AMFW Chapters 29-30

Chapter 29

Before he traveled to Rosings. Lord Perryton decided to call on his sister. Lady Catherine had come to London the week before. He understood why she had quit Kent, but he wondered if it would have been better for her to remain at Rosings.

“How long will you remain in Town, Catherine?”

“I am not certain. At least until Anne’s family returns to Hertfordshire. It is ironic. I wish Anne and Fitzwilliam had never gone there, and now I cannot wait for them to return so I might return to my own home.”

As they sat digesting her statement, the earl could not help himself; he had to ask the one question that weighed heavily on his mind. “Would you never have told Anne the truth?”

Lady Catherine did not pause before she offered her response. “No, I would have gone to my grave with the secret.” Her brother started to speak, but she held up her hand to stop him. “I told you my motives before, and nothing has changed. There will be repercussions for her and her children if it ever becomes known that she was adopted. Society’s perception of her will be irrevocably altered if her true family is revealed. Elizabeth, and any other siblings to come, will be tainted by the association.”

“I think you grossly over-estimate the situation, sister. Anne is now as much defined by her marriage as she is by Rosings Park. In addition, she is a Fitzwilliam by marriage as well as adoption. There is much to be said for that.”

“I suppose you are correct in her Fitzwilliam connections.”

The earl smiled. At least she agreed with him on one point; it was a good time to press another. “Catherine, you must be very careful in how you speak about the Bennets to your daughter.”

“I am fully aware of that, Harold.”

“I do not think you are. I know you better than anyone. Let us be realistic. The Bennets’ place in society, while not plebeian, is nowhere near ours. You have never had much patience for your social inferiors.”

Lady Catherine raised her chin a bit higher. “We are of the highest circles.”

“Nearly. But that is no reason to denigrate Anne’s family to her face. Even you can admit that she has undergone a great shock. Now she struggles to understand her place in the world. It is only natural.”

“She is my daughter, no matter her birth.”

“I know, but she is also a Bennet with five sisters, two brothers and two parents she has only just met. They are her blood, of that there is no doubt.” He sighed, unsure of how to make his sister understand his point. “Because of that tie, Anne will feel loyalty to them. If you question their worthiness to be a part of her life, she may very well question your place in it. After all, had not Lewis interfered, you would have none.”

Lord Perryton watched his sister as he spoke. He could see the effect of his words; she appeared afraid. He leaned forward and gently took her hand and held it in his.

“She loves you, Catherine. Treat her new family with respect and she will not reject you. You have not raised her to be resentful.

“I also think that the next time the Bennets come to Rosings, or any place else you might be, that you should not run off again. It gives the appearance that you have something to hide. It also would not hurt you to get to know her new family a little better.” Lord Perryton playfully squeezed his sister’s hand. “You might find you like them.”

~~~//~~~

Light rains in the earlier hours of the morning had settled the dust that had been prevalent the last time Lord Perryton traveled to Rosings. Once again he was going to meet with his nephew. This time he knew what awaited him.

He did not waste time requesting a conference with Darcy. The earl arrived at the study first. He poured himself a drink and sat down in one of the large leather chairs by the fireplace. As he looked around, Harold Fitzwilliam recalled many of the previous occasions he had been in that same room over the past two and twenty years. He thought of the late master of Rosings, Lewis de Bourgh. Lord Perryton still had a hard time accepting that his brother-in-law had orchestrated the kidnapping of a gentleman’s daughter to pass off as his own offspring. There had to be more to the matter, yet despite his efforts, nothing had been learned to disprove Lady Catherine’s explanations.

“Lewis, would that you were alive and able to answer for yourself.”

The door opened and Darcy looked around the room before stepping in and closing the door behind him.

“I thought I heard you talking to someone,” Darcy said as he lowered himself into a chair.

“Just voicing my thoughts. I hope you do not mind that I helped myself to a drink.”

“Not at all. I think I will join you.”

The earl waited for Darcy to find his seat again.

“This quest I am charged with has led me all over London and into the country,” he began.

“Any new information?” Darcy queried.

The earl shook his head. “Not a blasted thing. And now there are only two more leads from Mrs. Stuart left to follow. I have little confidence in either, and one of them may prove especially difficult and time consuming to chase down. That is part of the reason I came to Rosings now, to ask you what you want to do. As you recall, the chambermaid and manservant left for America not long after Anne was brought here. I gather this maid was brought into the conspiracy late and the man even later. I am very doubtful either one will be able to shed any new light on what happened. They may be nearly impossible to trace, if they are even still alive. This is not the best time to travel to our former colony.”

“I know, and I share your opinion on the matter. Yet we have vowed to search for the truth.” Lord Perryton had his answer.

“I plan on speaking to their family here in Kent tomorrow. If I come away from those meetings with legitimate information on their whereabouts in America, then I will send one of my men across the Atlantic as soon as possible.”

“I think that is a reasonable plan. I wish we had more options, though.” Both men scowled, wishing the same thing.

“Can you think of anything we have missed?”

Darcy’s face showed his concentration, and then became thoughtful. “Did my uncle have anyone else in whom he may have confided?”

“His steward, probably. Too bad Mr. Wiggins died 17 years ago.”

“What about his valet?”

Of course! “Now there is a thought! He was younger than Lewis, that I remember. We would find his name in the old ledgers if Stuart does not remember.”

“I doubt she has forgotten.”

“I doubt she has either. Very good, Fitzwilliam. We may get to the bottom of this after all.”

Maggie Stuart had not forgotten. The earl left with the name of Roger Walls and nothing more. Mrs. Stuart told him that Walls had left after his master had been laid to rest and had not been seen at Rosings since he received a bequest in Sir Lewis’ will. Maggie did not tell him that she had seen him since, away from Rosings.

