Chapter 1 Posted on Friday, 23 May 2008
"My dear Lizzy, you cannot think me so weak as to be in danger now?" asked Jane.
"I think you are in very great danger of making not only Bingley, but all the men from the Ton, fall at your feet tonight, Jane."
"Such nonsense you speak, Lizzy. But in all seriousness, it has been two months over, and if Bingley and I shall meet finally tonight, it will be publicly seen that we meet only as common and indifferent acquaintances."
"Indeed," said Lizzy, raising her infamous arched eyebrows.
"My dear nieces, the gentlemen are downstairs, waiting upon your entrance," insisted Mrs. Gardiner as she stopped underneath the doorway. She walked over to the two girls and looked them over with her loving eyes.
"Oh dear Aunt, how can we thank you for giving us this opportunity tonight?" asked Jane, as she embraced her Aunt with great affection.
Mrs. Gardiner place one hand upon Jane's cheek. "If anyone deserves this night, it is my two exquisite nieces...you two will be the talk of the Season."
"Yes, of course, Aunt...until the clock strikes twelve, and our glass slippers disappear...although my dear sister Jane will remain as pretty as ever, rags or riches. I, however, will return to common life," swooned Lizzy, with one hand sweeping across her brow.
"Go on now, girls. And you should hold your tongue, Lizzy. One of these days, one of those gentlemen will catch your eye," said Mrs. Gardiner.
Lizzy looked at her Aunt with resolution, "I shall end an old maid, as I am so determined."
With that end note, Elizabeth kissed her Aunt on the cheek before both girls made their way below the stairs.
"Ashton, I believe we are in great danger tonight," said Grant, as his eyes focused upon the two country beauties of Hertfordshire, descending the stairs.
"Do check yourself, Grant. These two cousins of mine are my most precious," said Ashton Gardiner, bestowing esteem with his warm, twinkling eyes.
Dashingly handsome, Ashton Gardiner, was the Gardiner's eldest son. At the age of four and twenty, he had set off to the Americas to chance a business venture. The combination of his father's guidance, hard work, and connections through his excellent godfather, Lord Channon, the Earl of Thimbleton, Ashton had become a success story in shipping. After four years, his income had well exceeded four thousand per annum, with a substantial increase expected within the next couple of years.
Ashton was also a humble and gracious eldest son. Although Lord Channon had offered to finance his education, the Gardiners would not allow for such generosity. Mr. Gardiner was a small, yet well respected tradesman in London; hence, Ashton was well aware of the sacrifices his parents had made to send him to Cambridge. He intended to return his parents' loving support by creating a better life situation for them and his three younger siblings, in spite of his own desire to settle down with a family of his own.
During his time away in America, Ashton had held a tight correspondence with his family. He was greatly disappointed when his father conveyed the details of Cousin Jane's heartache that past winter, while residing at their home in London. It saddened and angered him to think that any man could be so negligent toward his dear sweet cousin.
Tonight, however, he was in high spirits, as he was granted the opportunity to reconnect with Jane and Elizabeth, and was even more ecstatic that he could now afford to lavish them with the latest London fineries. Country misses they were, but of a very fine specimen. The Ton could ridicule him all they want of his new money, but if they dared tittle tattle about his cousins---well, he would be no gentleman tonight.
"Viscount Channon," bowed the ladies.
"Oh, come now, it has been years since we were last acquainted, but you must still call me Grant, as in the olden days, Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth."
"Then you must call us Lizzy and Jane, for the same purposes," declared Lizzy.
Grant bowed to the two beautiful ladies.
Lizzy glided down the stairs towards Ashton. "We are both looking forward to spending some quality time with you tonight, Cousin," said she, as she straightened his cravat.
"Yes, Lizzy, I am in great spirits. Will you grant me the honor of dancing the first set with me? And Jane, the second set?" asked Ashton as he turned to both cousins.
"We would be honored, Ashton, but do leave room on your dance card for all of those swooning ladies. We would hate to be the cause of so much heartache." The four in company laughed and jested gaily with one another.
"Likewise, will you ladies also grant this lonely viscount the honor of dancing the first two sets?"
"Should we dare say no?" challenged Lizzy.
Grant smiled at the younger woman. "You have not changed, Miss Lizzy, although your beauty ages like a fine wine."
The Bingleys, Hursts, Mr. Darcy, his two cousins, Colonel Fitzwilliam and Lord Blake, and his ladyship, nee Lady Abigail of _______shire, attended the ball in a timely manner.
Colonel Fitzwilliam was, as always, in jovial spirits. Bingley, however, had been desolate ever since closing down Netherfield. London society did not hold the same excitement or charm as it used to...before he left his heart in Hertfordshire.
