The dirt of the city gave way to the crisp, cool air of the country as the Darcy carriage rolled toward Hertfordshire. The inhabitants watched the scenery and the slow sway of their conveyance threatened to lull them back to sleep. Darcy and Anne recognized a few landmarks, having come that way just the week before. Georgiana had no idea where they were.
“Shall we arrive soon?” she asked.
They had just ridden through a small town Darcy knew to be Meryton. “Just two or three miles farther, I believe.”
“I look forward to seeing Mr. Bingley and Sir John again. They are both so kind to me, Mr. Bingley especially so for allowing me to come.”
“You know Charles Bingley, the more the merrier.” They all smiled. Bingley truly was an amiable fellow.
Miss Bingley greeted her guests as they arrived.
“Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, you have been missed. Miss Darcy, welcome to Netherfield.”
“Thank you, and I promise our current stay will be of a longer duration,” Anne said with a hint of mischievousness in her eyes.
“We cannot help it when urgent matters arise. I trust everything was settled to your satisfaction?”
Miss Bingley could see that no more information would be forthcoming, so she led her guests inside, offering them all a chance to refresh themselves after the journey.
“Charles, Hurst and Sir John should return by the time you have had a chance to rest.”
“Where are the gentlemen?”
“Shooting with Mr. Bennet at his estate. This is the third time they have been to Longbourn since the Bennets returned.” Both Anne and Darcy detected a bit of exasperation in her voice. He was the one who replied.
“Your brother is getting to know his neighbors. After all, he is now, by his occupancy of Netherfield, one of the leaders in the local society. It does him credit to desire to strengthen his ties to the neighborhood.”
“I fear he has only one ‘tie’ in mind,” Miss Bingley muttered, but Anne heard her. Not liking the implied scorn, she decided to be a little more forthcoming about their trip to Kent.
“Yes, but it is an association of which I highly approve. Mrs. Bennet, you see, is my cousin. Our trip to Kent was to confirm the relationship.”
“Yes, through my father. He had lost contact with them even before I was born.”
“How did this come to light?”
Anne smiled. “There is a strong family resemblance between us. Miss Anne, her daughter, shares this resemblance as well. I for one look forward to renewing the acquaintance. Kinship is kinship, Miss Bingley.”
“Yes, well, as I said, I expect the gentlemen to return soon. I will show you to your rooms.”
That evening, as they were gathered waiting to be called to supper, Darcy and Anne gave them the edited version of their journey to Rosings, revealing Anne and Mrs. Bennet’s ‘cousinship’.
“You are cousins? I knew the Bennets seemed familiar!” Sir John exclaimed. “No wonder Miss Mary reminded me of you.”
“Mary Bennet?” Anne noted the softness of his expression when he spoke her sister’s name.
“Er, yes. I escorted Miss Mary to and from Longbourn whilst Miss Bennet recovered from a cold here at Netherfield.”
“Miss Bennet stayed at Netherfield?” Anne was amazed to hear her sister had been at Netherfield in their absence.
“Yes, last week when she came for dinner she fell ill. Did not Caroline tell you?” Mr. Bingley asked.
“No, it must have slipped her mind.”
Miss Bingley had been conversing with Georgiana, but heard her name mentioned.
“What must have slipped my mind?”
“Miss Bennet’s convalescence here last week,” Sir John answered.
“Oh yes. I invited her and Miss Mary for dinner, but only Miss Bennet was able to accept,” Miss Bingley confirmed. “She fell ill and stayed several nights here until she was sufficiently recovered to return home on Sunday.
“Miss Bennet was a very obliging patient and Miss Mary visited for an hour, twice. Sir John was kind enough to see that Miss Mary made the trip without any mishaps. I believe her visits brought Miss Bennet great comfort. There is nothing like sisterly affection to soothe the soul. Is this not true, Louisa?”
Louisa agreed, but not enthusiastically. “Of course. The bonds of sisterly affection are unique to… sisters.”
Sir John could not stay out of the conversation. “As an only child, I cannot give you my opinion, but it was clear that Miss Mary is very attached to Miss Bennet and I found such genuine fondness refreshing. It reminded me, Mrs. Darcy, of the attachment between you and Miss Darcy.”
Anne thought it humorous that Sir John used her as an example, and not their hostess, but hid her mirth. “In that case, I should call on my cousins tomorrow and witness such felicity in person,” she replied instead.
