A month after the Bennets, Bingleys, and their assorted relatives arrived in Derbyshire, the ball at Pemberley was marked as a smashing success were one to rely upon the word of the youngest Bennet sister. Lydia had believed she might only encounter older gentlemen in search of young wives, but the opposite happily proved true.
She had no particular need to sit out for a set with the music so lively and the dance partners plenty, but her feet began an incessant aching and she glanced about for Kitty.
Her sister stood with a handsome gentleman who was the second son of a wealthy family connected to the Darcys. Her own eyes favored a young man she had danced with but once. His father was a baronet and Lydia hoped they might form a lasting acquaintance.
Mrs. Bennet had said they would remain at Pemberley until the springtime, and so she and Kitty would have to beg Jane and Lizzy to hold several dinners, and perhaps a ball at Brambling, so they might snare the young men. Returning to Longbourn without an offer of courtship, and considering the dim prospects there, did not appeal to the vivacious young woman.
Elizabeth passed Lydia and turned to watch as she approached the punch bowl. Surprised to see her youngest sister quit the dance floor, Elizabeth continued her sweep of the room in search of Anne de Bourgh.
She found her on the terrace with the Viscount and Mr. Darcy. “I wondered where you were, my dear Anne,” she said, and arm in arm they left the gentlemen to a boring discussion of politics.
“Lizzy,” Anne began, her porcelain complexion tinging with the palest pink, “I might never become comfortable calling you that, but Henry has said he hopes we may be married by the Summer season. He wishes to purchase an estate nearby, and I must admit it would be a dream to live within walking distance of Pemberley.”
Elizabeth nodded her head, for Mr. Darcy had spoken about the marriage of his cousin and the Viscount in their bedroom the night before. The news of Anne’s beau purchasing an estate nearby was a cause for joy. She hoped Anne would never wander far from Pemberley, even after her nuptials.
“Summer would be a wonderful season to become a married woman. If he does settle on a nearby estate, Lady Anne and I will assist you in making it the perfect home. You would marry at Pemberley?” Elizabeth’s eyes were hopeful, though she knew Anne still longed for her mother’s approval and to marry at her childhood home.
Anne was quiet as they approached Lady Anne and came to stand with her near the lovely flowers from the vast selection of Pemberley’s hothouses.
“My dear ones, what love and light your presence bestows on Pemberley! It would seem our guests are well pleased this evening.”
Elizabeth gave her warmest smile to her beloved mother in law, her eyes sparkling with mirth. “My sisters are behaving as if they were born with grace and manners, thanks in no small part to your lessons, Lady Anne.”
Anne turned to follow the nod of Elizabeth’s head. Lydia was escorted once more onto the ballroom floor for a second dance with a baronet’s son.
Anne whispered to Elizabeth. “If he asks her a third time, and she accepts, Miss Lydia may be married before I.”
Elizabeth paled at the idea, but knew Anne was only thinking as many in the room did. Three dances could be considered the beginning of a courtship.
Lady Anne’s lips thinned and she shook her head. “The girls know never to dance more than twice with the same young man. I made certain of that.”
Elizabeth turned to Anne once more and broached the subject of Pemberley for her wedding. “The gardens will be so lovely, Anne, and there is room enough for all our guests from Rosings and London. Your wedding shall be a grand event.”
Lady Anne noted the shadow that clouded her niece’s eyes and took the young woman’s hand. “What troubles you, my dear? Elizabeth is quite right, we must have your wedding here.”
Anne placed a gloved hand to her mouth, tears welling in her pale blue eyes. “I always dreamed I would be married at Rosings. Even with the terrible treatment Lizzy endured at mother’s hand, I still wish I might have my mother’s blessing.”
Elizabeth moved closer to her dearest friend and offered her handkerchief. “You must not be ashamed of your wishes, Anne. It is because of you I managed to escape an unthinkable fate. Perhaps Lady Anne might intercede on your behalf with Lady Catherine? I am sure Henry’s title and wealth, not to mention his complete devotion, qualify him as an impeccable match for the heiress of Rosings. Your mother might be persuaded now that several months have passed since the unfortunate incident we should all wish to forget, if not forgive.”
