“Fitzwilliam,” Lady Catherine called to her nephew, Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, as he passed the door to her sitting room. “Your call can wait,” she said in answer to the reply she knew was coming.
Richard sighed and turned into the room.
“Just Fitzwilliam.” Lady Catherine’s tone was stern as she looked down her nose and made a brushing motion with her hand, indicating that her other nephew, Fitzwilliam Darcy, should leave the room. “Close the door,” she called after him. She waited until it was latched and she heard footsteps moving away from the room. Then, she took Richard by the arm and pulled him further into the room.
“Sit.” She motioned to a golden tufted chair on the edge of a grouping in front of a window that looked out onto the front garden of the house.
Richard rolled his eyes and did as instructed. It was pointless to do otherwise. Lady Catherine always had her way, or there was a price to pay. It was far cheaper and easier to just listen. “To what might I ascribe the honor of this private conference?” It was likely some matter regarding the groves that she wished him to see to during his stay, for a stay at Rosings was rarely one of pure leisure.
Lady Catherine’s eyes narrowed at his cheeky tone, but she did not reprimand him for it. He was always attempting to stir her ire, but today, she would allow no such distractions. She stood near the window and tilted her head to peer out and around toward the door where Darcy was just exiting. “It is time he marries,” she said.
“Darcy?” Richard’s eyes grew wide in surprise. This was not the conversation he had expected. In fact, it was a conversation he had always wished to avoid — at least with his aunt, that is.
She nodded, and leaving her vantage point at the window, she took a seat across from her nephew. “Yes, Darcy. Georgiana is not getting any younger and will need someone besides just her brother to guide her through her first season.”
“But Anne –” Richard began. He knew neither Darcy nor his cousin Anne wished to marry the other, and he was prepared to argue their points.
“Not Anne,” Lady Catherine interrupted. “They would not suit.”
“Pardon?” Richard was at a loss for words. His aunt had always insisted that Darcy would marry Anne. In fact, it was a supposed engagement that had kept Darcy from feeling a need to begin looking in earnest for a lady to help him secure his estate for future generations.
Lady Catherine picked at a small flower on the arm of her chair as she avoided meeting his eyes. The supposed engagement to her daughter had been merely an elaborate ruse to prevent a most disastrous outcome for Darcy. “He was not ready to begin a family. I had to keep him from rushing forward into doing his duty somehow.”
Richard’s mouth dropped open and then snapped shut. There were still no coherent thoughts forming in his mind. What his aunt was currently saying was clashing with what she had always said previously. Had she not taunted Darcy about doing his duty by marrying Anne?
She shook her head as if reading his thoughts. “Darcy was never going to marry Anne, and Anne knew it.”
Richard’s brows furrowed, and his lips pursed into a perplexed scowl. “You will need to explain.”
Lady Catherine rose and walked to the window. Darcy was still pacing in the front garden. She watched him take six long strides away and then back. One foot fell in front of the other in perfect time and in equal measure. It was very much who he was — proper, dignified, well-ordered. “I promised his mother that I would see him marry well and for love.” She raised a brow at Richard, causing his mouth to snap shut on whatever exclamation of surprise he was about to utter. “When Darcy’s father died, Darcy was not ready to take on the responsibilities of an estate and make a proper decision about a wife. He would have rushed pell-mell into an untenable marriage that would have perhaps resulted in a family, but not a happy one. He would have sat down, drawn up some supposed list of qualifications of a proper wife, and gone about the business as if he were hiring a maid — without one thought about the misery he would face as a result of his calculated methods.” She tipped her head and gave Richard a firm look. “Do not tell me he would not have done so. You know as well as I that he puts duty before everything.” She shook her head. “I still think he has no idea what sort of wife he requires.”
Richard laughed. This conversation was not at all what he had dreaded it would be. In fact, it was proving to be rather entertaining. “And you do know what sort of wife he requires?”
Lady Catherine returned to her chair. “I do, and I have found her.” She chuckled at the way Richard’s mouth dropped open again. “What Darcy needs is a simple country miss with a keen mind.”
