How could fifteen minutes feel like a lifetime? At least, it seemed like a lifetime to Anne and her mother. They both did their best not to seem overly relieved when the gentleman finally made to leave.
“Thank you for calling, Sir John,” Lady Catherine said coolly.
“It was my pleasure. After meeting Miss de Bourgh last night, I knew I must hasten my steps to pay my respects.” He looked hopefully back and forth between the two women.
Neither lady spoke. After waiting a few more awkward moments, Sir John excused himself.
When the man had left, Lady Catherine addressed Mrs. Jenkinson. “Would you bring Anne a shawl? She should have one at hand should she become cold.”
Once Anne’s companion was gone, and the doors were shut, Anne finally dared look at her mother. Lady Catherine started to giggle, and Anne followed her lead.
“Oh dear, how did you manage to find a lost puppy so quickly?” Lady Catherine finally managed to ask.
“I have no idea. He asked me to dance, and of course, I could not refuse.” Anne rolled her eyes.
“I spent the whole time trying to avoid being too close to him.”
“Very sensible of you.” Lady Catherine tried to mask her amusement.
“I feared for my toes! You saw his boots?” Anne said in exasperation as she remembered the night before.
“Yes. How can he not know how ridiculous he appears?”
Anne smiled. “I noticed you did not invite him to call again.”
Lady Catherine raised both eyebrows. “Nor did you, daughter.”
This time their laughter rang out at the same moment.
When Mrs. Jenkinson returned with Anne’s shawl, Lady Catherine and Anne were calmly sipping their tea. But if the lady had looked closer, she would have seen the merriment in their eyes.
Anne decided a call on Helena Simpson was in order. On the way, she thought about the woman seated across from her in the de Bourgh carriage. Today was one of those days she was glad for a companion. Lady Catherine was not inclined to leave the house, nursing a slight indisposition into a full-fledged confinement to her bed. Without Mrs. Jenkinson’s presence, Anne would have been forced to remain at home.
When Mrs. Jenkinson first took the position as her companion, Anne had hoped for another Mrs. Stuart – someone in whom she could trust and confide. Unfortunately, Sarah Jenkinson gave her first loyalty to the woman who hired her, Lady Catherine. Anne did sympathize with the woman’s position; her mother was the one who controlled her companion’s employment. However, it would have been nice to have someone to talk to more openly.
Other than being a suitable chaperone for calling about town, Anne’s lady-in-waiting seemed to serve few other purposes. Anne often wondered why she needed a companion at all. For that matter, why did any gentlewoman really need a companion? Very few single ladies she knew were orphans. Most had at least one parent, and many had other siblings and assorted aunts and uncles to guard their reputations. Surely a maid could serve just as well as a companion to travel about from house to house.
Anne wondered what would compel a woman to take such a post. Mrs. Jenkinson was a widow, she knew that. She had once said that when her husband died, there was not much left to live on. Her father’s family did own a small estate, but returning to live there was not an option; thus, she went into service. Anne supposed that there must be many other women in such a position. What would she do if placed in such a reduced state, if suddenly her fortune was gone? If she could not marry, would she be forced into the same choices?
Anne began to understand that the position of a woman’s companion was as much for the provision of impoverished gentlewomen, as it was for the ladies they served. There were few choices for such women in their society, and she could not blame them for choosing one that offered some hope of a decent life, rather than permanently sink into the class of a mere servant. What likelihood would there be for them to return to the life into which they were born then?
The London abode of the Simpson family was a short drive from the de Bourgh townhouse. Anne soon found herself seated in the parlor with Mrs. Simpson and her daughter Helena.
“It is very kind of you to call, Miss de Bourgh. I am sorry Lady Catherine could not join you,” the matriarch said.
“My mother was unwell this morning, but urged me not to tarry at home. I was delighted to make Miss Simpson’s acquaintance the other day, and thus decided today was a perfect time to return the visit. Ma’am, I believe you know my cousin, Mr. Arthur de Bourgh?”
Mrs. Simpson’s expression became neutral. “We have met the gentleman.”
Anne pretended not to have noticed the disdain in her hostess’ voice. “Then you know what an excellent man he can be. When he heard we had met, he was full of praise for your family. With such an enthusiastic recommendation from a man I have known and respected all my life, how could I stay away?”
“He certainly could not,” muttered Mrs. Simpson.
“Nothing, Miss de Bourgh. Mr. de Bourgh has shown a preference for the company of some of the members of this house.” Both Anne and Mrs. Simpson quickly looked at Helena and then brought their attention back to each other.
Another, older woman caller was introduced, and Anne took the opportunity to move closer to Miss Simpson. The two soon found themselves in a private conversation.
“It is kind of you to take up Mr. de Bourgh’s cause with my parents.”
“I hope you are not offended, and still welcome his attentions.”
Helena smiled shyly. “I admit I have had doubts, but I begin to admire his constancy.”
“Miss Simpson, despite the rumors that swirl about him, Arthur is in essentials a good man. He has never showed any jealousy over my claim to Rosings superceding his own. He could very well have thought himself more deserving, because he was my father’s closest male relation, but he has not. To me, that speaks of a generosity of character.”
“I have never doubted that aspect of his personality. I find him to be utterly charming, and therein lies the problem.”
“He is too charming?”
“That other ladies find him so; and that he has not been adverse to capitalizing on that fact,” Helena clarified.
“But you admitted not three minutes ago that you appreciate his constancy. If he were a man not to be trusted, surely his devotion to you would have disappeared by now. If anything, it is apparent to me that it has grown stronger.”
Miss Simpson sat quietly thinking on what Anne had said.
“I never thought of it that way before, Miss de Bourgh,” she finally answered.
“You need to distinguish between his charming manners and the intentions of his attentions. If you were, say, my mother, you could easily be mistaken in believing my cousin to be desirous of courting me. That would be a misinterpretation of our rapport. I have told you Arthur is like a brother to me, and as such, we constantly tease and scheme all sorts of mischief, including tormenting my poor mother.”
“Your point is, other than to assure me that you are not my rival?”
“My point is,” Anne continued, “that while Arthur may play the rake, it is nothing more than that, playacting.”
“I appreciate your defense of your cousin, but how do you account for the rumors in the first place; there must be some truth to them. My own father has told me he saw him at the theatre with a woman of… uncertain reputation. That is the reason he has never favored Mr. de Bourgh’s suit.”
Anne was thoughtful for a moment. “Was this before you were introduced, or recently?”
“Before we were introduced,” Helena clarified.
“Since then, have you heard of a continuation of this liaison?”
Anne brightened, knowing how to address the delicate issue.
“My dear Miss Simpson, has it not occurred to you that my cousin’s… misadventures… were nothing but the diversions of a young man waiting and searching for the one woman who would make such things events of the past? Could it be that he was seeking you, admittedly not in the proper places, and that once he found you, such pursuits lost their appeal?”
“You seek to represent your cousin’s actions in a different light.”
“I am merely giving you explanations as to why the man who adores you has changed, nay, been transformed. The question for you then is, will you allow what happened before you two even met to deny you the chance to embrace what the man has willingly become for your sake?”
“You have given me much to think on,” Helena admitted. “I do have strong feelings for your cousin. It is just that I have equally strong doubts.”
“Take all the time you need, only give the poor man some hope he may prevail,” Anne asked. Helena Simpson nodded her head once.
“Thank you for your counsel. I cannot guarantee the future, Miss de Bourgh, but you have shown yourself to be a true friend with your efforts. I should be honored to continue your acquaintance.”
“Thank you. Perhaps we can agree to meet for a walk in Hyde Park? I am a country lass by nature, and I need my exercise in Nature, or what passes as such in Town.”
“I am at your leisure. Name the day, and I shall strive to attend you.”
Several days later, after an aborted attempt at their proposed walk due to rain, Miss de Bourgh and Miss Simpson were strolling through Hyde Park – at a fashionable hour, of course.
While Anne and Helena walked in front, their two companions walked behind. It was obvious the two older ladies were getting along famously.
“I wonder what they find to talk about? Miss Porter rarely is so animated with me,” remarked Helena.
“Nor is Mrs. Jenkinson with me.” Anne and Helena started to giggle.
“We could be offended they find us so dull?”
