The Last Miss Bennet
Miss Kitty Bennet, late of Hertfordshire, walked quietly in the park at Rosings, still trying to understand how she had come to visit that grand estate. One minute she was being taken to task by her mother for being the last unmarried daughter; the next she was being shown to an elegant room next to Georgiana's and her friend was telling her how they had come to be there together.
Georgiana had been corresponding with Kitty all winter, and was dismayed to hear how her friend had been much put upon by her mother. It did not help that Mary Bennet's marriage to the Earl of Trowbridge that winter had given Mrs. Bennet thoughts of grandeur where her second youngest was concerned. Unfortunately, her mother had wailed, Lizzy and Jane were both increasing and not attending the Season in London, else Kitty should have plenty of opportunity to meet eligible, titled men.
Kitty did not dare remind her mother that she had been in London in the autumn, sure her mother would consider her a failure. Mary, who had always been considered such, was now her mother's most precious child, supplanting even Lydia and Jane in her heart.
Miss Darcy had taken pity on Kitty and was about to tender an invitation to Pemberley when two things happened.
One, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, upon hearing Lizzy was with child, had visited Pemberley to put an end to her animosity, much to the Darcys' surprise and relief. Two, Mrs. Darcy had been extremely ill in the first few months of her confinement and Lady Catherine considered it prudent to take Georgiana to Rosings. Whether this was to keep her niece from being exposed to that aspect of childbearing, or to give Mrs. Darcy some peace and quiet, no one knew.
Georgiana, reluctant to leave her family, had insisted Miss Bennet be invited as well. She knew from previous experience that her cousin Anne was poor company. Lady Catherine, eager to discover why Miss Bennet had failed to take during the Little Season in London, when her sister had managed to snare an earl, agreed.
Mrs. Bennet, in awe of the great Lady Catherine, consented immediately. Kitty spent the next week listening to her mother harp on how privileged she was - not even Lizzy had been invited thus, having had to make do with the Hunsford parsonage. She must make the most of her time at Rosings, as Lady Catherine had made it known that her nephew, Colonel Fitzwilliam, would be in attendance.
Kitty found herself rolling her eyes every time the good colonel's name was mentioned. He was a nice gentleman and had been so kind to her and Mary, but she was not in love with him or he with her. Still, she was looking forward to seeing him once again. He would liven up Rosings, she was certain.
It was Miss de Bourgh, however, who was to liven up the visit. Kitty was taking a walk through the garden and when she rounded a corner on the path found a strange gentleman locked in an embrace with… Miss de Bourgh?
The lady looked less sickly than she had the evening before, and there was no evidence of her ever-present cough. In fact, there was no sound at all, Miss de Bourgh being decidedly lip-locked with the stranger.
Kitty, knowing she had not been seen, ran back the way she had come. She came around the hedged entrance to the garden and found herself being ploughed down by her cousin, Mr. Collins.
"Cousin!" she squeaked in surprise. She must not let him see Miss de Bourgh! Her horrid cousin would surely go straight to Lady Catherine who would, in turn, punish her daughter and possibly send Kitty and Georgiana to the parsonage or worse - Longbourn. Kitty's mission was clear: Keep Mr. Collins from discovering Miss de Bourgh and then keep Lady Catherine from discovering the strange man.
"How is Mrs. Collins?" she asked her cousin. "I was just on my way to the parsonage to visit the two of you together," she told him, trying to slip an arm through his without being totally repelled by him. "I have greetings to you both from Mrs. Bingley."
"How kind of Cousin Jane," he replied, looking over her shoulder at Rosings. "But I really must attend Lady…"
"And Mrs. Darcy," she added, dangling that plum in front of him. Mr. Collins paused and then shook his head.
"That is more than generous of Cousin Elizabeth, but…"
"And the Countess of Trowbridge…"
That did it, for certainly a countess must be courted for her connections, where a mere baronet's widow, albeit the daughter of an earl, must wait. He escorted his cousin to the parsonage as quickly as possible. Kitty did not even mind the hour she was forced to sit with Charlotte and the simpering Mr. Collins.
Later, her short-term objective taken care of, Kitty knew she had to bring Georgiana into her confidence.
"She what?" Georgiana exclaimed that afternoon when Kitty told her everything. "Who is he?"
"I have no idea."
"Aunt Catherine will not be pleased. She might even take us all away to separate them."
"Oh?" Kitty started getting ideas. "Take us away? To London for the Season, perhaps?" Her eyes were alight with the possibilities.
"I doubt it," Georgiana said gloomily. Having gotten a taste of London a few months ago, she had lost some of her shyness, although she still had a great fear of Almack's.
"What a shame. If your cousin was introduced to society, her health might improve."
Georgiana sniggered. "Sounds as if she's had a miraculous recovery already."
"Do you have any influence over your aunt?" Kitty wondered.
"I doubt it."
"Hmmm…" The wheels in Kitty's head began to turn.
"You are looking particularly intent this evening, Miss Bennet," Lady Catherine snapped at Kitty after dinner.
Kitty started slightly - she had been staring rather hard at her hostess. She was relieved that her cousin was not present, though. Having to hear him apologize for her would have been almost too much to bear.
"I beg your pardon, Lady Catherine. I was only wondering how you maintain such a commanding presence. I should wish to be exactly like that."
Lady Catherine preened, always pleased to be the focus of frank admiration.
"Someone of my exalted position has to be constantly on her guard, Miss Bennet, lest her countenance slip. How astute of you to notice and wish to emulate me."
Kitty could only nod and look at Lady Catherine. Had she caught Georgiana's eye, she would have burst out laughing.
"I like you, Miss Bennet. You show a remarkable sense of respect much lacking in your other sisters. I am most pleased to have thought of inviting you to Rosings."
Georgiana started to protest, but Kitty nudged her slightly and she stayed silent.
"Thank you, Lady Catherine. You are too kind." The colonel joined them at that moment, and the conversation turned to other subjects.
"You're playing a deep game, my girl," the colonel said the next morning as he went for a walk in the woods with Kitty and Georgiana.
"I am?" Kitty asked coyly.
"Aunt Catherine was full of advice this morning on how you must become just like her.
"Oh, that! It's just part of my plan to - " She stopped in her tracks, for there, in the copse ahead, was Anne de Bourgh kissing that same stranger. This time there was no turning back.
"Well, well, little cousin," the colonel said, strolling up to Anne with an odd gleam in his eye. "Won't you introduce us to your friend?"
Anne stammered for a moment and roses bloomed in her cheeks.
"Er, Mr. Bromley, my cousins, Colonel Fitzwilliam and Miss Darcy, and Miss Darcy's sister-in-law, Miss Bennet…"
"Charmed," the colonel said dryly. Anne hung her head. "We were just heading back to Rosings, Cousin Anne. Won't you join us?" There was nothing kind in his look and she nodded.
Kitty held out her arm to offer support to Miss de Bourgh, Georgiana very gingerly taking the colonel's arm. No one spoke in the face of the colonel's anger.
"Colonel!" Kitty hissed as she hid in an alcove leading to what she called Lady Catherine's 'audience chamber.' The colonel, coming to tell his aunt about her daughter's behavior, paused.
Kitty reached out, took his hand and pulled him into the alcove with her.
"Must you speak with your aunt just yet? If Miss de Bourgh gets into trouble with her mother, we shall be stuck here forever."
The colonel raised one eyebrow. "You wish to be somewhere else?"
"London! Mr. Darcy was to have me enjoy the Season with Georgiana, and I was so looking forward to it."
"Hence the campaign to win over my aunt's affections, Miss Bennet?"
Kitty grinned. "Am I that obvious?"
"Oh, no. I don't believe even Georgiana realizes the depths you've sunk to remove yourselves to London, you sly little puss."
"Then you won't inform your aunt of your cousin's indiscretions?"
The colonel thought about that for a moment. "I have an idea, Miss Bennet, that will not only separate Anne from her admirer, but will put my aunt on guard against future fortune-hunters as well."
"I should like to hear it, sir."
"It goes like this…"
The Battle of Rosings, waged that evening at dinner, fortunately, was won almost before it was begun.
The colonel started by telling his aunt about Anne and her beau just as soon as Lady Catherine began to eat her soup.
"We saw Anne in the garden this afternoon, Aunt," he said conversationally from his seat of honor on her right. "I was pleased to see her in good enough health to be locked in an embrace with an unidentified gentleman." There was no reason to give the man's name, not to his aunt.
Lady Catherine's spoon clattered into her bowl.
"I am sure you must be mistaken, Nephew. Anne is far too ill to be outside." As if to accentuate her mother's words, Anne coughed delicately into a handkerchief. She glared at her cousin, however, as her mother looked down to retrieve her spoon.
"I believe Cousin Georgiana and Miss Bennet will agree, Aunt, it was Cousin Anne who was kissing the gentleman, although I do use the term loosely."
Two spoons fell to the table and Georgiana caught hers just in time to keep it from doing the same.
"If you do not quit making these accusations against Anne, Nephew, I shall have to ask you to leave Rosings," Lady Catherine insisted, glancing up in time to see her daughter sticking her tongue out at the colonel. She had fixed her niece with a steely stare. "Is this true, Georgiana?"
Georgiana worked her mouth open and shut a couple of times before nodding, ignoring Anne's angry expression. Mrs. Jenkinson, who alternated between outrage and sheepish embarrassment for not keeping a better eye on her charge, hung her head.
"I cannot believe this!" Lady Catherine exclaimed, her face mottled red with rage. She turned to the colonel. "You brought this to my attention, sir - you may advise me on how to deal with this… this… mushroom who dares attack my daughter in broad daylight! In the garden!"
The colonel coughed lightly to cover a small smile.
"We could report the er, 'attack' to the authorities, of course, but then Anne's good name would suffer, no matter the lady's innocence. I think the best thing to do is take the young ladies away from here for awhile. Bath, perhaps. The company there is superior, and Anne can take the waters - we would not want a relapse of her improved health, would we?"
"Bath?" Lady Catherine said indignantly. "Bath? I should as soon take my daughter to Edinburgh! No, it will have to be London."
"London!" Kitty said just loud enough for Lady Catherine to hear.
"London? Oh, no, that wouldn't do at all," the colonel interjected. "Why, the air there alone would ensure Anne's miraculous good health would all be for naught."
"But Miss Bennet should like to go!" Lady Catherine replied.
"Miss Bennet is at our mercy," the colonel reminded his aunt. "She may either go with us to Bath or return to Meryton."
"Us?" his aunt queried.
"Of course. I cannot allow you to go unescorted while I am in residence, and I am still on holiday. Why would I stay here by myself? I could always rejoin my regiment, but it is, sadly, in London. I beg of you, Aunt, please do not take us to London."
Lady Catherine gave him a rather malicious smile. Now that Darcy had been reinstated as her favorite nephew, the colonel had been relegated to his usual subordinate position.
"You, sir, could remain here by my leave, or go to Matlock, if London is abhorrent to you; Miss Bennet wishes to go to London, and I am of a mind to take her there. If Anne should take ill, the finest physicians are to be found there, as well."
"But…" the colonel began.
"No, my mind is made up. We are going to London."
Kitty found herself in London a few weeks later, comfortable settled in the Matlock townhouse. Lady Catherine, not wanting the expense of something she would get little use of, did not keep a house in town. She had, however, bullied her brother into letting her use his establishment. Kitty had to admire the lady - she had even convinced the earl to foot the household bills.
Kitty liked her pretty blue and white bedroom, and the green and gold salon was elegance itself, but the sunny little breakfast parlor, where she dined every morning with Anne and Georgiana, was a delight, even though it reminded her of home.
"What shall we do today?" she wondered that morning.
Georgiana put down the toast she had been spreading with marmalade, and smiled.
"We must visit the modiste. Our new gowns for tonight's ball are to be ready today. Anne will be so lovely in that rose-colored silk, won't you, Anne?" Georgiana looked over to where her cousin was reading the Morning Post and saw no sign of life except for a pair of whitened knuckles clutching the sides of the pages. "Anne?"
Kitty and Georgiana watched in horror as Anne toppled sideways out of her chair, having fainted. The newspaper slowly fluttered to the floor in her wake. Kitty was the first to react. In no way must Lady Catherine know her daughter had fainted - Kitty had no desire to visit Bath or go home.
"Quick! Guard the door! Don't let anyone in, especially not the servants!" she instructed Georgiana, but it was too late. The colonel had arrived, hoping to break his fast with the three young ladies. He told a footman in the hall that he could announce himself in his father's home even as he was pulled into the room quickly by Georgiana.
"Why, cousin! I didn't know you missed me!" He noticed his cousin on the floor. "What the devil is wrong with Anne?" He ran to her side and watched while Kitty attempted to revive her.
Georgiana, wanting to help, retrieved the newspaper and settled it back on the table. It opened to a list of engagements and nuptials, and in the third column was Mr. Bromley of Kent, announcing his marriage to a Miss Elaine Farnham, also of that county.
"Oh, no!" Georgiana was now well aware of what had caused her cousin to faint. As quickly as she could, she showed the colonel the offending notice. He blanched and then turned red with rage.
"The cad! Anne has been out of his grasp for less than a month and he manages to snare an even greater heiress! That money-grabbing, mercenary…" He curbed his mutterings as Anne made sounds of returning to consciousness. He also had the presence of mind to toss the newspaper into the fire. As Anne was made to sit up by Kitty, the colonel pulled her into his arms tenderly and settled with her upon the window seat.
"Strong tea, if you please, Miss Bennet… Georgiana, our cousin's shawl…" Used to being obeyed, the colonel thought nothing of the ladies jumping to do his bidding, concentrating instead on Anne.
"Are you quite the thing now, cousin?" he asked kindly. Anne nodded.
"Thank you, sir, I am." But she looked as if she would burst into tears any moment. The colonel waved Kitty and Georgiana out of the room, frowning when Georgiana stopped for her toast. When they had left, he turned back to Anne.
"If that poor excuse for a gentleman even comes near you again, there won't be anything left of him to ship back to his wife! I beg your pardon, cousin. I did not know the depth of your feelings for that scoundrel," he said contritely as she began to sob, the tears staining the front of his coat.
Holding her gently while she cried, the colonel knew he had to do something to make Anne forget Bromley and discover that her perfect match was, indeed, right under her dripping little nose. Literally. Handing her his handkerchief, he uttered soothing syllables and let her have her cry.
Mrs. Caroline Morris-Smeeth, nee Bingley, smiled coyly as she waltzed with Lord Litchcombe, who was easily the most handsome gentleman at Lady Teaberry's ball. The former Miss Mary Bennet could keep her rather quiet and studious earl - this charming baron who held her almost too indecently in his arms was her newest goal. What woman could resist his blue eyes, golden hair and body like a Greek statue? Certainly not Caroline.
Bored with her role as the wife of a country parson - and to one even more repellent than Mr. Collins, if that was possible - she had prevailed upon her sister, Louisa, to deliver her from the evil that was her new life. Now she was back in London and ripe for an adventure. When she had met Cameron Whitten-Whyte, Baron Litchcombe, the evening before at Almack's, she knew she was ripe for a seduction, as well.
Louisa, of course, had warned her earlier that day not to get too involved with the "Bachelor Baron," as he was known.
"He prefers married women, it's true, but he discards them on such a regular basis, I couldn't begin to tell you who he is currently seeing."
Actually, Cameron was not linked to anyone when he met Caroline, but he knew he had discovered his next conquest. In fact, the tall, dark-haired lady he had encountered at the assembly fairly screamed "neglected wife," and that was one crime he did not like to see unpunished.
"I wondered, Mrs. Morris-Smeeth," he said to her as they waltzed at the Teaberry ball, "have you had the privilege of viewing Lady Teaberry's Chinese Room before?"
"Rooms done in the Oriental style are nothing new," Caroline said densely and sniffed.
"I think you fail to see the significance of this particular room, Mrs. Morris-Smeeth." She had never had an affair before or was seriously dicked in the nob, Cameron thought. Or both. Aloud, he only laughed and explained that Lady Teaberry's Chinese Room was privately located on the other side of the house, and it had a door that locked. His plan was to give this woman a quick try, and if he liked her well enough, he would make arrangements to take her to a little love nest he owned just outside of London.
That was the plan. Whispering instructions in her ear, he suggested they go separate ways as soon as their dance ended, with both of them meeting shortly in the appointed room.
"I'll go now," he said softly as he escorted her over to Louisa, who glowered at him. "You excuse yourself to the retiring room in about fifteen minutes."
Caroline's eyes sparkled as she thanked him kindly for the dance.
Lady Teaberry's ball that evening was a strained affair for the de Bourgh party. Anne kept her lips in a straight line and she was pale, prompting her mother to declare Bath might have been the better choice after all. Georgiana was worried about her cousin and Kitty was worried about Bath. The colonel, providing escort to the ladies, was worried about Anne. He was also worried about Miss Bennet and her fertile imagination. No doubt she had a plan for all this, and as it directly concerned Anne, he tried to prepare himself for the worst.
"I don't see why you had to drag us over to this out-of-the-way place just to discuss Anne," the colonel protested later as Kitty and Georgiana pulled him into one of Lady Teaberry's empty rooms. Georgiana was busy coaxing her cousin to sit and listen to Miss Bennet's plan, while Kitty locked the door to prevent interruptions and stood there for a moment gaping at the Oriental décor. The room had a rice-paper screen, Chinese drawings on the walls and a large lacquer cabinet in cinnabar red.
"It's rather simple, really," Kitty said, startled out of her observations when Georgiana called her name. "We need gentlemen to pay court to Anne to keep us here, Anne needs some positive male attention to distract her, and there are rakes out there who have entire families waiting with bated breath to see the head of their clan linked romantically with such an heiress. It's an ideal situation!"
"Miss Bennet!" the colonel exclaimed. "I refuse to go along with this preposterous scheme. There's too much danger in it for Anne. What if one of those men decides to take advantage of her? What if she falls in love with one of them?"
"But Colonel Fitzwilliam," Kitty protested, "we need your help! Georgiana and I only know one rake between us, and the further he stays away, the better!" Georgiana nodded her agreement.
They were just about to argue the point again when the door handle wiggled and a woman's voice called out a name - Lord Somebody or Other. The colonel raised a hand, motioning for the ladies not to say a word.
The voice became louder and the knob rattled in an alarming fashion, but neither Kitty nor Georgiana could make out the words or the voice. They all waited quietly until the lady in the hall went away, at which point the colonel said they had better return to the ballroom.
He told the girls that the discussion was now closed - there was no way he was going to introduce them to a rake or a rogue - and suggested they return separately, so as not to arouse too much suspicion. He offered an arm to Georgiana, saying he would take her as far as the main hall. He suggested Kitty take the straight route and meet them by Lady Catherine.
Kitty watched as the cousins left the room together and then she went back the way she had come.
After she left the Chinese Room, Cameron climbed out of the lacquered cabinet, eager to unfold his long legs. So the mysterious Miss Bennet needed rakes and rogues to pull some Anne or other out of the doldrums, did she? The idea was as intriguing as the sound of Miss Bennet's voice. And he had two clues as to the whereabouts of this mystery lady: her name and the fact that one of her companions was a colonel.
All thoughts of Caroline having flown right out of his head, he adjusted his cravat and left the Chinese Room in search of a special someone who knew all the latest on-dits. His mother.
Caroline, hiding just around the corner, was angry. Litchcombe had directed her to that room only to refuse her entrance. Then an idiotic footman waylaid her to escort her back to the ballroom. If that wasn't enough, when she looked again, she saw Miss Kitty Bennet leaving the Chinese Room.
Eager to see who she had been locked in there with, Caroline waited, only to see Litchcombe leave not too long afterward. Adjusting his neckcloth!
It was not to be borne. Miss Bennet - one of the despised Bennet sisters - was ruining her plans. However, if she could get some proof that the little upstart was doing something scandalous with the baron… Caroline was determined now to make them both pay.
Contrary to popular belief, Lady Catherine did have friends, and some of them even lived in London, at least during the season. The arrival of Lady Catherine in town, then, was a reason for any number of people to call on her every afternoon. That Anne was an unknown entity, and a source of curiosity, only added to Lady Catherine's popularity.
Not only that, the young ladies and their brothers who had formed acquaintances with Kitty and Georgiana the previous autumn were in attendance. The house soon overflowed daily with people.
Into all of this strolled Lord Litchcombe the day after the Teaberry ball, having spent the morning making inquiries of his mother.
"I can't even begin to wonder why you want to know a young lady's name and whereabouts, Cameron, darling," Lady Litchcombe said as she and her son chatted over their morning chocolate.
Litchcombe shrugged. "I overheard something last night that amused me greatly and I want to know more. The elusive Miss Bennet can tell me."
"Well, the only Miss Bennet I know of is a sister-in-law to Mr. Darcy… and he is not in town. His wife is increasing."
Lady Litchcombe was a pretty, petite blonde who resembled a little china doll as she sat in her private sitting room in a silk wrapper. She certainly looked much too young to have a 25-year-old son, but she had a full social life and could be counted on to know all the latest on-dits.
"Come to think of it," she added, reaching for a piece of toast, "I had heard Mr. Darcy's sister was here, but she's with her aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh."
"Lady Catherine?" Litchcombe made a face.
His mother nodded with a rueful smile. "I'm afraid so. However, if you are intent on finding this Miss Bennet, perhaps you could visit Miss Darcy at the Matlock's. Lady Catherine is Matlock's sister, you know, and she is using their house this season. Their second son, Colonel Fitzwilliam, also is in town."
"Colonel?" Litchcombe sat up straight in his chair, causing his startled mother to drop the jam spoon in alarm.
"The Matlock house sounds like a good place to start," was all he said.
That was easier than he thought. Lady Catherine was indeed at home that day, a footman told him when he called that afternoon, taking the baron's card into his employer's sister.
"Litchcombe?" Lady Catherine said upon reading his name. "He's a rake! A rogue! I have no earthly idea why he is calling, unless his silly little mother has sent him… Send him up," she told the footman with a sniff, curious despite her misgivings.
Kitty, sitting nearby, was instantly on the alert. A rake was just what she needed for her plan, one she was determined to see happen despite Colonel Fitzwilliam's disapproval. Her belief in her plan became even stronger once she caught sight of "The Bachelor Baron."
All conversation died when Litchcombe strolled into the room, but he blithely ignored the stares as he made his way unerringly to Lady Catherine.
"Litchcombe," she said haughtily, but in a voice only he could hear. "I'm surprised you aren't off visiting a brothel or sneaking out of some married lady's boudoir right now. How kind of you to give up the pleasures of the flesh to call. And why have you called?"
