Section I, Next Section
A sequel to "Without Pride or Prejudice"
Three Years Later
Elizabeth Darcy looked out of the carriage window as London came into view. She did not get the same sensations from the sight as she once had. The excitement of the city was nothing to her now. A sad sigh was the only sound made as the wheels hit the cobblestone.
A hand reached over and touched the side of her face. She rubbed against the familiar touch, wishing its owner would move closer to her. The last three years had been a mixture of both happiness and grief--extreme in both cases. She settled back in her seat and allowed her thoughts to travel freely back to the past.
"It is a perfect October night, Fitzwilliam." Elizabeth extended her hand to him in an invitation. "Come see."
Fitzwilliam Darcy joined his wife of six months at the window in the dining room. She was correct, it was a lovely night. Everything the moonlight touched glittered due to the frost, including his wife's eyes. Slowly, he reached around her waist and pulled her closer to him. Elizabeth responded by leaning her head back against his chest.
To say the newlyweds were content would be an understatement. They lived in a world of bliss, where nothing could touch them. By mutual agreement, they were not to return to London for the season. Jane was the one to suggest they stay at Pemberley, telling them of the importance of spending their first Christmas in their true home. Elizabeth was reluctant, since she wanted to be near Jane and Andrew when their second was born. But, with a little persistence on her sister's side, she and Fitzwilliam decided to take her advice.
With Georgiana off visiting their Uncle and Aunt Fitzwilliam, they had the house to themselves. This, of course, led to many unexplored opportunities for the couple to frolic and behave like love-struck fools. They took advantage of this time alone quite often.
"Happy six month anniversary, Mrs. Darcy." He whispered in her ear. "Are you happy?"
"That would depend, Mr. Darcy. Do you happen to have a gift for me?"
"Does your happiness depend on little trinkets?" He laughed. "If so, I will have to compile a stash for moments like these."
"But, dear, I have a special gift for you." She said as she moved closer to him. Elizabeth loved teasing her husband, and he never seemed to complain about her attention.
Fitzwilliam understood her meaning. He turned her so she was facing him, and kissed her longingly.
"Are we going to make it to dinner tonight?" She asked him when he moved his lips to her neck.
He had stopped and was eyeing the dining room table when a knock came at the door.
"Blast!" he muttered. "Come in."
A servant opened the door and entered.
"An Express, sir."
Fitzwilliam took the letter and dismissed the man. With a glance at his worried wife, he opened it.
Andrew Austen was dead.
Elizabeth was determined to get out of the chair that was holding her hostage. She used a technique she had mastered over the last month. She began rocking, and with a perfectly timed wave of her arms, she was free.
Her husband entered as she was straightening her gown.
"Love, if you would be so kind, would you please hand me my hairbrush?"
"Where is it?" He asked absentmindedly.
"Fitzwilliam, after almost three years of marriage, how many times must I remind…," she stopped talking. "The baby is kicking, come quick."
When he did not come, she looked up at him.
"What?" she asked sadly.
"Sit down dearest Elizabeth, I have some bad news." He led his beloved wife back down to her chair. He would have traded almost anything he owned not to have to tell her this.
"It is about your Papa Austen…"
Elizabeth looked at her husband as he held their sleeping son. She knew she was blessed.
"Tomorrow is his two-month birthday, Fitzwilliam."
Fitzwilliam looked back at her. He knew she was still grieving Mr. Austen's passing. Three months had not eased her pain. She was still carrying around the guilt about not being able to attend the funeral. Elizabeth loved that old man, like a second father.
"I remember." He answered her softly. "Are you all right?"
Elizabeth shook her head to indicate she was not.
"I keep thinking about Jane. She has suffered so many losses in the last three years. I keep trying to think of ways to help her, but I can not."
"Elizabeth, do not blame yourself. You were with her after Andrew died. She understood why you could not be this time. Please, give Jane the benefit of doubt, she has had two children before you had William."
Elizabeth took in a deep breath and exhaled it slowly.
"But she has no Fitzwilliam to make her feel loved."
"Maybe someday she will again."
Elizabeth looked out the carriage window.
"We are almost home, Fitzwilliam, if you can call London home."
The carriage to take Charles Bingley to the Darcy's pulled up in front of his home. He checked his reflection once more in the mirror. He was satisfied, but not happy, with what he saw looking back. His eyes told him that he was a man of thirty. He was financially well off, easy to please, and generous with others. He was running Andrew Austen's charity with a drive he never realized he had, and was successful at it. Record donations fueled the already prosperous organization, and the work had given Charles a sense of pride he had never experienced before. Still, when he came home at night, he was alone. Occasionally his spinster sister would join him for dinner, but Caroline Bingley had changed.
Her engagement three years ago to Mr. Willoughby ended in public humiliation. She no longer sought out society, but fled at the first sign of it. She was a hallow woman, vain to a fault, and she could not face her so-called friends to this day.
She no longer had callers, and she no longer cared. She took a house not far from his, and lived her life quietly with the old woman she hired to be her companion. Charles hurt for his sister, but she was an adult who had chosen the way of life she would lead.
Still, it was a pity.
Charles turned away from the mirror and walked to the door. Tonight he would revel in his friend's favorable bliss, meet his new son, admire his wonderful wife, and eat a good meal.
Maybe this time, at the end of the evening, he would be able to better fight his natural urge to feel envious when he left.
Some things never change. He thought to himself as he made his way to Darcy's study. This place still looks the same, still smells the same-affluent.
A beaming Darcy holding a baby against his chest greeted him at the door.
"Bingley, old friend, welcome." He said as he held his free hand out to shake Charles's.
Charles smiled at his friend as he shook his hand. Darcy was someone who had changed, so Charles mentally retracted his original statement. His friend was different since meeting and marrying a young Miss Bennet. He still maintained his formal presence around people outside his small circle of close friends and family, but when he was in private, he softened considerably.
"Elizabeth is freshening up, and will be down in a minute." Darcy lowered his eyes to check on his son. "This is our son William, who is asleep at the moment."
"Should we not be quiet?" He asked. "I thought I heard that babies like quiet."
"Do not worry yourself, Bingley. Elizabeth and I do not tip toe around William. Once he is asleep, noise does not bother him. Of course, that is if you can get him to sleep."
"Well, the lad seems quite content where he is right now."
"He seems to prefer to lay this way, on my chest. We use this method often with him."
Charles face became serious.