“We could, but then they would be justifiably as offended with us! Oh look, there is my cousin, Major Fitzwilliam. I wonder if the Darcys are about as well?”
Georgiana was not, but her brother was. The two men approached the ladies, and Anne made the introductions. Four abreast, with the ladies in the middle, they continued on the path.
“We meant to come here yesterday, but the rain thwarted us,” Anne explained to her cousins.
“It would be scandalous to have muddied your petticoats! What would Aunt Catherine have thought?” Major Fitzwilliam mockingly cried.
“She would have shaken her head and said that some things never change and all her hopes that I had outgrown such behaviors have come to naught.” Anne replied, rolling her eyes. “I am surprised to see you here, Cousins.”
“One must maintain appearances. I brought Darcy along to look important.”
Anne laughed at the remarks of her favorite cousin.
“Are you not afraid he will frighten away all the lovely maidens? He is ever so tall and imposing.”
“I believe he would attract, rather than repel the ladies. The only difficulty lies in the fact they will likely not notice me.” The major attempted to sound hurt at the idea.
“Then why come with him at all?” Anne prompted.
Major Fitzwilliam dropped his voice, as if to tell a great secret.
“Ah, you have yet to see the genius of my plan. It is true that Darcy tends to draw the attention of the ladies. However, his reserved manner is so often mistaken for disdain, that the ladies soon turn to the gallant, yet poor, me for consolation.”
“Darcy reserved?” Anne had never found him so. “He has always been lively enough around me.”
“Amongst family and friends he is all ease, but get him in a group of strangers, and he turns into the brooding gentleman from Derbyshire.”
Finally the subject of the discussion spoke. “I am right here beside you, Fitzwilliam and Anne. You will make poor Miss Simpson quite frightened of me if you continue to abuse me so!”
“There,” Helena cried, “Mr. Darcy has demonstrated perfect amiability in the presence of a new acquaintance.”
“Thank you for defending me, madam; but my cousins are determined to see me squirm. Never fear, I am not afraid of them.”
They all laughed and continued their walk, the two companions trailing behind, forgotten.
It was not long until they were hailed by another of Anne’s cousins. Arthur de Bourgh was riding alone when he spotted the quartet. Neither Darcy nor Fitzwilliam appeared happy to see him. Arthur did not seem to notice; he only had eyes for Helena.
He dismounted and joined them.
“Miss Simpson, it has been too long since I have had the pleasure of your company.” His smile confirmed his sentiments in Anne’s and Helena’s minds.
Darcy, being a man of action, and not at all pleased to see Arthur de Bourgh, asked, “Excuse me, might the major and I have a word with our cousin? We will not take long.”
By mutual agreement, the three moved off to the side of the walk, out of earshot.
“Anne, you know Lady Catherine will not be happy to discover de Bourgh has met with you today,” Darcy said with a touch of annoyance.
“How will she know? As long as we do not say anything, she will not.”
“What about your companion?”
Anne suddenly remembered her shadow, and turned to find the older ladies looking at Miss Simpson and Mr. de Bourgh with growing disapproval.
Defeated in her first plan, Anne shrugged. “Well, now you must remain with me until he leaves, or we all will be forced to bear with Mama’s displeasure.” Darcy and Fitzwilliam nodded, still looking grave.
“We should return to Miss Simpson,” Major Fitzwilliam advised.
Anne placed her hand on his arm to keep him from leaving their trio. “Not yet, Andrew. As you can see, she is not unhappy to speak with him.”
Both men stared for a moment and then brought their attention back to Anne.
“You do recall me telling you that Arthur was no threat to me?” The men nodded in acknowledgement. Anne looked pointedly toward the couple several paces away. “Now you see the reason why I was so bold in my declarations of his intentions.”
“Is there an attachment?” queried Darcy, realizing the import of Anne’s words.
“Of course, but no understanding. You must not say a word to anyone about it though.”
“Anne, they are in the middle of Hyde Park. Anyone here today will know.”
“With Arthur’s reputation, they will assume he is talking nonsense as usual,” Anne countered.
“I think we should rejoin them before your companions have an apoplexy,” Andrew interrupted.
They returned to the would-be lovers. Arthur was grateful for the moments alone with his love.
“There, you see. I kept Miss Simpson safe from all harm whilst you three discussed whatever you needed to discuss. And as much as I would like to remain, I must leave. I have an appointment to keep.” Arthur made a show of bowing over each lady’s hand, but he kissed only Helena’s. “Good day to you all.”
Once Arthur had ridden away, it was time to make their way to the de Bourgh carriage to take the ladies home. Just as the park gates came into sight, Anne saw something to make her groan.
“Whatever is the matter?” Darcy leaned over and asked.
“Whatever you do, Cousin, do NOT release my arm,” Anne hissed.
The shortest gentleman Darcy had ever seen approached them with an excited air.
“Miss de Bourgh! How delightful! I called at your home this morning and was told you were out. What a fortuitous meeting.”
“An unexpected surprise, Sir John.” Anne clung to Darcy’s arm for dear life.
“Would you mind if I joined you?” Sir John asked hopefully.
“My cousins were just about to bring us to our conveyance. Perhaps we shall meet another time, sir.”
Sir John Whitby bowed and looked wistfully at the group, as the gentlemen led the ladies to their carriage.
“We are in your debt,” Anne said in thanks once safely inside the carriage.
“Is his breath always so hideous?” the major asked without thinking.
“This is only the third time I have been in his company.”
“Each encounter has been the same. The only positive has been that each has been shorter in duration.”
Major Fitzwilliam looked over his shoulder to see that Whitby had not moved.
“I think you have a devoted admirer.”
“That, my dear cousin, is exactly what I am afraid of.”
Part of Anne’s education had been an examination of the great English writers. Shakespeare, of course, was one of the authors she had read and she came to love his works. That night they would be seeing one of Anne’s favorite plays – The Taming of the Shrew*. Truth be told, Anne had always secretly identified with the character of Katherine, apart from the random fits of violence. Anne was too much a lady to actually stoop to breaking things if she did not get her way. Such behavior was more befitting the daughter of a tradesman than a daughter of a knight. She also thought her mother had more in common with Kate than just a similarly spelled name.
Anne was excited. She and her mother were on the way to the theatre with her aunt and uncle Fitzwilliam. Her cousin Martin and his wife would meet them there. Anne could have done without Matilda for the evening, but she knew Martin preferred his wife to attend with him.
The procession into the building was delightful. Ladies murmured behind their fans as one of the most eligible women of the season made her appearance. Men stopped and stared, hoping to catch her eye. Anne loved the attention, even if she was still slightly uncomfortable with the “eligible” part of the situation. Unfortunately, most of the pleasure dissipated when her party entered the earl’s box. Expecting to meet two people, she was greeted by three. Standing next to Lord and Lady Newman was Rupert Harris, Lady Newman’s brother.
Introductions and excuses were quickly made. Mr. Harris took little time securing a seat between Anne and his sister.
“This is one of my favorite plays,” Mr. Harris explained. “My sister knows this and mentioned that they would be attending the performance tonight; I knew I must come. The knowledge of your intended presence only added to my resolve. I am afraid Newman had no choice but to offer me an invitation. I promised to plague him for eternity if he did not.”
“Do you always resort to such juvenile measures to get your way?” Anne said sternly, not pleased to be spending the evening in Mr. Harris’ company without any warning.
“Only with such a beautiful inducement, I assure you, Miss de Bourgh.”
He was flattering her. Anne knew it. She wanted to be severe with him but her vanity rendered her powerless not to respond to his flirtations. However, she would answer him with an equal measure of audaciousness.
“Yes, my mother is a handsome woman. An excellent choice for you, though I must admit I never thought you one for pursuing wealthy, older widows.”
Mr. Harris looked like he was about to protest when instead he smiled. “Well met, Miss de Bourgh. How could I respond to such remarks without giving offense? I relent, Madam, for now.”
They spoke of trivial things until the house lights dimmed.
While Anne and Mr. Harris were speaking, Lady Catherine had cornered Lord Perryton.
“What on earth is he doing here?” Lady Catherine demanded in a hurried whisper.
The earl sighed. “I could not uninvite him after Lady Newman invited him. What was I supposed to do?”
