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Authors: Pamela Aidan

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Literary, #General, #Romance

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BOOK: An Assembly Such as This
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A few officers gathered around a couch near Darcy who had been engaged in an increasingly loud disagreement suddenly erupted with a noisy call for a lady to come and arbitrate a most vexatious matter. From under hooded eyes, Darcy watched as the opinion of the drawing room on the most suitable arbiter among the ladies wavered and then swelled to a chorus that named Miss Elizabeth Bennet. With a fine mixture of amused tolerance and modesty, she passed by Darcy on her way to the judgment seat the officers had cleared for her. A hint of her perfume drifted to him as she passed, and he found himself riveted by the gentle swishing of her gown. At that moment, without being entirely clear as to why her regard of him should matter or what was his ultimate goal, he set about devising a plan to obtain her particular attention. Reason briefly protested, but the gate was opened, the path beckoned irresistibly, and Darcy’s imagination slipped past the posterns and on to the mysteries of a woman whose charms he found increasingly disturbing to his composure.

Chapter 5
To Know More of Her

S
everal mornings after the squire’s dinner, Darcy sauntered down the corridor to his friend’s chamber and delivered a brisk knock on the door. A stumbling sound issued from behind the great oak portal, followed by the sound of a fob or watch hitting the floor. “It is no use,” he heard Bingley groan to his valet. “Open the door; let him in, and be done with it!”

The door swung wide on its hinges, assisted by the tip of Darcy’s riding crop. “Dare I hope you have at least
eaten,
Bingley?” Darcy sighed as he surveyed the turmoil of the room and its occupant. “You did say ‘in the saddle, nine o’clock, sharp,’ or did I mistake you?”

Bingley sniffed wistfully at the tidy breakfast of ham, rasher of bacon, eggs, and assorted delicacies that awaited his attention on a tray in his dressing room. The smell wafting through the open door looked to drive him mad. “I cannot think what possessed me to make our appointment for such an early hour,” he groused as the chamber clock chimed a merry nine o’clock. “You know how I dislike the morning air. Too damp by half!” He continued dressing, glancing the while at Darcy, who still stood in the doorway but was now tapping his riding crop repeatedly into the gloved palm of his hand.

“If you have come to ring a peal over me, I promise you leisure to do a thorough job of it,” he offered desperately, “for I must have something to eat!” So saying, he dashed for the dressing room and the breakfast tray. Following Bingley into the next room, Darcy grabbed a chair and brought it up to the small table, which groaned under the weight of silver serving bowls. His own fast broken over an hour ago, he shook his head at Bingley’s offer to share the bounty and began to remove his gloves.

“Ring a peal over you? Did I really appear that grim?” At Bingley’s nod, Darcy slapped his gloves on his knee as he dropped into the chair.

“I fully expected a royal jaw-me-dead about lapses in punctuality, the dangers of keeping good horseflesh waiting, failure to fulfill promises, and whatever other defect of my character you could lay your hands upon!” ventured Bingley between bites of ham and gulps of tea. “Are you sure you do not want something?” he offered again.

“No, nothing,” Darcy murmured, and fell to studying his gloves. “Although everything you just now mentioned is true.” He looked reprovingly at Bingley from under gathered brows and was promptly rewarded with a sugar lump cast at his head.

“There, I knew you could not resist a lecture, though it was a mercifully brief one. Tell me, is your father your model in this as in all else, or have you perfected that towering frown on your own?”

“It is my own creation, Bingley, part and parcel of that armor you say I have donned, and by the by, it is extremely useful. Now, are you finished, and may we begin this tour of the countryside you were so mad for last night?”

Bingley nodded vigorously, his mouth being stuffed with toast and jam. Wiping sticky fingers on a cream-colored linen napkin, he rose from the table. “Your obedient servant, sir,” he intoned, bowing to Darcy in his best servile manner.

“May that day come quickly! Get your gear; the morning is beautiful, and I am on edge for a good gallop.” With that, he strode out of the room, leaving Bingley to follow as he might.

The groom brought Nelson to the mounting block as soon as Darcy appeared in the stable yard but had a difficult task keeping him there when the great black became aware of his master’s approach. His ears pricked forward, and swinging his massive fore-quarters around to face the entry arch, he pulled the groom with him as he surged toward the sound of Darcy’s boots on the cobble.

