As the carriage made its way down the elm-lined lane, Elizabeth removed a spot of lint from her white kidskin gloves. One of the women on the stagecoach had worn a dark brown wool cloak with a tendency to shed. By the time Elizabeth had departed the stage, her left side had been dotted with bits of brown fluff. Not wishing to arrive looking like a refugee from a kennel, she had spent the last half hour painstakingly picking off lint. It was an improvement, but no matter how careful she was, she would still look like a poor relation when she reached Bentham Park. She always had, with or without lint.
It hardly mattered, though. If she was fortunate, Lord and Lady Bentham would not be in residence, and even if they were, she would likely see them only at dinner. Lord Bentham paid little attention to Eleanor, and even less to his only daughter’s friends. Eleanor herself would not care if Elizabeth appeared in rags. A lack of interest in the latest fashions was one of the traits they shared.
The lane opened onto an imposing vista of Bentham Park. The butler at the door was less imposing but more supercilious, making clear with one sniff his opinion of young women who travelled accompanied by no more than a maidservant. “I will see if Lady Eleanor is at home,” he intoned.
Given that Elizabeth had just arrived in Eleanor’s carriage which Eleanor had sent for her less than an hour ago, it seemed unlikely that Eleanor would not be at home, but Elizabeth managed to suppress the urge to point this out to the butler. She would laugh about it later with Eleanor.
A few minutes later, the butler, with a pained look engraved on his gaunt features, led her to the sitting room where Eleanor sat in an exquisitely ladylike pose, each blonde curl precisely in its place, and greeted her with the langour so fashionable among the ton, a manner quite different from the desperate letter she had sent only a few days earlier. Elizabeth had expected no less, since Lady Bentham’s hawk-like eyes were upon her stepdaughter.
After a few pleasantries, Eleanor suggested that Elizabeth might wish to rest after her journey. Setting a sedate pace, she led Elizabeth upstairs to a small but elegantly furnished bedroom, making idle pleasant conversation all the way.
As soon as she closed the door behind her, Eleanor’s smile faded. “Thank you for coming, Lizzy! I have been desperate for your good sense and friendship.”
“So I gathered from your letter.” Elizabeth took Eleanor’s hands in her own. “I came as quickly as I could, but not as quickly as I would have liked. Your letter worried me so – it is not like you to send out a call for help! What has happened?”
“So much – I hardly know where to begin! It is such a muddle. Papa has taken it into his head that it is time for me to marry, and I simply cannot bear it! He has even opened discussions with the gentleman he has chosen for me.” Eleanor shuddered. “He will be coming here next month, and Papa plans to announce the engagement then.”
Elizabeth was well aware of her friend’s propensity for dramatics, but her voice held a tinge of desperation this time. “Is he so very bad?
Eleanor twisted her fingers in the enbroidered rose silk of her skirt. “No,” she half-whispered. “It could be much worse. He is not ill-tempered, and has no disgusting habits, but he is a Pink of the ton. If he cares about anything beyond the latest fashion in waistcoats or the perfection of the knot in his cravat, I cannot ascertain it, and he assumes that everyone else is just as fascinated by his wardrobe as he is. At our last meeting, he unbent so far as to tell me that he had some ideas as to which milliner I should use for my wedding clothes, since it is crucial to his reputation that I meet the same standards of sartorial elegance that he himself does. And, of course, he is one of my step-mother’s friends.”
“Oh, I am sorry. Is your father absolutely set on it?”
“Irrevocably. But I haven’t told you the bad part yet.”
“There is more?”
Eleanor nodded miserably. “I am in love.”
Elizabeth stared at her friend as a knock at the door announced the arrival of a tea tray. The two young ladies sat in perfect silence until it was all arranged and the maidservant had departed.
“Oh, dearest Eleanor! I take it that you do not refer to the Pink of the ton. Is he unsuitable?”
She shook her head. “Not to me, but to my father? Utterly unsuitable, merely because his father was in trade. It does not matter that Geoffrey is a perfect gentleman, is better educated than my father or any of my brothers, or that he is master of a fine estate. He is hopelessly tainted in my father’s eyes.”
“Did you meet him in London?”
“No. I have known him all my life, though I had not seen him for many years before last summer. He is one of our nearest neighbors, and he is the only man in the world who does not expect me to be someone I am not. I cannot bear losing him, Lizzy.”