~~~//~~~

It was not difficult to locate the family of Sarah Simmons. They were still one of Rosings’ tenants. He also learned from Mrs. Stuart that Bobby Weeks came from the neighboring estate of Lord Metcalfe. His sister and brother still worked there.

Lord Perryton interviewed the rather nervous servants and tenants. No one had received any word from Sarah or Bobby for at least five years, but after speaking with the families, the earl was able to piece together where they had gone after they left Kent. The newly married couple had initially settled in New York, finding work with two wealthy families there. However, within a few years they tired of being apart because of their employment and left New York to go south to Baltimore. This time they found work in the same household. After Sarah gave birth to their third child, Bobby decided he was ready to become his own master. The family used their savings to move west to the frontier. After this, information became very spotty. At least two more children had been born, and one of the children had died. The family was considering moving again. That was the last anyone had heard of them.

When the earl broached the subject of the money for the passage, only Sarah’s sister knew much about it.

“Sarah said she’d done a special service for the mistress and Lady Catherine had given her and Bobby passage in gratitude. When I asked Sarah what she had done, she said it was something special and she wouldna betray her master and mistress. I’ve always wondered what she did. But she and Bobby was happy ta be able to marry and go on their adventure. I wish I coulda gone with ‘em, but Papa couldna afford to send any of us with ‘em, even though they said we could come.”