Litchcombe laughed, knowing the lady thought the worst of him and not really caring. However, a pretty brunette with a cheerful smile poured out some tea for a guest at that moment and he thought she might be Miss Bennet. He proceeded to charm his hostess, his efforts culminating fifteen minutes later in the hoped-for introduction.
"Miss Bennet," Lady Catherine called imperiously, bringing the brunette to her side. "Lord Litchcombe wishes to make himself known to you. Why the worst rake in Christendom wants to do that, I have no idea," she added, bringing a speculative gleam to Kitty's eyes. "I will give you a few moments leave to converse with Miss Bennet," she said to the baron. "But only a few moments." She did not mention Anne or Georgiana, not wanting them exposed to such a reprobate as he. Miss Bennet, she surmised, could handle him better than her daughter or her niece.
She would have ordered both of them out of the house if she knew what Kitty and Litchcombe planned.
"I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Bennet."
"I cannot imagine why."
"Let us just say I was privy to your conversation last evening with Miss Darcy and the colonel."
Kitty's brown eyes grew wide. "How could you possibly…"
Litchcombe chuckled. "I think your idea has merit, too."
"You do?" If possible, Kitty's eyes became even rounder. "I thought so, too, but Colonel Fitzwilliam…"
"You do everything the colonel tells you?" he wondered innocently.
"No, not usually."
"Someone who schemes like that probably would not follow orders very well."
"Scheme? I do not scheme," Kitty said rather haughtily. "I only try to rearrange people and situations to suit my own plans."
Cameron laughed out loud, causing all eyes to turn their way. Lady Catherine started to frown, but Colonel Fitzwilliam was announced, drawing her attention away from the plotters.
He scanned the room as he approached his aunt. Anne was absent, Georgiana was surrounded by a group of very young ladies and Miss Bennet was enjoying a tete-a-tete with Litchcombe.
His countenance was grim as he sat down next to his aunt and accepted a cup of tea.
"What is he doing here?"
"Making the acquaintance of Miss Bennet," Lady Catherine said stiffly.
"He did not ask after either Anne or Georgiana?"
"No. Nor will I let him. You must have a word with him, nephew. I won't have him dangling after Miss Bennet any more than I would the other gels."
"He's not going to dangle after her, aunt. That's not exactly what he has in mind…"
"They are basically the same thing, Miss Bennet," Litchcombe pointed out to her.
"But it sounds better my way," Kitty said with a grin.
"What would you say if I tell you I wish to help?"
"You? Help?" Kitty looked at him suspiciously. "What is there in it for you?"
"What do you get out of it, yourself?" Litchcombe asked instead. "Miss de Bourgh is not your relative except by some tenuous link through your sister's marriage."
"My, you have done your homework," she teased. She really wished for his assistance, however, and she explained the situation. Litchcombe appeared amused.
"Home is not an option, and all your sisters have their own lives… To want to remain in London is reasonable enough. You have a better chance of finding some poor nodcock looking for a wife."
"I have no wish to marry just anyone," Kitty said with a sniff. "My younger sister married in haste - and while she is not quite repenting in leisure, I have no wish to repeat her mistake. All three of my brothers have contributed to a dowry for me, and although it is not a fortune, it is enough where I may be selective and marry to suit myself. Hertfordshire, unfortunately, holds few matrimonial choices, and also contains my mother. She would have me married off yesterday if she could."
"We must meet again," Litchcombe said suddenly, seeing Fitzwilliam headed in their direction.
"The colonel escorts us to Hyde Park this afternoon," she said. "Look for Lady Catherine's barouche, with the colonel on horseback."
Litchcombe rose and brought one of Kitty's hands to his lips. "Your servant, Miss Bennet." He nodded to the colonel, bowed respectfully to Lady Catherine and left without a word to anyone else.
The colonel was about to make a disparaging remark concerning Litchcombe, but Kitty turned to him with such a bland expression, he decided she was just as annoyed with the baron as he was. He made himself agreeable to her instead.
The early spring afternoon was chilly, but bright, as Kitty, Georgiana and a reluctant Anne rode in the carriage, the colonel at their side.
Kitty wore a pretty pale blue pelisse and matching bonnet Lizzy had bought her last year, and was pleased to see the style was not yet outmoded. Georgiana resembled an English rose in pink and Anne wore a muddy shade of brown that did nothing for her coloring.
The colonel did not seem to notice, but Kitty had already sensed a more-than-cousinly attachment on the colonel's part - there was no need to present a pretty Anne to him. He was already sold. But to sell everyone else? Anne was going to need some help.
"It's a beautiful day to be outdoors," Kitty said to no one in particular. Anne smiled thinly, but Georgiana broke out into a wide smile.
"Oh, yes! Lovely! Too bad tonight is Almack's…" She frowned. "I am not fond of the assemblies."
"I agree," Anne said faintly. "I shall ask Mama to excuse us all." She glared at Kitty, who looked stricken. They had reached the park at that point and their progress was slowed considerably by the press of fashionables out for a promenade.
Kitty wondered how Lord Litchcombe was going to find them in the crush when she heard the colonel groan and saw the baron headed their way.
"It appears you have made a conquest, Miss Bennet." The colonel did not sound impressed.
Kitty shrugged as the baron approached.
"We meet again, Miss Bennet. Fitzwilliam. May I be introduced to your lovely companions?"
"Lord Litchcombe, Miss de Bourgh and Miss Darcy. Anne, Georgiana, Lord Litchcombe."
Georgiana smiled. How could she not when a tall blonde god on horseback had descended from Olympus to speak to mere mortals? Anne sniffed - a habit of long-standing that more than had its uses - and nodded. It was Anne, however, who was addressed by Litchcombe.
"Do you attend Almack's this evening, Miss de Bourgh?"
"Oh, yes!" Georgiana piped up. "My aunt plans for us to go!" She ignored her cousin's stare and smiled at the baron.
Kitty panicked. What if Litchcombe took it into his head to pay his attentions to Georgiana and not Anne? The colonel and Mr. Darcy would have her head.
The gentleman in question only said politely that he hoped to see them there and asked Anne for a dance.
"Me?" she blurted. "You want to dance with me?"
The colonel started to protest, but closed his mouth when Anne agreed.
As soon as he had secured the dance, Litchcombe moved on. The colonel waited until he was out of earshot before asking Anne for a waltz, to which she graciously assented.
Georgiana was rather put out that neither gentleman asked her for a dance, and pouted the rest of the afternoon. Kitty, not having been solicited for dances, either, was rather put out herself.
Kitty loved Almack's. She loved the elegant clothes, the glittering jewels and the loud chatter. She loved the music and dancing, and she loved making fun of the insipid refreshments. Most of all, she loved to watch the patronesses of the establishment.
Lady Jersey, the ringleader, was a gossipy busybody. Mrs. Drummond-Burrell was a dragon. The Countess Lieven, the wife of the Russian ambassador, was fond of intrigue, and Kitty would be a hypocrite if she said she did not admire that lady.
The nicest patroness, according to rumor, was Lady Cowper. What was more, she had taken a liking to the young ladies in the de Bourgh party.
"I've been waiting for you in particular, Miss Bennet," the patroness said with delight when Lady Catherine introduced her three charges.
"My lady?" Kitty asked in some surprise.
"I'm not the only one," Lady Cowper added with what sounded mysteriously like a giggle. "You shall see…" She fussed over Georgiana, saying the young lady looked like an angel in pale blue silk. She complimented Anne's hairstyle, as there was not much else nice to say - Anne was in a smoky gray lustring that met with only her mother's approval. Kitty was also singled out for her fashion sense, having chosen a primrose gown with golden threads running through it, another gift from Lizzy. Lady Cowper spent a good fifteen minutes with the de Bourgh party before excusing herself to see to other arrivals.
The dancing started soon afterward and once Lady Catherine had settled the young ladies, the patroness returned with Lord Litchcombe in tow. Kitty sat up a little straighter, as did Georgiana.
"I would like to present Lord Litchcombe as a suitable partner, Miss de Bourgh."
Kitty's face fell even as she remembered this was the dance his lordship had solicited in the park. She watched as Anne was led out onto the dance floor.
"I could watch that gentleman dance all evening," Georgiana whispered to Kitty at one point, and she could only agree.
Lady Catherine, however, was fit to be tied over her daughter dancing with such a well-known rake, although anyone could have told her it would only increase Anne's consequence. But she complained so much, Kitty all but begged Colonel Fitzwilliam to take her to the refreshments when he made an appearance.
"What do you expect, Miss Bennet?" he said, even as he obliged her. "You have set a fox among the hen house and must live with the consequences."
Kitty made a face at him and didn't protest when he moved along the beverage table to speak to an acquaintance. The petite blonde to her left asked her what she thought of the lemonade.
"Must I answer?"
"Oh, heavens, no! I know it is horrid," the lady said with a laugh. "I just wished to strike up a conversation with you, Miss Bennet. Lady Litchcombe," she introduced herself, holding out a hand.
Kitty was amazed that the lady was the baron's mother and knew her name, even as she took her hand.
"I apologize for accosting you in this manner, Miss Bennet, but I have heard something about you…"
"Me?" Kitty squeaked.
"Yes, you." The countess was clearly amused. "We must get better acquainted soon. Until then…" Lady Litchcombe disappeared into the crowd as the colonel turned back to her.
"You did not get any lemonade, Miss Bennet," he gently chided.
"I beg your pardon. I was distracted by all the beautiful gowns."
The colonel smiled and handed her a drink. They reached Lady Catherine's side in time for Lord Litchcombe to return Anne to her mother. Anne did not look pleased as she seated herself, the baron had a resigned look on his face, and they were not speaking to each other.
The next dance was a waltz, and Litchcombe was still standing there when Lady Cowper made another appearance.
"Miss de Bourgh, may I offer the colonel as a suitable partner for the waltz?" She went on to introduce a young, rather baby-faced gentleman to Georgiana, and then she turned to Kitty.
"You will not find a better partner for this dance, Miss Bennet, than Lord Litchcombe."
"Your ladyship is too kind," Kitty murmured as the baron led her out.
"The perfect place to discuss your plan, Miss Bennet. Don't you agree?"
Kitty nodded. "You are truly interested?"
"Of course! Your reasoning is sound enough. Give the lady some confidence, which, after dancing with her, I fear she sadly lacks, and keep a few rakes and rogues safe from the clutches of matchmaking mamas."
"Exactly!" Kitty's eyes shone with pleasure as she realized this handsome man who held her in his arms not only agreed with her plan, he was going to help her.
"When do we begin?" he asked.
"Whenever you wish."
"I shall drop in at White's later this evening and see who might be interested."
"That meets with my approval."
"Now that we have that settled, tell me something about yourself, Miss Bennet. My source tells me you are the last of the famous Miss Bennets of Hertfordshire."
Litchcombe laughed. "My mother. She knows almost everything about everyone."
"Even the famous Miss Bennets?"
"Especially those. I know, for instance, that your oldest sister is Mrs. Bingley, your next eldest sister is Mrs. Darcy and your other older sister is Lady Trowbridge. Your younger sister is Mrs. Wickham. You have come to town with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, her daughter and Miss Darcy."
"Why should I tell you anything about myself, then, if you know it all?" she said with a laugh. "Did you know all this before you called earlier today?" He nodded. "Your mother truly is a font of information. She's a very lovely lady, too."
"You have met my mother?"
"Earlier this evening at the refreshment table."
It would be exactly like his mother to discover Miss Bennet and introduce herself, just to see the young lady in person. He made a mental note to speak to her against a continued interest in Miss Bennet. His interest, he knew, stemmed from boredom. The season had barely begun and already he was making assignations with women he had little interest in and agreeing to madcap schemes concocted by devious girls. For all he knew, he could be walking straight into parson's mousetrap with this chit.
But her gaze was anything but calculating and her demeanor was far from the fawning he usually experienced around females who wanted something from him. Either she was a great actress or she was sincere in all this.
"I'll bring my candidates to Miss de Bourgh's attention Monday next," he said as the waltz ended. "Do you think… would I be presumptuous in asking if Miss de Bourgh could appear a little less…"
"Frumpy? Dowdy? Downright frightful?" Kitty said in her usual, forthright manner.
"Absolutely." Five days to transform Anne into an attractive young lady? She and Georgiana would have to work fast.
He was escorting her back to her companions when their way was blocked by a tall, dark-haired lady Kitty knew only too well.
"Good evening Miss Bing… er, Mrs. Morris-Smeeth," she said politely.
"Miss Bennet." Caroline's words dripped with ice. "And Lord Litchcombe…" Her voice thawed, heated up and boiled over in seconds.
"Mrs. Morris-Smeeth. I was unaware you are acquainted with Miss Bennet."
Caroline opened her mouth to speak, but Kitty beat her to the punch.
"Mrs. Morris-Smeeth's brother, Mr. Bingley, is husband to my eldest sister. They are soon to be blessed with an interesting event. You aren't soon to be blessed, by any chance, are you, Mrs. Morris-Smeeth?" Kitty asked innocently.
A look of horror came over Caroline and she involuntarily put a hand on her abdomen.
"Good God, I had better not be!" As if to erase such a thought, she linked her arm with Litchcombe's and started to walk away with him, leaving Kitty to tag along behind. The baron gently detached Caroline and offered his other arm to Kitty.
"I must return my partner to her companions."
"Oh?" Caroline's interest was piqued. "I know Jane is not in town, nor is Mrs. Darcy," she all but hissed, "so your sister the newlywed countess must have roused herself from the country to escort you."
"Not at all - I believe Lady Trowbridge is still happily in Wiltshire, training her little dog and discussing Fordyce with the earl."
"Surely you are not in the company of…" Caroline pretended to stifle a gasp, "…your parents!"
"No, they are still situated in Hertfordshire, Mrs. Morris-Smeeth. I have come to London with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Miss de Bourgh, Colonel Fitzwilliam and Miss Darcy."
"Indeed!" Caroline took the baron's other arm again. "I should dearly love to see Georgiana!"
"I am sure," Kitty replied insincerely, knowing Georgiana did not feel the same.
Caroline spent a few moments gushing over Miss Darcy when they returned to Lady Catherine and tried to charm that august lady, as well. She ignored Anne completely and Kitty did not even warrant another glance. Eventually, she persuaded Lord Litchcombe to take her away, giving the other ladies leave to talk about her. Surprisingly (or not), Georgiana was the first.
"I wonder what that cow is doing in London? I thought my brother had taken care of her last autumn."
"Georgiana!" her aunt exclaimed. "That is totally uncalled for. Now tell me what he did."
"I'm not quite sure, only Miss Bingley ended up married to this vicar, Mr. Morris-Smeeth, and I was so sure we had seen the last of her."
"I thought the very same thing," Kitty murmured.
Another dance began, the younger ladies were all besieged by partners and the conversation concerning Caroline had to be abandoned for the moment.
"You danced with Litchcombe, didn't you?" Louisa accused as Caroline floated back to where her sister sat watching Mr. Hurst drink. "I told you not to get involved with him."
"I am not involved with him. We are just… flirting for the moment." For the moment. Caroline had no doubt her charms would be enough to take her to the next step with the gentleman. As Miss Bennet's had done. She hugged that knowledge to herself at the moment, however - no sense playing her trump card until she had to.
"You are a married woman and he is known for dalliance with married women. Do you want your husband coming to town to take you home, should word get around that you are Litchcombe's latest conquest?" Louisa, like her sister, shuddered at the word 'husband.' Mr. Morris-Smeeth was even worse husband material than Mr. Hurst.
"I know what I am doing, Louisa."
"I am only trying to protect you, Caroline. Look what happened the last time you thought you knew what you were doing! I turned my back for one second and you got yourself married to some horrid, unconnected oaf of a vicar!"
"You forgot miserly."
"Miserly oaf of a vicar, then!" Louisa exclaimed. "If I had not offered to support you while you are here, he never would have let you come."
Caroline rolled her eyes. Her sister had managed to bring up a favorite subject and remind her of her largesse, all at the same time.
"I will be careful, sister," she promised, putting her crossed fingers behind her back. She also would be keeping an eye on the latest upstart from Longbourn.
“Good evening, my lord,” the White’s porter said in greeting as Lord Litchcombe strolled into that gentleman’s club. He stopped and asked the porter about his family before heading off to find a warm fire, a bottle of port and a friend.
“Find any lovelies this evening at the assembly?” Sir Justin Evers asked, settling in an adjacent chair just as a servant brought the port and a glass. A second glass was quickly added.
“All married and looking for a little excitement, I’ll be bound,” Sir Justin jested.
“Actually, one is an unmarried girl.”
“Fancy that! Finally thinking of setting up your nursery, Cam?”
“No!” he insisted. He looked at his friend with renewed interest. “And neither are you. Yet we both have family members expecting us to do just that, don’t we?”
“The dowager says my inability to settle on a chit and produce an heir shows a lack of respect for the Evers name,” Sir Justin said glumly.
“What would it take to get her off your back for awhile?”
“Produce a young lady for her approval.”
“Even if nothing comes of it?” Cameron asked rather intently.
“She starts planning a wedding if I even blink at a girl, and that keeps her happily distracted for days.”
“Want to distract the dowager for weeks?”
“I wish I could, but I don’t dare.”
“Why ever not?”
“You can’t depend on chits not to get ideas once you speak to them. I bowed over my own cousin’s hand a month ago and she thinks we are betrothed.”
Cameron shook his head. He never went near young ladies for this very same reason.
“But what if you could guarantee the lady would not pursue you or expect anything from you, especially not a declaration.”
“Show me such a paragon, Cam, and I’ll give you Rover!”
Cameron’s eyes gleamed. Evers had a magnificent race horse with the unglamorous name of Rover, called such because he had a way of following people around like a dog.
“Prepare to hand over your horse,” Cameron teased. He called for White’s famous betting book.
“You don’t trust my word?” Evers said with a frown.
“With Rover at stake, I’m not taking any chances.” When he was finished with the book entry, it read:
Lord L. bets Sir. J. that the next chit he introduces him to is not interested in marriage. If she is, Lord L. will pay Sir J. 1,000 pounds.
“The next chit?” Sir Justin said in amazement.
“The next one I introduce you to,” Cameron confirmed.
“When will this be?”
“Monday in the park.”
Cameron’s next stop was Brooke’s club. There he found just the gentleman he was searching for, the Marquess of Heatherly. Heatherly was plagued by an overabundance of female relatives eager for him to do his duty to the family. Cameron knew he grew weary of dodging questions and complaints from his grandmother, four sisters, two maiden aunts and his mother. His mother, in fact, was an old crony of Lady Catherine’s, and the fact that her daughter was the lady in question almost turned Heatherly away.
“If the girl falls for me, Cam, and I lose interest, there will be the devil to pay from both sides,” he said after the situation had been explained to him.
“But that’s the beauty of this, Heatherly – she’s not the least bit interested in anyone! She had her heart broken just the other day. Do you think she will be in a hurry to fall for the next chap that comes along?”
Heatherly seemed to consider his friend’s logic.
“How will I know for certain?”
Cameron grinned and called for the betting book. If he won, he would be a thousand pounds wealthier, but the thought of making Miss Bennet smile was at the forefront of his mind.
“And when am I to meet the unexceptional lady?” Heatherly asked.
“Monday in the park.”
One last stop. Boodles. There he found Lord Kenneth Moore, the second son of the Duke of Roylston. Not only was Kenny an old friend, but he was a rake in good standing and his father was pressing him to marry. Cameron knew such a thing was not always encouraged in a second son, but Kenny’s older brother was sickly and the duke was not taking any chances with the succession.
“Cameron!” Kenny called from the hazard table, where he sat dicing with some of his cronies. Rising, he left Cameron wondering if he was losing.
“Haven’t seen you in awhile, Cam,” he said, throwing his arm about the baron and leading him over to a couple of quiet chairs. “How is Lady Litchcombe?”
“Mother is well. Lonely, though.” The two men looked at each other and grinned. The Duke of Roylston was a widower and Cameron and his friend thought he might deal rather well with Lady Litchcombe.
“I must get Aunt Viola to invite you both to dinner sometime soon,” Kenny said.
“And perhaps Lady Catherine de Bourgh and the young ladies in her household?” Cameron suggested.
“Young ladies, Cam? Have you defected from the club?”
“Not I!” he stoutly defended himself. The two old friends had often declared themselves members of the Society of Rakes and Rogues, its main purpose to provide gentlemen with support to keep them from falling into parson’s mousetrap.
“Then why the sudden interest in the chits?”
Cameron shrugged. “One of the ladies has a scheme that intrigues me and is a low matrimonial risk at the same time.”
“What’s in all this for you?” Kenny asked warily.
“Entertainment?” Cameron suggested. It was just that, he told himself, and nothing more. Not even a desire to be helpful. He was doing this because he was bored.
His friend gave him a wary look, not quite buying what his friend said, but knowing Cameron would play his little game just the same. “So when do I get to meet these ladies?”
“How about Monday in the park?”
There was one very real pleasure Kitty had felt when she was reunited with Georgiana at Rosings: Marie, the French maid they had shared the year before. She presented the problem of refining Miss de Bourgh to the maid, who had some definite ideas on how to improve the mademoiselle – it was just getting the lady to agree to the changes.
Kitty was pondering this on Thursday morning as she received a note from the modiste. A gown needed to be fitted, and could Miss Bennet come in that day? Kitty sent back an affirmative reply and wondered how she could get Anne to join her in the outing.
It was Lady Catherine who provided the reason. A doctor had been summoned earlier to exam her daughter, Lady Catherine not quite convinced that Anne was truly on the mend. She had been looking rather peaky that week, and Lady Catherine thought perhaps a laxative might be called for.
The doctor, fortunately, recommended plenty of fresh air and exercise. When Anne protested, Lady Catherine would brook no argument, and when she heard Kitty was to visit the modiste, she insisted Anne go, too.
“I don’t know how much fresh air I will absorb in a modiste’s shop,” Anne sarcastically replied. “Or exercise, for that matter.”
“Then take the barouche and walk briskly up and down the shop aisles,” her mother countered. “But you will accompany Miss Bennet.”
“I don’t particularly like this,” Anne confided in Kitty later as they traveled to Bond Street. “I will never be anything but a dowdy spinster who sits at home with her mother and a pompous clergyman and makes up a fourth in cards with those two and her companion.”
“I beg to differ,” Kitty replied, “but I cannot help you without your consent.”
“I could never…” Anne broke off as the carriage pulled up in front of Madame Durocher’s dress shop. She ducked down behind Kitty and whimpered.
“Whatever is the matter?”
“Mr. Bromley!” Anne whispered. “He’s on the sidewalk in front of the modiste!”
