“No, that one. Thank you,” Darcy told Watkins. The weather was fine for mid-November and Bingley had planned for a brief ride out about the nearest parts of Netherfield this morning.
“Not too far, but I would appreciate your eye on some of the repairs, Darcy. You’ve a vast deal more experience than I in this sort of thing.”
The plan had been much more appealing before Miss Bennet and her sister had been installed as guests here at Netherfield. Darcy pressed his lips together and gave a brief survey over Watkins’ impeccable efforts. “Thank you.”
“Will you be out all morning, sir?” The valet, his bright green eye gleaming in the morning sunlight, adjusted the alignment of the knot in his employer’s neckcloth before slipping a brush from a pocket and paying close attention to the fabric of the riding coat at the shoulders. “Dining in this evening?”
“Likely and yes, I shall.” Miss Bennet would likely still be abiding here for dinner. Perhaps he would have the opportunity to talk with her then, since Bingley was absconding with him for the first part of the day.
Watkins nodded and Darcy took himself downstairs for breakfast. He could not help the speeding of his heart or the slight, nervous thrumming within his muscles as he approached the breakfast parlor. Would Miss Bennet be breakfasting with the family? He hoped she would. Breakfast was a much less formal occasion. A gentleman could be a gentleman still while conversing with a lady under far less watchful eyes.
The welcoming aromas of shirred eggs and buttered toast met him as he entered the smallish dining room. Bingley was already there. “Darcy,” he said, spooning jam on his toasted bread. “The housekeeper informed me that the Miss Bennets are doing remarkably well this morning. Miss Bennet was not yet ready to join us for breakfast, but will be brought down to the drawing room later this morning.” He winked slyly. “I guess you’ll have to be patient a little longer.”
Darcy did not enjoy being teased about Miss Bennet. Slicing his old friend a cool glance, Darcy turned to help himself to a plate. “As will you,” he retorted, keeping his voice even. “I daresay Miss Elizabeth shan’t stir without her sister.”
Bingley paused, a thoughtful expression sobering his teasing manner. “You may possibly be lacking in just that insight I normally accredit to you, my friend. I, er, don’t have a tendency in that direction.” Alarm sparked in his eyes. “D’you think I have compromised Miss Elizabeth in that way?”
Darcy could not help but be a bit amused at his friend’s sudden alarm. Still, he didn’t wish for his host to be uncomfortable – a gentleman would not trifle with a friend’s reputation. “No, I don’t believe so.” He set his coffee on the table carefully. “So, nothing leaning that way?”
“No, Darcy. Miss Elizabeth is a delightful young woman. She’s – she reminds me of friends I had at University. Very intelligent and spirited. But I didn’t have any inclination toward any of them, either.”
The laughter surprised Darcy as much as it did Bingley. When it subsided, Darcy had to wipe his eyes and met Bingley’s over the table and the two of them laughed again, together. The image of Elizabeth Bennet at Oxford wasn’t nearly as funny to the master of Pemberley as was the notion of Bingley’s connection of her with the schoolmates of their not-too-distant past.
As none of the ladies joined them, the men finished their breakfast quickly and were soon off to survey the property.
Upon returning, hours later, the men were met by Bingley’s butler, Burns. “Sir,” the thin fellow said in his nasal manner, “the Miss Bennets are in the drawing room. William and Frederick carried Miss Bennet down. Miss Bingley sent for the apothecary, but the ladies insisted upon being present at your return.”
“The apothecary?” Darcy handed Burns his riding gloves, which would be overtaken by his valet soon enough, and his hat before moving swiftly past Bingley and his butler to the drawing room. He heard soft voices and the low notes of a soothing piece issuing forth from the pianoforte. Still, Darcy’s mind could not rest until he had seen Miss Bennet.
He stopped just within the room, his boot-toes barely crossing onto the Aubusson rug, when he saw her deeply hued eyes lift to find his. His smile was involuntary, but not broad as he crossed the room to her. No one else captured his notice.
He bowed briefly to her. She was wearing a gown that was, perhaps, too formal for morning wear but he knew she had not expected to stay the night. Perhaps a servant should be sent for a change for her and for her sister. He was a practical fellow with a younger sister, as was Bingley. Really, he should have thought of this.
“Miss Bennet,” he said, realizing he’d been studying her perhaps too long. It seemed she was embarrassed as she was no longer meeting his eyes. “Pardon me. I hope you are improved this afternoon?”
With a soft smile, she looked up. “I am, I thank you. The apothecary has been by, as you might have heard.” With a slight motion of her hand, she asked, “Would you like to sit down? It is a bit awkward staring so far up at you, Mr. Darcy.”
He felt his ears heat with chagrin. “Certainly, Miss Bennet.” As he did a quick survey to see where he might sit that would allow him to continue his conversation with the injured lady, he caught the laughing gaze of her sister. “Miss Elizabeth. Good afternoon. Has your morning been pleasant?”
