The newly married Mr. and Mrs. Darcy visit the Bingleys at Netherfield, but the peace is spoiled by the presence of none other than Caroline Bingley. Short oneshot. COMPLETE.
Elizabeth examined her sister's calm expression for any sign of teasing. To her dismay, she found none. Dappled sunlight shone on Jane's blonde hair, and the fresh air had put roses back in her cheeks despite their mother's protests that a woman in her condition ought not to exert herself.
As she leaned forward to rearrange the cushions that propped Jane up, Elizabeth's book slid off her lap onto the ground.
"Tell me there is a means of escaping that insufferable woman," she implored. "It would be such a great shame to allow her to spoil our family party, now of all times."
The two sisters sat in the gardens at Netherfield, shaded by the branches of an old oak. A muslin sheet spread on the lawn protected their dresses and the needlework at Jane's knee, and a low table held a tray of sweetmeats. Her portion sat untouched, even though she'd recently felt the oddest cravings for quince jam and cucumber salad. She gathered her fine-knit shawl more closely about her shoulders.
"I am afraid it cannot be avoided, Lizzy, her visit has been planned for weeks. Caroline is family, and it is not for Charles to refuse his own sister."
"His sister!" Elizabeth threw up her hands in mock horror, nearly upsetting a plate of tea-cakes. "I could sooner believe her the relation of anyone but your amiable husband. Caroline Bingley has all the smugness of a cat and the deceit of a snake in the grass."
Jane set down her sewing with a tiny shake of her head and touched the swell of her belly, nearly hidden beneath her loose morning gown.
"But surely you must forgive even the worst of her slights after all that has happened. Caroline was always very loyal in her affections, even if they were... misplaced from time to time. Perhaps she is the kind of relation who will improve upon further acquaintance now that we are all to be family."
"You are far too forgiving," began Elizabeth, "Miss Bingley sought to part you from her brother with most presumptuous determination--"
"Just as she sought to match herself with your Mr. Darcy, which you find even less forgiveable?" asked Jane with a gentle, sidelong glance.
Elizabeth laughed, retrieving her errant book and marking her place with a blade of grass.
"Ah, Jane, I am revealed. There can be no secrets from you, not even those I keep from myself. But truly, any resentment of her was formed long before I had even the vaguest notions of... Well. Nothing more need be said of that."
Idly nibbling on a bit of candied ginger, she sighed in resignation.
"Mark my words, Caroline is a cat who will not have changed her stripes. No doubt she mourned the loss of a certain potential suitor most keenly-- and she will take every opportunity to ensure I feel her resentment in turn. And poor Darcy! I dread what she will say to him if she finds him alone. I wonder at you, inviting us to Netherfield at such a time when..."
Her words trailed off and she and fixed her sister with a narrow look. "Jane."
Jane suddenly developed a keen interest in her sewing once more, bending her fair head over the neat stitches.
"If Caroline wrote you weeks ago, you would have known of it when you invited us. You knew Darcy and I would be here when she arrived."
Her sister said nothing, but a faint blush suffused Jane's cheekbones.
"You have done it on purpose," exclaimed Elizabeth, "I would never have believed it if I had not seen it with my own eyes. Netherfield a showcase of matrimonial bliss and Caroline Bingley forced to sit through an entire week of it." she muffled her laughter. "Happy thought, indeed."
Her sister allowed herself a glimmer of a guilt-ridden smile. "You do not blame me, Lizzy? It is only that... Perhaps it is a little easier to be generous with an old adversary if one's fortunes are not quite so pitiable as they once seemed..."
Elizabeth sat back, rumpling the skirt of her gown as she smiled at her sister.
"They do say that revenge is a dish best served cold."
"My dear Jane, you look quite exhausted. Pray, let your sister fetch the tea things and sit closer to the fire. It simply would not do to fall ill again, a delicate creature like yourself."
The celebrated Miss Bingley managed to look down the length of her nose while seated, no mean feat even for a woman of her height. Despite the relaxed air of the sitting room, her dress was stiff and formal, the feather in her hair gracefully sweeping the air as she nodded. Elizabeth, who already held the tea tray in her hands, gave her sister a meaningful glance over Caroline's elegantly coiffed head.