Mr. Darcy, who detested balls and London society in general, felt it necessary tonight to lift Bingley's spirits. Caroline had informed Darcy of Jane's arrival in town two months prior, and the two had conspired to keep Bingley oblivious to the correspondence between Caroline and Jane. Both conspirators assumed that Jane had well left town by now. Regardless, if Jane were still in town, the two social circles were too isolated from one another to necessitate further scheming.
"Mr. Darcy, you should be well aware that the mamas and their daughters are already seeking you out," warned Caroline, attempting to goad the ladies away with her glaring eyes.
Mr. Darcy lifted his arched eyebrows at Caroline with a silent sigh. Indeed, this will be a long night, he thought.
"Indeed, Miss Bingley, indeed," said Darcy.
"Although I must say, London society is quite refreshing after such a long and drab stay in the countryside, do you not agree, Mr. Darcy?"
Mr. Darcy nodded silently to discourage Caroline's malicious tongue, but his eyes set upon two couples walking up the stairs.
"Darcy, I believe there are two fresh appearances this season, and I must say, I am not disappointed," said Colonel Fitzwilliam admiringly, as he looked in the same direction as his cousin.
Caroline turned with fire in her eyes, as Bingley gazed off to stare forlornly at the décor of the wall. She tried to steer her brother in a different direction, but Darcy held her steady.
Bingley would have to face Jane sooner or later, and this would further Darcy's proof of Jane's indifference to his friend.
Though, at that moment, if he would confess it to himself, he only had eyes for the brunette beauty in the elegant emerald-colored gown. Darcy tried to take his eyes away, but the distinctive sound of her laughter drew him in deeper.
The two couples halted at the top of the stairs as they saw the familiar pairs of eyes.
Jane felt weak as she turned to see Bingley staring at her, but her cousin held onto her firmly.
"Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth!" cried Bingley enthusiastically.
Jane had her eyes glued to the ground as she greeted all their acquaintances.
"Viscount Channon, how is your family?" asked Lord Blake.
As Darcy's cousins spoke to the Viscount and Ashton, Darcy stood in pure silence, hampered by his shock and shame. Here was Elizabeth, on the arm of a viscount, yet he had deemed her family of low connections. Disengaging his drawn eyes from the sightly pair, he surmised that the night would be indefinitely cruel and painful in every imaginable way.
Caroline stared at both ladies, and a forced smile broke through her countenance.
"Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth, it is a shock to see you here, of all places!"
"How long have you ladies been in town?" asked Bingley, looking only at Jane.
Both sisters looked at Caroline. Although Jane sweetly smiled and said two months, Elizabeth cast Caroline a cold look.
Darcy observed Elizabeth's fierce countenance towards Caroline, and he shifted as he realized his own involvement in the scheme.
"Excuse us, it was very nice to meet all of your acquaintances, but I do believe we are going to miss the first set," said Ashton, trying to ease Jane's discomfort. "Shall we, ladies?"
Both Elizabeth and Jane were gratefully relieved for their cousin's suggestion. They first bowed to the Lord and his ladyship, and turned to their familiar acquaintances from the Netherfield estates, before allowing Viscount Channon and Ashton to lead them into the dance hall.
"I say, who are those enchanting ladies, Darcy, and how do you all know them?" asked Colonel Fitzwilliam.
"Hmmph," sneered Caroline, "if you could only see them in their usual country surroundings, six inches in mud. Miss Bennet is all that is gracious and beautiful, but Miss Eliza Bennet is all that is impudence. It is quite amusing that Hertfordshire would deem her a town beauty...in retrospect, where the country is so less varied, there is not much to look upon, do you not agree, Mr. Darcy?"
"That is enough, Caroline" said Bingley, who was beginning to wonder why he had ever allowed anyone to dictate his heart and mind. He suspected that Caroline had known of Jane's stay in town, but here was not the time or place to reprimand his sister. He had lost Jane, and it was due to his own weak resolve.
"Both ladies have much to recommend themselves, regardless in the country or London society," said Darcy, his eyes trailing away to the dance floor.
As Caroline fumed, Colonel Fitzwilliam looked at Darcy. If ever he saw Darcy smitten, this was the night. But how could it be? Did not these ladies belong to the objectionable family Darcy alluded to in their previous conversation? He could see nothing but loveliness and goodness in the two Miss Bennets. The Colonel was determined to seek out his cousin for a private moment, where he might gain a definitive explanation.
"Dare I let you go after this dance, Lizzy? I fear we will not be able to reunite until the end. The gentlemen are all gawking at my two cousins!"
