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Authors: Elizabeth Aston

Mr. Darcy's Dream

BOOK: Mr. Darcy's Dream
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Also by Elizabeth Aston

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Touchstone
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New York, NY 10020

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2009 by AEB Ltd.

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book
or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address
Touchstone Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas,
New York, NY 10020.

TOUCHSTONE and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available.

ISBN-13: 978-1-4391-5646-9
ISBN-10: 1-4391-5646-8

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For Amanda Patten

Mr. Darcy's Dream
Chapter One

Phoebe Hawkins was twenty years old, handsome, well-born, and with a fortune of fifty thousand pounds. Here she was, at the start of her second London season, the world at her feet, and yet if there were a more miserable young lady in all of London, she would be surprised.

It was mid-morning. Phoebe was standing in the study of her family's London house, a fine building in Aubrey Square, looking across the desk at her father, Sir Giles Hawkins, with a mixture of despair and hatred.

Phoebe had been fast asleep, lost in dreams of present and future bliss, when her maid abruptly awakened her, saying that Sir Giles wanted to speak to her at once. And with the quick sensibility of a young woman in love, she knew exactly why her father had summoned her. Mr. Stanhope must have called, just as he said he would, to ask for her hand in marriage—“As to my heart, you already have it,” she had told him. Perhaps he was downstairs now, at this very moment, waiting for her. Phoebe shrugged herself into a morning gown with more speed than care, and stood, wild with impatience, while Miniver did up the hooks and coaxed a brush through her tangled hair.

Phoebe did not for a moment expect her father would raise any objection. To be sure, Arthur Stanhope was some ten years older than she, but that was no kind of an age difference. He was rich, well-bred, and would one day inherit his father's title.

So it was with utter disbelief that she heard her father's cold and definite words.

“There is no possible way that I would give my consent to your marriage to Mr. Stanhope.”

Phoebe's heart missed a beat. She had misheard, this couldn't be right. “I don't understand,” she cried. “Mr. Stanhope wants to marry me, and I wish to be his wife. How can you refuse your consent?”

Sir Giles shook his head. “You and Mr. Stanhope are not going to marry. I expressly forbid it. It is nearly a year until you are of age, but I will not give you any hope that at the end of that period you will be able to marry him. He knows that I am not prepared to give my consent, now or in the future. You may think that when you are one-and-twenty you will be able to marry whom you please. However, should you go against my wishes in this matter, do not expect to take your fortune with you. I have control of that until you are twenty-five. You may say Mr. Stanhope will take you as you are, without a penny to your name. But he knows that at present he cannot marry you, and I told him that by the time you attain your majority, you will have forgotten him.”

“How can this be? When did you speak to him? Has he been to the house this morning? Why did you not call me sooner? Why was I not allowed to see him?” Phoebe put her hand on the corner of her father's desk, feeling quite dizzy. She could not believe that this was happening to her. How could her father, her kind, affectionate father, be speaking to her in this cold and forceful way?

“Mr. Stanhope called upon me to ask formally for your hand in marriage. I told him, as I am now telling you, that there can be no question of my agreeing to him marrying you. I have asked him not to seek an interview with you, and not to approach you, or talk to you, should you meet at any of the parties and functions which lie ahead. I cannot say that he took it in good part, but he is a man with some sense of honour, and when he considers what I had to say, he will see that I am right.”

Phoebe pressed her hands to her ears, wanting to shut out her father's cruel words. Why was he behaving like this? Forget Mr. Stanhope, and in the few brief months until her birthday? Impossible! She was in love with him, as he was with her, how could they forget one another? She tried to explain this to her father, but he brushed her words aside. “It is not for you to decide whether you may or may not accept an offer of marriage. While you must have a preference, an engagement is a matter for your family, for their lawyers, and for the family and lawyers of the man to whom you finally become betrothed. That man is not Mr. Stanhope.”

Phoebe's dismay began to give way to anger. She was a dutiful daughter, and while she was normally on excellent terms with her father, teasing him and joking with him, knowing that he liked her playful ways, she rarely stood up against his authority, mostly because he so rarely exerted it. This was a stranger sitting in front of her, and she could not fathom what had turned him into a man that she had never seen before: stern, forbidding, and refusing to listen to her.

