"Squire Mayfield," Hill announced, and escorted the man into the Bennet parlor at Longbourn.
"Oh, Squire Mayfield," Mrs. Bennet gushed. "How lovely of you to call. I have been sitting here all afternoon with only my nerves for company. Won't you have some tea? I vow, this autumn afternoon is wet and damp, and my..." Mrs. Bennet droned on, ignoring the fact that the squire was not sitting, but was pacing rather indecorously in front of the fireplace.
"Hill," Mrs. Bennet shrilled when tea arrived, "please fetch Mary. I know you had a preference to Kitty when you last called, Squire Mayfield, and who could blame you, but alas, Mary is the only daughter I have left at home. Kitty is in Derbyshire with her sister, the wealthy Mrs. Darcy, and of course our darling Jane is at Netherfield, and my little Lydia is...Mary! Take off those glasses!" she hissed when her middle child entered the room. "The squire has come to call."
Mary inwardly groaned, and she left her spectacles squarely on her nose. Squire Mayfield was a big, burly, red-faced widower with five children all under the age of ten, none of which he had any control over, and it was common knowledge in Meryton that he was in search of a wife (read: new mother for his brats). It was also known, largely bandied about by the squire himself, that he expected to wed one of the two remaining Bennets. As Kitty had conveniently endeared herself to Miss Darcy, earning an invitation to Pemberley, that left Mary to do the honors. When Hades froze over, she told herself, clutching her Bible.
Her mother, in the throes of imagining another wedding - she knew the gossip as well as, if not better, than everyone else, having encouraged it as much as possible - barked at Mary to sit down on the sofa.
Mary did as she was told, but to her chagrin, the squire immediately seated himself at her side. She poured out the tea, as bid by her mother, and tried to ignore the myriad smells coming from the man at her side. She identified horse, sweat and strawberry jam and tried not to expire on the spot when her mother, on some flimsy pretense, left the two of them alone.
"Miss Bennet, I -"
Mary wracked her brain for something - anything - to keep her mind off the eau de equine swirling about her head. On the other hand, if she disgraced herself in front of the squire, he would be put off his imminent proposal, would he not? Unfortunately, not one to be able to cast up her accounts at the drop of a hat, that notion was immediately discarded. What would Lizzy do in a case like this? Quick-witted Lizzy would try to lead the conversation along another route, for one...
"And is your harvest all in, sir?" she asked. "I couldn't help but notice that you had not attended the last assembly, as everyone said you were helping bring in the wheat."
Mary thanked her Maker that the squire was a slowtop - a startled shriek from her mother out in the hall (listening, no doubt, at the keyhole) brought her to her feet.
"I must attend my mother. Her nerves, you know..." Hastening out to the hall, Mary was in time to see her mother dancing about, waving an express that had just arrived.
"Mary, how wonderful! How absolutely wonderful! Oh, my nerves, my nerves. Quick, get rid of Squire Mayfield! Oh, this is wonderful! Mr. Bennet, Mr. Bennet!" she called, skipping off to the library as fast as her considerable bulk could carry her.
Get rid of the squire? Gladly, but how? Mary was not one to disassemble, considering it the greatest sin not to act oneself. However, it would take a bit of playacting to accomplish this task. What would Lizzy do? Or Lydia? She pondered what to say even as she saw her mother coming back out of the library and thundering up the stairs.
"I'm dreadfully sorry, sir," she apologized, breezing back into the parlor. "My mother has become overwrought, and I must attend her. Perhaps we could continue this discussion some other day?" She quit the room before ascertaining whether the squire stayed or departed, and was headed upstairs to attend to her mother when Mr. Bennet put his head out the library door.
"Mary, a moment of your time," he requested, motioning for her to enter the room.
"Yes, Papa." Bewildered, she followed and sat down.
"We have had word from Lizzy in Derbyshire, my dear."
"Bad news?" She remembered that the letter had come by express. No, surely not bad news, with Mama in raptures upstairs.
"Good news, perhaps. It depends on one's point of view. Mr. Darcy is taking Lizzy to London for a month, and Miss Darcy and Kitty are to go, too. It wouldn't surprise me if Jane and Bingley were to be there. And perhaps our servants will fancy a trip to the capital, as well," he added, half under his breath. As if remembering where he was, he cleared his throat. "You also have been invited."
"I am to go?"
"If you wish, my dear."
"And Mama is to go, too?" Please say no, she silently begged.
"Er, no, I do believe your mother was not included in the invitation."
Thank you, Heavenly Father. "Go to London?"
"That is what I understand."
"Then why is Mama in alt?"
Mr. Bennet chuckled. "She hopes you and your sister will make advantageous matches through the acquaintances of the Darcys."
"But Squire Mayfield...Mama... It is all very well for Kitty to go. She is pretty and lively, and does not lack for companionship. I shall not know how to go on."
Mr. Bennet smiled gently down at his oft-forgotten middle child. Raising her chin up so she might see his sincerity, he looked her straight in the eye. "My dear, you will do very well. Let Lizzy and Jane be your guides and you will do very well, indeed. And above all, be yourself. I cannot abide silly chits who think they have to transform themselves into a completely different person in order to catch a husband, only to revert to their old self once a ring is on their finger."
"Yes, Papa. I suppose I shall go then. When do I depart?"
"The Darcys will arrive here in a fortnight, and leave two days after. I suggest, however, that you either ask Jane to accompany you shopping, or wait until you reach London to make purchases for your stay. Your mother will have many opinions, and she will most likely contradict herself at least a dozen times in the next two weeks..."
"I thought you might. You have more sense than we realize sometimes...Now, do you suppose the squire has left, or is so thick-headed he is still in the parlor, waiting to propose?" His tone was serious, but his blue eyes twinkled at his daughter.
"Papa!" Mary chuckled. "Knowing the squire, he is still in the parlor."
"Then ring for Hill to bring us some tea in here, my dear."
"Oh, yes, thank you!"
Hopefully, they were not leaving before the Darcy party. Mary did not relish having to listen to Mama wail on about having been abandoned. It should make her feel quite guilty, and she might end up having to stay home. And while part of her considered London to be a den of iniquity and a season in town a waste of alms for the poor, a small part of her longed for a ball as much as Lydia ever did.
When the time arrived, London was much as Mary expected. The air was thick and rank, the streets were filthy and there was a hustle and bustle she found uncomfortable. Still, the excitement exhibited by Miss Darcy and Kitty was infectious to a degree, and even the quiet Mrs. Annesley, who was to return to Pemberley on the morrow, having been needed only as a traveling companion, was more forthcoming than usual.
The four traveled comfortably in the Darcy's second-best carriage, leaving Lizzy and Mr. Darcy to themselves, all of them followed by another carriage piled high with luggage. The servants had already been sent ahead to Mr. Darcy's townhouse to make ready for their arrival. Lizzy, too, had hinted mysteriously at extra servants needed with young ladies in the household. Mary could not understand what that might entail and had dismissed it from her mind until they reached the Darcy residence.
Then, to her surprise, she was introduced to Babette, a Frenchwoman who was to be her maid. A fellow Frenchwoman, Marie, had been hired to tend to Miss Darcy and Kitty, but Mary was to have a servant to herself.
"As befits the eldest Miss Bennet," Lizzy had replied when Mary insisted there must be a mistake.
"No mistake, Miss Bennet," Mr. Darcy assured her, when she looked at him in mute appeal. "If Elizabeth says you are to have a maid, then you are to have a maid." Even Miss Darcy and Kitty were in agreement, and outnumbered, she followed Babette upstairs to find another surprise.
Her bedchamber was beautiful! In blue and white, with gilt-edged furniture, she thought perhaps they had placed her in a room for important guests by mistake.
"Surely this is too fine a room for me?" she couldn't help but ask. Babette only smiled and assured her this was the room assigned to Miss Bennet, and would she care for a rest before it was time to return downstairs?
"Follow the adventure of travel with a nap, no?"
Too exhausted to argue, Mary allowed Babette to undress her, unaware the adventure of being the eldest Miss Bennet was only just beginning.
"I cannot begin to understand Mary," Elizabeth told her Aunt Gardiner a week later, as the two had tea and a private chat one afternoon. "Georgiana and Kitty are perfectly amiable when it comes to shopping and fittings, but Mary will barely allow us near her. She treats her new maid as if she were invisible, and she spends all her time in Mr. Darcy's library. I am worried, if only for the impression she will make at next week's ball." The Darcys were giving a ball very soon upon their arrival not only because they would be in town only a few weeks, but to introduce the three young ladies in their charge.
"Perhaps she needs a reason to submit to such a boring task," her aunt suggested.
"A reason? Such as what?"
"I don't know. Perhaps if she had a beau or two..."
Elizabeth could not help it. The thought of Mary having a beau was too amusing, and she laughed aloud. "Really, aunt...a beau? Mary?"
"Come now, Elizabeth, your sister is in tolerable looks, even if she tends to sermonize too much."
"That's part of the problem, as well."
"Too many sermons?"
"Not enough. She has been extremely close-mouthed since our arrival. What was the use of bringing her, if she doesn't want to be with the family?"
Mrs. Gardiner shrewdly eyed her niece. "Perhaps that is the problem. Now that you are married, isn't it nice, sometimes, to be alone? To find a place in that large house of yours and just be by yourself?"
"And are you not relieved to not have to listen to your mother..."
"Then there you have it. Mary just needs a little time alone. Let her have her books and her solitude in the library. Don't push the girl too hard, Elizabeth. When she is ready for company, she will seek it. And speaking of company, when do the Bingleys arrive in town," she added, changing the subject.
"I am expecting them any day. Knowing Jane and Mr. Bingley, they will slip out of their own house at dawn one morning rather than hurt Mama's feelings."
Mrs. Gardiner laughed and the two moved on to other matters.
"Won't you come in and look at bonnets, Miss Bennet?" Miss Darcy pleaded. "Kitty and I have found the loveliest hats in this shop..."
"I wish to go to Hatchard's, please."
"We should have guessed," Kitty said, her voice tinged with resignation. Even Jane, when she had arrived the day before, had already begun to conspire with the two younger ladies to get Mary out of the house and into some fashionable clothing.
"I would not like to see her looking less in mode than you and Miss Darcy," she had said kindly.
"She dresses like she is the maid and Babette is a young lady of the house," Kitty had retorted. Now Maid Mary eschewed bonnets for a bookseller. Typical.
"Please do not be over an hour, Mary," she now begged her sister. "Georgiana and I will poke around here until then. But you must take Babette. It would not do for a young lady to be out alone, even in Hatchard's."
"Yes, Kitty. One hour. With Babette."
The hour went quickly, and Mary, assured before her departure by Mr. Darcy that he would receive the bill for whatever books she deemed necessary to her well-being, had piled not only Babette's arms, but those of a footman's, with her purchases. That still left four books to be carried by herself out to the carriage, and she was headed out the door, lost in that blissful thought that only comes from anticipating a good read, Babette in tow, when she ran into an old woman.
"Watch what you're about, gel!" the crow, covered from head to toe in rusty black, bellowed.
A tall man behind her held the leads to three fat little pugs. Mary paused, pushing her way out of the mists to discover a broad and bulky lady in black shouting at the top of her lungs. Still somewhat dazed, she did not realize the shouting was aimed at herself, and she dropped down to pet the dogs.
"What adorable little pugs," she exclaimed, oblivious to the lady and her companion, until the man laughed. She looked up to see a handsome gentleman in the first stare of fashion, or what she assumed was the first stare of fashion, looking down at her with a smile. Dark wavy hair fell over on his forehead and she felt a sudden urge to brush it out of his way.
"You could not have said better, miss," he told her, his gray eyes twinkling. "Grandmother dotes on the little beasts!"
"Hush, boy! The gel is admiring my pups. Smart gel, recognizing pugs. Unappreciated breed," she added, giving her grandson a steely glance. Unabashed, he knelt down beside Mary.
"That fat charmer is Duchess, the one with the darker tail is Sir Walter, as in Drake, and this snarling little one is Butcher, the bane of footmen everywhere. He likes ladies, however. See how he shows his affection?"