Lord Perryton was not surprised by what he had learned. It seemed futile, but he would send a man to the United States for Anne’s sake; it would be a miracle if the Weeks were found.

~~~//~~~

Charles Bingley found himself with an estate full of business and nothing to do. Oh, he was busy enough meeting with the steward of Netherfield, accompanying Hurst and Sir John on shooting excursions, and dining with several families in the neighborhood. His sisters certainly enjoyed those evenings out, displaying their superior fashion, while all the time bemoaning their hosts’ country manners, but he did not share their pleasure – or censure. He missed the one face that could make any gathering a more joyful event. He was pining for one Miss Jane Bennet.

The other bachelor of Netherfield, Sir John Whitby of Slaton Manor, Surrey, was awaiting the return of his Miss Bennet, Miss Mary. He did not fancy himself in love, as Charles Bingley surely did, but he knew he could grow very fond of the girl if given enough time. Thus he counted the days until the Darcys and Bennets returned to Hertfordshire.

Both men made plans for their lovemaking. They would begin at the ball that Bingley would host Thursday next. As soon as Longbourn was inhabited, the men would descend upon the place and secure sets for the dancing. They would show their preference by opening the ball with their ladies and further demonstrate it by requesting the supper dance. Standing up a third time with their ladies was too forward, but that did not stop them from wishing they could indulge.

“Do you think I am acting rationally, Whitby?” Bingley asked late one evening when the men were alone.

Sir John laughed. “Since when is courting a woman of little dowry a rational undertaking?”

“She is not a woman, she is an angel.”

“Oh please! How much have you had to drink, Bingley?”

Bingley smiled mischievously. “Not that much, my friend. But this is serious. You know my propensity to fall in and out of love. How can I know this… this feeling is genuine?”

“Darcy must have been very direct,” Sir John replied.

The younger man nodded. “Direct enough. Yet I cannot be too angry with him, for he had a valid point. Are my actions raising expectations that I am unsuited to fulfill? Marriage is a … frightening enough prospect without doubts that I am marrying someone completely unsuited to be my wife.”

Sir John’s face became solemn. “If you believe Miss Bennet to be unsuitable, you must withdraw immediately.”

Bingley’s response surprised him – he shook his head and the corners of his mouth turned up lightly.

“It is not Miss Bennet whom I doubt, but my own self. Has enough time passed to prove a constancy of affection that will last a lifetime together? Can I be a good husband to her – to any woman?”

Sir John set his drink down and measured his words. “Bingley, Charles. If these are your real feelings, then I suggest you take your time to get to know Miss Bennet more fully. There is no need to rush to the altar. Your lease runs through next Michaelmas. Surely by the start of the Season you will know your mind on the matter.” And then in a lighter tone he continued, “Besides, I need you to remain in Hertfordshire so I may do the same with my Miss Bennet.”

“Ah, Miss Mary Bennet. Caroline will be crushed, you know.”

“Hardly.” Sir John rolled his eyes. “I think she has hopes of a taller husband. She must have been severely disappointed when Darcy married Anne.”

“It was not too awful; she had not spent much time with him before he was off the market. He was already engaged when she came out.”

“She will want to return to Town soon, I think.”

“I need her here, though, and that will mean a promise to her to return to Town for the Season, even if I do win Jane Bennet’s favor. Caroline is not used to such a limited circle of acquaintance, nor do I think she will want to relinquish her role as mistress. She will wish to make a match if I make one myself.”

Sir John knew his friend was undoubtedly correct in his estimation of Miss Bingley.

“Then I propose a pact. We will declare ourselves before the end of winter, or we flee the field in glorious defeat.”

“Agreed.” Bingley then refreshed their drinks and raised his in salute. “To the ladies of Longbourn!”

“Here, here!”

~~~//~~~

Anne Darcy had spent the last ten days at Rosings with her birth family. In some ways she felt she knew them well, and yet hardly knew them at all.

Of her two parents, she was drawn to her father. Anne had come to appreciate his quick wit and sarcastic humor, though she detected that it could easily turn biting. It was also obvious from whom Anne received her intelligence; her mother’s mind was nothing to her father’s. Mrs. Bennet was also prone to exaggeration and was easily excited. While Anne Darcy appreciated her enthusiasm, it did become wearing after a while. She finally understood her sisters’ and father’s comments on her mother’s character. Yet this silly woman had given birth to her and never gave up hope that they would be reunited.

The younger siblings were refreshing in their youthful exuberance. Anne Bennet reminded Anne Darcy of herself at that age, not only in physical resemblance – which was great – but in temperament as well. The young girl would keep her parents on their toes. William and Henry appeared to be good boys; Fitzwilliam certainly liked them. Lydia proved to be a hopeless flirt and the most like their mother. Anne appreciated her fearlessness, yet recognized that she would be the hardest trial to her parents. Teaching her restraint and curbing her boisterousness without breaking her spirit would be a challenge. Catherine, as Kitty preferred Anne to call her, was unremarkable, but not in an ungenerous way. Anne rather believed that sister would be happiest with a husband who wanted a quiet wife. Catherine would be content to follow such a man to a peaceful marriage.

Anne’s interactions with Mary did nothing to dispel her first impressions. Mary was intelligent, but tended to fall back on the moralistic teaching of the writers she read. What amazed Anne was how often Mary was completely correct, but not because she had reached the proper conclusion in a conventional manner. Mary would have argued they were inside a room, not because they were inside, but because they were not outside. This ability to take a divergent path to the same conclusion amused Anne. She continued to believe that what Mary needed most was exposure to the larger world. On one point Anne was particularly impressed; Mary was completely devoted to her brothers and sisters and would defend them at the slightest provocation.