It was a full day’s journey to Suffolk. Lord Perryton knew that he was probably wasting his time traveling to meet the elderly Mr. Hedges, who was most likely out of his wits, but he had promised Anne and Fitzwilliam to search for the truth and that meant he must go. The thought of delegating this meeting to anyone was quickly put aside; there were some things he must do himself. Mr. Simmons had provided a letter of introduction and another declaring the earl’s intention to visit had been dispatched two days before. He would call on Mr. Hedges in the morning.
The Hedges estate was a modest one, Lord Perryton noted as his carriage rolled up the drive. The house did seem to be in good repair. A man near in age to the earl came out to greet him.
“Lord Perryton, welcome to Ryson. I am Edward Hedges, we have been expecting you.”
Harold Fitzwilliam followed his host inside, and accepted the offer of refreshments.
“I understand that you wish to speak to my father?” Mr. Hedges asked once they had been seated and served.
“Yes, regarding some papers he drew up for other members of my family.”
“I hate to disappoint you, for you have traveled a fair distance, but I highly doubt my father will be able to give you any help. He… his mind is gone, sir.”
“So Mr. Simmons warned me. Yet I must try.” He then explained as much as he dared to his host, trying to impart how important his mission was and why he needed to see the senior Mr. Hedges.
Mr. Hedges sighed. “Lord Perryton, for many years my father lived a very frugal existence. His dream was to own an estate. He was a younger son of a younger son; you can only guess how that limited his circumstances. Still, he remembered the idyllic days of his youth on his grandfather’s estate. He swore his grandchildren would have the same opportunity some day. When I was old enough, I went to work for him at the practice and together we saved every shilling. One day, fate smiled upon us and one of my father’s clients found himself on the wrong end of a card game. He needed money and my father offered to buy Ryson for a modest but fair amount. We had just enough saved between us to purchase the estate he had always dreamed of owning. My father and mother, and my wife and I, left London, left the practice, and moved here. We have lived at Ryson peacefully for nearly nineteen years. However, in that time my father’s mind has slowly faded. He is nothing more than a child in his faculties. I will not have him distressed.”
“Mr. Hedges, I understand your reticence to allow me to see him, but is there not some way I can at least ask him if he remembers a name?”
Lord Perryton watched as the younger Mr. Hedges pondered his request.
“Do you fish, milord?”
“Yes, but what has that to do with anything?” the earl asked, surprised at the turn in conversation.
“My father loved to fish. When he is well enough, I take him to a spot where he can still indulge in the pastime. Though such occurrences are rare now. I think he would enjoy swapping fish-tales, if you are up to it. Just leave the conversation to me and we will see what happens. Will that satisfy you?”
“Under the circumstances, I think it must.”
The first thing the earl noticed when they entered old Mr. Hedge’s room was the smell; surely an aging person must live there. Then he saw a frail looking white-haired gentleman. He appeared to be dozing. A few thin wisps of hair stuck out at odd angles from the top of his head and his chin dug into his chest.
Edward Hedges walked over to the elderly man and gently shook his shoulder.
“Father,” he said quietly. “Father, I have brought someone to see you. He loves to fish as much as we do.”
The old man woke. “Fish, you say?”
“Yes,” the son chuckled, “I think almost as much as you. Would you like to meet the gentleman?”
“Of course, where is he?”
The earl watched the old man scan the room but it was obvious he did not see him. Lord Perryton now understood the old man was also blind.
“Father, the man I have brought to you is the Earl of Perryton.”
“An earl come to see me?”
“Yes, Mr. Hedges. I have learned we share the same passion for fishing.”
Old Randolph Hedges became very animated and began to recount pike, trout and salmon caught in days gone by. The son encouraged his father’s reminiscing and Lord Perryton wondered if they would ever get anywhere.
“Do you like to fish in Kent? Lord Perryton told me earlier about an estate there where he has angled many times. What was the name, milord?”
“Rosings Park, the home of Sir Lewis de Bourgh.”
The old man had no look of recognition on his face. “Kent? No, I prefer the family estate in Shropshire.”