Mary found herself giggling as a pink little tongue bathed her hand. She laughed even harder when the other two dogs, not to be excluded, crowded in for their share of kisses.
"Oh no, you don't!" the man cried when Butcher, sensing his proximity, turned and snarled at his keeper. "Down boy, down!"
Mary crowed with delight as the man attempted to retrieve her fallen books and avoid the bared teeth of the aggressive little pug, all that the same time. The old lady chuckled, too, and even Babette, doing her best to keep a straight face, as befitted her station, gave a mirthful snort.
"Thank you, sir." Mary was gracious when the gentleman handed over her books. "Good day to you both." She swept out of Hatchard's, a ridiculous grin on her face, and when she and Babette had reached the privacy of the carriage, they burst into laughter.
They were still laughing when they reached the millinery shop, but neither Kitty nor Miss Darcy could persuade them to share their amusement. They believed that the joke, whatever it had been, gave Mary an animation she had been lacking, and that liveliness was still apparent when they reached the Darcy townhouse and swept into the drawing room together.
"Look who has arrived!" Elizabeth indicated a smiling gentleman in military regimentals who had risen at their entry, and Miss Darcy, squealing with delight, dropped her dignity and inherent shyness and launched herself at the visitor.
"Richard! We did not expect you! When did you arrive? Are you staying at Matlock House? Will you come to our ball?"
"Georgiana Darcy!" her brother exclaimed. "Where are your manners?"
Properly chastised, Miss Darcy backed away from her cousin, but she did not stop smiling.
"Let me make you known again, Cousin Richard, to Elizabeth's sisters. Miss Bennet," and Mary curtsied gracefully, her blue eyes still swimming with amusement from her earlier adventure, "and Miss Kitty Bennet."
"Miss Bennet, Miss Kitty," he acknowledged with a bow. "Tell me, Miss Bennet," he asked as he escorted Mary to the sofa and seated himself at her side, "how you are enjoying your visit to London? Is this the first time you have been in the capital?" He bluntly ignored everyone around him, apparently intent only on his companion's reply.
Mary, oblivious to the surprised stares from everyone else in the room, from Mr. Darcy down to Kitty, answered the colonel's questions readily enough, emboldened somewhat by the attention paid her by the handsome stranger in the bookstore. Was it possible she was slightly more attractive to the opposite sex than either she or her family realized? The answer was in the admiring gleam in Colonel Fitzwilliam's eyes, and it was heady stuff indeed. She continued the conversation with seeming interest until it was time for their visitor to depart. However, a part of her brain was a seething mass of questions. And she knew just the person with all the answers.
"Mademoiselle Bennet?" If she was surprised that her young lady had addressed her after a week of ignoring her presence, she gave no indication.
"I wish to conduct a scientific experiment and I shall require your assistance."
Mary sat down at the gilded escritoire and picked up a pen. "First, a list, I think. Yes, a list. Babette, do you think I am pretty?"
"Never mind. Let us state, for a fact, that compared to my sisters, I am rather plain. And I wear glasses. I need my glasses, but they make me look like a bluestocking." She laughed. "I am a bluestocking, but there is no need to announce it to the world. But today... Babette, do you think that gentleman in the bookstore noticed me today?"
Babette's smile was tender. "Pour certain, mademoiselle."
"Truly? It was most odd. And when we returned home, Mr. Darcy's cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, monopolized my conversation in a most vexing manner. I wonder if he will continue to do so at dinner tonight. Babette - and this is all in the sake of science, mind you - would you assist me in dressing for dinner? Let us wonder if slightly altering my appearance will induce the colonel, who is to join us, to further converse with me. If so, we will be required to make even more changes in order to continue the experiment at next week's ball."
Babette, her eyes shining, went into action.
"William, did you notice something odd about Mary this evening?" Elizabeth wondered later, lying in her husband's arms in his bed. His bedchamber, no matter where they were, had become hers, while her own was used as a large dressing room and nothing more.
"Mary who? You know I notice no one else when you are in the room, my love."
"William, I am serious!" she insisted.
"So am I. But now that you mention it, her hair was different, less severe. Richard made quite the cake of himself over her tonight. I had thought him a confirmed bachelor, not to mention a connoisseur of beautiful ladies, and he attached himself to Miss Bennet the entire evening. Rather singular of him, I must say."
"Rather singular of Mary, as well. She usually avoids men like the ten plagues of Egypt, and I believe she was actually encouraging the colonel! She even agreed to accompany the colonel and the girls on a drive in the park tomorrow afternoon. I did not hear anything the least bit edifying or religious come out of her mouth, either. At least she is out of the library." She snuggled down further into her husband's arms and promptly forgot about her sister.
"Where is Mary?" Kitty complained for the tenth time that next afternoon. "The colonel has promised us all a drive in the park, and he will be here any minute!" She paced up and down the drawing room, unlike Georgiana, who was seated sedately next to her sister-in-law.
"Patience, Kitty," Elizabeth counseled, although a small smile played along her lips. "If last night is any indication, Mary is taking a few extra pains with her appearance today. It is something I would encourage."
"I, too, encourage it - wholeheartedly!" Kitty exclaimed. "But could she have not started sooner? I hear the colonel down in the front hall now!"
Colonel Fitzwilliam, splendid in his regimentals, was announced in the drawing room a few minutes later, and found Kitty sitting in a chair by the fire, her foot tapping impatiently, Georgiana in her usual quiet repose and Elizabeth reading next to her on the sofa. They all stood, however, and curtsied their greetings.
"Good afternoon, ladies," he acknowledged with a bow. "Ready for a drive, Georgiana? Miss Kitty? Pray tell, where is Miss Bennet?"
"Here I am, sir," Mary said from the doorway.
Lizzie and Kitty gaped at their sister. Mary looked very pretty in an apricot gown and rusty velvet pelisse, rust-colored gloves and bonnet completing the ensemble. The colors brought out a peaches and cream complexion no one had ever noticed before, and increasing confidence in herself made her glow. Soft curls framed her face from underneath the bonnet, and even her spectacles were more of an accent than a hindrance to her appearance.
The colonel, delighted in the gentle metamorphosis of Miss Bennet, bowed over her extended hand and lightly brushed the top of her glove with his lips.
"Come along ladies," he called over his shoulder as he tucked Mary's arm up under his. "We shall be caught in a crush in the park if we do not hurry."
"Well!" Kitty threw back at Lizzy as she flounced out of the room. "As if we were the ones making him late!"
"Lavender and lemon," the colonel murmured, seated next to Miss Bennet in the open carriage and getting a whiff of her hair. They had already circled the park once, stopping occasionally so that the colonel might introduce the ladies to his friends and acquaintances.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Nothing to signify, Miss Bennet. What a glorious day!"
Kitty and Georgiana giggled. "But Colonel Fitzwilliam," Mary said in her direct manner, "the sky is gray and there is a chill in the wind. Oh!" She caught sight of the man at the book shop and stared, forgetting completely that she had been addressing her companion. The mystery man was mounted on a white horse, a brown, many-caped riding coat open to reveal a dark blue coat and tan pants tucked into gleaming black Hessians. He certainly was handsome, whomever he might be.
"Trowbridge!" the colonel called. The man acknowledged the colonel with a wave and rode toward the carriage. Mary wanted to sink down into the seat, but she was between the colonel and the other man, and would perforce be right in the center of their imminent conversation. What if he recognized her? What if he didn't recognize her? She had never had such a reaction to a gentleman before, and it scared her to death.
"Fitzwilliam! I had imagined you in the wilderness somewhere, not escorting the three handsomest ladies in London about Hyde Park." He dared a glance at Mary, who was staring at him as if she wished he would vanish, and winked. Startled, she dropped her gaze to her lap.
"Trowbridge, you old fox, I should have known I would meet you sooner or later. Let me make you known to my companions. Miss Darcy is my cousin, and Miss Kitty Bennet is Darcy's sister-in-law."
"Miss Darcy, Miss Bennet. But Fitz, you are saving the best for last! Or were you not going to introduce me to the lovely creature by your side?" Mary, who had been studying the embroidery on her new reticule, raised her head sharply and looked around. Surely, the man could not be speaking of her?
"Miss Bennet, ladies, this is the Earl of Trowbridge. Trowbridge, Miss Bennet is Miss Kitty Bennet's sister."
"Your servant, Miss Bennet." He smiled gently and then turned his attention to the colonel. "And do I find you at Matlock House, Fitz, or are you infringing on Darcy's good nature?"
"Neither. I have my own rooms at the Albany. Do you have plans for dinner this evening? There are several old friends dining at White's and you are most welcome to join us."
The earl laughed. "I have committed myself to escorting Grandmother to a dinner party, else I would attend. I understand, ladies, that Mrs. Darcy is giving a ball next week, to which we have been invited. If I do not see you beforehand, I shall most certainly see all of you there." His emphasis on the word all was directed at Mary, who blushed and lowered her head once more. She didn't see the swift wave of jealousy wash over the colonel, but Georgiana, who had been watching the entire scene with much interest, did, and looked thoughtful. Miss Bennet's sudden popularity did much to warm her kind heart.
"Mary?" Lizzy knocked gently at her sister's door, to be admitted by a hairbrush-wielding Babette. Mary was seated at the dressing table, her long brown hair curling down past her shoulders.
"I know you had not planned to dine with us this evening at Claymore House, but Georgiana is not feeling well and has asked to be excused. Because I do not wish to throw off Lady Claymore's numbers..."
"You wish me to attend in Miss Darcy's place?"
Babette had stood silent throughout this quick exchange, but now she traded looks in the mirror with Miss Bennet. The two exchanged nods, and then Mary turned to her sister.
"I will round out the party, then," she replied. "But it will be at least an hour before I am prepared. Is that time enough?"
Lizzy stifled a laugh. To think Mary needed time to get dressed...
"It will take me that long, at least. We will meet you in the drawing room in an hour. Thank you." With a nod of her own for Babette, Lizzy retired to her room, leaving Mary in the capable hands of her maid.
"Well, Babette, what do you think? The white silk or the white silk?" Not prepared to spend too much time at fittings for her new wardrobe, despite her experiment, Mary had allowed her maid to take her measurements. Between Babette and Lizzy's modiste, who had several gowns already made, they had managed to turn out some articles of clothing in one day's time, leaving Mary free to pursue her other interests. The ensemble she had worn earlier to the park, and the white silk evening dress, were the first two completed. A gown for Lizzy's ball was in the works, as were two day dresses.
"The white silk, mademoiselle."
Mary laughed. Her experiment had been a success so far, if one could count the attentions of not one, but two, gentlemen. Mary, of course, could take neither gentleman seriously. The colonel was a well-known ladies' man, and had attached himself to her as the eldest unmarried young lady. Georgiana was his cousin, after all, and Kitty... well, Kitty was Kitty. That left only Mary to which to devote his attentions.
Lord Trowbridge, on the other hand, was merely being kind. He had come to her rescue, like a knight in shining armor, at the bookstore, and that was how he had remained in her mind, especially after learning of his exalted place in society. A knight was good in a tight spot, but unattainable by such a one as she.
She sighed, however, with contentment as Babette returned to her hair. Despite their supposed intentions, it felt wonderful to be the recipient of such male attentions.
Mary tried not to gasp an hour and a half later as they approached Claymore House. It was large and imposing, especially with lights blazing in all the front windows. Surely there were not so many guests as to need all those rooms? It was a waste of candles, if there were not. She pondered the wisdom of agreeing to accompany her sisters and brother-in-law.
Lizzy, too, wondered at something, but it concerned Mary only indirectly. She was curious as to why Georgiana, so full of energy that morning, had complained of feeling ill only after they had returned from the park. What had happened? Had it to do with someone she had met? William's sister was smugly happy about something, despite her protestations that she was feeling unwell and that Mary should be persuaded to take her place. Lizzy glanced at her sister, looking very fine that evening in white silk, a burgundy velvet evening cape and white silk apple blossoms in her dark hair. Perhaps Mary had met someone in the park? Curiosity consumed her as they exited the carriage and entered Claymore House.