"You seem very happy Darcy, baby and all."
"I am," he confessed, "and you?"
Charles was not about to tell Darcy the truth. That after numerous years of looking, and several attempts at falling in love, he had yet to find a woman who made him feel like Darcy obviously did.
"Me too, Darcy. Work keeps me busy, but I am happy."
Darcy accepted his answer, and began to ask him questions about his duty as the executor of the charity.
"Do you see Mrs. Austen often? I do not know how involved she is with the work."
No, until Mr. Austen's death, I only dealt with him. Now, I assume, she will be taking over some of his tasks. Since Andrew died, she hasn't been at many social gatherings. Mr. Austen kept her sheltered, I believe."
"Elizabeth has invited her for dinner tonight. Her children will not be joining us."
"It will be good to see her again, Darcy. It has been too long for all of us."
"Agreed, Bingley, far too long."
Elizabeth came downstairs a short time later and chatted with Mr. Bingley as Darcy took their son to bed. As they approached the parlor, Jane arrived.
Jane had not wanted to come for dinner tonight, even though the thought of her sister's company warmed her. At four, Evan did not understand his grandpa's passing. He would often break out crying if his mother would dare leave the house. He was afraid she would not return, and it broke Jane's heart that her son should carry around such a burden. Andrea was still young enough not to have any fear. She never knew her father, since she was born after he died. At times, she would still ask for Mr. Austen, but it was becoming less frequent with each passing day.
A large part of Jane was still mourning the loss of her husband. Andrew was such an honorable, considerate, good man. He was the best man she had ever known. Even two and a half years later, she slept on her side of the bed, and often caught herself reaching out to his side in the morning-feeling for him. Jane knew the love they shared was irreplaceable, and sometimes, if she looked very closely, she could see his features in her children. Until his death, her life was storybook perfect. Now, it was difficult, and she was very lonely. Mr. Austen's presence filled a small part of her void, but when he left, the void seemed even larger.
Elizabeth promised to stay in London as long as she needed her to be near, but Jane knew she could not stay forever. She had Pemberley, and her own family to take care of. Georgiana would be getting married in another month, and the Darcys would need to return in three weeks to prepare of the occasion. Elizabeth insisted she and the children travel back with her, and Jane agreed without argument. A change of scenery might do them all some good.
For tonight, she would try to enjoy herself. Mr. Bingley was a welcome surprise, she was intending to set up a meeting with him about business. Jane knew she had been ignoring this responsibility for too long now.
When Darcy returned from the nursery, they all adjourned to the dining room.
Dinner was served.
Elizabeth and Darcy were always good company to be in. For Jane's sake, they kept the conversation light, and their plan seemed to be working. Jane was smiling, and Charles was lively.
Charles was not at all like Jane remembered him to be. Her memories were of a carefree man, who did not seem to take life all that seriously. Jane assumed he was slightly irresponsible and flighty, a person who's attention was easily lost. But, tonight, she was struck by a different impression. When he was speaking with Darcy about his progress in finding suitable flats for some of the homeless he was assisting, he spoke with compassion. When Elizabeth asked after his family, he honestly answered her. Jane was not sure what was different, but he changed somehow. His laughter rang throughout the room as Elizabeth told her story about locating her husband when her pains came. It was a very funny story that even Darcy had to laugh at.
Jane watched her sister and Darcy throughout the night. Their affection for each other was so open, and frequent, that at times it was difficult to digest. She missed being looked at and admired, but really what she missed most was someone to share her thoughts with.
As the evening drew to a close, an appointment was made for Charles to come to her house the next day. She was ready to help out with the charity, and she wanted to get started before she left for Derbyshire.
Charles blew out the candle on his nightstand and fell into bed. He had just spent the past two hours collecting papers for his meeting with Jane tomorrow. His record keeping had improved greatly ever since his friend married, as did his responsibility. Without Darcy available to advise him, he began to pay more attention to the workings of the world around him.
Thinking about Darcy brought back that familiar pang of envy, but it was not as strong as usual. Perhaps meeting with Jane had lessened effect. He truly felt sorry for her, her life was so much harder than his own. There she was, a woman left alone with two small children, a large fortune to manage, and very little family support. Although Darcy had set her up with a few exceptional advisors, in the end it was still her obligation to make sure her children's inheritance was protected. Mr. Austen had left everything to her, knowing full well that she would hand it out fairly when the day arrived.
Charles was amazed at her ability to still be as beautiful as she once was. Birthing children did not ruin her figure, like it had his eldest sister's. She showed no outward signs of bitterness about her situation, but remained as graceful and friendly as she always was..
He remembered the first time he had met her. Andrew proudly introduced them, and he was a little more than taken with her countenance. She walked and spoke like an earth-bound angel, who happened to be married to an old acquaintance. That was also the day he met Elizabeth for the first time. Charles let out a short laugh. Had Darcy known his intentions were the same as his-to ask for her hand in marriage, he may have lost his friend forever. But, Darcy was quicker, and other than the uncomfortable feeling he experienced at their wedding, all was for the best. He could not harbor any feelings of loss, since he never had her love in the first place. He only had his occasional bout with envy to contend with, and he was intelligent enough to know that someday, it too, would pass.
Charles pulled the covers a little tighter around him, and fell asleep thinking about the details that he wanted to discuss with Jane tomorrow.
Arriving on time, Charles waited for Jane in Mr. Austen's old office. Everything was still in the same place as it was the last time he was here. Behind a desk was a beautiful painting of Jane and Elizabeth. Mr. Austen had told him that he placed the picture there because 'the girls' often put angry associates in a better mood. Charles had to admit the old man's humor was rare. Charles looked up at the painting and nodded his head. Mr. Austen was correct, he was in a better mood already.
A blond-headed boy came into the room, obviously looking for him. He summed up Charles with a discriminating eye.
"I saw you arrive, I am Evan Austen." The lad said in a serious tone.
"Charles Bingley, it is a pleasure to meet you." Charles had little exposure to children. His Sister Louisa's daughter was a spoiled little tart, and he avoided her, and her tantrums, as much as possible.
Evan began his interrogation.
"Did you know my Grandpa died?"
"Did you like him?"
"Do you know my Mama?"
"Do you like her?"
Do you know my sister?"
"Would you like to meet her?"
"Andrea." The little boy yelled, as loudly as he could.
"She will be here soon."
"Fine." Charles was amused with Evan; he had a spark about him.
