Welcome to a new Thursday Three Hundred story! This story begins in London after Jane has called on Bingley’s sisters and Darcy has heard about it. Now, how does one deal with a sister who has interfered with her brother’s happiness? And how does a gentleman convince the woman he has discovered he can’t live without to give him a second chance? You’ll have to read Confounding Caroline to find out.[Remember, as with all Thursday Three Hundred stories, these posts are pieces of a work in progress. There will be errors. Each post will be about one thousand words in length and not just three hundred.]
Fitzwilliam Darcy handed his coat and beaver to Bingley’s butler. “I had hoped you would be home, but I did not expect it,” he said in greeting to his friend, who leaned nonchalantly against the door to the sitting room he had no doubt just exited since the lamps were still lit. “Reading?” Darcy asked with some surprise as he took note of the book in Bingley’s hand.
Bingley shrugged. “I do read on occasion.”
“I would not wish to keep you from your amusements.” Darcy smirked slightly. If he knew his friend, Bingley would likely not mind the disruption. Bingley preferred people to books.
Bingley shook his head and chuckled. “Come, my study would be more comfortable than the sitting room, and less likely to be invaded by females should Caroline return early.”
“I am surprised you did not accompany her to the Graham’s soiree,” Darcy said, following Bingley into the study.
“I have had my fill of ferrying her around only to have her turn up her pert little nose at every gentleman she meets, so I sent her with Louisa and Hurst.” He tucked his book away on a shelf behind his desk, and then opening the door on the right side of his desk, he pulled out a bottle of amber coloured liquid and two glasses. “I find I tire of society. It is always the same. The same ladies in different dresses with different coloured hair and hats, but the same gossip, the same weather, the same pleasantries. It’s just the so much of the same, over and over and over and over.” He handed a glass to Darcy and smiled. “Besides, if I am not mistaken, I will not be the only one who will enjoy this Caroline-free evening.”
Darcy chuckled “The quiet is agreeable to me, but you have never enjoyed silence as much as I.” There was something different about Bingley the last few weeks. He did not smile as much as was his usual wont, and he seemed to tuck himself away in his study more and more. Darcy swirled the liquid in his glass and threw one leg over the other. The leather squeaked as he shifted in the chair across from Bingley.
Bingley sighed. “I find I am longing for the country, but Caroline will hear nothing of leaving town when there are so many functions to attend.” He took a draught from his glass. “If I thought she meant to find a husband, trotting her around to the various venues might not be so bothersome, but she is not intent on snaring anyone but you.”
Darcy nodded slowly. Caroline had never been reserved in demonstrating her preference for him over every gentleman she met. “A title and a larger fortune might dissuade her.”
The hint of bitterness in Bingley’s laugh surprised Darcy almost as much as Bingley’s wishing to leave town and avoid society. These were not Bingley actions. They were behaviours that were more likely to be attributed to Darcy rather than his gregarious friend.
“She is as stubborn as a mule,” Bingley muttered, “and almost as bright.”
Darcy’s brows rose. He had heard Bingley complain about Caroline before but never about anything more than her incessant need to purchase fripperies and dresses or the way she nattered on about this person or that person. There was something decidedly wrong with his friend, and Darcy had a sinking feeling that he knew just what it was.
“You surprise me,” Darcy said. “Was it not you who claimed to be happy wherever you were, be it town or country?”
“That was before,” Bingley said over the rim of his glass.
“Before what?” Darcy prodded.
“Before I took an estate.” Bingley shifted in his chair uneasily, studying the painting above the fireplace for a few moments before allowing his attention to return to his friend. He watched Darcy’s foot bounce up and down slightly, and sighed deeply.
Darcy surreptitiously glanced at his friend. He recognized Bingley’s sigh for it was the same groan of uncertainty that had taken up residence in his chest. It was a new and unwelcome feeling, and it was not something he could command away, though he had tried. He had not been able to erase it with busyness or wash it away with drink. There remained only one option. It must be acknowledged. The root of it must be exposed.
“So, is it the estate or the society in Hertfordshire that you miss, my friend?” Darcy’s voice was quiet, and he fixed his eyes on the wall beyond Bingley’s head. A small smile played at his mouth as he contemplated the image that always came to his mind when he thought of Hertfordshire. “Netherfield seems like a fine estate, and the neighbourhood was not without its enchantments.” He sipped his drink and then swirled it again, watching the liquid swirl up the sides of the glass.
“I thought you loathed the inhabitants of Hertfordshire.” Bingley’s voice was filled with incredulity. “Is that not why you and my sisters were so hasty in joining me in town ─ the people are beneath us, there is no society worth keeping, that sort of thing?
Again Darcy’s brows rose at the rancor in Bingley’s voice. He sighed heavily, and colour crept up his cheeks. This would not be a pleasant discussion, but it was a necessary one. “I did not loathe all of the inhabitants. Actually, I found some of them to be quite delightful, so delightful, in fact, that leaving seemed safer than staying.” He rose and walked to the window. Admitting his folly and weakness would be easier if he were able to move about and not have to face the friend he had, he suspected, unknowingly harmed.
Bingley drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair and raised a brow in anticipation of an expected explanation.
“She is here in town.” Darcy placed his empty glass on a side table and allowed his eyes to remain on it rather than look at his friend.
“Who is here in town?”
Darcy drew a deep breath and spared Bingley only a glance before returning his gaze to his glass. “Miss Bennet.”