"Sit and rest, Jane. I am sure you and Miss Bingley have much to discuss."
Privately, Elizabeth was forced to agree with their guest's seeming concern. Jane did look pale, although the cause was naught to do with being sickly and everything to do with one Caroline Bingley. Her unremitting requests and artless observations had not ceased since the moment she set foot in Netherfield Park the day before.
Jane seated herself across from her guest. "You are kind to concern yourself, Caroline. I assure you I am well... perhaps only a little tired."
Miss Bingley sipped her tea, her pointed scrutiny taking in details of the sisters' dresses, the room and the tea service in one long sweep. Under it, Jane could not help but feel that her simple muslin was unforgiveably drab, the new wallpaper too bright, and the teaspoons lacking proper polish.
Discreetly, she reached up to rub her temple, where a dull ache began to throb in time to the cultured and melodic cadence of Miss Bingley's voice.
"I do not doubt it in the least. Such circles beneath your eyes! Why, last night at dinner I was saying to Charles that I should not have known you."
"I am certain Mr. Bingley had no complaint." said Elizabeth, setting down the tray with a little more force than necessary.
"Indeed not." Miss Bingley exlaimed with a low chuckle, "But men never notice these things, do they? Not immediately, of course. You must rest more often Jane, and care for your complexion before it is spoiled irrevocably. Do tell me, will my brother and Mr. Darcy be joining us?"
"I believe not," said Jane, faint with relief at the change of subject. "They had planned to ride this afternoon and will be back late this evening."
"A pity. I had hoped to ask Mr. Darcy about his sister, for I long to hear how dearest Georgiana fares. You quite monopolized him at dinner," she said with a severe nod at Elizabeth, "And it is scandalous for a man to spend the entire evening in conversation with his own wife."
"I believe he did speak a little to others present." said the much-maligned wife dryly.
Caroline sipped delicately at her cup of tea. "I am sure you are correct, after all. Our Mr. Darcy has always been the consummate gentleman."
And so he is still, thought Elizabeth rebelliously, But he was never your Mr. Darcy.
Aloud, she only said, "And how are Mr. and Mrs. Hurst? Mr. Bingley mentioned you were recently staying with them in London."
"Mrs. Hurst wrote to tell me they would not be coming to Netherfield for some time," said Jane, shaking her head at the offered cup of tea. Even its subtle perfume alone made her feel dizzy. "Is she well?"
"Quite well, thank you. I am privileged with a certain confidence that is not yet known... But here, I suppose we are all family now." said Miss Bingley with a rather pained sigh. "My sister and her husband are soon to expect an addition to their family, and cannot travel from town."
"A baby!" exclaimed Jane happily, putting a hand on her own stomach, "Then there will be a pair of cousins. How soon?"
Miss Bingley gave an elegant shrug. "I am afraid I am not well acquainted in such homely matters. Not long, I should think. Louisa is dreadfully wroth that all this season's ballgowns had to be let out. It quite spoils the line."
Jane would not have her spirits quenched. "How delighted they must be."
"Oh, I suppose they are." Miss Bingley set down her tea, "But it is of far greater important in your case, Jane. Mr. Hurst has no estate to pass on to his heir, not like dear Charles. We were all so relieved when you wrote us of your news last month."
Blushing, Jane toyed with her linen napkin, folding and refolding it in her lap. "We are blessed." she murmured, "Mr. Bingley and I are... quite content."
But Caroline had turned her attention to the other sister, her lips pursed in a critical line.
"And you, Eliza? Married a year or more and still...?"
If Elizabeth had a reaction to the woman's arch condescension, she hid it well behind her teacup.
"To every thing there is a season," she quoted mildly. "Until then, I can content myself with Jane and Mr. Bingley's good fortune."
"Very magnanimous of you," allowed Miss Bingley, "But I pray that yours will be the happy news to share soon. Pemberley is such an old and honorable estate, you know. Darcy will want a son to aid him in looking after it, lest he run himself ragged. It would be a shame to fail your duty and disappoint him. I do believe it would break his heart."
