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Authors: Elizabeth Aston

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Chapter Twenty-two

Miniver was on her mettle as she dressed Phoebe for the dinner party. This was the first chance she'd had since coming to Pemberley to turn her mistress out in prime style, and she intended to make the most of it. Phoebe objected strenuously, she would wear her old lilac evening gown, thank you; she saw no reason to dress particularly fine, not for the company that would be there that evening, and had she not told Miniver in the clearest terms not to bring those dresses to Pemberley? She could not imagine what they were doing here, and had no intention of wearing one of them.

Miniver won, as was inevitable. Phoebe came downstairs looking, Louisa thought, quite lovely, in a gown of palest yellow, caught up in rosettes along the hem, and with a pretty detailing of more matching tiny rosettes around the neckline. She wore an elegant diamond necklace, and another diamond ornament sparkled in her dark hair. Even Lady Redburn, casting a swift eye over her, approved. “I am pleased to see you looking like a young lady of quality at last, Phoebe. That colour becomes you. Although I think a less fussy style of gown would be better for you.”

She had no compliments for Louisa, who simply looked the beauty she was. Betsy had taken a great deal of trouble with her, although, as she complacently remarked to Miniver as she watched Louisa go down the stairs, with those looks, there was very little that needed to be done.

The company gathered in the drawing-room. Phoebe kept herself well in the background, while Lady Redburn greeted the guests as they arrived. She gave George Warren a warm welcome, which annoyed Phoebe, and was gracious to Mr. Bagot, which annoyed her even more. Then her godmother arrived with Lady Maria, and Phoebe was soon swept up in conversation, and was able to forget for the time being her irritation at the make-up of this gathering. Sir Henry and Lady Martindale were the last to arrive, and Phoebe looked closely at Kitty Martindale. She had to agree with Mrs. Wellesley's judgement: Lady Martindale looked neither well nor happy. And there seemed to be a degree of constraint between her and her husband, who quickly left her side and wandered over to engage in conversation with George Warren.

Phoebe was pleased to see that it was Mr. Drummond who took Louisa into dinner, and not Mr. Bagot, who had been angling for the privilege. Mr. Drummond cut him out very neatly, holding his arm for Louisa, so that the vicar was obliged to fall back on Mrs. Wellesley, who, with what Phoebe considered commendable goodwill, went into dinner beside him. She herself hung back; she would rather sit next to the outspoken Lady Maria than be obliged to make conversation with either George Warren or Mr. Bagot.

The dinner was excellent, with M. Joules in his element. Asparagus, purée of wood pigeon, red mullet, a
of chicken, lamb cutlets, and duckling with green peas were rounded off with a vanilla soufflé of exquisite lightness and a
delicious lemon cream. Phoebe relaxed under the influence of the good food and plentiful wine, until she heard Lady Redburn, in a loud and commanding voice, inform George Warren that she would make sure that he was sent a ticket for the Pemberley ball in June, were he still to be in the neighbourhood at that time.

Phoebe dug her nails into the palm of her hand with fury. How dare her great-aunt? She knew with certainty that Mr. Darcy would not welcome George Warren in his house while he was there, not to mention the other members of the family that George Warren had wronged in some way. Now that Lady Redburn had given an invitation, it would be impossible for her to rescind it, even if Phoebe explained to her great-aunt just why George Warren would not be an acceptable guest.

She knew Lady Redburn would not listen to her; she would pooh-pooh the whole idea of there being any unpleasantness between Warren and the Darcys, saying that the Darcy girls were always up to some scheme or other, and that their remoter cousins in particular were always involved in intrigue and scandal. That was where the blame lay, not at the feet of George Warren, whom she had known since he was a little boy, and could find no fault with. She liked men to have some backbone, she couldn't be doing with all these milk-and-water young fellows that you met these days.

Phoebe took a gloomy mouthful of her pudding. Lady Maria was eyeing her with some amusement, and said to her in a low voice that she should take care not to show in her face what she was feeling. “Mr. Warren is an unpleasant rogue, I warrant you, but it does not do to show in public one's distaste for such a man. He will notice it, be amused by it, and attempt to set you up to be one of his victims. You would do better to ignore him, and to take your great-aunt's fancy for him in
your stride. She herself is one who likes to make mischief, and the more she knows that you find George Warren's company objectionable, and that your uncle also would prefer not to see him, the more she will see to it that he spends time at Pemberley. It is her way, she has always been like that.”

The conversation at the other end of the table turned to the subject of a forthcoming celebration for Jack Harlow's twenty-first birthday. Phoebe pricked up her ears; she and Jack were old friends, and she had every intention of attending the fête that had been arranged for his coming-of-age. The Harlows' house was some seventeen or eighteen miles distant, and at first Lady Redburn had instructed Phoebe to decline the invitation, telling her the Pemberley carriage was not there to encourage girls to gallivant about the country, and piling up the reasons for her objection: “It is too far, there will be no man available to escort you, and you would not be back, most likely, until the early hours of the morning. It is not fitting for you to jaunt about the countryside in that manner.”

