The Darcys traveled to Kent to spend six weeks leading up to Easter with Lady Catherine. The plans for the spring plantings were in the possession of Pemberley’s capable steward. Darcy himself would see to things at Rosings. His supervision of his wife’s estate began shortly after their marriage. While Anne’s steward had done an admirable job, Darcy felt there was more to be gained by his personal attention. He was also unafraid to invest capital in the tenant cottages to retain and attract better people to work the land for them. All of this was done with Anne’s knowledge and approval. She too felt a responsibility to those who lived within the confines of the estate.
Anne and Fitzwilliam spent final three weeks of the visit seeing to things before departing for London. They would not remain in Town for the Season as they had the year previous. Anne was expecting her first child and her husband had determined that his heir would be born in Derbyshire. They meant only to stay long enough to settle Georgiana and do a little shopping for Anne. Pemberley waited.
Just after the first of the year, after consultation with his cousin Andrew Fitzwilliam, Darcy had removed Georgiana from her school. The decision was not a hasty one. Georgiana had never outgrown her shyness, and her tendency toward reserve did not serve her well amongst her peers in school. That is not to say she did not have friends – she did. Unfortunately, those to whom she gravitated were as soft-spoken as the young Miss Darcy and were no match for the more outgoing, and vindictive, young ladies who also resided at the august establishment. Georgiana was teased relentlessly as they willfully mistook her timidity for hubris. Such a gentle soul as Georgiana bore it as well as she could, but Anne and her brother detected her reluctance to return to school and discovered the true situation. Georgiana had stayed at Pemberley and Fitzwilliam promised to find a companion who could stay with her in Town so that she would have access to all the masters she wished.
He spent several months looking for a woman to live with Georgiana, and finally settled on the Widow Younge. Her husband had died, leaving her a house in a fashionable part of London but little else. There was enough income from the interest from her dowry to survive, but Mrs. Younge was looking for means to supplement her barely adequate portion. It seemed a perfect situation; Miss Darcy could stay in Town and Mrs. Younge could keep her house. Whatever misgivings Darcy may have had about Georgiana living away from the Darcy Townhouse were allayed by the refined manners of her new companion and the promise of Georgiana’s other guardian to call on the girl frequently.
Anne had arranged to visit her favorite modiste with Georgiana and her new companion. She was increasing and constantly complained about her wardrobe. It seemed nothing fit the way it was supposed to and the only solution was to order new gowns that would accommodate her increased bosom and have room for her newly expanding girth.
Darcy knew better than to go shopping with the women; instead he went to his club. He had not been there much of late. Since he and Anne had returned to Pemberley after the last Season, they had hardly even been to London.
He greeted many acquaintances upon his entrance. One person in particular caught his notice and he made his way over to his friend.
“Darcy!” Bingley said in surprise. He stood and they shook hands. “Care to join me?”
“I would be delighted.”
After they were seated, Darcy ordered something to drink.
“I had not heard you were in Town. Is Mrs. Darcy with you?”
“She is shopping with my sister.” Both wrinkled their noses at the thought of being forced to endure a day with the ladies in the shops.
“I believe Caroline and Louisa are similarly occupied. I should not be surprised if they were to meet.”
“Are Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley in good health?”
“They are well, thank you.”
“Your younger sister remains unmarried? I would have thought she would have found a gentleman to wed by now.”
“Yes, well…” Bingley shifted uncomfortably. “She has yet to find the right man; only had the one Season, you know. Caroline has high hopes for this year.”
Darcy nodded. Charles had not gained the upper hand in his family and now he was paying the price of another Season. Caroline Bingley had made it through two Little Seasons and one full Season without a single offer she deemed acceptable. If Bingley did not have better luck, he would be paying for another year’s worth of the latest finery for his sister.
“You will remain in Town?” Bingley asked hopefully. “I should like to introduce you to Miss Cheatham.”
“And how long have you known this Miss Cheatham?”
“About a month now. She is a most lovely woman.”
“Hmmm, if I had arrived a week ago you would have proclaimed her the most beautiful woman you had ever beheld.”
“And if I had come a week from today, you would already have fallen out of love with this creature.”
“That is a bit harsh now, Darcy.”
“But true. Honestly, I should stay in Town just to make sure you do not do something foolish. However, Anne and I leave in a few days for Pemberley.”
“I was certain you would stay. Last year Mrs. Darcy was quite the hostess.”
Darcy smiled at the memory of his wife’s triumphs. “Yes, but we cannot tarry in Ton.”
“Bingley,” Darcy leaned forward and spoke quietly. “Anne is with child and we do not wish to risk staying in the city. The air in Derbyshire is better. After the last time…we will not jeopardize the health of the child.”
“The last time?”
“We had thought…but it was not to be.”
“I am very sorry to hear that, Darcy. I had no idea.”
“Not many know. I trust your discretion.”
“You can be assured of my secrecy. Of course you must take your wife to Pemberley. I shall miss your wise counsel.”
“Just do not propose to a woman until you find yourself in love for at least 2 months complete and you will be safe from an imprudent match.”
Another voice answered him. “Giving our young friend advice again, Darcy?”
“Sir John! Anne will be delighted to hear I saw you.”
“Please give Mrs. Darcy my compliments. I had meant to call in a day or two.”
“You should call as soon as you can; we will not stay in London much longer.”
“Then I will come tomorrow.”
“I shall tell her. She will be delighted.”
After Darcy and Anne had married, Darcy had, in spite of himself, become good friends with Sir John Whitby. The two made an odd pair due to their great difference in height, but Darcy soon found that though he was a clear head taller than Sir John, he did not tower over the man figuratively. Darcy realized that while Whitby had at one time greatly admired his wife, the man in question now only held Anne in high esteem. He would never dare insinuate himself into the Darcys’ lives or attempt to cause discord. Sir John simply wished to be Anne and Darcy’s friend. And so he was. In fact, Darcy now considered the little man one of his truest friends.
A fourth joined their party.
“Plaguing the poor unmarried men by rhapsodizing about your wife again, Darcy? Have a little compassion on Whitby, he nearly fell in love with her. Of course, if he had true discernment he would have seen the superiority of my Helena over every other woman.”
“de Bourgh! Your wife let you out of the house long enough to visit your club?” Darcy mocked.
“Some of us prefer the company of our spouses over these pitiful excuses for gentlemen.”
“I would have hoped your wife would have softened your manners by now. Look what a fine job your cousin did on Darcy,” Sir John retorted.
Darcy bowed smartly.
“Anne had less to reform.” Arthur laughed; he was always able to admit his faults and thankful that Helena had finally accepted them – and him. The past seven months since his marriage to the former Miss Simpson had been the happiest of his life. “I have just been to your house, Darcy, to deliver my wife to yours. Anne was just on her way out to visit the shops so my wife decided to join her and the rest of the ladies. Anne mentioned you were here, so I thought I would come and join you.”
“Knowing our wives, you are much safer here, than being dragged all over Bond Street.”
“Most assuredly! I assumed you would be at Darcy House to keep me company. Then Anne told me you were leaving for Derbyshire in a few days and I understood you would want to take your leave of this place and the friends therein before you headed north. Interestingly enough, we return to Thigston in a few weeks as well.”
“You are not staying for the Season either?” Bingley asked.
“No, I much prefer the company of my wife, and since she will be in Surrey, I will be there as well. The diversions of London are less appealing to this old married man. Darcy knows of what I speak.”
Sir John snorted. “Darcy never found Town appealing before he was married!”
“And even less so now,” Darcy confessed.