"Why are you here?"
"To talk over some business with your mother."
The conversation halted as a little girl entered the room. She was the image of her mother. Evan nodded to her and continued on.
"This is Andrea."
"Do you like her?"
Charles could keep a straight face no longer, and he burst out laughing.
"Yes! I do like her, Evan."
"Do you like balls?"
Jane entered the room at this time. She placed a hand on her him and gave her son 'the look.' Evan understood her meaning, and politely excused himself. Jane then turned her attention to Andrea.
"You, too, little one."
Andrea gave Charles a sweet smile and ran after her brother.
"Mr. Bingley, I hope the children did not…" Charles interrupted her.
"They are charming, Mrs. Austen. I enjoyed our introduction very much."
Jane noticed that he had not taken the chair behind the desk, but the chair in front of it. She assumed this was her cue to take the seat Mr. Austen had used. Jane sat down and hesitantly looked at the contents on the desk. She did not feel comfortable being behind the desk, it was Papa's place, not her own. If the papers had not been in the room, she would have used her own study for today's meeting.
Charles watched her as the smile on her face dropped. It was perfectly clear that she was distressed being dwarfed by the old oak desk. He decided to offer he an alternative.
"Mrs. Austen, would it be helpful to you if, just for today, we switched seats? I know where the records are stored."
Jane gave him a relieved expression.
"Yes, Mr. Bingley, it would be helpful."
They switched seats and got down to work.
An hour later, they were discussing a small party Charles was putting together for some of the contributors.
"Am I expected to attend?" She asked him. It had been a while since she was out in company, and she dreaded the thought.
"I would suggest it, Mrs. Austen. To have you in attendance would send a strong signal that the Austen family is still involved. I am keeping the list of people to invite as short as possible. I want the atmosphere to be personal. A large gathering usually leads to unimportant talk, as a person travels from group to group."
Jane could see the logic in his statement.
"Will Mr. and Mrs. Darcy be attending?"
"No, I was informed that Georgiana was arriving in town that night." He watched her shift in her seat, and realized that she may not yet be comfortable in social situations.
"Mrs. Austen, I will not pressure you to come. Whatever decision you make, I will support."
"Thank you, Mr. Bingley." She smiled slightly at him. He was being so considerate to her. "I will be there."
This concluded their business together. Jane walked him to the door, where Evan once again accosted him.
"Are you leaving?" He asked with puppy-dog eyes.
"Yes, I am. Have a good evening, Master Austen."
"Will you stay for dinner?"
Charles chuckled at the boy. He certainly was a blunt child.
"If I have learned one thing in my life, Evan, it is that you do not spring an unexpected dinner guest on a lady."
Evan did not listen to his refusal. He always enjoyed having other people to share his dinner with.
"But mama does not mind, do you mama?" He looked up at his mother and grinned.
"Evan, Mr. Bingley may already have plans."
"Do you have plans, Mr. Bingley?" Evan was determined to have company tonight.
Charles looked at Jane with an embarrassed smile. He did not have any plans, except to have some leftover soup and read before bed. Jane took over for her son, and issued him an invitation.
"Mr. Bingley, if you are not otherwise engaged, it would be our pleasure to have you join us."
"Thank you, Mrs. Austen. I would enjoy it very much."
Charles watched as Jane pulled her daughter hair back into a ribbon. He did not understand why she was doing it, but was soon to have an answer.
Andrea, looking like a little angel, attacked her plate of food with both hands. She was very hungry and could not seem to get the food into her mouth fast enough. Charles watched the child with growing amusement. When Jane reminded her to use her spoon, she reached out with a grubby, pea-coated hand and placed whatever was in the other hand on her spoon.
"Andrea eats like a pig." Evan informed him.
"Evan," his mother scolded, "that is not nice."
"But is true mama."
Andrea did not seem to mind her brother's comments; she simply ignored them as she abandoned her spoon and returned to using her hands.
"Mr. Bingley," Jane apologized, "I am afraid you may have gotten into more than you bargained for."
"Not so, Mrs. Austen," he returned, "this is the most delightful dinner I have been invited to in ages."
By the end of the evening, Evan knew everything he needed to know about Mr. Bingley. And it only took him one hundred questions to be satisfied.
Charles arrived home in a good mood. When he walked into his library, he found his sister Caroline waiting there for him.
"Well, it is about time, Charles. I was about to go home." Her tone was not angry, just a little impatient.
"Caroline, good to see you. What brings you here at this time at night?"
"My dear Companion is leaving me. She is going to move in with her sickly sister in Manchester."
"In a couple of days. I am going to have to find someone else."
"Just stay here, until you do. You can have your old room upstairs." Charles walked over to pour Caroline and himself a drink.
"Thank you for the invitation, I will take you up on that. Where were you tonight?"
"I had a meeting with Mrs. Austen, and stayed for dinner."
"How is she?"
"Fine, I believe. Her children keep her occupied. You should have seen what her daughter did at…"
"No, please, " Caroline raised her hand, "no cute baby stories. After spending time around our adorable niece, I have not the stomach to handle anything that has to do with children."
Charles understood her point. After all, Mary (or as Caroline called her "Satan's footsoldier") could drive a person to drink-heavily.
"Caroline, you should go call on Mrs. Austen. She asked about you today."
Caroline thought about what he proposed as he handed her a glass of wine. She had been out of society for so long now that she was not sure if she even wanted to enter it again. Yet, she did remember Jane as a sweet woman who was not prone to gossip.
"Maybe, Charles. How long has it been since her husband passed away?"
"Not quite three years."
Caroline shook her head.
"Such a shame," she said, "Dr. Austen was a good man."
Charles agreed. Dr. Austen had died too young.
"Charles, you should marry a woman like her, she would do you some good. Maybe then you would stop working so hard, and settle down. Think of it brother, if you get yourself a wife and have a couple of children, you will not have to deal with any surprise visits from me!"
Charles laughed at his sister. Caroline, of all people, was telling him to get a spouse.
"Playing matchmaker, Caroline?"
"It fills the day." She let out a big yawn, and told him it was time for her to go home.
"I'll get my carriage, and go with you." He offered.
"No thank you, I have my own."
Caroline got up, kissed her brother on the cheek, and called for her ride.
Charles watched her from the doorway as she left, glad that she stopped by.