Edward Hedges looked at the earl, his expression saying ‘we tried’ and ‘I told you it was hopeless’. In deference to his hosts, Lord Perryton listened patiently as the older man rambled on. It became increasingly clear that past and present were no longer distinctions. In Randolph Hedge’s mind, all was a muddle and his hold on the here and now was gone. Even if he had remembered Sir Lewis, nothing he said could be taken as fact.
Once the interview was over, Edward Hedges took the earl back to his study.
“Thank you sir, I appreciate the attempt.”
“You are welcome. I wish he could remember, there is so much that he has forgotten,” Hedges said dejectedly. The earl understood; the man Edward Hedges knew as his father was gone forever. Only the grave held any hope for a future reunion.
“It occurs to me that I failed to ask you if you had any information that could help. You did work with your father.”
“I did, but by that time, it had been many years since I had been his clerk. I had my own clients and my own clerk. And we made it a practice not to talk about business when we were at home. My mother and my wife insisted. They sacrificed more than we did to see the dream of Ryson become a reality. It was a reasonable request.”
“I have taken up enough of your time, Mr. Hedges. I should leave you now.”
“Please, stay for supper. My wife would never forgive me if I let you go without extending an invitation. A lord here at Ryson!”
Harold Fitzwilliam laughed. “You are very generous, sir. I would be honored to dine with you. We must keep the ladies happy!”
“In that case, let us go and find her to share the good news. She is probably anxiously waiting in her parlor with my youngest daughter. I shall introduce you.”
Lord Perryton willingly went to meet his fate for the evening. He was resigned; Mr. Hedges had tried to help. It was not his fault that his father’s mind was too far gone to shed any light on the mystery of Anne’s past. At least he would not have to eat at the inn.
It is hard to say which household awoke with greater anticipation, Longbourn or Netherfield. The Darcys had sent a note to Longbourn the previous evening announcing their return to Hertfordshire and the intention to visit the following morning.
When Anne had declared their intent the night before, the rest of the Netherfield party announced their desire to join them. Anne had hoped to only bring Georgiana with her and Fitzwilliam, but the others seemed oblivious to her desires and more than willing to join in the call. The lone exception to this was Mr. Hurst. He never had a desire to spend more time in a drawing room than absolutely necessary. On the other hand, if they were going to Longbourn to shoot again… but as that was not the case he declared his resolve to stay at Netherfield.
Such was the size of the contingent, that two carriages were readied after breakfast for the monumental call. Anne and Fitzwilliam decided that Elizabeth should stay behind with her nursery maid. The Bingleys and Sir John occupied the Bingley coach, and the Darcys filled their equipage. Georgiana was visibly both nervous and excited. Anne felt the same way, even though she had met them all before. Still, this time she knew they were her long-lost family.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet greeted the horde that had descended upon their drawing room. Ordinarily, Mr. Bennet would have left the entertaining to his wife, but this was not a normal visit nor were these normal visitors – at least not all of them.
After the introductions, Charles Bingley took the opportunity to secure the open seat next to Miss Bennet and Sir John was just as swift at singling out Miss Mary Bennet as his nearest neighbor. Anne noticed the two gentlemen’s choices and raised her eyebrow towards her husband. They had discussed their suppositions about the two potential couples the previous evening when they had retired for the night. This only strengthened her astonished conviction that her sisters had acquired two beaux from Netherfield whilst the Darcys were away.
“We are very glad to welcome all of you to Longbourn this morning,” Mrs. Bennet preened.
“My sister was very eager to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Bennet.” Anne informed the rest of the party. She wanted to add, ‘Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst are here to find gossip fodder but the men appear to have reasons wholly unconnected with me.’ But she was too well bred to say it.
“Did you have a pleasant journey from Town, Miss Darcy?”
“Yes, the roads were in good condition.” Mrs. Bennet waited for the girl to say more, but Georgiana had said all she had planned to say on the subject. An awkward silence descended, except for Miss Bennet and Miss Mary and their companions. They were engrossed in their own conversations.
“How was your time in Surrey?” Mr. Bennet asked.
“Very eventful, sir. Anne’s cousin’s wife gave birth while we were at Thigston – a boy. Anne and I are to be his godparents.”
“An heir! How comforting it must be to know that all is settled. Mr. Bennet and I waited for William for nine long years. With the entail, it was a great relief when he was born. Not that I love my girls any less, but for our continued residence at Longbourn my daughters needed a brother. What would have become of us without him, or Henry for that matter? We are safe from being cast in the hedgerows, now.”