“Nelson, you brute! Leave off dragging that poor fellow around!” Darcy tried without success to look sternly at his horse, who was too occupied in nickering a greeting to be concerned with the welfare of his groom. Darcy reached out his hand for the reins. “Here, give them to me. You will never get him back round, I fear.” Only too happy to relinquish them, the groom placed them into Darcy’s hand and backed away to watch.

Under his master’s direction, Nelson allowed himself to be led back to the mounting block, and Darcy neatly swung up, gathering the reins into his expert grip. He was almost tempted to ride on and leave Bingley to catch him up. Instead, he nudged Nelson into a trot, then a restrained canter, directing him into a tight figure eight that circumscribed the stable yard, thus demanding the animal’s full attention to his commands.

“On edge,” he repeated to himself as he signaled Nelson to change lead at the crossing of the eight. He had described himself so to Bingley, and the phrase limned him perfectly. Ever since the evening at the squire’s, his entire being, body and soul, seemed in the grip of distraction. The cause of his disquiet was no mystery. The object herself, though, was nothing
but
a mystery, whose lure he found difficult to ignore.

The last two evenings had been spent in Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s presence, though not strictly in her company. Bingley’s information had been correct, and Darcy recalled the unexpected exhilaration he had felt upon confirming her attendance on both occasions. It had taken prodigious concentration on his part to position himself close enough to overlisten her conversations and fulfill his own social obligations without attracting her notice or the curiosity of others.

Darcy felt Nelson tense, awaiting his signal as they again approached the crossing of the figure. He leaned slightly to the left, applying pressure with his knee as a toss of Nelson’s head communicated his displeasure with such disciplined exercise. Once, not long after the horse had been broken to bit and bridle, Darcy had taken him out into the wilder grounds of Pemberley, eager to see what the animal could do. The vista before them had excited both horse and rider, and before he knew it, Nelson had the bit between his teeth and they were careening over field, ditch, and fence in a manner that had both thrilled and terrified his rider. Both had survived the neck-or-nothing ride with only a few bruises, and Darcy had taken care in Nelson’s training that the like should not happen again; but the emotions that had overwhelmed him then had not been forgotten.

Thrilling…yet terrifying!
Darcy mused as he brought the powerful beast beneath him to a neat, precise halt at the center of the eight. Those emotions seemed to have resurrected recently in his breast, but this time their cause did not threaten danger to his body. He leaned over Nelson’s neck and stroked the powerfully muscled arch with approval and affection.
No, the danger the young woman presents is to your heart…your very soul,
he acknowledged to himself.
No less thrilling
— he paused and stared hard across the fields toward Longbourn —
and certainly no less terrifying. Miss Elizabeth Bennet, what have you wrought?

His friend’s “Hallo” broke Darcy’s reverie, and he turned, waving his crop in greeting. “More than past time you should have appeared, Bingley! Waylaid by a vicious poached egg?”

“Waylaid by an insistent sister, more like! Caroline wanted to be assured of our intention to dine with Colonel Forster and his officers on Monday next. Said she was obligated to invite someone for dinner and wanted to spare us the inconvenience of entertaining them.”

Darcy answered Bingley’s shrug with one of his own and commanded him to mount quickly and join him at the front of the manor house. Nudging Nelson into a brisk trot, he left the stable yard behind, reining the horse in when he had gained the carriage drive.
It is beyond the time for excuses,
he told himself.
I require that you speak to her at Sir William’s this very evening.
Darcy squared his shoulders but then bit his lower lip and looked up into the bright morning sky.
And God help you!

“Your coat, sir.” Fletcher carefully eased the form-fitting garment up onto his shoulders, then tugged the front down and into place. Stepping back, he surveyed his master’s appearance with a critical eye that had brooked no imperfection in his dress for the last seven years. Darcy awaited the verdict with a mixture of impatience and apprehension. He might not have brought his most fashionable clothes to the country, he thought while his valet circled him as if he were an objet d’art, but what he had, he desired to wear to the Lucases’ gathering with some distinction. “Very good, sir. ‘Every inch a king’” came the judgment. Darcy nodded.