Jane Bennet proved to be the one sibling Anne could not understand. Jane was serene to a fault. She watched over the family with a protectiveness that could be explained by Anne’s disappearance twenty years before. Yet Jane did not appear to extend that protectiveness to Anne herself. It was as if Jane were waiting for something, and Anne knew not what it was. Jane’s reticence bothered her. What would it take for her eldest sister to accept her as her younger siblings had already done? Must she earn Jane’s regard? From everything her family told her about Jane’s nature, it should not be necessary. Evidently, Anne would need to spend more time with Jane before she could call her at least a friend.

At last it was time for the Darcys to travel to Thigston for the christening of Arthur’s son. They offered the Bennets the use of the house for another few days, but Mr. Bennet did not wish to remain if the Darcys were gone. The same three carriages that had come to Rosings the previous week left for London together. The Darcys would break their travel in Town to check on Georgiana, who was staying at Alton house with Lord and Lady Perryton, while the Bennets would push on to Hertfordshire. They would all meet again next week in time for the Netherfield ball.

Chapter 30

Thigston Manor, Surrey, England

“It really would have been easier if you had just traveled here directly from Kent,” Arthur de Bourgh said as he greeted Anne with a kiss on the cheek.

“My wife insisted we stop in Town to go shopping before inflicting our company on your lovely wife and her parents,” Darcy answered instead.

“What about me?”

“No one feels guilty about imposing themselves on a notorious rake.” Anne patronizingly patted her cousin’s cheek. “Now where is Helena?”

“The rest of the party is in the drawing room. Something about newborns and drafts and such,” Arthur said nonchalantly.

Anne laughed gaily as her husband claimed her arm to lead them inside, leaving their host trailing behind with a bemused smile on his face. Before Anne married Darcy, Arthur would never have believed such a reserved man could be so damn smug – or become a better friend.

The family party gathered for the christening was actually quite small, no doubt due to the fact that the parents had no living siblings. Anne Darcy was Arthur’s nearest relative on his father’s side of the family. Helena had a few aunts and uncles and cousins and several of them were at Thigston.

Anne felt rather guilty that they could not stay longer than a few days, but they had made a promise to Bingley to spend time at his new estate. The disruption that the revelation of her Bennet origins had made on their stay at Netherfield had been impossible to anticipate, but it could not excuse them from returning as soon as possible. Fortunately, Arthur and Helena were very understanding and assured the Darcys there would be plenty of time in the future for them to get to know their godson.

On a humorous note, baby Elizabeth Darcy rivaled her cousin Malcolm for attention from the matrons present. At nearly four months old, the little girl loved the attention lavished on her. Darcy had a feeling it was something she would never outgrow. With a mother like Anne, it was inevitable.

The service was held the next day in the local parish church. The infant was christened Malcolm Andrew George de Bourgh. His grandparents, Mr. & Mrs. Simpson, stood proudly behind the parents and godparents as the parson sprinkled the water over the child and the adults made their pledges before God to bring up the child in the teachings of the Church. When it was over, everyone made their way back to the manor for the real celebrations while the members of the newest generation went to the nursery to sleep.

~~~//~~~

Later, the four new parents were alone in the parlor, the rest of the house in bed.

“What will you do now?” Helena asked, inquiring about their immediate plans.

“First, we must go back to Hertfordshire for a few weeks,” Anne answered. “We’ve been the most wretched of guests for poor Bingley.”

“No one could have known what we would encounter,” Darcy said.

“I know that, dearest, but I still feel sorry for subjecting Charles to all our comings and goings.”

“You have traveled much with such a small child,” Helena said sympathetically. “I do not know if I could do the same.”

Anne lifted her cup and took a sip of tea. “Aye, it is a good thing that Elizabeth does not seem to mind. Her nurse, on the other hand, must wonder what she did to deserve this constant wandering.”

Arthur laughed. “Knowing you two, you have probably compensated her well for the upset in routine.”

“A faithful servant is a valuable asset,” Darcy said in defense.

“Yes, a lesson we have all learned. I dare say Lady Catherine would agree. Has anything new been learned about your disappearance?”

“No, nothing. My uncle is still investigating, but I begin to think we will never really know what happened.”

“Perhaps it is best if the matter is left in the past. What could be gained?”

“Peace of mind, Arthur,” Anne said softly. “Without it I will always wonder what my father knew and intended. I mean Sir Lewis, not Mr. Bennet.”

“I knew of whom you spoke,” Arthur replied calmly, and then said with more gusto, “Enough of this, cousin. You still have not revealed your plans past a few weeks at Netherfield.”

Darcy answered, “We will return to Derbyshire for the winter. Elizabeth has traveled well so far, but I know Anne wishes to be done with it for a while, as do I.”

“Will you come to London for the Season?”

“If we do, we will not remain long. We will, of course, journey to Rosings as we do every spring. After that, our plans are not firm. Some time in Town and then back to Pemberley. Perhaps you could come visit us in the summer and show that son of yours what a superior country Derbyshire is to Surrey.”

“Speak for yourself, Darcy!” Helena cried.

“Hahaha! I think you should take care to convince my wife before you start on my son, man. Besides, it will be a few years before he is able to make such a judgment.”

The adults discussed the Darcys’ invitation a while longer before Anne presented Helena with a few gifts for baby Malcolm. They spent time admiring the items before yawns from each of the new mothers caused their husbands to declare the evening at an end.

The next morning saw the Darcys on the road back to London. Once again it was a very short stay in Surrey, but the promise of many weeks in Derbyshire the following summer assuaged any feelings of neglect. In Town, Anne was able to visit Mrs. Langley’s shop for the final fittings for the gown that she had made for Bingley’s ball. It would be delivered first thing the next morning and then the Darcys, including Georgiana and Mrs. Annesley, would be on their way back to Hertfordshire.

