Charles Bingley folded the last of two letters he had spent the past hour composing. The first had been quickly dashed off, but this second one… Bingley blew out a breath, unfolded the letter, and gave it a third reading. The news this missive contained would not be well-received. He only hoped he had written his wishes in a fashion that would leave his sister Caroline with little option but to comply.
“You look rather fatigued,” said Darcy, entering the library and taking a seat near the window.
“What keeps you here?” asked Bingley.
“It is my library,” replied Darcy with a grin. “I am allowed to use it whenever I like.”
Bingley’s eyes narrowed. “That was not my meaning, which you very well know.”
“I cannot spend every moment at Willow Hall,” said Darcy with a grimace, “no matter how much I might wish to do so. There were some matters of business that required my attention, and after Mr. Bennet leaves this morning, Elizabeth is to come here for another, more extensive, tour than the one she had during the soiree three nights ago. And I have arranged a meeting with Mrs. Reynolds. There are not many days left to prepare Pemberley to receive its mistress.” His grimace slid into a pleased smile at the thought. “Now, tell me what has you looking as though you have gone three rounds dodging swords?”
Bingley lifted the letter in his hand. “There is not much time to prepare Caroline for Pemberley to receive its new mistress — seeing that it is not she, that is. I have told Hurst to accept the invitation to Hadaway’s house party. It is time that my youngest sister get on with her duty of securing a husband.” Bingley sealed the letter. “I shall not be staying past the wedding breakfast.”
“You are welcome to remain as long as you wish,” Darcy said with some concern. “Miss Bennet will be in Derbyshire until at least Michaelmas.”
Bingley nodded slowly. “It may be best if we both realize that you were correct, and her feelings for me were not what I imagined.” He blew out another breath. “Which is why this will likely be my last visit to Pemberley.”
Darcy sat forward in his chair. “I was not correct. She loved you and still may.”
“I will give it until your wedding, but if I see no more encouragement than I have seen since arriving nearly ten days ago, I shall wish her well and move on.” He stood at the window to the library. The garden was cheery and the day, bright, but he did not feel it. Indeed, he had not felt the loveliness of any day since he arrived. How could he when Captain Harris kept acting the part of a cloud blocking the sun? “It can be done, can it not?” He glanced over his shoulder at Darcy. “I can find another happiness eventually?”
“As much as I do not wish to encourage your line of thinking, I would dare to say that if anyone could accomplish such an arduous feat, it is you.” Darcy rose and crossed to the window to stand next to his friend. “I am sorry.”
Bingley shrugged. “You did not know.” He sighed heavily as he shifted to lean against the wall next to the window. “My sister, however, would have known more. Ladies always do. I am glad not to be seeing her.”
“You cannot be certain she knew. Miss Bennet was very circumspect in keeping her attachment unknown.”
Bingley laughed. “I dare say it would appear to be so to you, but you are not a lady. They have their own understandings of each other about which we gentlemen know nothing. I have witnessed it many times with Caroline and Louisa.” He shook his head. “No, Caroline knew and whether she wished to separate me from Miss Bennet or you from Miss Elizabeth is my only question regarding the whole matter.”
“Why would she have wanted to separate me from Elizabeth? I had declared nothing in Elizabeth’s favour. In fact, I was rather rude at times.”
Bingley chuckled again. “I do hope for your sake you have more sons than daughters. A gentleman cannot declare a lady’s eyes to be fine and not be suspected of marking that lady for marriage.” He raised a brow, challenging Darcy to deny it, but Darcy did not and admitted he supposed that such a thing was possible.
“What are your plans for the afternoon?” Darcy asked. “It is warm, so I would advise against a ride for both your sake and that of your horse. Miss Bennet is to accompany Elizabeth.”
“What of Harris and Fitzwilliam? Is either of them to accompany Miss Bennet?” He had seen Miss Bennet on the arm of one or the other of the gentleman whenever an opportunity arose for a stroll. He had been relegated to escorting Mary Ellen Dobney — not that there was anything particularly wrong with Miss Dobney. She was a lovely lady and were Bingley’s heart not attached elsewhere, he might have considered her as a match. Her humour was pleasant. Her figure was all that it should be. Truly, her only imperfection was that she seemed to have a modicum of a fiery temper, which, having endured the peevishness of his youngest sister, Bingley was inclined to avoid even in small doses in a prospective wife. He had had his fill of fits and tantrums — and meddling interferences, he thought with a scowl. Caroline could not marry soon enough to suit him.
“It is my understanding that it is just the ladies of Willow Hall who are to call. Georgiana has arranged to have tea in the garden with Mrs. Gardiner and Mrs. Abbot as well as Miss Bennet and Elizabeth.”
“Very well, if Harris and Fitzwilliam will not be present, then it might serve me best to join you.” And so he did. He smiled and acted the part of a charming gentleman enough to make all save one of the ladies from Willow Hall smile and laugh in reply. Unfortunately, it was that one lady, Miss Jane Bennet, whose refusal to act as anything more than a person forced to be civil, who coloured the whole event with a deep stroke of grey and sent him in search of a strong drink later that evening.
Jane Bennet sat on the window seat in the room she was sharing with Elizabeth at Willow Hall. She rested her head against the wall, pulled her legs up so she could wrap her arms around her knees and watched the sunset paint the sky with brilliant hues of purple and red. She turned her head to look at Elizabeth, who was lying on the bed, reading a book that Darcy had lent her from Pemberley’s library. “I should have gone home with Papa,” she said.
“But if you had gone with him, you would not be here for my wedding,” reasoned Elizabeth.