“Why, so he is. Now really, Miss de Bourgh, are you going to let him intimidate you so much you stay cowered in the carriage?”
“No,” Anne said. “But I’ll let his beautiful fiancee intimidate me.”
Kitty hazarded a peek at the lady in question. She was a stunning blonde with large blue eyes, rosebud lips, dark lashes and a shapely figure outlined in celestial blue and white. All in all, a tough act to follow. Kitty waited till the couple were joined by a haggard-appearing companion and had continued down the street before she gave Anne the all-clear to head into the shop.
“How can I look like that?” Anne asked.
“I wonder what they are doing in London?” Kitty said.
“Shopping for bridal clothes?” Anne sniffed and Kitty could only agree with the assessment.
“Those colors are all wrong for you, of course, but you could use a little work.”
“You think so? I don’t care about Mr. Bromley, but I wouldn’t want the lady thinking she was the better catch in looks as well as fortune.”
“No, we cannot have that,” Kitty said with an absolutely straight face. “Shall we see what Madame Durocher advises? And when we get home, Marie has a few thoughts as well. You really need to get your own maid,” she added, “and stop borrowing your mother’s dresser. She’s not quite a la mode, if you wish to know the truth.”
“You seem to be quite adept in getting Mother to bend to your will. Will you help me obtain a maid?”
“I will help you procure whatever you wish. How about a beau, while I’m at it?”
“Truly?” Anne’s brown eyes grew wide. “I consider it impossible.”
“I don’t,” Kitty said with a secret smile. “You would be surprised what some people can do.”
The transformation of Miss Anne de Bourgh did not happen overnight, but then Kitty knew it wouldn’t. It actually took the better part of five days.
After a variety of gowns in more vibrant colors were ordered – no plain pastels for Miss de Bourgh – Kitty insisted they visit a milliner down the street, where a good hour was spent trying on bonnets and hats of all sorts. They bought two. One was a wheat-colored straw bonnet that could be dressed up or down as needed. The other was a violet hat that matched one of Anne’s new pelisses of the same color, to go over a lavender gown sprigged with flowers of that darker hue.
Well-pleased with their purchases, they returned to the Matlock townhouse and shared their plans with Georgiana and Marie. The maid agreed that a fellow countrywoman was needed for Miss de Bourgh. But how to convince Lady Catherine? Kitty pondered that dilemma as she and Georgiana watched Marie wash, cut and curl Anne’s mousy locks.
“What will you wear down to dinner tonight?” she asked as the caterpillars over Anne’s eyes were tamed.
“Mademoiselle has a white gown with silver thread… No, that belongs to Mlle. Kitty.”
“She may have it; I am not overly fond of it, really.” She went to her room, found the dress in the back of the wardrobe and brought it into Anne’s bedchamber. “We shall try this out on Colonel Fitzwilliam this evening, and if he likes it, it is yours to keep.”
The colonel must have liked the gown – he could not keep his eyes off his cousin all evening. In fact, it was hard to get rid of him for a few days after that, as well, but whenever he pressed Anne to go for a drive, she pleaded fatigue, or a fitting, and refused to show herself to the outside world. Kitty could only agree. It was better to wait till the cygnet became a swan.
In the end it was one of the colonel’s unwitting remarks that convinced his aunt to hire a maid for Anne.
“Your dresser is becoming more fashionable,” he said to his aunt Saturday evening at dinner. “Anne looks quite improved.”
“My dresser has not been required of Anne since Georgiana’s maid took her in hand.” Lady Catherine was only slightly put out. After all, she no longer had to share her dresser with her daughter.
“Then Anne must have her own maid, Aunt.”
“French!” Kitty added. “Miss Darcy’s maid is French.”
That settled it. Anne could have no less than Georgiana, after all. A foreign maid was procured the very next day.
"I am not ready to be seen in public," Anne insisted. Kitty and Georgiana ignored her and buttoned her into her purple pelisse.
"You never know who might be in the park," Kitty said mysteriously.
"Exactly my point," Anne protested, but Francine, her new maid, sided with the other two young ladies.
The maid had entered enthusiastically into their plans the second she had met Anne. Furthermore, Anne had already begun to confide in the woman, telling her things she could not say to Miss Bennet and her cousin. Francine knew, for instance, all about traitorous Mr. Bromley (good riddance!), the constant support of the colonel (family is important, the maid had replied with a sly smile) and the constant battle to live her own life.
In the end Anne had gone along with the makeover plans, but only because Francine said looking good would make her feel better. That the maid’s words faintly echoed something said earlier by Kitty did not register.
Anne allowed herself to be softened, crimped and corseted, and salved, pomaded and pushed up until she did not even recognize herself. Before she knew it, it was Monday and time to show herself off.
"I, for one, hope we see Lord Litchcombe today," Georgiana said as innocently as possible. She was rightly wary of rakes, but this one seemed different. It did not hurt that he was as handsome as sin, or that his reputation was not as black as her Aunt Catherine had painted it.
She knew this from her own maid, Marie, who seemed to know every servant in Mayfair. The major domo she had been stepping out with had a sister in service to Lady Kevington, who lived three doors down from Lady Litchcombe, and knew his lordship’s valet, Firkins.
The grapevine said Litchcombe was a generous employer who offered decent quarters, paid well and kept his hands off the servants. If his amorous exploits were legend, it was also said that he was unstinting with his women and he adored his mother. Georgiana thought that high praise.
Her little tendre for the baron had fallen by the wayside, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t still willing to be friendly, and when the three ladies were driven to the park, escorted by the colonel, she thought perhaps Kitty had formed one for the man. She wasn’t quite sure.
Georgiana and Kitty wore pretty pastel spencers and bonnets over sprigged muslins for the drive, but they could not compete with Anne, who was fine as fivepence in a violet pelisse and bonnet. The darker color stood out like a beacon among the paler shades. It was not long before they were approached by Lord Litchcombe and another handsome gentleman.
"Good day, ladies!" the baron called, approaching on foot. "Fitzwilliam," he added, almost as an afterthought. Georgiana almost giggled at the sour expression on her cousin’s face.
"May I introduce Sir Justin Evers?" he continued. "Evers, this is Miss de Bourgh, Miss Bennet and Miss Darcy. You know Fitzwilliam."
Sir Justin bowed and the ladies nodded. The colonel frowned.
Everyone exchanged pleasantries, allowing Georgiana a chance to get a good look at the gentleman. He wasn’t quite as tall as Litchcombe, but he wasn’t short, either, and he had a nice smile. He certainly seemed to be smiling a lot at her. She liked the way the wind ruffled his brown curls and his shoulders did not appear padded in a coat of dark blue superfine. His lighter blue eyes twinkled merrily as she took inventory of him and Georgiana blushed when she realized she had been staring too long.
"I beg your pardon," she said softly, gazing down at her hands.
"No need, Miss Darcy. I hope I meet with your approval?"
Georgiana’s eyes flew back up to his in surprise. "Yes."
"Would you care to take a stroll with me?" he asked.
"I…" She looked at everyone else, who had stopped their conversation to listen to this exchange, and her eyes met the colonel’s. He was one of her guardians and permission would have to be granted by him.
"Do not go far," he said and she breathed a sigh of relief. It would not do for her cousin to object overly much in public, but he might have a few words for her later in private. In the meantime, she allowed Sir Justin to help her out of the carriage and she took his arm.
"Is this your first Season in town," he inquired as they strolled away from the group.
"My first spring. I was here for the Little Season last year with my brother and his wife, and two of her sisters." And an entertaining time that was. She thought fondly of Mary and Lord Trowbridge and sighed.
"Was it that onerous a visit?" Sir Justin wondered.
"Oh, no! My brother’s sister-in-law met her husband then, and it was so romantic…"
"You like romance?" he quizzed, mindful of his wager with Litchcombe.
Georgiana blushed at the question. "As well as the next young lady, I suppose."
"And your heart… was it engaged last year?" he pressed. Georgiana had to laugh.
"Oh, no! I am just eighteen, much too young, in my mind, to be thinking of such things."
"Many ladies are engaged or married in their first season."
"Perhaps, but not I. It is a thought I refuse to entertain for the moment," she assured him.
"Are you telling me you are not hanging out for a husband, Miss Darcy? I find that most singular."
Georgiana turned on him, eyes flashing.
"You may choose not to believe me, Sir Justin, but I vow I have no interest in marriage!" They stared at each other for a long moment.
"It is my turn to beg your pardon, Miss Darcy," he finally said. "I see I am laboring under the impression that the goal of all young misses is to change their surname. My mistake."
"I am sure you have done your investigating, Sir Justin, and are aware of my family and my financial status. Even were my heart engaged, that gentleman would find himself under considerable scrutiny from my brother, not to mention the rest of my friends and relations."
"Ah, yes, the formidable Mr. Darcy…"
"Quite so. He is enough to scare off even the most intrepid of suitors. The colonel also is my guardian and I imagine the thought of meeting with his approval, as well as my brother’s, would rout almost anyone."
"You seem resigned enough to your fate, Miss Darcy."
Georgiana shrugged as they turned back toward the carriage. "It is easier to imagine myself a spinster than to become attached to any one gentleman only to see him fail to pass muster."
"I sincerely doubt spinsterhood is in your future, Miss Darcy."
As soon as Georgiana had disappeared with Sir Justin, Lord Litchcombe also invited Kitty for a walk.
"Is Sir Justin one of your rakish friends?" she asked without preamble as they wandered away from the carriage, leaving the colonel to entertain Anne.
"He is, although I confess it was Miss de Bourgh I hoped he would take for a stroll. Miss Darcy is perhaps a little naïve for Sir Justin’s taste."
Kitty thought Georgiana, for all her sweetness, to be much more of a sophisticate than Anne, at least where men were concerned. She would be in no danger of Sir Justin’s charms.
"Perhaps. But what does it signify?" She was not aware of the wager, but if she had known its terms, she could have put Lord Litchcombe’s mind at ease. "What next?" she wondered.
"I have two more friends to present this afternoon, and we shall see if they have any attraction to Miss de Bourgh. My goal is to have at least one of them solicit a dance at Almack’s."
"A commendable goal," Kitty said with approval.
"I must say, whatever you have done to Miss de Bourgh, she appears much improved."
"I cannot take any credit other than to help obtain a new maid for the lady."
"She has worked wonders. Fitzwilliam cannot keep his eyes off her, and I would not be surprised if Evers comments later on the beauty of the three ladies he meets today in the park."
Had Litchcombe just called her beautiful? Kitty’s first inclination was to protest, but something inside her glowed at the thought of the baron’s compliment.
"You are too kind, my lord," she murmured, unsure if this was Lord Litchcombe laying on the charm or if he meant it.
They did not go as far as Georgiana and Sir Justin, and it was just as well. When they returned to the carriage a handsome dark-haired gentleman was leaning over the carriage and flirting outrageously with Anne. Anne was blushing furiously and the colonel seemed ready to throttle the man when he caught sight of the baron and Kitty.
"Litchcombe! I see you were not exaggerating the beauty of Miss de Bourgh," Lord Kenneth called.
Anne turned a surprised gaze on Lord Litchcombe.
"Indeed not," he assured his friend smoothly. "She is a charming lady, as you have no doubt ascertained."
"Miss Bennet," the colonel said tightly, dismounting. "I would have a word with you – in private."
Kitty sighed, but she nodded. A jaw-me-dead from the colonel was inevitable. Leaving Anne and the colonel’s horse with the other two gentlemen, she took his arm.
"You are certainly playing fast and loose with my cousin’s heart," he said severely, wasting no time on pleasantries.
"Not I, sir," she said innocently. "I am merely broadening the lady’s horizons beyond the duplicitous Mr. Bromley. If I were you, however, I would not play fast and loose with your cousin’s heart. I am sure if you would lay your own heart at her feet, she would be sympathetic to your cause. But you had better make some haste," she sweetly added, "because there are now three gentlemen buzzing around your honey, sir."
The colonel frowned as Anne laughed out loud at one of the gentlemen’s sallies, but he stood his ground.
"I do not welcome interference, Miss Bennet."
"You should! You are going to lose her if you do not do something soon!"
"You would do well to remember your own advice," the colonel warned, indicating where Litchcombe had gone to speak with a female driving her own phaeton, a female who was obviously not a lady.
"Oh, pooh!" Kitty exclaimed. "I do not care for Lord Litchcombe in that way, so he may do as he pleases in that quarter."
"And most likely will, whether you care or not," the colonel said almost sympathetically. Kitty tossed her head, but said nothing as they returned to the open carriage, where she was introduced to the third gentleman. Lord Litchcombe returned to her side. The other woman had moved on.
"We have been trying to settle a wager, Miss Bennet," the baron said, "as to whether or not you three ladies are typically marriage-minded. Miss de Bourgh says she has no immediate plans. Do you agree?"
"I believe the lady speaks the truth," Kitty sincerely replied. "Ask her again in the near future and you may get a different answer," she added, seeing the colonel lose some color, "but then females are noted for their contrariness, are they not?"
The gentlemen all laughed, even the colonel, although Kitty thought his was somewhat tinged with relief.
Georgiana returned with her escort and was asked the same question. She gave a similar reply and Kitty noticed the smug expression on Lord Litchcombe’s face. What was he up to?
"Miss de Bourgh," Lord Kenneth said. "Might I have a dance this Wednesday at Almack’s?"
Kitty watched, fascinated, as Lord Litchcombe’s superior smirk became a full-fledged smile.
Kitty felt as if she could do no wrong that evening as she waltzed into Almack’s in Lady Catherine’s wake. Lord Heatherly had called on Anne earlier that day, bringing Sir Justin Evers with him, and that gentleman had paid marked attention to Georgiana. Everything was going according to plan.
But now they faced an even bigger challenge – seeing if the mothers of these hardened rakes actually believed their sons were interested in a couple of females in earnest.
The colonel was engaged elsewhere that evening, which was fine with Kitty. She and Georgiana had received blistering lectures from him the day before, not that Kitty let it spoil her mood. Even Georgiana seemed to think it uncalled for. After all, she had told her cousin, they did no more than converse with the gentlemen, and Anne only agreed to dance once with Lord Kenneth. It wasn’t a marriage proposal, for goodness’ sake.
Lord Litchcombe approached first, and asked Lady Catherine to dance. Kitty hid a smile behind her fan as that lady protested, but Lady Litchcombe appeared and said she would be more than happy to sit with the young ladies. Lady Catherine could only nod and allow herself to be led out for a very stately quadrille.
Introductions were made between the baroness and the other young ladies. Lady Litchcombe settled back and began entertaining them with one of the latest on-dits when Sir Justin Evers greeted everyone with a bow.
"Are you engaged for this dance, Miss Darcy?"
Georgiana blushed and tried to stammer out a reply when Lady Litchcombe interrupted.
"Miss Darcy is much in demand this evening, Justin, with many of her dances already spoken for. However, because you are such a darling man, I believe this one, which happens to be open, may be given to you. Next time, please ask the young lady in advance. It does one’s consequence good to have all the dances spoken for before one arrives."
Georgiana shot the baroness a grateful smile and went off happily enough on Sir Justin’s arm.
"Give my regards to your mother, Justin, if I do not run into her this evening," Lady Litchcombe called after them.
Lord Heatherly was next, and when he declared himself more than willing to sit this dance out with Miss de Bourgh while she waited for her dance with Lord Kenneth, Lady Litchcombe insisted he take her for a turn about the rooms instead.
"I am sure Miss de Bourgh wishes to make the acquaintance of your sister…"
Once they were alone, Lady Litchcombe tried to finish her on-dit, but Lord Kenneth Moore and an older gentleman who could only be his uncle or father, by the looks of him, approached.
"Lord Kenneth! Your grace!" Lady Litchcombe stood this time and gave each of them her hand. "You are just in time, Kenneth, to dance with Miss Bennet. You see, Roylston, I am doing my duty as a chaperone, finding acceptable partners for young ladies."
"Careful, Chloe, lest you find yourself mistaken for a debutante," the duke said gallantly. Lady Litchcombe blushed like a schoolgirl, but Kitty did not hear what else was said, as Lord Kenneth led her out onto the floor.
"Those two have long been friends," he said with a smile, "and now they are both widowed. Litchcombe said you could keep a secret, but it is no mystery that he and I would like to see those two married to each other."
Kitty flushed at the though of Lord Litchcombe trusting her.
"I do not know your father, but the baroness is delightful."
"Yes, and deserves happiness. Her late husband was not a kind man, but my father is a pleasant gentleman and has been alone since my mother died." A shadow flickered briefly across his face. "They were devoted to each other, but he deserves every happiness and she is a darling."
"Then they should be perfect for each other."
"We just have to place them together more often," Lord Kenneth said. "To that end, I have asked my father to have a dinner party for her, and I wish to invite your household. Do you think Lady Catherine will agree?"
Kitty frowned. "There would have to be some reason for her to… If I think of one, I shall let you know."
"Thank you, Miss Bennet. I have no doubt something will occur to you. Litchcombe says you are as clever as you are pretty."
Kitty flushed again, but accepted the compliment and wondered what else Litchcombe had said.
Caroline Morris-Smeeth stood in a corner of the room, fending off invitations to dance while she watched Litchcombe.
First, he partnered Lady Catherine de Bourgh. That had caught her attention and she wondered why such a handsome, virile man was dancing with that old prune. (The fact that the old bat had once called Caroline a jumped-up mushroom fairly reeking of trade had nothing to do with that observation, of course.)
At least Litchcombe wasn’t dancing with… Wait a moment…
The second dance had begun – a waltz – and the baron was dancing with Miss Bennet! How dare that little upstart continue to monopolize her would-be lover!
An acquaintance, Lady Merrivale, stopped to chat, looking out over the dancers as she did.
"Litchcombe seems to be taken with Miss Bennet," she noted. Caroline saw red.
"He should!" she retorted. "They were locked in the Chinese Room at Lady Teaberry’s ball for more than half an hour!"
Lady Merrivale looked at Caroline with interest. "Compromised? How droll!"
"Did you understand what I just said, Serena?"
"I heard you, Caroline. And if you are worried that I might not spread that little tidbit around, don't be. It’s too juicy not to share."
Caroline relaxed and watched Lady Merrivale trip off to distribute the news.
Georgiana was having a wonderful time. After dancing with Sir Justin, she had been introduced to his family, which included a mother, younger brother and two sisters.
She was taken aback somewhat when Lady Evers looked her over like a horse at auction, but afterwards she was declared a sweet girl and was asked to dance by Mr. Evers. She had just been returned to Lady Evers when a friend of Miss Evers’ sat down and began to tell them all an on-dit about a Miss Bennet. She had been compromised by Lord Litchcombe at Lady Teaberry’s ball, and they were seen dancing together this evening at the assembly, but no announcement had been forthcoming. What cheek!
Georgiana blanched and even Sir Justin turned a little green around the gills.
"I’ll just return Miss Darcy to her aunt," he said hastily, rising at the same time as Georgiana.
"I don’t believe it!" she said over and over again as they made their way back to Lady Catherine. "In fact, I know it is not true! We were together all evening, except for a few moments when my cousin and I left the Chinese Room together and she followed, but went a separate way. Lord Litchcombe was not there, as I recall."
"There must be an explanation, then," Sir Justin said soothingly. "We’ll just find Litchcombe and…"
They reached a grim-looking Lady Catherine and could tell by that lady’s expression that she had been told.
Anne sat a dance out with Lord Heatherly, danced the waltz with Lord Kenneth and was claimed after that once more by the marquess. Afterwards, he returned her to her mother, who was sitting with his own parent. Lady Heatherly was beaming, as if Miss de Bourgh was already a member of the family.
Anne smiled and played her part as best she could, but she could not help but wish it were someone else by her side. The revelation made her sway in a slight swoon with the relief that afforded, and Lord Heatherly became immediately concerned.
"You may escort Anne to the refreshments," Lady Catherine ordered, and her daughter went gratefully with the marquess. Even Almack’s tepid lemonade sounded good at that moment. Her only regret was that a certain someone was not there to tease her about Almack’s infamous beverages.
"You are far away," Lord Heatherly said gently as he handed her a cup.
"I… I was thinking of someone."
"A special someone?"
Anne nodded. "Forgive me for not paying you more attention?"
"There is nothing to forgive. Sometimes we have no control over those we…"
Lord Heatherly’s smile was wistful. "Yes."
Anne looked at him more shrewdly than before. "Is she here in town?"
"No, she lives at Heatherly, and she is not of our social class, not that I care. She is the one who is refusing me – she is my steward’s daughter." He gave a bark of humorless laughter. "The irony of it all is that my late father had no objection to the union."
Anne’s eyes grew round. Imagine one’s parent unconcerned with status.
"Sometimes it is better to lessen one’s pride and reach for happiness instead."
"My thoughts exactly, but my mother does not know of the situation and would make Miss Downey’s life miserable should we wed."
"I hope you may one day find the joy you seek," Anne said sincerely. She turned away and found herself face to face with a hurt-looking Mr. Bromley.
"You did not take long to replace me," he said meanly. Anne turned white.
"I believe you replaced me in less time than that, sir."
"Won’t you introduce me?" Lord Heatherly asked politely. Anne nodded and tersely acquainted the two gentlemen.
"I suggest you apologize to the lady, Bromley."
"This lady has accepted my declarations of affection, but since coming to town has rejected me because I am not wealthy enough for her," he said loudly, attracting undue attention. "Why should I? I am the one who has been replaced in her affections." Anne moved away from him – this side of her former beau scared her.
"Because if you do not, I shall do this." Without hesitation, Lord Heatherly punched Mr. Bromley in the face, sending him sprawling across the table. Liquids spilled and cake flew. Several ladies had to dig food out of their decolletages, and others complained about wet spots on their gowns. Mr. Bromley looked up from his perch next to a punch bowl to see Lady Jersey bending over and berating him for ruining the assembly.
Lord Heatherly turned his back on the pair and offered to escort Anne back to Lady Catherine. They were immediately waylaid by a young lady the marquess introduced as his sister, Lady Sarah.
"Did you hear the news about your great friend Lord Litchcombe?" Lady Sarah asked her brother snidely. He paused. She was going to tell him whether he liked it or not. "This rake that you put so much stock into is living up to his name! It seems he compromised a young lady days ago at the Teaberry ball and hasn’t done a thing about it. Poor Miss Bennet! What if there are already interesting developments?"
Lord Heatherly and Anne looked at each other in alarm. They had to get to Lady Catherine to keep her from hearing the news. When they reached her mother, however, Kitty and Litchcombe, Georgiana and Sir Justin were there, and the heightened color on Lady Catherine’s face spoke volumes. Kitty sat with her head down, not looking at anyone.