His face softened. “Believe me, Phoebe, I do understand something of your feelings. However, in this case you must allow me, as your father and as a man with a great deal more experience of the world, to know better than you do what is possible,
and what is right. And, forgive me, but your attachment to Mr. Stanhope is of such recent standing that you will accept that any parent would be alarmed by talk of engagement. Am I not right in saying that you were unacquainted with Mr. Stanhope previous to your coming to London this time?”

“You know that to be the case, for Mr. Stanhope has been abroad. He is not a friend of our family, and I could not have met him before this year.”

“Exactly. And by saying that he is not a friend of the family, you bring me to one of my principal objections to the match. You are, I suppose, aware of who his parents are?”

Phoebe was irritated by this. Yes, she did know that Mr. Stanhope's parents were Lord and Lady Stanhope. What was remarkable about that? Her father seemed to expect an answer, so she simply nodded.

He continued, “You should also be aware that Lord Stanhope, and indeed Lady Stanhope, are prominent in Whig circles. Now I am not to be suggesting that simply because a man is a member of the opposition, while I am a staunch Conservative, means that any antagonism existing within the Houses of Parliament should be carried into the outside world. Yet there is a grain of truth in the saying, ‘Once a Whig, always a Whig.' And Whiggishness is not simply a matter of how a man votes in the House. It is also a matter of outlook, and going beyond politics, into the realm of morality; public morality and private morality. I do not personally think we will see another Whig government within my lifetime. That does not diminish the power and influence carried by the leading families. They have always worked behind the scenes, and by means of marriages and using family connections have exerted a force beyond what is reasonable.”

What had this to do with her and Mr. Stanhope? What
was all this talk of Whigs? She knew that Lord Stanhope did not share her father's political views, but was that so important? Certainly, her father had always had a dislike of Whigs, as many Tories did. But this was the nineteenth century, they were not living in the Middle Ages. Was he going to try to pretend that the Hawkins family and the Stanhopes were like the Montagues and Capulets in Shakespeare's
Romeo and Juliet
?

“Fustian!”

“No, it is not fustian. You are very young, Phoebe, and do not yet know what makes the world go round. You have had a protected upbringing, I am glad to say, and know no more than is suitable for a well-bred young lady. You will not have heard the scandals and intrigue that follow every member of these Whig circles. They make light of the marriage bond…”

His voice faltered and faded away. He had touched on an unmentionable subject, and his eyes dropped as Phoebe looked straight at him. “I do believe I know something about the loosening of marriage bonds,” she said.

They looked at one another for a long minute, the unspoken words clear in both their minds, the knowledge of a time when the marriage bonds of Sir Giles and Lady Hawkins had been stretched to breaking point.

The long-repressed fury finally spilled out of Phoebe as those words rang in her ears,
make light of the marriage bond.
“You say that to me! You who caused Mama so much unhappiness when you set up that woman as your mistress, how dare you criticise other people?”

Sir Giles had risen to his feet, his face thunderous. “That ever I should hear a daughter of mine speak in that way. You sound like a woman brought up in the gutter.”

“I sound like a girl who was brought up in a household where her father had a mistress, and her mother—”

“I forbid you to say it,” said Sir Giles.

“Feelings are not to be silenced. And you condemn an entire group of people, not quoting any individual circumstances; I find it disgraceful, and uncharitable, and in the circumstances inappropriate.”

“It is for me to decide what is and what is not appropriate.”

They fell silent. Phoebe's chin was up and she stared at her father with such defiance that he in his turn found it difficult to say anything more. Finally, he banged his fist on to the desk. “Very well, I am sorry it has come to this. You are saying that I have condemned all the Stanhopes, Lord and Lady Stanhope, and therefore by association their son, Mr. Stanhope, merely for being Whigs. This is not so. Your Mr. Stanhope has to my certain knowledge been conducting a lengthy affair with a woman called Mrs. Vereker. You look conscious. You know the lady, an uncommonly beautiful woman, an actress of humble origins who managed to ensnare the late Mr. Vereker, and so insinuate herself into society, where by birth, manners, and behaviour she had no place.”