Jane nodded. It was the only reason she had stayed. “But after you marry, I will be quite alone,” she said softly. Alone here in this room and at Longbourn when she returned there.
“You will have Aunt and Uncle as well as the Abbots, and if Captain Harris keeps calling as he has, you will spend very little time alone,” assured Elizabeth.
Jane shrugged and attempted a smile, but smiling was not something she felt capable of doing much anymore ─ not since last fall before Mr. Bingley had left Netherfield. She had made an effort to remain cheerful and not give any hints about the pain that resided in her heart, and for the most part, she had been successful. However, it was so much more difficult when the man you wished to love, but dared not, was constantly in your presence. She was attempting to love another, and Captain Harris was not without merit. He was handsome and pleasant, and his inheritance would be sufficient for a good life. But he was not Mr. Bingley, and her heart was still unwilling to forget that fact. Perhaps with time, it would. Marriages were often formed without the deepest affection. Captain Harris seemed to respect her; that was a good thing, was it not? She sighed. She had never imagined she would have to settle for such an arrangement. She had always thought her heart would be engaged in such a way that the man she married would be her one true delight, the one person with whom she longed to spend her days.
“What of Mr. Bingley?” Elizabeth had come to join Jane on the window seat.
Jane shook her head. “He made his choice, and it was not me.”
“But what if he made the choice based on faulty information?”
Jane drew a deep breath. “I wish for a husband who will choose me no matter the advice he is given. I wish to be the one person he craves…the one he would put before his sister — before life itself.” She smiled sadly. “But that is not to be.”
“But what if he did love you with his whole being?” Elizabeth leaned forward toward her sister and placed her hands onto Jane’s knees.
“No,” said Jane, pushing Elizabeth’s hands away and standing. “I will not even contemplate it. I have not the strength to do so. I am sick to death of longing for what cannot be. You must not ask me to consider such things. I will be happy enough with Captain Harris, should he decide that I am indeed worthy of his regard.”
“But you do not love him,” argued Elizabeth.
“One can learn to love,” replied Jane.
“You will not give Mr. Bingley a chance?” Elizabeth asked in surprise.
Jane shook her head. “I cannot, for I cannot survive another disappointment.”
“Disappointment?” cried Elizabeth. “You do not know that it would be a disappointment.”
Jane crossed her arms and set her jaw firmly. She knew of what she spoke. Her sister had been fortunate in love; there was little Elizabeth could know of the disappointment Jane had suffered in London when she had been spurned. “It is not as if I did not give him a second chance. I did call while I was in London.”
“You cannot be certain he knew of your call,” argued Elizabeth.
“He knew. Caroline made it clear that he did.”
“And you believe her — the very same woman who led you to believe you had an intimacy with her and later showed herself to be false — you believe her?”
“He did not call,” said Jane, going to brush her hair out at the dressing table in preparation for plaiting before bed.
Elizabeth threw her hands up in frustration. “And why would he call if he had no knowledge of your being in town? Mr. Darcy knew nothing of your being in town until I told him, and you had been there for three months by then.”
Jane’s brush stopped just above her head where she had intended to begin the next stroke. Slowly she lowered the brush and laid it on the table. Then, just as slowly, she turned on her stool to face Elizabeth. “You spoke to Mr. Darcy of me while you were in Kent?”
Elizabeth’s eyes lowered to look at her hands. “I did. I asked if he had seen you, but he had not.”
Jane nodded slowly as this information settled into her brain. It was entirely possible that Mr. Bingley did not know of her presence in town if Mr. Darcy did not. Miss Bingley would likely not keep it from one and not the other, would she?
Elizabeth had come to take up the job of brushing Jane’s hair.
“Did he speak of Mr. Bingley?” The brush stuttered in its progress through her hair, and Jane turned so that she could see Elizabeth in the mirror. “What are you not telling me?”
Elizabeth concentrated on three more slow strokes of the brush through Jane’s hair before replying. “I did not wish to cause you pain,” she began, placing the brush on the table and turning away. “He loved you.” She turned back toward Jane, tears in her eyes. “Mr. Bingley loved you, but Mr. Darcy feared you did not return his friend’s affections.”
Jane blinked and stared at her sister with her mouth hanging open. Mr. Bingley had loved her? And Mr. Darcy was to blame for the separation? She shook her head. It could not be true.
“I did not wish to tell you because you were so sad already, and I did not think we would ever see Mr. Bingley again.” The tears in Elizabeth’s eyes had begun rolling down her cheeks. “Mr. Darcy was sorry — is sorry — for having had any part in your pain. He truly thought you indifferent to Mr. Bingley and wished to save his friend from a disappointment. Had he known you were in town and had called on Miss Bingley, I am certain he would have seen that he was wrong and would not have kept Mr. Bingley from you.”
Jane’s shoulders rounded forward as her spine curved in a sigh. “That is why Miss Bingley would not have told Mr. Darcy of my call.”
Jane stood and walked the room, pacing down to the window and back to the wardrobe and wash stand. “What am I to do? What am I to think? He loved me only enough to be persuaded away from me? How great a love is that? Can one forgive such capriciousness? Is it not a flaw in character? Had we married, would he have eventually been persuaded by another that he loved her and not me? How am I to think?”
Elizabeth wrapped her arms around her sister. “I do not know, though I wish I did. Come, let me finish your hair, and then, we shall lie in bed and attempt to decipher the answer.”
And they did but to no avail. As first one and then the other sister drifted off into a less than restful sleep, the question of what was to be done about Mr. Bingley remained unanswered — that is to say, no answer was spoken aloud, but in the breast of each lady a heart pled in his favour.