“And you found her?” Richard asked incredulously. His aunt did not travel, and so far as he knew, there were no acceptable country misses who frequented Rosings.
Lady Catherine raised one shoulder and let it drop slightly. “I believe I have.” She leaned forward as she prepared to tell him how she had done it. “My parson is the heir to an estate that is entailed — a distant cousin or some such thing. It is difficult at times to follow his meandering.”
Richard raised a brow and smirked, earning a rap on the knee.
“I am not meandering.”
Richard inclined his head in acceptance although the smirk did not fade from his lips.
“Anyway, this cousin has five daughters — three of a good marriageable age and two just reaching it.” She smiled as the smirk dropped from Richard’s face and was replaced with amazement. Five was a substantial number of daughters. It was not the largest she had heard of but substantial none the less. “I sent Mr. Collins to find a wife from among them because I reasoned that if he should marry one, then the others might be asked to visit on occasion, and I might be able to select one for Darcy.”
Richard shook his head. “How did you know these ladies would be simple country misses with intelligence?”
Lady Catherine shrugged and shook her head. “There was no guarantee that they would be, but Collins had said their father eschewed town and spent the chief portion of his time in his study. I thought it likely that at least one daughter might have inherited her father’s love of books and learning.”
Richard nodded. That made sense. It was unlikely that all five daughters would be completely unlike their father. “Was Collins successful?”
Lady Catherine laughed. “No, he was not, and I really should have known he would go about it wrong. He tends to bungle things; however, in his bungling, he has made my task of selection most easy.” She laughed again. “She refused him — soundly, and she is not taken with Darcy. Quite the contrary. She thinks him proud.” Her eyes fairly danced with mirth. “Collins did secure a wife, however, and Mrs. Collins happens to be the future Mrs. Darcy’s particular friend. That is how I know so much about my choice. Mrs. Collins is a lovely lady, very sensible — quite the opposite of her husband.”
Richard’s head tilted to the side as things began to come together into a coherent plan. “Your parson has a guest.”
A smile split Lady Catherine’s face. “Upon my urging, he does.”
“And she is the lady you have selected?”
Lady Catherine’s brows flicked upward quickly. “Clever, is it not?”
“Diabolical,” Richard replied dryly.
Lady Catherine shook her head. “Did you see how quickly Darcy agreed to visit the parsonage? I assure you it is not because he has a fondness for my parson.” She leaned forward again and spoke in a whisper. “He danced with her.”
Richard blinked. “Darcy danced?” That did hold some weight then. Darcy did not dance with anyone outside of his close sphere of friends.
Lady Catherine gave a satisfied nod. “Danced and argued with her and then fled the area. He is smitten; mark my words.” She rose and motioned for Richard to follow her. “Note how he acts on your call, and when they come for dinner this evening, flirt with her. You will see I am right.”
Richard rested his hand on the door knob. “And if you are right, what then? If they have argued, it follows that one or both might not be willing to enter into a marriage.”
“One does not have to be willing to enter a marriage for a marriage to happen,” replied Lady Catherine with a sly grin.
“A compromise?” Richard could not help the small bit of excitement he felt about the possibility of a sneak attack.
“I shall not admit to it now or later,” said Lady Catherine. “But they will marry. We shall see to it.”
Richard chuckled as he left the room. While Darcy might have managed to outmaneuver the ladies and their mama’s in the ton, he would stand no chance against their aunt.
“You are smiling,” Darcy noted as Richard joined him in the front garden. Smiling after the completion of an interview with Lady Catherine was not a typical response. Rubbing your temples and seeking fresh air like a drowning man was a more likely response. Though Lady Catherine could be quite pleasant and even indulgent at times, she was more often than not demanding when she required an interview.
“It is a pleasant day, and I have escaped from our aunt with no more than a lecture on doing my duty while in residence.” It was not entirely truthful, but there was enough truth in the statement for Richard to speak without so much as a pang of conscience. In fact, there was something rather like anticipation stirring in him as he considered how he and his aunt might capture their quarry. He would do as instructed and make his observations, and then, armed with the proper intelligence, he and Lady Catherine would contrive a plan.