“I do not care if Mr. Stanhope has had a mistress. He is a military man, a man of more than thirty. I do not expect to be his first love.”

“No, and if I were fool enough to let you marry him, you would most certainly not be his last love. The man is a rake, Mrs. Vereker is simply the latest in a long line of paramours. I dare say she was at the party last night where you were with Mr. Stanhope. When he came this morning, he swore he had fallen in love with you; I do not consider his words to be worth anything. Were I to give my consent to your marriage, you would, he supposes, go to him as a bride with a substantial fortune. I can only suppose that with high living he finds himself in financial difficulties and so looks for an heiress to wed.”

Tears started into Phoebe's eyes, but they were tears of rage, not of weakness. Fighting them back, she looked down at the carpet, where the rich Turkish patterns wavered and blurred before her eyes. “You slander him, you have no justification for what you say.”

“I speak nothing but the truth. Ask one of your married cousins about Mr. Stanhope's reputation, about Mrs. Vereker and the others before her, all at the same time, for all I know.” He lowered his voice. “Phoebe, believe me, it hurts me immeasurably to distress you in this way, but it is too important a matter for anything less than honesty and clear-headedness.” He took a heavy breath, and speaking with apparent difficulty said, “You referred to an episode in my own past life, an episode of which I am ashamed. I will not speak of it, now or ever. It is not a subject to be discussed with my daughter. However, it is because I wish to spare you the unhappiness I caused your mother that I refuse to let you marry a man like Mr. Stanhope. It is my final word. You can weep and wail, although that is not natural to you, or you may rant and rage at me; it will not alter my resolution one jot. You may write to your mother, to ask her to exert her influence with me, but I tell you that it will all be in vain. I know that your mama will be at one with me on this, and you know me well enough to be sure that once my mind is made up I am implacable.”

Phoebe left her father's study in a state of greater anger than she had ever known. Her father had risen from his seat and come around the desk to pat her on the shoulder, and had wanted to embrace her, although she drew away from him. Then he said, unforgivably, in her eyes, “One day you will thank me for this. You will meet another man, a better man, who loves you and whom you will love and with whom you will make a very happy marriage. It is not as though you have
not had other admirers; indeed, you know I have had more than one young man approach me to ask consent to pay his addresses. You have laughed and scorned them all and asked me to refuse all your suitors, however eligible some of them were. I can understand how a man of fashion and address such as Mr. Stanhope could have caught your fancy, but I assure you fancy is all it is. You could not truly love a man of his character.”

The problem was that Phoebe did love Arthur Stanhope, that she had never loved any man before, and that she could see no way that she would ever care for another man as intensely as she did for Mr. Stanhope.

She had come dancing down the stairs, but it was with feet of lead, and a heart as heavy, that she ascended the stairs to return to her room. To her relief, Miniver was not in the room. She did not give way to tears, nor throw herself on the bed, nor take up the pretty vase from beside her bed and dash it to the floor. Instead, she went to the window and looked out over the square, her heart thumping inside her chest like a drum marching men into battle. The weather matched her mood. Lowering grey clouds hung over London, a steady drizzle made the pavements look dark and dirty. The trees in the garden in the centre of the square still had a wintry look to them; spring was late this year. She turned away from the window and went across to her little walnut writing desk. She sat down, took out a sheet of notepaper, dipped a quill into the ink, and began to write.

Dear Mr. Stanhope…

She got no further. A letter would not do, how could she say all she had to in a letter? No, she wouldn't write to him, she would go to see him.

Once this plan entered her head, she brushed away all
thoughts of how improper such an action would be. If anyone saw her going into his house, then her reputation would lie in shreds.

So much the better, she told herself as she pulled the bell with vigour, calling out at the same time for Miniver, whom she felt sure would be lurking somewhere in the vicinity. She didn't want to take Miniver into her confidence, and so she simply told her to fetch her pelisse, as she was going out.

“Going out where, Miss Phoebe? Shall I ask for the carriage to be brought round? And I'll have to put on my own outdoor clothes, I had no idea of your going out so early, and I've all your jewellery lying soaking—”

BOOK: Mr. Darcy's Dream
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