~~~//~~~

The ride to Netherfield was not as easy as before. The weather turned wet and the damp cold made everyone worry for the health of little Elizabeth. Alas, there was nothing to do but bundle up the baby in warm blankets until they reached the warmth of Bingley’s estate.

When they at last arrived, several footmen came to meet them with umbrellas at the ready. The family quickly made their way into the house and to their rooms to recover from the journey. Miss Bingley had ordered hot water to be ready as soon as her guests arrived. Anne was especially appreciative of this provision and thanked her hostess as soon as she saw her.

There was no opportunity to call at Longbourn before the ball. The rain continued, not abating until the day of the event. They had, however, sent a note to inform Anne’s family of their safe return to the country. They all seemed destined to meet again at a ball. Darcy hoped this time their meeting would not be so eventful.

One of the unexpected pleasures that Fitzwilliam Darcy had enjoyed upon his marriage was the styles of dresses Anne was allowed to wear as his wife that were frowned upon while she was unmarried. Not only were her dresses more provocative, but the colors were more vibrant and strong. He also discovered what many generations of Darcy men knew before him – several of the pieces of jewelry from the family’s collection were designed to be worn by a woman sporting a very low neckline. This, coupled with the glorious softening of Anne’s body from child-bearing, often led him to whisper scandalous words in her ear while they were in company. Words that, had they been spoken by anyone else, would have been answered immediately with a palm to the gentleman’s face. To her husband though, Anne replied that she would punish him later when they were alone. Thus when Anne appeared for the ball in a dazzling gown of deep blue silk with the Darcy sapphire and diamond necklace, Fitzwilliam Darcy was immediately struck anew by how truly fortunate he was to be married to that woman.

Georgiana had petitioned several times to be allowed downstairs for the evening, but her brother was firm. She was too young to attend. He also knew that Lydia Bennet, who was the same age, had been denied permission as well. It seemed unwise to allow one of Anne’s sisters to attend while denying the other. It was a decision he would not regret.

The first carriages had appeared and the Bingleys and Hursts stood in line greeting their guests. The Darcys finally made their way into the public rooms, still waiting for her family to arrive. Soon enough, they did and Anne wasted no time in greeting them. Darcy had already requested dances from his sisters and he took the opportunity to confirm for which sets he was engaged. That accomplished, the elder Bennets wandered away to greet their neighbors as the three Misses Bennet were approached by gentlemen wishing for a place on the young ladies’ dance cards.

Anne noticed that Mary quickly slipped away from her sisters. She went to her side.

“Why did you leave Jane and Catherine?” Anne enquired.

Mary motioned towards the two subjects of the query with a nod of her head. “It is less awkward if I am not by their side when the young men come to claim dances.”

“I do not understand.”