“Does he know of your feelings?”
“He knows everything. Sometimes we manage to steal a few minutes together, but it is not often. My stepmother is too attentive a chaperone, and my parents do not approve of the connection, even as a friend. It is only in the last two years, since Geoffrey’s father died, that they have acknowledged his existence at all, and even now they will not invite him to the house. He has had a gentleman’s education and appears no different from any of our friends, but his father was a weaver before making a fortune in the mills.” Her expression fell a little. “I liked his father, though, the one time I met him.”
Elizabeth frowned. “If your parents did not acknowledge him, how did you come to know him or his son?”
Eleanor stood and went to the window, her fingers tracing the frame as she looked out. “Without permission, of course.” Her voice was colorless. “It was back when I ran wild, you see. Before my father remarried.”
“That makes more sense, then.” Elizabeth wondered if Eleanor realized how much her own life still resembled what Eleanor called “running wild,” which included everything from walking alone in the countryside to squabbling with her brothers. When her father had married again seven years ago, Elizabeth had assumed that Eleanor’s complaints about her stepmother were merely a child’s natural resentment of another woman taking her mother’s place, made worse by the fact that she was both a noted beauty and barely ten years Eleanor’s senior. She had not realized there was more to it until she saw how Eleanor’s high spirits dimmed over the years under her stepmother’s strict tutelage. Her stepmother might be considered the finest hostess in England and the toast of the ton, but Elizabeth could not admire her dedication to changing Eleanor into a copy of herself. Sometimes she had wondered if the girl she had played with was gone forever, leaving only the perfect debutante. It was good to see the old Eleanor again, even if it was because she was suffering.
“I know, I was fortunate to have any time when I could fly free, but I hate it so much – being a proper young lady, that is, and a credit to the family.” Her words dripped irony. “At the time, I didn’t realize how lucky I was. I was too busy pitying myself because my brothers refused to play with a mere girl. They thought themselves too good for Geoffrey as well, so he and I became friends. He taught me to catch tadpoles,” she said wistfully.
“How did you come to meet him again?”
“At a ball in London, if you can believe that. He has friends enough in the ton that he can attend some of the lesser occasions. I did not even recognize him at first, until I passed him in one of the dances and he said that he hoped I had no tadpoles in my reticule. And then I knew him, but I also knew something had changed between us. The way he looked at me – it made me hot and cold at the same time. I danced the next set with him, and then the dinner dance. He made me laugh, and I spoke more to him than I had to any gentleman all Season. It was heaven. I was so sad to leave him, and as soon as I entered my carriage after the ball, my stepmother began to berate me for my hoydenish behavior. Proper young ladies do not laugh at balls; they must feign ennui. Nor do they talk to men beyond what words are necessary to entice their interest, always assuming the man in question is an appropriate prospect.” She paused, then collapsed on the bed as if the weight of her elegant dress were too much for her. “That was almost a year ago.”
“Are you certain that your father would not permit a marriage between you?”
“Certain beyond a doubt. At my urging, my brother Charles raised the question to him, saying that financially it would be a good match. My father said he would rather see me dead than married so far beneath me.”
Elizabeth tried to imagine how that might feel, but it was too foreign to her own experience. It was impossible to conceive of anything she might do that would lead her father to prefer her to die, but she knew enough of Lord Bentham to believe Eleanor’s story.
“Geoffrey wanted to ask his permission anyway, arguing that the worst he could do would be to refuse, but he is wrong. That is not the worst. If my parents had any inkling of my interest in Geoffrey, they would make it impossible for me to see him again. We are together little enough as it is, but to be denied even that – it would be intolerable. I would run mad.”
Feeling helpless in face of her friend’s misery, Elizabeth said, “I am so sorry. I wish there were something I could do to help.”
Eleanor pushed herself up on her elbows, her eyes now alight. “But there is! That is why I asked you to come.”
That look of Eleanor’s usually meant trouble. What could anyone possibly do to help? Surely she would not expect Elizabeth to serve as a go-between, or, worse, to cover up an elopement? With some trepidation, she said, “I hope you are not thinking of eloping.”
Her friend’s shoulders slumped. “I wish I could. Geoffrey is willing, but I cannot. It would mean leaving everything I know and love. My family would disown me. No, I have given up any possibility of marrying Geoffrey. All I am hoping for now is the chance to spend a little time with him before it is too late.”