There must be fifty people here! Mary thought wildly, looking for a quiet corner and a familiar face or two. She had been introduced by her hostess, relieved at a replacement - any replacement - for Miss Darcy, to any number of people, but she could not remember their names and felt out of place, despite her fashionable attire. Only Kitty and Lizzy seemed comfortable amongst such a crowd.
"Elizabeth will be the life of the party wherever we go," Mr. Darcy whispered in her ear. "I, however, prefer a smaller group. Will you allow me to escort you to a less-hectic part of the room, Mary?"
She did not know which startled her more. Mr. Darcy admitting to the same feelings of anxiety in such a large crowd, or his calling her by her Christian name, a first for him. "I...I thank you, sir. I should prefer that above anything." They smiled at each other in complete charity, and headed toward an empty sofa, but were brought up short by the Countess of Trowbridge, blazing with diamonds and wearing black again, although this time showing way too much flesh.
"Darcy!" she boomed. "How nice to see you! And it's the pup-loving gel! Darcy, introduce us!" she commanded.
"Lady Trowbridge, may I introduce Miss Bennet." If he noticed the countess's comment hinting at a previous encounter, he did not mention it aloud. "Mary, this is the Countess of Trowbridge."
Mary curtsied, and almost before she could rise, the countess had seized her by the arm and was hauling her off to the other side of the room. Mr. Darcy was left behind, a bemused expression on his face.
"Had to leave the pugs home this evening, more's the pity! Glad to see you again, my gel. You must come to tea one day and see the latest litter! Not by Duchess, of course, but Butcher was the sire! Champion lot! Champion! Come meet my grandson! I dare say he's a handsome one, but you already knew that!" Her bellows of laughter brought attention to them as they reached the earl.
"Miss Bennet!" he said in surprise. "I had not imagined...I had no idea..."
To Mary's amazement, the earl stammered and blushed like a schoolboy. As for herself, she could only stare at him.
He was in evening dress, of course, his dark hair set off handsomely by the stark black and white of his apparel. A diamond winked in his cravat, and his gray eyes were clear and bright.
"Come on, you two," the countess interrupted. "There's the gong for dinner. Demmed lot of nonsense, high-ranking men escorting in high-ranking women, what? Trowbridge, you may escort us both!" With a smirk at her astonished hostess, who was just beginning to line up the procession to her own satisfaction, the countess allowed her grandson to sweep the two ladies into the other room, leaving everyone else behind.
"Ho, ho, my boy!" The countess was beaming by the time everyone else arrived in the large, drafty dining room. "You have been seated together! Splendid! I am down here, on the left of our host. Enjoy yourselves!" She waddled off to her own seat, leaving Mary and Trowbridge to stare at each other once more. The earl quickly seated his companion on his right and Mary tried to avoid the curious glances of her sisters. Mr. Darcy, at least, did not do anything more than smile briefly when she caught his eye. What was she going to say to Lizzy and Kitty, however, when dinner was over and the ladies congregated in the drawing room?
"What in the world could you possibly have to say to Lord Trowbridge?" Kitty wondered as Lady Claymore led the ladies into the drawing room later, after dinner. "I imagine Fordyce came up often in the conversation..."
"Kitty!" Lizzy admonished. "That was quite rude!"
Mary, too, was actually astonished that she and Lord Trowbridge had conversed at dinner. He noticed, first, of course, that the name card at her seat read Miss Darcy and not Miss Bennet, and she found herself explaining how she had come in Georgiana's stead.
"I shall send Miss Darcy a bouquet of flowers in the morning," the earl had responded, "for allowing you to take her place." Mary had laughed, certain that he spoke in jest. She then remembered to speak to the elderly gentleman on her right, who was Lady Claymore's brother, Mr. Ferguson, before being claimed in conversation by the man on her left once more. Dinner had been delightful, but now Kitty was insulting her.
"I beg your pardon, Mary." Kitty sounded as if she did no such thing. "But I do not see why Mary, of all people, should attract the attentions of the earl, not to mention Colonel Fitzwilliam!"
"Katherine Bennet!" Lizzy was angry now. Kitty began to stammer an apology when Lady Trowbridge interrupted.
"Miss Bennet! Give me your arm, gel, and introduce me to these ladies!"
Once she found herself attached to the countess's arm, Mary made the introductions. "Lady Trowbridge, my sisters, Mrs. Darcy and Miss Kitty Bennet. Lizzy, Kitty, the Countess of Trowbridge."
"I shall take your sister's arm now, Miss Bennet," the countess boomed and latched onto Kitty. "She may escort me to that sofa and let me tell her about my pugs!"
Mary tried not to laugh as Kitty was obliged to humor the countess, leaving Lizzy to take Mary around and introduce her to some of the ladies she had not met earlier. Mary found them almost universally kind and charming. Except Lady Alyce Moran, daughter of the Marquess of Seaton. She could not like that lady.
"This is your first visit to London," Lady Alyce said after introductions had been made. It wasn't a query, but a statement, as if she could tell at a glance that Miss Bennet did not have the bronze acquired by living extensively in Town. Actually, Mary was secretly wondering if the permanent pout on Lady Alyce's blue-and-gold china doll face would freeze there if she held it any longer.
"Yes, it is."
"And already you have made a conquest of Trowbridge. Tell us your secret."
Lizzy made as if to open her mouth and reply for her sister, but Mary was tired. She was tired of living in her elder sisters' shadows and she was tired of being the target of her younger sisters' jests. She was tired of people thinking they had to fight her battles for her. It was she who replied to Lady Alyce.
"Lord Trowbridge and I are merely acquaintances."
"Oh, come now, Miss Bennet. Surely you know that he only pays attention to those young ladies with the approval of his grandmother."
"As you say, I am newly come to town. There would be no way I could learn of such a rule, if it truly exists, in such a short time. I met his lordship only this afternoon, sans his grandmother." For one of the few times in her life, Mary felt compelled to stretch the truth. Lady Alyce need not know of the chance encounter in Hatchard's. "I was introduced to Lady Trowbridge this evening. If you will excuse Mrs. Darcy and I, I believe we need to rescue our sister from the countess." Giving a pert little curtsy, Mary barely gave Lizzy a chance to do the same before dragging her off to the other side of the room.
"Mary!" Lizzy, for once, was all admiration. "Where did you learn to speak to someone like that? I cannot like her!"
"Nor can I. Oh, here come the gentlemen. You must go to Mr. Darcy. I will take care of Kitty."
She gently released her younger sister from Lady Trowbridge's bellowing tale of how Butcher had gone on a biting spree amongst her male staff, and then sat down to take her place.
"What a good gel you are, Miss Bennet! Your sister, too! She has told me much about your family, and they sound delightful! As I was saying, though, Foreman, my major domo, had answered the door, and as the Duchess of Avery swept in, Butcher chose that moment to take a chunk out of his...Trowbridge! Where the devil have you been, boy? Take Miss Bennet over to the pianoforte! I wish to hear some music. You do play, don't you, gel?"
Mary nodded, but inside she quailed. Sudden flashes of the ball at Netherfield assailed her, making her quite unsure of how to go on. Then she remembered her father's admonition to be herself, and she laughed.
"I will play, Lady Trowbridge, however, please do not ask me to sing. I am not that accomplished."
"Can't abide all that caterwauling anyway," the countess rumbled. "Sets the pups to howling, and hurts my ears."
Mary was escorted to the instrument by the earl, catching glimpses of horrified expressions on her sisters' faces. Ignoring them, she sat down at the bench and looked up at her companion. "Do you have a preference?"
He sat down next to her, uninvited, and whispered, "I have several preferences, Miss Bennet, not all of them having to do with music."
Mary turned red, but she chose not to reply, only selected something from the rack and began to play. He should not be talking like that to her! How dare he? And how was she to reply? She admitted to herself that she was out of her league. However, there was one thing she could say...
"You must go and visit with some of the other young ladies, my lord," she told him after the first piece was received with warm applause. "I will be well enough here by myself. It was not my intention to monopolize your attentions." Nor did she wish others to believe she was monopolizing him.
"I know," he admitted. "Which is why I prefer to sit here with you. However, you have a valid point. You play beautifully, Miss Bennet, and I wish to hear you again soon. Good evening." He bowed and walked away, and she saw him presenting himself to the mothers of several of the young ladies she had met that evening.
Mary played another piece and then removed herself from the instrument and went to accept a cup of tea from her hostess. She ignored Lizzy and Kitty, afraid of more ridicule, and found a quiet sofa well away from the fire so that she might not draw any more attention to herself. She did not see Mr. Darcy standing behind her until he spoke.
"That was very well done, Mary. Your sisters should be proud of the way you handled yourself this evening."
"I doubt that very much, Mr. Darcy. I did not ask to play, but was commanded to by the countess. My sisters' horror was evident. I will never become the person I wish to be if they will continue to look at me as they always have - as an embarrassment. Is it too early to leave, sir? I wish to go home now."
Her brother-in-law nodded and offered her his arm. "Shall we make the rounds together, collecting your sisters as we go?" Without further comment, they circled the room. When they reached the countess, she was sitting with her grandson. The earl stood and took Mary's hand in his.
"Good evening, Miss Bennet. Mr. Darcy." He nodded in the other man's direction, never taking his eyes off Mary. Mr. Darcy wisely said nothing as he took his sister-in-law over to their hostess, where Lizzy and Kitty were also seated. They said their good-byes and before Mary knew it, they were home, Babette was tucking her into bed, and she was falling asleep. Her last thought was of Butcher, firmly attached to the countess' butler as he showed the duchess into the drawing room.
There was a knock on Mary's door early the next morning, and she wondered who it could be. Lizzy would still be abed, Kitty would not think to knock, and Babette had already brought her tea and toast, so it could not be the maid. She bid her caller to enter, and was surprised to see Miss Darcy, in a blue quilted dressing gown, flying into the room.
"Well?" she insisted. "Was he there last night? Did you enjoy yourself?" Without invitation, she threw herself on the end of Mary's bed and raised shining blue eyes up at her. "I want to hear everything!"
"You are feeling better, Miss Darcy?" Mary enquired.
"Forget my health, Mary - may I call you Mary? - and tell me about Trowbridge. He was there, wasn't he?" Mary nodded shyly. "I knew it!" Georgiana crowed.
"He and his grandmother. I...I had met them that day I went to Hatchard's."
"I knew it!" Georgiana repeated with glee. "He seemed to know you yesterday when we met in the park. You sly puss! How did you meet?"
Mary, who had never enjoyed the confidences of her sisters, opened like a flower in the sun to Georgiana's enthusiasm and gentle prodding. She related the story of Lady Trowbridge and the pugs, and then gave an accounting of Lady Claymore's dinner party.
"Did she really have the earl escort you into dinner ahead of everyone else? I do not wish to meet this Lady Alyce Moran! Can you not imagine that pug taking a large bite out of the butler? Are you not glad I pretended to be ill so that you might take my place? Oh, I hope the earl asks you to go driving in the park this afternoon!"
Mary was gratified by the girl's friendship, but she did not want Georgiana to read anything into the earl's attentions, and said so.
"Oh, fustian! The man is smitten! And so is his grandmother! Lady Alyce is jealous, that's all. Let us ring for Babette. She must dress you in the apricot gown again, in case he calls." Georgiana jumped up from the bed and rang for the maid. "Perhaps Richard will take Kitty and I up with him... I, too, will dress with the park in mind." Like a whirlwind, Georgiana was gone, leaving Mary to the offices of her maid.
"Did I not tell you?" Georgiana whispered later that afternoon, when the Earl of Trowbridge was announced. Lizzy and the three young ladies were sewing and reading in the drawing room while Mr. Darcy handled business in his study. "He did not bring his grandmother, which is a very good sign. I am glad you are wearing the apricot gown."
When Colonel Fitzwilliam was announced almost on the earl's heels, Georgiana sighed with contentment. "Now they will have to fight over you! Is it not exciting?"
"Shhh!" Mary hissed. "You don't know they will do that!"