“Thus the two married gentleman retire to the country whilst the two eligible bachelors remain in London. What a horrible lot we have drawn, Bingley,” Sir John said with his hand over his heart for greater effect. “Perhaps I should return to my estate. If you had one, you could emulate us.”
“If only my father had purchased one before he died, I would. Alas, the task is left to me. Someday soon I shall begin to look,” Bingley admitted.
“But not during the Season; your sister would not be happy to leave London,” Darcy opined.
“Tease me all you want, but someday soon I will be writing to you all, inviting you to a house-party at my own estate. I will even endeavor to write slowly and legibly to see that you do not use that as an excuse to put me off!”
“Charles Bingley promising an effort at good penmanship?” Arthur de Bourgh said in mock amazement. “How could we fail to accede to his request – since we will actually be able to read his correspondence for a change?”
The men laughed and ordered another round of drinks. They knew not when they would have the chance to meet so informally again.
July was a beautiful month to be in Derbyshire. Anne thought of how much cooler the summer months spent farther north were than the ones she had remembered growing up in Kent. There were few days when the heat was oppressive and in her expectant state, she was thankful that her husband had insisted their heir be born at his ancestral estate.
The beauty of the countryside was a respite from the dreams she had suffered the last few nights. Anne could not remember the content, but she had awakened with a feeling of unease about her dear sister Georgiana. This, of course, was nonsense. Georgiana was in the very capable hands of the impressive Mrs. Younge. The letters that came from Georgiana, and from the friends and family who had called on her, spoke of a happy girl growing in confidence. Hiring the lady to shepherd Georgiana in the completion of her studies while Anne and Darcy were obliged to remain at Pemberley had been a wonderful idea. There was no rational reason to worry; the pair would leave Ramsgate in another fortnight and travel to Pemberley, where Georgiana would remain until after Anne gave birth.
However, rationality and an expectant mother do not always co-exist. Therefore, after more than a week of Anne’s worrying over his sister, Fitzwilliam decided it would be best if he left early for Ramsgate to collect her. He would spend a few days at the seaside town and then bring Georgiana back to Anne. It was to be a decision he would never regret.
Anne was surprised that her husband had returned several days before expected. She had come to meet the carriage, anxious to see Fitzwilliam and Georgiana again. What she saw shocked her. Fitzwilliam alighted from the conveyance with a somber look on his face and after he made eye contact with his wife, turned to help his sister out. Anne could hear him coax the young girl to exit the box and wondered why Georgiana was so hesitant to come out. Georgiana always wanted to be the first one out of a coach, but now the girl would not move. Anne waited until Darcy stepped back into the vehicle and picked Georgiana up in his arms. He did not stop walking until he had reached Georgiana’s chambers. Anne said nothing as he walked by. She knew something was terribly wrong and hurried behind her husband. Within the safety of the familiar room, Fitzwilliam moved to lay his sister down on her bed. Anne was before him, throwing back the covers.
Georgiana turned away from the two people she loved most and cried, “Please leave me.”
Anne was not inclined to comply, but her husband stayed her from sitting down and shook his head, then nodded towards the door.
“Very well, dearest,” Anne said to weeping girl, “but if you want me, send for me and I shall come.”
The miserable girl nodded and pulled the covers tighter and continued to weep.
Darcy and Anne left and met a worried Mrs. Reynolds outside Georgiana’s door.
“I know it is not your normal duty, but I would appreciate it if you would personally attend my sister. She is very upset and I trust only you to hold her confidence.”
“I understand, sir. Will Mrs. Younge be coming later?”
“That…woman…is no longer in my employ.”
The older servant acknowledged the implication and then left to attend her charge.
“Come, Anne. I have much to tell you.”
They walked arm in arm to her rooms, neither speaking a word, though Anne sorely wanted to ask questions.
“It was Wickham,” he spat once they were alone. “The cur tried to talk Georgiana into eloping!” Darcy started to pace. “I came upon them walking along the seaside. Wickham was entirely too close to Georgiana to be considered proper and Mrs. Younge was a few paces behind them looking very happy.”
“I immediately took Georgiana to her rooms where she told me everything. I wrote to Wickham and he left immediately. I then interviewed Mrs. Younge, who, unknown to us, knew him. She claimed she had only agreed to re-introduce the pair. It was a lie, of course. They must have been planning this… this heinous plot for months, waiting for the right time to put it in place. Her face clearly showed her guilt in the matter. She was too eager to be exonerated, and Georgiana told me she had written to us telling of meeting Wickham again, giving the letters to her companion to post. As you know, we never received the letters and I do not believe Georgiana’s missives would ever have been sent!”
Anne was angry with Mrs. Younge, even angrier with George Wickham, and broken-hearted for dear sweet Georgiana. “Has she been this afflicted since Ramsgate?”
“She has barely spoken a word and will not look at me.” Darcy was frustrated. Anne intercepted him on his latest excursion over the carpet, placing her hand on his arm.
“Calm down, Fitzwilliam. She is safe. That is all that matters”
“But she is not whole. Where has the laughter gone? Her shyness has returned ten-fold.”
“It is still too early. Think of her position. She has just discovered that an old friend was willing to trick her to gain her money through marriage, and the woman we hired to protect her has led her to a wolf. I also suspect she is thoroughly ashamed and blaming herself for being taken advantage of when she knew she was asked to do something wrong.”
“Perhaps. Can you speak with her?” he asked hopefully.
“Oh, I will,” Anne assured him. “It might not be today, but I shall speak to her.”
Georgiana did not emerge from her room for several days. Anne was equally annoyed and worried. On the fourth day when she still did not appear, Anne decided it was time to confront her sister. She took up a tray to Georgiana’s room; the child must have nourishment.
“Eat, and then we will talk,” Anne said. Georgiana nodded her head once without looking up. When Anne was satisfied that her charge had consumed a sufficient amount, she began to speak about Ramsgate. At first, Georgiana did not want to talk, but Anne gradually helped her relax and she began to speak about Mr. Wickham.
“He seemed just perfect. True, he was a little poor, but I had such fond memories of him from my childhood that money never seemed an insurmountable obstacle. I had enough for both of us, and Anne, he was ever so charming.” With that statement, she looked so miserable that Anne was not surprised when Georgiana started crying again.
Anne wrapped her arms around her sister and tried to soothe her. “Shhhh, it is over. Your brother came in time to save you and this will all be forgotten.”
“But… I think I am still in love with Mr. Wickham.”
Anne tipped the girl’s chin up so Georgiana would be forced to look at Anne when she spoke. “Perhaps you are.”
“I so wanted what you and Fitzwilliam have. My brother loves you very much, even if you try to hide it from Aunt Catherine. I know better.”
“My dear sister. Do you not understand that I was willing to marry your brother before we developed the strong feelings we now possess?”
“You did not marry because it was a love match?”
“We married in spite of it.” Anne found a more comfortable position to sit. Being eight months pregnant made that increasingly difficult each day of her confinement. “We discovered that we were well matched and I had the utmost respect for Fitzwilliam. Falling in love was an additional advantage neither of us counted on.” Anne patted Georgiana’s hand. “I am going to tell you something I have never told anyone else, including my husband.”
Georgiana perked up a bit at the prospect of hearing a secret.
“There were only two men during my first Season in Town that I would ever have considered marrying. Oh, there were many who flattered my vanity with pretty words and gallant manners, but there were only two who were interested in me for more than monetary reasons.”
“Your brother and Sir John Whitby.”
“Sir John Whitby? I thought you were not fond of the man’s company when you first met him?