"I agree in as much as they are gawking at Jane, Ash."
"Oh, but do not speak so fast, my Lizzy. It appears that the one gentleman who is so often the prey, set his own eyes upon...you."
Elizabeth shot Ashton a confused look.
"Pray, do tell, Cousin, whom do you speak of?"
Elizabeth blushed as Ashton whispered in her ear. "You are not a great study of character. If he does stare, it is to belittle me. We do not get along very well, and I am not sorry for it. In fact, he deemed me as ‘barely tolerable' when we first met at the Meryton Assembly."
"I am all shock, Lizzy." Ashton gave Darcy a disapproving look. Darcy visibly reddened and turned away.
"Oh, do not bother, Ashton. He is a miserable man, and I will not dwell on misery."
As the second set ended for the night, Grant and Ashton led Jane and Elizabeth to a corner to talk before turning to speak to a business associate.
"Jane, did I not tell you that Caroline was behind some scheme?" whispered the younger sister. "Bingley is in love with you as ever. It is written across his face."
"I do not believe that she could be so cruel, Lizzy. Besides, I am glad that our meeting is over with. Bingley and I meet only as common acquaintances. Do not make it awkward."
As the ladies spoke, Bingley and Darcy strode towards them, leaving several infuriated mamas in their wake.
"We hope we are not interrupting, ladies," said Bingley with hope in his eyes.
"Mr. Bingley, you are quite the pleasurable interruption. How may we be of service to you?" asked Lizzy.
"I was only hoping that I could ask Miss Bennet for the next dance...that is, if it is not already filled?" Jane's face turned brilliantly crimson as she turned her face to the side, while nodding politely to Bingley.
Perhaps she is just shy, thought Darcy, as the two walked away together. Lord, what have I done?
"Miss Elizabeth, I trust your family is well?" said the man finally, too nervous to ask her for the next dance.
"Yes, I left them in good health," said Elizabeth, with arched brows.
"How long are you in town for?"
"I barely arrived three days before to be with Jane and my cousin. He leaves in 3 months time, but I shall depart a month before that to visit Mrs. Collins."
Seeing that Elizabeth expected him to move the conversation along, Darcy asked her for the next dance.
"I regret to inform you, sir, between my cousin Ashton and the Viscount, and a few others, my dance card is full...however, I am sure you have many other dance partners awaiting that are more tolerable than myself." With a curtsy, Elizabeth walked away to find her cousin, a satisfied smile across her face.
Across the room, Grant found himself conversing with Miss Bingley. "Viscount Channon, may I ask how you are acquainted with the Miss Bennets?" asked Caroline, in her sweetest voice.
"You may ask, and I may have the pleasure of telling you that we are well acquainted from childhood. My father is Mr. Gardiner's godfather. We spent many a summer together. However, our Ashton has been in the Americas for the past four years, and I have not been fortunate enough to see them recently-- before tonight of course."
"Yes, I see."
Grant gave Caroline a questioning look.
"They are not part of our London society, therefore you do not have to be in their presence unless in the presence of their cousin. Is that not right, Viscount Channon?" whispered Caroline.
"Miss Bingley, do not put words that are not my own in my mouth. The Bennet sisters are highly admirable, and I am delighted and honored to be united with them once more. If you will excuse me." Viscount Channon bowed, moving to intersect Elizabeth out onto the terrace.
"Do you care for some fresh air, Miss Lizzy?"
As they took in the beautiful garden view, the Viscount leaned over the balcony and looked admiringly at the woman beside him. "I find it interesting that all eyes should be upon us tonight...could this be in the service of your beauty?"
"You do know how to flatter a lady, sir."
"And you, my dear, know how to hold a gentleman's attention." The two friends smiled at each other.
Darcy looked at the smiling partners from afar, and felt a painful sensation shoot through his body, a pain he had never experienced before in his eight and twenty years. Despite his own unhappiness, however, he felt at ease to know that Bingley was again in high spirits in the presence of the elder Miss Bennet. He could see now that he had misjudged Jane's affections towards his friend, in his own mêlée to avoid the strong feelings formed for the Miss Bennet in the lovely emerald gown. He would have to confess all to his friend after tonight. Whether they remained friends would be another story.
Darcy gazed out the window to his library, as his cousin sat gazing at him, a half glass of brandy in his hand.
"I say, was that not a lovely ball to commence the Season?" asked Fitzwilliam.
Knowing that his cousin expected some type of reply, Darcy nonchalantly nodded.
"And our friend Channon was quite the lucky chap!"