Anne felt a little discomfort at her mother’s speech. This was not a new phenomenon to her. Any child of Lady Catherine de Bourgh was bound to hear something mortifying at least once a week.
“Yes, yes. William has saved you from such a fate, my dear. But I am proud of all my children,” Mr. Bennet interjected. “Darcy, you missed some fine shooting the other day. Can I persuade you to join us the next time your companions can drag themselves away from the women of the house to go hunting?”
“Of course. That is one of the diversions my friend promised when he invited us. I would be honored.”
The conversation continued on a pleasantly superficial course until propriety called for the Bingleys and Sir John to leave. The Darcys stayed with the excuse of renewing familial ties.
Safely alone, Anne smiled. “Where do we begin?”
“Miss Darcy?” Mr. Bennet needed only to say the name.
“She has been told everything; she is my sister as well.”
Mr. Bennet relaxed. “Good. Miss Darcy, I am sure all of this comes as quite a shock. Let me assure you that it has been the same for us.”
“Thank you, sir. I wanted to meet Anne’s family.”
“I should think so did Anne,” Mr. Bennet said with a twinkle in his eye. He stood up and walked over to his stand behind his eldest daughter.
“We were all introduced, but now that we know we are family, might we begin anew? This is your eldest sister, Jane. A more beautiful and graceful woman you will never meet. The prettiest young lady in the country.” Jane blushed. “Mary is the scholar among your sisters. She especially loves to read guides to moral behavior. Do not let that fool you; she is a sensible girl despite it – when she thinks no one is looking.”
“Father!” Mary laughed.
“You have met Kitty, or Catherine, as she is now desirous of being called after her trip to Kent. I may not forgive you, Mrs. Darcy, for this strain on my domestic tranquility.” Mr. Bennet moved behind the chair where Lydia sat. “Lydia is probably the only one disappointed to meet you. She has long made it known that her business in life was to be married before all of her sisters.”
“Papa!” Lydia protested. Unfortunately the effect was ruined when she giggled.
“Anne has not stopped talking about Rosings Park since we left. And that is the sum of your sisters. Fortunately for me, you have two brothers. Without them I would have to hide in my library to escape incessant prattle about female fripperies!”
“But you are nearly always in your library, Papa,” young Henry replied innocently.
“Ah, but not all the time.” Mr. Bennet winked at his youngest son and walked over to his other son.
“William is his mother’s pride and joy. Just ask all the other families in the neighborhood. However, he is also his father’s protégé and will someday make a better master of Longbourn than his father before him.” William Bennet lowered his eyes and blushed. “See, he is already a humble young man. Ah, but not our Hal. Henry is the youngest, the fearless one, and will be the death of his mother, or so she says. He declares he will go to sea to make his fortune; his mother and I favor a safer profession.”
“I shall go to sea! In another two years I will be old enough. And when I am twenty I will be a captain and have my own ship to command,” Henry informed all those present.
“Time will tell, son.”
Anne had enjoyed her father’s introductions. She looked to her husband and sister and could see that they could not quite make the man out. The rest of the family did not seem too surprised. They may have tried to feign outrage, but it was obvious that they were used to such demonstrations and did not mind. Anne also sensed something else. Here was a family whose members cared for each other. She did not sense any petty dislike. They were able to laugh at each other and themselves. This was so different than the other families she had known, and to some extent their own. The Bennets were comfortable with their situation in the world and a little teasing on the patriarch’s part did nothing to shake their contentment with their life.
After Mr. Bennet’s speech, the tension in the room eased and the conversation flowed in a more natural pattern. Nothing of much consequence was discussed, as befitting the establishment of any new acquaintance. This continued until Mrs. Bennet asked Anne if she wished to see the rest of the house. Anne did.
“Before you set off exploring,” Mr. Bennet interjected. “I would suggest a tour of the grounds. The weather is fine, and,” his voice caught, “I believe Eliz…Anne and I have had a twenty year interruption in our last walk to bring to a close.”
Anne Darcy startled at this. She looked at the man who had come to stand before her, hand outstretched, and saw the mingled emotions once again run across his face. She smiled and grasped his hand as she rose.
“I am ready to continue where we left off… Father.”