“I was horrified!” Anne laughed. “But I soon found that while Sir John may not have been the most romantic of suitors, he adored me. I felt sorry for him. I now know he wants more from marriage than a large dowry from his wife and I think he thought I was the one who would make him happy. While I could not have accepted him then, his fervent regard, loyalty and kindness eventually overcame the poor first impression he made and I saw that he is a very good man. That is why I am honored to count Sir John among my friends.
“The point is that there are many people, and not just fortune hunting men, who would take advantage of you for your wealth if they could. You should be in no hurry to marry; you are but fifteen years old. Georgiana, remember, I did not make my debut until I was seventeen and a half and I know I was naïve about a great many things, though I could not admit it at the time. Fitzwilliam was very correct to insist I spend the Season without any commitments. I came to appreciate him even more during those months as I compared him against the men I met. In a few more years you will be much more prepared to enter into society and your brother and I will be with you to help you discern the character of the people you meet.”
“I would rather stay here at Pemberley and be an aunt to your children.”
“By then this little one,” Anne put her hand lovingly on her greatly expanded stomach, “will be two years of age, quite spoiled, and no doubt terrorizing the staff. You will want to flee to London for more stimulating and fully grown-up company.” Anne laughed. “Now help me up so I can face my duties for the day. Mrs. Reynolds is expecting me and as you know, we must never keep her waiting.”
Georgiana assisted her sister to her feet and then pulled her into a hug.
“You are welcome. I expect to see you at your place at the next meal.”
Georgiana released Anne and stepped a pace back.
“I will. I have been avoiding Fitzwilliam more than anything else,” she admitted sheepishly.
Anne arched an eyebrow. “He is more worried about you than anything else.”
“Then speak to him. The sooner you do, the sooner all of us can move past this.”
“I will, I promise. That is, I promise if you promise to rest after you see Mrs. Reynolds.”
“As if I have a choice.” Anne rolled her eyes. “I love Fitzwilliam, but he can be overly protective of me.”
Georgiana stood up a little taller. “Now that I have returned, I will help you.”
Anne smiled with fondness for her beloved sister. “I am counting on just that.”
On second day of August, in the Year of our Lord, 1811, Anne de Bourgh Darcy began to feel the pains of childbirth. On the third day of August 1811, she delivered a healthy girl. Four weeks later the child was christened Elizabeth Anne Georgiana Darcy in the parish church. Newly promoted Colonel Andrew Fitzwilliam was the godfather and the recovering Georgiana Darcy was the godmother.
Pemberley, and Rosings Park, had an heir.
“No, we are not going to Netherstone!” Anne glared at her husband, hands on hips, defying him to question her.
“It is Netherfield, and yes, we must!” Fitzwilliam answered, matching her glare with an equally determined look of his own.
“Netherstone, Netherfield, what does it matter; we are not going.”
“And as your husband, I say that we are.” He pondered the odds that she would meekly acquiesce to his decree. They were too small to even hope.
“Are you out of your senses?” Anne huffed. “Elizabeth is only two months old!”
“I promised Bingley a long time ago that whenever he had an estate, I would be the first to visit him.”
“Even Charles Bingley would understand why we must decline at this time!”
“I gave him my word – I will not break it.”
“What about Georgiana?”
“We had agreed that she would return to London with Mrs. Annesley to stay with our uncle. I see no reason why that should change. In fact, we could travel with her to Town and then continue to Netherfield. Bingley has informed me the estate is about 20 miles from London.”
“Fine, have it your way. Elizabeth and I wish you, Georgiana and Mrs. Annesley a safe trip. Please be back at Pemberley by Christmas.” She tried to walk past him but he would not allow her, carefully grabbing hold of her arm
“Anne, all of us are going. I do not understand why you are so opposed to the trip. It is one day less than if we were traveling to Kent. If, after we see Bingley’s estate, you wish to continue on to Rosings, we can always make our excuses that we need to visit Lady Catherine.”
Anne carefully removed his hand from her arm, but did not make a move to leave again. “We have only just rid ourselves of her company. I thought she would never leave after Elizabeth was born. I love my mother, but two months in the same household, now that I am mistress and a mother, is too long. Thank God she took Mrs. Jenkinson with her.”
“You did not care much for your former companion.” Darcy sensed the opportunity to change the conversation.
“She was much more to the taste of my mother. I did not dislike her, I simply did not like her.”
“Is there a difference?”
Anne rolled her eyes. Sometimes she found Fitzwilliam so infuriating. “Of course, I would rather have been left alone than forced to sit with Mrs. Jenkinson. She is a very dull woman.”
“Thus perfect for her ladyship, for Lady Catherine seldom requires an answer. Though I think your mother suffers for the lack of your company. There is no one left at Rosings who will dare defy her.”
“Stuart will.” Darcy cocked his head in disbelief. “Well, if called for, Mrs. Stuart is not afraid to question Mother.”
“In my experience, the only thing that prods your esteemed housekeeper to challenge Lady Catherine is you. However, I must add that your mother is much the same as Stuart; when it comes to her daughter, Lady Catherine de Bourgh thinks nothing and no one is good enough.”
“Except for you.”
“She wanted me for her son-in-law,” he said smugly.
“I wanted you for her son-in-law…eventually.”
“You have me,” Darcy reached over and took his wife in his arms, “and I shall never let you forget it.” That pronouncement was followed by slow and sensuous kisses that left Anne’s legs unable to support her. “We leave in a fortnight for Hertfordshire, yes?” Darcy whispered.
Anne did not realize what she had agreed to until later.
If Darcy thought the discussion over, he was mistaken. Anne still thought it ludicrous to subject a newborn to such a journey. Eventually he was forced to appeal to his wife’s fondness for Caroline Bingley, or rather, her lack thereof.
Unlike her former companion, Mrs. Jenkinson, to whom Anne was indifferent, Anne disliked Caroline Bingley. She found Miss Bingley to be well educated and accomplished. However, the chit was an unmitigated social climber of the worst kind; she did not believe anyone thought of her as anything but a lady born into the highest circles, instead of the daughter of a tradesman that she was. It was not that Anne had anything against people in trade. Heavens! Her cousin Arthur de Bourgh’s money came from that source. Anne merely despised people who were too quick to forget where they came from. Acceptance in the ton came with time, not with attitudes of unearned superiority.
So when Darcy told Anne that Sir John was to be among the party, Anne could not leave her friend to the mercy of Miss Bingley. Anne liked her former admirer too much to subject him to a house party where he would constantly be in company with that woman with no one but Bingley and the Hursts to rescue him.
And so, in the second week of October, the Darcys were on the road to Hertfordshire via London to stay with Bingley and his family at his new estate.
The timing of their arrival at Netherfield could not have been any better. Darcy had sent word ahead of when they would arrive and Bingley had used the intervening days to hurry back to London to gather his sisters Caroline and Louisa, and Louisa’s husband, Mr. Humphrey Hurst. Sir John Whitby made up the last of the party. They arrived a few hours before the Darcy-crested coach rolled up Netherfield’s main drive. Their host was there to greet them and dote on the little child, and soon enough they were settled in their rooms. Counting two-month old Miss Darcy, they had an even number of eight for the dinner table – not that Miss Darcy would be anywhere but asleep in the nursery during the evenings.
Miss Bingley gloried in presiding over the table, though she claimed the meal was not up to her normal standards. Seeing that they had only arrived that afternoon, the mistress of the manor promised a marked improvement once she had a chance to put the staff to rights.
“I think they have done an admirable job, Caroline. And with your excellent instruction, anything that may be lacking will quickly be amended,” Bingley said with a jovial air.
“Will there be any sport tomorrow?” Mr. Hurst asked.
“I need to speak with my gamekeeper, but if not tomorrow then some day soon. Besides, we do not want to tire ourselves out and not be able to attend the ball at the local assembly rooms. We have all been invited.”