Phoebe exclaimed at this. “I have known Jack forever. He taught me to play cricket when I was a girl, and we used to race one another on our ponies.”

That didn't go down well with Lady Redburn, and so the matter rested, until Mrs. Wellesley unthinkingly mentioned to Lady Redburn that there had always been a hope that Phoebe and Jack might make a match of it. Lady Redburn didn't listen to Mrs. Wellesley's opinion that it would not be a successful marriage; in her opinion, Phoebe, who should certainly be married, could do much worse than to marry a Derbyshire man.

Lady Martindale said something which made Sir Henry, sitting across from her, laugh, and Phoebe saw for the first time how attractive he was, and could understand why Kitty
Martindale had married him, although he was so much older than she was. She also noticed the grateful but uneasy glance Kitty gave her husband, and a chill went down her spine as she thought of what Lady Maria had said about his unfaithfulness. Phoebe wondered if he, like her father, had a mistress in town, or whether he was carrying on an intrigue with some local woman. She gave her head a little shake; it wasn't a subject which she cared to dwell upon.

Lady Redburn rose, and took the ladies back into the drawing-room. She instructed Louisa to entertain them upon the pianoforte, took the best seat by the fire, and told Mrs. Wellesley and Kitty Martindale to come sit with her. Lady Maria proposed a game of backgammon to Phoebe, which she accepted with relief, not wishing to join in the conversation at the fireside, nor to be commanded to sing by her great-aunt.

Tea had been brought in, Phoebe was beating Lady Maria at backgammon, the gentlemen were still in the dining room, and Louisa had embarked on a second sonata, when Phoebe heard voices in the hall. A moment later the door opened.

There, in immaculate evening dress, stood Arthur Stanhope.

Chapter Twenty-three

Lady Martindale looked up, saw her brother, and sprang to her feet, holding out both hands to him, a look of delight on her face. “Arthur! What an unexpected pleasure. I had no idea you were coming back to Derbyshire from town. When did you arrive? And now you've come all this way to Pemberley, you are too late for dinner, you know.”

Arthur Stanhope greeted his sister with affection, but he could not stop his eyes flickering around the room until they rested on Phoebe, who had her head down and was concentrating on her pieces. Lady Maria chided her. “What are you about, Phoebe, are you not acquainted with Mr. Stanhope? It is your duty as much as Lady Redburn's to welcome him to Pemberley.”

Lady Maria was quite wrong. Phoebe had no wish to welcome him to Pemberley, she did not wish to see him at Pemberley, she did not wish to see him at all. And now, having paid his respects to the other ladies, he was coming across to their table. Lady Maria waved a hand at him. “Pray, do join us. Pull up a chair. Miss Hawkins and I have almost finished our game, and besides, she was set to backgammon me, so I think we may
call an end to it. What brings you here? I thought you were in London.”

“I was,” said Mr. Stanhope. He addressed Phoebe. “I was dancing with your sister yesterday night. She sends you her love.”

For the first time, Phoebe lifted her eyes and looked directly at him. She immediately lowered them, hating herself for the blush that rose to her cheeks. “You were at a party, I suppose,” was all she managed to say. Then she took a deep breath and composed herself. “I hope my sister was well.”

“Well, and in the most lively spirits. She is enjoying considerable success, from what I hear.”

Phoebe did not know where to look nor what to do with herself. Her heart had leapt at the sight of him, and yet she wished he were not here, she ardently wished that he would simply go away. His presence caused feelings that she could not control, and indeed did not fully understand, to overwhelm her. She must get away, she could not bear to stay in this room so close to him. Why had he come? He must have known she would be at Pemberley. She made as if to get up from the table, but Lady Maria restrained her, putting a hand on hers, and saying, “Let Mr. Stanhope take my place at the backgammon table, Miss Hawkins. I have something I wish to ask Lady Martindale.”

Phoebe sank back into her chair, trapped. She fiddled with one of the pieces, wishing she could simply get up and run from the room, like a child in a tantrum. Mr. Stanhope was rearranging the pieces, his long, firm fingers moving them into position swiftly and surely. She couldn't take her eyes from his hands, she felt she would have known them anywhere, they seemed to represent the quintessence of his being. She averted her eyes and looked across the room to the large painting which
hung above the fireplace. It was of a classical subject, showing Europa being abducted by Zeus disguised as a bull. The painting disturbed her, and so instead she looked at a painting of a nautical scene that hung beside the door, with a man-of-war under full sail surging through stormy seas, firing a broadside. She made herself count the little woolly puffs emerging from the muzzles of the cannon; anything to divert her attention from the man sitting opposite her.

