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The library was not wholly unoccupied. Mr. Johnson gave the young gentlemen a smile and a nod as they entered.
“Your mother will be displeased if you spend the whole of your time in here,” he said to Richard.
Richard allowed it to be so but assured the gentleman that they were only attempting to find a quiet spot to have a bit of a tête-à-tête and would not be overly long.
Mr. Johnson chuckled as if he knew very well that the three men would be in his library as long as they thought they could stay. “I have a daughter,” he said. “This room could be yours at every function my wife holds.”
“It nearly always is now,” Richard returned with a grin. “The desk is a very nice addition.”
Mr. Johnson shook his head. “Fitzwilliam, why do you attend if you are only going to hie off to the library.”
“My mother,” Richard replied as he took a seat in a group of chairs as far removed from the door as the room would allow.
“I know my Marietta is not the incomparable of the season, but she is not without her charms,” he tried again.
“She is lovely,” Richard said.
“And well dowered,” Mr. Johnson interjected.
“Indeed,” Richard agreed. “However, these two have their hearts set elsewhere, and I, no matter what my mother might say, am bound to my commission and as such am not at present looking for a wife.”
“Very well,” Mr. Johnson replied with a smile. “I should like to know more about the ladies that have turned your friends’ heads, but I will refrain. Unless…”
Richard chuckled. “We are not at liberty at this time to divulge any particulars, sir. The campaign has only begun, and we dare not rouse too many suspicions before the plan of attack is set in motion.”
“Very well, men, carry on.” Mr. Johnson gave a jaunty salute and returned his attention to his book. “I am only allowed to remain here until the intermission,” he added, “and I will direct your mother here if she inquires after you, Fitzwilliam.”
Understood, and thank you, sir,” Richard replied. He and Mr. Johnson had held many discussions in this room during soirees. Mr. Johnson was a reasonable man, and if his daughter were not so much like her mother and more like her father, Richard might have considered her just to gain a man like Mr. Johnson as a father-in-law. They got on quite well together.
“Your mission was successful?” Richard asked as he turned his attention to Bingley and Darcy.
Bingley smiled broadly. “Extremely. I have both Miss Bennet’s and her uncle’s permission to continue calling on her.”
“Excellent! And Darcy?”
“Mrs. Gardiner is going to attempt to persuade Miss Elizabeth to come for a visit.”
“So until then, we wait on that front,” Richard muttered.
“Tell me about the aunt and uncle,” Richard said, settling back in his chair and preparing to listen to a full account of everything Bingley and Darcy had observed, and he was not to be disappointed. Bingley spoke highly of everything as Richard knew he would. Bingley was easily pleased when there was no reason not to be, and from everything that his cousin added, there appeared to be nothing that would be displeasing.
“And you told him the whole story regarding Wickham?” Richard asked in surprise.
Darcy nodded. “He can be trusted.”
“You are certain?” Richard questioned.
“Very well. I will trust your judgment.”
“Come meet him,” Darcy offered. “I know you will agree.” He smirked. “It would be good to have you on my side when I have to defend a tradesman to your father.”
Richard chuckled. “You’ll have little trouble with Father. Aunt Catherine, on the other hand…” He paused and raised his hand in acknowledgment of Mr. Johnson’s leaving. “We will have to prepare ourselves for her, eventually, when you are finally successful, that is.”
Darcy knew it was true. “As soon as I am successful, I will write to her and inform her of how things stand.”
“And you expect her to just accept your words?”
No, Darcy did not expect anything of the kind. He expected a vocal protest either by post or in person. Lady Catherine was never one to be put off easily about the smallest thing, and since the refusal to marry her daughter and to marry, instead, a lady with an uncle in trade would be tantamount to a call to arms for Lady Catherine.
“Perhaps,” Bingley suggested, “you could be married before you wrote to her.”
This caused both Darcy and Richard to chuckle and admit that such a plan might indeed be best. A few suggestions — both practical ones and fanciful ones — as to how it might be accomplished were then passed around the group for a time until the library door opened slightly and the three fell silent.
“Your mother?” Darcy whispered to Richard as he could clearly hear that the voice filtering in from the hall was that of a lady.
“Perhaps,” he returned but then shook his head as he heard giggling. “Mother rarely giggles,” he whispered.
“They are either in here, or the garden,” a distinctly familiar voice said from outside the half-opened door.
Bingley groaned. “It is worse than your mother. That is Caroline.” He rose. “It would be best if we were all in a more populated area if we are to be accosted by her and her friend.”
Richard’s brows rose. “You do not trust them?”
“If you had seen the way Miss Clark licked her lips and nearly purred in my drawing room when I entered today, you would not trust them either. My sister is scheming.”
Darcy and Richard joined Bingley in crossing the room to the door.
“Just stumble on the carpet or catch your toe on the heel of your other slipper. He will not let you fall, and then, when you are in his arms, I will make sure that someone sees it or hears about it.”
Bingley stood with the doorknob within arm’s length of him and could clearly hear his sister’s instructions. He motioned for Richard to open the door. “Open it quickly. Just do not catch her if she falls,” he hissed.
And fall Caroline did. Right at her brother’s feet and with a rather loud plop when Richard yanked the door open.
“Caroline!” Bingley cried in surprise, extending a hand to help her to her feet. “How many times have you been told not to be listening at doors?”
Caroline allowed him to help her from the floor. Her cheeks burned a brilliant red. “I was not listening at the door. I was looking for you.”
“At least, you are somewhat honest. However, you have left out the part that you were scheming. You should know that if Miss Clark or any of your other friends flings herself at me, I will allow them to fall just as you did, and I will not marry her, no matter what it does to either her reputation or mine. I will not be trapped, Caroline.” He gave a small bow and began to move around his fuming sister and her stunned friend.
“You must forget her,” Caroline whispered as her brother brushed past her.
Bingley stopped mid-stride. “I shall only forget her when my heart stops beating.”
“Charles, do be reasonable. She was a pretty plaything. Someone to pass the time. She is not who you need. You will soon come to know I am right.” Caroline shrugged under her brother’s glare as if not affected by it in the least. “And I am certain I can find the perfect lady for you.”
“No,” Bingley snapped. “You will not find any lady for me. You will not even suggest any lady to me. If I have not found what I wish within a month’s time, I am returning to Netherfield and attempting to persuade the lady who holds my heart to have me.”
“You cannot,” Caroline cried, her eyes darting to Darcy.
Darcy shrugged. “He seems determined,” he said nonchalantly. He knew it was not the reply Caroline expected. She likely expected him to support her in her claims that Miss Bennet was not a wise choice. However, having come to understand what it was to have one’s heart completely engaged by a lady and to not wish for any other, he would not support any scheme of hers to interfere between Bingley and Miss Bennet. In fact, he would do all he could to ensure that nothing came between them.
Caroline gasped. “I will not allow it!”
“You cannot stop me,” Bingley growled.
“I believe I can,” Caroline replied with a flick of her head.
“Hurst will see you home. We are through. Darcy, if you do not mind, I should very much appreciate a ride home.”
“Certainly. Richard, if you wish to join us, you may.”
Richard nodded. “As soon as I find my mother and tell her I am leaving.”
“I will wait ten minutes,” Darcy said before turning to hurry after Bingley.
Richard waved his acceptance, then turned to Caroline and Miss Clark. “Ladies, I do hope your evening improves,” he said with a bow as he took his leave.