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A light rain was beginning to fall as Bingley reached his home after delivering Darcy to his and spending an hour or so discussing the afternoon and the changes that they hoped would soon be coming. Darcy was, understandably, more concerned for his fate than Bingley would ever be now that he knew Jane would welcome his addresses. Bingley climbed down from the carriage and, pulling his collar close, hurried into the house.
“The Hursts are here,” Jenkins said as he greeted his employer. “And Miss Clark. They are having tea in the drawing room with Miss Bingley, sir.”
Bingley thanked him for the information and then stood for a moment in the corridor pondering what he should do. It would be the polite thing to greet his guests and relations, but he had very little desire to do so. His day had been rather pleasant to this point, and Caroline was guaranteed to put a damper on his mood.
“Colonel Fitzwilliam called earlier.” Jenkins’ voice penetrated Bingley’s deliberation.
“Will he be returning?” Perhaps if he was, it could be an excuse to see Caroline for a very brief amount of time without raising her suspicion that he was put out with her — which he was.
“No, sir. He grumbled something about his mother forcing him to attend a soiree and asked if I would allow him to leave you a message. The missive is on your desk as he requested.” The butler gave Bingley a significant look and lowered his voice. “He did not wish for the information to be seen by any but you.”
Bingley smiled. “Very good. Then, I suppose I shall have to attend to that before I greet my sister?”
His butler shook his head. “I should think it would be better to greet your guests for a few moments before begging off to attend to duty. Your name has been bandied about a good deal.”
Bingley cocked his head to the right and studied his butler. “My sisters are scheming?”
Jenkins’ brows lifted and lowered, nothing else on his person or in his expression shifted, but it was enough of an answer for Bingley.
Again the butler’s brows gave his acknowledgment.
Bingley sighed. “Very well, I shall make my appearance and be gone as quickly as I can be. See that some tea finds its way to my study and ensure there is a bit of brandy to add to it.”
Jenkins bowed and went to do as instructed.
“Blast,” Bingley muttered as he straightened his sleeves and prepared to enter the drawing room. Caroline would never be satisfied until she had directed every last morsel of his life. First, she kept him from returning to Hertfordshire with suggestions that Miss Bennet did not like him — a fact which Miss Bennet had been made perfectly clear was false with her admission that he should not have been persuaded away from Netherfield.
Then, Caroline had treated a friend, as she had insisted Miss Bennet was, in such a contemptible fashion. Most likely, it had been in an attempt to embitter Miss Bennet against him in case they should ever chance to meet.
As he pondered his sister’s behaviour, he felt his displeasure with her growing to the point it had been last night when her perfidy had been discovered. Drawing a deep breath, he pushed the door to the room open. Caroline might think she was in control of how his future would unfold, but she was not. And, if she were not careful, she would also not be in control of her own destiny, for he would make certain she was well-settled in some gentleman’s home as quick as could be just as Mr. Gardiner had suggested.
“Charles!” Caroline cried in delight as he entered. “We had begun to despair of seeing you at all.”
Bingley placed a kiss on the hand she held out to him and then greeted Louisa and Hurst before waiting to be introduced to Caroline’s friend, who had begun fidgeting with her skirt and moistened her lips when he entered.
“Have you met Miss Clark?” Caroline asked. “We spend at least a portion of every soiree in each other’s company, but I cannot remember if you have been properly introduced.”
Bingley narrowed his eyes and scrutinised his sister’s friend with a slight scowl on his lips. It was rude perhaps, but the lady was wearing a very cat-like expression and looking at him as if he were a bowl of cream. “No, I do not believe we have been introduced. Welcome,” he finally said. There were several other things that he wished to say, but he clamped his mouth shut and kept his speculations about her standing and wealth to himself. He knew his sister did not befriend anyone who was anything less than a gentleman’s daughter with a sizable fortune. He cursed himself silently. Such a fact should have alerted him to his sister’s insincerity toward Miss Bennet. For though Jane was a gentleman’s daughter, she was not wealthy and held no sway in the ton.