The next few days were unlike anything Anne Darcy had ever experienced. Her mornings were mostly spent at Longbourn getting to know her family and she often could be found walking with one or two of her sisters about the grounds.
Anne seemed drawn to a particular spot her father had shown her during their emotional tour of the gardens. They had been strolling in a wilderness area when Anne felt Mr. Bennet tense and stop. She noted that the foliage hid them from the view of the house.
“We are here,” her father said softly.
“The place where our lives were changed. This is where I was standing when you were taken from me.”
“Oh.” A pang of an unknown dread made her stiffen.
They stood there for a few minutes; Anne did not know what to say to break the spell.
At last Mr. Bennet spoke. His voice quivered. “After you … left, for a long time I could not find the inner fortitude to come here. Finally, on the one year anniversary of your disappearance, I made myself come to this place to beg God to return you to us.” Mr. Bennet wiped at his eye with his free hand; the other remained clutching Anne. “The next time I returned was one year later, and then the year after that and so on – never broken until today. Always it was the same, praying for your safety and for you to be reunited with us. This is the first time in twenty years that I have been here other than my annual pilgrimage.”
“Will you come more often now that your prayers have been answered?” Anne asked, as moved as her father.
“Yes, though I suppose this will be a bittersweet place for me.” Mr. Bennet led them to a bench not far away. “Your father has many faults, Anne. I often wonder how much better, or worse, things would have been if you had not been gone. I tend toward indolence, my dear, and there were many, many occasions when I wanted to have done with all the economy and struggles to save money. Your mother has very expensive tastes in clothing and – I should warn you – an insatiable affinity for lace. As well, her idea of a good table often exceeds her allowed funds. Normally I am able to withstand her entreaties for a few pounds more, but there are times when I am worn down by all my cares and nearly give in to her requests, for they are not completely unreasonable. However, in those times I look towards here and remember how I once failed my family. I have vowed never to do so again.”
“You are too hard on yourself,” Anne protested. “How could you have known that danger lurked within the grounds of Longbourn? What could you have done to prevent it?”
Mr. Bennet smiled one of his sad, knowing smiles.
“Eliz… Anne, you are a mother. I think you can understand my reactions better than you realize. What if you returned to Netherfield to discover your Elizabeth had, through no one’s fault, been hurt. How would you feel?”
Anne bit her lip and then looked at her father.
“I would feel responsible because I was not there to see to her safety.” Anne paused. “I begin to see your point.” Wishing to change the subject, she suggested. “Shall we continue?”
Mr. Bennet forestalled her attempts to continue their walk. “Wait a few more moments. I have something else I wish to speak to you about.”
“Anne, I know this cannot be easy for you. It must still be somewhat of a shock. I ask for your patience and forbearance with us. No Bennet is perfect, and I am certain there will be times you will wonder about us. We are simply who we are – imperfect people. We will disappoint you, and I daresay even embarrass you. We mean no offense, but none of us are used to such refined circles in which you now move. In comparison, we are uncouth and simple folk. But we are your family.”
Touched, Anne smiled. “I know you are my family. I do not doubt that anymore. As for the other, I believe we will all try.”
Anne was content with how the reunion was proceeding – until Mrs. Philips called. It was impossible that they would remain secluded from callers any longer and this was a visitor who too was family.
“Cousins? My dear Mrs. Darcy, I had no idea!” Mrs. Philips turned her attention from Anne back to her mother, though she never really stopped speaking to Anne. “Our great grandmother’s aunt? How exciting! Mrs. Darcy certainly bears a strong resemblance to you, Sister. What a fine thing for your children! I would be ecstatic if I had children of my own left to marry. Will you go to Town for the Season then? Think of all the rich men the girls will meet. London! Oh, how I wish Mr. Philips would take us to London.”
While Anne Darcy was fairly used to the effusions of overbearing women – she had been raised by Lady Catherine de Bourgh, after all – the lack of decorum just demonstrated by the woman who was her aunt nearly made her lose her composure. Nearly.
“Nothing has been decided upon, Mrs. Philips, including when Mr. Darcy and I will be in Town.”
“Yes, but you have a house there, and the country is nothing to life in London.”
“I grant you, madam, that London is full of opportunities one can only find there, but that does not mean that the country does not have its own attraction. I enjoy living at our estates as much as I enjoy the entertainments the London Season affords. This past year we have spent the majority of our time in Derbyshire and I have not missed living in Town at all.”