Darcy's throat and fists tightened as an image of Elizabeth dancing with the Viscount replayed over and over in his mind. He remembered every detail of her features as the two smiled at one another throughout the night, talking with such ease and familiarity, while addressing each other by their shortened Christian names. The warm interaction between the two was a stark contrast to Darcy's own interaction with Elizabeth at the Netherfield Ball.
She had been adamantly insistent upon putting the final touches on his character portrait that night, and he wondered whether there was a single trait in his possession that she did not condemn? Would she have held him in higher regard were it not for Wickham's deliberate fabrications? Or had she already determined his character at the Meryton Assembly?
Darcy closed his eyes as he silently berated himself for scorning her tolerable beauty. What she must think of him!
The Colonel raucously shifted his brandy glass from side to side on the table, as he whistled a non-melodical tune.
"Enough, Richard. What is it that you would like me to divulge?" asked Darcy, still refusing to look at his cousin.
"Oh, truly nothing of great importance...I only wonder if you have developed certain feelings for one of those Miss Bennets...?" his question trailed off, as he continued to shift his glass, while glancing up to give his cousin a knowing look.
"By feelings, you mean attraction. The Bennet sisters, as you saw, were well admired last night. Their charms are undeniable, that much can not be refuted"
"Aaah, you are running circles around my query, Old Man. Do we intend to make this a marathon?"
"You and I both know where my obligations lie, especially in regards to Georgiana."
The Colonel remained quiet for a moment in contemplation. "Hence... the Bennet's improprieties that you have impressively claimed to save Bingley from, spring from your own ill-found scruples, is not that true, Cousin?"
Darcy only glanced at him with despondent eyes.
Before Fitzwilliam could provide his cousin with a much deserved thrashing, Mr. Ford escorted Bingley into the room.
"Mr. Charles Bingley, sir."
Both cousins turned to look at their unexpected guest. Fitzwilliam moved forward to greet the young man, while Darcy remained taciturn near his window.
The usually amiable man acknowledged the colonel with a mere courteous nod. "Colonel Fitzwilliam."
The colonel smiled at Darcy, then Bingley, but neither man was in the present mood for smiles. Stationary, with his hands behind his back, Fitzwilliam's mouth drew into a straight line. His amused eyes moved from one gentleman to the other...it was an awkward silence, indeed.
Sensing his presence currently unwanted, the colonel bid the two comrades good day. "Well...if you will excuse me, I must call upon my own family, unless I desire to be reprimanded for my lack of attention in that quarter. Perhaps...Lady Catherine will take me in for refuge then, for she dearly loves to be of service, does she not, Darce?....Good day, chaps."
"Good day, Colonel," said Bingley, with a half-hearted, apologetic smile.
Turning to look at Darcy, Bingley stood motionless, allowing only his eyes to talk to the tall man.
Darcy raked his fingers through his thick dark mane before he walked towards his workdesk, standing directly across from his not pleased friend. "Please do be seated, Bingley," he said in earnest. "I intended to call upon you this very afternoon."
Bingley was tight-lipped, as Darcy weighed up his friend's anticipated reactions.
"I trust, from your countenance, that Caroline has imparted some displeasing information," he said solemnly, yet receiving no response.
"I will not deny any part, but I am sincerely..."
Bingley put one hand up resolutely to cut his friend short. "Darcy, you are my most valued friend, and although I understand your concerns, it should not have been up to you NOR Caroline to decide whether I should call upon Miss Bennet or not, while she has been in town. TWO months, Darcy, she has been here, and TWO months, I have been miserable!"
Darcy could only nod his head in agreement for Bingley had every right to be outraged. "My actions have been deplorable...but you must believe I thought her indifferent to you, that I was doing a great service for a friend!"
Sizing up the grand man with the numerous excuses, Bingley leaned across the table and pounded his fist loudly. "Not only have your actions been deplorable, my friend, but that you consider me incapable of being my OWN man, of not having my own mind, cuts me deeply!"
"Of your capabilities, I have no doubt," said Darcy firmly.
Yet, with not a little hesitation, he breathed in, while his eyes searched for the window.
"Forgive me, I also believed you were not well suited...socially."
Bingley shook his head vehemently. "I would not expect this from you, Darcy. You can not be the same man I have held in such high esteem all these years!"
The Master of Pemberley looked at his friend again with a discontented sigh. He agitatedly twisted the signet ring around his finger, while Bingley looked at him wildly. He was about to confess aloud, what he could not confess to his cousin, and for a long time, what he would not confess to himself.
"You will hold me in no higher esteem when I own up that I feared the union between you and Miss Bennet even more so because of my own affections for another...Miss Bennet."
Bingley staggered, as his eyes opened wide.