“Miss Clark is attending the Johnson’s musicale tonight just as we are,” Caroline continued.
“The Johnson’s musicale?” Bingley repeated. “Are you attending with Hurst and Louisa?”
“And you.” Caroline laughed lightly.
Bingley shook his head. “I do not remember accepting any invitation.”
“Oh, but you did. Last week. I asked if I could attend, and you thought it would be an excellent thing.” Caroline explained.
Bingley shifted from one foot to another. “And I suppose it is, as long as you go with Hurst and not me.”
“But I accepted for both of us. Mrs. Johnson and Marietta will be exceedingly disappointed if you do not attend.”
Bingley shrugged. Marietta Johnson was another of Caroline’s friends whom his sister kept mentioning on a regular basis. Apparently, her father’s estate was old enough, and Miss Johnson’s dowry was large enough for him to consider her as a possible wife. “Tell them I have a sore throat or a headache or some such thing.”
“I have been out all day and have business that requires my attention and am in no mood to sit about and listen to song after song.” He turned to Hurst. “You are escorting Louisa to this musicale, are you not?”
Hurst shrugged and nodded. “It seems I am.”
“There you are, Caroline. You may go and see and be seen as you wish, and I can have a quiet night with my ledgers.”
Caroline had crossed her arms and was pouting while Miss Clark was looking curiously between the two of them.
Bingley grimaced. He had gone too far in being disagreeable it seemed.
“I say, you have become a right stodgy old bore,” Caroline grumbled.
“Yes, well, the delights of town do not enthrall me as much as you, and you know my dislike of sitting for hours.”
“Yet you will sit behind your desk all night?”
He shook his head. “No, I shall pace a fair bit between bouts of sitting.”
“My brother does not favour being idle either,” Miss Clark interjected. “He often stands along the wall when he attends musicales with me. You could stand with him.”
“An excellent idea!” Caroline cried.
Yes, Bingley thought to himself, that would set a few tongues to wagging if Miss Clark were to attend a soiree with Caroline while he stood along the wall and conversed with the lady’s brother. Every interested wag would have them at the church’s door before the fourth piece of music had ended.
“And who will tend to my business whilst I stand about looking foolish?”
“You will not look foolish,” Caroline said with a laugh. “You will be amiable and charming as you always are. You will not lack for entertainment.”
“I do not wish for entertainment.”
“Please?” Caroline begged. “You have not attended a soiree in over a week. People are beginning to talk.”
Bingley tipped his head. “About what?”
Caroline bit her lip and ducked her head as she stole a secret look at her friend. “That you have been jilted and are wallowing in heartbreak.”
Bingley crossed his arms. “And by being seen at a function with one of your friends on my arm will put these rumors to rest?” His tone did not disguise his disbelief.
“Of course.” Caroline blinked wide eyes at him. “You must be seen in the company of someone if you wish for the rumors to stop.”
“Precisely why should I care about these rumors?”
“A man who has been jilted for who knows what reason the gossips create will find it hard to secure a good match.”
Bingley chuckled. “Not if he has my fortune. Now, if you will excuse me, I have business that needs my attention.” He turned and hurried to his study. The tea he had requested and a small glass of brandy were on his desk. He eased himself into his chair and pulled the missive addressed to him out from under the corner of the tea tray.
Letter sent. Should have a response within the week.
Mother insists I attend the Johnson’s musicale tonight. Your sister said you were attending. Johnson’s library is good for escaping the ordeal. Curious to hear about your mission. Bring Darcy.
Bingley sighed, took out his pen, and scratched a note to Darcy on the paper below Richard’s message. Then, after folding, addressing, and sealing it, he rang for Jenkins to have it delivered.
He shook his head as he stood in front of his desk and poured a healthy dose of the brandy into his tea before finishing what remained in the glass. Caroline would be far too pleased to have him capitulate to her demands so soon after having refused. He rounded his desk and sank into his chair once again. There was no need to tell her until dinner. He would savour this cup of tea, push around a few books, and consider his happy future until then.