Jane glanced at her sister anxiously, but Elizabeth only smiled.
"Pray do not concern yourself over Pemberley, Miss Bingley. Mr. Darcy has a very capable steward to oversee the day to day tasks, for he much prefers to spend his time elsewhere. But I am remiss in my duties. May I offer you some refreshment?"
"Mmm, quite. No, thank you." Caroline waved away the offered plate of cakes, eyeing Jane's muslin once more, "I am abstaining from anything with cream until Lord Hastings' ball next month. The demands of fashion are far more rigorous in town than they are here in the country. You are so fortunate, my dear."
Jane smiled weakly. "We do not keep very formal parties here."
"Unfortunately not," said Elizabeth, ignoring Jane's look of reluctant merriment and alarm.
Her eyes, which had once been called fine, were wide and innocent gazing over the edge of her teacup.
"No doubt you miss the varied society of London, Miss Bingley. I wonder then that your visit to Netherfield so long requires your absence from it."
Even the witty and articulate Miss Bingley had nothing to say in reply.
"That was wicked, indeed," said Darcy as he helped his wife unfasten the back of her evening gown. "I should like to have been there."
The tender ritual began when they were married, for Darcy did not like to have anyone in their private chambers after the evening fire had been lit. It was his custom to sit by the fire and watch as Elizabeth unpinned her long, dark hair, brushing it out and braiding it in preparation for bed.
By firelight, his wife had never looked more lovely, Darcy believed. And a few fortnights ago back in their rooms at Pemberley, he'd had cause to offer fervent thanks for both the bright flames and well-guarded privacy...
Lost in thought, his fingers fumbled briefly, but he recovered.
Mr. Darcy had grown quite accomplished at the humble task of undoing buttons, and it only took him twice the amount of time that the maid required to finish the job.
"You wouldn't have liked it at all," said Elizabeth with a wry laugh, "As you well know. You and Mr. Bingley had such a long ride this afternoon that we feared you would not make it back in time to dress for dinner. Stray dogs and errant tenants, indeed! Jane and I were not fooled for an instant."
Darcy met his wife's accusing gaze in the mirror. While his tone was solemn, his eyes reflected hidden amusement.
"It was most unfortunate, but on occasion the pursuit of fresh air and exercise takes one away from one's guests and acquaintances."
"Most unfortunate," echoed his wife, slipping out of her gown. "Yet I imagine there is great risk of such a circumstance occurring tomorrow."
Darcy folded the dress neatly, draping it over the back of the chair.
"And possibly the day after," he admitted, "Until Miss Bingley returns to London."
Standing in her linen shift before the fire, Elizabeth stretched, kneading her fists into the small of her aching back. The light through the sheer material silhouetted what her loosely cut gown had so ably hidden, even from the most prying eye. Slipping his arms around her waist to cradle the lush curve of her belly, Darcy kissed the nape of her neck.
"When shall we tell your family?"
"Soon," Elizabeth smiled, reaching up to thread her fingers through his hair, "I will tell Jane first, then write to Georgiana and my mother. But for now, let us be selfish and keep it all to ourselves for just a little while longer."
Her husband agreed, as he could deny her nothing. Tenderly tucking a stray strand of hair back into its braid, he led her to bed. Though he might find yet more excuses to absent himself from other company tomorrow, there were hours to go before dawn and a night to spend in reminding his wife that she was never truly far from his thoughts.
I am content, thought Elizabeth drowsily, her head tucked in the warm crook of her husband's arm. Darcy slept, and she laid her hand on his chest to feel the rise and fall of his even breathing. She blew gently on his cheek to brush away the loose curls, rubbed the back of her wrist against a spot on his chin where he'd forgotten to shave. Only the deepest love could ever induce me into matrimony...
And so it had.
Elizabeth wanted for nothing, and now her happiness was complete-- or would be, she thought with a mischievous shake of her head, as soon as the incorrigible Miss Bingley was informed of the long-awaited happy news.
Caroline may have been right about one thing, thought Elizabeth. A silent laugh rose from her lips.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a married man in possession of a large estate must be in want of an heir...