"We shall be leaving now," her mother said sharply. "You will call on Miss Bennet early tomorrow," Litchcombe was told.
He nodded, turned on his heel and stalked off into the crowd. His friends quickly followed.
When Kitty came home from the assembly, she was sure she would be up half the night worrying about Lord Litchcombe, how such a rumor started and what the morrow would bring. Instead, she changed quickly into her nightclothes and went right off to sleep.
She was much less confident the next morning, fretting that Litchcombe would call and propose; concerned that he might not call at all and instead leave her ruined beyond anything her sister Lydia had done; and afraid she would get shipped back to Longbourn and never see Litchcombe again.
When the baron did call, it was early and he had brought his mother with him. Kitty blinked in surprise when she entered the drawing room and found herself folded in that kind lady’s arms.
"Don’t worry about a thing, dear. Cameron has it all worked out."
Kitty glanced shyly at him and when he returned her look with a warm one of his own, she relaxed.
Lady Catherine was tense, however, as she sat in her throne-like chair and proceeded to lament the deplorable lack of morals in young people.
"Litchcombe has something particular to say to you, Miss Bennet," she finally said. "You may have fifteen minutes in the blue salon."
Georgiana and Anne, who had been summoned to help entertain Lady Litchcombe, gave Kitty encouraging smiles as she went past them on the baron’s arm.
"First of all," Lady Litchcombe said as soon as her son and future daughter were out of the room, "Miss Bennet was never compromised by my son." She went on to explain what had occurred at the Teaberry Ball, and her story was so sincere, she convinced even Lady Catherine that Miss Bennet had been a victim of circumstance and a vindictive tattlemonger.
"Caroline!" Georgiana exclaimed, putting two thoughts together in an uncharacteristic outburst.
"I am not surprised," Lady Catherine said with a sniff.
"What will Fitzwilliam say?" Georgiana added with a moan.
"If he is this Fitzwilliam, he would rush over as soon as he heard and ask Miss Bennet to marry him," the colonel said from the doorway. "I should have known that Litchcombe would…"
Lady Litchcombe coughed discreetly so he would know she was present, and he had the grace to blush.
"I beg your pardon, my lady. I… what the devil are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same," she said impishly, "but you have already informed us. Aren’t I allowed to be one of the first to welcome my future daughter to the family?"
"Um, er… yes, I suppose so, my lady, but…"
"Yes?" she asked sweetly.
The colonel looked anywhere but at the baroness, and his gaze alighted on Anne. "I have some personal news for Anne, Aunt Catherine. Might we be excused for a moment?"
Lady Catherine raised one eyebrow and nodded regally, but her expression said she was to be told the whole upon their return. With a bow for the company of ladies, Fitzwilliam and Anne left the room. By unspoken agreement they went to his mother’s conservatory, long one of his favorite spots.
"I had heard of this room for years, but was deemed too ill to journey to London. I have spent many hours in it since," Anne said. "I must write to my aunt and compliment…"
"Miss Farnham has jilted Mr. Bromley," he said suddenly, finding no good way to introduce the information into the conversation.
"Oh?" Anne replied with an unconcerned air, but her hands, just reaching for a rose, began to shake. She unsteadily grabbed the stem and pierced her thumb with a thorn. She gave a small cry.
"Have you hurt yourself?" The colonel instantly produced a handkerchief and wrapped it tenderly about her hand.
"Thank you," Anne whispered and blushed. He was still holding her hand. "About Mr. Bromley…" she said in a soft voice.
"He was your first love?"
"No, not my first. Darcy wasn’t either, if you could even call that love. I had an affection for him, being a cousin, but it was never love. No, he is very happy where he is, and I am glad for him. I’m glad for Mr. Bromley, too."
"For being jilted?"
Anne nodded and giggled. "You should have seen how Lord Heatherly defended my honor last night at… ow!"
The colonel, none to happy to be hearing this, squeezed her hand tight.
"I beg your pardon, Anne. May I ask how your honor needed to be defended?"
"You may. Mr. Bromley accosted me and suggested I was the one who jilted him. Lord Heatherly took offense, as did I, of course. You know no such thing occurred. At any rate, Lord Heatherly did exactly what I wish I could have done – hit him in the face. He sent him sprawling across Almack’s famous refreshments."
"I should have been there to defend you myself!" he exclaimed, filled with dread thinking his cousin might even now have switched allegience to Heatherly.
Anne lay her other hand on top of their entertwined ones.
"I wish it had been you as well, cousin."
"Anne?" He looked down into her brown eyes and realized she was looking extremely healthy these days.
He dropped her hands and coughed uncomfortably. "May I ask you a personal question?"
Her smile was tender. "You may ask me anything."
"Have you truly been ill all these years?"
Anne blushed. "Not exactly, but most of them, yes. A couple of years ago, though, I met one of our tenants while I was out for a drive, an old wise woman who thought I might not have healthy blood. She gave me a horrid tonic that I refused to take once I returned home. It would still be sitting on a shelf if I had not accidently taken some of it some day, mistaking it for something else. It was horrid, yes, but I felt better the next morning and did not require my usual nap. I continued to take the tonic and continued to feel better, but I also came to realize I did not wish to marry Darcy, so Mrs. Jenkinson and I began to cover my pink cheeks with a rather pasty cream. I could not let mother know the truth, and I could not let Mrs. Jenkinson become unemployed." She paused a moment and smiled.
"When Darcy married Miss Bennet, I was more than relieved. Then I met Mr. Bromley."
"Where did you meet?"
"In Hunsford village. I had stopped at the greengrocer’s for an apple, tripped on the uneven floor and was caught by him."
"Very romantic," the colonel said dryly.
"Oh, prodigiously," Anne sarcastically replied. She wondered if he ever noticed Mr. Bromley was not dissimilar in coloring or looks to himself. Those were the main reasons she had been attracted to the man. "I was flattered by his attentions, of course. No one else had ever shown me such romantic interest." She looked at him intently, daring him to dispute that fact.
Anne looked even closer at the colonel and saw something there that pleased her. She moved in a little closer. "Then I met Heatherly. He’s ever so handsome and quite eligible…"
"He is far from eligible and he will never make you a respectable offer. A man like that will take what he wants and leave you behind with the consequences. But he will never marry you."
"What if I do not wish to marry him! What if I said I’d rather marry someone else?"
"If it is one of those rakes of Litchcombe’s, you would be better off forgetting him."
"It is not one of those rakes of Litchcombe’s and if you can’t tell whom it is, you may just leave right now!" She crossed her arms and turned her back on him.
The colonel stood and stared at her back a moment, fascinated with the tiny dark hairs falling out of her coiffure. He thought he was beginning to understand…
Coming up behind her, he put his hands on her shoulders and his mouth directly behind her right ear. "Why didn’t you say something sooner, dear heart?" he whispered.
Anne stood her ground, but a small smile hovered on her lips. "Why didn’t you?"
"Because I am a fool, and a blind one at that. But I have known for a while, darling Anne, that I had finally found the lady I wanted – and under my own nose all these years."
"I don’t know whom you are talking about."
He turned her around so that she faced him, putting her arms about his neck and his arms around her waist. "Don’t you?" he asked before bringing his lips down to hers.
Anne started to protest, but was too involved in kissing him back to worry whether or not she had punished him long enough.
"What is your mother going to say about this?" he wondered with a sigh, breaking reluctantly away. Anne’s answering grin was impish.
"Let us not tell her until we are certain we’ve both been thoroughly kissed…"
They were both very pleased with that suggestion.
In another room, Kitty was facing off against Lord Litchcombe.
"I assume you know why I am here," he said without preamble.
"Yes." Kitty was not happy about this entire situation, but she knew neither of them had any choice. However, she felt keenly that her family would instantly compare her to Lydia, and that she could not bear. She had worked hard to remove what she had come to perceive as her sister’s taint. Lydia was a fool, but now Kitty knew herself to be no better.
Who in the world other than the colonel, Georgiana and Lord Litchcombe himself knew she had been in that room at the Teaberry ball? Only Litchcombe knew they had been in there but briefly together. Now they stood staring at each other, neither one eager to speak.
"I am not pleased with this turn of events," Lord Litchcombe finally said. Kitty frowned. What did he mean by that?
"Perhaps you could explain yourself, my lord?" she asked in a sugary voice that did not fool either of them.
Lord Litchcombe must have realized the awfulness of his words, because he apologized.
"I should have said, Miss Bennet, that this is not exactly how I envisioned our relationship would progress."
Kitty eyed him warily. "Oh? And how exactly did you envision it, my lord?"
Lord Litchcombe closed the distance between them and took one of her hands in his.
"I won’t deny I have had one eye on the future from our first meeting," he admitted, his thumb caressing the top of her hand. Distracted, she was having a difficult time comprehending his words.
"Oh?" It was all she could think to say. Besides, her foggy mind said, he was here to propose to her. All she had to do was accept, or not. There really was not much thinking that had to be done on her part, not on what to say, at any rate.
"Yes – I like you very much, Miss Bennet, and I think you like me, too." Litchcombe led her over to a settee and when she was seated, he placed himself at her side.
"I am not immune to your charms, Lord Litchcome," Kitty said rather primly, and the baron chuckled.
"I am pleased to hear that, Miss Bennet, as we shall be spending quite a bit of time together."
"Oh? I was unaware that our combined future included actually spending time together, my lord," Kitty could not help but reply. "Indeed, it has been my observation of other couples that they spend as little time as possible together." Her own parents came to mind and she conveniently forgot the closeness of her elder sisters and their husbands.
"That is not exactly the way I think it should go…" Lord Litchcombe said. He would have continued, but the door opened and in strode Mr. Darcy. From the look on his face, he had already had an accounting of the situation from someone.
"I would speak with you, Litchcombe. Now."
"Mr. Darcy!" Kitty gasped. "What are you doing in London?" To say she was shocked by his arrival, when everyone had him placed firmly at Pemberley, was an understatement. Especially since she was sitting alone and rather intimately with Lord Litchcombe, who was about to propose.
"I am come to London on business," her sister’s husband calmly replied. "And when I called a few moments ago to enquire after everyone, I was given some very interesting information." His tone was neither enthusiastic nor judgmental, and for that Kitty was grateful.
Mr. Darcy glanced at Lord Litchcombe. "Will you excuse us?" he asked Kitty.
"But…" She had not even had a chance to accept anything!
"Catherine…" Mr. Darcy warned and fixed her with a steely glare.
Kitty was not pleased with this high-handed action, but she knew better than to argue – when someone used her full name it was serious. She nodded and quit the room.
She would have gone straight back to Lady Catherine, if only to help entertain Lady Litchcombe, but Georgiana and Anne were there, so instead she wandered about the house wondering exactly how his lordship would have worded that proposal. Would he have used "love" in his offer, or would he have chosen words such as "duty" or "honor"?
She stopped in several empty rooms before reaching the conservatory, but one glance in there showed Anne was not in the drawing room as expected. Nor was she alone. And by the looks of things, there was at least one proposal and engagement in the air. With a smile she left Anne to the tender ministrations of the colonel.
If Anne and her cousin were to make a match of it, Kitty realized, it could prove exciting to be in the same room as Lady Catherine when it was announced. She made a beeline for the drawing room, where her ladyship was telling Lady Litchcombe how the younger woman would like meeting Mrs. Darcy. Georgiana was hiding a smile as she bowed over her needlework.
She looked up when Kitty came into the room, and her startled glance flew to the door. Her brows knit in consternation when she realized Kitty was alone.
"Did you know my brother has called?"
"Oh, yes," Kitty said dryly. "I have seen him, as well. He and Lord Litchcombe are having a discussion."
"And what did they…"
Lady Catherine’s shrill voice cut into their conversation. "Have you accepted him, Miss Bennet? Of course you have. And if you have not, it would not make a bit of difference. It is all a mere formality at this point," she added, not waiting for a reply. "I shall have Darcy put the announcement in the papers. I think the nuptials should take place as soon as possible, but not too soon, because there really is no reason to hurry things. Is there, Miss Bennet?"
Kitty shook her head and Lady Catherine droned on about arrangements. At least Lady Litchcombe seemed sympathetic to her cause. On her way out a few minutes later, after they had all been informed by a servant that the two gentlemen were going to White’s, she squeezed Kitty’s hand.
"Meet me in the small park in the center of the square in fifteen minutes. Feel free to bring Miss Darcy with you."
Kitty gave her future mother-in-law a fleeting smile.
Darcy waited until they were settled in front of a fire at their men’s club before continuing the subject at hand. He was not quite sure what he would hear from Litchcombe, and a public place such as the club, where one was required to remain civil, suited his purpose better than having a possible argument at Lady Catherine’s.
"I have heard my aunt’s account of the matter, but I should like to hear yours."
"Very well," Lord Litchcombe agreed, sensing the anger underneath the other gentleman’s calm façade and knowing exactly at whom it was aimed. "I attended Lady Teaberry’s ball recently, where I had arranged to meet a certain lady in the Chinese Room."
"Er, no. A Mrs. Morris-Smeeth, to be exact," he truthfully answered.
"I see." Darcy’s eyebrow rose a notch at the mention of that certain lady, but he kept his own counsel for the moment.
"However, I was forced to hide in a cabinet when the next arrivals were three people instead of one person. Colonel Fitzwilliam came in with Miss Darcy and Miss Bennet."
"Indeed, I cannot imagine what they were doing there. Pray enlighten me. I’ve no doubt you heard every word."
Lord Litchcombe nodded. "Miss de Bourgh had been jilted by a gentleman and Miss Bennet had a scheme to restore the lady’s confidence."
Darcy paused. Anne? Jilted? With a flick of his hand he bid the other man to continue.
"Miss Bennet wished to attract a few gentlemen known for their rakish behavior to the side of Miss de Bourgh, considering it rather harmless. The men would not be hanging out for wives, and Miss de Bourgh was in no condition to consider marriage."
"It seems I shall be having a word with Miss Bennet about her ideas," Darcy said.
Litchcombe chuckled. "Actually, it was a good plan. My friends have made their female relations happy without any real attachments on their part, and Miss de Bourgh and Miss Darcy have been willing accomplices."
"Miss Darcy?" That lady’s brother had appeared calm and relaxed, but now he came to full attention.
"Yes, sir. Miss Darcy has attracted some attention in all of this, but she appears to be as detached as the gentlemen."
"Miss Darcy has some explaining to do, as well. But continue your story, please," Darcy said smoothly. Litchcombe picked up the thread of it once again.
"While your three relatives were in the Chinese Room, there was a knock at the door and Mrs. Morris-Smeeth was heard, wondering why she was being denied entrance. After she left, everyone else quit the room and I came out of the cabinet. I did not see anyone as I made my way back to the ballroom. I was intrigued, however, by Miss Bennet’s scheme, not to mention her person, and have been a fellow conspirator ever since."
"And now you must marry her, according to my aunt and your mother. She has agreed to this?"
Litchcombe blurted out an expletive and started to his feet. "I was trying to ask her when you walked in!"
"Sit down," Darcy commanded. "She is not going anywhere. You may speak to her again when we return," the baron was assured. Litchcombe sat back down.
"When did the gossip begin concerning you and Miss Bennet?" Darcy wondered.
"Last evening at Almack’s. I can’t help but think someone has been waiting for the right moment with all this. How would they know about Lady Teaberry’s ball if they weren’t there and not say anything until now? The only other person even near the Chinese Room during those few moments was…"
The two gentlemen seemed to have the thought at the same time. "Caroline!"
Kitty was wracking her brain, trying to think of a way out of the house, when Anne and Colonel Fitzwilliam returned to the drawing room. They were holding hands.
"Mama…" Anne began, but her mother had already noticed the familiarity between the two cousins.
"What is this?" she demanded.
"My cousin and I are engaged, Mama."
"Oh? And I suppose you are expecting to receive my permission?" Lady Catherine asked in the most haughty of tones.
"Actually, no, Aunt Catherine," the colonel replied. "Anne is of age, after all. However, we would like your blessing."
Kitty cleared her throat to gain Georgiana’s attention, but that young lady was already heading toward the door. Kitty all but ran as well, thinking she didn’t want to be there to hear the rest of this after all. They left the happy couple glaring at Lady Catherine.
"Would you like to take in some fresh air with me?" Kitty asked when they were safely out in the hall.
"I would be delighted," Georgiana said with no little relief.
Once clad in their outerwear, the two left the house and walked across the street to the park.
"Well, my dears," Lady Litchcombe said as she joined them in the park, "how did you find Lady Catherine upon your departure from the house?"
Kitty giggled. "In the process of gaining a nephew for a son. I have no doubt the colonel will stand his ground and take the day."
"Excellent! And did you have an interesting chat with my son earlier today, Miss Bennet?"
"Not exactly…" Kitty said with a frown.
The countess nodded in understanding. "He can be rather dominating, can’t he? Did you accept his offer?"
"You have refused him?" the baroness exclaimed. Georgiana gasped.
"I have not accepted Lord Litchcombe because he has not yet made an offer!" Kitty hotly replied. "What if he never…" she said, close to tears.
"Nonsense!" Lady Litchcombe had already recovered from her surprise and her response was brisk. "You shall get your offer, Miss Bennet. And in the meantime, I doubt you two wish to return to the house. Since your mother is not present to help you with such things as a trousseau, let us go shopping. We need to get you a special gown for your wedding!"
"People will say you had to get married, Miss Bennet, but I do not want them to say you went to your wedding in an old or borrowed gown." She was only half serious, but she had to get Kitty to agree somehow. The girl needed a distraction and Lady Litchcombe was determined to take her under her wing. Especially when she had yet to face Mr. Darcy. The baroness had no doubt he would be a tougher nut to crack than Lady Catherine.
Georgiana linked an arm with Kitty. "Let’s go shopping," she said softly.
Kitty could not deny Georgiana and asked one of her ladyship’s footmen to run a message into the house as to their whereabouts – Bond Street.
"Cam! I have the most excellent idea! Good to see you, Darcy," he added before turning back to his friend. "I have found the perfect reason to have a dinner party. Your engagement!" He stood there with a smile on his face, waiting for his friend to agree. "In fact, I am going to ask your mother to be the hostess."
"That is a fine idea," Cameron said. "But Miss Bennet and I…"
"Would be delighted to have a dinner in their honor," Darcy finished for him. "In fact, the entire family will be pleased to attend. You may send invitations to Lady Catherine, Colonel Fitzwilliam and myself. Miss Bennet and Miss Darcy will be moving tomorrow into my townhouse."
"I shall call on your mother this very afternoon!" Heatherly said and bounced off, no doubt eager to put his plans in motion.
To Cameron’s complete surprise, Darcy laughed at the retreating back of his friend.
"He reminds me of a close friend of mine – Mr. Bingley. Have you met him? I believe you have met his sisters," he said when Cameron shook his head. "Mrs. Hurst and Mrs. Morris-Smeeth."
Cameron felt the blood drain from his face. How close a friend was Mr. Darcy to Mr. Bingley?
"I’m certain you will get to meet Mr. Bingley soon enough. His wife will see to that."
Darcy’s grin was rather smug and for the first time that day, Cameron felt trapped by this entire situation.
"Mrs. Bingley, as well as my own wife, of course, is one of Miss Bennet’s elder sisters."
When the baron and Mr. Darcy returned to the house, Lord Litchcombe was informed that his mother had taken Miss Bennet and Miss Darcy off to Bond Street. Because he had been planning on tendering a proposal on his return, he felt rather disappointed. Miss Bennet was supposed to be waiting, dash it all! Without even stopping to pay his respects to Lady Catherine, he departed.
Darcy, feeling as if he had lost a buffer of sorts, went in to greet his aunt alone, only to find her arguing with her daughter and nephew - who wished to be married?
"Darcy! You are just in time to tell Mama that Fitzwilliam and I should have her blessing."
Darcy was rather amazed at the transformation of his quiet, sickly cousin, who was now ordering him about as she never would have done before. The colonel sat calmly off to one side and allowed his future wife to handle the discussion, much to Darcy's amusement.
"Why should she have any objections?" he asked as if his aunt were not in the room.
"I have no idea," Anne replied in the same vein. "After all, the money and estate stay in the family, just as she has always wished it to."
"That is true."
"You will dine with us this evening?" she asked.
"I would be delighted, cousin." Sensing he could now make his escape before his aunt, who was turning beet red, could give full vent to her feelings, he said he would return later and went home to write a couple of letters. The first would be to Elizabeth and it would be quite full of news.
Kitty was not pleased, either, when she returned home to learn Lord Litchcombe had asked for her. After all, she had only been off fingering materials, being measured and dreaming too much of the proposal she had been so sure of receiving from him. But what if it had not been his intention to make some passionate declaration? What if he had been about to make a dry request, one that did not appeal to her romantic sensibilities?
She sat on a sofa, refused a glass of sherry and managed to talk herself into settling for a one-sided marriage.
Once Mr. Darcy arrived and everyone had been called to dinner, she had worked her way up to being the mother of two children and living with them in the country while her husband conducted a separate life in town.
"You are much too quiet this evening, Miss Bennet," Lady Catherine snapped halfway through the fish course. She seemed disgruntled, still, that her daughter had managed to become betrothed without any interference from her whatsoever.
"I am certain the gentlemen will forgive us if you tell me where you went shopping today."
"We went to Mrs. Duval's," Kitty said softly. "To order some bridal clothes."
"I hope you had the good sense to have the bills sent to Darcy."
Kitty gave her brother-in-law a quick glance. "Yes, ma'am," was the meek reply.
"And how is Mrs. Darcy faring?" Anne asked. She would never admit it, but she had always liked Elizabeth. She was pretty and lively and had saved Anne from marrying the wrong cousin.
"She is well," came the reply. Anything else about his wife would have to be asked in private. He was not about to discuss her current condition at the table. Or in front of everyone.
After the meal - when the ladies had defected to the drawing room and port and cigars had been set out - he finally had a chance to speak to the colonel, who confirmed Litchcombe's account of the situation and added a few comments concerning his youngest cousin and Miss Bennet.
"Perhaps you should speak with Georgiana first," the colonel counseled. "She seems to have a certain delicacy of mind so sadly lacking in Miss Bennet."
"I was not aware of your animosity toward Miss Bennet."
"I was not aware I had any, either," the colonel admitted. "Until she almost cost me a fiancée."
"With the gentlemen of dubious reputation?"
"And Georgiana?" Darcy quizzed, knowing it was as much his cousin's responsibility to watch out for her as it was his own.
"I have been keeping an eye on Georgiana," came the rather terse reply. "You may ask her yourself."
"I intend to." Darcy reflectively sipped his port.
"I do not believe she plans to be taken in by them."