Anne noticed Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst give their brother pointed looks, which he ignored.
“A ball? You never mentioned a ball, Bingley.” Darcy said carefully.
“It must have slipped my mind; I was so happy to see you I forgot to tell you.”
“I do not know how he forgot, it was all he could talk about when he was in Town.” Sir John laughed. “We had a devil of a time making him stop! He must have asked me four times if I were bringing my dancing shoes.”
“Your old ones or your new?” Anne asked, delighted at the jovial turn in the conversation.
“Why both, Mrs. Darcy. I shall leave it to you to command which ones I wear.”
“You have charged me with a very weighty responsibility, sir!”
“The toes of the maidens of Hertfordshire are at your mercy, madam.”
“Will everyone be attending the ball?” Caroline queried.
No one spoke in the negative, not wishing to offend their host by remaining behind. When Bingley saw the response, his smile broadened.
“Excellent! I love a country dance. Caroline, Louisa, Mrs. Darcy. I hope to dance with you all! And perhaps, Mrs. Darcy, you can convince your taciturn spouse to take a turn with you as well?”
“You may rest assured, Bingley, that I will dance with my wife and all the ladies of the party, if they are so inclined.”
“Only do not ask him to stand up with a woman he has never met before. He is likely to say something rude,” Anne teased.
“I could never imagine Mr. Darcy doing such a thing!” Miss Bingley cried, horrified that Mr. Darcy’s own wife could say such a thing.
“My wife teases me, Miss Bingley. Pay her no mind. And you, Sir John, will you dance with the local populace?”
“Most assuredly, for as soon as Bingley and I walk through the door, the matrons will know we are single and in possession of a good income.”
“And therefore in dire need of a wife,” Anne added.
“Not so dire, I thank you, Mrs. Darcy. But we will be introduced to many young ladies and expected to dance. I am not opposed to such a diversion.” Sir John noticed that his hostess was looking at him rather intently. “While I have the chance, will you be so kind as to dance the first set after we arrive, Miss Bingley?”
Miss Bingley was satisfied. “Certainly, Sir John.”
That night, after Anne had checked on Elizabeth, Anne and Darcy retired for the evening in Anne’s chambers, since those rooms were connected to the nursery.
“What are your impressions of Netherfield?” he asked his wife.
“You mean Netherstone?” The name of the estate had become a joke between the two.
“One of these days you will forget yourself and say that to Bingley.”
Anne sighed in defeat. “I suppose you are right.” Then she pouted for good measure and Fitzwilliam felt it incumbent upon himself to tickle the impudent frown off her face. She lay on her back, nearly out of breath from the onslaught.
“Enough! I surrender – we are at Netherfield Park!” Darcy sat up with a look of triumph on his face. “That was entirely unfair, sir! Your arms are much longer than mine.”
“You brought it upon yourself. Now, tell me your impressions of Netherfield.”
Anne sat up and fluffed the pillows before she leaned back against them.
“It is nothing to Pemberley or Rosings, of course, but it is a pretty little estate from what we have seen. The house is large enough to meet Bingley’s needs, if a little outdated in décor. That is not surprising since he is only leasing the place.”
“From what I have seen, I do. Yet I know nothing about the rest of the estate other than what we saw on our way to the house and what we could see from the windows. Will Bingley have much to say in the matters of his tenants and the land?”
“I believe so, which is another reason why I was so insistent on coming. He has little experience being anything more than a young man of fortune with little responsibility.”
“He is very fortunate to have such a friend.”
Darcy snorted, “And he repays me by dragging us off to a country dance the day after we arrive!”
“Oh please! I happen to know you like those dreaded country balls. You always dance with me when we attend them in Derbyshire.”
“That, my love, is because I know you enjoy it.”
“And will you dance with anyone else tomorrow?”
“Only the ladies in our party. You know I do not like to dance with women with whom I am not acquainted.”
“That is true. Three to six dances are all I may expect to see from you.”
“There is an advantage to being an old married man. I will not be disappointing any young ladies since I am off the marriage market. Sir John was correct when he said he and Bingley would be dancing all night.”
Anne thought for a moment before answering. “I do not think I ever told you, but before we were married, Sir John told me he was not very fond of dancing.”
“Really? That is most surprising! Since our engagement I have seen him dance numerous times.”
“I encouraged him to do so, and to wear normal shoes!”
Darcy laughed, he had heard about Sir John’s special dancing pumps. “Do you think he still owns that pair?”
“I doubt it, but at least he can laugh about it now. Hmm, maybe I should suggest he procure another pair especially to dance with Miss Bingley.”
“Has she decided to have him?”
“I do not think so, but she appears to be wavering. Sir John is too kind to let her know he has no interest in a way that will leave no doubt. Perhaps you should speak to Bingley?”
“I doubt Sir John would care for my interference on his behalf.”
“No, I suppose not.” Anne yawned.
“We should sleep now, it has been a long and tiring day.” Darcy made himself comfortable beneath the covers. “Goodnight, love.”
Anne kissed her husband on the lips and then rolled to her side to tuck her body against his.
“Goodnight, my beloved husband.”
The gentlemen did not end up shooting the next day, but plans were made for a few days later. Instead, the day was spent in leisurely pursuits in anticipation of a night of dancing.
Alas, when the party gathered, Darcy had to make excuses for him and Anne; Elizabeth needed the attention of her mother. He told the others to go ahead and that he and Anne would join them in Meryton later, if the baby had calmed enough by then.
Sir William Lucas, one of the leading men of the area, was the first to greet the diminished Netherfield party and offered to introduce them. Bingley immediately accepted and Sir William led them to a group of women that included his wife, Lady Lucas, and a Mrs. Bennet and their daughters. Bingley looked at the one matron, clearly puzzled.
“I am sorry, madam, you are very familiar to me, but I know we have never met. I would have certainly remembered your charming daughters.”
“They are charming girls.” Mrs. Bennet beamed with pride. “And do you plan to dance, Mr. Bingley?” she inquired.
“Why else would I have come! Miss Lucas, would you care to dance the next with me, and Miss Bennet, the one after?”
Bingley heard someone clear his throat behind them. He had quite forgotten about anything other than Miss Jane Bennet once she had consented to dance with him.
“Pardon me, this is my good friend Sir John Whitby.”
“Ladies, it is my pleasure to meet you all. And Miss Bennet, since my friend is engaged to dance the next with him, might I claim the honor for this set?”
Miss Bennet demurely accepted. Sir John had to refrain from rolling his eyes; he saw the jealous look Bingley threw at him. Charles Bingley was smitten at first sight. And so it begins again. Wait until the Darcys arrive, he mused.
As they moved down the line, Sir John questioned Jane about the neighborhood and then asked her about her family.
“Papa stayed home with the younger ones. Only Mary, Kitty and I are out in society. Kitty is further down the line. She loves to dance.”
“And Miss Mary, I do not see her now.”
“She rarely dances.” Miss Bennet blushed.
“I noticed she carried a small book,” he gently prodded. He could see that Miss Jane Bennet was a very quiet and private person – or at least she appeared to be.
“She is rather fond of reading.” Just then Sir John spotted the woman in question in the corner of the room.
“What volume has her so engrossed now?”
“I believe it to be a moral tract. Mary is very… decided in her beliefs on upright behavior. Had she been born a man, I would have thought her destined for the church.” Miss Bennet blushed again, “Oh, you must not think of her as a bluestocking, she is only interested in improving her mind.”
Sir John tried to put her at ease. “I do not think less of any woman with a thirst for knowledge. In fact, there is another member of our party, soon to arrive with her husband, who is one of best read women I know.”