Mrs. Bennet needed to have her share in the conversation. “Our cousin had her first confinement this year, Sister. Of course they would have remained on their estate for the birth of their daughter.”
“Oh, I see now!” Mrs. Philips cried in understanding. “The air in the city is not safe for a woman in such a delicate condition. Of course you wanted to give birth at the child’s ancestral home. It is perfectly clear to me now. But a daughter? Let us hope you are not like your cousin Harriet and give birth to five daughters before producing a son and heir.” She turned to Mrs. Bennet and dropped her voice to a loud whisper. “Mr. Bennet was very tolerant about that, Sister. Thankfully I gave Mr. Philips the two sons he wanted right away and could end all that that entailed.”
Mrs. Bennet gave Mrs. Philips a knowing look. Anne used the lull to change subjects and asked Mrs. Philips about her sons. As her aunt was willing to talk about her children, Anne was not required to do more than politely listen. Anne knew what the woman had referred to before while speaking of heirs, and Anne pitied her. There was more to coming together as man and wife than the procreation of children, but Anne knew that not many couples experienced the joy of a love match. What should be a pleasure was a duty.
Once again Anne thanked God for her husband. He was the perfect match for her.
Darcy had overheard much of the conversation with the women before Mr. Bennet offered an escape to the library. He could tell by his wife’s posture how uncomfortable she was. He also knew that she did not need his assistance; she was the one more able to tolerate society both at its best and at its worst.
Mr. Bennet offered his unexpected son-in-law a drink.
“I suppose it should have occurred to us that you would have other family in the neighborhood,” Darcy confessed.
Mr. Bennet dismissed his offered defense with a wave of the hand. “It is my fault. I should have discussed my other relations before now. Though having met one of them, I think you might understand why I was avoiding introducing this particular connection. What makes it all the more humiliating is that I spoke to Mr. Philips yesterday.”
Darcy raised his eyebrow, intrigued.
“Mr. Philips is not only my brother-in-law, but my attorney as well. I went to see him about formalizing Anne in my will. She will have her equal share of her mother’s dowry along with her brother and sisters.”
“Sir, that is unnecessary. Anne is more than well provided for and I am confident that she would rather see the money go to her siblings. It cannot be a great sum and…”
“I appreciate what you are trying to say, Darcy, but consider this – she had her life here at Longbourn stolen from her. Would you now deny Eliz…Anne her birthright as well?”
“No sir, I would not. However, I know my wife well enough to tell you that she would be much more satisfied in sharing it with her siblings who do not have anything near the dowry she was given by her adoptive parents. This does not even take into account her inheritance from her father, from Sir Lewis. He made her his sole heir.”
“I am well aware of his efforts to buy his pardon. All the better that Anne is treated with the honor and respect due Elizabeth Bennet, my daughter.”
Darcy could see he was getting nowhere with the gentleman and that continuing the discussion would do nothing but anger the man displaced as his wife’s father.
“Then on behalf of my wife, I thank you.”
Mr. Bennet relaxed his tightened jaw and let out the breath he was holding. The hard look on his face faded to the more accustomed sardonic smile.
“I have always said young lovers will rant and storm to have their way, but I think the righteous indignation of a father is a fair match.”
The corners of Darcy’s mouth twitched. He took a sip of his drink. “Indeed.”
Alone that night in their room at Netherfield, Fitzwilliam told Anne of her father’s actions.
“I wish he had not done it. The Bennets cannot have much money to offer their children. Her father was an attorney. Mrs. Philips told me herself that her husband was once his clerk. The estate itself is not half the size of Rosings or anything near Pemberley. I would not be surprised if my de Bourgh dowry is twice as much as the Bennets’ combined.”
“I agree, but Mr. Bennet would not be moved. He insists it is yours and was becoming quite belligerent. Anne, I think he still harbors much guilt about your abduction and that naming you in his will is a means for him to exorcise some of the self-reproach he bears. There is also the small fact that you are his daughter and entitled to your share.”
“I do not need it.”
“Nevertheless, it is yours. While I agree that the money would be of far greater benefit to your siblings, we can always address it with them when the subject becomes germane. Let your father derive comfort from his gesture.”
“Very well. It seems I have no choice.”