"She did not plan to be taken in before, either." Even now, Darcy could not bring himself to say that name.
"Talk to her before you draw any conclusions," his cousin urged. Darcy looked at the colonel over the rim of his glass.
"How is it that you are in Georgiana's corner over all this, but not Miss Bennet's?"
"That is simple - Georgiana was not taken in and Miss Bennet was. You don't think Litchcombe wished to be caught, do you?"
Darcy was of two minds about that, but he held his tongue. Instead, he suggested Fitzwilliam go spend some time with his fiancée.
"Are you going to speak privately with the other two young ladies?"
"Tomorrow," Darcy assured him. "After they have been removed to my house."
Darcy's letter to his wife had been sent by private courier to Pemberley and arrived in Derbyshire the next day.
Mrs. Reynolds, well aware that Mrs. Darcy would wish to be notified as soon as possible, sent the courier off to the kitchens for a meal and took the letter personally to her mistress.
Elizabeth, who was trying to read a book in the library, took the missive with a smile.
My dearest Elizabeth,
I have reached London in safety and, as always, I miss you every moment we are apart. I was greeted by some alarming news upon my arrival, however, and because of its nature am not certain I will be home as soon as planned.
Lizzy frowned. Kitty and Georgiana were in London - she hoped this did not concern either of them. Ahhh, she thought as she scanned down further. The colonel and Anne...
...are betrothed, although Lady Catherine is not exactly welcoming her nephew as a son.
Lizzy grinned and rubbed her stomach. Lady Catherine would come around eventually and then her child would have cousins on both sides of the family to play with.
I will be in London until your sister is wed, of course, but that will not take long...
What? Lizzy backed up and read with growing dread how Kitty's good name had been wrongly linked with a known rake, Lord Litchcombe, how they were now engaged, and who was suspected in regards to spreading the rumors.
"Caroline!" she exclaimed after reading that specific name.
Hmmm... She might not be able to travel, but there were others in the family who could and would come to Kitty's assistance, if only for a show of familial support. Lizzy went directly to her writing desk and started a series of letters that would be sent by Darcy's courier as quickly as possible.
Mr. Darcy waited until his sister and his wife's sister were established in his household before speaking to either young lady about their recent activities.
After a midday repast, when both Georgiana and Kitty assured him that their rooms were satisfactory, Georgiana said she was going to practice the pianoforte. Darcy waited until she left the dining room and then asked Kitty into his study. She reluctantly agreed, having more than an inkling as to what this meeting would entail.
"How is Lizzy?" she asked after he settled her into a chair in front of the fire. That he joined her instead of sitting behind his desk put her somewhat at ease.
"I have a letter for you," was the kind reply. Darcy had a soft spot for this Bennet sister - she was the one who had gone out of her way to befriend his sister. And if things had gone a bit astray, he could not, as his cousin did, hold Miss Bennet completely responsible.
"Shall we discuss your wedding?" he added.
"My wedding? Don't you wish to berate me for embroiling everyone in this situation and for putting your sister's own reputation at stake by association?"
"I am convinced that you have done little wrong despite gossip to the contrary. It is more like being in the wrong place at the wrong time... I confess that I think you are playing with fire by encouraging a handful of disreputable men. However, you should not worry too much," he said. "I understand Litchcombe has been snared..." He gave her a rare grin to take the sting out of his words and Kitty fairly goggled at the sight.
If this was what marriage to Lizzy did to him, Kitty thought, he was going to turn into Mr. Bingley within the decade!
"And if you are desirous of a tongue-lashing, I believe there might be a letter from at least one sister, if not three, in the next few days. Mrs. Bingley's will be gentle, Lady Trowbridge's will no doubt be couched in a few platitudes and Mrs. Darcy's will be straight and to the point. Do not say you were not warned."
"You wrote to them all?"
"No, just Elizabeth. I'm sure she will take it from there."
Kitty groaned. "And Papa? Mama?"
"Do you doubt that her first letter went to Longbourn?"
"I'm sure her first letter went to London. But her second letter, no doubt, went to Hertfordshire. I must write to them..."
"And so you shall," Darcy said indulgently. "I'll leave you to the pen and paper on my desk." He bowed and left the room, knowing Miss Bennet would be busy while he had a chat with his sister.
The sound of the pianoforte led Mr. Darcy to the music room and he stood just inside the doorway while his sister finished the piece she was playing. After giving her a round of applause for her efforts, he indicated she was to stay seated and he strolled over to lean on the instrument.
“I understand you and Miss Bennet have had an interesting time of it while in London.”
Georgiana’s smile was serene. “Interesting is a good word.” She knew what her brother wished to discuss, but she had not done anything wrong and, perversely, wished to make him work for his information. “Who would have imagined our cousins becoming engaged?”
“That is not exactly what I had in mind, but I’ll admit I am surprised at that turn of events. Elizabeth will be equally amazed.”
His sister gave him a shy but knowing smile. “No doubt she is already in possession of the news.”
“No doubt. What I wished to speak to you about is the inordinate amount of time you have been spending with gentlemen of…” He paused for the right word.
Georgiana held up a hand, the first time she had ever forestalled him in her life. “I pray you do not read more into the situation than is warranted, brother.”
“But I feel you are in danger of…”
“Repeating history?” Her tone took on a slight edge, but her cheeks were flushed. She found herself more embarrassed by the past than the present. They had not spoken much of Ramsgate in the ensuing years, but it had to come out sometime. “I do not believe the circumstances are the same.”
“No?” Mr. Darcy’s voice held a tinge of sarcasm. “A gentleman fixes your interest under false pretences and you say it is not the same? It is my understanding that this entire scheme of Miss Bennet’s is one big lie where certain families are concerned.”
Georgiana turned red and looked down where her hands rested on the keys. They were shaking and she moved them to her lap. “It was only to help Anne. The gentlemen are aware of the deception and we did no harm. I will drop the acquaintances if you wish…”
“No, they are Litchcombe’s friends and you will be seeing them in the future. I will let them know, however, that there can never be anything from you but polite distance.”
She looked up, a frown marring her pretty features. “Please do not. I shall speak to them when the situation warrants it. Until then, I beg you, let me leave everything as it is.” Perhaps if he saw there was nothing to fear, she could continue her little friendships – they were helping her learn how to get over her fear of the male of the species, something even her brother and gentle Mr. Bingley had been unable to do completely.
“It shall be as you wish,” her brother agreed, impressed in spite of himself with her attitude and willingness to take control of the situation.
Georgiana breathed a sigh of relief when he kissed her forehead and left the room.
After Mr. Darcy left the study, Kitty was informed that flowers had arrived for her and were awaiting her arrangement of them in the drawing room.
Arrangement? Kitty didn’t think she could do such a thing. Certainly, she had been the recipient of little nosegays, but never anything that couldn’t just be admired until it died. Even at Longbourn she had gotten out of flower arranging duties by doing such a poor job, her mother would hiss and sigh and send her off somewhere else.
But she had been aware since that morning that Mr. Darcy’s household was informed of her new status, and not just as a betrothed young lady, but as a future baroness. In fact, the butler handed her the accompanying note without batting an eyelash, as if she was now entitled to her billet-doux.
Kitty walked into the drawing room and gasped. This was no tiny nosegay sent by a previous evening’s dance partner, one of many in a proscribed size and kind. No, these were large bunches of daffodils, each tied with a purple silk ribbon.
Daffodils are for regard…
She didn’t know what to do or say until Mrs. Anderson, the housekeeper, cleared her throat and looked at the note in Kitty’s hand.
As she read (privately, of course), Kitty began to smile. Litchcombe was a complete hand!
My dear Miss Bennet, you are no doubt reading this in front of Mr. Darcy’s senior servants, who will now bestow you with discreet but knowing smiles.
Kitty looked up to see that this was absolutely true, and flushed.
You, of course, are blushing becomingly, as is your wont, and they will move toward the door. Ask them to wait, as there will be a reply.
“Wait, please,” Kitty found herself saying automatically, and then laughing. The butler and housekeeper were, indeed, inching toward the door.
Will you accompany me on a drive through the park today at the fashionable hour?
“There will be a reply,” Kitty said and went to the small writing desk Lizzy kept in the corner for such occasions as this.
The servants exchanged glances and the butler said he would wait in the hall for the return note. Mrs. Anderson excused herself to retrieve a couple of vases, and Kitty was left alone.
Alone now? I wished to speak to you about something important yesterday, when we were interrupted. When I returned, you were not at home. Shall we continue our conversation this afternoon? Cameron
Kitty sighed as she read the name at the bottom of the paper. His name was Cameron…
Kitty was determined to make his lordship wait when he called for her at five o'clock, and so she dawled over her toilette. Finally, Marie begged her to go downstairs. Kitty pouted. It was only five minutes to five, but she could tarry at the top of the stairs, out of sight, until he was ushered into the drawing room. It never occurred to her that his lordship's horses might not care if she made an entrance.
Smoothing down her new primrose muslin gown and fussing with the wrists of her darker spencer, she heard a servant ask the butler “to hurry Miss Bennet along,” because the horses were feeling their oats and would not stand long. Mustering what dignity she could, Kitty descended in a regal manner completely lost on Lord Litchcombe’s tiger and interrupted the butler’s explanation as to why she was not ready.
“Thank you,” she said to the older man and followed the smaller one out to Lord Litchcombe’s phaeton.
“Your promptness is appreciated,” Litchcombe said. She hoped the hint of exasperation in his voice was directed toward his cattle, else this was not going to be a fun drive.
“You’re welcome, my lord.”
“Cameron, please,” he asked, urging his team into traffic and heading toward Hyde Park. “And shall you be Catherine or Kitty when we are not required to be in company?”
“Which do you prefer, my – Cameron?”
“Kitty, or perhaps I shall call you Cat. We can be Cat and Cam to each other. I rather like that.” He seemed well pleased with himself, but until Kitty got her declaration, she was determined not to give in completely to his every whim.
“I think Cameron will suffice, as well as Kitty.”
“There you are again, Miss Priss and Prunes!” he exclaimed with a laugh.
“You sound just like the rather cold, haughty reply I received to my note earlier today.”
“That was not…” Kitty stopped herself because she realized she sounded just like Lady
“Exactly. ‘Dear Lord Litchcombe,’” he recited in a stuffy, feminine voice. “‘Thank you for your kind invitation.’”
“What is wrong with that?” Kitty demanded.
“You need more humor in your life, Miss Bennet.”
“I thought you were going to call me Cat, Cam,” she said with a laugh.
“Perfect!” he said with warm approval. “Now, reword your note to me,” he prompted.
Kitty thought about it a moment and chuckled wickedly. “Dear Cam…” She said the word slowly, almost seductively. “If this is being read over your shoulder by another woman, please tell her she cannot join us in the park today…”
Litchcombe’s eyes grew wide, but he was clearly delighted with her playfulness. “Well done, Kitty Cat!”
When, though, had the little tabby turned into a feline femme fatale? He wasn’t going to complain, but did she act like that around all gentlemen, or only him? He was not attracted to her for any worldliness – he liked her because she was such a sweet country soul at heart. Which reminded him…
They had reached the park and he pulled the carriage up under a stand of trees in a secluded spot and took Kitty’s hand in his.
“Miss Bennet, I know we are to be married – your brother is to put the notice in tomorrow’s papers – but I do apologize for not doing this sooner…”
Dash it all, the ring was in his pocket and he had to pause in order to fish it out.
“Miss Bennet!” Lord Heatherly called. “How are you this fine day?” He came bounding up to the phaeton with his usual energy and bowed. “Cam! Have you told her yet?” He seemed to think all of Litchcombe’s business was now Miss Bennet’s, as well.
“The dinner party, you silly clunch. Miss Bennet, Cam and I have been wracking our brains trying to find a way to bring our parents together and we have hit on the most marvelous solution! Even Darcy approves!” he added, clearly in awe as to how that had happened.
“Heatherly,” Cam said with an edge to his voice. The marquess either did not notice it or ignored it.
“We are to host a dinner party in honor of your engagement and Lady Litchcombe just this morning agree to act as hostess! Isn’t that marvelous?” He was clearly beside himself with delight.
“Wonderful, my lord,” Kitty cooed. “Except for one small problem.”
“Lord Litchcombe and I are not yet formally engaged,” came the reply.
Cameron buried his face in his hands and groaned.
“But… I…” Heatherly stammered. “I heard… Darcy approved…”
“Then you heard wrong, my lord.” Kitty kept her tone deliberately sweet. “Lord Litchcombe was, I believe, just about to remedy that situation when you hailed us.” Why should Cameron shoulder all the guilt? “But now that won’t be necessary and he is going to take me home. Good day to you, Lord Heatherly. We need to leave now,” she added softly to Litchcombe.
Heatherly was nonplussed, but bowed and backed away. Cameron shrugged and did almost as the lady asked, but he did not take her home. Instead, he drove her to Litchcombe House.
“What are we doing here?” she asked coldly.
“Having tea with my mother.”
“She asked me to bring you to her after our drive, and as you have cut that short, here we are. I would hate to disappoint the baroness, wouldn’t you?”
Kitty sighed and watched as he handed the reins to his tiger and came around to help her out. Headstrong Kitty refused his hand and tried to swing herself down, only to catch her modest flounce on the equipage. A tearing sound reached her ears.
“Oh, no!” She mustered what dignity she could and ignored Cameron’s smirk, making an almost regal entrance into the house.
“Miss Bennet, I would like you to meet the family butler, Mr. Hopper. Hopper, this is Miss Bennet.” The kindly old face split in two as he recognized her name.
“An honor, Miss Bennet. Welcome to Litchcombe House. Her ladyship is expecting you in the blue salon, my lord.”
Cameron led Kitty in to where Lady Litchcombe waited, and that lady came forward with a smile on her lips.
“Miss Bennet! You are early!” A discreet signal to Hopper sent the butler off for the tea things and she led Kitty over to a sofa. A glance showed Miss Bennet to be without a ring, an heirloom that should be there already, and she shot Cameron a look of concern. He only shrugged, so when his mother noticed Miss Bennet trying to cover up her ripped flounce, she seized the advantage.
“Oh, dear, you cannot go home like that. Whatever will Mr. Darcy think of our Cameron if you do? Come with me. Ellen can sew that up in a trice. Cam, darling, tell Hopper to hold off with tea for about twenty minutes or so, if you please?”
Cameron went to do as he was bid, and Lady Litchcombe escorted Kitty upstairs to a bright, airy bedchamber done in pale blues and greens.
“Do you like it?” the baroness asked girlishly. “I moved in here when Cam inherited the title and he let me decorate it any way I wished.”
Kitty was confused. “But this house was already yours,” she blurted out. “Weren’t you allowed to decorate before?”
“No. His late lordship had made it perfectly clear the house was his and I only lived here because of his largesse. Now, tell me how you enjoyed your drive today…” she asked, changing the subject and fishing for information at the same time. The maid came in and knelt at Kitty’s feet to repair the rip.
“I liked it well enough until we were interrupted, ma’am. Lord Heatherly…”
“Heatherly! That nodcock!” Lady Litchcombe exclaimed. “He is a dear, but he can be rather excitable. Did Cameron tell you about the dinner?”
“No,” came the stiff reply.
“You poor dear. No inkling about the dinner and no pro…”
“No proposal,” Kitty finished for her in a soft voice. She looked at the baroness with tears in her eyes. “All my life, people have been telling me what to do. Or what I cannot. ‘Stop coughing! Find a husband! You can’t go to Brighton!’ This time, I schemed to get myself here and what happens? I’m being told what to do all over again!”
"Oh, my dear Kitty! I may call you Kitty?"
Kitty nodded as Lady Litchcombe dismissed the maid and asked her to return in a few minutes. Leading Kitty over to a lounge, needle and thread trailing behind, she put her arms about the younger lady.
“Cameron and I lived most of our lives being ordered about like so much chattel. As soon as he could, Cam broke away and concentrated on ordering his own life. If you have received no proposal yet, it is not for a lack of his trying, trust me. He, of all people, knows what it is like to make his own decisions and he is determined to let you do the same. He likes you too well to do otherwise.”
“He likes me?”
“Of course he does! But I shall let him have the honor of telling you why. Now, the important question is… will you accept?”
Kitty let out a watery chuckle and wiped her eyes. “Yes, ma’am.”
“It is as I hoped, then. I’ve always wanted a daughter, and I shall be happy to have one as delightful as you.”
“I… I won’t be a very proper baroness,” Kitty stammered.
“Oh, pooh! What is a proper baroness after all? I would rather you be a good wife first.”
“And what if I cannot? I don’t know the first thing about that, either.”
“Not to worry.” Lady Litchcombe patted her hand and called out for Ellen. “Come to me if you have any questions.”
Kitty sagged against her future mother-in-law with relief.
Once back in the drawing room, flounce repaired and full of tea and cake, Kitty remembered to thank Lord Litchcombe for the daffodils.
“I’m so happy to hear you like them,” the baroness said. “I grow them myself. Cam, take Miss Bennet to the conservatory and show her where her flowers came from.”
Cameron could take a hint. He rose and held a hand out to Kitty. “Please?” was all he said. Kitty could not resist and allowed him to keep her hand as they walked to the rear of the house to a warm, humid conservatory.
“My mother’s plants and flowers. She is quite proud of them.” He showed her the flowers, breaking off a stem of them for her before leading her to a small bench situated next to a potted stand of bamboo. “Every time I try to have a conversation with you, we get interrupted. Not this time.”
Kitty smiled serenely, even though she felt a frisson of excitement inside. “Was there something you wished to say, Cameron?”
“You know there is, minx!” He laughed and moved in closer, holding her hand. “I have never met another young lady like you, Miss Bennet. You have captured my imagination from the moment I heard you scheming in front of Miss Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam at the Teaberry ball. Since then I have seen you be kind, devious, resourceful, playful and never at a loss for words. I think you are adorable. And that is why, Miss Catherine Bennet, I would be honored if you would consent to be my wife.”
Kitty dimpled prettily, but her next words were not very pleasant.
“Is this a temporary aberration from your rakish ways, sir, or do you intend to honor your marriage vows?”
“Kitty! Did I not just make myself – nay, my heart – clear?”
“You say I am adorable, but what if I become less so at some point? Will you find someone to take my place? I am not unaware of what makes a rake. Are you willing to give all that up for a monogamous relationship? If not, my answer is no, and my reputation can go hang. I will not consign myself to a faithless marriage on the basis of society gossip.”
“I have no intention of dishonoring any vows, Miss Bennet. What will it take to make you believe it?”
Kitty shrugged. “I have no idea. Do you have a mistress?”
Cameron choked, but he shook his head. “I have not had one for some time.”
“How long?” she demanded.
“Since before we met.” No need to tell her about Mrs. Morris-Smeeth, since that had never come about and wasn’t going to. Ever.
“How long will we be engaged, my lord?”
“Two weeks? Long enough to make plans and short enough to still any wagging tongues.”
Kitty said that was sensible. “And will you dance attendance upon me for the next fortnight, then? I don’t want people saying this is not a friendly match.” It was too soon for her to say “love match,” and she did not want to scare him off, despite the proposal.
“I will do anything you ask, Catherine. Now, will you say ‘yes’?”
“Thank you. You have made me the happiest of men. Will you wear this? It was my grandmother’s ring.” He produced a sapphire flanked by winking diamonds and slid it on her finger. It was slightly loose, but he said he would have it fitted to her as soon as possible. “I shall take you myself and allow you to choose the wedding rings. But for now, we had better return to Mother. She will be on pins and needles waiting to hear how this turned out.”
Kitty paused, staring at the ring. “Did you have this with you at the park?”
“And if I had accepted there, would you have kissed me?”
“Miss Bennet! You shock me! Kiss you in a public place?”
“This is not a public place,” she invited, causing him to laugh out loud.
“I told you that you are a minx. I’m beginning to think you are a vixen!” he teased.
“That is not accomplishing your task, my lord,” she teased back.
Cameron leaned over and brushed his lips against hers.
“You call that a kiss?”
“I did not want to offend your maidenly sensibilities.”
“What good is it to have the reputation of a rake if you do not prove it in this instance? When I am affronted,” she said primly, “I shall let you know.”
There was a long silence while Kitty was the beneficiary of his kissing skills. “Insulted yet?” he finally asked.
Kitty shook her head. She was sure now it was going to take a lot to offend her.
Caroline Morris-Smeeth was not about to take Litchcombe’s defection lying down.
Louisa had thought it fitting, really, that her sister’s plan to disgrace Miss Bennet had backfired. Much resigned to being related to the family by marriage, she was well aware that Charles put much stock in his wife’s siblings, and had striven to be as polite as possible. Caroline, however, despite Louisa’s remonstrations, had other plans.
She had managed to bribe a very junior footman in the Darcy household, and that bright lad had brought her a treasure beyond compare, once she realized what they were.
"What are these?" she had demanded when he had first given her the four letters, all sealed with Mr. Darcy’s crest. "I ask for information and you give me these?" She had received the lad in her boudoir, thinking this made her look very sophisticated and worldly, but now she paced the room, gnawing on one of her expertly shaped fingernails.
"Beg pardon, ma’am. Turn them over and see who they’s addressed to."
She glared, angry at being told to do the obvious, and turned them over. The directions on them made her grin.
"The announcements to the papers! Perfect! Were you the one sent to deliver these?" She didn’t want to lose her informant right off the mark.
"No, ma’am. I knocked Jem out and put him in a stall in the stables, and then pinched them. He don’t know they’re gone yet, and he’ll be too afraid of Mr. Darcy to admit their loss right away."
"Splendid!" She went to her reticule and withdrew a guinea, willing to pay handsomely to learn more. "You are to come to me straightaway as soon as you hear anything new," she commanded.
The lad snatched the coin out of her hand. "Yes, ma’am!"
Once he was gone, Caroline ripped greedily into the letters. What a scandal this would cause, at least for a couple of days until duplicate announcements could be written. She would make sure there would be fresh gossip. After all, what harm did it do to speculate as to why no word of their engagement had yet to be made public? She quit gnawing on her nail and rang for her maid to repair the damage.
Miss Bennet might end up married to Litchcombe, but not without some pain first.
"Bloody hell!" Cameron had opened the Morning Post and scanned it quickly, looking for an important announcement that seemed to be missing from his newspaper. He picked up the Gazette, gave it a glance and again, there was no announcement.
"Cameron?" His mother came into the morning room on the heels of his expletive and frowned.
"What is wrong with Darcy? He said the announcements would be in today!"
"I am certain something must have…" his mother started to soothe, interrupted by a discreet cough. "Yes, Hopper?" The butler was hovering in the doorway, reluctant to let in the figure behind him without approval.