"Mrs. Bingley," the footman announced. Jane came shyly into the room and made a beeline for Lizzy, and Mary, mindful of her manners, brought the earl over to meet her sister. She could not explain why she felt a need to show him off, except that he looked exceptionally dashing today in a pearl gray coat that matched his eyes.
"Ah, yes, Mrs. Bingley!" the earl exclaimed upon meeting Jane. "Grandmother has a wish to meet you, having heard about you last night from Miss Kitty. I believe an invitation to tea on Friday has already been sent to your home." He turned to Mary and put a hand inside his coat. "And your aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, has also been sent a card. I am instructed to deliver yours personally, Miss Bennet." He handed her an invitation. "My apologies, Mrs. Darcy. Grandmother says she will invite the entire family soon."
"That is quite all right, my lord," Lizzy acknowledged. "How kind of the countess to take an interest in our family." She gave Mary a glance that spoke volumes, and requested that her sister send for more tea. "And ask for some cake, too, Mary. I did not realize we were to host a party."
Mary went off to give her sister's orders, needing a few moments alone to ponder the abundance of male company in the drawing room. Were both gentlemen truly there because of her? When she returned, followed by three footmen carrying large trays, it was to find Jane and Lizzy speaking quietly to the earl while the colonel entertained Kitty and Georgiana with a story that brought laughter and smiles. Not knowing which group to join, she seated herself on the sofa that held her book.
"What do you read, Miss Bennet?" the earl asked suddenly over her shoulder. Mary blushed and did not miss that this action brought Jane and Lizzy's heads together.
"'Gulliver's Travels,' my lord. I read a great deal, but not always the sermons and edifying works my sisters would have one believe..."
"You read sermons and such? I have a volume of Fordyce's Sermons that dates back to 1766 that might interest you. Perhaps I will bring it with me Friday when I come to Grandmother's tea party. Not that I always agree with Fordyce. He seems to have a somewhat medieval view of a lady's place in the home. If you wish to debate his views, I would be delighted to discuss them this afternoon while taking a turn about the park." Neither noticed the colonel's approach.
"Not so fast, Trowbridge," the colonel interjected. "I, too, wish to take Miss Bennet to the park. You may take her tomorrow. I will take her today."
"I believe I have the prior claim in this instance, Fitzwilliam, having already extended my invitation. You may take her on the morrow, if you wish. I will take her today." The earl had risen to face the colonel. Mary glanced up from one to the other, still seated on the sofa. Jane, Lizzy and Kitty wore identical expressions of surprise and Georgiana had screwed her face up in an attempt not to laugh aloud.
"I said, Trowbridge, that I would take her about, introduce her to people, give her a broader range of acquaintances. I cannot do that if I do not escort her to the park today. Tomorrow I am committed to my regiment. It will have to be today."
"If you have other commitments, Fitz, allow me to arrange introductions for Miss Bennet. I have the time today and tomorrow, and you may continue on Monday, when I will be unavailable."
"I believe, Trowbridge..."
"I believe, gentlemen," Mr. Darcy said from the doorway, having come to investigate the raised male voices emanating from the drawing room that had interrupted his work, "that as Miss Bennet's closest male relative in town, I have been remiss in not escorting her about, introducing her to the right people." He put heavy emphasis on the word "relative." "I will drive with all of the ladies to the park today, Trowbridge may escort all of the ladies tomorrow, and Fitzwilliam will do the honors on Monday. For all of the ladies, including Mrs. Bingley, should she wish to accompany us. Do I make myself clear?"
The earl and the colonel nodded. Mary blushed once more, especially when Mr. Darcy, having begun to return to his study, turned in her direction. "If you wish to ring a peal over the heads of these two scapegraces, Mary, my study is at your disposal."
"Thank you, sir, I don't believe that will be necessary. Today, at any rate," she retorted, glancing at her two male guests. They had the good sense to look sheepish, but when she picked up her book once more, both sat down on either side of her on the sofa.
"What do you read, Miss Bennet?" the colonel wanted to know.
"'Gulliver's Travels,'" the earl smugly replied.
"Is that not a trifle different from your usual fare, Miss Bennet? Miss Kitty would have me believe you to be interested only in reading the Bible."
"I enjoy a variety of reading material, Colonel Fitzwilliam," Mary told him pertly, not looking up from her page. "The Bible, however, is still a favorite."
"And Fordyce's Sermons," the earl added. The colonel shuddered.
"I cannot imagine any duller reading material than...er...um...I beg your pardon, Miss Bennet," he added, sensing her glare. "You must admit, they are not exactly appropriate reading material for a seasoned military man such as myself."
Mary had to agree. The thought of the colonel reading Fordyce brought forth a giggle. The colonel chuckled, and even the earl smiled.
"Pray tell, Mary, what you find so amusing?" Kitty called from across the room.
"I was imagining the colonel reading Fordyce," Mary blithely replied. Kitty rolled her eyes, and that brought a smile from her sister. The colonel and the earl laughed out loud, bringing attention to them once more.
"I believe our work is done here, Fitz," Trowbridge told the colonel. "Won't you allow me to offer you a lift to the Albany? I have something of interest to discuss with you."
"Gladly. Your servant, Miss Bennet." The colonel raised one of Mary's hands to his lips and was almost imperceptibly elbowed out of the way by the earl, who followed suit. Both made their bows to the rest of the room, and left.
"Well!" Kitty exclaimed. "I cannot imagine why they fuss so over Mary!"
"Kitty!" Jane and Lizzy cried in unison.
Later, Kitty was much put out when the Darcy carriage, taking a turn in the park, was accompanied by the colonel and earl, both on horseback.
Babette, that jewel among maids, had been immediately notified of Miss Bennet's invitation to tea with the Countess of Trowbridge, and was well-pleased to note that among the gowns recently completed was a pale blue muslin just perfect for the occasion.
Several versions of the heated discussion between the earl and the colonel had also made their way about the Darcy household, and Babette was privy to a personal retelling from Miss Bennet herself. The maid well knew the importance, then, of this tea party.
She dressed Mary's dark hair with care that Friday afternoon, and then presented her charge with a small gift.
"From Monsieur Darcy, mademoiselle, because I tell him I do not wish to see you hide your beautiful eyes from the world."
Mary opened a tissue-wrapped package to reveal a pair of tiny spectacles. "Will they work, do you think?"
"Oui! My Grand-mere had a pair such as these. Try them on!"
Mary did so, and once she got used to the smaller lenses, she could see perfectly well, if she did not try to dart her eyes back and forth out of range too quickly. She stared at herself in the mirror for quite a long while, admiring the way the spectacles accented her face, instead of covering her best feature.
"Tres bon, ma petite belle! Now, for the gown."
She produced the blue muslin, slipped it over Mary's head and buttoned her into it before producing a white velvet pelisse embroidered on the edges in pale blue flowers and minty green leaves. A matching white bonnet was trimmed in pale blue and green ribbons, and there were pale blue gloves to complete the picture.
"Mrs. Gardiner, Mrs. Bingley and Miss Bennet," Lady Trowbridge's footman announced at the door into the countess's drawing room an hour later, bringing the three ladies to the attention of a roomful of pugs. One large male, in particular, began to yap and lunged for the footman, who beat a hasty retreat.
Mary knelt just inside the room and called to Butcher, who left off chasing the footman and ran to her side, quivering like a jelly as she scratched his head.
"Come in ladies, come in!" boomed the countess. "We don't stand on ceremony here - you must be Mrs. Bingley," she said to Jane, "and Mrs. Gardiner. I am delighted to meet you both! Here, Mrs. Gardiner, throw Duchess off that chair and sit! Sir Walter! Leave off Mrs. Bingley's shoes and go lie down! That handsome fellow with Miss Bennet is Butcher, sire of champions. When Trowbridge arrives with his sister - I told them a half hour later so we might have a comfortable coze - I will have him take you to meet Sapphire and her pups. Won't you pour out, Mrs. Gardiner?" she requested, as Duchess and Sir Walter had both jumped onto her lap, rendering her incapable of serving their tea. "I've had the maids put some treats on that table by the fire, Miss Bennet. Won't you pass them around? I hope you like crumpets and plum cake, Miss Bennet. Butcher is fond of both."
Mary took the hint - the dog had glued himself to her feet and was already looking up in expectation - and slipped him a tiny square of cake.
"Now tell me, Mrs. Gardiner, how you like living in Cheapside. I have friends there you might know well..." The two older ladies began to discuss possible mutual acquaintances, and Jane quietly marveled at how unaffected the countess appeared.
"I've met haughtier people among the gentry," she noted to her sister.
Mary nodded. "Speaking of which, how does Miss Bingley do these days?"
Jane considered taking Mary to task over her comment, but changed her mind. "Miss Bingley does very well. She is in town and staying with the Hursts. You will see them Tuesday at Lizzy's ball. Is Lady Trowbridge to attend?"
"Half of London is to attend, if Kitty is to be believed. I am to assist Lizzy with the flower arrangements on Tuesday morning."
"You will enjoy it. Is your ballgown ready? What color is it?"
"Babette is nearly finished. It is white lustring. With a rose pink tunic." Mary could only answer in short sentences, too eager for the earl's arrival. If Jane noticed, she gave no indication, but kept up a gentle conversation until that moment arrived.
When voices were heard in the hall, Butcher, lying on Mary's feet, sat up and growled. As the earl entered the room, he launched himself at the man, snarling.
"Oh, bad boy, Butcher! Bad boy!" the countess commanded ineffectually. Mary came up from behind the dog, who had begun to worry at the toes of the earl's shiny Hessians, and ordered him to sit, which he did.
"On behalf of my manservant and myself, Miss Bennet, thank you." The earl bent over her hand for longer than was proper, until a discreet cough from behind him alerted him to his surroundings. "But come meet my sister, Lady Harvey. Sarah, dear, this is Miss Bennet."
"I have heard so much about you, Miss Bennet. Grandmother and Simon have been very complimentary." Lady Harvey was a carbon copy of her brother, with dark hair cut short, so that it curled about her head, and those gray eyes Mary so admired in the earl. She smiled almost as much as her brother, and endeared herself to Mary almost immediately.
"Thank you, Lady Harvey. Let me make you known to my sister and my aunt." All the while Mary was making introductions, she was rejoicing silently at having finally learned the earl's first name. Simon!
When she had walked Lady Harvey over to her family, Butcher followed at her heels. Once she sat down on a curvy sofa, Butcher jumped up and sat by her side. When the earl tried to sit on the sofa on the other side of Mary, Butcher snarled at him, so he removed to a chair that he brought close to Miss Bennet, but set far enough away so that he might speak with her without fear of being ripped apart by a fifteen-pound chaperone with fangs. His sister laughed and sat down next to Mary.
"Simon says you admire Fordyce's sermons. Did you bring the book?" she asked her brother. He feigned disappointment at forgetting it, and promised Miss Bennet he would show it to her at a later date.
"Simon has his own rooms on Albemarle Street, or else he would retrieve it for you now. Grandmother won't allow him to move here until he marries, at which time she plans to remove to the dower house in Wiltshire and raise champion pugs." Lady Harvey's nose wrinkled in distaste, but whether it was for the country or the dogs, Mary did not know. "Fortunately for him, Simon has given his word to Grandmother that he will seriously look for a wife. Grandfather died last year, and ever since we have come out of mourning, she has been after him to secure the line..."
Lady Harvey rattled on in that same vein to a fascinated Mary, much to the obvious discomfort of her brother, until the countess demanded her grandchildren take Miss Bennet down to the kitchens for a peek at the new puppies.
"Oh, the darlings!" Mary could not help but squeal when she was shown the pups.
"I told you," the earl said to his sister over the oblivious head of Miss Bennet, who was gushing over the adorable little dogs. "Pay up." He had wagered his sister that Miss Bennet's pleasure in their grandparent's dogs was genuine. Lady Harvey had begun to believe it when she saw Butcher become Miss Bennet's devoted slave, but now, watching her wrestle one little pug with her fingers, she allowed her brother to be correct. She dug in her reticule for the required forfeit - five pounds.