“In this matter, no.” Fitzwilliam pulled Anne into his arms.
“What were your impressions of my Aunt Philips?”
He could not help himself – he shuddered. “We do not have to invite her to Pemberley or Rosings.”
Anne sighed. “I am of the same mind. However, what troubles me most is my mother – Mrs. Bennet, I mean. I could tell that she was very much in favor of what her sister was saying. She has intimated more than once her hopes that we will assist in bringing my sisters into better society.”
“Has she been as direct as Mrs. Philips?”
“No, but she would get a gleam in her eye much like Mama – Lady Catherine – when she was trying to get me to marry you. I suppose it is only natural for a mother to want good matches for her children. She certainly is not discouraging Bingley or Sir John from calling.”
“The gentlemen appear fascinated by your two sisters. Bingley does not surprise me; you know how often he falls in and out of love with a pretty face.”
“Jane is beautiful!”
“I do not disagree, though I think her sister is even more lovely.”
“Mary would blush if she heard you.”
“You take great delight in appearing to misunderstand me.”
“Only because I delight in the pretty compliments you pay to prove your devotion.”
“Hmmm, you are trying to distract me.”
“And succeeding quite well?”
“Not yet. We need to discuss this.”
“I know we do.” Anne pulled herself out of her husband’s arms and sat up, piling pillows behind her to lean against the headboard. Fitzwilliam watched and when she was comfortably settled, sat up next to her.
“Part of me is thrilled to see my sisters catch the attention of two good men. Yet I am concerned. Charles Bingley is not known for his constancy and Sir John – he admitted the night we returned to Hertfordshire that Mary reminded him of me. I worry that he is acting on his past … infatuation … with me and not because he truly likes Mary for herself.”
“Your concerns are similar to mine. I also wonder at the gentlemen’s attraction being reciprocated. Jane is polite, but I have yet to espy any feelings of a deeper nature in her for my friend.”
“It is early, and she is very reserved. Had you not noticed? She reminds me much of you in that way.”
Fitzwilliam frowned in concentration. “Now that you mention it, I can see you may have a point. Do you think she likes Bingley?”
“She received his attentions with pleasure; whether she wishes for anything other than his friendship, I can only speculate.”
“What of Mary and Sir John?”
“I wish I could be certain he has not somehow confused her for an imitation of me. If he has not, then I wish him well. He’s certainly taken his time in deciding to look for a wife again.”
Anne laughed. “She is the easiest of them all to understand. She is confused by being so singled out.”
“Oh yes! Pleasantly confused, but confused. You can see it in the way she holds herself. Her face betrays her, too. She likes it when Sir John comes to sit with her, but she cannot look him in the eye. She blushes and whenever the conversation gets to be too much for her, she falls back behind the safety of the moralistic texts she has studied. I rather doubt any man has ever paid her much attention – and with such a beautiful older sister I can see how she would be passed over.”
“Should the interest continue to develop, would you support the potential unions? Neither woman will bring much wealth or connections, other than to you, to the matches.
“If, and you know Bingley nearly as well as I. If Bingley can manage to stay in love and Sir John likes Mary for who she is, and not for whom she is related to, then yes, I can support them. I worry though, that one of them will get hurt.” Anne brought her husband’s hand to her mouth for a kiss. “I think you should talk to Bingley and Sir John.”
“About your sisters? Why should I?”
“Because they are your sisters as well. Besides, we both know that if a man paid this kind of attention to Georgiana, you would have already warned them off.”
“I would not ‘warn them off’.”
“Fine, lectured. You would have interviewed them and told them in no uncertain terms to take care to behave as a gentleman ought – or else you would call them out!”
“You are wrong. I would not interfere.”
“We both know you would, so stop trying to deny it.”
“Perhaps a friendly conversation over a glass of port.”
Anne rolled her eyes and then rolled over to put her arms back around her husband. She snuggled against his chest. “You will speak to them?”
She could feel his chest rumble as he laughed softly.
“You will not relent, will you?”
“Of course not. Just say yes and then feed my vanity by telling me how beautiful I am.”
Fitzwilliam tilted her head up and their gaze locked as he leaned down, claiming her lips. “As you wish, darling.” They kissed once. “If I could compare thee…” It was not long until Anne demanded he show her by actions, rather than words, how much he adored her.