It was near midnight when he finished his correspondences for the day. He was pleased with a letter he received about an Australian investment he had made. During the past few years, he had increased his wealth considerably. That, coupled with the fact he had connections all over London, should have been enough to make him feel complete. But, it was not.
He wondered about the statement Caroline made tonight. Mrs. Austen? Granted, she was an incredible woman, but.…
Several days later, Jane was shown into the parlor by the butler. Caroline happened to pass the room, and noticed her sitting on the couch.
"Hello, Mrs. Austen." She said politely.
"Miss Bingley, how very good to see you." Jane smiled from ear to ear, making Caroline take a step back. "I was running a few errands, and thought I would drop off some papers for Mr. Bingley."
"Is someone getting him for you?"
"Yes. Miss Bingley, I have not seen you for so long. How are you?"
Caroline could tell Jane was sincere in her request. She bravely joined her on the couch and began talking to her.
Charles joined them a few minutes later, much to the disappointment of Caroline. She was enjoying her time with Jane, and hated to see it come to an end. As she rose to take her leave, Jane called out to her.
"Miss Bingley, please, stop by sometime soon. I am home most mornings."
Caroline turned around and stared at Jane.
"Thank you." She said from the bottom of her heart.
Charles and Jane watched Caroline leave. Both felt sadness at her situation.
"Mrs. Austen, I must apologize for my tardiness, but I had to retrieve something. "
He handed her two boxes, one much larger than the other. Jane looked at his curiously.
"Let me explain. The night I had dinner at your house, your son Evan asked me four times if I liked balls. I took this to mean that it was he who had the passion for them. So, the other day I passed a toy store, and in the window they had the nicest red ball. I knew right then, that there was one little boy in the world who would appreciate it. The other box is for Andrea, it is a special spoon."
Jane was struck speechless for a moment. His act was so thoughtful.
"Mr. Bingley, I assure you that your gifts will be very appreciated. Thank you. Now, I am sorry that the only thing I have for you is more paperwork."
"But, Mrs. Austen, I live for paperwork!"
Jane both let out a laugh. For some unknown reason, they both felt comfortable in each other's company.
Before she left the house, Jane had agreed to come to his party for the charity contributors an hour early. They would use the time to familiarize her with the guest names and backgrounds. Jane knew this information would come in handy during the night ahead.
Charles was arranging some papers on his desk when her heard a carriage pull up. He looked out of his first-story study window to see Jane arriving. Quickly, he straightened his desk chair and went out into the hall. Caroline was already waiting near the door.
Charles looked at his sister, and retreated back into his study. He wanted to give her an opportunity to greet their guest before he came out. He had not seen Caroline as hopeful as she had been this afternoon. Caroline's lot in life had not been a good one, but she had changed because of it. If she desired to get to know Jane better, he would aid her in all possible ways.
After five minutes had passed, he went looking for the ladies. He could hear them talking in the ballroom, so he decided to check on the progress of the room. Although it was half the size as the ballroom at Austen House, it was perfectly adequate for tonight's gathering. Tables and chairs had been placed along the walls, giving room for people to congregate in the center. A nice buffet table was being prepared to hold a good deal of food, and the musicians hired for the night were already warming up. Everything appeared to be in place, and he was content with the outcome.
As he stood there admiring the flower arrangements, a flash of silver caught his attention. Before him stood Jane. For the first time since they had been working together, he felt uneasy being near her. She looked like a Goddess.
Her gown was made of the most magnificent silk material. It shimmered when she moved, and seemed to catch the light when she did not. She had the same colored silver ribbon twined throughout her hair. He was not sure how much he should compliment her on her appearance, but some comment was definitely due.
"Mrs. Austen, you look very lovely."
Jane blushed, and thanked him. Caroline came up from behind her, and smiled at her brother.
"Goodnight, Charles. I will see you in the morning."
Charles turned his attention from Jane to his sister.
"Caroline, will you join us tonight?"
"I think not." She leaned in to kiss her brother on the cheek.
"Stop staring." She whispered in his ear. With that bit of advice, she was off.
Charles regained his bearing, and escorted Jane back to his study. While there, he went over the details he had promised to share with her before the guest arrived.
Fifteen minutes before the party was to begin, Jane became uncharacteristically nervous. Charles had briefed her, and she had listened intently, but it had been so long since she last played the part of Hostess. Fifty people were expected, and in Jane's mind, that did not constitute 'a small gathering.'
"Mr. Bingley, may I ask you a question of a personal nature?" She had a slight shake to her voice.
"Please, ask away."
"Am I ready for tonight? Will I know what to say?" Jane did not like asking him to make a judgment on her ability, but her concern outweighed her pride.
"Mrs. Austen, you have nothing to worry about. This is a purely social function, I would not expect anyone to quiz you. Just be yourself, and people will be happy."
Jane had one more question, and it was an embarrassing one for her to ask.
"Mr. Bingley, do you think my dress is too formal? Should I go back home and put on something simpler?"
Charles shook his head no.
"Please, wear the dress, if only for my benefit. You look beautiful."
Jane caught his gaze as she thought about what he had said. She had not felt beautiful since Andrew died. Actually, she had not felt a great many things since Andrew died. Jane had shelved the 'woman' part of her, and focused entirely on her family. She had always assumed she would never love another man again. What was growing inside of her when she looked at Charles was not necessary called love, but it was close.
Charles broke the silence between them by stating the time. He offered her his arm, and immediately noticed how cold her hands were.
"Give me your hands, and I will warm them for you." He offered to Jane. He took her hands and placed them together. Briskly, he rubbed his own hands over hers.
He stopped abruptly when her wedding ring scratched his palm.
Charles had just finished an enlightening conversation with Lord Philips, and was surveying the room. The dancing had yet to begin, and already the party could be deemed a success. He was well aware that is was due in large part to Jane. As soon as the first guest had arrived, she lost any anxiety she had been harboring, and became at ease.
He admired her from across the room, and watched as she entertained her guests. She enchanted them with her grace and good nature. A slight sting in his left hand made him look down. On his palm was a long red mark, where her ring had cut him. Although Charles Bingley was not a superstitious man, he did wonder if fate was trying to give him a message.
He thought about the irony of his situation. Here he was, running Andrew's charity, hosting a party for Andrew's contributors, and admiring Andrew's wife.
On the day Fitzwilliam Darcy was married, Charles swore to himself that he would never live in the shadow of another man again. He would make a name and place for himself in the world, by himself.