"Mr. Darcy, my lady."
Lady Litchcombe rose and held out a hand to their visitor. "Mr. Darcy! We were just wondering about you."
Darcy bowed and accepted her offer of a chair and a cup of tea, but he waved away any other proposals of food or drink. "I see you have read the papers, Litchcombe. I can only apologize on behalf of one of my servants. He was attacked yesterday and the letters are missing and I was not informed until this morning."
"Oh, dear," the baroness said breathlessly. "Is the man going to be all right? Will another day make any difference in announcing the engagement, do you think?"
"The man is fine, my lady, and normally, another day would not make any difference at all. But today is Wednesday."
The baroness paled. Almack’s assembly was that evening.
"Just so. I had thought to take my sisters, but now I think an alternative plan is in order. Litchcombe – how would you like to visit Hertfordshire? I know a delightful village there and a family named Bennet who would welcome you with open arms… You really should take your mother along, and I have a feeling Miss Bennet is missing her parents."
"And you, Mr. Darcy?"
"I shall attend Almack’s, of course. With my sister."
While Kitty, Lord Litchcombe and his mother made plans to leave town, a countess in Wiltshire had received a letter from her sister in Derbyshire.
"While I am unable to travel, I ask that you and Trowbridge please make a short visit to town and lend our sister as much support as possible…"
Mary nodded in reply to Lizzy’s plea, even though no one else was in the room. She had learned the importance of family the year before and once she read who had caused all the trouble, she knew without a doubt this was something to be handled in person. Mr. Bingley’s sister was not going to attempt to ruin yet another Bennet sister.
"You have a letter?" Simon, Lord Trowbridge, asked as he entered the sitting room that centered their private suite and wrapped his arms around his wife’s waist from behind. Their pug, Bruiser, followed and curled himself around Mary’s feet.
"From Lizzy." She handed the note back to her husband and, stepping over the dog, turned to watch his reaction. When she saw him repeat her previous gestures and echo her sentiments, she was not surprised. In everything, they seemed of one accord.
"Shall we send someone ahead to open the townhouse?" he asked. "And leave tomorrow?"
They had not wanted to go to London for the season, despite Simon’s Parliamentary duties, considering themselves still on their honeymoon. The newlyweds knew, however, that this trip was unavoidable.
"When I get my hands on that Caroline," Mary said forcefully enough to make Bruiser growl, "she is going to wish she had never been born."
The earl, ever in agreement, nodded once more.
A letter from Pemberley reached Longbourn late that afternoon, but was ignored in the face of a trio of visitors of some importance – Kitty had returned and she had brought a gentleman and his mother with her.
Thankfully, Mrs. Bennet’s enthusiasm was curbed by her previous exposure to the dowager Countess of Trowbridge, so she was only mildly effusive to the baroness, much to Kitty’s relief. Litchcombe, however, was potential husband material, and was treated to her most preferential deference.
They were ushered into the parlor and served tea while Hill rushed about preparing rooms for the guests. Kitty had neither the time nor the authority to suggest it, but she rather thought Hill should place them in Jane and Lizzy’s old rooms.
"We are honored by your presence, Lord Litchcombe, Lady Litchcombe," Mrs. Bennet gushed as she poured out for her unexpected, but exalted, guests. "Wherever did you meet our Kitty?" she enquired. "Kitty, go fetch your father. I can’t imagine what is keeping him," she said through clenched teeth.
Kitty did as she was bid, and on the way to his study, snatched up the post to take with her.
Mr. Bennet had ducked back into his private room after greeting everyone initially, but if he was surprised to see Kitty, he gave no indication. As she set the letters down on his desk, Lizzy’s slipped out and caught his attention. However, Kitty’s sigh reminded him that he had other children, and this one in front of him might have something on her mind.
"Oh, Papa!" she suddenly wailed and sat down hard in a chair.
"Now, now, my dear," he said. "I’m sure whatever is wrong cannot be so bad. After all, you did bring a beau home to meet your mother..."
"Not beau, Papa!" she cried, searching her person unsuccessfully for a handkerchief. "Fiance!"
"What?" Mr. Bennet had been about to reach for the square of linen in his pocket, but paused. "I was not aware of any engagement, Catherine." His gaze was not friendly.
"That is why we are here, Papa," she replied, sniffling.
"Suppose you tell me how all this came about, then." He paused once more. "Are you in some sort of trouble, forcing you to marry that Adonis in the other room?"
"Yes, Papa, but not in the way you think," she hastily added. "Honest."
"I’ll take your word for it," he answered dryly.
"I met Lord Litchcombe in London, Papa. You recall that Lady Catherine took us to town?"
He hadn’t – he could have sworn she was at Pemberley with Elizabeth – but he didn’t tell her that.
"One evening, at a ball, I was having a conversation in a private room with Miss Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam, and evidently Lord Litchcombe was in there, hiding in a cupboard." She giggled. "I think he was hiding from Mr. Bingley’s sister."
"Good gracious! Mrs. Hurst?"
"No, Mrs. Morris-Smeeth." They shared a rare look of understanding. Most people of their acquaintance would do the same. "But we did not know he was there. Later, he asked for an introduction. He also offered to help me with a small problem concerning Miss de Bourgh's love life. We became friends," she persevered, "and then, the other evening…" She lapsed back into tears. "Someone started spreading rumors that we were seen leaving that private room together and we were forced to become betrothed.
"I see. And now you have come seeking my blessing?"
"Yes. Also, Mr. Darcy is in town and he sent the announcements to the papers, but they never appeared! So instead of exposing us to more censure, he sent us here."
"Darcy usually knows what he is about, so let us have your young man in here, shall we? No need to announce the happy event to your mother just yet. Will Lady Litchcombe tell her?"
"I am certain she won’t." She was in agreement with her father – let Mama think this a love match as long as possible. Like forever. "Oh, Papa!" she exclaimed, her eyes shining as she fairly danced from the room. "You are going to like Cameron!"
With a return to decorum, she entered the parlor, smiling brightly when Cameron stood.
"Where is your father?" her mother demanded.
"He is in his study and determined to stay there."
"And he wishes to speak to Lord Litchcombe, please."
"Oh! Well, of course he does!" Mrs. Bennet said jovially. Her last unmarried daughter, already in her good graces for bringing a gentleman home, rose another notch – at least – in her mother’s estimation at this news.
Cameron bowed to them all and asked Kitty to lead the way.
"Don’t forget to ask for his lordship’s favorite dishes," Mrs. Bennet called gaily as they headed out of the room.
Cameron chuckled. "Does she ever stop?" he wondered.
"Never," Kitty assured him. "But Papa will be less easy to please, I fear, especially in light of how we met."
"Ahhh. In that case, wish me luck," he requested, swooping down to give her a quick kiss before knocking on the study door and being asked to enter. "And I am quite fond of chicken with mushrooms," he said before stepping into the study and closing the door behind him.
Kitty touched her fingers briefly to her lips, smiled in rather a silly way and went to find Hill.
"Miss Bennet said you wished to speak to me, sir?"
"I think it’s rather you needing to speak to me, isn’t it?" Mr. Bennet replied. "Have a seat. Can I get you a drink?" he offered.
"No, thank you, sir. It is rather early for me to imbibe."
"Do your drinking late in the night and into the wee hours of the morning, do you?"
"I…" Cameron let it go.
"I heard Darcy gives this union his approval. I suppose being in loco parentis for Kitty gives him some authority, but tell me… how in the world could someone come to the conclusion that you and my daughter had been in that room alone together unless they were right outside the door?"
"I’ll be honest, sir – after all, Darcy already knows the details. I was supposed to meet a different lady alone in that room, but your daughter and her friends made it there before her. I can only surmise that she waited outside to see whom I might be sequestered with, and when she saw Miss Bennet, took it rather personally. I believe the lady is the source of the rumors."
"Mrs. Morris-Smeeth. That does put a different spin on this. I am sure you are aware by now that her brother is my son-in-law?"
"Yes, sir. For the record, I have not had any dealings with the lady since then."
"You believe jealousy led to the gossip?"
"Well, for what it’s worth, you have permission to marry my daughter. Make her happy, now, or I’ll tell Bingley about you and his sister."
All the color drained from Cameron’s face. "But that’s just it, sir. I have no intention of taking up with Mrs. Morris-Smeeth, and I have every intention of making your daughter happy."
"You’ll excuse me, my lady, if I see to dinner?" Mrs. Bennet had spent a pleasant time visiting with the baroness, but Kitty had finally returned and she needed to oversee so many things relevant to the baron’s comfort – and his mother’s, too, of course. She also needed to find either Mrs. Long or Lady Lucas (or – joy! – both!) and inform them of her exalted houseguests.
No, better to wait until Mr. Bennet gave Kitty’s hand to Lord Litchcombe, and then she would have such wonderful news! She squealed in delight when Kitty offered, without waiting to be ordered, to take Lady Litchcombe upstairs to her room.
"What a pleasant place!" that lady exclaimed upon entering Jane’s former bedchamber.
"It belonged to my sister Jane, who is now Mrs. Bingley. I thought we could call on her tomorrow. She lives but three miles from here at Netherfield."
"I should like that. Where else would you like us to go while we are here?"
"We should call upon my friend Maria Lucas, and my Aunt Phillips in Meryton would be most put out if we do not see her."
"I will be pleased to do so," Lady Litchcombe warmly replied, having already heard of Mrs. Phillips and the Lucases from Mrs. Bennet. But she was puzzled about one thing. "We have not yet met the Gardiners and we must remedy that when we return to town."
Kitty groaned. She had been so wrapped up in her own affairs, she had forgotten to let Aunt Gardiner know she was in town!
"You dislike them?" the baroness queried, misinterpreting the groan.
"Oh, no! I like them very well!" She was sure that the baroness, after having met her mother and willing to meet Aunt Phillips, would like the Gardiners as much, if not more. "I will introduce you to them as soon as it may be arranged."
Lady Litchcombe smiled brightly. "I look forward to all of it."
Kitty was skeptical and hoped the baroness was this kind after making the neighborhood rounds the next day.
Mr. Bennet announced Kitty’s engagement right before dinner, after which Mrs. Bennet alternated between tears, effusions of joy and fretting over the paltriness of her table in celebrating the happy occasion.
“Five daughters married!” she kept exclaiming. Lady Litchcombe, sitting between her hosts on one side of the table, encouraged Mrs. Bennet to talk about all her daughters, leaving Kitty and Cameron to speak softly between themselves under the watchful eye of Mr. Bennet.
“You have done well, Kitty,” her father said at one point while Mrs. Bennet was waxing eloquent about her middle daughter, the countess. “But I fear Litchcombe is destined to become one of my least favorite sons-in-law, rating up there with Darcy, Bingley and Trowbridge.”
Cameron paled, but Kitty laughed, giving her father hope for her intelligence if she caught his jest.
“Yes, Papa. We know who your favorite son-in-law is.”
“Our dear Mr. Wickham, of course,” Mrs. Bennet said proudly. “I am so sad they are in Newcastle and unable to share this happy day with us.”
Kitty could not share her mother’s sentiments. Lydia, through her letters, proved to be as shallow and as incapable of personal growth as her earlier life had promised.
“We shall invite Jane and Mr. Bingley to dine with us tomorrow,” her mother continued. “Oh, Jane will be so thrilled. Where are your estates, my lord? I do hope they are nearby. Or perhaps you could also take a house in Hertfordshire…”
“We are from Lincolnshire, Mrs. Bennet.”
“Oh, dear! So far away! Further than Mary in Wiltshire, I dare say.”
“We shall be in London for the Season and Parliament, Mama,” Kitty reminded her. Mrs. Bennet brightened.
“Yes, well, that is all to the good. Now, when shall the wedding be? September should be lovely, and then you may travel north from here for the hunting season, my lord.”
“I had thought we would be wed a fortnight from now, Mrs. Bennet,” he said calmly. “In London.”
“What? Catherine Bennet!” Mrs. Bennet’s eyes were wild and she stood up and searched her daughter for signs of indiscretion, as if they would be written all over her child. “You don’t have to be married, do you?” she screeched.
“No, no, Mrs. Bennet,” the baroness soothed, not doubting Mr. Bennet knew the entire story, but reluctant to tell the mother. “But why wait? You and Mr. Bennet will be my guests when you come to London?”
Mrs. Bennet sat down slowly, her expression calculating. “Where do you reside while in Town, Lady Litchcombe?”
That decided it. “We would be delighted to stay with you, my lady.”
“I thought you and I could begin planning the wedding breakfast on the morrow. There is much to decide.”
Mrs. Bennet happily agreed and thought Miss Darcy would make an excellent bridesmaid. Mr. Bennet made a noise in the back of his throat and his wife rose and signaled for the ladies to follow her out of the room. “Because we should leave Mr. Bennet and dear Litchcombe to their port, and we can plan the wedding in peace.”
The next day was a flurry of calls about Meryton and the surrounding area, with Lord and Lady Litchcombe the most accommodating of guests. The fates were on Kitty’s side at their first stop, Netherfield. Everything there was slowly being packed, as the Bingleys had bought an estate not thirty miles from Pemberley. Mrs. Bennet, unhappy at the thought of losing her eldest, took the opportunity to insist the housekeeper take her about.
“For you know there are so many of dear Mr. Bingley’s belongings that must be packed just so,” she said, wanting to keep her hand in the proceedings. Never mind that she did this every time she visited and she had just been over from Longbourn the morning before.
This left Kitty to make introductions, which she did gladly.
Jane, however, barely attended their words. She was staring at the ring on her sister’s hand. Kitty had not worn it in Hertfordshire until the previous night, having decided to wait until the union had her father’s blessing. Her mother had spent much of the evening before in raptures over it, until even polite Lady Litchcombe grew tired of her words.
“I hate to tell her that the original owner of the ring was a famous courtesan,” she had muttered to Kitty.
The ring’s past was not something Kitty would reveal to Jane, either, but she could relate its current history.
“Do you like it, Jane? It is my engagement ring, a present from Lord Litchcombe.”
Jane, unaware of his lordship’s reputation as a rake (and probably not willing to believe it if she knew), nodded happily. She had been worried about Kitty ever since she had received Lizzy’s letter the day before, and had been ready to send Charles to London. A hasty note from her mother, informing her of the guests at Longbourn, waxing poetic about the engagement and inviting the Bingleys to dinner, had relieved her on that point. Now, however, with Kitty officially betrothed, Jane could write to Lizzy with a light heart and not have to send Charles after all.
She gave Kitty a congratulatory hug and offered Lord Litchcombe her best wishes for the future. “I wish now we were not moving so soon,” she said sadly as she settled her guests in the drawing room and rang for refreshments. “We may not be able to travel back here for your wedding.” She alluded, discreetly, to her interesting condition. “Nor will Lizzy.”
“You won’t have to!” Kitty hastened to assure her. “We are to be married in a fortnight in London.”
“You are?” Lizzy seemed to think Kitty needed only to announce her engagement to stem the tide of gossip, but if they were to be married so soon, Jane could only come to the same conclusion as their mother. “You don’t have to be wed that quickly, do you?” she whispered, her cheeks turning pink with embarrassment.
“No…” Kitty struggled for words.
“What Miss Bennet is trying to say, Mrs. Bingley, is that we have decided a prompt wedding will counteract some of the malicious rumors concerning our friendship and subsequent engagement,” Lord Litchcombe coolly interjected. “Otherwise, this would be as normal a courtship as you could ever wish to see.”
The ladies began to speak at once, discussing plans for the happy event, but Kitty could only stare at Cameron. What had he meant by that declaration? Had he seriously considered courtship before the scandal? She did not have time to give it any further consideration. Mrs. Bennet chose that moment to return to their party, telling Jane she must see about purchasing two bronze cupids from Netherfield’s landlord.
“And do find something appropriate for Kitty’s new home,” she urged. “We are to stay with Lady Litchcombe when we come to London for the wedding,” she added, as if to impress her daughter.
“I shall think of something suitable for a gift, Mama,” Jane calmly replied.
“See that you do. What sort of décor do you have, Lady Litchcombe? Not that it matters, naturally. Once my Kitty is the baroness, she will wish to redecorate.”
Kitty had no such intention and she rolled her eyes at the thought. Cameron shot her a sympathetic smile.
“Her Aunt Gardiner knows all the best drapers, upholsterers and warehouses. Oh, and we really should discuss Kitty’s gown for the wedding…”
Lady Litchcombe had been staring out the window at the park surrounding the house, but the moment Mrs. Bennet said ‘gown,’ she entered the fray.
“Miss Bennet, why don’t you show Cameron the park? It’s such a lovely day and there can be no harm in a quick turn about the lawn…”
Kitty gratefully accepted the excuse to leave the room. Mama must have been up all night worrying over wedding dresses, redecorating a house she had not yet seen and packing Jane’s belongings in her mind, because her mother immediately launched into a description of what she thought Kitty’s gown should be. She was glad to make an escape, knowing the gown had already been designed and ordered.
“Before you wonder,” she said to Cameron as soon as they were out of earshot, “none of my sisters will admit to turning into Mama as they grow older, and yet I fear we all shall. You might want to flee now, while you may.”
Cameron only laughed as they headed outdoors, and maintained that she could never turn out exactly like her mother.
“Perhaps not, but it would not surprise me if Lydia did.”
“Lydia… I am unfamiliar with all your sisters. Tell me more about them.”
“Jane, that is, Mrs. Bingley, is the eldest. She is kind and sweet and only sees the goodness in others. Lizzy, Mrs. Darcy, is witty and lively and just a touch cynical, much like Papa. Mary is next. She can be prosy and preachy, but she has been less so since she married Lord Trowbridge.”
“You are next in line?” he asked as they walked hand in hand.
“Yes, and my younger sister, Lydia, is Mrs. Wickham. She was married first, but only because she eloped and caused a great scandal. She brought it on herself, however, which is very different from our situation. I never did anything to whomever sullied my name - and yours!”
This would have been a good time for Cameron to explain the details and tell her why Mrs. Morris-Smeeth was the cause of their betrothal, but she looked so adorable, seething with righteous indignation, and he kissed her instead.
“Why did you do that?” she demanded, taken unawares but not truly affronted.
“Because I felt like it. Get used to that, Miss Bennet. I get these odd notions on the spur of the moment and you will most likely be the recipient.”
“Most likely?” she coyly asked.
“Very likely,” he amended.
“Much better, my lord. And now that I approve, you may make me the recipient once more. After all, we have to return to Mama at some point, and there are two more places to call today. I am going to require some reinforcement.”
“It would be my pleasure.” Cameron kissed Kitty again, in plain view of the drawing room window. Fortunately, Jane was fussing with the tea tray and trying to ignore the argument between her mother and Lady Litchcombe. Mrs. Bennet was giving Lady Litchcombe a jaw-me-dead over already helping Kitty select patterns and material for a wedding gown and trousseau. Lady Litchcombe was staring into space while she waited for Mrs. Bennet to catch her breath. The baroness was the only one who saw her son kiss his intended, and she wasn’t about to alert anyone to that fact. It made Mrs. Bennet’s tirade all the more bearable, knowing those two were well on their way to being a love match.
Not that she was going to back down from Mrs. Bennet, either. Kitty was going to be married in yellow sarcenet and Lady Litchcombe’s grandmother’s veil, and that was that.
While Kitty and the Whitten-Whytes spent the first night of their visit in Hertfordshire, Mr. Darcy and his sister prepared to run the gauntlet for them at Almack’s. Fortunately, they had managed to enlist the aid of their cousins, Colonel Fitzwilliam unbending toward Miss Bennet enough to help her out in this instance. As he did not make any remarks regarding her having orchestrated her own downfall, Darcy accepted his assistance.
Anne was in good looks that evening, he noticed, and Darcy marveled anew at how well the betrothal suited both cousins. Fitzwilliam had already put their announcement in the papers and they all expected it to be a starting point of conversation for those eager to know why a second family engagement had not yet appeared.
"There you are!" Caroline Morris-Smeeth exclaimed the moment she spied the Darcys, making a beeline for them the minute they set food in the assembly rooms. "How is your family?" She looked behind Mr. Darcy and Georgiana, as if searching for Kitty. She smirked when she realized someone had opted out of the evening. "Why, where is Miss Bennet? I thought surely she would be here to explain herself…"
"Miss Bennet is in Hertfordshire," Darcy said.
"Oh?" She gave him a fake smile. Could it be little Miss Bennet had turned tail and run? That she was disgraced forever? It was a delicious thought. "Is it possible she is not betrothed, then?" she asked as innocently as possible.
"Not at all."
"Lord Litchcombe took her and his mother to Longbourn so he could meet her parents," Georgiana chimed in.
Caroline was not quite sure if Miss Darcy sounded smug. She could be mistaken – Georgiana was such a dear, sweet girl. "What a wonderful notion!" she said with another false smile. "Litchcombe and his mother meeting Mr. and Mrs. Bennet…" Her smile grew sly. "I am sure they will be most diverted by the inhabitants of Meryton."
"And Netherfield!" Georgiana said brightly. "Mr. and Mrs. Bingley are so charming."
"I have no doubt Litchcombe and Bingley will get along famously," Mr. Darcy added. "Imagine what they would have to discuss."
Caroline felt the color drain from her face. Surely Litchcombe would not tell Charles of their almost-alliance? Litchcombe would not come across too badly in the telling – not as much as she would. For some unfathomable reason, Charles had been less than his usual, warm, annoying self toward her. As if she had been to blame for her unfortunate marriage. It wouldn’t be fair now if Litchcombe were to make everything worse by opening his mouth.
What in the world had she seen in him in the first place? Well… besides the handsome face and the god-like body… After all, hadn’t he thrown her over almost immediately for Kitty Bennet?
While Caroline was mentally writing off Lord Litchcombe, Sir Justin Evers, Lord Kenneth Moore and Lord Heatherly had all approached and had solicited dances of Miss Darcy carefully from under her brother’s stern gaze.
"And you, ma’am," Lord Kenneth said politely to Caroline. Georgiana stifled a laugh as Mrs. Morris-Smeeth set her sights on the rake.
"For the first dance?" Caroline suggested coyly. He took her hand and brought it to his lips.
Mr. Darcy was eyeing them all with misgivings until his sister slipped an arm through his and beamed at the other gentlemen. "I will gladly give you all dances," she said.
Later, however, when she and Sir Justin had gone for the horrid lemonade served at the assemblies, a pretty young blonde with bouncing curls approached.
"Won’t you introduce your companion, Sir Justin?" she asked, her hair dancing as she looked back and forth between the baronet and Georgiana.
"Miss Darcy, may I present Miss Watkins? Miss Watkins, Miss Darcy."