“There are more coming?”
“Only two; Mr. and Mrs. Darcy’s daughter was causing some consternation when we left. I expect they will arrive shortly.”
The dance ended and the Darcys had not yet arrived. Bingley claimed the lovely Miss Bennet and Sir John, intrigued by the conversation with his last dance partner, asked Miss Mary Bennet to stand up with him for the next set. Like Bingley, he felt as if he had met the Bennets before. Miss Mary Bennet definitely reminded him of someone.
“Thank you, Miss Bennet, for agreeing to partner me. Your sister told me you do not care much for dancing.”
“I am rarely asked.”
“Perhaps it is because you bring a book along and sneak off into the corner where only the most determined will find you?” He raised an eyebrow in challenge. Mary Bennet looked at him warily. “You have nothing to fear, your secret is safe with me. You see, there was a time when I preferred to stand on the sides of the room.”
“What made you change your mind?” Mary asked, intrigued.
“I met a beautiful young woman, lively and full of mirth. She was also kind and generous. She taught me to laugh at myself and to not be afraid to be who I was. I would have married her if I could.”
“Why did you not?”
“She fell in love with someone better suited for her.”
“That is a very sad story, Sir John,” Mary answered with feeling.
“Do not feel too sorry for me. She knew she was not the right woman for me and I rejoice in her happiness. She and her husband are some of my dearest friends.
“I choose to think of what I would have lost had she accepted me. I do not think we would ever have loved each other and I know I would never have had her husband’s respect. We are all better for it, Miss Bennet.”
“Not many men could be so magnanimous.”
Sir John shrugged. “It is all I know. But enough about that – tell me more about yourself.”
Mary Bennet began, as fluently as she could, to tell Sir John about her life at Longbourn, her family’s estate. They became so engrossed in the conversation and patterns of the dance that neither they, nor Mr. Bingley and Miss Bennet noticed when Anne and Darcy arrived.
It had taken nearly a half-hour to settle little Elizabeth. By the time Anne was ready to leave, they were an hour late. Fortunately, they were able to slip into the room with no fanfare. The din of the music and conversation was fairly loud and their companions had not noticed. However, when the music stopped, both Bingley and Sir John had spotted them and were bringing their partners over to greet them.
Darcy and Anne noticed the woman on Bingley’s arm. How could they not? She was stunning; a classic beauty if ever there was one. In contrast, the young lady Sir John escorted had a pleasant face, if it could not be called pretty. Anne and Darcy were struck by a strong sense of familiarity when they were introduced to the Misses Bennet. Bingley insisted they meet the mother.
Sir William, Lady Lucas and Mrs. Bennet were standing together when Bingley brought the rest of his party and Mrs. Bennet’s two daughters to them.
“May I present my good friend, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley in Derbyshire and his lovely wife, Mrs. Anne Darcy.”
When they had finished with the formalities, Mrs. Bennet looked first at Mr. Darcy and then at Mrs. Darcy. She originally was admiring Mrs. Darcy’s gown but something drew her to look more intently at the fine lady’s face. Mrs. Bennet started and stared until her complexion paled and she felt very woozy. She tried to reach out to touch Anne’s cheek but fainted before she could do so. Sir William was forced to catch her before she could crumple to the floor. However, before she fainted, Mrs. Bennet uttered the words that left the six younger people who witnessed it in confusion and left Sir William and his wife in astonishment.
Sir William had spent many years cultivating his civility. He had left behind his business and retired to the life of a country squire. However, the qualities that had first earned him his knighthood once again came to the fore as he faced the situation before him. He peered into the confused face of Mrs. Darcy and saw in it the echoes of the woman he had known twenty years before. His wife must have seen the same thing, for without his prompting she looked him squarely in the eye.
“I will send for George immediately.”
“Thank you, dear.” He then turned his attention to the others as Lady Lucas hurried to complete her commission. “Mr. Bingley, Mr. Darcy, can you please help me remove Mrs. Bennet to a private room?” The incident had been noticed and the room was filled with murmuring.
Darcy moved first. “Of course sir.” Bingley joined him, taking Sir William’s place. “Lead the way.”
“Miss Bennet, Miss Mary, would you please see Mrs. Darcy to the blue room. I will come to bring you to your mother shortly.”
They obeyed and the room watched as the Mrs. Bennet was carried out by the two gentleman.
Miss Bennet and Miss Mary sat with Anne in the appointed room. No one seemed inclined to speak. Sir William came back to them with Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy as soon as his wife had returned from sending the servant for Mr. Bennet. He sent Miss Bennet to her mother and Miss Mary to tell her sister, Miss Catherine, that they would need to leave soon. Mr. Bingley returned to the rest of his party.
“Sir William,” Darcy began as soon as the door was closed, “Will you please explain what the devil is going on! Why is a woman we have never met calling my wife by my daughter’s name?”
“Mr. Darcy, I… You have a daughter named Elizabeth?”
“Yes, she is but two months old.”
Sir William shook his head. “I do not know where to begin. I fear this is not my tale to tell. I have summoned Mr. Bennet. He lives but a mile from Meryton and I expect him within minutes.”
Darcy was not happy. Something was terribly wrong; he knew it with all his being.
“Mrs. Darcy, please forgive my impertinence, but could you kindly tell me how old you are?”
“Whatever for?” Anne asked, incredulous.
“Please, I would not ask if it were not important.”
“I turned twenty last month.”
Sir William looked very grave.
“I say, what has my wife’s age to do with this?” Darcy demanded.
“Unless I am mistaken, Mr. Darcy, everything.”
The servant had arrived at Longbourn nearly out of breath.
“Lady Lucas has sent me to tell you… that Mrs. Bennet has fainted… that you are needed immediately. She says to tell you that it is a matter of life and death… and that you must come now. You are to take my horse, sir.”
George Bennet was used to his wife’s fits of nerves, but Lady Lucas’s message caught his attention. Whatever had happened?
He took the lad’s mount and made fast time between his estate and Meryton. He was obviously expected, for he received directions to a room upstairs without needing to ask.
Instead of his wife, he found Sir William with a couple he did not recognize.
“Where is Harriet?”
“She is resting with Jane and my wife. May I introduce to you Mr. and Mrs. Darcy? They were with your wife when she fainted. Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, this is George Bennet, master of Longbourn.”
“How do you do? Welcome to Hertfordshire… Please excuse me, I would like to see my wife.”
Sir William stopped him from leaving the room. “Look again, George, at Mrs. Darcy.”
Mr. Bennet was becoming perturbed with his neighbor, but did as asked in exasperation, hoping he would then be allowed to see his wife. As he looked upon the unknown woman in front of him, it slowly dawned on him that he was looking at his wife – or rather what his Harriet had looked like twenty years before.
“Could it be?” he gasped.
“Her twentieth birthday was last month.”
“My God…” And Mr. Bennet went weak in his knees.
“Here, take a seat,” Sir William said, pulling a chair near with his free hand. Mr. Bennet sat and started to weep.
“Will someone please tell us what is going on?” Darcy insisted on an answer.
Mr. Bennet and Sir William ignored him. “I must go to Harriet.”
“Calm yourself first. Her shock has been just as great.”
“We are leaving!” Darcy announced.
“Wait!” Mr. Bennet cried. He wiped the tears from his face and looked longingly at Anne. “I know you must be confused about all you have seen and heard this evening, but this is not the place to discuss it. I promise you a full accounting if you will call on Longbourn tomorrow morning. I give you my word that you shall know all I, and Sir William, know.” Sir William nodded in assent.
Anne could see they would receive no answers that night.