A name he did make. People sought him out for his opinion, and abilities. He was well respected and liked in society. When Mr. Austen approached him shortly after his son's death, he accepted the challenge to build up Andrew's dream. Charles made donating to charity fashionable and elite. He had been approached by other organizations for his influence, and had accepted a few. He accepted no compensation for his effort; money was not what he was after. All he desired as a reward was to be able to look in the mirror, and like the man he saw.
Right now, Charles was not happy with the man in the mirror. He was feeling terribly guilty and ashamed. He had allowed himself to be jealous about Jane wearing her wedding ring.
Charles observed her as she moved toward him. Her smile lit up her face. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on, and yet, she was so much more. If only he could get the picture of Andrew out of his mind.
"Mr. Bingley, the musicians are inquiring if you are ready to begin the dancing?"
"Yes, that would be good. Mrs. Austen, has anyone asked you to dance yet?"
"No, Sir." Jane had noticed most of the people here tonight were married.
"May I have the first dance?"
"Thank you, Mr. Bingley."
"You are welcome, Mrs. Bingley." Charles gasped. Dear God, I called her Mrs. Bingley!
"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Austen." His face was red, and he completely embarrassed.
"It is quite all right, Mr. Bingley. Do not distress yourself. Why not tell the musicians we are ready." Jane said calmly, while her heart raced.
Charles gave her a weak smile and went off, mentally kicking himself all of the way.
As soon as the music was beginning, he was back by her side leading her onto the floor. During the first turn, when she was taking his hand, she saw him flinch slightly. She remembered the scratch, what had caused it, and his reaction afterward. His face she would not forget, as he silently eyed her ring. His hand was bleeding, but he did not notice it. His eyes were almost sad. She wondered if he, too, was feeling something building between them.
"I apologize about your wounded hand, Mr. Bingley. I am not accustomed to wearing my ring anymore, and should have warned you."
Without realizing it, Jane's statement sent Charles teetering between hope and guilt.
Jane was waiting alone at the door with Charles. Her carriage was called for after all of the guest had left, and the servants had disappeared. She noticed how quiet he had been after their first dance together. As she looked at him, it was obvious that his thoughts were far away. His jaw was set, and his expression unreadable. Jane's heart fluttered when she looked at his strong hand. They were so masculine and wide. He was a very handsome man, and for a moment, Jane was tempted to run her fingers through his blond curls.
She heard her carriage and regretted the speed in which it arrived. She was enjoying her inspection of him.
"Mr. Bingley, I must be going now."
He broke out of his trance and gazed at her with an intensity that caused Jane to catch her breath.
"I am sorry to see you leave," he stated honestly, "I have had a pleasant evening, and it has ended too soon."
He reached down for her right hand. Slowly, as if oblivious to time, he brought to his lips. This action made shivers run down her spine. Jane closed her eyes, and allowed the only sensation in her mind to be that of the kiss. She wished, she hoped, he would kiss her lips, but he did not move. She took her free hand and lightly touched his shoulder. The heat coming off of it warmed her hand, and she then took her hand and moved it down his arm. When she reached his wrist, she pulled him closer to him, fueled by a desire for him to be near.
He released her hand, and took a step forward at her urging. Their lips were but centimeters apart as they shared the air between them. His breathing became shorter as she took the wrist she was still holding onto, and wrapped it around her waist. He looked deeply into her eyes, as if he could read her inner thoughts. Jane was very sure of what she wanted, and he obliged.
"Jane, you are so beautiful," he whispered as his lips pressed against hers. The urgency expressed in their exchange was intoxicating to her. When he parted her lips, she felt her passion rise to an almost unbearable level. She needed to touch him, to feel his skin under her fingers.
Jane raised her arms and encircled his upper torso. His response was immediate and decisive, as he pressed his body closer to hers. She explored his neck with her fingertips; bringing them up to his rough chin, and then back down.
When he removed his mouth from hers, she tilted her head to try to catch them again, but was not disappointed when she did not. Charles began to concentrate on the bare area at the base of her neck, using his moist lips to inch his way to her shoulder. Jane felt like she was on fire.
Wanting to fulfill her desire to touch his curls, she ran her nails up the back of his neck, plunging into his soft mass of hair. This caused him to involuntarily shudder, and raise his head to catch his breath.
"Jane, I am only a man, and…" His voice was husky and sensual at the same time.
"Send away the carriage, Charles. I want you to make love to me."
Jane opened her eyes to look at him. His were still closed.
"Are you certain, Jane?"
She brought his mouth to hers and kissed him fully. He tasted so good; she could have spent hours like this.
"Oh, yes. Make haste."
In two different houses, two different people woke up at the same time and sat up in bed.
Oh, dear Lord, what a dream. Jane said.
I will try to fall back asleep fast, and see if I can pick up that dream. Charles said.
Jane was having trouble falling back asleep, so she decided to get a glass of water. As she was drinking, her eyes happened to glance in the mirror. On the side of her neck was a rather noticeable red spot--Jane had a hickey.
In a sleepy daze, Charles reached over and grabbed another pillow. When he pulled it up to his face, a familiar sent filled his nose. Jane.
Elizabeth sat on the couch at Jane's house, and waited for her sister to join her. When she did finally show up, she observed her being a little more chipper than usual. Also, she was obviously overdressed for the warm weather.
"Jane, are you not hot in your high necked gown?"
"No, Lizzy, I am fine." She wondered what her sister would think of her, if she knew the truth. She had spent the night with Charles Bingley, and did not have any regrets about it.
"How was the party last night?"
"The party was delightful, Lizzy. Mr. Bingley had everything planned perfectly. I do not think I have been to a lovelier gathering."
The two women spoke for almost an hour together. Jane never once hinted about Charles, and what had occurred between them. As Lizzy was preparing to return home, Andrea came into the room.
"Spoon." The little girls held up her shiny spoon proudly.
"I see." Elizabeth answered. "May I hold it?"
Andrea handed over her treasure. Elizabeth grinned at Jane, while she inspected the spoon.
Andrea turned her head quickly when she saw her brother running by the doorway. She grabbed her spoon from Elizabeth, and ran after him.
"She seems rather attached, I would have to say." She laughed.
"She has not put it down since I brought it home from Mr. Bingley's. I try to get her to eat with it, but she is determined to treat it like a toy."
"Mr. Bingley gave it to her?" Elizabeth asked, curiously. "That was very…thoughtful."