Darcy only winced as he grabbed his brandy glass, and swiftly swallowed the content in whole.
"I-, I did not realize that there were any attachments between the two of you," said Bingley, who was extremely out of sorts from Darcy's declaration.
Darcy looked down into the now empty brandy glass to divert Bingley's fixed stare. "WE do not have attachments, Bingley...I highly doubt these attachments, as you say, are
Too sympathetic to his friend's plight and expressed remorse, Bingley sat slumped in his chair, feeling resigned.
"You will relinquish your duties as my protector, will you not, Darcy?"
"Only if you will serve as mine. I fear Miss Elizabeth's disposition is not as kind and gentle, OR forgiving, as your Miss Bennet."
Taking advantage of a relatively warm early spring day, the three cousins walked the younger Gardiner siblings around the encircled paths of Monument Park. Elizabeth and Ashton were occupied by feeding the ducks with the children, while Jane sat on a lone bench, mulling over her feelings.
Bingley had called upon the Gardiners on the previous night. The initial greeting was awkward, as expected, when introductions were made to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. However, with his amiable and genteel manners, alongside his apparent fondness for Jane, it was not long before Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner welcomed the gentleman into their home, wholeheartedly.
With the conclusion of a most pleasant dinner, Mr. Gardiner suggested that their eldest son and nieces might show Mr. Bingley around their small, yet inviting gardenwalk. Of course, the foursome agreed merrily to the idea.
Acknowledging Ashton's protective nature, the parents saw no objections to the pairing arrangement.
As Lizzy and Ashton trailed behind Jane and Bingley to tender privacy, Bingley shot the two chaperones a look of intense gratitude.
In their moment of seclusion, the besotted lover relayed his regrets and foolishness in departing Netherfield so abruptly. Although Caroline and Darcy's involvement was mentioned briefly, he held himself entirely accountable for not following his own heart and intuition.
Jane could not be happier that Bingley avowed his affections for her with such feeling and sincerity, but she was hesitant to admit her own heart so readily. She could not deny that the beautiful scented roses he had given her or that his near proximity affected her not a little, yet she knew that their rekindled romance would lead to a frequent association between Elizabeth and Darcy. Naturally, Jane worried about her sister's reaction upon hearing about Mr. Darcy's interference. The acute pain that she had endured throughout her separation from Bingley was very much Elizabeth's pain as well.
The propensity of Jane's disposition would allow her heart to forgive Bingley and love him all the same, in time. Mr. Darcy, however, had several violations against him already in the eyes of her beloved sister. How could she expect Lizzy to forgive a man whom she did not at all love, let alone, even like? The news would not sit well with her sister, and Jane was in a tumult, as she vacillated between revealing and concealing the information.
Both Elizabeth and Ashton glanced over at Jane with worried expressions. They assumed Bingley's renewed attentions toward her would enliven her spirit, yet there she sat, in such agitation and gloom, that the sun dared not shine too bright that morning.
Prior to Bingley's visit, Ashton was privy to Caroline Bingley's iniquitous involvement in the couple's separation. Nonetheless, it did not settle well with him that Bingley was predisposed to such a weak nature. Were his cousin to wed this man, and trouble arose between the two quarters, who would Bingley defend? Would he abandon poor Jane to pit for herself against that crafty and cunning sister of his?
It was Ashton's trust in Elizabeth's judgment, and her approval of Bingley, however, that stopped him from interjecting his ill-formed preconceptions. He was civil to the man throughout the entire dinner, and allowed the lovers a private discourse, but Bingley still had a lot to prove, in Ashton's eyes.
"She just needs time, Ash," said Elizabeth, as they turned from her Jane.
Ashton nodded his head and smiled. "And you, Cousin Lizzy, do I dare ask if any particular gentleman from the ball stole your heart?"
"Cousin Lizzy! Brother!" cried five-year old Eliza, as she snuggled quickly into Elizabeth's arms.
"What is it, Eliza?" asked Elizabeth, as she wiped the tears from the wet, plump cheeks.
"Nicholas! The-the ducks won't play with me because, because I don't have any bread to give them...and Brother won't share!"
Ashton walked towards Nicholas and kneeled down to reason with his younger brother. "Now, Nicholas, remember what we discussed yesterday? When I leave the family again, YOU, Nicholas, will have to be the master of the house when father is away at work. This includes taking care of Eliza and Walter. Nicholas nodded his head, and handed his brother half of the bread to give to little Eliza.
"You are an excellent master, Master Nicholas," said Ashton, tousling his brother's light sandy hair.