“Fitzwilliam, let us do as they ask,” she urged.
“Very well. We will come.”
“Thank you,” Mr. Bennet said quietly. Darcy and Anne hesitantly left the room. As she walked through the door she looked back. Mr. Bennet was watching her and she saw a look of desolation cross his face, followed by an expression of determination so intense that it made her spine tingle.
Again the door shut. Mr. Bennet looked at his old friend.
“Is it really she?”
“Perhaps. She certainly looks like Harriet.”
“I should go to her now.”
“Before you do, there is more you should know. She has a child. A daughter. They have named her Elizabeth.”
Mr. Bennet was grateful for the chair behind him. He immediately sat back down.
“If Mrs. Darcy is not my daughter, then fate is playing us a cruel trick. How else can we account for the name of the child?”
“Yet to have your child return and bring news you have a grandchild, could anything be more amazing?”
“If it is really Elizabeth.”
“I think it is time for me to take you to your wife; she is the one who noticed the resemblance.”
Mrs. Bennet was attended by her three daughters and Lady Lucas. When the gentlemen entered, Lady Lucas put her hand on her friend’s shoulder and kissed her on the cheek.
“I shall leave you to the care of your husband.”
“Thank you, Juliet.”
“I ordered your carriage when I sent the boy to you, Mr. Bennet. We shall inquire if it is ready and send word if it is.” Mr. Bennet nodded in acknowledgement and Sir William and his wife left the Bennets alone in the parlor.
“Papa?” Jane said timidly.
“Not here, girls.”
“Did you see her? Can it be? After all these years?” Mrs. Bennet asked her husband.
“I saw her, I really do not know. I have asked the Darcys to call on us at Longbourn in the morning. We should wait until then to get our hopes up.”
“Mine are already.”
“Are you speaking of Mrs. Darcy?” Mary inquired, unable to wait.
“Yes, but further discussion must wait until we are home,” her father replied.
It was an awkward journey. None of the girls dared ask their parents any more questions. Their father’s admonition at the Assembly Rooms precluded it. They could also see that their father – their father! – had been crying. Their mother, normally a woman full of words, said not a thing and sat next to their father, holding his hand, with a look of unburdened joy spread over her face visible even in the moonlight.
Of all their siblings who had remained home, only their sister Lydia was still awake. Mr. Bennet had told the girls to wait for him in his book room. He would see that their younger sister was in bed and then come to speak with them. This in and of itself would have told them how extraordinary the events of the night had been. Never before had he asked more than one of his children to come into his room, other than to hand out discipline.
When he finally arrived and closed the door, the three girls sat forward on the edge of their seats.
“You have heard that you had a sister born after Jane?” They all nodded. “You may have also heard that she… disappeared.”
“We have heard people gossip when they thought we could not hear. You have never spoken much about her,” Kitty answered.
“I suppose they have been kind to you by not recalling our misfortunes in front of us. But it is true; you had a sister who was kidnapped from us only days after she was born. We had named her Elizabeth.”
Meanwhile, at Netherfield, Anne and Darcy arrived less than two hours after they had left. They made their excuses to Bingley, who being witness to some of the distressing events, was sympathetic to their wishes to return to their daughter. Anne immediately went to the nursery to see for herself that her child was safe.
“What do you make of all this, Anne?” Darcy asked as they readied for bed.
“I have no idea! Neither of us has ever met with the Bennets before in our lives, but still…”
She looked him in the eye as she spoke. “It was like I knew that I should know them.”
Darcy dropped his gaze for a moment and then looked back up at his wife. “They acted as if you were someone they had lost track of a long time ago.”
“I know.” Anne paused to think on his words. “Do you suppose that they are related through my father’s mother? We know little about her family. That could explain some of their odd reactions.”
“Perhaps, but one thing is certain.” Darcy and Anne got in to bed and he pulled the covers up and over them. “I am not leaving Longbourn tomorrow until I have answers to all of my questions.”
The adults of Longbourn were up very early for the day after an assembly. Lydia Bennet had hoped to hear of all the beaux her sisters had danced with and any news of the mysterious Netherfield party. None of her sisters would satisfy her questions. They were all too preoccupied with what they had learned and what they anticipated happening on this day.
The Darcys arrived a short while after Sir William Lucas. He had come at Mr. Bennet’s request to act as a witness to the events twenty years in the past.
Anne noticed a painting had been removed from over the fireplace. One about the same size now leaned against the wall off to the side, its subject facing away from the room.
Mrs. Bennet sat quietly by her husband’s side, unable to keep her eyes off of Anne. Strangely, this did not make Anne uncomfortable.
When they were all seated, Mr. Bennet began.
“Thank you for coming, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy. You must have thought us half-insane the way we carried on last night. When you hear what we have to say, I hope you will understand why we acted in such an… agitated manner.”
“My wife and I are eager to hear your explanations.”
Mr. Bennet looked at Anne and gave her a wistful smile before exhaling. Then he spoke.
“What I am about to tell you has not been spoken of in this house for nearly twenty years. Until last night, the memories of the event were so painful that my wife and I tacitly agreed never to speak of them. My children know little to nothing of what I am about to tell you.
“On the second day of September 1791, my wife gave birth to our second child. It was a girl and we named her Elizabeth after a great-grandmother. A few days later the weather was very balmy and I took my little girl for a walk to show her my favorite part of this estate while the maids changed the linens in her cradle…”
Mr. Trent’s last hope of fulfilling his commission lay in a small estate in rural Hertfordshire. His client had requested a daughter of a gentleman. He had not been able to find a girl “in trouble” and due at the time he needed a child, and so he had looked to find a family who might also be expecting a baby then. None of his other prospects had turned out, and if this last child were unreachable, he would have to collect some foundling to pawn off to his employer. He really did not want to do that, though it was infinitely easier. There is honor even among thieves; Mr. Trent had promised the daughter of a gentleman and by heavens that is what he would try to deliver! He also knew by the amount he was being paid that the child he gave to his patron, whomever that might be, would be raised in great affluence. The plot was too elaborate and too well financed not to be the brainchild of a very wealthy person.
And so he had come to the small estate outside the village of Meryton. The house was not grand, but the grounds seemed well maintained. Fortunately, he was able to slip unnoticed into a wilderness off to the back of the house. From there he could observe the house and discern which room was the nursery. He watched for two days trying to formulate a plan. There was already another child in the nursery, about two years old if he was correct. Her presence complicated matters.
On the third day he had decided to wait for nightfall and then to sneak up the trellis and into the room while the household was asleep. While he waited, fate intervened.
A man, the master of the estate, Mr. Trent believed, came out of the house holding the newborn child. He was talking to the bundle in his arms, smiling and laughing and walking in the direction of the wilderness and Mr. Trent. Ever aware of opportunity, Mr. Trent hid himself and waited. The man holding the child walked past his hiding place and before he could react, Mr. Trent had leapt out and hit him over the head with a rock he had found lying near his feet. Not wanting the man to wake too soon to sound the alarm, Trent bound his hands and feet and gagged him. He then picked up the little girl and slipped away.
“… As soon as I was free from my bonds, I went for help. I must have been unconscious for a while because by the time I was able to sound the alarm, there was no trace of my assailant or my daughter. We searched the area but there was no sign. I knew that if he or she had gone to London that all hope was lost. There was no description I could give. I knew not even if it was a man or a woman who had assaulted me. We soon were forced to give up the search. Our daughter Mary was born a year later but she could never replace the loss of Elizabeth.”
Darcy and Anne looked at each other, dangerous thoughts thundering through their minds.
“What does this have to do with my wife?” Darcy finally asked.