“You could have at least told me he would be here. Better yet, you could have enlisted Andrew or Fitzwilliam to attend as well.”
“There was no time, Catherine. And the reason I did not tell you was because I was afraid of your reaction. You would have refused to allow Anne to attend. Do not deny it; we both know it is true.”
“Harold, he is the son of a tradesman.”
“Whose father provided the dowry for Matilda that Perryton needed to survive! You know how bad our financial situation was when Father died. We nearly lost everything, including your dowry. My marriage to Alice allowed us to escape ruin, and when Martin married, his wife brought in the needed capital and the even more necessary business ties to solidify the estate. I cannot afford to insult the Harrises and I will not put my family’s vastly improved circumstances at risk just to keep Anne from having to sit next to a man at a play for three hours. Besides, we are here to see that nothing untoward happens between them, for heaven’s sake.”
Lady Catherine had no other choice than to accept her brother’s words.
The intermission arrived and the tricky task of who would escort whom was ready to be played out. The earl knew Catherine would make things very difficult if he did not secure his niece’s arm to lead the party out to obtain some refreshments. Before any one moved, he offered his hand to Anne.
“Shall we find something to drink, my dear?”
Anne gave him a relieved smile. He looked at his son, held his eye and then quickly looked at his sister. The viscount understood and offered his arm to his aunt and his mother. Rupert Harris shrugged and escorted his sister. Once out of the security of the private box, the group waded into the mass of people seeking to quench their thirst, just as they were.
Lady Newman chastised her brother. “I told you his Lordship would be displeased, and Lady Catherine and Miss de Bourgh did not like their surprise.”
“Hmm, yes, Miss de Bourgh is no simpering female. She has punished me for imposing on you for an invitation.” They were strolling some distance behind the rest of the party.
“She congratulated me on my taste in women but was surprised I had picked Lady Catherine as the companion of my future life.”
“That must have put you in your place,” the lady laughed.
“I have never had a quicker, or more effective set down. She is really a remarkable woman.”
“Too bad for you that her mother will never allow a match. I doubt Miss de Bourgh would stoop so low as to accept you.”
“Martin secured you.”
“Martin loved me and coveted my fortune. I am not a fool, Rupert.”
“I never said you were.”
“What my husband was willing to do, his cousin will not. Do not make yourself a target for sport. Anne de Bourgh has requirements for a spouse that you can never meet. Very few men can, and even fewer can abide her sharp tongue.”
“You ought to forgive her for whatever she has said to make you so unpleasant to her. Consider the life she has led and what she has been brought up to expect as her right and her duty. You were reared with many of the same expectations. You managed to turn out well, despite our father spoiling you.”
“I still say it is a fool’s chase for you.”
“Let me be a fool, then. Think on all the advantages of such a match. You would gain a landed brother who retained all his assets when he obtained an estate. There are not that many heiresses on the market with Miss de Bourgh’s wealth and connections. The Harris family, by our two marriages, would be made.”
“At least tell me you like her and not just her money?”
“I like them both equally.”
Lady Newman sighed. “I STILL think you have little chance of success. Nevertheless, I will help you as I am able.”
“I ask nothing more.”
“Oh, you will. And when the time comes, you will also hear me say, with enormous satisfaction, ‘I told you so.’”
The conversation ended as Lady Newman and her brother had caught up with the rest. Their party was not alone for more than a minute when several men came up to greet the earl and to be introduced to his niece. Lady Catherine claimed her share of the conversation, evaluating each gentleman who braved the presence of Anne’s guardians to pay their respects. Anne may not have been the most beautiful of women, but she was attractive and her inheritance made her even more so.
Anne had just finished a conversation with Lord Bayless, the young Earl of Haversham, when she heard someone clear his throat behind her. She turned and immediately felt nauseated.
“Miss de Bourgh! What a delightful surprise,” cried Sir John Whitby, attempting to grab her hand, undoubtedly to bestow a kiss. Anne countered by tucking a phantom stray tendril of hair behind her ear and then grabbed a goblet from a passing servant. Her left arm never left her uncle’s grasp.
“Sir John. I did not know you enjoyed the theatre,” she replied.
Undaunted by his failure to touch his angel, he gallantly answered, “Oh yes, I enjoy all the refinements of civilized society. You yourself have witnessed how much I enjoy dancing. I must say that my dance with you at Almack’s was one of the most pleasurable I can remember.”
“Yes,” Anne hurried to change the subject. “You know my uncle, Lord Perryton.”
“Ah yes, milord.” Sir John made a second bow, which was answered the same way as the first, with a nod of the recipient’s head.
“It is always a privilege to be in the presence of the family of the most beautiful woman of my acquaintance.”
Anne tried not to cringe, but her uncle had hold of her arm and he felt, rather than saw, her response. Fortunately, salvation from the encounter called in the form of the warning bell.
“Yes, we are all very proud of my niece,” Lord Perryton said, looking at the subject of conversation. “But you must excuse us, sir. We need to make our way back to our seats.”
“Of course! An honor, as always,” Sir John effused as the earl led Anne away.
Lord Perryton leaned over to whisper in Anne’s ear once they had made their escape. “So that is your Sir John!”
“He will never be MY Sir John. The thought is… in all ways repulsive.”
“Never fear, your mother would never allow it. Look at the bright side of this encounter, his breath improved upon further acquaintance.”
Anne looked at her escort with a disapproving stare that transformed into a mischievous smile. “It must be the effect of the wine.”
“Shhh, my sister will think I have had a bad influence on you.”
“I believe she would declare it the other way around.”
Her uncle laughed softly and patted her arm as they re-entered the private box. “Enjoy the rest of the play, my dear.”
Fitzwilliam Darcy had invited his family to his townhouse to dine. Lady Catherine was the first to respond to the invitation. Darcy was not surprised. The entire family of the earl, or at least all who were currently in England, was pleased to accept, including Major Andrew Fitzwilliam, who was back in London after having left to tend to his duties in His Majesty’s service. They only wanted for Georgiana, who was away at school, to make the gathering complete.
Andrew was very interested in hearing what plays and balls Anne had attended while he was away. He took great glee in asking about Anne’s dancing partners. Surprisingly, Darcy was able to name several.
“I have not seen you at a ball since my debut; how do you know who I danced with?” Anne asked, amused that he had taken the trouble to find out who her dance partners had been.
“A man hears many things at his club.”
“That Miss Anne de Bourgh is the prize of the season.”
“We all knew that,” Andrew replied.
“But that bit of information does not explain how you heard of my dance partners.” Anne was not about to let her cousin off so easily.
“Well, certain gentlemen have taken to discovering whom you have danced with and recording it in a certain book.”
“What book do you speak of?” Lady Catherine interjected.
“My guess is that it is the same book that they use to take bets,” Alice Fitzwilliam ventured.
Lady Catherine paled. “My Anne is the subject of wagering?”
The earl gave Darcy a withering look before addressing his sister. “It is harmless fun, Catherine. Men take bets on when Brummel will reveal a new knot.”
“My Anne is the subject of wagering? What are they wagering?”
“Ahhh, mainly who she will marry,” Darcy admitted.
“No doubt you are the favorite, Darcy?” the major asked.
“I would not know.” Darcy managed a straight face. Anne blushed. He does not know, my eye! she thought.
“Harold, you must do something!” Lady Catherine kept insisting. The earl sighed, and then tried to placate his sister. It took a long time for her to be swayed to another subject.
A little later Anne was speaking to Darcy, her mother too far away, and too engrossed on lecturing Lady Newman on childrearing, to hear.
“Are you the favorite to marry me?”
“I have no idea.”
“Ha! Do not dissemble, I know you know. How else would you know I danced with Lord Metcalfe?”
“First of all, you have not danced with Lord Metcalfe. He is married and has not left his estate in Kent in months. Second, I will not give you the satisfaction of an answer. We both know there is nothing between us at this point and to speculate on the future at this time is fruitless. I will admit that your mother’s fondness for extolling on the subject has added to the speculations.”
“Really Cousin, your perusal of the book in question can only give credence to the rumors. Why even look? To know your potential rivals?” Anne teased.