“I understand your desire to be with him, but will that not make it all the more bitter when you must part?”
“You would not have asked that question if you had ever been in love. Yes, seeing him is worth any pain.”
So she must be desiring help in setting up an assignation. Elizabeth felt the pit of her stomach clench. “And if you are caught with him?”
Eleanor beamed. “It will not matter if you are with me as my chaperone.”
“Could not your maid do as much?”
“She could, but she would immediately report the meeting to my stepmother, who would prevent it from ever occurring again. But it is different with you. As long as I do nothing improper, you would not need to tell anyone, would you?”
Uneasy, Elizabeth said, “If your parents discover it, they would be furious, and with good reason.”
“I have a plan for that as well. If we are discovered, I will tell them that Geoffrey is interested in you, and that I am encouraging it. He has invited a friend as well, an earl’s grandson of impeccable reputation, and nothing could be more natural than for us to make a foursome.”
Shaking her head in disbelief, Elizabeth said, “A counterfeit courtship between me and your Geoffrey?”
“Yes. It would delight my stepmother, since they would no longer need to exclude him if he married a gentleman’s daughter. She has often wished for such a match for him. She could not condone having him marry someone of our class, since that would be getting above himself. Little does she know! You would be the perfect solution, a gentleman’s daughter, but poor enough that you could overlook the source of his fortune, and your manners are good, so you would be a very acceptable neighbor.”
“Whereas an earl’s grandson would be acceptable company for you, I suppose!”
“Well, not to marry, but for casual intercourse, yes.” Seeing the look on her friend’s face, Eleanor added hurriedly, “I hope you are not offended, Lizzy. I did not mean to imply that you are desperate for a husband, or that there is anything wrong with your family. Just that it is different for you.”
Elizabeth laughed. “I am not offended. I have heard far worse about my family, and I know we are not your equals in society. As for a husband, I have never been less desperate for one in my life. Sometimes I feel as if I do nothing but refuse proposals of marriage!”
“Someone made you an offer, and you did not tell me?” demanded Eleanor.
“Dearest Eleanor, I would happily share anything else with you, but I will not humiliate the gentlemen in question by telling you or anyone else their names. Suffice to say that two eligible gentlemen of property offered for me in recent months. One was a fool and the other ill-tempered and resentful, and I never gave a moment’s consideration to accepting either of them.”
“Oh, but I wish to hear all the details! You know I shall tease until you tell me.”
“I am not even to be allowed the opportunity to wash my face and change out of my dusty clothing?” Elizabeth said with a smile.
“Oh, of course you may, you silly girl!” Laughing, Eleanor reached for the bell and rang it.
“I do not need a maid if you are here to unbutton my dress,” Elizabeth objected.
Eleanor waggled a finger at her. “You are at Bentham Park now,” she intoned. “If Lady Bentham were to hear that you were not attended by a maid, she would scold us both until we wept.”
“You might weep, my dear. I would laugh.”
It was not until later that Elizabeth realized she had never actually stated her objections to Eleanor’s plans.
Paxton was usually a temperate fellow, which is why Darcy watched with concern as he poured his third glass of madeira in half an hour. He debated asking straight out what was troubling him, but decided against it. A few months ago he would have presumed on their old friendship to do so, but that was before Elizabeth Bennet had the audacity to accuse him of behaving in an ungentlemanlike manner. He would never forgive her for that, but it had made him more cautious, even with friends as close as Paxton. Instead, he said, “This madeira is potent stuff.”
His friend raised his glass and examined it. “Potent stuff for an impotent fool.” He swirled the madeira as if it were brandy. “Darcy, have you ever been in love?”
Could he never escape from it? Love was the last subject he wished to discuss.
“Never mind,” said Paxton. “Forget that I asked. It is none of my business.” He took a long swallow of madeira.
Abruptly, Darcy said, “Yes. I have been in love. It did not end well.”
That made Paxton look up in surprise. “I always thought that sort of thing would come easily to you. You have it all – birth, fortune, youth.”
“As do you.” Darcy finished his glass and poured another. Perhaps Paxton had the right idea.
“Fortune and youth, yes. Not birth.”
“That has never mattered to you before.”
“I never cared what the gentlemen’s sons thought of me. I thought little enough of them – present company excepted – that their opinions did not matter to me. Until now.”