“You are very quiet, Miss Hawkins,” said Mr. Stanhope. “Have you nothing to say to me?”

“Nothing,” said Phoebe. “Nothing at all.” She rolled the dice unthinkingly, and moved a piece into a different position, hardly aware of what she was doing. He watched her with an ironic smile. “It is a good thing you are not a gambler, or you would lose a great deal of money. It is important to pay attention to the game one is playing.”

“It is not a game, sir.” She blurted the words out before she knew what she was saying, and she spoke with a ferocity that startled her. It seemed to startle Mr. Stanhope as well, but he quickly recovered his infuriating calm.

“Then I shall roll my dice, and move a piece, and although this game is nonsense, it will appear to the others in the room that we are playing.”

Phoebe cast a desperate glance at Louisa, hoping that she might come to her rescue, but Louisa, who was a true musician, was absorbed in her music and did not notice her friend's look of appeal.

“Do you plan to stay long in Derbyshire?” asked Phoebe, striving for a light, indifferent tone, falling back on the polite nothings of conversation.

“Do you care?”

“Not at all, your movements can be of no concern to me.
One must say, thus and thus, when at such a gathering as this. It would not be polite to sit in silence, and when one does not have very much to say, one must fall back on banalities.”

“Oh, Miss Hawkins, I have a great deal to say to you.”

“Oh, Mr. Stanhope, I have no wish to hear anything you have to say to me.”

Phoebe had never spoken a greater untruth.

And he knew it, by God he knew it. Her heart was in her eyes, she couldn't deceive him. Damn this room, damn this company, would she never give him a chance to talk to her alone? When he had got back to Martindale House, and heard that Sir Henry and Lady Martindale were dining at Pemberley, he hoped that it might be a large party, one where he could draw Phoebe to one side, and finally have the conversation with her that he so wanted to have. But this was too small, too intimate a gathering for him to be able to take her aside unnoticed, and there was his sister already turning curious eyes to their side of the room.

“I think we should make at least a pretence of playing,” he said, shaking the dice. He spilled the dice out on to the board, and made his move. “You may have a turn now, and take one of my pieces.”

She did as she was told, mechanically, unaware of what her fingers were doing.

“You lie when you say you do not want to hear what I have to say. Yet you have a reputation for honesty. Perhaps, by being less than honest with yourself, you are learning to be less than honest with others. A pity; honesty is a quality I admire in anyone, and especially in a woman.”

“Since I neither seek nor want your admiration, it is of no consequence to me what you think of my or anyone else's honesty,” she flashed back.

Phoebe turned her head away, not wishing to look at him, and saw George Warren, who had come unnoticed into the room, standing and regarding them with a supercilious and unpleasant smile. Arthur Stanhope noticed him and the sneering look, and frowned. What the devil was Warren doing here? He had no time for the man; he distrusted him, disliked him. And from what he'd heard, there was no love lost between Warren and any of the Darcys. Yet here he was, lounging into the room, looking as though he belonged at Pemberley. Ah, that was it, he had charmed Lady Redburn, that was why he was here. She cared nothing for a man's morals as long as he wore a well-fitting coat and had a virile air to him. Well, she was welcome to him, but he still didn't like the way the fellow was looking at Phoebe.

A suspicion leapt into his mind. No, surely not. Yet someone had sent those abominable rumours floating around town, rumours that had reached his mother's ears, but not, he felt sure, Phoebe's, but which he felt equally sure would be passed on to her before long. Some so-called friend would say she felt it was her duty to tell Phoebe what people were saying about her; it was odd how a sense of duty always impelled its possessor to impart unpleasant news, never to pass on a compliment or overheard words of praise.

And who was that fellow standing behind Warren? He didn't like the look of him at all. Good heavens, it was a clergyman. Come to that, where was Henry? He could see his sister's eyes fixed on the door, an anxious look in them. Who else was here? It looked to him a very dull party: Warren, the cleric, Lady Maria with her coarse tongue and abrupt ways, Miss Bingley, seated at the handsome grand pianoforte, and the insufferable Lady Redburn. Poor Phoebe. Not a set of people he would choose to spend any time with,
with the exception of his sister and Mrs. Wellesley, who was a woman he liked and admired. Wasn't she some connection of Phoebe's?

He winked at Kitty, hoping to see her smile, but it was a wan smile that she gave him in return. Drat Sir Henry. He would have to do something about the man, he couldn't stand by and see Kitty dwindle into a shadow of her former self. He had seen too many women go that way, and Kitty wasn't going to be one of them, not if he could help it.

Warren came sauntering over to where he and Phoebe were sitting. He looked down at the backgammon board, a knowing smile on his face. “It is a very interesting game you appear to be having, I never saw such poor play. Lost your touch, have you, Stanhope? Do you have things on your mind other than this game?”