“I am never a popular partner at a ball, Anne. Jane, Kitty, men enjoy their company – especially Jane’s.”

“Oh Mary, I am so sorry. I would have imagined that you danced all the time. The one time I saw you at a ball, at the Meryton Assembly, you were dancing with Sir John.”

“I will dance with that particular gentleman tonight, but generally I find I enjoy watching the proceedings more than dancing. Sometimes I even bring a book.”

Anne laughed lightly. “Did you bring one tonight?”

“No. I decided that if I became bored I could slip into Mr. Bingley’s library and find something suitable there.”

“I hate to disappoint you, but I am afraid you will find Netherfield’s bookroom sorely lacking, in stark contrast to Longbourn, I assure you.”

The ladies continued to talk, waiting for the dancing to begin. During that time, it was as Mary had admitted at the beginning of their conversation; only a few men came up to her to ask for a set. When they left, Mary would tell Anne a little about each young man, and how she had know them for many years growing up in the neighborhood.

All too soon, Fitzwilliam came to claim Anne for the opening dance of the evening. Anne was unsurprised to see Jane paired with Mr. Bingley and Mary with Sir John. She was pleased to see Catherine with a young man she believed to be a Lucas. There were many officers as well. They had learned that the War Office had sent a regiment of the Militia to spend the winter quartered in Meryton. Around the dancers was the accustomed din of the crowd, no doubt speculating on the participants of the dance. It always surprised Anne how loud a ball was, even taking into account the musicians.

Soon after they began, her attention was solely on her partner. Anne loved to dance with her husband. It always felt like a prelude to things to come. He was an accomplished dancer, but he rarely indulged with anyone other than his wife. His pleasure in the activity was greatly multiplied with her opposite him. He would do his duty with his hostess and sisters, but the enjoyment would not be the same.

After the third set, Anne was ready to rest. She was glad she had no more dances promised until later. For now she planned on spending more time in conversation. Mary had introduced her to a few of her friends. It was while she was speaking to a Miss Charlotte Lucas that she happened to glance at a group of officers talking with her sister Catherine. Suddenly she spotted a sickeningly familiar visage. Her face grew flushed as her indignation rose.

“Mrs. Darcy, are you unwell?” Miss Lucas asked.

“Please excuse me, I thought I recognized someone. Can you tell me the name of that officer?” Anne pointed out the person in question.

“I am sorry. I do not know who he is. He must be new.”

Anne frowned. A hand touched her elbow and she saw Mary and Sir John looking at her with concern.

“Anne?”

“Thank goodness. Sir John. Mary, would you please find my husband and ask him to come here?”

“Certainly,” Mary answered immediately. Sir John moved to take her elbow but Anne stopped him before he could leave.

“Sir, I would ask that you escort me to that party over there.” Anne looked to the men in their red coats.

He looked at her strangely, but offered his arm. Mary hurried off to find Fitzwilliam. As they determinedly made their way around the room Anne placed her hand atop the one wrapped around his arm.

“Do you remember the time before I was married when you happened upon Helena Simpson and me in Hyde Park? There was a man with us, one to whom I did not wish to speak.”

“Yes, I do.”

“That man is here tonight. He is a scourge to my family and I will not rest until he runs from this house with his tail between his legs.”

Sir John stopped their progress. “I think we should wait for your husband.”

Anne started to walk and pull him forward. “I want my chance at him first. Sir John, I have you by my side. No harm can befall me with one of my most loyal friends and protectors with me. I need to do this. Please!”

“Darcy is going to kill me…” he muttered as he ceased trying to restrain his charge.

When they reached the group of officers, Anne’s prey started in surprise, smirked nervously and bowed to her.

“Mrs. Darcy…”

Whatever he was planning to say next died on his lips, instead replaced by the unmistakable sound of palm against flesh. Anne’s hand stung, but by G*d she was not going to show any pain.

“That, Wickham,” she hissed, “is less than what I promised myself I would do if I ever saw your bloody face again. I do not think Mr. Bingley would take kindly to me entertaining his guests if I hit you where I truly wish. It would be most unladylike. Since I am a lady, I suggest you remove your miserable self from this place before I tell everyone here why you have not the honor to wear the uniform of our King. Now go before my husband reaches me. I cannot guarantee that he will show you any mercy.

