and wrenched the doorknob. The hinges squealed their protests and the door inched open. He took his sons’ hands and stepped over the threshold. The rest followed.
Elizabeth sniffed the stale air, musty and dusty as a well-traveled sea chest. Jane sneezed. Twice.
“At least they kept the furniture properly covered,” Mrs. Hill muttered. “I best go find the kitchen.” She trundled off.
Elizabeth bit back a giggle. Only Mrs. Hill dared wander away without awaiting the Admiral’s orders. He gave her a wider berth than even Piper. Not even he had cheek enough to raise the sturdy woman’s ire.
“Miss Wexley, survey the servants’ rooms.” He turned to Piper. “Take the boys and reconnoiter the east wing. Perhaps you can find a school room and nursery.”
The twins moaned and sputtered incomplete protests that they dare not give full voice lest Papa find it necessary to correct their attitudes.
“Yes, sir.” Piper saluted.
Francis and Philip mimicked him and followed him upstairs.
Elizabeth cleared her throat.
“Ah, Lizzy, do not say it. Go look through the house first. You and Jane take the west wing whilst I survey downstairs. I am certain you will yet find the manor meets your standards.”
“Yes, Papa.” Elizabeth trudged toward the stairs, Jane at her side.
“It is a lovely house, is it not?” Jane whispered.
“The architecture is beautiful, I fully grant you.” Elizabeth clutched the banister in one hand and her skirts in the other. “Mahogany and paper hangings are lovely, dust and disrepair are not.”
“The roof and the windows appear sound,” Jane offered in her plucky, trying-to-make-the-best-of-it-voice.
“A fine beginning, indeed.” Elizabeth landed her foot on the final step a little harder than strictly necessary. “If you are correct, I am grateful. Still, I hope for more than just roof and windows.”
The hall stretched on and on and disappeared into the horizon. A chill wind whistled and moaned past them.
“My goodness.” Jane rubbed her arms. “This is a grand place, indeed.”
Elizabeth shrugged and yanked the first door. “These look like family quarters.” She pulled the dusty sheets off the press and jerked open a drawer. A moth flew out as she tugged out a crumpled sheet. “Badly folded and musty.” Her nose wrinkled and she fought not to sneeze. “Everything must be washed before it can be used. Much will need mending too.”
Jane jerked back the bed’s dust covers to reveal an elegantly carved frame. “How lovely.” She sat down.
The mattress caved in and swallowed her.
Elizabeth wrestled her away from the hungry featherbed. “That needs work, too.”
“Perhaps we should rig some hammocks from the bed posts.” Jane held the musty sheet between the bedposts.
“No doubt Piper still sleeps in one.” Elizabeth beckoned Jane to the next room.
Half an hour later they met Papa in the foyer.
“I found neither coal nor firewood,” Mrs. Hill screwed her lips into her smile-so-she-did-not-frown expression that Elizabeth assiduously avoided, “and if you be askin’ me, it be far too early in the spring to be without the option of a good fire. Not to mention, I expect you will be demanding proper meals from time to time, and fire be required for that effort, too.”
“No bedroom is fit to sleep in right now.” Elizabeth crossed her arms and leveled a stern gaze at Papa. “We must take Mr. Darcy up on his offer—”
“No, I will arrange rooms at the Bull in Lambton where I stayed when I came to see the place in—”
“What of the fire? Mr. Darcy said repairs to the inn were not complete.” Jane tapped her foot softly on the dusty marble floor.
“I do not like it.”
“You do not have to.” Elizabeth set her jaw.
He harrumphed. “I suppose we have little choice but to impose on our neighbor’s hospitality. I will send Piper to warn them.”
“It is good of you to do so, but I have no doubt we are already expected,” Elizabeth murmured.
Happily, Papa did not appear to have heard.
A quarter hour later, two carriages trundled toward Pemberley.