"He had dinner with us the other night, and watched Andrea eat." Jane gave her Elizabeth a knowing look. "He thought a special spoon might do the trick."
"You have been in the company of Mr. Bingley a lot lately, Jane. Is there something I should know?"
"No, nothing in particular." Jane had no intention in confiding in her sister. It was not that she did not trust her, but she did not want to share this part of her life.
But, once Elizabeth Darcy had a notion in her mind, it was often difficult for her to let it lay. She wanted to hear more on the subject of Mr. Bingley, believing her sister may be hiding her feelings about him.
"Jane, I want you to know that I am always available, if you need someone to talk to."
"Thank you, Lizzy, that is very kind." Jane knew what her sister was up to.
"Even when I am at Pemberley, you must write if you need me."
"Lizzy, I understand. Thank you."
"Mr. Bingley has changed since I have known him, I am quite surprised he is not married yet. Maybe," she looked directly at Jane, "He has not found the right woman."
"Lizzy, sit down, there is something I want to tell you." Jane wanted to silence her sister; she did not savor the idea of her constantly questioning her. She knew if she were to pass on a little information, she may be satisfied.
Elizabeth sat back down next to Jane. She was certain Jane's resistance could not hold up for long. With a smile of triumph, she waited for her sister to confess all to her.
"Lizzy, I have never told anyone this. It is very dear to me, and something I will remember for the rest of my life. The night before Papa Austen died, we were sitting in this room, enjoying a quiet night at home. I was doing my needlework, and he was reading. Neither of us said much. We were both caught up in our own thoughts. Around ten, he got up and walked over to me. I looked up at him, and could clearly see he was concerned about something. I asked him what was wrong, and this is what he told me.
"He said, 'Jane, you are too young to be sitting in a room with an old man.' Of course, I corrected him, and made it perfectly clear that I was happy where I was. He disagreed. He told me Andrew would never expect me to spend the rest of my life alone. I did not know what to say back to him, so he continued. He expressed regrets that he had never had love after Mrs. Austen passed away. He said looking back on his life, if he could do a few things different-he would have loved again. Lizzy, we both know he was speaking about Mrs. Croft. She was the second love of his life, but he was afraid to risk loss again. He made me promise that I would never repeat his mistake, and I did. I know in my heart that what he said about Andrew was true. Andrew was not the type of man who could not love, and he would never expect me to do without it. We had a wonderful marriage together, but it is over. I can not bring him back Lizzy, he is gone forever. That fact is perfectly clear to me. Thus, the reason I no longer wear my wedding ring."
Elizabeth wept openly. She missed those two men so much. They loved and cared for her when she needed it most. Jane wrapped her arms around her, and allowed her to grieve.
"My dear, sweet sister, do not worry over me so, I will be fine." Jane whispered.
Jane was working at her desk, when a knock came at the door. She looked at the clock, it was five p.m..
"Please, come in," she called.
"Mrs. Austen, a Mr. Bingley is here to see you." Jane had not expected to see him so soon. She instructed the maid to let him in.
Jane was unprepared for her reaction in seeing him again…
"Thank you, Catherine."
Jane waited until the door was closed before she spoke to him. His eyes were filled something Jane could not positively identify, perhaps guilt or shame? It troubled her to see it.
He did not answer her, but turned away. He had come to her house for a reason, an important reason, but he was having trouble finding the power within to begin. The turmoil he was experiencing was great. When he had left his house to come here, the disgust he directed at himself was strong. He knew he must apologize for the wrong he had done to her. Every word he was going to say to Jane had been carefully planned out, but now that he was in her presence, his determination failed him.
Charles was battling his natural urge to touch her again. He knew she was so much more than any man deserved--especially him. If he were weak and acted on his impulses, then tomorrow he would have to relive the guilt all over again. A remarkable woman like Jane deserved better.
Jane rose from her chair and walked over to where he was standing. She was caught off guard by the change in him. Admittedly, she was not quite sure how they would react the next time they met, but she had not expected this. She wanted the Charles she knew back, not this stranger before her. Jane had developed a fondness for him, no…a love for him. Last night, her respect and desire had joined, creating a calm she had not known for years. When her carriage was called last night, after they had been together, she believed he was as happy as she was. Now, she was questioning her interpretation of his regard.
"Charles?" She repeated, as she placed her hand on his arm.
"I should never have imposed myself on you. I should have had the…" The words came rushing out, almost tumbling over each other. Yet, she stopped them, and he did not understand why.
Jane pressed her fingers against his mouth. She did not want to hear those words from him. He most certainly did not impose himself on her, and she set about making it very clear.
"Please, do not take away the beauty from last night. If you recall, it was my desire that was expressed first. I asked first. I am not ashamed."
"Jane, we are not married. You are a gentlewoman." Charles could not let it rest. He needed her forgiveness--not to be excused.
"I am not expecting a proposal, Charles."
Charles shook his head, as her words filled his mind. He could not allow her to shoulder the blame alone. It was his attraction that permitted him to fall short in acting like a gentleman. As a man, it was his duty to control himself.
"No, you must not blame yourself. It is my fault, my mistake."
Stunned, Jane dropped her hand from his arm, and walked back to her desk chair. He was describing one of the most precious times in her life with the word mistake. Until she heard him say the word, the thought had never crossed her mind. A mistake.
Her self-control was folding in on her. She wanted him gone before she broke down. His words cut into her like a knife, but by God, she would bleed in private.
"Mr. Bingley, go home." Her tone left no question as to the strength of her request.
Resigned, he walked to the door. He halted as he touched the doorknob.
Charles knew that if he left this house, he would never be able to enter it again. Jane would be out of his reach. Some unknown source inside of Charles was screaming for him to fight. It was obvious to him that during their brief conversation, he had offended her. All she had done was to reassure him, and he hurt her in return. Charles could not leave her this way. He loved her.
"I can not." His voice was as unsteady as his hands. He turned around to face her, and the sight of Jane broke his heart. She looked so pale, and dejected. Her confidence had been shattered. Without thinking, he rushed to her side.
After easing her into a chair, he took out his handkerchief to wipe the few tears falling from her eyes.
"Jane," he said softly, "please, do no cry. I am sorry."
"You said it was a mistake." She whispered. "I never thought of it that way."
"I did not mean it. It is just…you are so precious to me. I could not bear the thought of hurting you. I was afraid you thought I had taken advantage of you."