“Miss de Bourgh. I do not concern myself with any of your suitors. Until the season is over, you are free to be admired by whomever. If you fall violently in love with another before we meet at Pemberley this summer, I never will be a consideration. I refuse to worry over that which I have no control.” Darcy looked very proud of himself. Anne knew how to remove the smug look from his face.
“But you still know with whom I have danced.”
Darcy knew he was caught, and tried another tack. “Aunt Catherine has charged me to help see that you are safe from fortune hunters and rakes.”
“My mother wants you to keep me safe from anyone who is not you.”
“You must admire her tenacity to see the match come about.”
“Have you considered how insufferable she will be if it does?”
Darcy leaned a little closer and lowered his voice so only she could hear. “And have you ever considered the great distance between Derbyshire and Kent? It is a good three-day journey between our estates. Think on that, dear Anne.”
Darcy drew back to his former position, gave Anne a look that said he knew he had hit the mark, stood up, winked, and walked over to talk to Martin.
Anne remained where she was, thinking over what Darcy had just said and with the realization that her cousin had just winked at her. Again.
Did I actually just flirt with Fitzwilliam? And why does Fitzwilliam sound so much better to me than Cousin Fitzwilliam?
Anne shook her head to clear her thoughts. There would be time to contemplate her handsome cousin and his suggestive comments later. For now, she would enjoy her family and the meal.
Another fine English spring day found Anne and Helena Simpson strolling through a park. Anne had become very fond of her new friend and sincerely hoped to one day call her cousin. She could see that her efforts to assure Helena of Arthur’s goodness were working. Arthur was much happier the last time she saw him and Helena was quick to relate her pleasure in his company since Anne had championed him.
It was while they were discussing how to improve her parents’ opinion of her suitor that an acquaintance of Anne greeted them.
“Miss de Bourgh! It has been an age since we last met at Pemberley.”
“Mr. Wickham,” Anne would barely nod her head in response to his bow. “I did not know you lived in London now. Oh yes, you were to study the law. Have you found it profitable?” Her tone was anything but friendly.
Mr. Wickham faltered slightly, but quickly recovered his manner. “Most exceedingly! I hope to become established in that profession as soon as I am able.”
“A man with the education my uncle so generously provided should prove to be a good student.”
“I like to consider myself well prepared for the profession.”
He looked at Anne, and then to her friend. Anne was loath to perform the introduction Mr. Wickham clearly wanted. She liked Helena too much to burden her with the acquaintance.
“I wonder then, why you are here now. I would have thought your employer would have need for such a promising pupil.”
Anne wished him to be gone, but he did not seem to take the hint.
“Yes, well, you see – normally I would be hard at work, but just yesterday we received word of a large settlement and the owners decided to reward us with a few hours to amuse ourselves in such fine weather.”
Neither lady saw another man approach.
“Miss de Bourgh!”
Anne never thought she would be glad to hear the voice of Sir John, but she was then.
“Sir John, we meet again.”
When he was next to the ladies, he could see both appeared agitated. He took a closer look at the other man, whom he did not recognize.
“May I be of assistance?” He spoke to the women but he looked at the man.
“Mr. Wickham was just taking his leave. I would feel guilty if he were late for his appointment on my account.”
Mr. Wickham knew he was being dismissed and took his leave immediately. As soon as he left, Mrs. Jenkinson and Miss Porter hurried forward to be certain their charges were well. Anne and Helena assure them they were.
“Was he importuning you?” Sir John asked, his voice full of concern.
Anne knew she should be thankful he had come to their aid.
“I have known the gentleman for most of my life, sir. I was merely annoyed that I had to suffer his company.”
“Then I am delighted that I could be of service! I would do more for you, Miss de Bourgh, if the situation ever arrived.” She knew him to be sincere; she knew she wished she would never be in a position to need his help.
She would have liked to have had an excuse to escape his presence, but flight was no way to repay his kindness. She was resigned to have Sir John in their company until Anne was obliged to return home.
It was with great pleasure, but with an outward show of regret that Anne said goodbye to the man not five minutes later.
“I would love to continue with you, but I too have an appointment to keep,” Sir John explained. Anne expressed her regrets and wished him a successful venture.
“I am sorry to put you through that, Helena. First Wickham and then Sir John.”
“I noticed you did not introduce me to the first gentleman.”
“He is NOT a gentleman. I do not mean the circumstances of his birth, though he is a steward’s son; I meant his character. I do not trust him. He has carelessly thrown away the patronage of my cousin Darcy’s family. He is too smooth, and if I am right, he has wasted the bequest my uncle Darcy left him. No, he is no gentleman and I would not give him the satisfaction of an introduction to you. Arthur would never forgive me. You can still ignore Wickham if he tries to insinuate a connection, for he has only seen you and knows not who you are.
“Thank you, Anne. I sometimes forget that not all men in the world are as honorable as your cousin de Bourgh.”
“You mean your Arthur.” Helena responded with a new blush of her own.
*They probably would have seen David Garrick’s version titled, Katherine and Petruchio rather than Shakespeare’s original play.
The days and weeks seemed to fly by. Anne was too busy to notice much more than the next event Lady Catherine planned for them to attend. Her days continued to be filled with shopping excursions, visits to museums and exhibitions, walks and rides in various London parks, and in calling on her ever increasing circle of acquaintances. On those days she was at home, she was receiving callers. The evenings were spent at dinner parties, the theatre, attending the opera, and at various balls. Add to all of this the occasional card party and musical soiree, and it was no wonder that Anne was caught off guard with the news that they would depart for Kent after the Harrison’s ball the following week.
That meant only a few more public engagements before her first Season was over. It also meant she would have to sort out her feelings towards a certain tall and handsome cousin. Darcy had kept his part of their agreement. He had attended some of the same functions, but had never gone out of his way to single her out. He acted more like a married man than a potential suitor. In fact, they had only danced once since Anne’s presentation ball.
They would dance together at the Harrison’s gala. Darcy had called specifically to secure the first set. Anne wished to tease him on his motives, but he forestalled her pleasure by leaving right after she consented to his request.
And so the time came for Lady Catherine de Bourgh to accompany her only daughter to their final event of the Season. They would leave for Kent the day after next. One more evening for Anne not to fall in love with any other man than Fitzwilliam Darcy.
The novelty of a crush had begun to wane, but it still had its charms. Anne loved to be around people – a contrast to the sheltered life of her childhood. She loved the energy of a large gathering. There were so many personalities to meet and so many potential dance partners. As she stood in the crowd, she would only consider one. Cousin Darcy had come to claim her for their set.
Anne was struck, as they moved through the figures, by how well they complimented one another when they danced. It was as though they had spent hours learning the steps together.
“There is one thing I do not understand,” Anne began. “Why did you ask me for the first set? I thought you wanted to deflect any gossip about the two of us.”
“Perhaps I did not wish to spend my entire evening at a ball,” Darcy replied glibly.
Anne was playfully indignant. “And it is acceptable for you to come and go as you wish whilst I must remain at the mercy of my mother? Sir, that is inherently unfair!”
“Anne, since when is life fair?” he responded.
“How ungentlemanly of you to say something so profound when I was determined to be cross with you.”
“I would never suspend any pleasure of yours.” His smile charmed her and they continued to speak of trivialities until the later part of the dance.
“We have much to discuss when you come to Pemberley next month.”
Anne knew this subject was coming. “I know, but I confess I have intentionally not given it much thought since last we spoke of it.”
“Yet we must, for you have not formed any attachments since then.”
“How would you know?” Anne challenged.
“I have watched you from afar. I told you we both had a role to play. Just because I was distant does not mean I was neglecting you. Indeed, I have observed you every time we have been in the same place. I too have a decision to make. In case you have forgotten, it takes both our consent to explore a connection any further.”
Anne felt a little awkward; he had been watching her all this time. She had often ignored him. Attempting to regain her place in the conversation, she asked with more bravado than she felt, “Have I met with your approval?”
The look on Darcy’s face became intense.
“I cannot name what it is I feel about you now, Cousin Anne, but suffice it to say that it is more than interested and less than enamored.
“You asked me earlier why I requested the first set. I will now tell you why. I did not think I could bear to stand around the edges of the room watching you dance with other men, wondering if tonight would be the night your heart was finally touched and knowing then that it would be too late for us to see if we could ever be.”