"Trowbridge!" the countess suddenly barked, startling all three young people. No one had expected the countess to bestir herself to come below-stairs to check on the litter. "Which is Miss Bennet's favorite? Ah, my little Bruiser." She picked up the puppy, who nestled down into her ample bosom. "The spitting image of his sire." As if to prove the point, the little beast began to snarl at the earl. "I either need to hire an all-female staff, or find this handsome fellow a new home. He is now yours, Miss Bennet."
"Mine?" Mary gasped. What in the world was she going to do with a puppy? What would Mr. Darcy say?
"He may be yours in three weeks time, Miss Bennet. He needs to stay with his dam for now, but then you may call and collect him." She spoke with supreme confidence that Miss Bennet was delighted with her gift, ignoring the concerned looks the younger people, Mary included, gave each other. The earl took his grandmother by the arm and steered her back upstairs, reminding her of her guests. He suggested she not mention Bruiser to anyone until such time as Miss Bennet had secured Mr. Darcy's permission to keep a puppy at his house. The countess agreed and left her granddaughter and Mary to put the puppy back in his box with his mother.
"I shudder to think what Mr. Darcy - my sister's husband - will say when I tell him about the puppy."
"Do not worry, Miss Bennet. If there is a problem, please tell Simon and he will assist you any way he can."
Upstairs, Mary returned to her sofa, and this time, because Butcher had taken off down the hall after a passing footman, the earl sat down at her side.
"Something is different about you today, Miss Bennet. That is a new dress, perhaps? A new ribbon for your hair? I see," he joked. "New spectacles! What a vision you are! I was too short-sighted to notice at first. Wire you trying to hide those beautiful blue eyes?"
Mary blushed a rosy red even as she chuckled at his puns. She was used to ridicule, not the gentle teasing of this man. If he kept this up, she was bound to fall in love with him, and that would never do. Then he asked the one question destined to send her from falling in love to having arrived at that destination.
"May I escort you to church on Sunday, Miss Bennet? My grandmother and I attend St. George's. We should be glad of your attendance."
She agreed, and the conversation turned general until it was time to leave. As she was escorted out of the drawing room, Lady Trowbridge's voice followed her into the hall.
"Don't forget about the puppy!"
"A puppy?" Lizzy all but shouted that evening when Mary requested a private conference with the Darcys and gave them her news.
"I have wanted to get a puppy," Mr. Darcy said wistfully, "although I was thinking along the lines of a big retriever, not a pudgy little pug." He looked at Lizzy for a moment with a tender smile.
Mary, watching them, began to come to some interesting conclusions, but kept her own counsel. If the Darcys had information of some importance, they would make an announcement in their own time. She had wondered if either Lizzy or Jane were in a condition that might warrant some welcome news, but so far, nothing had been said.
"It would only be for a short while," she told Mr. Darcy, certain he would be the one to appeal to, not only because it was his house, but because he seemed more sympathetic. "I am not to collect him for three more weeks, and the Little Season ends not too soon afterwards." She omitted the part about the little dog disliking men; he would discover that soon enough.
Georgiana had paid another visit to Mary's room, this time with Kitty in tow, and they were both agog to learn about her new puppy.
"I can't believe it!" Kitty exclaimed, impressed despite herself. "The countess must really like you, Mary. I have heard that she spoils her dogs more than she does her grandchildren."
"And he says he likes my new spectacles," Mary told Georgiana shyly. Georgiana and Kitty went into whoops of delight, knowing who he was.
"I think they are uncommonly fine, myself," Georgiana agreed.
"And we are to attend church together on Sunday. With his grandmother."
Kitty snorted. "How romantic!"
"Oh, but it is," Georgiana insisted. The two began a debate, never noticing the vacant, dreamy expression on Mary's face as they quibbled over what constituted a romantic gesture.
Babette entered at that time with the white silk freshly pressed for dinner, and smiled as she watched her young lady sit there with her head in the clouds. She had already heard about the dog below-stairs, and could not find nothing to complain about with that situation. Should she not care to have to deal with a dog, she knew she was welcome to seek another position, but Miss Bennet was a sweet lady and Babette wished to be in her service for a long while.
"Mademoiselle knows she does not need to worry about spectacles interfering with the attracting of a man, no?" Babette added as the conversation turned once more to Mary's new spectacles. "But then..." she produced a small case of red leather and handed it to Mary. "When I ask Monsieur Darcy about the petite spectacles, I also suggest this, for the ball."
The girls all gasped as Mary opened the case and produced a rose-enameled lorgnette. "It's beautiful!" she exclaimed. "And it's perfect!"
"Babette, you and Marie are such wonders," Kitty admitted. "I don't know how we ever did without you."
"Me, neither," Mary said with a contented sigh. The three girls sat on her bed and chatted merrily until it was time to dress for dinner.
"Do you need any help, Babette?" Lizzy asked the night of the ball, rustling into Mary's room in a gold satin gown. That she had not knocked first was a sign of her own nervousness - although she had hosted smaller functions last spring, this was Lizzy's first official ball.
"No, Madame. Mademoiselle Bennet is exquis, non?" She stepped back to reveal Mary in the rose and white gown, a spray of tiny white roses in her hair. Mary was not built along the voluptuous lines of Lizzy and Lydia. She and Kitty were more like Jane, taller, thinner and more angular. Tonight, though, she looked positively regal. She flicked open the lorgnette, and her sister expressed her approval.
"But I have some other additions to your ensemble. Come see." Lizzy spread a pile of tissue-wrapped items on the bed. "Presents for your debut!"
"I assure you, Kitty and Georgiana have received at least this many! And the flowers," she added, indicating a small nosegay of white roses that had been delivered earlier, "are from Colonel Fitzwilliam. Quite unexceptional. Open this first." She thrust one of the packages into her sister's hands.
Mary ripped into the tissue and pulled out a long, narrow jewelry box. "Jewelry?"
"From Mr. Darcy and I. We thought you would appreciate something special for your first London ball."
Mary opened the box and gasped. A strand of pale pink pearls glowed back at her. "They are beautiful! But I did not tell you what I was to wear..."
"Yes, you have been extremely secretive about all these new clothes you have acquired, choosing to spring them on us without a moment's notice," Lizzy teased. "If I did not know better, I would say you rather enjoy making an entrance. However, I believe in this instance, you told Jane what you were going to wear, and we have all planned accordingly."
"I told Jane? Oh, yes, the day we had tea with Lady Trowbridge..."
"Open this one next. It is from Kitty and Georgiana."
"Oh, dear, and I did not get them anything in return," Mary worried, even as she opened the package to find a white brocade fan.
Lizzy laughed. "You got them each a fan to match their gown. And this one," she thrust another box in her sister's hands, "is from Jane and Mr. Bingley." It was a little pink pearl and gold ring that matched the necklace to perfection. Mary thought she might burst into tears, but Babette, watching her mistress carefully, took charge and escorted her back to the dressing table lest she do damage to her face.
A knock on the door revealed a footman with another box of flowers. Lizzy accepted it and brought it to her sister, who read the name on the card and blushed.
"Trowbridge?" Lizzy wanted to know. Mary could only nod. Without reading the card, she tucked it into her reticule and directed her attention back to the box. Inside was a tiny posey of real pink roses, and Babette declared them perfect to tuck into Mademoiselle's white satin sash.
Babette fastened the necklace around Mary's neck, attached the flowers and finished fiddling with the curls she had made on her mistress' forehead. The two sisters went downstairs together, ready for the ball.
It all began in the receiving line. They had just finished welcoming the Fitzwilliam family party - where the colonel had requested the honor of the second dance and lingered over her hand - when the Bingley/Hurst party arrived.
Miss Bingley must have overheard the colonel's request, because she murmured something about a "mercy waltz" to her sister, completely ignored the Miss Bennets and went directly to Georgiana, where she gushed over that young lady's ball gown until Mr. Hurst pushed her into the ballroom ahead of him.
"I say, Kitty," Mary whispered to her sister, "is it only myself, or does Miss Bingley look different tonight?"
"Jealousy does not become her," Kitty replied, and the three young ladies stifled giggles as Lady Trowbridge - dressed in her customary black - sailed in, followed by her grandchildren and Sir Melton Harvey, Sarah's husband.
"If it ain't the pug-loving girl, looking like a rose," the countess shouted. "Ask her for the first dance," she commanded her grandson, who rushed forward to do just that, only to discover someone had beat him to the post. He then asked for the second dance, only to learn that one was spoken for, as well.
"There is always the supper dance," Lady Harvey whispered to her brother, and he quickly secured that all-important dance with Mary. Kitty and Georgiana were also opportuned for dances by the earl, and even Lizzy was requested to stand up with him for a country dance. Having accomplished his task, Trowbridge moved on.
Georgiana and Kitty smiled at each other, pleased to see Mary much in demand. No one, however, was as surprised as they, though, when Mr. Darcy himself came to escort his sister-in-law out for the first dance. Lizzy stood to one side with tears in her eyes, so proud of her husband's choice of a first partner.
Kitty and Georgiana were claimed by Mr. Bingley and the colonel, respectively, and the six couples were soon joined by others. Mary did not sit out one single dance up until midnight, including one with her Uncle Gardiner and one with Sir Melton, a childhood friend of the earl's. He entertained her with several stories of when they were boys together in Wiltshire.
"It is beautiful country, Miss Bennet. Sarah and I hope you will come to visit after the holidays, so that we might get to know each other better. Besides," he added with a twinkle, "Trowbridge is a mere two miles away and the earl always winters in the country."
Then disaster struck. Mary did not know how Miss Bingley had obtained her information, but when the earl came to claim the supper dance, they suddenly found Jane's sister-in-law at their side, ready to dance with the earl.
"I vow, I do not recall you asking me for the honor of the supper dance, my lord," Miss Bingley simpered, "but here I am, ready to dance. You may run along now, Miss Bennet, to wherever your supper partner is hiding. If he exists. I remember, my lord, a specific assembly in Meryton when Miss Bennet had not a single partner the entire evening!" She linked her arm in his and walked him out to the dance floor, effectively cutting out her competition.
Mary saw the earl give her a "what-can-I-do-I'm-a-gentleman" glance and she turned around and walked away, her head held high, her eyes filled with tears.
Lizzy, watching from across the room, felt helpless, but tried to control the damage somewhat by providing her sister with a partner. That the young gentleman in question was a pimply-faced young parson related on the distaff side to the Fitzwilliams only added insult to injury. And the man, Mr. Morris-Smeeth, was a terrible dancer.
After the torture of waltzing with Mr. Horrid-Feet, he sat them at a secluded table for two, brought her a plate of everything she despised - not a lobster patty in sight - and spent the supper hour trying to grope her under the table. Definitely not the correct behavior for a man of the cloth, but after this evening, Mary was beginning to believe that men, clergy or not, were not to be trusted.
She finally upended her plate of inedible food in the man's lap, bringing stares from the table where Miss Bingley sat with both the earl and the colonel. They all laughed at a pointed comment from Miss Bingley and Mary quickly retreated from the room.
"Caroline!" Mr. Bingley barked from behind his sister as she laughingly forced Lord Trowbridge to escort her back to the ballroom after supper. Charles waited until after his sister tried to convince the earl to dance with her once more, only to be politely but firmly rebuffed, before dragging his protesting sister off to a small room down the hall.
"Why did you do that, Charles? I had Trowbridge eating out of my hand! He's terrible wealthy, and handsome...I could be a countess..." she breathed.
"You could be rusticating at Netherfield by tomorrow evening," Charles retorted, "if you don't apologize to Miss Bennet!"
"Why, Charles, I don't see why I must apologize for anything!" Caroline was just a little too wide-eyed for his comfort. "If anyone should apologize, I believe it would be Miss Bennet! Did you see what she did to that unfortunate young man at supper? And now, you must excuse me. I have Colonel Fitzwilliam down for the next dance and he will be searching for me. Besides, you cannot make me rusticate at Netherfield. I am of age and I have my own money!"
Without waiting for a reply, Caroline swept from the room in a blaze of bright orange velvet, ecru feathers and topazes.