“Oh yes, Mr. Darcy. Everyone has been so kind,” she returned, her voice containing only the slightest edge. He wondered what had occurred, but did not wish to ask and risk embarrassing anyone.
As he sat down on the small chair nearest Miss Bennet, he noted that her pupils were slightly enlarged, giving him the understanding that whatever medicament the apothecary had offered had probably included opium. “Miss Bennet, I do hope this is not too much for you.”
“Oh no, sir. Not in the slightest,” Miss Bennet replied in her quiet way. “I could only wish for different circumstances under which to spend a day with friends.”
“Indeed,” he said, quite agreeing. He sought for a topic they had not yet touched on and was about to speak when she took the burden briefly from him.
“I understand you were riding this morning, Mr. Darcy. How did you find the country?”
They chatted about the landscape thereabouts and Darcy was pleased to note that she did not gush on about his horsemanship as other young ladies had done, seeking to win his favor by toad-eating. “Do you ride, Miss Bennet?”
Her smile lit her eyes and he felt himself to be nearly enchanted. This was certainly a dangerous place for him to be, but – though Elizabeth did smile far too slyly in their general direction a time or two – he could not find it within himself to leave Miss Bennet’s side.
Caroline Bingley did intrude, settling herself impudently between Miss Bennet and the comforting warmth of the fire. Darcy felt his hackles rise at her rudeness, but he said nothing. He confined his solicitude to making sure Miss Bennet’s footrest was comfortable and that her shawl looked to be thick enough for the abrupt change of temperature.
“Miss Bennet!” Caroline began. “So pleased the apothecary was able to be so helpful. I daresay you’ll be able to rejoin your family later today.”
Darcy was appalled at the lack of courtesy Miss Bingley displayed to her guest and made sure his expression showed it. Jane Bennet merely blushed, but she nodded. “Yes, I certainly shall, if our horse is ready to travel.”
“Absolutely not,” Darcy objected, his back stiffening in indignation on her behalf. “Her carriage is quite small and not well sprung.” Wincing inwardly at his lack of tact, he softened his voice and apologized to Miss Bennet. “Pardon me. I only meant that a better-sprung carriage would spare you pain from unnecessary jostling.”
Jane’s color was still high, but she would not meet his eyes and he wanted to kick himself. “I thank you, Mr. Darcy, but I shouldn’t wish to put you out. It is a mere three miles to Longbourn and I could bear the jostling very well, I’m sure.”
His fingers itched to clasp hers. Managing to restrain himself, he merely leaned forward a little. “Not at all. I assure you, it would be a pleasure.” Ah, her eyes lifted again and Darcy felt himself smile slightly. She had such a gentle, unassuming nature, and her accents were all that was ladylike. Indeed, he thought he might be in some danger. But he couldn’t bring himself, just then, to care.
“Hear, hear, what is this talk of departure?” Bingley’s sudden appearance just to Darcy’s right startled him. With a bright grin and a clap on Darcy’s shoulder, Bingley gave Miss Bennet his attention. “I shan’t hear of it. Not this evening, Miss Bennet. You and your sister are our guests. My cook tells me we’re having a ragout, this evening.”
Miss Bennet and her sister exchanged amused glances and Darcy wondered what family secret he was witnessing. Part of him wished to inquire, but he did not.
Instead, he heard Miss Bennet and her sister say all that was proper while Miss Bingley flounced across the drawing room to the pianoforte. Under cover of the music – Caroline Bingley was an accomplished musician – Darcy engaged Miss Bennet in a discussion about her favorite country pursuits. They touched on horseback riding walking, as well as the more sedate domestic pursuits, such as reading and the types of parties that were hosted at Longbourn as well as what he enjoyed at Pemberley.
At length, he saw her eyes sharpen and her voice became more animated. She asked him questions and laughed softly at stories he told her about his boyhood. He felt nigh on giddy with the wish to entice that laugh again.
“I am quite amazed, Miss Bennet, he said as the room began that restless shifting that precluded a change in activity. It was strange, but he hadn’t noticed any other happening during the time he and Miss Bennet – Jane – had been conversing. Now, he saw that the light had moved in the sky and it was time for tea.
“Amazed, Mr. Darcy? How?”
He rose and smiled down into her clear, deep blue eyes. “You’ve told me about everyone you know and I’ve yet to hear you say one unkind thing about anyone.”
“Oh, but they are all such agreeable people,” she assured him, honesty in every lovely line of her face.
“She’s a wonder, is she not, Mr. Darcy?” Elizabeth quipped, coming to her sister’s side. “A woman of her intelligence, too. That is the wonder of it.” Miss Elizabeth’s affectionate heart was in the forefront, but Darcy sensed she was studying him, too.
Impertinent? Perhaps. But then…
Perhaps he needed to study himself, as well.