Lady Anne greatly admired the young woman her son had married. Gracefully pushing away the memory of her own abuse, at the hands of Lady Catherine and her parson, to soothe and offer hope to Anne de Bourgh displayed the regard she afforded the young mistress who had come to stay at Pemberley when Miss Elizabeth’s ordeal was ended.
Anne’s face brightened at Elizabeth’s words and the two young women left Lady Anne to mingle with their guests.
Mr. Darcy and the Viscount had left the terrace, for the winter chill was still in the air though the hope of Spring resided in the recent display of warmer days, and stood at the doors to the ballroom hoping to escape to the library before either Elizabeth or Anne might notice.
Just then, a footman rushed in and Mr. Darcy turned to meet him in the hall. An express arriving at Pemberley was cause for concern, but it was late and he imagined there could be nothing but unwelcome news at such an hour. He took a small measure of comfort in the fact that most of his beloved relations were currently housed under his roof.
Mr. Darcy took the missive and read as Henry Amestrey stood nearby. He sighed and attempted not to crumple the paper in his hand and throw it into the nearest fire. Henry remained quiet but noted his friend’s agitation.
Lady Anne had made her way across the ballroom and spied her son and the Viscount in the hallway beyond the doors. A sense of foreboding swept over her and she hurried to find whether she was right or merely becoming delicate in her old age.
Mr. Darcy glanced up as his mother approached and moved to stand closer to Henry Amestrey. If the news in the wretched missive did not disrupt his happy home, he would be completely stunned.
Lady Anne marked the expression upon her son’s face and knew her senses had not failed her. If luck was with them, they might only deal with the express and not ruin the ball for their guests.
She took Mr. Darcy by the arm and nodded for Henry to follow. “Let us speak in the library before we are missed in the ballroom.”
Elizabeth stood with Jane and watched as Colonel Fitzwilliam and Anne danced set after set.
“She has fairly blossomed at Pemberley, has she not?” Jane asked as she sipped her punch.
Elizabeth nodded and smoothed her skirts. “She seems to possess far more stamina than I for our daily walks in the gardens, an accomplishment that gives me an inordinate amount of pride. You would not connect her with the person I met at Rosings only a few months ago. ”
Jane had wondered at Elizabeth picking at her dinner the night before and her habit of napping directly after her walks with Anne each day. She glanced to her sister noting the fine sheen of perspiration above her lip. “I should think my little darling shall soon have a cousin.”
Elizabeth’s hand flew to her mouth and Jane laughed. “Don’t fret, Lizzy. Tis only because I suffered the same as you before I knew I must be increasing.”
“You must not tell a soul, especially Lady Anne. I know she so dearly wishes for grandchildren enough to fill the house. I would not raise her hopes until a few months have passed.”
As the elder Bennet sisters whispered of babies and family, Lady Anne held court in the library. “I cannot help but wonder if this is some sort of ruse by my sister to lure poor Anne back to Rosings. I hate to think ill of my only sibling but we have seen her treachery first hand.”
Henry Amestrey glanced to Mr. Darcy as he moved to pace before the fireplace. “I would see Anne to Rosings if she decides she must go, but I cannot remain there for long. I would only be in London should she require my presence.”
Lady Anne turned to her son, her brow raised. She knew he did not wish to share the news in the missive with Anne and she certainly understood his hesitation.
“William, I believe I know your position on the matter but what shall we do? If my sister is indeed in such poor health as to send for Anne, we must allow the young woman to know of it. I fear she will go, for she wishes desperately for her mother’s blessing and has said she would prefer to be married at Rosings.”
Mr. Darcy ran a hand through his hair, a sure sign of his disapproval. The missive rested in his mother’s hand and he was more than tempted to take it from her and feed it to the dancing flames of the fireplace.
“You know I have no intention of setting foot inside Rosings again, mother. And my heart is decidedly set upon keeping the women of my house safe from others who might do them harm, whether by intention or accident.”