Anne was shocked by his words. He admired her, and not a little. They finished the dance in silence, each looking intently at the other.
Darcy escorted Anne back to her mother and informed them that he was, in fact, leaving the ball. He said goodbye to Lady Catherine, and then he bowed over Anne’s hand and bestowed a kiss.
Then he was gone.
It took Anne a few minutes to recover from Darcy’s extraordinary declaration. Yet she could not dwell long on the subject, for the very man she did not wish to dance with that evening was coming to claim her for the next set.
Lady Catherine was just as displeased as her daughter to see Rupert Harris. It was only for her brother’s sake that Lady Catherine had not told the gentleman he was unwelcome. She also knew that Anne was disinclined to accept his advances and she hoped her daughter was learning how to handle the unwanted attentions of men.
Harris was as gallant as ever. “Miss de Bourgh, you outshine all the young ladies here tonight. No one is as lovely as you.”
Anne thought this was a bit much. “Mr. Harris, your attempts at flattery are commendable, but they lose their charm when they are so blatantly untrue.”
“Nay! None are as lovely as you!”
“I beg to differ,” Anne calmly replied. “I have seen some of the most beautiful women in Town here tonight. Please credit my intelligence and taste to know when I see an exquisite face.”
“I shall not carry on and risk your displeasure, but I pray you, give me leave to admire you above all the other women here tonight.”
“Very well,” Anne said in resignation, hoping he would move to another topic.
“Do you stay much longer in Town?”
“We leave for Rosing the day after tomorrow. I will be glad to be back in the country.”
“I will be sorry not to be able to call on you,” he answered deliberately. “Will you go to Perryton?”
“I do not believe so. We are to Derbyshire, to visit my cousins at Pemberley.”
Mr. Harris’ face fell. “Your cousin Darcy’s estate?”
“Yes.” Anne knew this was a perfect opportunity to stop Mr. Harris’ attentions. For once, her mother’s plans would be useful. “You may have heard that a union between Pemberley and Rosings has been planned since I was but a babe. I am destined by my family for my cousin.”
“But… you have not been… forgive me. I assumed, since neither of you seemed inclined to seek the other out before tonight, that such rumors were merely idle conjecture.”
“My cousin wished for me to enjoy the season before any announcements were made. I am sorry if you have had the impression that I was free from any previous commitments.”
“No, no. I am only surprised I had not realized the truth to the whispers I have heard. I apologize if my attentions have distressed you.”
“There is no need. You did not know.”
“Should I wish you joy?”
“Not at this time. Nothing has been formalized.”
Anne was very satisfied with their discourse. She had not lied to the man, but neither had she represented the situation as it truly was. Yet Anne had a feeling that what she had intended Mr. Harris to believe was what would soon come to pass.
There was another man carefully observing Anne de Bourgh. Sir John Whitby watched as her tall cousin led his love to their places in the set. He acknowledged they made a handsome couple. That was not what distressed him. What distressed him was the way in which Miss de Bourgh responded to whatever Darcy had said to her.
In all the times Sir John had been in Miss de Bourgh’s presence, she had never looked at him with such open admiration or pleasure. Yet the way she looked at Darcy was very different. Sir John could also see her cousin was not indifferent to her. The intensity of their expressions portended a courtship, and Sir John knew it with such a certainty that he felt as if he had been struck. With a continued sense of dread, he watched Anne dance with more men. She was enjoying herself, and he could not help but compare her manner towards the other men with her stilted politeness to him.
Then he knew. She would never be his.
Such sorrow coursed through him that he had to escape. Watching her from afar was sheer torture.
Unfortunately, his route out would bring him very near his forbidden love, but there was nothing for it, as to remain would be agony. He looked straight ahead, towards the far set of doors, as he walked near Miss de Bourgh. It took all his fortitude not to sneak one last look at her. He held his breath for the last few steps before freedom.
He heard the voice sweeter than 10,000 angels calling to him. He stood still, not sure if what he heard was real, or a figment of his imagination.
“Sir John, you are not leaving?”
It is she! He slowly turned and offered Miss de Bourgh a deep bow.
“Yes I am, Miss de Bourgh.” He tried to hide his disappointed hopes.
“But you and I have not danced! I have saved one for you.” Miss de Bourgh sounded almost petulant to him. She seemed more amused than put out, though.
Sir John was flummoxed. She had saved a dance for him! He looked down at his toes and once again cursed his cobbler. His special dancing shoes had met with an unfortunate accident. He had begged for another pair to be made in time for the ball but his cobbler was too ill to fulfill his request.
“I had not, you see… my shoes…”
“A fine pair, and perfect for dancing! Will you not ask me to dance?”
“I…” He gathered his courage, though why he needed courage he did not know. She had just asked him to ask her to dance. She could not refuse him now. “Would you dance the next with me?”
“I would be delighted,” she replied, her eyes sparkling with enjoyment. “But before then, would you please bring me a glass of wine? You might enjoy one yourself.”
He did what he was requested without delay. Miss de Bourgh smiled sweetly while thanking him.
“Will you not drink yours?” she asked, when he made no move to sample the vintage.
He took such a big gulp that he nearly choked. Before he realized it, she was at his side enquiring after his health.
“I will recover shortly. Thank you for your concern.” She looked at him again, tilting her head to the side with a dubious expression on her face. He cleared his throat and offered her his arm.
This time when he danced with her, he did not feel like some clumsy oaf. Knowing she would soon belong to another, he lost his nervousness.
“Sir John, why did you never tell me you were such an accomplished dancer?” He saw her teasing smile.
“My fair partner inspires me, milady.”
She laughed openly. “Perhaps the change in footwear helped. You seem much lighter on your feet tonight.”
She noticed my shoes? How mortifying!
“Nay sir, do not look at me so. Your previous pair were… unique.”
He was caught. Honesty seemed the best choice.
“I am a vain man, Miss de Bourgh. Not all of us are gifted with the height of your cousin, Mr. Darcy.”
“He is uncommonly tall. But he has no choice in the matter, and, just as importantly, neither do you. Sir John, you are a good man as you are. There is no need to pretend to be something you are not.
“You are too kind.” And then he voiced the words that troubled his soul. “I never had a chance, did I?”
Miss de Bourgh looked a little embarrassed, but she answered, “No, but that is because of me, not you. However, I can also truthfully say that you have surprised me, sir, most pleasantly.” Her voice was now very sincere. “I hope that we shall always be good friends. I know I will be honored if you consider me your friend.”
“The honor is all mine,” Sir John managed to choke in reply.
“Then since we are good friends, will you allow me one more impertinence?”
Caught between surprise and hope, Sir John nodded.
“In the future, when you are going to be in the presence of young ladies, have a glass of wine to settle your nerves and to cleanse your breath. Oh, and if he does not already do so, have your man scrape your tongue. It will work wonders.”
He watched as Miss de Bourgh raised her eyebrow waiting for his response, worried that she had offended him. Somehow she had not. There was both an archness and a sweetness in her words that made him instantly forgive her for any unintended slight. Only a fool could fail to see she was trying to help him win another lady, even though he was not so fortunate as to win her. Therefore Sir John accepted the advice in the same spirit of friendship and admiration as it was given.
“I will speak to my valet. Thank you.”
Miss de Bourgh smiled with relief and they continued their dance, the conversation infused with a levity never present before in their discourse, but not unusual for the lively young woman that was Miss Anne de Bourgh.
When the dance was over and Sir John brought his partner back to her mother, Miss de Bourgh shocked him once more.
She leaned over and spoke softly.
“Will you stay and dance again?”
“I see no reason to stay any longer. I was leaving before you called out to me.”
“Please, stay a little longer, for my sake.”
“If you wish, I will do so.”
“Excellent! We must find you another partner.”
Sir John stopped short of their destination. “Miss de Bourgh, I…” he swallowed and chose his words. “As fond as I have claimed to be of dancing, I rarely indulge.”
“You seemed enthusiastic with me.”
“Well, you see… I, uhm, I wanted to dance with you.”
She took pity on him and put her hand over his. “I understand. But will you dance with at least one other young lady tonight, for me?”
As ever, he could not refuse her. “If you wish, I will.”