Jane came over and joined the family with Walter affixed to her arm. The young lad was quite attached to his eldest cousin, and sought her presence whenever her attention seemed lacking.
Ashton put his arm around Jane, and smiled down at her and Walter.
Viscount Channon secured the laced ribbon between the pages of his most current reading book, and sighed. He walked towards the window, and leaned one shoulder against the wall as he looked aimlessly out into the bustling London streets. Carriages and gentle people passed by, as they made way to their various locations of business, shops, and entertainment around the affluent Belgrave district. Life seemed to unfold and move along, as he himself stood stagnant. Catching his own reflection in the glass, the viscount stared directly into the eyes that looked back at him. How they seem to translate the hopes lost in the midst of past years.
He reached out to slightly caress the window pane, as he saw a family walk by.
Yet as the Gardiner carriage traversed through the streets toward Channon House, Grant's dull eyes convalesced, with a hint of a sparkle.
He was reminded of his exuberant youth, exploring the wooded London parks, waddling knee deep in the fishing ponds, basking underneath the glory of the summer sun with Ashton and his family.
He could see Little Lizzy's dangly form, with her skirts unaffectedly hitched past her ankles, challenging Ashton, Jane, and himself to run across the pond and up a tree along with her.
Now she was Miss Elizabeth, and the rules of propriety would not allow for such diversions. With age, came different diversions, and he could not remember an evening more enjoyable than the ball, in a great many years. He caught himself through the glass again, with a soft smile slowly forming on his face as he saw her face in his mind. He was not sure if that should delight or pain him.
A soft knock on his door called him to the present.
"Brother, they are here."
Jane and Elizabeth smiled at one another reassuringly. Both ladies sensed the other's feeling of trepidation as they stood underneath an opulent, gleaming chandelier in the enormous hallway of Channon House.
The simple elegance of the interior's architecture complement the master of the house impeccably well, thought Lizzy, as she slightly caressed the smooth mass of one of the nearby walls to admire its form.
The Bennet sisters were fortunate as to be comforted by the knowledge that had their mother been available to accompany them to London, her feted nerves would have retired her to an early grave...to be set in the path of such an affluent and eligible bachelor, and with no designs to marry the gentleman! Mrs. Bennet would never forgive either daughter, especially the tenacious one, who had already refused a proposal that would have prevented them all from destitution.
Unfortunately, in a society where marriage contracts mirrored those of business contracts, it was not so unusual to single the two sisters out for their romantic ideals.
Elizabeth sighed as Ashton shot her a sympathetic look.
Outwardly, Elizabeth appeared to be constantly lively with her facetious manners, but the entailment of the Bennet estate procured a burden that weighed silently upon her shoulders. Young ladies lacking fortune, family connections, or prospects were taught to expect nothing, to accept whatever security was offered, regardless of integrity or self-deprivation.
Along the gardenwalk with Jane and Bingley the night before, Elizabeth related to Ashton, in confidence, her mother's dire resentment against her. Mrs. Bennet would not speak to the child, save to remind Lizzy of her ungratefulness.
Ashton's arrival home could not have come too soon. It was upon Mr. Bennet's application that his favorite daughter travel to London immediately.
Mama had always considered the beauty of the second eldest daughter beneath the eldest. The pressure placed upon the inferior sister to readily accept whichever marriage proposal offered was severe and debasing.
At the age of one and twenty, however, Ashton could see that Little Lizzy had naturally grown into her graces. It was difficult for him to comprehend that both mother and daughter could not see this splendor, even when standing up to sister Jane.
Jane possessed a classical beauty that could not be denied. Her beauty was poignant and serene, with tendril blonde curls, soft blue eyes, and an endearing smile. Lizzy, however, was like a wildflower, daring to be plucked. Her features were chiseled, her spirit bold, yet the dark and soft, natural waves that framed her creamy ivory skin revealed a gentleness about her that could only be seen by those wanting to see her soul.
Enter Wickham, who seemed to set his designs solely on the second eldest Bennet, and NIL on the often-sought sister with the classical features. Who would not fall in lust with a gentleman, who was both equally sycophant and charming, and offered such flattery? Elizabeth imagined herself besotted, until she realized, had Wickham been a true gentleman, the private history between Mr. Darcy and himself would not have been so eagerly exposed, and without even the slightest hesitation or remorse of corrupting another man's reputation. Such untoward behavior merited suspicion upon Wickham's true character, and prevented her flight of fancy from manifesting into something real.
It can not go without saying, however, that Mr. Darcy's own disdain for the feelings of others and arrogant pride, shown to all in Hertfordshire, were dismissed. His opposing assessments between Jane and herself at the Merryton Assembly inflicted her more pain than she would ever care to admit because it validated her mama's own esteem in both girls.