“Yes, well, your duty only involves touring the grounds.” Darcy knew his duty, as his aunt saw it, was to become the owner of the grounds through marrying her daughter, Anne. It was a duty that he in no way wished to fulfill. He sighed and rubbed his temple, thankful that he was out in the fresh air.
Richard glanced at his cousin. “You should tell her of your refusal to marry Anne.”
Darcy drew in a deep breath and expelled it. “I intend to do so before we leave, but to do it now would make our stay more than a little unpleasant.”
Richard’s brows furrowed. “You truly mean to tell her?” He had told Darcy to speak to his aunt on each occasion when they journeyed to Rosings. Darcy had always claimed he would when the time was right. However, the correct time never seemed to present itself.
Darcy nodded. “It is time I consider marrying in earnest. I am nearly thirty, and Pemberley needs an heir. It is best to think of that while there is still hope of securing a wife happily.” There was an heir to produce for Pemberley, this was true, but it was not his real reason for considering marriage. No, that reason, the lady he wished to find a way to marry, was currently installed at the parsonage in Hunsford. He had tried to escape it. He had hidden away and surrounded himself with work. He had attended functions and the theater. He had done everything he could think of to avoid what his heart was telling him because his heart’s wishes did not match with the list of wifely qualifications in his head.
Richard chuckled. “You think that with an estate the size of Pemberley and the looks of your father, you would have to force a lady into marrying you even if you were twice your age?” He shook his head. “I cannot think of any lady of my acquaintance who would refuse you.”
“I am not eloquent,” Darcy replied. “Ladies find my reserve off-putting.”
“That is not without remedy. You have no trouble smiling and talking with Bingley or me.”
“Both you and Charles are like brothers. I have no trouble speaking to Georgiana, either.”
Richard twirled his walking stick in the air and slashed at a bush along the path. “I have seen you speak to ladies at soirees.”
“I have been terse and often stumble over my thoughts.” Darcy caught a loose stone with his toe and sent it skittering across the path. “I wish it were not so, but it is.”
“The right woman will loosen your tongue.” Richard gave him a sidelong appraising look. There was a slump to Darcy’s shoulders as if he had already given up hope of ever being able to speak to the right lady. “Have you found a lady?”
Darcy blinked. “N-no,” he stammered, his ears heating with embarrassment. He was certain from the twitch of his cousin’s lips that his reply was not accepted. Hopefully, Richard would just let it pass. “Bingley thought he had found a lady.” Perhaps turning the conversation to the plight of a friend would keep Richard from pursuing whether Darcy had found a lady.
Richard laughed. “Bingley always thinks he has found a lady. He is far too amiable.” He took another swing at a bush. “But go on and tell me about her. What is she like?”
“Beautiful. Well-mannered. Amiable. However, she seemed indifferent, and so it was suggested that he forget her.”
Richard stopped walking. A thought of a disturbing nature began to form in his mind as he recalled a discussion they had had on the way to Rosings. “This is the match you helped him avoid?”
“So it was not her connections to which you objected?”
“No. I did not wish to see him in a marriage of unequal affections.”
“And this lady was one he met in Hertfordshire?”
Darcy nodded. “Had she demonstrated even a small amount of preference, I would not have suggested a separation.” He sighed. “I thought he would forget her. He has not.”
Richard could not help noting the way Darcy spoke as if it were not just his friend who was affected. “Is there a way to discover if this lady was indeed indifferent or if a renewal of addresses might be welcomed?”
Darcy turned toward the parsonage that was just within view. “We could ask her sister.”
“Miss Bennet?” asked Richard in surprise. Oh, this was becoming a complicated tangle to be unravelled if the Miss Bennet at the parsonage was the lady Darcy was considering marrying and if this Miss Bennet’s sister had been injured by Bingley’s removal from Netherfield. He shook his head as he realized that there might be one lady in all of England and its empire who would refuse a man like Darcy.