“Mrs. Darcy has an uncanny resemblance to my family, sir. She is the right age to be my long lost daughter.”
“But this is impossible! I was but a young boy, but I remember my cousin’s birth!”
“I thought Mrs. Darcy was your wife.”
“She is, but we are also cousins. She is the former Miss Anne de Bourgh, daughter of my mother’s sister. My mother was her godmother. I have known her all my life. There must be a mistake!”
“Please calm down, sir. Before you storm out of my house, there is one thing you must see.” Mr. Bennet signaled to Sir William. He walked over to the painting Anne had noticed and picked it up. All eyes were on him as he turned it around for everyone to see. It was a portrait of a woman wearing the fashions of twenty years past. But for the different style of clothing and the styling of the hair, it looked for all the world to be a painting of Anne.
“This portrait was taken shortly after I was married. This is my wife, sir.”
In shock, Anne stood and walked over to the painting for a closer look. It was her image, or nearly hers. There were a few subtle differences but she knew then, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that only the closest of blood relations could look so incredibility similar.
Impossible as it seemed, it could only be the image of her mother.
Anne looked away from the painting and over to the woman it portrayed. The intervening years had aged her, but Mrs. Bennet was still a handsome woman. The lines time had written upon her face could not fully diminish her beauty.
Before Anne knew what she was about, she was kneeling before Mrs. Bennet. Continuing what she had begun the night before, the older woman’s hand reached to stroke her long-lost daughter’s face. Anne made no objection; she closed her eyes and gloried in the older woman’s touch. Her mother had rarely touched her; only her husband had done anything as intimate as what Mrs. Bennet was doing now. Anne, eyes still closed, sighed and leaned into the hand tracing her features. The others in the room sat transfixed at the scene unfolding before them.
Finally, Anne opened her eyes and smiled at Mrs. Bennet. It had been a moving experience for them both. Anne then looked at Fitzwilliam and faltered at seeing the serious looks on the faces of everyone else in the room. Whatever enchantment she was under was broken and the enormity of the revelations came crashing down upon her. In the space of a day, her life, and everything she had ever known, had apparently been turned upside down. Doubt overwhelmed her. Who was she? She did not know.
Seeing his wife’s burgeoning distress, Darcy asked, “Do you have something stronger than tea? I am not one to indulge this early in the morning, but considering all you have said, I think Anne and I could use a drink to settle the nerves.”
Sir William cleared his throat. “If you do not mind, I will leave you now, unless you have any further questions for me.” Darcy shook his head. “If you should change your mind, Lucas Lodge is very close to Longbourn. Let me assure you, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, that I will not breathe a word of this to anyone. Lady Lucas and I had already discussed the possibility that Mrs. Darcy might be Elizabeth and we have agreed that, until you tell us otherwise, it is in everyone’s best interest that we keep this to ourselves. Just know that if there is any way we can be of service, you need only ask. That holds true for every person in this room.”
Sir William bowed and left Mr. and Mrs. Bennet alone with Mr. and Mrs. Darcy.
Anne asked the question on everyone’s tongue. “What next?”
“I think we must first go to Kent and speak with Lady Catherine.” Darcy turned to his hosts. “Lady Catherine is Anne’s mother… well… mother and lives at the de Bourgh family estate in Kent called Rosings Park. She can confirm whether or not Anne was adopted.”
“Will she be willing to tell the truth if Anne was adopted?”
“I hope her conscience would make her. But I think we need to present her with compelling evidence. You should go with us, Mr. Bennet, as should the portrait. I would offer you and Mrs. Bennet a place in our carriage, but with our daughter and her nurse…”
“You have a child?” Mrs. Bennet asked in astonishment.
“Yes, ma’am. She was born at the beginning of August; her name is… her name is Elizabeth…” Darcy was suddenly struck by the incredible coincidence of the choice of name for his daughter. She had been named after her great-grandmother, the woman who was grandmother to both he and Anne – the Lady Elizabeth Fitzwilliam, the previous Countess of Perryton.
“Eliz… Mrs. Darcy, would you like to meet your other siblings?” Mrs. Bennet asked.
“I believe I met two of your daughters last night.”
“Jane and Mary, my eldest two children, though you are our second born.”
“I think it is presumptuous to introduce Anne as their long lost sister before we go to Rosings Park. This may yet prove to be a gross misunderstanding,” Darcy said firmly.
“Can we not meet them without saying what we suspect? Please, I want to see them to see if I look like them.” Anne pleaded with her husband, then addressed Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. “Everyone always assumed I took after my father, Sir Lewis de Bourgh, since I look nothing like the Fitzwilliams. Perhaps it will give us another clue to my identity, if I am indeed Elizabeth Bennet.”
“Elizabeth Darcy,” Fitzwilliam corrected.
“That is what I meant, darling,” Anne said softly.
“I know. This is all so… unexpected, Anne. I hardly know what to think.”
“I think we should meet the other Bennet children.”
Darcy relented. “Of course, you are correct.”
“Let me take you to them, Mrs. Darcy,” offered Mr. Bennet.
“Do any of them know of your suspicions?” Darcy asked, not moving until he was ready.
“The three eldest girls do. They were at the Assembly ball last night and their mother and I spoke to them after we returned. The other four have no idea, though they were told to remain in the house this morning. I anticipated that you might wish to meet them. Whoever is not in the morning room should be upstairs attending to their lessons.
Let me ring for a servant to see that all my children are together.”
A few minutes later, when all parties were ready, the Bennets led the Darcys to meet Anne’s brothers and sisters. They had decided not to say anything to the younger children until they had met with Lady Catherine, and that they would travel together to Town the next morning, and then on to Rosings the following day.
Everything was moving forward so quickly that Anne did not have time to question what was happening. She had allowed herself to be caught in the tide of her new fate and her husband could only stand by her side, ready to support her when it became too much for her to bear.
Anne tried to remember what Mr. Bennet had told her about each of his children. Jane was the eldest, and two and twenty. Anne had to agree that she was a very attractive young lady and wondered how it was that Miss Bennet was still unmarried. Surely some young man would have been captivated by her beauty and made her an offer by now? Next in line, after the missing Elizabeth… her?… was Mary. Mary had just turned nineteen. Anne thought her the least attractive of all the sisters, but growing up in the shadow of such an eldest sister could be intimidating for a girl without a strong personality. From what Anne had noticed of the young woman, she did not believe Mary to be the assertive type. Catherine, or Kitty as the family called her, was seventeen. Anne had seen the girl the night before but had not actually talked with her. She seemed handsome enough.
The rest of the siblings she had yet to lay eyes on. Lydia was just fifteen. Mr. Bennet had said she was physically mature for her age and when introduced, Anne noted that she seemed the tallest of the girls. Young William Bennet was thirteen and the pride and joy of his parents. He could have been sent off to school that year, but Mr. Bennet preferred to educate him at home for the present time. He was a handsome lad, still a boy and not quite a young man. After William came Anne Bennet. Anne Darcy marveled at the coincidence, though Anne was a common enough Christian name that it should not be too surprising they shared it. Anne felt her husband tense when the girl was introduced and took a closer look at the child. She did remind Anne of herself as girl. The set of Darcy’s jaw told Anne he had come to the same conclusion. Last but not least was Henry Bennet, the youngest of the Bennet children and the ever-important “spare” for the preservation of the estate against the threat of entailment. He was only ten years of age but Anne detected a spirit of mischievousness in the twinkle of his eyes.
“It is a pleasure to meet you again, Mrs. Darcy,” Jane Bennet began once they were all seated. “I am afraid last night was not the most conducive to forming a new acquaintance.” Anne had to restrain a laugh when she noted that Jane was looking at her just as intently as she was looking at Jane for family resemblances. Anne’s love of the absurd tugged the corners of her mouth up.