"Darcy? You are friend to Miss Bennet, then?"
"I am," Georgiana simply replied, not having to guess too hard what the lady’s point might be. "Her sister is my brother’s wife."
"I had thought so – is Miss Bennet with you this evening? I should like to make her acquaintance."
"I am afraid it is impossible to introduce you this evening. She has gone to Hertfordshire."
"Alone? I had heard rumors…" Miss Watkins said slyly. Georgiana wanted to smack that expression off her face.
"If you must know, she was accompanied by Lady Litchcombe and that lady’s son."
"Oh." The wind seemed to have gone out of her sails. Georgiana and Sir Justin exchanged glances. "I had heard… and there was no announcement…"
"Would you become betrothed without your father’s consent?" Georgiana asked pointedly.
"Of course not!"
"Why should Miss Bennet be any different?"
"Because of the scandal!" Miss Watkins blurted out. Sir Justin shook his head.
"You should know better than to listen to gossip, Miss Watkins."
Georgiana had been told recently that the young lady had a tendre for the baronet. She watched smugly as Sir Justin now used this to his advantage.
"Well… My mama…" she tried to explain.
"You could do me a great favor if you tell your mother that Miss Bennet and Lord Litchcombe were never seen in a compromising position, that they are a love match and have gone to her parents for their approval. They will make their announcement in their own time."
Miss Watkins seemed momentarily taken aback by his vehemence, but she finally nodded and flounced off, eager to spread the news.
"Who next?" the baronet asked the shy young lady at his side. In an instant, his smile grew wide. "Shall we say good evening to Lady Jersey?" he asked, offering Georgiana his arm.
"She is rather daunting…" Georgiana stayed out of sight of the patronesses as much as possible. Not only did their top-lofty position in society scare her, but she was always afraid they would find her partners she would be frightened to speak with, let alone dance with. For some reason, however, Lord Litchcombe and his friends did not leave her bereft of things to say.
"Nonsense. You just need to know how to turn the ladies up sweet, and you could do that just by smiling at them. In fact, just smile and follow my lead…"
They approached the dragoness, as Georgiana privately viewed her, and she did as the gentleman had bid. She curtsied low in deference to the older lady’s position and then gave her a wide smile. "Good evening, my lady," she said shyly.
Lady Jersey melted at the sight of the young miss and her handsome escort and she immediately launched into a tale of how society seemed to be so topsy-turvy lately. She finally paused for breath and looked straight at Georgiana.
"And where is Miss Bennet this evening?" she boomed. Heads turned and ears strained to hear the answer to the night’s burning question. "And Litchcombe! They didn’t run off to Gretna did they?" She laughed heartily at her own joke.
"Actually," the baronet said smoothly, "they are visiting Miss Bennet’s parents in Hertfordshire. Miss Bennet could not wait to show Litchcombe and his mother the beauties of her part of the country. Nor would she wish to marry without her parents’ blessings."
Lady Jersey was quiet for a moment, as nonplussed by this answer as Miss Watkins had been. "Well, of course, they will give their blessings! No need to run off to… Hertfordshire, you say? No need at all!"
Sir Justin shrugged, as if it were of no great import either way. "I believe it was the countess’ notion. After all, nothing truly happened at Lady Teaberry’s ball. Miss Darcy and her cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, were also present at the time."
Georgiana smiled brightly on cue and nodded.
"I’m sure Darcy would not be happy if the wrong rumors got about concerning his wife’s sister…"
"I’m sure…" Lady Jersey said. But this was as good as if the scandal had become even jucier. She now had a piece of gossip that others did not, and she could be the first to spread it, not knowing she was the second.
"It is a love match, after all…" Georgiana added for good measure, earning a nod of approval from her escort.
"Are you certain?" the countess asked. "I heard…"
"Oh, no, my lady!" Georgiana protested. "One only has to watch them to realize that the rumors are not quite true."
Lady Jersey could not argue with such sweet sincerity, and she dared not brand Mr. Darcy’s sister a liar. So it must be true. She broke off their conversation to go spread the news and the baronet took Georgiana back to her brother.
"I thought you handled that rather nicely, Miss Darcy," he said as they strolled along the edge of the dowagers to where Darcy had appropriated a chair. Georgiana blushed.
"I have never been so brave in my life," she admitted.
"Oh, come now, Miss Darcy. You are quite brave – it takes courage to stick up for a friend in the face of a scion of London society. And win."
"We did win, didn’t we?" she asked almost incredulously.
"Yes, we did," he laughingly agreed.
She felt him tuck her arm under his just a little tighter, and she blushed again. That would never do. Fitzwilliam would notice in a moment and she could not bear to be parted from Sir Justin over such a minor thing.
"Would you allow me to call on you tomorrow, Miss Darcy?" he suddenly asked. Georgiana looked up in surprise, but she willed herself not to redden.
"Yes. I would like that."
After calling at Netherfield, the party at Longbourn went into Meryton to see Mrs. Phillips. That lady did not say a word when Mrs. Bennet announced that Kitty was to be married in a fortnight, but she looked her niece up and down. She gave Lord Litchcombe a once-over, as well, but Kitty was fairly certain it wasn’t because her aunt thought he was already increasing.
The entire situation was finally declared by Aunt Phillips to be most satisfying, and they were begged to stay another night so that she might give them a party.
With a smoothness Kitty could only admire, Lady Litchcombe declined, but suggested Mrs. Phillips should be informed in advance when her niece next returned to Longbourn so that arrangements could be made at that time.
Much mollified by Lady Litchcombe’s gracious manner, Kitty’s Aunt Phillips said she would be pleased to fete her favorite niece at a later date.
"My sister always gives such delightful parties," Mrs. Bennet assured Lord Litchcombe as they headed to Lucas Lodge. "Everyone attends and there are food, cards and dancing…"
"We shall definitely come to stay before heading to Lincolnshire this summer, ma’am," Cameron politely replied.
Kitty suppressed a smirk. No doubt he would be thrilled to attend a small soiree after months of ton parties in London.
"That reminds me, Cameron," Lady Litchcombe said. "I need to go home in a few weeks and move my belongings into the Dower House."
Kitty and Cameron exchanged alarmed glances, but Mrs. Bennet was all charming solicitude.
"How thoughtful of your ladyship," she said.
Kitty flushed, sure her mother was even now calculating how long it would be before she visited the newlyweds to count the silver. She was probably planning a whirlwind tour of England, with stops to see children and new grandchildren in Wiltshire, Derbyshire, wherever Jane was moving, Lincolnshire and Newcastle.
"I am looking forward to the Dower House, actually," Lady Litchcombe assured her son and his betrothed. "After all, a fifteen-room house is nothing to shake a stick at. I shall be close enough to help out as needed, but still able to go off to my own home."
Mrs. Bennet nodded her approval, even as she wondered how large the manor must be with a dower house that size.
Conversation became centered around Lincolnshire once more when they called on the Lucas family. After everyone had been introduced and Mrs. Bennet was allowed to gloat over Kitty’s engagement once more, Lady Lucas insisted Lord and Lady Litchcombe see her prize tulips.
"And what, pray tell, does that have to do with Kitty’s engagement?" Mrs. Bennet snapped.
"Lincolnshire is a large supplier of bulbs," Lady Litchcombe patiently explained. "We also specialize in peas and beetroot."
"You’ll never get Kitty to touch a beetroot," Mrs. Bennet insisted.
"Actually, it is Lydia who dislikes them so, Mama," Kitty said.
She had been glad to see Jane and Mr. Bingley this visit, and know they were to dine that evening at Longbourn; she was pleased to introduce Cameron and his mother to the Lucases and Aunt Phillips; she was thrilled to have a ring to wave under Maria’s nose. But if she did not have all these people acting as buffers, she was sure she would have already strangled her mother!
The day after Kitty returned to London, she had the satisfaction of reading about her engagement in the newspapers. She knew she would also be charged with welcoming a variety of friends and family to Mr. Darcy’s townhouse. But first there was a letter from Lizzy that had to be read.
It had been waiting for her at the breakfast table, along with a letter each for Darcy and Georgiana.
Mr. Darcy put his in a pocket for a later, more private, perusal, but Kitty and Georgiana broke into theirs immediately. Kitty did so only because she was certain it contained a bear-garden jaw, and the sooner she got it out of the way, the better. She was pleasantly surprised, then, when her sister’s missive only congratulated her on her upcoming marriage, asked her to enjoy her engagement and not to keep Mr. Darcy too long so that he could be restored to Pemberley.
“His steward is quite bereft without his expert directives,” Lizzy teased, bringing a chuckle to Kitty’s lips.
“She is trying to tell me not to detain her husband much longer without making me feel too guilty,” Kitty told the Darcys, who had looked up at her laugh. “And you, Georgiana… Will you return to Derbyshire with your brother or shall you stay in town?”
“I have been invited to stay at Rosings to keep Anne company until her wedding, which is to be in June. Our cousin,” she happily added, “is to be assigned to take command of the militia in Kent. I cannot imagine how he managed that,” she said with a smile.
“How convenient,” Kitty agreed. It seemed everyone would be settled, at least temporarily. “I will have to see what I can do about traveling to Kent at that time. Come August, most likely, I will be in Lincolnshire.” She was a bit frightened by the prospect, having never managed a household before. She made a mental note to ask questions and advice of Lizzy, Jane, Hill and Lady Litchcombe, whose house it had been for so many years. She set her thoughts aside as Georgiana asked what she was to wear to Lord Heatherley’s dinner party, and whom she thought might call that day.
“I cannot imagine who might,” Kitty replied. She hoped one of the callers would be her Aunt Gardiner, because she had remembered to send her a note saying she was in town.
As it was, Mrs. Gardiner came to call on her first, not only because she had received her niece’s note, but she had also seen the announcement in the Times. She arrived at the same time as Mary and Lord Trowbridge, and it was a joyous reunion not only for Kitty, but Georgiana, as well.
“How do you like being betrothed?” Aunt Gardiner asked Kitty quietly as Georgiana and Mary resumed their friendship of the year before. The earl, knowing he would be happier in a more masculine setting, had said all the right things to each lady before heading off to Mr. Darcy’s study.
“I like it well enough, Aunt, but I am completely terrified of being a wife!”
“What exactly are you worried about?” Mrs. Gardiner took Kitty’s hand and gave it a squeeze.
“Everything! How am I going to manage a house? What am I going to do with myself during the day? What about…” Her voice dropped to a whisper, even though it was unnecessary. Mary and Georgiana were in their own little world. “What about nights? I don’t dare voice my questions in a letter…”
“I doubt Lydia would mind,” Mrs. Gardiner acerbically replied.
“I wouldn’t ask her at any rate!” Kitty said hotly. “Can you imagine her answers?”
“I can.” Her aunt’s voice dripped with sarcasm.
“And I! I had thought to apply to Lizzy – she speaks her mind and she would not steer me wrong, but it occurred to me that she no doubt had some excellent, older counsel, and I do not mean Mama or Aunt Phillips.”
“I should hope not, for Mr. Darcy’s sake,” Mrs. Gardiner murmured.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Are you, perchance, asking for my advice?” her aunt teased.
Kitty was relieved. “Yes, Aunt, I am.”
“Then you shall have it. We’ll arrange for a private coze tomorrow, when you call. I doubt Mr. Darcy would appreciate his sister listening in, however, so do come with just your maid.”
“I’m sure Georgiana would be interested,” Kitty said innocently.
“If she wants my advice, she will have to become betrothed first, and then she shall have to ask for it. In the meantime, you will be glad you came alone, if only so you may ask your questions freely.”
“Thank you!” Kitty’s gratitude was written all over her face.
Because all the callers were family, or soon to be family, Kitty asked her sister and aunt to stay when Lord Litchcombe and his mother were announced.
The countess was delighted to meet not only the sister of her future daughter, but was even happier to be introduced to Mrs. Gardiner.
“I have heard so much about you!” Lady Litchcombe exclaimed, embracing the other woman as if they were already family. The ladies were quickly drawn into conversation between themselves, leaving Kitty and Georgiana to entertain Lord Litchcombe and Mary. To Kitty’s consternation, however, Mary drew Litchcombe away for her own little interrogation. Kitty prayed her sister had outgrown some of her sermonizing.
“We have been invited to attend Lord Heatherley’s party,” Mary said to the baron. “But I fear the Bennet contingent will outnumber everyone else.”
“I welcome the chance to meet so many of Miss Bennet’s family, immediate and extended, and as Heatherley holds your sister in some esteem, I see no problem with a largesse of Bennets.”
“And how has Kitty managed to earn his lordship’s regard?” she wondered.
“By managing to hold the interest of his confirmed bachelor friend.”
“Oh? I suppose you are put off by my queries, my lord,” she said, “but I wish to assure myself that my sister is making a love match.” She did not wish to see Kitty follow in Lydia’s footsteps for several reasons, the least of which was to keep her sister from becoming an emotional burden on the family. From all accounts, Litchcombe had plenty of the ready, which would keep her in comfort. But did he love her?
“I can give you my solemn vow, Lady Trowbridge, that this is, indeed, a love match. Had not certain rumors been spread, this would still have come about, perhaps with just a little less haste.”
Mary’s smile was wide. “You don’t know how pleased I am to hear it. Does she know this?”
“Not yet, but she will.”
Mary leaned over and patted his hand. “Then until that time, it shall be our secret.”
Kitty watched Mary and Litchcombe and wondered what in the world they had in common. Beside herself… oh, dear!
“Despite anything she has said, I do not snore, nor do I slurp my soup!”
“I am sure you do not,” Litchcombe said in an attempt to placate his betrothed. “Nor do you have warts, I’m sure,” he teased, winking at Lady Trowbridge.
“I’m sure I – Mary!”
“You used to!”
“That was Lydia! She is also the one who switched you because you would not push her in the swing.”
“When you were children?” Litchcombe inquired, much amused.
“Three years ago!” Kitty said. “And it was most ridiculous of her – she is the tallest and there was no need for her to be pushed at all.” But that was Lydia for you, always wanting someone to take care of her every whim.
“I remember that you pulled her off me even before Lizzy and Jane could interfere,” Mary said softly, as if seeing the incident for the first time.
“Lydia could be good company, but she is extremely selfish,” Kitty said.
“We should talk about something else, perhaps? Our sister would not appreciate us showing her in a poor light to such a handsome man.”
Litchcombe blushed at Mary’s frank comment, and Kitty giggled.
“Tell me more about Miss Bennet as a child,” the earl begged of Mary. Georgiana seconded his request.
“Yes, tell us more,” Lord Trowbridge added. He and Mr. Darcy had come in together and Kitty’s host was greeting Mrs. Gardiner and Lady Litchcombe.
“I was the quiet one,” Mary said innocently.
“Not when it came to ringing a peal over my head!” Kitty protested.
“Girls!” Mrs. Gardiner said with a laugh. “They were normal little girls, sirs, as were Jane, Lizzy and Lydia. Jane was perhaps a bit more angelic than the rest… When she was very small, Kitty was always asking questions. ‘Why is the sky blue? Why is the grass green?’ I understand Lizzy was much the same,” she said for Mr. Darcy’s benefit.
“I have always looked to books for information,” Mary said.
“And I have a hefty addition to my library to prove it,” Trowbridge replied. Everyone laughed.
Mrs. Gardiner said it was time she must leave, and invited everyone to dinner in Gracechurch Street soon. They all willingly accepted the invitation.
Lord and Lady Trowbridge were the next to begin an extended leave-taking, but were forestalled by the unexpected appearance of Mr. Bingley, whom they all believed to be in Hertfordshire, and his sister, Mrs. Morris-Smeeth.
Kitty and Litchcombe exchanged grimaces before putting on polite expressions, but it was not necessary, as she cut them completely, as well as the Trowbridges, to speak directly to Georgiana. That left Miss Darcy, who had no wish to speak to her, to deal with the lady alone.
“Darcy!” Mr. Bingley called. “Litchcombe! Trowbridge, how nice to see you again. Lady Trowbridge…” He greeted Mary with a kiss on her cheek. “Could I trouble you gentlemen for a quick conversation in another room?”
The men nodded, although Darcy knew from long experience that nothing was ever quick with his friend, and they left the room, making their apologies to the ladies as they went.
“I wonder what that is all about?” Kitty mused.
“From all I have heard, it is bound to concern Mrs. Morris-Smeeth,” Mary softly replied. She gave her sister a serene smile, not upset in the slightest by that woman’s snub. Neither cared if she greeted them or not, but they felt horrid about leaving her to Georgiana.
“What brings you to town, Charles?” Darcy asked once they had settled in front of the study hearth.
“Caroline. I’ve heard some very disturbing news and Jane – and, incidentally, Louisa – think she needs supervision.” The others nodded, which startled Bingley. “What? Does everyone already know?”
“Calm yourself,” Darcy advised. “None of us is a gossipmonger and we’ve all, even Litchcombe, done what we can to keep this entire situation within the family.”
“But she has done her best to ruin Miss Bennet’s reputation!”
“True,” Litchcombe agreed. “It is not, however, common knowledge that your sister instigated the entire situation. Unfortunately, only her husband has the right to take a horsewhip to her.”
They all chuckled at the picture that conjured in their minds, even Trowbridge.
“So where is this husband of hers?” he asked. Litchcombe shrugged, Darcy looked at Bingley and Bingley stared back.
“I take it, then, a trip to Essex is in order?” he meekly suggested.
“I’m afraid so.” Darcy clapped his friend on the shoulder. “I’m sure you are up to it.”
“Well, well…” Colonel Fitzwilliam drawled from the doorway, interrupting Bingley’s reply. “It’s a conclave of the Bennet husbands. The good ones, anyway,” he amended.
“We’re just hiding out from the ladies,” the earl said with a wink. “And I understand congrats are in order, Fitzwilliam.”
The colonel nodded. “This summer in Kent. I know everyone will be invited. It will be in June, Litchcombe, so you will be able to return to London afterwards to finish Parliament for the season. But tell me… what is of such import that you have to hide from the ladies?”
“I have to travel to Essex to discuss a matter with my brother, Mr. Morris-Smeeth,” Charles said dejectedly.
“I wondered when we were going to get around to settling this,” the colonel said tightly.
“We?” Bingley queried.
“Why not? We are all family, or near enough.”
“Are you volunteering, then, to accompany him?” Darcy asked.
“Why not? If I can get the leave, I would be more than happy to offer my company.”
That settled the matter for the moment and they all drank to that before heading back to the drawing room and the ladies.
"You are looking rather pale today, Kitty," her Aunt Gardiner told her when she called the next day. Kitty wanted to retort that her aunt would be, as well, if she were coming to ask such personal questions. She politely refrained. After all, Aunt Gardiner was graciously sharing time and knowledge. Kitty just wished she did not feel so nervous.
"No need to be anxious, my dear," her aunt said, correctly reading her mood. "I only hope my little bits of advice help you through the first few days of marriage."
"No one knows why I am here, do they?" Kitty whispered. She would die of shame if her uncle knew, and she had slipped out of the house early to avoid lengthy explanations to Mr. Darcy and Georgiana.
"This is just between the two of us," her aunt assured her. "Your uncle is at his warehouse and the children are about their lessons. No one even knows you have come to call." She led Kitty into a parlor and asked the maid to bring some tea. After they were settled with refreshments and the maid had gone away, Mrs. Gardiner looked at her niece with some interest.
"What do you wish to know?"
"Your mother... She must have explained some of it, obviously."
Kitty blushed. "Yes, aunt, but I don't understand certain, er, things I have not yet experienced."
"Of course you don't." She gave her niece a detailed description of the information she sought and was hard-pressed not to laugh at the expression on Kitty's face.
"It sounds rather disgusting," Kitty said, making a face. "As well as painful." Her aunt chuckled, but kindly.
"I think once you get past the first few times, you will find it more pleasurable. And sometimes..." Her voice dropped low. "It can even be fun."
"Fun?" Kitty was taken aback. "But Mama said..."
"I am sure I have an idea what your mother said. I thought that was the reason you came to me." It was a gentle rebuke. "I think you can discount anything she said about lying back in the dark and thinking of England."
"How did you..."
"I've spoken to Jane and Elizabeth, remember?"
Mrs. Gardiner snorted. "That one could probably tell me a thing or two."
"She is rather smug about it," Kitty agreed. "Thank you very much, aunt, for your information. Shall I tell you what I think about it after I've done that a couple of times?"
Her aunt turned bright red. "Er, no, I think not."
That next evening was the Heatherly dinner party. Kitty and Georgiana had given much thought to their appearance. Sir Justin Evers was to be a guest and Kitty could not help but tease Georgiana just a little.
"He's quite handsome, isn't he?" she said with a sly look at her friend. Their maid worked on their toilettes in unison in Kitty's room.
"I do not think of him as other than a friend. Will you be calling at Gracechurch Street again this week?" she asked in an attempt to change the subject. "I like playing with your cousins."
Kitty knew Georgiana had been put out about not being invited to visit the Gardiners the day before, and offered an olive branch. "We could go together on Thursday, if you like, and we have been invited to dine there on Friday."
Georgiana said she was looking forward to both visits and they finished dressing in companionable silence.
The drawing room at the duke's palatial London mansion was far from quiet, but even Georgiana had to smile when she encountered the sea of friendly faces. There was not a stranger to be found.
Lady Litchcombe, as hostess, came forward to greet Kitty and the Darcys.
"You remember His Grace from Almack's," she said, leaving Darcy to join the other gentlemen as she reacquainted the young ladies with Heatherley's father.
"My felicitations, Miss Bennet," he said, bowing over her hand. "You have managed to rein in an elusive bachelor. I, for one, am pleased to see it happen. After all, can the same fate be far behind for his friends?"
Kitty smiled. "It might be an interesting occupation, making an attempt to see such a thing occur."
"Perhaps the next to fall could be my son, then. I'm not getting any younger, and every gentleman wishes to see the continuance of the family."
"Not the title?" Kitty asked.
The duke laughed. "That is important, but tends to take care of itself once the other is settled."
"And if Lord Heatherley presented you with only granddaughters? I know too well the problems caused by the absence of a male heir on entailed estates."
"I should love to have granddaughters! They would be well provided for and the title can return to the crown."
"A refreshing approach, Your Grace."
"I am noted for my eccentricities," he admitted modestly.
"You would not wish to see the title revert to the crown!" Lady Litchcombe exclaimed.
"As long as the family was well provided for..."
It did not take long for Lords Heatherley and Litchcombe to step into the discussion that ensued between the duke and the baroness.
"Not that old wheeze about the title again!" the marquess said with a groan. "Come, Miss Darcy. Justin says you play the pianoforte. Will you come settle a debate on Mozart for us, please?" Georgiana agreed and allowed herself to be escorted away.