He conveniently forgot he had been a member of the party laughing at her moments before at supper. He followed her out onto the terrace, where the late October air was cold and damp, and he touched her on the arm to gain her attention.
"Miss Bennet...I wish to..."
She turned on him like a tigress.
"You wish to what? Offer to dance with poor, slighted Miss Bennet? Do I look like I need your charity? Am I so pitiable a creature that a few compliments and a dance here or there will turn my head enough so I will not see how you laugh behind my back? Am I such a laughingstock? Am I?" she all but shouted.
"Miss Bennet..." Colonel Fitzwilliam made a tragic mistake. He put his hand on her once more, this time on one of her thin shoulders. She turned toward him and he was looking at her tear-stained face. He saw her raise the rose-colored lorgnette to her eyes, completely missing the left fist that connected with the side of his nose until it was too late.
"You, my dear colonel, may go to hell!" Brushing past him, she stalked back into the ballroom, too upset to see Miss Bingley swooping down on her and coming in for the kill. Before she knew it, Caroline had pulled her into a secluded corner, looking for all the world as if they were bosom bows.
"I hope you are satisfied, Miss Bennet, at how your evening has commenced. I hope you see the capricious nature of men. After you stole Lord Trowbridge away from Lady Alyce, who is a dear friend of mine, I have stolen him away from you! In fact, I like him so well, and he is so smitten with my handsome looks and even handsomer income, he will never want to let me go! You may wish us happy, Miss Bennet. Not that I'm going to commit myself to him forever. Even now I have your other swain, Colonel Fitzwilliam, waiting to dance attendance on me. Have a lovely evening, Miss Bennet, and now that you have had your taste of London society, you can run home to your boorish parents and marry some boorish country squire, knowing you are not quite cut out for aristocratic circles!"
Miss Bingley brushed past her in search of the colonel, and Mary didn't know whether to laugh or cry. She hoped the colonel had tucked tail and ran, and she hoped Miss Bingley choked on her own evil tongue.
Walking quickly from the ballroom, she literally ran into the earl.
"Mary!" He held her by her shoulders and looked into her eyes. She did not see him very well, because the lorgnette was dangling from her wrist.
"Simon!" If he was going to use her Christian name, she was going to use his.
"Mary, I...I cannot believe Miss Bingley would..." he stammered, trying to explain about the supper dance.
Mary tried to pull an unconcerned air, but failed miserably. "La sir," she said with a bitter laugh, "you would not believe the evening I have had. I was stood up for the supper dance and was forced to partner a parson unable to put one foot in front of the other. I was ridiculed by an entire table of people at supper. I was accosted by the colonel. I was accosted by Miss Bingley and informed of her engagement to the Earl of Trowbridge. I...I wish...I wish you happy, my lord. But remember your Fordyce. 'If you make a dangerous connexion...your folly is without excuse, and your destruction without alleviation.'* Now excuse me. I have had enough of London society, as Miss Bingley so aptly reminded me. Good evening."
She ducked out of his hands, which were still on her shoulders, brushed past him and ran up the stairs to her room, where Babette sat snoozing by the fire.
"Mon dieu!" the maid exclaimed when a slamming door woke her from a beautiful dream of a wedding for Miss Bennet and the earl.
*"Sermons to Young Women" (1:129), James Fordyce, 1766.
"Where is Mary this morning?" Kitty whispered to Lizzy. They were seated in the drawing room with Georgiana after breakfast, and watched with growing trepidation the number of people and bouquets that began filling that room. The majority of flowers and callers were for Mary, and she had yet to make an appearance. "I did not see her at the end of the ball last night, either."
"I will send up for her," Lizzy said, and rang for a footman.
"Excuse me." Georgiana left her circle of admirers with Kitty and quit the room. She went to seek out their maids. Perhaps Babette knew what might be keeping Mary from her adoring public. She found Marie comforting a weeping Babette in the room they shared on the top floor of the house.
"Babette!" she cried, and knelt at the edge of the bed. "What is the matter?"
The maid loosed a torrent of lightning-fast French and Georgiana cursed her inability to follow. She looked at Marie in mute appeal.
"She feels as if she has failed Miss Bennet, who is extremely upset about last night."
"What happened?" As far as Georgiana was concerned, except for a small mishap concerning Miss Bingley and the supper dance, the evening was perfection itself.
"Miss Bennet was not to dance before supper with the earl, and at supper, the earl and his partner insulted her, and later she hit the colonel in the face. She and the earl had words, too."
"Oh, dear. Babette, you must not take the blame! Those horrid men! I will take care of some of this, including Miss Bennet." Georgiana stormed out and went down to Mary's room, where she entered without knocking to find that lady still abed. Mary's eyes and nose were as red as Babette's. She took one look at Georgiana and burst into fresh tears.
"Shhhhh!" Georgiana consoled, climbing into bed with Mary and holding her in her arms. "It cannot be as bad as all that. Well, perhaps Richard feels differently..." she joked, but Mary did not find it amusing.
"I never want to see any of them again! I hit the colonel, ruining all chances with him - not that I really wanted him," Mary wailed, "and now Miss Bingley is to marry the earl!"
"What?" Georgiana cried. "It cannot be!"
"Miss Bingley told me so herself. All I could do was wish the earl happy last night, and then I cried myself to sleep!"
"Well, if Miss Bingley said she was engaged, I would pay her no mind at all! Why, just last year she fancied herself mistress of Pemberley, and look where that got her! As if I would allow my brother to marry such a one as she! And whatever happened with the earl also may be repaired. He escorted you to church last Sunday, did he not? His grandmother is giving you a puppy. He sent you a bouquet last evening, and an even larger one this morning. The man is smitten, and one little mishap is not going to change that. Come now, dry your eyes and come downstairs. There are many people waiting to greet you, and the flowers! So many flowers with your name on them! Kitty and I are extremely jealous of the attention!"
"No, I do not want to go downstairs today. Maybe tomorrow, but not today. Oh, where is Babette? I need Babette!"
"Poor Babette. She is upstairs, crying her eyes out, afraid that she has failed you! I will go up and ask her to come down. Mayhap it is better if you stay here today. You will need some of the time to convince Babette that she is not at fault."
Mary dried her eyes and nodded. "You are a comfort, Georgiana. I know why my sisters dote on you."
The younger girl blushed. "I had an experience once, where I thought I was in love, but I was mistaken." There was a long pause while Mary digested this information. "But," she added briskly, "the gentleman did not truly care for me. I believe the earl cares for you, even if it is only as a friend. Love is a risk we must all take, and you have been very brave. I will have luncheon sent up on a tray later, although we hope you will feel better to join us for dinner."
"Yes, thank you. Would you see that there is enough for two? I believe Babette and I have some talking to do, and I do not wish us to be disturbed."
"What do you mean, she is indisposed!" Trowbridge exclaimed. He had called at the Darcy home that same afternoon to see if he could make sense of Miss Bennet's conversation the evening before. And apologize for the supper dance fiasco.
"She is upset about last night," Lizzy soothed, having not had time to receive a full report from Georgiana, "and needs time to recover."
The earl exploded in Lizzy's face. "She needs time? I'm the one who was informed by your sister last evening that I am engaged to Miss Bingley!"
"Oh, dear," cried Lizzy, for once in her life quite unsure what to do. She looked up at the sound of footsteps. It was her husband. One could always count on William to show up at just the right moment.
"I suggest, Trowbridge, that you remove yourself from my wife's presence if you are going to address her in that manner." Mr. Darcy's voice dripped icicles. "Perhaps we might take this into my study."
"Now, suppose you tell me, my lord, what really happened at my ball yesterday evening?" Darcy had escorted the earl into the study, but did not offer him a chair or a drink, sure signs of his dissatisfaction.
"I do not know, Darcy."
"Then let us start at the beginning." Mr. Darcy was not much older than the earl, and he was far from an expert when it came to affairs of the heart, but if Mary was unhappy, Elizabeth was unhappy, and his wife's happiness was paramount. Even if it meant taking an avuncular role in this situation. "You arrived at the ball and secured Miss Bennet for the supper dance."
The earl cleared his throat, nervous under the scrutiny of the older man. "Actually, I solicited her hand for the first dance, but it was already claimed, as you well know. Then I asked for the second dance, but it was already promised to Fitz."
"I see. Pray continue."
"Directly before midnight, I approached Miss Bennet, only to have Miss Bingley insist I was already her partner."
"And had you, indeed, made a mistake, perhaps, asking both ladies for the same dance?"
"I think I am not so crass as to behave in such a manner, Mr. Darcy," the earl replied, clearly affronted. "If Miss Bingley claimed, however, to be my partner, I could not declare the lady to be a liar, much as I wished it. When Miss Bennet did not protest, I could do nothing but lead Miss Bingley out onto the floor. I did not wish to embroil Miss Bennet in a contretemps and expose her to gossip."
"I think I understand. Were you present, then, when Miss Bennet upended her supper onto Mr. Morris-Smeeth's lap?"
"I was. Fitz and his partner had been invited to join us, and just when Miss Bennet so sweetly disposed of her food, Miss Bingley said something completely unrelated to the incident that was amusing, and we all laughed."
"A sally intended to be spoken at a strategic moment could look as if you were laughing at Miss Bennet."
"Gads, man, is that what she thinks?"
"I understand it was quite damning."
The earl chose to vent his feelings with a few expletives. "Would that I could see Miss Bennet and explain!"
"At this point, I think that to be extremely difficult. Especially with your engagement to Miss Bingley already common knowledge within my family."
The earl swore again. "I will not allow Miss Bingley to order my life for me - I did not, nor will I ever, propose marriage to her. I'd much prefer to propose to Miss Bennet! Now she will never have me!"
Mary and Babette spent the afternoon having a quiet coze, apologizing to each other, offering each other comfort and speculating on when Miss Bingley's engagement would be announced. When it was time to dress for dinner, Mary's spirits had revived enough that she sent word to Lizzy to let her know she would be joining the family for the evening meal. What no one told Mary was that the colonel, who had called earlier to speak with her, had been invited to dine.
In fact, only Georgiana had already come down when Mary walked into the drawing room and found her conversing earnestly with her cousin.
"Mary!" she cried, and rushed over to escort her to the sofa. "My cousin would have a word with you. He called earlier, when you were indisposed. Now he would like leave to address you." She supposed Richard was there to apologize. "Please?" she pleaded, seeing Mary begin to rise.
"Please?" the colonel added. Mary looked at Georgiana, who winked and then removed herself to a far end of the room, out of earshot.
The colonel quickly seized the advantage by sitting down next to Mary and taking her right hand in his.
"Miss Bennet, may I offer my sincerest apologies for any insult I might have given last evening?"
Mary finally gave him her full attention, and almost melted with sympathy when she saw his face. Almost.
She must have hit him between his nose and his left eye, because his eye was rimmed with black and his nose was swollen. She was amazed that a man of his vanity would dare venture out looking as he did. It was a testament to his sincerity, she supposed, that he had not only called earlier, but had returned for dinner.
"I will accept your apology, Colonel Fitzwilliam, if you will accept mine in return." With great daring, she reached up and lightly caressed his eye and the bridge of his nose. She could not believe she had done so much damage. He sighed and closed his eyes. After a moment, he opened them again and took both her hands in his.
"Miss Bennet, I wish to tell you how ardently I admire and love you. You came into my life like a breath of fresh air, your brilliant eyes sparkling - so full of life! I admit you took my breath away, and you have continued to amaze me! I know I am only a second son, and you are without very many prospects as well, having not much in the way of face or fortune, but if we truly loved each other..." He hurried on. "I had heard from others how rigidly you patterned your life, and how you irritated everyone with your sermons and your sayings, and I realized last night when I saw you drop food in that little chap's lap that you had come so far from that mousy, prosy little chit you seemed when we met at Darcy's...Miss Bennet?"
Mary had been sitting quietly through the colonel's declaration. At first, she felt flattered that he honored her with such a proposal, but the longer he talked, the more insulted she became. No face or fortune! The words were true, but they still stung. Then he had pronounced her mousy and prosy! She felt he had gone too far and she held up a hand to forestall any more words.