“Good! I see someone who will do just fine.” They continued walking toward Lady Catherine. Mr. and Mrs. Simpson, and their daughter Miss Helena Simpson were talking with her ladyship when they arrived.
Sir John listened as Miss de Bourgh made the introductions; he had already met Miss Simpson. He felt Miss de Bourgh push him forward and he heard her say under her breath, “Go on.”
“Miss Simpson, would you do me the honor of dancing the next with me?”
Miss de Bourgh spoke before his potential partner had a chance to respond.
“Sir John is a very entertaining partner, Helena. I greatly enjoyed our set.”
Miss Simpson looked at him, looked at Miss de Bourgh, and then looked back at Sir John.
“The next dance is not spoken for. I would be happy to dance with you.”
Sir John smiled, and then took his leave to find another glass of wine. Miss de Bourgh had recommended a small drink before he met with a woman.
After Sir John had left, Anne quickly took Helena aside and briefly explained the situation, asking her to be kind to Sir John. Anne also promised to hint to the gentleman when he returned that Helena might soon be engaged, and that he should enjoy the dance knowing there was no need to impress his partner.
True to her word, Anne had a brief aside with Sir John when he came back to claim Miss Simpson for the dance. He appeared relieved and Anne could see him visibly relax as he led Helena to the dance.
“Whatever you said to him was well done, Anne,” Lady Catherine remarked once Mr. and Mrs. Simpson had left.
“He is a sweet man, Mama. I do not wish to see him hurt,” Anne admitted.
“He will recover from his disappointment soon enough. I hope he does not transfer his affections to your friend. She may never forgive you.”
“Oh, I doubt he will. Besides, he needs more time to regain the courage to pursue a woman, I think. He looked rather defeated before. I wish him well. He is the kind of man who will make some woman a very devoted husband.”
“But not you. You need someone who will not let you have your way.”
“And who will undoubtedly hide me away on his estate in Derbyshire.” Anne rolled her eyes; she knew her mother never would give up until she was married. “Please, can we not leave talk of your plans for my cousin for another night?”
Lady Catherine relented by asking, “Where is your partner for this set, Anne?”
“Lord Haversham is coming now.”
Lucius Bayless, the Earl of Haversham, was a charming man, and a great friend of Darcy. He recognized the look of admiration on his friend’s handsome face when he danced with Miss de Bourgh. Darcy was there with his lovely cousin first and Bayless would stand down. He would also give the beautiful woman with whom he was about to dance a shove in her reserved cousin’s direction. Am I now a matchmaker? he thought with amusement.
“Pardon my tardiness, my mother required a word with me,” Lord Haversham explained. “Shall we?”
Anne was enjoying the set. The man across from her only wished to dance and wanted nothing more than to help his comrade.
“My friend Darcy made an early departure tonight. I lost sight of him after he opened with you. Later I heard he had already gone home for the evening.”
“He left right after. He was in no mood to attend the ball and had only done so to fulfill his agreement to partner the first with me.”
“He seemed to enjoy it. A rare occurrence, for I know he does not like to feel as though he is on display and thus dances infrequently. Alas, it was for the best, tonight.”
“How so?” Anne asked guardedly.
“Anyone who watched the two of you knows what Darcy’s actions meant. The feelings of the lady in question are less discernable, but a gentleman’s responsibility is the same. We make way for the one who was there first. I suppose it should come as no shock. You have known each other all your lives. Nothing is more natural than a union between you.”
“You assume a great deal, milord.”
“If I am in error, then so is more than one man you danced with this evening. Your last partner knew the game was up before he spoke to you.”
Lord Haversham made one last statement on the matter. “Darcy is a good man. I hope the two of you will be happy. He deserves a worthy woman.” After that, to Anne’s relief, he left the subject alone.
By the time she sat down for a meal, Anne’s mind was reeling. So many exciting and frightening ideas had been revealed to her before she had even sat out a dance. She should have been exhausted; instead, she was famished. Her partner, as at her first ball, was her cousin, Major Fitzwilliam. Anne had been happy to again reserve the supper dance for her favorite cousin. Andrew was always a delightful dining partner. To Anne’s even greater delight, she saw another familiar face.
“Mr. Bingley! I did not know you had retuned to Town. How go your studies?”
“I have just finished, Miss de Bourgh.”
“Has your friend brought you tonight, only to desert you? I know Darcy left long ago.”
Bingley laughed good-naturedly. “No, I came with my sister Louisa. She sits at another table with her intended, Mr. Hurst.”
“My congratulations to your sister. Do you have any other siblings?”
“I have one more sister, not yet out. She is partly to blame for my attendance this evening. Both my sisters are anxious for Caroline, that is the name of my younger sister, to enter society and they insisted I come tonight to prepare for the Little Season. Though I have no idea how my attendance on this occasion will make any difference then. However, I do enjoy a night out now and then. Ever so much more pleasant than reading Virgil or some such ancient text, would you agree?”
“Oh, ever more so! Though I have never read Virgil to make a comparison. Have you danced much?”
“With so many pretty girls about, I could not deny myself the pleasure. I do not know why Darcy did not stay and avail himself of the same opportunity.”
“I shall tell you why,” Major Fitzwilliam interposed, “he does not wish to give rise to false hopes by ambitious females. As Anne can tell you, being good looking and rich can be a bit of a nuisance.”
“He can choose to be disagreeable then. I prefer to dance,” Bingley declared to the laughter of his companions.
After eating, but before she found her next partner, Anne had the great satisfaction of introducing Mr. Bingley to Sir John Whitby. Anne spied Sir John trying to leave again, and once more called for his attendance to her. She then made the introduction of the two gentlemen. Anne hoped Bingley’s enthusiasm and amiable nature would be sufficient to convince Sir John to stay a little while longer. Bingley may have been the younger man, but he was the more confident, and Sir John needed all the confidence he could find.
While Anne had a few more dances spoken for before the night came to an end, she really only looked forward to one partner. She had seen Arthur earlier and she knew he had received Helena Simpson’s consent for two sets. They had danced once and would dance once again, but before then, it would be Anne’s turn.
Arthur found her well before the music started.
“Are you enjoying you evening, Anne?”
“Yes. I never would have guessed it would be so full. I have danced nearly every set,” Anne sighed.
“Would you prefer to rest now? We can find a nice public sofa, well within sight of my aunt, and gossip about all the people we see.”
“Including Miss Simpson?”
“Especially Miss Simpson!” he grinned.
“You are hopeless. Very well, I could use more time to rest. I charge you to find us the perfect place to sit.”
Arthur did as he promised and Anne sat down, glad to be off her feet a little while longer.
“I have heard you have taken up my cause with Miss Simpson.”
“Someone must champion you! I am nearly your closest relative after all.”
“Nearly. But in all sincerity, thank you.”
“You are welcome, but you have not won her yet. I have work left to do.”
“Anne, there is no need. If I cannot convince Mr. Simpson myself to give his consent, then Helena and I could never be happy together. She will not defy her father, nor will I ask that of her. He must come to accept me on my merits alone.”
Anne knew he spoke the truth. “I suppose you are correct. I just want them to love you as I do.”
“I know, and I appreciate it, but you do understand why this task must be mine?” He was making a point.
Anne nodded. “Yes, I do.”
“Good.” Then he spoke in a more cheerful voice. “There is one thing you can do that would help.”
“Die and leave you Rosings?”
Arthur laughed. “Nothing so extreme. No, I meant something more in the realm of the living.” Anne looked at him expectantly. “Get married!”
“Arthur de Bourgh, I thought you liked me! Now you too wish me wed? I am scandalized!”
“It would end the speculation that I am pursuing you for your fortune,” he gloated.
“The things I do for you.”
“You will marry?”
“I will think about it. But only for your sake.”
Arthur whispered so no one would overhear and misconstrue his teasing. “You did just confess you love me. The things we do for love.”
“I have changed my mind,” Anne whispered back. “And stop whispering, people will get the wrong idea.”
He did not stop. “They would only do so if I grabbed your hand and stared longingly into your eyes.”
Anne pulled back her hand as he playfully tried to take it. His attempt at a lovesick expression only made Anne snicker and soon they both were shaking, trying to control their laughter. Arthur de Bourgh was a rascal, and he was the perfect companion for Anne after such an emotional night.