"Could you not tell how happy I was?"
"Yes, I could, but I did not allow myself to believe it."
Jane tilted her head away. She did not want him to look at her. She was never one to cry in front of anyone.
"Jane, please forgive me. If you only knew how last night made me feel; how whole I am when I am around you."
Jane calmed down and composed herself. When she turned her head, and looked into his beautiful blue eyes-she only saw hope.
They talked quietly together for the next half-hour about many things, but nothing important. They both wanted to get back to a place where they could speak freely with each other, again.
When all signs of Jane's crying were gone, they exited the room. As Charles was leaving, Evan came running down the stairs to stop him.
"Mr. Bingley, thank you for the ball." Evan was beaming.
"You are welcome, Master Evan."
As he reached out to the boy, Evan noticed the scratch on his hand.
"You have a cut. Mama will kiss it and make it better for you." Evan looked up to his mother's face, fully expecting her to cure the wound.
With a sweet smile, Jane lowered her head and kissed his palm.
Charles watched her bestow the kiss, holding his hand open with both of hers. She was wearing no rings.
"Mama can make everything better." Evan stated.
"Yes, she can." Charles said softly, as his gaze caught hers.
During the course of the next several days, Jane and Charles were able to see each other on two occasions. The first was when he and Caroline came to Jane's for dinner.
Charles told Caroline about the invitation, and was quite surprised by her response. Not only did she agree, which was amazing in itself, but she uttered not one complaint about it being for the following day.
It could not be said that Caroline Bingley was ready to reemerge into society, for she was not. What Caroline did want was to have a friend again. She missed having a confident other than her brother. Her former companion, Miss Graves, was as exciting as her name. She only kept the woman on because she knew it was expected of her.
Jane was different from what Caroline was accustomed to in an acquaintance. She was accepting and sincere in her address, something her former friends obviously were not. She wanted to go and call on her, but with the Darcys still in town, she would not.
Caroline was utterly ashamed of what she had said to Elizabeth; though it took her a year before she even realized it. She had hurt Elizabeth on purpose, telling her Fitzwilliam Darcy was engaged. At the time, her own engagement to Mr. Willoughby was publicly crumbling, and when she witnessed the evident love between Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam, it sent her into a well-concealed rage. Caroline harbored hope for many years before--believing she would someday be Mrs. Darcy. It never happened, since the man had no romantic inclinations toward her. She acted out of jealousy, and now regretted the deed. Caroline was well aware she would not be looked upon with a friendly eye by either Darcy should she encounter them.
Jane's offer for a quiet dinner between the three of them was appreciated. Caroline had spent the past three years living as a virtual hermit. Charles was her primary link to the outside world. She read, played music, improved her needlepoint, and did not leave her home often. Charles had leased her a large house when she requested it of him. He had taken over Louisa's duty as companion, and Caroline's respect of her brother, which at one time was non-existent, grew. He did not abandon her when people were laughing at her behind her back, but remained loyal. More than one time, he came to her defense, protecting her from the strong language associated with her name. Oddly enough, just as she was falling from grace, he began to rise. He was no longer the Charles she ridiculed for being too nice and compliant, but a man who showed capacity and mercy.
Caroline truly loved her brother, and even before her own happiness, she wished him happy.
"Charles, did you not mention Mrs. Austen dines with her children?"
"Yes, she does, but tonight will be adults only." Charles did not tell Caroline he broached the subject with Jane. They decided that Caroline's first invitation should be distraction free. Jane wanted Caroline to be comfortable at her house.
"Are they like Mary?" Caroline cringed and made a face, and was rewarded with a laugh from her brother.
"No, they are sweet children. Mrs. Austen puts them to bed at eight, so we will not be seeing them tonight."
"You seem to know a lot about her household habits. When are you going to ask her to marry you?"
"Really, Charles. I saw the way you were staring at her before the party. And now, you are telling me about her schedule. I am not a stupid woman."
Actually, Caroline knew a little more than she disclosed. On the night of the party, when she was certain everyone was gone, she slipped out her bedroom door and went to the stairs. She happened to catch her brother going out the door, while Jane watched him. Possibly a minute later, as Jane was moving to the bottom of the staircase, Caroline quietly went back to her room. No, Caroline was not stupid, it was quite obvious to her what was going on.
"Caroline, it is not as easy as you make it."
Caroline looked at him, and realized the teasing had turned serious.
"You are right, Charles. I apologize for interfering."
Caroline had a very enjoyable dinner that night. She felt welcome in Jane's home. The evening passed too quickly, and before she knew it, time to depart was upon them.
Caroline had observed Jane and Charles throughout the night. She noticed something peculiar about the two of them--they spent a large amount of time looking at each other. Whenever one would speak, the other would give them their full attention. Not only that, they stole glances at each other like it was candy.
She never felt ignored by either, they included her in everything conversation, but even Caroline could see they only had eyes for each other.
Four days before her planned departure for Pemberley, Jane went to visit her sister. She, Elizabeth, and Fitzwilliam were discussing their agendas for Georgiana's wedding when Charles arrived. He was rather distracted as he entered the parlor. Without a greeting to the ladies, he asked Fitzwilliam if he could have a word in private. As soon as they were in the hallway, Charles began to speak.
"There has been a fire on ––––– Street, three tenements have been destroyed so far. I need your assistance."
"Of course, Charles, what can I do?"
He handed Fitzwilliam a sheet of paper with a list of names and instructions.
"Go to these people for me. I have several other men helping with the relief efforts, but time is of the essence. We need to get the survivors out of the area and sheltered before nightfall. I am going to contact a few doctors I know. At last account, there were none on the scene."
Startled, both men ran back into the room where the scream came from. Elizabeth was still sitting in her chair, staring wide-eyed at her sister.
Jane was standing in the middle of the room, shaking uncontrollably.
Two And One Half Years Ago.
"Three more steps, Jane." Andrew alerted his wife as he was assisting her down the stairs.
"Thank you Andrew, I can count."
Jane knew how many steps there were; it signified her freedom. Every morning he would help her down, and every night back up. With only two weeks left until her due date, Jane had become a prisoner of her own encumbrance. She refused to spend her days banished to her bedchamber, and would go to any means to escape it.
Today's excuse was not one of her better ones. Mrs. Easton was stopping by to deliver her some nightgowns for the baby. She could have had the lady drop them off, but since she was coming here, now would be a good time to have Evan measured for some new clothes.