He was an insufferable man....and to stare at her so constantly and intensely anywhere they were unfortunate to chance upon the other, censuring her every movement and manner with that quizzical brow!
Such vexations to the wounded pride and heart, along with Mr. Collins' preposterous proposal, convinced the lady to swear men off all together.
As Elizabeth let out her sigh, a manservant attended to the Bennets and Gardiners by relieving them of their overcoats and bonnets.
The Viscount and his sister, Lady Isabel, strolled down the hall, arm-in arm, to receive their company.
The Earl of Thimbleton was at an age in which his deteriorating health did not allow him or his wife to travel to London. Upon hearing about Ashton's arrival in town through correspondences with the Gardiners, they had sent Isabel and Grant in their stead to call upon the family.
Although not related by blood, the history between the Gardiners and Channons spoke volumes about the value of friendship, respect, and trust. Mrs. Gardiner and Lady Channon of Thimbleton, nee Miss Whitmore, grew up in the same town of Lambton. It was there that the two ladies shared their experiences of heartache, strife, and merriment. After the sudden death of the elder Whitmores, it was Mrs. Gardiner's family who took the future Lady Channon in to their home. Hence, there was a close familial kinship between the two families. It was not remarkable to any amongst them that they should address each other by such familial titles.
"Issy, we have not had the pleasure of seeing you for quite some length," said Mrs. Gardiner.
"Yes, Aunt, it has been too long, if I may say. I have been anticipating this meeting with such rapture. Do please come in," said the viscount's sister, as she held out her arms to embrace Mrs. Gardiner.
The lady paused as she took in the distinguished gentleman her godbrother, Ashton, had become.
"Uncle, Ashton." The gentlemen bowed to the lady, as she turned to each of them, with flushed cheeks.
As a young lad, the Viscount took his summer holidays with the Gardiners religiously. His sister, however, was not partial to London society, especially as a little girl. Her summers were idled away in the fresh green meadows and crisp clean air offered at their family estate. Furthermore, the Gardiners did not have any daughters that could be a companion for Isabel. The Bennet sisters would have been ideal playmates, but their visits were sporadic and not of great length since Mr. Bennet could not part too long with his second eldest. Hence, Isabel only saw the Gardiners when she came into town with her parents, or when the Gardiners visited Thimbleton.
"Isabel, it is an honor," said Ashton, kissing her gloved hand.
"I was grateful and relieved to hear of your safe return to London, Godbrother," said Isabel, furtively delighting in his gentle address.
"Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth, please do allow me to introduce my sister, Lady Isabel," said Grant.
Isabel smiled until she caught sight of Miss Elizabeth. Her eyes widened momentarily, and Elizabeth grew uncomfortable under her sudden gaze.
Grant inwardly blanched, but cleared his throat to snap his sister out of her reverie.
Isabel reddened at her own tactless manners.
"Where are my manners?" said a flustered Isabel. "I am delighted to finally meet you both."
"As are we, Lady Isabel," said the angelic Jane.
Elizabeth artfully arched one eyebrow at Grant. "Lady Isabel, I would not trust everything the Viscount tells you. You might be inclined to like us, if you have not already allowed your brother to sketch our characters," Elizabeth said jestingly, to ease the awkwardness she felt.
The whole room filled with laughter, and Isabel's nerves began to loosen as she gathered herself together. She was relieved that the attention had shifted towards her brother.
"Lizzy, I could never do you or Jane any discredit," said Grant.
Isabel was roused by her brother's casual manners with these Bennet sisters, especially the second eldest. Her eyes flickered with a swift, yet delicate movement of sadness, then indifference as she looked upon Elizabeth again.
"Yes, your praise is vital to guard your character of any discredit. Perhaps your sister should be privy to the shocking stories about you. Would you all be opposed to such capital table conversation?"
"You would not, Lizzy?" asked Jane, innocently.
"Lizzy, what trouble you are!" feigned Mr. Gardiner.
The Viscount returned her daring look, as he shook his head in dismay with a laughing smile.
"I believe I may champion my own title, Uncle," assured Grant. "Ashton and I have ample enough stories about the refined Miss Lizzy to entertain well after dinner!"
"Oh, do tell, for I dearly love to laugh," said an eager Elizabeth, giving the Viscount a mischievous and challenging smile.
"I can only imagine these stories to include knees, bees, and trees, hmmm, Lizzy?" teased her Aunt.
Isabel observed the group's easy manners. She smiled at their comments, but was not yet comfortable to respond with her own repartee. After the exchanges, she led the family into the brightly lit, spacious drawing room.