“A lady of quality, then? And she will not have you?” Darcy only wished he had as good a reason to explain Elizabeth’s disdain of him.
“She would have me happily. Her father will not. I am not good enough for the daughter of a marquess.”
If her father was a marquess, it was hardly surprising. Many aristocratic fathers would not allow their daughters to marry outside their ranks, although there were also those whose financial straits were dire enough that they would overlook the source of a man’s fortune. Still, it must sting. “Is there no hope of changing his mind, then?”
“None. He has already picked out her future husband, and plans to announce the betrothal in a few weeks.” Paxton set down his glass with a sigh. “And that will be the end of it. Most likely I will never see her again.”
“I am sorry to hear it. If there is anything I can do to assist you, if it might help for me to speak to her father on your behalf, you need only ask.” How foolish it sounded! Of course there was nothing he could do. He could not even manage to make a proposal that did not insult the woman he loved.
“You have always been very kind in offering to use your connections on my behalf, and my pride has always led me to refuse. In this case, I have lost my pride, and in fact I invited you here to ask for your assistance.”
“I would be happy to do whatever I can.”
“I need an entrée into Bentham Park. You have connections to Lord Bentham, do you not?”
“It is Bentham’s daughter, then?” That was indeed hopeless. Perhaps more madeira was in order.
“Yes. Lady Eleanor Carlisle.” He spoke her name with a certain reverence.
Darcy had a vague recollection of a thin, somewhat disheveled little girl. Presumably she had improved since then. “I was already planning to call on Bentham. You can accompany me if you like, but I imagine you could do as much on your own.”
“Unfortunately not. They have never invited me there or called on me here. I fare better than my father, though – at least they will greet me in public.”
Darcy winced. “I am sorry.”
“I am not asking for you to advocate for me. I only want a chance to have a conversation with Lord Bentham, to prove to him that I can behave properly and there is no dirt under my fingernails. And if he condescends so far as to treat me as a gentleman, I intend to ask him for his daughter’s hand. He will refuse, of course, but at least I will have tried.”
“Does Lady Eleanor know of your plan?”
“No. She has also invited a friend to visit in the hope that we can steal a few moments together, but I have not told her that I plan to try a frontal assault. She would attempt to dissuade me, fearing it would anger her father.” Paxton’s mouth was set in a firm line.
“I have no objection to noting your finer points to Bentham, but perhaps this should be taken in stages. We will call on them, and they will have to either return the call or at least invite us to dinner. It would be difficult for them to ignore my presence nearby. Although I do not know Bentham himself well, my father was his closest friend, and the Dowager Marchioness is my great-aunt and used to be quite fond of me, although we have not had much contact in recent years. She is a practical woman and might be willing to take your side.”
“In her day, she ignored my parents, but it hardly matters. She no longer lives at Bentham Park. The current Lady Bentham does not care for her company, and even the dower house is too close for comfort. The dowager has her own establishment some twenty miles from here.”
Darcy raised his eyebrows. “I cannot imagine she took that well! She was always a lady who spoke her mind.”
“I do not know what happened, but my Eleanor is fond of her. Do you think Bentham will heed your opinion of me?”
Darcy stretched out his legs in front of him. “He will listen to what I say for my father’s sake. My parents introduced him to his first wife. His eldest son was my particular friend, but as he is in exile and out of favor, that is of little use. I know the next son as well, but I would not consider him a friend.”
“If I can even catch a glimpse of Eleanor, it is worth a try. Although Bentham Park is but three miles from here, it has been difficult for us to meet because she is chaperoned so closely. Nothing can come of it, of course, but it is some comfort to be in her presence.”
Darcy wondered if it would be comfort or torture for him to be in Elizabeth’s presence. It was unlikely he would ever find out. Still, if a sympathetic ear would help Paxton through his despair, Darcy was willing to listen, especially if another glass of madeira might chase away that light and pleasing figure that insisted on haunting him.
After downing three more glasses, Darcy had given up hope of forgetting Elizabeth’s fine eyes even for an hour. All in all, Paxton was more fortunate than he himself was. “At least you can console yourself with the knowledge that Lady Eleanor cares for you,” said Darcy. It was more than he had. If Elizabeth had cared for him, but been unable to marry him, it would have been enough. Or was it the other way around – that if she had married him, but not cared for him, that would have been enough? His thoughts were no longer clear enough to tell for certain.