Lady Anne turned to Viscount who loved her niece beyond question. “We must tell Anne, for if we hold the news from her she would have every right to mistrust us in the future. If you will accompany her there and visit Rosings as often as you might, the Darcy family would be forever in your debt, sir.”
Mr. Darcy held his tongue, for his mother spoke the truth. Anne de Bourgh must make her own decisions regarding her relationship with her mother, much as it pained him to admit. “Yes, Henry, we would be most grateful for your protection of Anne. I suppose your frequent visits might serve to soften my aunt’s heart should one exist in her withered old soul.”
Henry’s smile held not a hint of mirth as he lifted a toast to his future family members. “I shall keep Anne safe, by my word.”
Lady Anne folded the missive and tucked it into her reticule. “I shall meet with Anne after breakfast in the morning and deliver the news. I would not have her worry tonight.”
The trio left the library lest their guests and family begin to wonder at their prolonged absence.
Elizabeth hurried to Lady Anne’s sitting room after leaving the breakfast parlor with only a cursory glance to her plate. Had it not been for the peppermint tea Jane arranged, her stomach might have felt a bit more uneasy.
Lady Anne had waited until the men left the room to ask Anne and Elizabeth to join her before they might decide to walk the grounds. Her serious countenance betrayed her cheerful tone and as Elizabeth gained the stairs, she began to worry.
She turned at Anne’s voice and linked arms with the young woman and they hastened upstairs for the meeting with Lady Anne.
“I cannot imagine why my aunt wishes to see us privately, can you Lizzy?”
Elizabeth shook her head and patted Anne’s hand. Mr. Darcy had been quiet the evening before, after the ball was finished. She imagined him to be out of sorts after entertaining what seemed the whole of Derbyshire. But now she wondered if his distraction and quiet signaled something worse.
The sitting room was grand in a way the parlor was not. There were fine furnishings, and lovely paper on the walls, but the abundance of family portraits, of all sizes, held Elizabeth’s attention. She felt as though the whole of the Darcy family was present and waiting to find her an acceptable addition to their esteemed line.
Anne, having come to Pemberley as often as her mother would allow, walked to her favorite display and cradled the painting of she and Georgiana when they were quite young.
“I miss her more each day.” The words seemed torn from Anne’s heart and she kissed the painting gently and placed it lovingly upon the table cluttered with trinkets and ribbons that must have belonged to the tragic young woman.
Lady Anne called for tea and sat quietly awaiting her guests to settle themselves before her.
She wondered how the news might affect Anne. Surely, the girl was in no hurry to return to Rosings. Lovely as the old house was, living with Lady Catherine could take the joy from the air before a person might begin to smile or exclaim over all that was good in the day.
Lady Anne recalled growing up with the beast for a sister. There was the constant chatter for attention, the need to prove herself worthy above all others, the propensity for attaching herself to every young gentleman who might call, whether he was interested in Catty or not.
She would not think of it now, lest she forget the letter from her hard to love sister.
“Elizabeth, Anne, please do sit with me for a time. For I have news to impart that will cause all of us great regret, it cannot be avoided, I fear.”
Elizabeth sat, and longed desperately tp fling open the two large windows across the room. No matter how she might try to attain a measure of comfort the air inside Pemberley seemed to lay about her as a heavy woolen shawl.
Lady Anne lowered her lashes and kept the smile in her eyes hidden. She knew Elizabeth Bennet Darcy was increasing. That, or the poor woman was overcome with the duties of the great house. She knew that could not be the case, Elizabeth had been a wonderful student and would be quite capable of running Pemberley before much longer.
Anne offered a cup of tea to Elizabeth and then one to Lady Anne. “What need have you, Aunt, that Elizabeth and I might sit with you directly after breakfast in your private quarters?”
Lady Anne sighed quietly, for she would be unable to continue her delay. “During the ball, a footman arrived with a missive. The Viscount and I intercepted him and discussed the news at length in the library. There was no need to ruin the evening, you see.”
Elizabeth placed her teacup on the table and rose to wander the room. She hoped to walk the gardens where she might feel the bite of the winter wind. She was certain she might melt if they remained inside.
