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“Was it an unpardonable error?” Bingley’s heart thumped wildly, and his palms became moist while drawing a breath became something about which he needed to think. How he would survive a negative response without making a complete cake of himself, he was uncertain.
Jane’s cheeks grew rosy, and she took a slow sip from her cup. Then, as she returned her cup to her saucer with only a small clatter, she answered. “It is only unpardonable if you intentions in calling today are less than sincere or if you should be so easily persuaded once again.”
“I promise my intentions are both sincere and unwavering,” Bingley replied, passing his cup to Darcy. “I fear I will drop this if I must hold it any longer.” He rubbed his hands on his breeches. “If you will allow me, Miss Bennet, I will request an interview with your uncle to gain his blessing in your father’s stead to court you. I know this is not exactly the most fitting setting for such a discussion. I should have asked to speak to you in private. However, I came today determined to discover if I had any hope of winning you, and I am willing to openly suffer any humiliation my offer may bring.” He smiled sheepishly. “Although I would be lying if I said I did not hope to avoid the humiliation of rejection.”
“You may speak to my uncle,” Jane said with a smile.
Bingley grasped Jane’s hand which was not holding her cup and lifting it, kissed it. “Thank you,” he whispered, returning her smile.
“My husband will not be home for many hours,” Mrs. Gardiner said. “He is to dine with an associate this evening.”
“Tomorrow would be soon enough,” Bingley replied. “Unless it would not be too offensive for me to stop at his place of business today.”
Mrs. Gardiner chuckled. “You do not do things by halves, do you, Mr. Bingley?”
“Not when it is of such importance as this,” Bingley replied with a smile. “Now if you were to ask me to muck out the stables, I might not be as eager.”
“I shall ask you to do no such thing.” Mrs. Gardiner’s left brow rose with an impertinence that reminded Darcy once again of Elizabeth. “However, there are four children in the nursery, and I would not be above shuffling one or more of them off on you so that both their nurse and I might have a nice quiet cup of tea and a read.”
Bingley shrugged and settled back in his chair. “I am fond of both children and toys, especially if there might be a tin of biscuits involved.”
“Oh, boys and their biscuits!” Mrs. Gardiner cried. “My youngest son is forever attempting to sneak an extra treat when his nurse’s back is turned.” She chuckled. “He is only two, so though I reprimand, it is forgivable.” She held out a plate of almond cakes to Bingley.
“Mr. Darcy,” she began as Bingley selected two cakes from the plate, causing her to smile. “You are like John,” she said to Bingley before turning back to Darcy. “You said you could not return to Netherfield, and I admit to being curious as to the cause of your reluctance — nay — refusal to return.” She offered him an almond cake and refused to move from her spot until he had taken one. Then, she gathered his cup from the tea tray and returned that to him as well. “I will not have you leave without refreshment,” she said kindly before returning to her seat. “Would I be correct in assuming it had something to do with another one of my nieces?”
Darcy washed down his bite of cake with some tea. “Yes,” he replied simply.
“Were you much attached to Lizzy?” Jane asked, causing Darcy’s eyes to widen in surprise.
The Miss Bennet he had witnessed today in this drawing room clashed with the one he remembered from his time in Hertfordshire. This Miss Bennet was much bolder. However, from the pink that stained her cheeks and the way her eyes did not hold his for long before dropping away, he knew that the effort was not without cost.
“Surprisingly, yes,” he admitted. “Although I did not realize just how much until I returned to town and could not rid myself of her memory.”
“She likes you,” Jane’s voice was no more than a whisper.
“I am sorry to disagree with you, Miss Bennet, but your sister most certainly does not like me,” Darcy returned.
“Oh, no,” Mrs. Gardiner said, “our Lizzy is quite taken with you. She just does not realize it.”
For the first time since his arrival, Darcy saw the woman relax into her chair and take a leisurely sip of her tea rather than the quick ones she had taken thus far.
“You will have to explain that to me,” Darcy said. “I was left with the distinct impression that she did not approve of me any more than I approved of such a connection at that time.”
“How will your family receive her?” Mrs. Gardiner asked.
Darcy shook his head and shrugged. “I do not know, but first –”
“Do you love her?” Mrs. Gardiner interrupted.
Darcy drew a deep breath and released it as he nodded his head. “But I do not see how –”
“Good,” Mrs. Gardiner interrupted again.
It appeared that the lady was determined to be the only one asking questions and directing the conversation, so Darcy leaned back and waited expectantly.
“No more protests, Mr. Darcy?”
The familiar twinkle had returned to Mrs. Gardiner’s eyes, causing the right side of Darcy’s mouth tipped up in a half smile. “You are very much like her.”
Mrs. Gardiner finished the tea in her cup and placed it to the side. “I cannot deny that. However, the fact that you have recognized it, speaks to how much you must admire her to have noticed such a thing. Tell me, because my curiosity must be satisfied; what makes you say that Elizabeth and I are alike?”
Darcy tipped his head. “You would leave your children in the care of Bingley to have a cup of tea and a read. Therefore, I assume you enjoy reading as much as she does.”
With a tip of her head, Mrs. Gardiner accepted his statement as true.
“You are determined and unafraid to speak your mind. You challenged both me and Bingley.”
“One of my faults,” Mrs. Gardiner said with a smile.
“No, I do not find it to be a fault. I prefer directness to prevarication and pandering.” He tipped his head and watched the light dance in the eyes of the woman before him. “Her eyes sparkle and dance just as yours do, and her brow raises in much the same fashion as yours is now.” A smile spread across his face. “And, her lips purse and twitch just like that when she is trying to contain her amusement.”
Mrs. Gardiner clapped her hands in delight. “Oh, you do love her!”
Darcy nodded. “But –” He stopped as Mrs. Gardiner held up a hand.
“She would not dislike you as much as she does if she did not like you.”
Darcy’s brows furrowed. How could dislike equate to like? “I beg your pardon?”
“Do you understand her meaning?” Darcy asked his friend.
“I think I might,” Bingley replied. “The lady doth protest too much, me thinks.”
Darcy’s eyes grew wide. “Shakespeare?”
“I said I read occasionally,” Bingley retorted.
“He has the right of it,” said Mrs. Gardiner, “does he not, Jane?”
Jane nodded. “Oh, indeed. Lizzy avows her dislike far too much for it not to indicate how much she wishes for your good opinion.”
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