“And Wickham, you can be sure that Mr. Darcy and I will be in your commander’s office first thing tomorrow. We own many of your debts now.”

George Wickham looked up to see the shocked faces of his fellow officers and the furious countenance of the lady who had just dressed him down. The crowd had grown quiet as people became aware that a confrontation was occurring. Sir John stood with his arms crossed over his chest, clearly not making an effort to restrain his tormenter. Finally, Wickham saw over the crowd the looming figure of his old playmate. When he made eye contact with him, Darcy’s features hardened with what could only be called hate. Wickham must have seen enough because he executed a small bow to Mrs. Darcy and hurriedly walked in the opposite direction of her husband. The crowd parted to let the disgraced man pass and then the murmuring began anew, growing even louder.

Darcy reached his wife as she was speaking to the soldiers around her. “I am ever so sorry to have disturbed you, gentlemen. Please accept my apologies. I hope you have a wonderful evening and enjoy many more pleasant nights while you are in Hertfordshire.”

Darcy nodded to Sir John, who nodded back and gave Anne over to his care. Darcy was struggling to form a coherent sentence, so great was his shock and anger.

“Fitzwilliam, I could use a glass of punch.”

Her words broke the spell. He exhaled and placed his hand over hers. “Let us go and get a glass. And then perhaps you can tell me what just happened. That was he, was it not?”

People made way for them as they walked towards the punchbowl. “Yes,” Anne finally said when they were halfway to their destination.

“I should go and check on Georgiana.”

“After a glass of punch.” Darcy hesitated but Anne just looked at him. “Come on.”

It seemed like an hour before they had made their way to refreshments. Darcy served his wife and then gulped down his drink, choking a bit and spilling some on his shirt. Anne laughed at him and sent him off to look in on his sister and their daughter, and to have his valet change his soiled clothes.

Darcy did not wish to alarm Georgiana, so he spoke calmly with her and Mrs. Annesley, telling them he was just on his way to repair his clothing and not mentioning the appearance of Wickham. He then saw that Elizabeth was asleep in her bassinette, her nurse in the connecting room. Darcy asked her to leave the door between the rooms open for that night and left to go and speak to the footmen. Finally satisfied that all precautions short of posting an armed guard in the hallway had been put in place, he made his way to his room where a clean shirt and new cravat awaited.

When Anne saw her husband again, she smiled and went to collect him. In silent agreement, they walked to the library and closed the door.

“What could he be doing in Hertfordshire, of all places?!”

“I suppose this was as good a place as any for the cur.”

“Anne, how can you laugh at this? He is here!”

“Fitzwilliam, he was here, but now he is gone from the ball. I doubt we will find him still in the area come morning.”

“What exactly did you say to him?”

Anne repeated what she had said Wickham. Darcy didn’t know whether to be amused, proud or annoyed. She should have let him confront the reprobate. He also agreed with her assessment that Wickham would be long gone when they called on the commanding officer of the regiment the next morning.

“I wish we could just go up to our rooms and forget everything else,” he lamented.

“You poor man, but you know we cannot. I have promised a dance to my father and after all our coming and going, we owe it to Charles and Caroline to return.”

“Must you always be right?”

“Of course, dear. How else would you learn to admit you are wrong?” Anne did submit to several moments of impassioned kissing before they faced the throng once more.

The rest of the evening passed calmly enough. Many were amazed when George Bennet led Mrs. Darcy out to dance. It was then that some began to notice and comment on her resemblance to the Bennet daughters. Those whispers were followed by the astonishing news that Mrs. Darcy was a cousin of Mrs. Bennet! With this revelation of a connection to the wealthy family from Derbyshire, the Bennets were proclaimed the luckiest family in the country.

~~~//~~~

When the Darcys finally were shown into Colonel Forster’s office the next day, the object of their visit had already resigned his commission and left Meryton for greener pastures. It might be wondered how such a disreputable man had so easily ingratiated himself with his fellow officers. The Darcys were sympathetic; Colonel Forster was no less put upon than other men who believed they saw goodness where none resided. They had seen it too often to accuse the apologetic officer. Darcy’s only regret was that they had not learned of Wickham’s presence before he had learned of theirs. Cousin Andrew Fitzwilliam would have loved to pay the man a visit before he disappeared yet again. Someday the Colonel would meet Wickham, and only then would the accounts be settled.

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