The first signs of the new day were lighting the eastern sky when Lady Catherine and Anne arrived at their house. Both had fallen asleep on the journey home. They would sleep late that day. While they slept, the staff made ready for their departure from Town. The following morning they were on the road to Kent. Anne looked back at the retreating city, remembering the last months and all that had occurred. She did not allow herself to think on a possible future as wife of Fitzwilliam Darcy. Such musings could wait for tomorrow. For now it was time to settle back into life at Rosings Park, the place where Anne had spent most of her young life and the family legacy left her by her late father. She would do her best to honor his gift.
A thunderstorm the day before had brought relief from an unusually warm spell of weather. The rain had refreshed the vegetation, and all around the aroma of damp soil and grass reinforced that this was the countryside.
Darcy found Anne sitting on her horse on the other side of the valley from Pemberley. The early morning light illuminated the great house to best advantage. It was Darcy’s favorite time of the day for his favorite view of his beloved Pemberley. He urged his horse up the hill.
“I have never seen a place so well situated,” she said when he was next to her, looking out over the valley. Their horses stood relatively still allowing the riders to converse.
“Neither have I. Though I admit to being completely biased.”
“To be master of such an estate must be a great responsibility.”
“It is one I take very seriously, as do you for Rosings.”
“My steward manages the estate. I have nowhere near the burden you carry.” Darcy did not reply. What Anne had said was true.
“You were very wise to insist I have a Season free of commitment.”
“I did hope you would enjoy yourself.”
“Yes, but not as much as I hoped, and you are to blame.”
“How so? I stayed away.”
“It did not matter. I found that, whether I wanted to or not, I compared every man I met to you. Do you have any idea how that reduced the pleasure of receiving the attention of men who wished to admire me? No one was tall enough, intelligent enough, had as wonderful an estate. It was all so vexing.”
Anne watched as comprehension dawned on his face.
“No one compared favorably?” the left corner of his mouth lifted in a semi-smile.
“None in all things. And that is another reason why I am irritated with you. Mother would crow over me if I ever admitted that to her!”
“You have resisted the idea of a match between us because it was your mother’s idea? I do not see why this is such an issue. She is your mother and she wants what is best for you.”
“She hates to be wrong.”
“Nevertheless, she is your mother and is due your respect.”
“I do respect her.” Anne sighed. She knew it was important that he understood her relationship with Lady Catherine; unfortunately, it was hard to put into words.
“Ever since I was a child, Mama has tried to mold me into her version of the perfect daughter and the perfect woman. I suppose this would have been much less traumatic for both of us if I were compliant in nature. Unfortunately I share my mother’s strong personality and the desire to have my way. Our similar natures often result in clashes of wills, with neither of us wishing to surrender to the other.
“After I learned that it was my mother’s favorite wish that you and I marry and combine our two estates, I have fought against such an alliance. For nearly five years it was my sworn purpose to resist her plans. Now that I am contemplating what I avowed never to do, I find myself not wanting to give Mother the satisfaction of gloating.”
“Anne, I do not understand why it bothers you to admit your mother’s hopes for you are what you might desire. Aunt Catherine may have plotted and planned our eventual union, but it has always been left up to the two parties, you and I, to bring it to fruition. Neither of our parents made any legal arrangements.”
“You are correct, it is our choice. I do not know. Perhaps it is the thought that I am surrendering to the inevitable that causes me such… perturbation. Have I ever had a say in the matter?”
“Of course! You can say no right now and that will be the end of it. But I hope that is not your preference—it is not mine.”
He said the last with such conviction that Anne’s head snapped to the side to look at him. What she saw elicited a quiet gasp. She reached over to squeeze his hand, their horses still close to each other. Then she smiled a gentle, guilty smile.
“Oh Fitzwilliam, I am a fool,” she replied softly. “I sit her and tell you of my struggles with my mother, selfishly ignoring the fact that by doing so I bring her between us. I am sorry. I will not allow any resentment of my mother’s actions and words to influence my feelings towards you either way.”
“Then tell me what you want from me. I think I now know what I want from you.”
Anne turned her head to look out at Pemberley House again. “Ride with me a little more,” she said, spurring her horse toward a path that would take them back to the house. Darcy immediately followed and soon they were riding side by side, neither ready to speak.
The path leveled out in a small clearing with a stream running through the middle. Anne stopped her horse, dismounted, and led her horse to get a drink. Darcy did the same. They left the horses to graze and wandered over to some wildflowers growing there.
“I find wildflowers charming,” she remarked.
“There are certainly many around Pemberley. The Darcys have long preferred to let nature choose how the grounds are presented. Of course, the gardens adjacent to the house are more tamed, but I think I prefer this to whatever man can devise.”
Anne stooped down to smell a blossom. “What is your favorite flower, Fitzwilliam?”
He thought for a moment before answering. “I do not think I have one, but I like roses best, I suppose.”
“I adore daffodils in the spring. Yellow is my favorite color. Did you know that?”
“No, you have never before stated your preference to me.”
They started to amble through the clearing. Absentmindedly, Darcy swiped at the grass with his riding crop.
Anne sighed. “Yet Georgiana would know. She knows many things about me that you do not.”
“You have been a friend to her since our mother died.”
Anne bent over and plucked a blade of grass. “I thought she needed one. We know it is not always easy to grow up privileged. Our station forbids us many playmates.”
“And those we are permitted do not always stay true.” They both knew he spoke of George Wickham. Anne stopped walking; they turned and faced each other. The horses were nibbling the grass at the opposite side of the clearing.
“My point though, is that while we are cousins, we are not friends. Do you not find it odd that we consider a courtship when your sister knows us better than we know each other?”
“But Anne, I do know you.”
“No, you may think you do, but you do not. Fitzwilliam, I cannot consent to become your wife and lover before I become your friend.”
“I asked you before what you want. Will you tell me now?”
Anne made a point of looking him in the eye before she spoke. “I want time to become your friend.”
“Does that mean you do not wish to enter into a courtship?
“I do not yet know. I want to postpone this decision once more. Mama proposes that we stay at Pemberley for a month before we return to Rosings. You will be bringing Georgiana to Kent soon after. Why can we not use this time to form a friendship? Do this for me and I will give you my answer before you must leave Kent.”
Darcy wasn’t pleased, but he admitted that Anne’s logic was flawless. They would put off a decision yet again. He tried to take her hand, but she quickly pulled it away.
“Please, do not touch me.” Darcy look horrified. Anne saw he misunderstood her response and immediately set to put his mind at ease with a confession. “Do not go jumping to conclusions, Fitzwilliam. I am not indifferent to you. I find you… very attractive – sometimes too attractive.”
“I could say the same of you.”
Anne gave him a wry grin. “Will you wait? I could give you an answer today, but I would feel much more confident in the rightness of it if you would allow me to know you better.”
“Your reasoning is sound. I consent.” He did not sound happy, but Anne was relieved.
“Thank you.” They started back to reclaim their horses. “I believe this time will be just as beneficial as my Season. You were right to insist that I needed to experience one without any entanglements. I learned much about myself.”
Darcy, interested in what she had to say, prompted her. “Such as?”
Anne smiled ruefully. “I fear I am not as good a judge of character as I thought I was. I allowed my first impressions of two gentlemen in particular to cloud my judgment. The first man was Matilda’s brother, Mr. Harris. At first I allowed myself to be flattered by the man, thinking him charming but too beneath me socially for me to accept. He was rather persistent in his pursuit. I soon came to see that while he found me and my opinions amusing, he was more interested in my fortune and connections than in my merits as an individual. I am very glad I shall not meet with him for many months.”
“I am relieved you were able to discern his motives. But you mentioned a second person.”
Anne smiled. “Sir John Whitby.”
“Sir John? I thought you did not like him.”
“At first I admit I was rather… put off by him. But as I continued to encounter him, I came to see that he is, in essentials, a very good man. I like him.”
Anne saw her cousin look at her as if she had gone mad.
“Really! I admit he does go to extreme lengths to make up for his short stature, and his breath can, at times, be offensive.” Darcy snorted. “But I have discovered that a little wine works wonders and have told him so myself.”