Litchcombe, in the meantime, had led Kitty over to a footman with a tray of sherry and procured her a drink. "You look absolutely stunning this evening, Miss Bennet."
Kitty beamed. She did look especially fetching in palest pink, and her silk evening gown was of a modest, but modish, cut. The maid had pinned a tiny pink and white orchid in her hair and pearls hung from her ears and neck. "Thank you, my lord. You are not so difficult to look upon yourself." She made a mental note to always have him dress in black and white dinner clothes. His fair hair and blue eyes were a perfect foil for the plain clothes Beau Brummel had declared de rigueur for fashionable gentlemen.
"You must not monopolize your future wife," Heatherley teased, taking Kitty's hand and tucking it up under his arm. "Enough time for that after next week. Besides, Cam, I would like Miss Bennet to introduce me to her family," he said hastily when the baron glared at him.
"I would be honored, my lord. You do not know Lord Trowbridge?" she asked as they strolled over to where Mary and Simon had just come in. She made the introductions and then they all joined Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, where Heatherley was introduced all over again.
Kitty then found herself bringing her sister and brother Trowbridge over to the duke, amazing herself with the ease at which she made more introductions. It was while the duke and Simon discussed the dowager countess and her pugs that the Hursts and Mrs. Morris-Smeeth arrived. Kitty had not realized they had been invited, but supposed it stood to reason. After all, Mr. Bingley was to come, but he had been called out of town.
"My dear baroness," Mrs. Hurst cooed as she came into the room and approached Lady Litchcombe. "How lovely of you to invite us this evening! We are practically family, you know." She gave Kitty a gracious smile. "But I do wish our brother could be here." She turned to Kitty and addressed her as a real person for the first time ever. "So strange. He hurries up to Town and then disappears almost as soon as he arrives."
She clearly expected Kitty to know the meaning of it all, but Kitty only shrugged and commiserated with the lady. "Who can understand the male mind?" Kitty said to both ladies and they all laughed. "Especially when one is expecting a certain blessed event."
"I am so longing to become an aunt!" Mrs. Hurst admitted in a whisper. A dinner party was not the place to speak of such things. She tucked her arm into Kitty's and walked them over to an empty sofa, nodding greetings along the way. "Aren't you? And you shall be one several times over," the lady said with relish. It was the most animated Kitty had ever seen Mrs. Hurst.
Louisa Hurst waved Georgiana over, completely ignoring her own sister, who was being handed a sherry by Lord Kenneth Moore. "Here is someone else who must be happily anticipating an interesting event!"
Georgiana smiled shyly and allowed that she was. "Although I shall be in Kent until after my cousin's wedding."
"Is that still going to happen?" Mrs. Hurst cast a furtive glance over to where Mr. Darcy was conversing with his aunt and cousin. "Caroline told me the colonel has run out of town and has no intention of returning."
Kitty and Georgiana exchanged shocked looks. Kitty hadn't even realized the colonel was out of town until that moment, not having been privy earlier to Lady Catherine tendering her nephew's regrets.
"Where did she hear such a thing? There is absolutely no truth in that rumor, Mrs. Hurst and I beg you not to repeat it," Georgiana pleaded.
"I haven't!" Louisa assured them. "I only heard it on the way here and even then I thought it best to tell you first."
Kitty was impressed. When had Mrs. Hurst become a nice person?
"I shall tell Caroline her source is wrong and malicious. But where is the colonel, if he is not out of town?"
"He is out of town," Georgiana said softly. "But expected back before Miss Bennet's wedding."
And not a moment too soon, Kitty thought with some relief, if Caroline sought to spread more rumors. But whom to tell? Her gaze went immediately to Lord Litchcombe.
Of course! Not only was he able to take care of such a problem, but Kitty actually felt warm all over with the thought that such a man was going to be hers by the end of the next week. How wonderful to know there was someone to champion you when there was cause. She knew this was true - he had already done so for her.
Excusing herself from Mrs. Hurst and Georgiana, Kitty strolled around the room, exchanging a few quips with Lord Heatherley here, making a polite curtsey to Lady Catherine there, slowly working her way to where Cameron now stood with Mr. Darcy. Even better.
Cameron took her hand and tucked it into his arm as she greeted them both, and did not allow her to remove it. Not that she wished to.
"I've been watching you make your way over here," he said with a warm smile. "Do you have news or did you just wish for my company?"
"Both." Mr. Darcy was about to move on, no doubt thinking they needed a few moments of private conversation, but Kitty touched his arm with her free hand. "Please stay, Mr. Darcy. You should hear this."
“Something has happened?” Cameron asked, concerned.
“Not yet. Mrs. Hurst has told Georgiana and I about a rumor she learned from her sister. She was told that Colonel Fitzwilliam has quit town to avoid marrying Miss de Bourgh.”
Darcy’s eyes narrowed as he glanced briefly at Mrs. Morris-Smeeth, being paid court to by Lord Kenneth. At least that is what it seemed like to Kitty. They were off to one side and she was laughing over whatever he was whispering in her ear.
“Where would she have heard such a thing?” Cameron asked.
“Who said she heard it?” Kitty said calmly. “Would it surprise any of us if she was the one who thought it up?”
“We cannot prove such a thing, and we could not do anything here, of course…” Mr. Darcy said.
“Of course,” the other two agreed.
“The Colonel and Bingley aren’t even expected back any earlier than tomorrow,” Cameron remarked.
“If that soon. Who knows what tactics they will have to employ,” Mr. Darcy replied.
Kitty had no idea what they were talking about, except that it seemed the colonel was indeed out of town on business with Mr. Bingley.
The butler appeared at the drawing room door at that point and they were forced to give up their speculation as Lady Litchcombe directed them all into the dining room.
The meal started out innocently enough, with more thought put into showing deference to age than position. The duke sat at the head of the table, Lady Catherine on his right, Mrs. Gardiner on his left. Although Mary, as a countess, should, by rights, sit in Lady Catherine’s place, Lady Litchcombe had announced outright that this was a family dinner and no one was to be overly concerned with where they had been placed. Mary did not seem put out.
Kitty had no complaints, either. Seated on her left was Lord Litchcombe and on her right was Mr. Hurst. A few comments placed here and there in between refills of his wine glass and she could devote the rest of her time to Cameron.
She was seated in the middle of the table, with Georgiana directly across from her, and had a good view of Mr. Darcy on his sister’s left, Mrs. Morris-Smeeth just beyond him. Caroline had already continued her flirtation with Lord Kenneth, and it was drawing disapproving stares from Lady Catherine, on Lord Kenneth’s left.
“Some of us would like to enjoy our soup,” that lady said stiffly when Caroline and Lord Kenneth broke out into raucous laughter.
Kitty, who had been eating her soup with one hand in Cameron’s lap, glanced down the table at her future mother-in-law, who was frowning. Evidently her intention to keep Mrs. Morris-Smeeth away from certain people had backfired. Who knew she and Lord Kenneth would decide to flirt?
Kitty turned back to the others. Lady Catherine was glaring over at Mrs. Morris-Smeeth, who was haughtily ignoring her. Everyone else had their heads buried in their bowls, hoping the contretemps would blow over.
“At least now I know why Darcy and Mr. Bingley went to so much trouble to put Mrs. Morris-Smeeth and that nasty little vicar of hers into a compromising position,” Lady Catherine remarked conversationally to the duke. “Otherwise she would have half the male hands in London up her skirts. Such as Lord Kenneth is mentally doing this very moment.”
“I say!” Lord Kenneth exclaimed, blushing as if he had, indeed, been doing that. Caroline stood up from her place, her chair falling backwards behind her.
“If I were a man I would call you out for that!” she retorted over the top of Lord Kenneth’s head. “It’s not true, is it, Mr. Darcy? That nasty little vicar accosted me on his own accord and you and my brother just happened to…” Caroline suddenly deflated, as if the truth of that night had finally sunk in.
“It was nothing more than you deserved,” Mary said suddenly from the other side of Cameron. “After all, you lied to me when you said you and Trowbridge were betrothed.”
“And then you spread false rumors concerning Miss Bennet,” Cameron added. “Forcing her into a hasty betrothal. I wouldn’t be surprised if you are the reason Darcy’s announcements to the newspapers went awry.”
“What if I did…” Caroline sneered. “I have to hold my own around you people!”
“And now you are trying to start gossip concerning my daughter,” Lady Catherine interjected, not wishing to be left out.
Kitty looked sharply at Georgiana, who sat with an innocent look on her face. The faint glimmer of a halo seemed to sit askew on her golden head. The rest of them stared at Mrs. Morris-Smeeth for answers, but were rewarded only with the flinging open of the dining room doors and a booming voice.
Caroline blanched when a deep, booming voice bellowed out her name. “Harriet?”
Harriet? Kitty turned to her left as a large, burly woman bounded into the room, the weight of her walk shaking the crystal drops on the candelabra.
“Caroline!” the woman called in a sing-song voice, as if she were coaxing her to come to her. “I heard you have been a naughty girl…”
“Who the devil is she?” Cameron whispered to Kitty.
“I have no idea.”
“I don’t like it when you have been naughty,” the big woman called. The wine in their glasses danced about at her passing. Caroline looked like a cornered animal.
“I’ve been a good girl, Harriet,” Mrs. Morris-Smeeth insisted. “Ask anyone! Ask… Miss Darcy!” She pointed to Georgiana and Harriet stopped behind the girl’s chair.
“My brother doesn’t like it when his wife is bad, Miss Darcy. And when he is unhappy, I am unhappy. You don’t want me unhappy, do you?”
“N-n-n-no,” Georgiana stuttered. Everyone else was quiet. Even Lady Catherine had been cowed into silence.
Kitty was able to study Miss Morris-Smeeth (as she guessed that lady’s identity to be) from across the table. Harriet was the perfect name for her. The woman had a wealth of dark hair, all scraped back into a serviceable bun at the top of her head, and a mustache. Kitty shuddered to think what the lady looked like in evening dress, with short sleeves and decolletage.
“So I’m asking, Miss Darcy. Has Caroline been a good girl?”
“N-n-n-no,” Georgiana admitted honestly. “S-s-s-she s-s-started rumors about my cousin and my sister.”
Kitty approved of leaving Mary and Trowbridge out of this. That had happened the previous year before Mrs. Morris-Smeeth’s marriage.
“That is what I heard,” the prizefighter-built woman behind her bellowed, causing Georgiana to jump three inches. “Now, come along, Caroline.” She rubbed her hands together gleefully and Kitty suppressed a smirk. “Time to go home.”
“No!” Caroline shouted. “I won’t go!” She grabbed Mr. Darcy by the arm. “Don’t make me go back there! You don’t know how I am mistreated! I’m not allowed to spend money on new clothes, I have to visit the poor…” She made a face. “I have to attend church almost every day and…” She cringed. “I have to spend my nights with Mr. Morris-Smeeth.”
Several people, trying to appear unconcerned about this entire matter, put their soup spoons down at that point, having met the vicar.
“Come along, Caroline,” her sister-in-law said more forcefully. She took Caroline by the hand and led her from the room. Lady Litchcombe’s chair quivered as the vicar’s sister strode by. “I promise you won’t have to milk the cows if you go quietly…” They disappeared from view.
Silence prevailed. Judging everyone to have either finished their soup or no longer interested in it, Lady Litchcombe rang for the fish course.
“I don’t understand how Miss Morris-Smeeth knew Caroline required retrieving,” Georgiana admitted once the ladies had adjourned to the drawing room after dinner.
“Mr. Bingley and the colonel,” Anne said. “They went to Wessex to discuss her removal from town, and I imagine Miss Morris-Smeeth was sent to take care of the problem.”
Mrs. Gardiner, now aware of what was happening at what was turning into one of the more entertaining dinner parties she had attended, chuckled. “Who would dare oppose such a woman if she decided to take matters into her own hands?”
“Not Mr. Bingley!” Kitty said with a laugh. “Can you imagine the discussion she must have had with the colonel?” Even Lady Catherine smiled grimly at that thought.
Mrs. Hurst was quiet through all this, and Lady Litchcombe asked if perhaps she wished to lie down somewhere after such a dramatic scene. “You must be worried for your sister,” the baroness said soothingly.
“Did you see the muscles in that woman’s arms?” Louisa Hurst whispered. “I’ll wager she could lift a cow over her head!”
“And toss it into the next pasture,” Mary murmured to Kitty, who had to stifle a snort.
“You seem overwrought, Mrs. Hurst,” Lady Litchcombe kindly continued. “Can I get you something?”
“Brandy would be nice. I just cannot believe there are such large, hairy women like that! Imagine!” Louisa started to laugh, a sound that was slightly tinged with hysteria. “Can’t you picture Caroline trying to milk a cow?” she asked Lady Litchcombe.
The baroness hastened back with the brandy, but Mrs. Hurst waved it away. She was too occupied in laughing.
Quiet, little-girl giggles suddenly erupted from Georgiana. “Or gathering eggs?” she suggested.
Lady Litchcombe chuckled. “Beating rugs?” Everyone snickered.
“Sewing sheets?” Mary offered.
“Baking biscuits…” Anne said.
Louisa Hurst was laughing so hard, she was in tears.
“Shaving both their faces?” Kitty asked with a grin. They were all laughing now.
“Weeding a garden,” Mrs. Gardiner added.
“Bearing children!” Lady Catherine declared, which sent them all into fresh whoops.
That was how the gentlemen found them – the brandy decanter in Lady Litchcombe’s hand and all the ladies leaning against each other, attempting to catch their breath. Even Lady Catherine had unfurled her fan and was using it vigorously. Kitty thought perhaps she was smiling behind the black lace, but she wasn’t sure.
Their merriment seemed to set a gayer tone for the rest of the evening, and after the younger ladies and a couple of the gentlemen provided musical entertainment, the company began to break up for the night.
Cameron took Mr. Darcy aside, and, moments later, Mr. Darcy and his sister left without Kitty.
“We shall escort you home soon, Miss Bennet,” Lady Litchcombe assured her. “I’ll allow you and Cameron a few moments, then, while I speak with the duke.” She quit the room, leaving Kitty alone with her betrothed.
“It has been some evening, hasn’t it?” Cameron asked with a laugh. “I’m not so sure even Mrs. Morris-Smeeth deserves such a fate as she will no doubt receive.”
Kitty shrugged, not inclined to be so generous. “I daresay, but only as long as she has to milk the cow." They grinned at each other.
“I would not expect you to do that in Lincolnshire,” he said, putting his hands on her shoulders.
“You don’t know how relieved I am to hear it. My duties won’t be too onerous, will they?” She blushed, recalling her intimate conversation with her aunt. She somehow doubted those would be so.
“I’d like to think they won’t,” Cameron replied, wondering at her sudden blush. “It won’t take an intelligent female like yourself long to learn how to run the household, and the neighbors and tenants are all basically congenial.”
Kitty warmed under his compliment. She was not used to being referred to as intelligent. “Leaving me plenty of time to tend to my lord’s wants and needs?”
Cameron got it this time, and his eyes gleamed bright blue. “Something of that nature.
“Is that a duty I can begin to work on right now?” She stepped in closer, the urge to be held in his arms overwhelming. It occurred to her suddenly that on her side, at least, this marriage was going to be a love match.
“I can’t think of a better time to start…” Kitty was folded into his arms and kissed thoroughly, a foretaste of things to come. At least she hoped so.
Life became much more hectic after that, with the wedding looming. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet arrived from Longbourn and stayed with Lady Litchcombe. Kitty was thankful for the couple of hours of peace in the Darcy household every morning until her mother would invade. Then it was off on a whirlwind of shopping with a bevy of female relatives, including Mary, Aunt Gardiner and Lady Litchcombe. Fortunately, her aunt and Cameron’s mother were voices of reason in the face of her own mother’s tendency to go overboard.
If Mrs. Bennet thought Kitty should buy linens, Lady Litchcombe was there to gently remind her that Litchcombe House and the Lincolnshire estate were well stocked. If Kitty’s mama said she should have more than several filmy nightdresses, Mrs. Gardiner would take her sister aside and say a few words. A blushing Mrs. Bennet would allow that Kitty, most likely, would not require more than three.
And the wedding presents flowed into Litchcombe House and the Darcy residence like water.
Lady Jersey sent a silver platter with entwined C’s engraved in its center; Beau Brummel, to Kitty’s amazement, gave them a pair of crystal candlesticks; and even the Prince Regent was represented. He gave them a complete set of china with an oriental design. Cameron thought perhaps the set had been destined for the Marine Pavilion in Brighton. He and Kitty had them shipped north to the manor, as they had done with most of the gifts.
Lady Catherine gave them a ceramic vase so hideous in design, they consigned it to one of the guest rooms in the London townhouse, and Lady Litchcombe was the one who thought the huge silver epergne from one of her relatives should stay in town.
“When Cousin Bertha comes to dine, you can place it, and her, in the center of the table and use large pineapples to block her from view.”
“Cousin Bertha still wears her hair high and powdered,” Cameron explained to Kitty, who had to laugh.
“You will see her at the wedding,” Lady Litchcombe had warned, “and after you return from Brighton,” where they were to spend two weeks, “we shall have a family dinner and put those pineapples to the test.”
Mr. Bingley had gone to Hertfordshire to collect Jane and they were now a welcome addition to the calm Darcy household. Kitty was pleased that her elder sister was to be present for her wedding, but found herself missing Lizzy and wishing that she, too, could have been able to attend. And if she was, surely Mr. Darcy was missing her even more.
She caught up with Mr. Darcy the evening before her wedding, in the book room, where he had retired after dinner. Georgiana was practicing the pianoforte and the Bingleys had already retired. Kitty, however, had too much nervous energy to go to bed.
“I hope I am not interrupting,” she apologized when he looked up from a book and a brandy at her entrance.
“Not at all.” Ever the gentleman, Mr. Darcy abandoned his reading and got to his feet. Kitty took the other chair by the fire and they settled down together.
“Is there something on your mind?” he queried.
“A couple of things. First, I wish to thank you for everything you’ve done.”
“I have not done a thing,” he said modestly.
“More than anyone else!” she exclaimed. “You bailed Lydia out of an untenable situation, you got rid of a troublemaker for Mary and now you have helped me weather scandal. And through everything you’ve done for me, I know all you have wanted was to return home to Derbyshire.”
Mr. Darcy nodded, but he did not speak.
“I wish Lizzy were here,” she said with a sigh.
“Not Mrs. Wickham?” he asked and Kitty knew what it cost him to say that name.
“Hard to believe, isn’t it? For as long as I can remember, life revolved around Lydia – and her wants and wishes. It wasn’t until she was gone that I realized that my other sisters were of more worth as friends.” Even Mary, especially since she had married Simon. “And I will always consider Miss Darcy as a sister.”
“I can’t thank you enough for the friendship you have given my sister.” Still, thoughts of Lizzy made him seem so sad.
“Don’t worry,” Kitty said sympathetically. “You can leave for Pemberley soon.”
Mr. Darcy’s smile was as wide as she had ever seen it.
The bride was radiant in pale blue and white, with orange blossoms on her bonnet and in her hand, and the groom was handsome. He stood at the altar in St. George’s that morning in a dark blue coat, pale blue waistcoat and buff breeches, orange blossoms in his buttonhole. Only Lady Litchcombe, already wiping away tears, knew her son’s waistcoat matched Kitty’s dress exactly. She had made sure of that.
The groom’s friends watched solemnly, and a bit sadly, as Mr. Bennet gave his daughter away. They knew, even if Cameron did not, that he was now doomed to a life of domesticity, no matter how much they wished it were not so.
Kitty’s family and friends were wreathed in smiles, and Mrs. Bennet made a big show of lamenting the loss of her last unmarried daughter, even while she congratulated herself on a job well done. No one had the nerve to correct her, although Lady Catherine, too far away to say anything during the service, made a mental note to inform Mrs. Bennet later that she was responsible for Miss Bennet’s advantageous marriage.
The colonel could have begged to differ, of course. He had introduced them, after all, but he was too intent on holding Anne’s hand and thinking a couple of months into the future, when he would be standing at the altar, to even care.
Mr. Bennet had mixed feelings about losing his last daughter, but he had spent enough time with Litchcombe in the past few days to know she would be in good hands.
Before Kitty knew it, she was a married lady, the wedding breakfast had been consumed at Litchcombe House, and she and Cameron were in a coach and on their way to Brighton.
“Why Brighton?” she asked.
“It’s close,” he replied, “and my godmother has offered us her cottage for a couple of weeks.”
“Cottage” was a misnomer, she thought as he handed her out some hours later at what a sign proclaimed was “Shell House.” Situated outside of the coastal town, it was on a slope that headed toward a sandy beach and the sea. A swiftly running stream on the east side of the property emptied into the English Channel and there were bowers and swings and all manner of intimate spots for lovers. Kitty would discover all these later.
Now she was faced with a setting sun, a contingent of servants and a husband who was, no doubt, hungry, despite the stops earlier to change horses and have refreshments.
“May we have dinner in half an hour?” she asked the housekeeper when that lady said they had just been waiting their arrival to serve.
“It shall be as your ladyship wishes.”
She was a ladyship! Kitty found that it wasn’t nearly as important as the man at her side, however, who was asking if she were ready to go upstairs.
“Now?” She goggled at him. In the daytime?
“You will want to dress for dinner,” he said blandly, but he was laughing at her, she was sure of it. She went regally up the stairs and to the room set aside for her use.
Later, over a dinner for two of roast duckling, potatoes and a beautiful little iced cake, Cameron proposed a toast.
“To the most beautiful bride ever…”
Kitty blushed, but dutifully lifted her glass.
“And to the most darling female I know – the woman I love.”
Kitty’s eyes grew wide. “You love me?” she squeaked, but did not wait for an answer. Abandoning her glass, she quickly relocated to Cameron’s lap, wrapping her arms about her neck. She leaned over and recovered her champagne. “I’ll drink to that. Especially since I love you, too.”
Cameron’s eyes glowed. “Definitely something to celebrate.”
Kitty drank some sparkling wine and sat the glass down once more. “But if you love me, does that mean you would have made me an offer even if we had not been embroiled in scandal?” she asked, tightening the hold she had on his neck.
Cameron chuckled. “Makes us rather beholden to Mrs. Morris-Smeeth for moving up the wedding date, doesn’t it?”
“It does! Perhaps we should send her a present!” They looked at each other and grinned. “A cow!” they said together and dissolved into laughter.
That happiness set the tone for after dinner, when they went upstairs together, and Kitty thought, perhaps, it set the tone for their future life.
It didn’t take long for her, either, to appreciate her aunt’s advice.
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