“I take it the lady you loved did not?”
“No.” The madeira burned in his throat. “She detests me.”
“Detests you? Oh, come now. Is she such a fool as that?”
“No, I am the fool, for not realizing how she felt before I was mad enough to propose to her.”
“Come now, Darcy; it may be true that you offend people from time to time, but no one detests you.”
George Wickham’s face swam before Darcy’s blurred vision, followed by an echo of Elizabeth’s voice saying, You are the last man in the world I could be prevailed upon to marry. “She found me arrogant and self-centered. I met her in a little country town where I was visiting my friend Bingley. Do you know Bingley?”
“Darcy, you are drunk. I introduced you to Bingley.”
Darcy tried to recall it, but could only bring up a fuzzy vision of a dinner party – or was it a shooting party? “I was bewitched by her, though she was only the impertinent daughter of a poor country gentleman with low connections. She had one sister who was presentable, but the rest of the family behaved disgracefully. Marrying her would have been a degradation, and I feared raising expectations I could not meet, so I said nothing. I left as soon as I could and determined to forget her.”
“Beneath you,” said Paxton bitterly. “How well I know it. Love is of no importance, not when compared to your parentage.”
“None of it mattered. She did not want me.” Darcy heaved a sigh, then repeated the words more slowly. “She did not want me.”
“How can you say that, when you left without a word?”
“I met her again later. I offered her my hand, and she refused me in the harshest terms. I had spent months admiring her, showing her attention, but it turned out she had no idea of it. That is how much she disliked me – she could not even conceive of me as a potential suitor. I had thought she was flirting with me; that is how blind I was. I did not know her at all. I believed her to be sweet and caring, and if it had occurred to me that she might reject me, I would have thought she would do so in a gentle and kindly manner. Instead, she berated me, made accusations, told me my behavior was not that of a gentleman. I had paid her the highest compliment I could give a woman, and in return, she attacked my character.” Elizabeth had proved that she was not the insightful, intelligent, caring woman of his dreams, so why could he not forget her?
Paxton shook his head, then placed his hand to his forehead as if he needed to steady it. “She sounds like a shrew! You had a narrow escape, my friend.”
Darcy hunched his shoulders, lacking an answer. He had never seen signs of cruelty or vindictiveness in Elizabeth before that night. She had hidden it well, or perhaps she was only a shrew when it involved him. Still, his sense of justice would not let the explanation end there. “She had some slight excuse in that she was under a misapprehension about me. Do you remember George Wickham? He had plied her with his lies about how I have mistreated him. But she believed him.”
“George Wickham could charm the birds out of the trees if he set his mind to it.”
Darcy’s mouth twisted. “That is true enough.”
“But why did she think you ungentlemanly? Had you made advances she might have deemed improper?”
“No. She simply did not like the way I spoke of my honest scruples about her family and her connections. It was all true, though. She was my inferior, and I thought my frankness would show her the strength of my love.”
“You said she was inferior to you during your proposal?”
“It is not as if she were not already perfectly aware of it.”
“Still…” Paxton, his face stony, drained his glass so quickly that it made him cough. “Suppose a duke… no, a royal duke, asked you for your sister’s hand, and told you in the process how inferior you are to him, how degrading it was for him to even consider marriage to a woman without a title, and that your relatives were an embarrassment. Would you feel honored by his frankness?”
“As if there were a royal duke alive whom I would permit Georgiana to marry,” grumbled Darcy. The picture Paxton had painted was an unpleasant one.
Paxton sighed. “Never mind. Even so, I would have thought most women would not refuse a man with as much to offer as you do. Was there another man she preferred, a better match, perhaps?”
“There was no other man, at least not that I was aware of.” The idea made his stomach roil. “She could not have found a better match than me. She had no fortune. I was probably the most eligible man she had ever met.”
His friend gave a soft whistle. “She must be mad, then.”
It was precisely what he had told himself time and again, but hearing the words aloud somehow broke the spell. “No, she was not mad, just not mercenary. She simply thought me unworthy of her notice. I loved her. God, what I would not have done for her!”
But he knew what he had not done for her. He had never tried to earn her respect, only to buy her, and she could not be bought. With a trembling hand, he sloshed more madeira into his glass.