"I believe, Colonel Fitzwilliam, you have said quite enough! While I am indebted to you for tendering my first complete proposal," she said, remembering the aborted one of Squire Mayfield, "I pray you will quit while you are ahead and give me no cause to darken your other eye. I value your friendship, colonel, but I am afraid we will not suit. I admit, I had hoped for a proposal from another quarter, but I have since learned that it will not be forthcoming."
She burst into tears and ran from the room, leaving Georgiana to berate her cousin for upsetting her friend.
"But I only proposed!" the colonel protested, just as a concerned Lizzy came flying into the room, followed by her frowning husband, both having passed her weeping sister on the stairs.
"And her acceptance of said offer has caused her to shed copious tears of joy, I suppose," Lizzy said sarcastically.
"Actually, Miss Bennet has refused me."
"Refused you what?" Mr. Darcy asked his cousin, who was now on his feet and headed toward the drawing room door.
"The colonel's proposal," Lizzy muttered to her husband.
"Your servant, Elizabeth. Georgiana. Darcy. I will be unable to stay for dinner." With a stiff bow, he left.
The three remaining occupants of the room were still standing, and silent, when Kitty walked in.
"What?" she asked in bewilderment. "Where is the colonel going? He only just arrived! Something has happened, hasn't it? It's Mary, isn't it? I always miss the most interesting events!" she wailed.
White's was ablaze with candles and company that evening, but the colonel barely acknowledged even Brummel and Alvanley in the bow window before settling in a deep chair and calling loudly for a bottle of port.
"I expected you to be basking in the bosom of the Darcy family right about now," a familiar voice bitterly exclaimed. The Earl of Trowbridge sat down opposite his rival, a glass in one hand, a half-empty bottle in the other. He took one look at the colonel's face and burst into laughter.
"Don't speak to me, I beg you, Trowbridge, of bosoms or Darcys. She refused me, you know. I began a harmless flirtation, hoping to increase her confidence and her consequence, and I fell heels over head in love with the chit."
"Taking your frustrations out at Jackson's then, were you?" The earl said with mock sympathy, raising his glass to indicate the colonel's face. "Did no one tell you that you are allowed to fight back?"
"Actually, I earned this facer last evening." He glanced around to see if anyone was paying attention, reluctant to mention her name in public. "From Miss Bennet."
The earl laughed even harder. "Gads, she is a lady worth knowing, isn't she? And now she has refused your offer." He shook his head, as if he found this unbelievable.
"I ought to call you out, Trowbridge!" The earl received an angry glare. "It's you she wants, and she is convinced it will never happen, and that I cannot understand! You're as available as I, even more so, considering your title and fortune, and you are one the hanging out for a wife. Besides, you are in love with her!"
The earl nodded, unable to deny the truth. "There is something so unique about her, I cannot describe it. She never tries to be anything but herself, whether she dresses up and dances till dawn or looks like a dowd and hauls a stack of books about Hatchard's. She is kind, generous and loyal. She is attentive to old ladies and loves animals. Sadly, I am no longer available, if the young lady is to be believed. It seems my partner at supper last night," he added, reluctant to mention her name either, for completely different reasons, "told the lady in question that we are to be leg-shackled directly."
"The devil you say!" the colonel shouted, rising up from his chair. Distracted beyond reason that day, not even Georgiana had thought to inform her cousin of this tidbit of information. Heads turned in their direction and he sheepishy sat back down. And took a few hits straight from the bottle given to him by one of the stewards. "Sorry. That other female, who is no lady in my estimation, deserves to be horse-whipped!"
The earl nodded and the two sat in silence for awhile, content only to drink and make the occasional comment about the female they were both coming to despise.
"Words cannot begin to describe that wench."
"'The most important tradesman's daughter to ever enter London society' comes to mind," the colonel growled.
"How about 'tangerine-tinted buffoon?" the earl countered.
The colonel raised his bottle to acknowledge the earl's excellent words. "Stuffed parrot with a pearl necklace!"
The more they insulted Miss Bingley, the more they drank. The more they drank, the more foxed they became. The more foxed they became, the more base their insults.
"I have it, old boy! Haymarket ware!"
"Lady-bird, lady-bird, tweet, tweet, tweet!" The earl howled at his own jest.
"If her brother were here, he'd call us out," the colonel maintained.
"If her brother were here, he'd call her out!"
"Whore!" they shouted together.
The earl looked around at the attention they had garnered from the other members of the club and, with a devilish gleam, raised his glass.
"Fitz, I propose a toast!"
"A toast, a toast, we must have a toast!" the colonel roared. "To Miss Bingley!"
"Yes, to Miss Bingley! The greatest whore in Christendom!"
"Aye! Aye! The greatest of whores. Long may she reign!"
Several club members, known for either being great gossips, or having wives with wagging tongues, practically ran from the room. Others began whispering among themselves. Miss Bingley must have committed some atrocious crime to be so mentioned in White's. Others ran for the betting book, certain the lady would be much aligned by daybreak.
The remains of several bottles at their elbows, Trowbridge and the colonel finally pulled each other up from their chairs and swaggered into another room, where Charles Bingley sat playing cards with Fitzwilliam Darcy. If Bingley heard a word from the other room, he gave no indication. Darcy took in the inebriated condition of the colonel and the earl without comment, as well, and promptly called for their carriage.
The top-heavy gentlemen were taken to Bingley's town house, where they were put in guest rooms by a motherly Mrs. Bingley. Bingley and Darcy, having already discussed the entire situation, began to put their plans in action.
"I cannot understand why you must go home!" Lizzy wailed. She was watching Babette supervise the loading of Mary's trunks onto Mr. Darcy's best carriage, lent for the occasion at her husband's direction.
If there was one good thing to come of all this, Lizzy supposed it was the growing affection between her husband and her next-youngest sister. Who would have imagined, several weeks ago, that Mary and William would become such friends?
"I am leaving because there is nothing here for me, Lizzy, you know that." It had been three days since the ball, and in that time Mary had grown fretful and fearful. No announcement had appeared in the paper concerning Miss Bingley and the earl, but Mary knew it was only a matter of time before it happened. She wanted to be as far away from Miss Bingley as she could when it did. If she stayed, she would be forced, at some point, to see the man she loved with a female she despised.
Lizzy and the rest of the household, including Babette, had kept her sheltered from the sordid gossip surrounding Miss Bingley, on Mr. Darcy's orders, so she had no indication of that female's fall from favor among the ton. They could understand the reasons for agreeing to his suggestion on this. However, they did not understand the continued absence of the earl from their home, not knowing it was at Mr. Darcy's insistence.
Now it was time for Mary to go home. Fortunately, Babette was to accompany her, and remain at Longbourn, again at Mr. Darcy's insistence. For that, Mary was grateful.
Lizzy, however, was not happy with her husband's handling of the situation - Mary should be made to face up to her troubles, not run away from them! However, William had made it quite clear that his plans were the best for Mary.
"I know, but we shall miss you dreadfully!" she now told her sister. "Kitty is sulking, afraid Mama will call her home, too, and Georgiana is in the doldrums because she says she is losing a dear friend. I, too, will miss a dear sister and companion."
"It is not as bad as all that, Lizzy. Jane is still in town, and you have a large circle of friends. I will keep Mama from sending for Kitty. She will be much too busy, anyhow, berating me for ruining such a good opportunity to find a husband. Well, I have no intention of telling her anything..." Mary climbed into the carriage beside Babette before she started to cry. "Goodbye!" she called as she was driven away.
"Fitzwilliam Darcy!" she almost barked, having pinned him as best she could to the mattress.
"Elizabeth?" he questioned calmly, knowing full well where this conversation was leading. He also was enjoying the fact that he was being held captive by his wife. The topic of discussion was not what he would have chosen, but when they were finished...
"Pay attention, William! I want to know everything there is to know about Mary and Trowbridge!"
"Such as why you sent Mary home. Why hasn't Trowbridge called? What is happening between him and Caroline Bingley? Where did those ugly rumors about her begin? What has Charles to say in all this? Jane called today and all she could tell me was that the colonel and Trowbridge had - what was the term? - shot the cat and were too ill the next morning to raise their heads from their pillows. Have they called each other out? Has Charles called Trowbridge out? Has Trowbridge called Caroline out? What is going on?" The fact that she did not wait for any answers, and punctuated each question by pushing him further into the mattress, meant he had to wait for her to hear his replies.
"Are you quite finished?" he wondered when she quit pressing on his shoulders.
"Oh! Why, yes, I am. For now," she added pertly, allowing him to sit up among the pillows.
"Thank you. I sent Mary home because Trowbridge and I do not wish her name to become linked with any of this mess."
"You are too good to us," Elizabeth murmured, recalling another incident where he helped her family, but she let him continue.
"Trowbridge will not call on us until Caroline has been settled elsewhere, and as far as I can tell, he has not offered for Caroline, no matter what she or Mary says. I wish I could tell you I do not know where those rumors concerning Caroline originated, but that would not be the truth. Actually, Fitz and Trowbridge started them the other evening at White's, while they were, um...shooting the cat. No one has called anyone else out, either. Charles could have called both gentlemen out that evening, but chose not to, having learned beforehand from a good friend exactly what his sister has been up to these days. As for Trowbridge calling out Caroline, she is going to be much too busy getting caught in parson's mousetrap to meet him at Hampstead Heath. Her new husband might take exception to his wife fighting a duel, as well."
"Husband?" Lizzy choked. "I did not even know she was engaged. Well, I thought she was engaged to Trowbridge, but..."
"Elizabeth? You have far more important things to worry about than the future of Miss Bingley. Your sister will be settled soon, too, if Trowbridge has any say in the matter. They will work this out amongst themselves. I have something more interesting in mind for you..."
Lizzy sighed, but it was not an unhappy sound. If the look in William's eyes was any indication, it was going to be a long night.
Caroline saw the militant look in her brother's eye and sighed. It was going to be a long night. She didn't realize at the time just how long.
"You will come downstairs and attend Louisa's card party," he told her.
"No! Do you know what those people are saying? I have never been so embarrassed in my entire..."
"Oh, come now, Caroline, I can name several incidences where you have been embarrassed," Charles replied smugly. While he had been reluctant to enter into this mad scheme at first - after all, Caroline was his sister - he was warming to it quickly.
"Possibly," she conceded with a sniff, "but never like this! This is my reputation we are talking about!"
"Yes, and if you had been guarding it better, you never would have made an enemy of the Earl of Trowbridge! Now come along, sister dear. It's time to play, er, um, cards."
This was the tricky part, getting Caroline downstairs. Luckily, Jane was the best wife ever. She came to the door and very quietly, and sweetly, coaxed Caroline down to the drawing room, having convinced her that there was nothing to fear.
Charles' own worst fear, however, was that Jane would learn of the plot he and Darcy had concocted. She would never have played along had she known, and he was still worried she would discover it in time to stop it from happening. He didn't know Mr. Darcy had explained the entire situation to Jane and she was playing a part, too. She, too, was unhappy about the circumstances, but as the injured party in all this had been Mary, she reluctantly agreed to the plan.
"Caroline," she now said softly, "I wish to introduce you to yet another member of the Fitzwilliam family, the Rev. Mr. Morris-Smeeth. Mr. Morris-Smeeth, this is my dear sister-in-law Miss Bingley. Caroline, dear, won't you show Mr. Morris-Smeeth into Louisa's conservatory? No one may gossip if they don't see you," she whispered.
Caroline nodded. Jane was sweet, really, to help her avoid the horrid stories that had been swirling about society these past few days. She vaguely recognized her escort from the Darcy ball, but did not connect this ill-favored man with the one who had received a baptism of food at the hands of Miss Bennet.
"This is most kind of you, sir," she began reluctantly, trying to point out one of Louisa's prized orchids. "It came from..." Was that his hand at her back? "It was imported from..." Yes, there was that hand again, this time on her arm. "I believe..."
She tried to continue, but the man had backed himself up against one of the glass walls, had pulled her up against him and was desperately trying to get a hand up under her...