Anne, ready to leave her seat because of Elizabeth’s wandering, glanced to her aunt. “An express was it? At that late an hour? I cannot imagine there was good news contained within its pages.”
Lady Anne sipped her tea and watched her niece’s curious gaze, wishing there were some other article of news, a ball, a reading, a tea for her neighbors…anything other than what she must tell.
She called Elizabeth back to her seat and produced the offending letter, holding it as though she wished it might sprout wings and fly far from Pemberley.
Alas, it did not, but moments later, Elizabeth Bennet Darcy would flee from the private sitting room.
“Tis only a letter from Catty. I do believe she is not feeling well…”
Anne rose from her seat and held out a hand for the letter.
Surprised by her niece’s forward behavior, Lady Anne relented and allowed the young woman to read it for herself.
Anne glanced at the missive, the hand indeed was that of her mother, there was no doubt. She moved slowly across the room, hoping for a quiet moment. Lady Anne and Elizabeth sat, watching Anne should she require their support.
Elizabeth turned to Lady Anne, one brow raised in the manner she often employed, for without words, the motion alone coaxed for much information, more than she might have gotten had she spoken frankly to the Lady.
“Tis nothing we might do, my dear Elizabeth. The choice is in Anne’s hands now. We might only promise to visit with her and be certain of her well being, if she goes away.’
Elizabeth found she was most unhappy to know Lady Catherine meant to have her daughter back and in a preposterous scheme, at that. Elizabeth did not believe for moment the old lady was ill, why she’d appeared quite hale and hearty all those times months ago when she’d thwarted her escapes from Rosings.
Her aim was to keep Anne at Pemberley as long as she might without a care for Lady Catherine and her sermons on the merits of a good daughter.
Anne turned, her lashes wet and her hand trembling with its letter. “Aunt, do you believe it to be true? My mother has need of me?”
Lady Anne tired to hide the concern in her eyes and took the young woman into a soft embrace. “I could not say, my dear, for many years she plied her ways upon young men of good families who thought her to be weak and sickly, when she certainly was not. I would caution against believing such a tale were she not your mother and my sister. As much as she has done to harm this family, perhaps she now wishes to mend the rift between you. “
Anne turned, heartened by her aunt’s words and approached her friend. Dear sweet Elizabeth would understand, she knew it.
But Elizabeth held her breath for a moment, the memory of the terrible time at Rosings clouding her mind. She could not find, though she searched mightily, a reason powerful, nor compelling enough for Anne to risk her freedom for that woman again.
Her heart broken as she glanced up into her dear friend’s eyes, Elizabeth rose and left the room before she might send Anne away with a feckless farewell.
Anne stood, her arms out, as Elizabeth hurried past, her face buried in her hands.
Lady Anne rose and went to Anne, her voice whispering softly against the warmth of the young woman’s brow.
“Fear not. She is a confusion of wishes and dreams, of hopes that might never come to be. She will have recovered before you depart.”
Lady Anne knew her sweet Elizabeth was increasing in that moment, for there was no other explanation for her sudden departure.
“Oh, Aunt, I hope I have not lost the dearest friend I have yet again. Georgiana first, and now Elizabeth. I cannot bear it.”
Lady Anne walked her to her rooms and ordered her to freshen up and consider her choices.
“Your Henry has said he will see you safely to Rosings. But you must write to us, promise me now you understand the reason I ask it.”
Anne turned, her blue eyes rimmed with the red of crying in one degree or another over the past half hour.
“I shall, every day, a letter for each of you. I will walk to Hunsford myself, for I am a great walker now,” she paused and gazed fondly at Elizabeth before continuing,” to see them posted. And I will not stay should Mother be anything other than her letter claims.”
Lady Anne set her niece’s maids to work on packing her things, the lovely dresses and trunks of clothing they had got in London.
Anne allowed but one item to remain at Pemberley, surprising her aunt herself as she stood and gazed upon it for what seemed an eternity.
“Elizabeth will know I shall return should my wedding dress remain at Pemberley.”
They left her room with the perfect dress, adorned with tiny rosebuds and sweet pearls at the neckline, displayed carefully so as not to wrinkle the skirts.