Andrew allowed his wife to believe she was being sly, since it gave her such pleasure. She was in excellent health, and he saw no reason for her to be confined to her room. His father helped him keep an eye on her whenever he was out, so Jane was attended at all times.
"Three!" Jane announced happily, "I made it again."
'You did, my dear." Andrew laughed. "I am always amazed at your abilities."
Jane was teasing him back when a knock at the door interrupted them. A man who Andrew had treated before stood breathless in the doorway.
"There is a fire on –––– Street, Dr. Austen. We need your help."
Andrew turned around to face his wife.
"Go Andrew, and help them. I will tell Papa where you are going."
Andrew called for his carriage before he ran to get his bag. When he returned, he stopped next to Jane.
"Ask Father to get me this salve," he handed her an empty jar, "and meet me there."
"Take care of yourself, I will return as soon as I can." Andrew leaned closer to her and whispered in her ear "I love you." With a kiss on her cheek, he was gone.
As the day turned into night, Jane was began to worry. The fire must have been fierce, since neither man had returned yet. She and Evan ate dinner alone, and when his bedtime came, she reluctantly sent him up. The presence of the child kept her mind occupied, and without him, only the ticking of the clock filled the silence.
Around nine, she heard the front door close, and relief came over her. She called out her location as she heard footsteps nearing.
Jane knew before Mr. Austen spoke a single syllable. Andrew was not coming home.
Mr. Austen was standing near Andrew when he saw him take off in a mad dash. Why he went in the building, no one knew. Smoke overtook him before he was able to get out.
That evening, Jane walked up the stairs by herself.
Jane did not sleep that night. She had convinced herself that Mr. Austen was actually wrong, and what he saw was someone else entering the burning building. She knew Andrew would never jeopardize his life, not when he had a family to care for. He would be coming home at any time.
When dawn came, Jane called ordered a carriage. The driver was shocked by this action, but did not say anything to her when she told him to take her to Andrew.
He drove through the quite streets of London, and stopped when he reached the destination.
There were people milling about the rubble. Some were searching for lost treasures, others for lost loved ones. The sound of a woman wailing echoed outside.
When the carriage came to a complete stop, and the smell of smoke reached her, Jane opened the door and stepped out.
"Mrs. Austen, be careful."
James pointed to a spot where a home once was. All that remained was a smoldering pile of broken wood and brick.
Jane let go of her fantasy, and returned home a widow.
All eyes were on Jane as she stood in the middle of the floor.
"Do not go, please, , do not go." She was looking directly at Charles. "I will not loose another person I love to fire!"
"Jane?" When Charles fully realized what she was referring to, he understood the seriousness of the situation.
"Please listen to me." Jane's panic was not subsiding. Too upset to cry, she continued to shake.
To see her reduced to begging was more than Charles could withstand. He ached for her, knowing she must be desperate to so openly display her emotions.
"Darcy, will you excuse us." It was not a request open for discussion. His gaze never left Jane's as he brought her to the couch.
Without a word, Fitzwilliam led his wife out of the room and closed the door behind him.
"Charles, please. I know if you leave... I love you, so dearly. I will never ask you for another favor, or anything else, if you will just stay."
"Jane, in my heart I could deny you nothing, but I am the only person who can help. I have the connections and contacts. I know where the medicine and food is stored. If I do not go, people will suffer pitifully from negligence. God knows Jane, if you ask me again…I will not be able to leave."
Jane knew his words were the truth; he was the only one. If he would not have driven himself so hard, the charity would have dissolved by now. Most of the elite did not really care about a tenement full of poor people, not if it meant getting their hands dirty. They gave because he was able to convince them to. But, what would she do without him, if his fate should be the same as Andrews?
"Charles," she whispered, "I can not bear the thought of you dying."
He pulled her closer to him, holding her tight.
"I will return, I promise you.".
"You have no power to promise such things."
"Maybe I do not, but I will say it again--I will return to you. I love you, Jane." The tone of his voice did not indicate a promise, but a vow.
"Charles, do not risk yourself. I want you to come home." Jane relinquished. He needed to leave right away, and in good conscious, she could not stop him. Jane lifted her head and kissed him. She knew he would be the last love of her life.
"I will send a message to you as soon as I am safely back at my house."
"Fitzwilliam is waiting," she told him, " you must go."
"Elizabeth, I am going home." Jane stood to leave as soon as she heard the carriages pull away.
"Jane, I do not think you should leave. Stay here with me, we will keep each other company."
Elizabeth was at a loss of understanding about her sister. She had no idea what the standing was between her and Charles, but she had never seen Jane so upset.
"No, I am going to wait at home." Jane did not accept her offer; she had her mind made up. She was going to be there when his message arrived.
"Jane, you have just had a nervous fit. I must insist you stay and settle yourself!" As commanding as Elizabeth was, she was about to meet with the full force of Jane.
"Elizabeth, listen, and listen well to me. I know you mean well, but I will be the one to decide what I am going to do. I am not like you, or Papa Austen, and never will be. I do not need to talk about 'it' to feel better. I do not discuss my pain. The last thing I want to hear right now is how everything will be fine. I have been in this situation before. Accidents happen and people you love die, and I pray you never experience it. Elizabeth, I am going to go home now to wait until I know he is safe. Do you understand me?"
Jane was angry, and it felt good. She knew her sister did not mean any harm, but she was not going to spend the next hour reasoning with her. Since her husband's death, Jane had braved her share of advice and guidance without one outward complaint. People always assumed she did not know what was best for her, and they attempted to give comfort by enlightening her with their wisdom. Hold your chin up. Stay out of public as long as you need. Cry all you want. Be strong for the children.
When Elizabeth did the same, she lost all patience.
"I am sorry, Jane. I only wanted to assist you, but you are right, I do not know your pain."
Jane hugged her. The longer she held onto her sister, the faster her anger slipped away. She was sorry for the harshness of her address, but at the time, she could not control it. Elizabeth was a wonderful sister, and she was grateful for her.
"I am sorry, too. Lizzy, I love him," she confessed. "I have told no one."
"Does he love you back?" Elizabeth was not asking out of curiosity, but concern. She would continue to care about Jane, even if she did not want her to.
Jane paused, and remembered. How could she have forgotten, they shared those words for the first time today. I will return to you. I love you, Jane
"Yes, he does."
"Then, I will walk you home."