Elizabeth observed Isabel unobtrusively as they walked from behind. Though her features were not as striking as the Viscount's, her benevolent nature and unassuming demeanor fortified a beauty of its own. She was definitely quiet during their introductions, but Elizabeth ascribed this to a sadness subdued by her ladyship. Nevertheless, Lady Isabel's initial reaction caused much consternation in her mind.
"How are the younger Gardiners, Aunt?" asked Isabel.
"They are growing before our very eyes, and they wish to know you better, Issy."
"Sadly, my resistance to leave the countryside has quite alienated me from your family. You will allow me the pleasure of visiting my younger godsiblings soon?"
"It is a visit I am certain the children will be anticipating," said Mrs. Gardiner, tenderly squeezing Isabel's hand.
"I must say, though, that the children are quite well-mannered since Ashton's arrival home, so you must visit before they digress. It is amazing how much Nicholas has matured under the influence of his elderly brother."
Isabel smiled at Ashton as he blushed. "When a lady is fortunate enough to captivate Godbrother's heart, they will make for a very happy set, if your family may be any inclination of his own, Aunt."
Elizabeth could not help but notice her ladyship's tender fondness toward her cousin, which seemed to go unnoticed by the rest of the group.
"Until then, Ashton will have his agitated share of hiding from the Ton," said Grant.
"I have been blessed thus far, being accompanied by my two vigilant cousins whom have kept the bees away from the honey, and it does not go without saying that your hive has kept the bees from admiring my own, Grant!"
Seeing that she had neglected her duties as a hostess, Isabel turned to the two sisters, as the gentleman continued their banter.
"I regret that I did not arrive to London in time to join you for the ball. Did you ladies enjoy the Season's opening?" asked she.
"Yes, I daresay we had quite an entertaining evening, but regardless of the dressed event, it was nice to be in such excellent company as the Viscount and Ashton, do you not agree, Jane?"
Jane snapped out of her thoughts and smiled ruefully. Her mind remained disquieted from the dilemma presented earlier in the park.
"Yes...yes, thank you, dear sirs, for making the night so memorable. Your presence, however, would have significantly added to our enjoyment, Lady Isabel," said Jane sincerely.
"Oh, but I believe it is the set of the fair sex present that caused such a singular sensation. It was just the other day The Times pronounced that all the Ton princes in the fair London land are seeking their two mysterious fair maidens."
"Oh, but all the ladies were so elegantly and beautifully attired at the event. I could not imagine that any gentleman would not see the beauty in all the fair sex that night. It would not be equitable to single us out as the fair maidens," conceded a humble Jane.
"Yes, I believe The Times made a minor misprint, Jane. They meant to write fair maiden, singular" said Lizzy, with only pride in her eyes, as she patted her sister's arm.
Isabel smiled at the two sisters...such loving, sisterly affection.
As the manservant came into the drawing room to announce the readiness of the evening meal, Grant escorted Mrs. Gardiner into the dining hall, preceded by the trio of cousins, with Lady Isabel and Mr. Gardiner at the rear.
The family and friends enjoyed a delicious three course fare consisting of a rich, creamy crayfish bisque garnished with cheese croutes, a delectable Carps in Corbullion main entree, and sweet Pyramid Cream reserved for dessert.
The conversation flowed merrily as books, politics, family, and the delights of the country as compared to the city were all topics of lively discussion.
Now privy to each others' character, Lady Isabel and the two sisters deliberated their plans for the subsequent morning in town with much enthusiasm. The ladies would tour the neighboring shops around Belgrave and Grosvenor Squares, while the two young gentlemen visited their former colleagues from university.
Jane and Elizabeth were initially hesitant as the shopping extravaganza was announced on the morrow's agenda, and even more so, of their cousin's desire to indulge their every unspoken desire for fancy lace and ribbons. It was Mrs. and Mr. Gardiner whom convinced their nieces they deserved the regal treatment, and that their son's visit in town would be soured should they not allow him the luxury of pandering to them.
Isabel could not help but be drawn to the Bennet sisters. Each sister possessed a distinct charm of her own, yet both were humble and passionate creatures that could indefinitely hold her own amongst London society. Tomorrow, she had a duty to fulfill for Ashton, even though she conjectured it to be a challenge...to find such beautiful extravagances that would equal the true beauty of either sister.
Her admiration for the sisters, however, did not prevent Isabel from inwardly scowling as she observed her brother struggling to keep his eyes from frequenting the face of Miss Elizabeth Bennet, who was usually practiced in monitoring his attachments.
Of Miss Elizabeth's own attachment, Lady Isabel could not determine.