"Unhand her, you cad!" Charles cried dramatically from behind his sister. "What is the meaning of this?"
"But...but...Miss Bingley started it," the parson insisted.
"Yes? How so?" Charles demanded.
"Yes, how so?" Caroline echoed.
"Well..." The lecherous little man mumbled something about a reputation and wild stories concerning the wanton Miss Bingley.
"Speak up, man, I would know how this happened!" He stared hard at the other man, and then he winked, Mr. Morris-Smeeth's cue to ensure his own happiness.
"I was trying to look at these orchids, Mr. Bingley, when Miss Bingley grabbed me and pinned me to the windows and began kissing me all over. I wasn't doing anything, sir, honest!"
"What?" Caroline's face had become as brilliantly-hued as her gown, and the three feathers in her hair bobbed up and down in righteous indignation. "I never - he tried to - Charles!" she wailed.
"Caroline," he calmly replied, so proud of his own acting, he was about to burst. "I believe we should take this elsewhere. We are drawing a crowd, and your reputation is already in shreds. Shall we adjourn to the library, sir, where we might discuss settlements and such?"
The two men walked away arm-in-arm to a door at the end of the conservatory, talking as if they were long-lost brothers, leaving Caroline gaping like a fish before she turned around and ran back to her room.
When she tried to run away later that evening, climbing out of her bedroom window on a rope made of sheets, her brother was waiting below with the little lecher, a minister and a special license, and tied her future up for her even better than she had tied her sheets.
Now Mary knew why Lizzy always took such long walks every day when she lived at Longbourn. One could not hear Mama's voice from Oakham Mount. It had been two long weeks since Mary's return home, two weeks spent listening to her mother nag her constantly about her wasted time in London. The woods and fields about Longbourn and Meryton became her refuge.
She was just back from one such walk when she heard her mother in the sitting room with a guest.
"Oh, Squire Mayfield," Mrs. Bennet gushed. "How lovely of you to call. I have been sitting here all afternoon with only my nerves for company. Won't you have some tea? I vow, this wintery afternoon is wet and damp, and my..."
Oh, no! Not the squire! Mary had no doubt as to why he had called. He called almost every morning since her return, eager to finish his proposal, she imagined. Mama, of course, had resumed encouraging the squire in his pursuit of a Bennet bride.
Hill," Mrs. Bennet shrilled when tea arrived, "please fetch Mary. I know you were about to make an interesting offer to my middle daughter, sir, before she went to London. A pity about London, of course. One is sorry she did not take, but I'm sure her sisters did their best! The squire has come to call," she pointed out unnecessarily to her daughter as she entered the room. "Take off those glasses," she hissed.
Mary left her tiny spectacles squarely on her nose and prayed for someone, anyone, to deliver her from this impending interview. She resisted an urge to stick her tongue out at her mother's retreating back when that lady left the room on the flimsiest of excuses. She refused to sit when the squire bid her to do so.
"Whatever you have to say, sir, I hope you will say it and then leave. I am in no mood to be trifled with today." Militantly she crossed her arms over her chest and waited.
"Miss Bennet, I -" He struggled for words and she ran out of patience.
"If you cannot form more than two words, sir, then your time is up, and I bid you - " From out in the hallway she heard a shriek from her mother, but she did not wait to hear its cause. Still dressed in her bonnet, gloves and a thick spencer, she slipped out of the French doors in the sitting room and took off across the back lawn at a run.
She didn't go far, just into the walled garden at the end of the path. There was an unfamiliar coach and four at the front door, but she paid it no heed. Her head ached and she wanted to be alone.
She sat sulking on one of the low stone benches for a good fifteen minutes, trying to ignore her freezing backside, when she saw a dear, familiar person approach.
"Go away!" she called out to the earl. "I have nothing to say to you!"
"A pity," he gently replied. "I have a great deal to say to you."
"What are you doing here?" she demanded.
"I have brought your puppy, of course."
"He's here?" she cried, the first sign of happiness crossing her face since her return home. "I must -" A smooth mask of indifference came down over her features. This man, of all people, did not deserve any consideration whatsoever. "I will see him later, when I return to the house," she said woodenly.
The earl shrugged. "I left him in the sitting room with your mother and some dolt who says he is your fiancé."
"What? Fiancé?" she shrieked. She wasn't her mother's daughter for nothing. "We'll just have to see about that!" Mary jumped up from the bench and stormed back to the house with Trowbridge hot on her heels. She entered the house through the French doors only to find the room empty. Outraged, she turned around and ran squarely into the earl.
"Watch what you are about, my girl," he warned, putting his hands on her shoulders and peering into her astonished face, his gray eyes warm and tender. "There are no pugs to save you now." With that, he kissed her soundly. Mary sighed with delight, kissing him back with all her heart, and put her arms up to curl about his neck until she remembered his own engagement. Twirling about, she stalked away from the earl and sat down on the sofa.
"I cannot. You are promised to Miss Bingley, remember?" A shriek from the hallway told her Mama was listening at keyholes again. Mary ignored her.
"I never was, nor ever will be, engaged to Miss Bingley."
"But-" To her surprise, the earl dropped down on one knee at her feet and took one of her hands in his.
"But I would gladly be engaged - and married - to you, my darling, if you will only let me. I...I tried too hard to be a gentleman the night of the ball, and when you did not protest Miss Bingley's actions, I thought you did not feel for me what I felt for you. Mary, dear, I beg your forgiveness, and if you will accept my proposal, you will make me the happiest of men. Will you marry me?"
"You have waited a fortnight to ask me for forgiveness," she pointed out to him calmly. "Why should I listen to you?"
"If I have been conspicuous in my absence of both an apology and an offer, I am sorry. It was your own brother, Mr. Darcy, who suggested I wait until you were settled once again in your home before approaching you. I thought it best to wait until the puppy was ready to be taken from his dam."
"Yes, well, I would have been much happier had the apology and the offer come much sooner. The puppy could have come later. But I have heard no specifics, and must suppose this to be along the lines of the colonel's proposal. Tell me, my lord, am I mousy? Prosy?"
"What? My love, you are neither of those! Who would dare say such things?"
"No one important," Mary replied, melting at his endearment. But she needed to hear that all-important sentence, just once. "However, I am not sure I wish to accept your proposal. I have yet to understand if your heart is engaged."
"My heart," he acknowledged, "my soul, my body," he added, earnestly kissing her hand. "My life. Please, marry me, because I love you. I cannot live without you."
"I love you, too." A shriek loud enough to wake the dead whistled through the keyhole, and Mary laughed. "But I give you fair warning. I come with all sorts of baggage, sir. That," and she indicated the hallway, "is only one such part of it." She looked at him with tenderness, still kneeling on the floor, and took pity on such an uncomfortable position. "Oh, hang it all, Simon, I cannot know my own mind when you are down on the floor!" She stood up, pulling him with her and to her, and then she kissed him.
"I take it you accept, then, my love?" he asked dreamily when he could pull himself away.
"I accept, Simon, with all my heart!" He led her back to the sofa and would have kissed her again, but she held back. "What happened to Miss Bingley?"
"She became engaged to someone else. And if her brother had any say in the matter, the wedding is already passed. It was scandalous, really, the way she was found in a compromising position with Mr. Morris-Smeeth, and this after a pair of drunken sots maligned her good name in White's one evening..."
"The groping little parson?" Mary's heart was filled with happiness at that thought, and several more.
"Never say he groped you, my love! If I had known, I would have called him out!"
"There were plenty of people injured the night of the ball, Simon, so I imagine it is just as well you did not know. But what of Colonel Fitzwilliam? I hurt him terribly."
"Yes, you did. Fortunately, his heart was not so engaged that he put a period to his existence. You might be pleased to know he has been seen escorting Miss Kitty and Miss Darcy about town."
"Kitty? That is extraordinary!"
"You are the extraordinary one, Mary. And Grandmother and Sarah will be so pleased to know you have accepted me."
"They knew you were coming to Hertfordshire to propose?"
"They hoped I would once I announced I was delivering your puppy in person."
"I am so glad! Your family is wonderful! Oh, Simon, you must meet my parents! Well, Mama, I am certain, you have already met. You must address my father! Oh!" A sudden thought came to mind. "How did you know about the dolt who said he was my fiancé?"
The earl laughed, pulling her to him for another quick kiss before rising up and walking her to the door. "Your mother said he was, and I told her it would be over my dead body. After I produced a special license, you never saw her get rid of a person fast enough. Is she always thus?"
In reply, Mary quickly opened the door, which swung into the room, and her mother toppled over onto the floor at their feet.
"Welcome to the Bennet family, my love."
Between them, the earl and Mrs. Bennet had compromised. She would organize a ceremony and large wedding breakfast for the first week in December, and he would foot the cost of bringing both families to Hertfordshire quickly for the event.
The young lovers were not given much chance to be alone, but Mrs. Bennet, in high gig the evening before the wedding, had finally allowed them a few moments together.
"I thought this would never come," the earl admitted, holding her hand as they sat side by side on the sofa.
"Nor I," Mary replied with a very soft sigh. "Any regrets?"
"Only that I never had the chance to quiz you the evening of the ball over what you thought of my card."
"Card? What card?"
"The card that accompanied my flowers. I was sure you had read it when you agreed to the supper dance. It was to be my opening to propose that night," he admitted.
"I never read it! Wait here." She untangled herself from his arms and ran upstairs, dug through the few items Babette had left unpacked on her dressing table, and then rejoined her beloved in the sitting room.
"Here it is."
"You saved it?"
"Of course I saved it! It was still in my reticule, which I rarely use, in any case. Let me read it..." One side had his name printed on it, the side she had seen the night of the ball. She turned the pasteboard over. He had written only Proverbs 31:30.
Mary smiled. This was part of the proverb of the Virtuous Woman. While she had learned in the last several months that there was more to life than a homily, she had, at last, found someone who also treasured her more spiritual side.
"Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised," she quoted softly.
"That is how I feel about you."
"Any more questions I may help you answer?" she asked sweetly.
"Yes, there is one other. Why, when Bruiser is the spawn of Butcher," and he looked down fondly at the calm little puppy sprawled contentedly at their feet, "is he not adverse to my company?"
Mary blushed prettily. "Because Bruiser is my dog and I have trained him to accept the attentions of gentlemen. One particular gentleman, at that." Much like I had to for myself, she thought, knowing that she had finally emerged from her self-induced cocoon. Finally.
The new countess was more beautiful than her old friends and family could imagine, and the groom was extremely handsome in dove gray with a white embroidered waistcoat. Colonel Fitzwilliam had agreed, surprisingly enough, to stand up with the earl, and Kitty and Georgiana, as bridesmaids, wore matching velvet gowns.
Among the guests, most of them housed at Netherfield, were the Darcys, the Bingleys, the Gardiners, the Collinses, the Hursts and the Harveys. Conspicuous in her not-unwelcome absence was the new Mrs. Morris-Smeeth. Mr. Bingley assured them all, however, that Caroline was settling nicely into her new role as the wife of a country parson.
Not surprisingly, the now-dowager countess and her dogs were staying at Longbourn, where she and Mrs. Bennet rubbed along quite amiably. Mrs. Bennet was in awe of the dowager for all of about fifteen minutes, and had endeared herself to the unaffected old lady after admiring her pugs. One of Butcher's many vicious little offspring was left behind as a gift after the wedding. It became a faithful companion to Mary's mother, who unfortunately had not the patience to train her puppy as well as her daughter had, and was a nightmare for her father.
After Mary and the earl were wed and feted, and had embarked on their honeymoon, for they were to spend Christmas at the earl's home in Wiltshire, Lizzy and Jane announced that they both were in interesting conditions and that the elder Bennets would soon become grandparents. Mrs. Bennet cried, hugged her daughters and their husbands (to the consternation of Mr. Darcy) and then roundly attacked Kitty for not having as much success in London as her sister had enjoyed.
And one of the earl's many wedding gifts to Mary? His copy of Fordyce's Sermons. "I told you I would have you see it one day, my love, did I not? What I could not tell you at the time was that it is always kept on a table next to my bed."