“You discussed this with him? How on earth did the subject ever come up in conversation?”
“Yes, we discussed it and he thanked me for the advice. I also encouraged him to give up the awful shoes he wears. He’s rather light on his feet when he wears his normal shoes.”
Darcy shook his head. “Only you, Anne.”
They reached their horses and Darcy helped Anne mount hers before hoisting himself back into his saddle. It was time to return to the house. The path again allowed the two to ride side by side.
“The point of this, Fitzwilliam, is that I failed to see the man behind the peculiar habits. I though him ridiculous, I am ashamed to say. My opinion changed, though. He was very helpful when Wickham approached Helena and me in the park. He was determined to see the cur away.”
“I did not know you met that man in London. Will we ever be rid of him?”
“You know I know the history between you. He is too much of a coward to face you. I would not worry about him.”
“Hmph. But Sir John was with you when Wickham approached you?”
“Sir John happened upon us just after I met Wickham. He noticed my agitation and quickly ascertained the cause. I thought it very nice the way he tried to protect Helena and me. I think that was when I realized I had been too hard on the poor man. And now we are friends.”
Anne looked at Darcy again; he was frowning.
“There is no need to look so cross. I said ‘friend’. Stop acting jealous. I would never marry Sir John.”
“Ah, but will you ever marry me?”
“If you forced me to choose today, I know what my answer would be.”
“Dare I ask?”
“You may, but I am not obligated to answer.”
Anne’s coy words spoke volumes. They both knew she would say yes.
More often than not over the next several weeks, Darcy and Anne could be found together. Georgiana often accompanied them on rides about the estate. She was a good, if naïve chaperone. Darcy was convinced she came for the pleasure of their company; Anne was not so convinced, but she suited their purposes and both truly enjoyed Georgiana’s presence in their conversations.
Two chaperones were conspicuous in their absence. Lady Catherine had granted Mrs. Jenkinson’s request to visit her family while the de Bourghs were in Derbyshire, thus she was safely out of the way in Somerset visiting her relations. Lady Catherine herself often left her daughter alone with her cousin, doors remaining discreetly open, of course. Both Anne and Darcy laughed at the obvious machinations of Anne’s mother. There was no doubt Lady Catherine hoped the two would hurry up and come to an understanding, and she was doing everything in her power to facilitate it, short of orchestrating Anne being compromised.
The idyllic days spent in Derbyshire were drawing to a close. Darcy and Anne’s friendship grew and they were both disappointed by her impending return to Kent. It was Georgiana who provided the idea of how to nurture their newly-won closeness. Georgiana had pledged to write Anne in the interim between her cousin’s departure and her own visit to Rosings. Darcy fastened on to her intentions and requested that as Anne’s cousin, he too be allowed to write. It may not have been entirely proper, but Lady Catherine saw no reason to withhold her consent.
The subject of the letters may have surprised Lady Catherine, had she been successful in purloining them, for they wrote mostly of estate matters. Darcy recounted the progress of the harvest and Anne asked for his opinion on proposed improvements to some of the tenants’ cottages.
Such topics may have appeared inconsequential, but for the two correspondents, they were of great interest. Darcy and Anne learned they held many of the same views and convictions about how an estate should be administered and the responsibility of the owner to those who lived there and worked the land.
The Darcy and Fitzwilliam families arrived at Rosings in anticipation of Anne’s eighteenth birthday. The earl and countess watched with interest the burgeoning rapport between Anne and Darcy. As at Pemberley, the two spent a great deal of time together, often taking long walks through the park.
The family was not alone in observing these events. Mrs. Stuart had a difficult time curbing the gossip below stairs; she had an even harder time not participating in it herself. Miss Anne de Bourgh was blossoming into a young woman before her very eyes. And Maggie saw what no one else could; Anne was falling in love with her cousin. Nothing else could explain the new way Anne held herself. She was no longer a girl, and soon would be a woman in every way. Of this Maggie was convinced, though she kept those thoughts to herself.
Anne’s birthday came, and when the festivities were over, the Fitzwilliam clan departed, with the exception of Darcy and Georgiana. They had always planned to stay a few days past the rest of the family. Arthur de Bourgh had also made an appearance, and Anne was delighted to see him, but he was anxious to return to Town and Miss Simpson. He could not fail to notice Darcy’s possessiveness of their cousin, and so he left before that gentleman misconstrued his friendship with Anne for flirting. There would be time enough later to show he was never a rival. Arthur had his own woman to win.
Once the rest of the party had left, by an unspoken understanding, Anne and Darcy met the following morning in her favorite grove.
It was time. Darcy would not leave without an answer.
“We cannot stay much longer,” he told her, as they walked along a path. “I need to take Georgiana back to school.”
“Yes, I have discussed it with her. She is anxious to return to her friends, but I do not think she is too fond of her schooling.”
“She has expressed some of those apprehensions to me. Georgiana is much more advanced in her studies than many of the girls. I think she is afraid of how she will be accepted. As you know, she does not like to be the focus of attention.”
“No, she never has. You still believe she is better off at school than at Pemberley?”
Darcy sighed. “For now, yes. I could bring her masters to teach her, but then perhaps it would be better for her to live in Town. I am committed for one more year, and Georgiana has made friends there.”
“Meeting girls my own age was a privilege rarely afforded me at Rosings. I agree that her schooling has given her other opportunities. Sometimes I envy her them.”
“What she really desires,” Darcy stopped walking and looked at Anne, who had her hand on his arm, “is a sister.”
“I too have always wanted a sister.”
“There is a way I could satisfy both your wishes.” Darcy took a deep breath. “Anne, I have waited as you have asked. Will you not give me an answer?”
“You speak of a courtship?”
“Yes, though I think we are both intelligent enough to know that it is tantamount to an engagement.”
Anne disengaged her hand from his arm and stepped a few paces away from him.
“You have asked me what I want.” She turned and faced him. “Will you not answer me the same question?”
Their eyes locked, their expressions completely serious as the moments passed in silence. At last Darcy spoke.
“You.” Anne inhaled sharply. “I want to marry you. I find myself amazed it has come to this. I have known you since you were a newborn child. As an adult, I have watched you grow from a child to an adult, always knowing you were intended for me and that you have resisted and resented it. Yet somehow you have overcome your longstanding bias against accepting my attentions and seem ready to have me. How can I not be flattered, how can I not be moved?
“In thus declaring myself, I realize we cannot return to the carefree familial relationship of the past.”
“No, it is impossible. There would forever be an awkwardness between us,” she agreed.
“Exactly… Anne, perhaps I have asked the wrong question today? I think the past six months have been a courtship, though neither of us was aware of what was happening.”
“For us, maybe this was for the best.” They both were silent again, standing on the precipice of great change.
“Do you have any reservations?” he finally asked. “We get along well together, we each bring to the match wealth and mutual connections. You would never want for anything.”
“Even your affections?” Anne dared.
Darcy closed the distance between them and took her hands in his. “They are yours for the taking, Anne. I am convinced I would love you with a passionate regard, if you let me. It remains then to be asked, if you believe your heart could be similarly engaged.”
A tear began to trace its way down Anne’s cheek as she fought for her composure. Darcy reached up and tenderly caught it with his thumb.
“I should not have said so much; I have overwhelmed you. Forgive me.”
“No, Fitzwilliam. If I am overwhelmed, it is because my heart is already yours. I have fought my feelings for you for so long, that now that I know you will treasure me as I will treasure you, my whole being bursts with joy.”
With such a proclamation, he was filled with a happiness he had never known. Grinning, he dropped to his knee and reclaimed Anne’s free hand.
“Dearest Anne, I have no speech prepared; I do not come before you with flowery words, but I would be honored if you would consent to be my wife. Please Anne, will you marry me?”
Miss Anne de Bourgh looked down at the man kneeling before her. Fitzwilliam Darcy looked up, eyes filled with hope. One word was all he needed. One word would seal their fates. How could three letters have so much power? Then Anne realized it was not the word, but the promises behind it that held such power. To have and to hold, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer (though that was unlikely!), in sickness and in health, to love, cherish and obey. Until death would part them. One little word meant all these things, and now she understood with perfect clarity that this was exactly what she wanted. She squeezed his hands and laughed.