Bingley met him in the hall, his eyes fairly crackling with anticipation. “Good, you are down and ready! I have warned my sisters they may dally all they wish, but
we
are to leave in ten minutes.” He flung a dismissive hand toward the stairs. “They may all ride in Hurst’s carriage if they want to arrive late!” He began to draw on his gloves as he sent the footman for their greatcoats. Darcy stepped to the door as the sounds of hooves on gravel and rattling harness grew louder and then came to a halt.

“Your carriage, Bingley. Do you wish to leave —”

“Immediately, Darcy. What good fortune, not a sister in sight. Hurry, man!” With a conspiratorial grin, Darcy quickly shrugged into his greatcoat and grabbed his hat and gloves.

Bingley raced down the stairs and leapt into the carriage with Darcy on his heels. “Drive on!” Bingley shouted, pulling the carriage door out of the servant’s grip. He shut it with a bang and then collapsed on the seat opposite his friend.

“Miss Bingley will not thank you for leaving her to travel with the Hursts,” observed Darcy as the carriage pulled smartly away.

“True,” responded Bingley, settling back into the cushions. “Just as I shall not thank her for inviting Miss Bennet to dine at Netherfield on a night when I was sure to be absent! You remember why I was late to the stable this morning? Well, Miss Bennet was the guest my sister did not want to ‘inconvenience’ me with entertaining. Had I not discovered the truth by pure chance, Miss Bennet would have come and gone leaving
me
none the wiser!”

“Perhaps your sister merely wishes to strike up a friendship with Miss Bennet independent of your regard,” offered Darcy, schooling his face so as not to betray his doubt of any such purpose. Bingley merely returned him a skeptical eye.

The remainder of the drive passed pleasantly in recollection of their tour of Netherfield that morning. They talked of plans, with fields planted and harvested, ditches cleared, ponds stocked, fences mended, and livestock added until the estate had fair become Paradise by the time they reached the gates of Lucas Lodge. As the carriage swept past the stone pillars, their conversation dwindled, and both men felt descend upon them an awkward silence, which deepened the closer they drew to their destination.

Sir William’s effusive welcome was accepted by the two gentlemen with aplomb. Darcy allowed Bingley to say all that was correct for both of them while he covertly surveyed the drawing room. Their formal greeting delivered, he accompanied Bingley into the room but abruptly changed course when he saw his friend’s destination was a table in an alcove adjoining the drawing room. There the two eldest Bennet sisters and a number of other young ladies were gathered around Miss Lucas as she demonstrated techniques in the painting of china, a rage that had swept higher Society a year ago, Darcy recalled, but was now considered passé in London. Before Bingley could make his bow to them, he was enveloped in a rainbow of muslin. Darcy looked away, cringing at his near escape from the crowd of females who were now demanding Bingley’s opinion of Miss Lucas’s art. He availed himself, for some minutes, of a nearby window offering an excellent view of the lodge’s park before conscience prodded him to look back at his beleaguered friend, only to behold Bingley wearing a beatific smile and with the situation well in hand.

A rustling among the ladies put a period to his meditation on Bingley’s remarkable ability and drew his attention to one particular lady. Her eyes crinkled in merry good nature, Miss Elizabeth had taken a seat at her friend’s elbow. Captivated, Darcy watched as she chose a small piece of china, lifted it appraisingly, and then, with a mischievous grin, dipped her brush into paint and applied several bold strokes. The first brush was summarily abandoned for another. Down it was plunged into another color and applied as boldly as the first. Gasps and laughter erupted all round as she set down the piece for the group’s inspection.

“There, Charlotte, I have exhausted my talent at china painting. You may fire it or dispose of it as you wish. Who is next?” Elizabeth handed her brush to an eager young gentleman, vacated her chair, and sketched a quick curtsy to the group. “If you will please excuse me.” She smiled at them and faced in Darcy’s direction. Immediately, he turned his head away from her, feigning indifference to her approach.

Darcy sensed rather than beheld her step past him. A curious but delicious tingling sensation swept through him in response to her brief closeness, the warmth of her seeming to drift around him caressingly as she passed. Mesmerized, he looked after her, his stomach knotting as she paused only a few feet away in contemplation of the company scattered before her.

BOOK: An Assembly Such as This
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