Arthur Stanhope closed the backgammon board with a snap. “Well, Warren, what brings you to Derbyshire? Rusticating? Settling-up day too much for you?”

An angry flash spread over Warren's dark countenance. “It's none of your business why I should be in Derbyshire. I might ask the same question of you.”

“You might, and I would reply, with perfect civility, that I am visiting my sister and her husband.”

“Thus displaying an unusual amount of family feeling,” said Warren. “Are you often in Derbyshire?”

“As often as I want to be,” came the cool reply.

While the men were talking, Phoebe slid out of her chair and went over to the piano. She nudged at Louisa to move along, and sat down on the long piano stool beside her, reaching out to turn the page for her. Lady Redburn, noticing this, called out to Phoebe to sing for them. “You have had a good master these last two years, so your mother informed me, and
your singing was always better than your playing; pray, let us see what progress you have made.”

Phoebe shot her great-aunt a look of pure hatred, which made Arthur Stanhope smile. It was impossible for her to refuse such a request, however, and after shuffling through some of the music on top of the instrument, she placed a score in front of Louisa, and looked through the pages until she came to the song she wanted. It was a lyrical ballad, a haunting melody, a song penned in Elizabethan days of love won and lost. Her voice, and the feeling she put into the words, made Stanhope's heart stand still.

There was a moment's silence when she finished the song, and then Mrs. Wellesley clapped her hands in appreciative applause. “My dear, I had no idea you had such a good voice. It is not unlike that of your cousin Alethea.”

Phoebe laughed. “Oh, Mrs. Wellesley, you cannot compare me to Alethea, who has such a remarkable voice. But I thank you for the compliment.”

At the general request of the company, she sang two or three more songs, and Stanhope noticed that as she became absorbed in the music, the tension which had been evident in her posture and face left her.

He hadn't noticed Hugh Drummond come into the room, and he looked up to find his friend standing beside him. He got to his feet, and shook Drummond warmly by the hand, and clapped him on the shoulder. “What a pleasant surprise. I did not know you were among the guests this evening.”

“It came as rather a surprise to me,” Hugh Drummond said dryly, with a quick look at Lady Redburn.

“Aha, you are having trouble in that direction, I can imagine how irksome you must find it.”

Hugh Drummond smiled and shook his head.

“You prefer not to discuss your hostess's ways while she is in the room. You are quite right, of course,” said Stanhope. He noticed that his friend's eyes were drifting over to where the two girls were sitting at the piano. He stiffened. Which of the two was he looking at like that? Not Phoebe, surely, although how could anyone look at Miss Bingley, when next to her was a Phoebe? He watched Hugh; there was both warmth and a kind of despair in his eyes. Louisa Bingley; yes, it was Miss Bingley.

“We were saying, Mr. Stanhope, that Derbyshire appears to have a sudden influx of visitors. Here is Pemberley opened up, and Mr. Warren visiting at Lambton, and now you are back in the county. How do you account for it?”

Lady Maria's voice was gently mocking, and Arthur Stanhope had the uneasy feeling that she was well aware of why he might be back in Derbyshire. He adopted a light tone of easy amusement. “Surely, the delights of Derbyshire are too well-known for it to be a surprise that you should have so many visitors.” He knew Lady Maria to be a formidable correspondent, and had no doubt that some of the rumours flying around London, imparted to him by his mother, would have come to her notice. He would dearly love to know what or who was the origin of the rumours. Phoebe's father? It seemed unlikely, Sir Giles had considered it imperative that Phoebe's name not be linked in any way with his.

Lady Redburn was setting up a four to play whist, a game she loved. The vicar, Lady Maria, and Mrs. Wellesley were soon seated at the table while the cards were laid out. Warren, still with a mocking expression on his damned face, sat himself beside Kitty, and was clearly setting out to make himself agreeable. Arthur Stanhope wished he could get Phoebe to himself, but knew it would look too particular, and in any case,
he suspected that she would resist any such attempt on his part to get her alone. So, with a last glance at the piano, he rose and strolled towards the door. Hugh Drummond looked up questioningly. “Just slipping out for a smoke,” Stanhope said in a low voice. In fact, his intention was to find out where the devil Sir Henry had got to. An intention which cost him very little effort, since as he entered the hall, Sir Henry was coming in from outside. He had a relieved look on his face, which annoyed Arthur Stanhope.

Sir Henry's gaze dropped under Stanhope's grim expression. “Just going in to join the ladies,” he said.

“You have been missed.”

Sir Henry gave one of his blustering laughs. “I do not expect so.” He went into the drawing-room, closing the door behind him. While Arthur Stanhope hesitated, reluctant to return to the drawing-room himself, another figure came sliding into the front door and, seeing him, gave a considerable start. A hand flew to her mouth.

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