“It is understandable under the circumstances. I have a feeling we will be getting to know each other quite well, Miss Bennet.”
“Unfortunately, that will have to wait a few days more,” Darcy interposed. “We have an urgent matter to attend to in Kent and we leave in the morning.”
Jane did not question such a hasty departure so soon after they had arrived. “I pray that you have a safe journey then. Will you return to Hertfordshire?”
“It is our intention to do so. Our host, Mr. Bingley, would be disappointed if we do not. If you will excuse me, ladies, I need to speak to Mr. Bennet again.”
Mr. Bennet agreed to Mr. Darcy’s request for another interview.
“I am sorry to pull you away so soon, sir, but I deemed it more important that we speak now.”
“What is it, Mr. Darcy?”
“After meeting your children, I believe it imperative that your youngest daughter, Miss Anne, travel to Kent with us.”
“My Anne? Why?”
Darcy walked over and picked up the portrait of Mrs. Bennet. He stared at it for a few moments. “There is another portrait. This one hangs at Rosings Park, my wife’s estate.” Darcy turned the picture so that Mr. Bennet could see it. “As much as this painting is an indictment of Anne’s supposed paternity, the other is its twin.”
It took only a minute for Mr. Bennet to realize the implications. “Are you saying I would recognize the person in the painting at Rosings?”
“It is of my wife when she was your Anne’s age.”
“I see. Anne is too young to understand.”
“She need not be present when I confront Lady Catherine. We can think of something on the way. Perhaps her governess can come and keep her company?”
“We have no governess.”
“No governess, with seven children?”
“The eldest three no longer need one.”
“But still, four children? What about their education?”
“My wife and I have taught them. We did have a governess until Jane was old enough to help.”
“Why on earth would you rely on your daughter to take the place of a governess to her brothers and sisters?”
“I said that Mrs. Bennet and I oversaw their education. Jane helped with the little ones.” Mr. Bennet pinched the bridge of his nose. “Mr. Darcy, your estate…”
“Yes, Pemberley. I have seen the fine clothes you and Mrs. Darcy wear. You are a wealthy man. I would guess that Pemberley and Rosing Park provide you with an income of, say ten, fifteen, twenty thousand pounds a year, and maybe even more.” Darcy acknowledged the guesses were near enough. “Longbourn has never produced as much as three-thousand in one year. As you have pointed out, I have seven children to raise. The girls have very little dowry coming from their mother. Henry will need a profession. Every farthing that could be saved has been. Oh, I was not always so economical, but when my baby was stolen from my very hands, I knew I must do everything in my power to better protect my family. I live with my own guilt. It was too late to save Elizabeth from her abductor, but by God I could save the rest from genteel poverty! That is why we kept having children after a fifth girl was born, that is why we have no governess. I may not provide them with everything, but I do provide them with everything they need. I will not apologize for my lack of a governess. Not to you, not to anyone.”
“Forgive me sir, I did not realize.” The sat in silence for a few minutes. “Will you bring Miss Anne? Perhaps Miss Bennet or Miss Mary or Miss Catherine could come with you as well.”
“Jane needs to remain here if Mrs. Bennet and I are absent. Is it this important?”
Darcy took one more look at the painting before placing it back on the wall where it had previously hung. He took a few steps back to admire it from further away. “Mr. Bennet, I was skeptical of this whole story until you showed us this portrait. Still, my mind was not willing to admit the possible truth of the matter. It is not often that one is confronted with the knowledge that the woman you love more than anything else in the world is not who you thought she was. It is also distressing that my family could have anything to do with the crime perpetrated against yours. But here I stand and look at the evidence hanging on the wall, and in the drawing room sits a young girl who could be my wife’s twin if they were both twelve. For all of our sakes, Miss Anne must come to Rosings so we can put this to rest, either way, once and for all. Either my wife is your missing daughter or she is not. I, for one, would like to know as soon as possible. If she is, it could have far reaching affects on both our families, including my own daughter.”
Darcy’s face softened as he turned to his companion. “I too am a father. I cannot imagine the pain I would feel if I were to lose my Elizabeth. To have someone take your own flesh and blood, from your very arms even, is a memory no man should be forced to bear.”
“I am not taking your wife from you, sir.” Mr. Bennet said gently.
“I pray that is not what happens if she truly is your daughter.”
“She has given her vows to you, nothing can change that.”
“Anne is still in shock; when she has time to digest everything we will be devastated that her mother could have done this, or her father. She never knew him, for Sir Lewis died before Anne was even a year old, but she has fond feelings for him. She also has a very… passionate relationship with her mother, but Anne loves her dearly. Mr. Bennet, I am afraid for them both.”
“Do you think it is true?” Anne asked Fitzwilliam when they were back in their quarters at Netherfield.
“At first I was skeptical, but then we saw the painting and met Anne Bennet.”
“I know, it was the same for me.” Anne swallowed, willing the tears to remain at bay. “Fitzwilliam, I am so afraid. What if it is true? What will happen to me, to us?”
Fitzwilliam held his wife in his arms; she cried freely now. “Nothing can break us apart. We are married and no one can change that. You are a Darcy whether your name was Anne or Elizabeth when you were born. I love you.”
He continued to hold her until she fell asleep, all the while assuring her of his devotion.
Two carriages traveled together to London the following morning. Anne had insisted that baby Elizabeth come with them. She could not stand the thought of being parted from her sweet daughter. Kitty Bennet was chosen as her youngest sister’s companion for the journey. The two coaches arrived in Town in the early afternoon. Due to the hasty nature of their mission, Darcy had invited the Bennets to stay with them. He had been told that Mrs. Bennet had a brother in Gracechurch Street, but he thought that the fewer people who knew about this, the better.
After having the chance to refresh themselves, the party gathered in the drawing room. Young Anne saw a very large chair and went to sit in it. Her feet dangled off the end.
“Are you sure you are comfortable?” Mr. Bennet asked his youngest daughter.
“Oh yes, Papa! Have you ever seen such a large chair?”
“The chair you are sitting in, Miss Anne, is the favorite chair of Mrs. Darcy’s mother, Lady Catherine.”
“Your mother must be very large to like such a huge chair, ma’am.”
Anne Darcy laughed. “Not at all, I assure you.”
“I wonder if this is as big as the special chairs the King and Queen sit on?”
“Do you mean a throne?”
“Yes, that is the word. A throne.”
Anne Darcy cast a quick look at her husband; he was trying not to laugh at the very perceptive description of his mother-in-law’s favorite seat.
“Would you care for a tour of the townhouse?”
“Can we?” young Anne asked. It was apparent to all that she was eager to explore the large London house.
“We would be delighted, Mrs. Darcy,” Mr. Bennet replied.
Anne led the way, arm linked with Anne Bennet. The little imp of a girl was quickly worming her way into her could-be sister’s heart.
“My sister Lydia will be so jealous of Kitty and me. She wanted to come, you know, but Papa said Kitty and I were coming and that was the end of the discussion. We never do anything so spontaneous. Oh, you have such a grand house, Mrs. Darcy. My bedroom at Longbourn is not even a quarter of the size of my chamber here, and I share with Lydia. Is that a real ancient Greek statue?” She hardly drew breath, flitting from one topic to the next without pause… or reason.
Anne Darcy appreciated the lighthearted diversion. Tomorrow they would be in Kent. Never in a million years would she have guessed she would see her mother again so soon, and at Rosings. That is, the woman she had always called her mother. Would she still after their meeting?