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Bingley did not stay to listen to her protests, and he knew there would be many. Caroline liked Louisa, but Hurst was not her favourite person with whom to spend time. But then, again, she did not like spending time with anyone who did not always agree with her, and Hurst did not always agree with anyone. His opinion often shifted with his mood, and his ability to recall what he had said before was inversely proportional to the amount of port that had accompanied a discussion. Caroline found it all very annoying. She had complained of it often enough to her brother, but only once to her sister.
Louisa, though having only married for the sake of a good match, had found she did not despise her husband or his odd ways. In fact, on the one occasion when Caroline had complained about Hurst to her, Louisa had made it clear that she not only respected her husband due to his position, but she also found his eccentricities to be endearing. Bingley smiled at the thought of his sister stumbling upon love in a relationship that she had entered as a marriage of convenience.
His horse was waiting for him when he exited the house, and with only one glance at the window to the music room and a small ache in his heart for the rift that had grown between him and his sister, he rode off to call first on Hurst and then meet Darcy before calling at the Gardiners.
His plans, however, were to be upset in a most pleasant fashion, for when he arrived at Darcy House, he found Mrs. Gardiner and Miss Bennet in the sitting room, conversing with Darcy’s sister, Georgiana, as well as Georgiana’s companion, Mrs. Annesley, and Richard while Darcy attempted now and again to add to the discourse.
Darcy pulled out his watch and looked at it and then Bingley as Bingley was announced. The others in the room might not have seen the slight rise of Darcy’s brow, but Bingley did not miss it. It was the same expression with which Bingley was always greeted when he was late for a meeting with Darcy. Arriving just on time for a social gathering was acceptable as was being several minutes early for a meeting; however, tardiness was always met with disapprobation.
“I have a very good reason for being late,” Bingley said to Darcy after he had made all the proper greetings. “However, I had expected to be on our way to Gracechurch Street rather than here.” He smiled broadly. “Not that I am disappointed.”
“We were just about to leave for a shopping excursion when Mr. Darcy’s note arrived inviting us to call on him here today,” Mrs. Gardiner explained, her lips puckering into a small smirk before continuing on. “I believe he wished for his sister and cousin to meet me. I did attempt to lure my husband away from his work, but he was unable to be tempted, even for such a treat as this.” She waved her hand indicating the room and its occupants.
Darcy chuckled. “I admit it was so my sister and cousin could meet both Miss Bennet and Mrs. Gardiner.”
Mrs. Gardiner raised a teasing brow. “Do we pass? Are we acceptable despite our address?”
Richard guffawed. “You are refreshing, Mrs. Gardiner. I do not think I have met another who is so direct in broaching a subject. I quite like it.”
Mrs. Gardiner’s eyes grew wide. “Oh, I assure you that I am not always so direct. I do know how to be demure. However, with friends — and I do hope we are friends — I find it much better to avoid any sort of equivocation.”
“We are friends,” Darcy assured her. “And I believe from my cousin’s response, you have gained his approval.”
Mrs. Gardiner gave a small nod of her head in acceptance and then looked at Miss Darcy and Mrs. Annesley. “I do hope I have not been a poor example.”
Mrs. Annesley shook her head. “I have found your manners to be noteworthy, and my charge knows there is a difference between how we act in our homes with our closest friends and family and how we comport ourselves when in a public setting. It is good to hear you reiterate what I have taught.”
“I find no fault in you,” Georgiana said with a smile.
“But it remains a fact that some will, no matter my manners or words or dress. I am a tradesman’s wife. He is an honorable man of substantial wealth, but,” she held up a finger, “he is not a gentleman. He owns no land, nor does he desire to own any. He is very happy with his life and position. If he were to remove from town for longer than a month or two, he would grow restless and become bored. He was made for making deals and seeing things done. Oh, I know a landowner must possess such skills as well, but he would miss the excitement of seeing a new shipment arrive full of possibilities and promise of gain.”
“My father was the same,” Bingley said. “He enjoyed so much of what he did. It was not a trial for him to throw himself into his work.” He shook his head. “What would tire me just at the thought would invigorate him. That is why he did not seek to purchase land but left it to me to do. I do not have his motivation for such things. I find I would prefer the responsibilities of a landowner.”
“Just like our John,” Mrs. Gardiner said with a smile. “He will be the one to move his father’s fortune from a warehouse and stores to an estate.”
“I should like to meet your son sometime,” said Bingley.
“As long as there are biscuits?” Mrs. Gardiner asked.
Bingley shrugged. “Perhaps even if there are not.”
Mrs. Gardiner laughed. “My husband would scold me for controlling the conversation.” She looked directly at Georgiana. “It is a fault with which I struggle.”
“I have enjoyed listening to you,” Georgiana admitted. “I have felt quite at ease.” She darted a look at her brother. “I do not always feel so.”
“You are like your brother,” Mrs. Gardiner whispered.
Georgiana returned the woman’s smile and nodded.
“I should like to hear Bingley’s reason for being late,” said Richard.
“Caroline,” Bingley replied and, with a small huff of frustration, shook his head. “I stopped at Hurst’s to inquire about her removing to his house for a time.”
Darcy’s were not the only brows that rose at the statement. In fact, there was not a brow that remained unaffected by such a declaration.
“I do not trust her after last night.” He blew out a breath. “She attempted to find a way to compromise me with one of her friends — a lady she claims would be a good match,” he explained to those who had not been in the Johnsons’ library. “We had a discussion about it before I left today that did not sit well with her.” He held Darcy’s gaze. “She claims that Pemberley will be hers, and I have told her that I would never allow it.”
When Bingley had finished speaking, silence reigned for several minutes.
“I had hoped to discuss something that I have been pondering since your call yesterday.” Jane’s cheeks flushed, and her eyes lowered for a moment before rising once again, filled with determination.
“Please continue,” Darcy encouraged before Bingley could.
Jane gave him a grateful smile. “When we last spoke, we considered the fact that your aunt will not be pleased if you are successful in winning my sister’s heart.”
Bingley watched Georgiana’s face as Jane spoke to Darcy. From the lack of surprise, he surmised that Georgiana had been told of Darcy’s intentions to marry.
“And we must still consider that,” Jane continued. “However, I have been considering how best to…” Her brows furrowed and her lips pursed as she considered her words. She took a breath and smoothed her expression. “Prevent Miss Bingley from interfering with either your plan to marry,” her lips curled into a smile and her eyes sparkled, “or mine,” she concluded.
“You are determined to marry?” Delight filled Bingley as he asked it.
Jane lifted her chin and met his gaze. “I am,” she replied simply. “However, I should not like to have to share a home with a woman who has caused me pain and treated me poorly.”
Darcy watched Jane with pleased surprise. The Jane he had met yesterday, who was more forward and less reserved than the one he had met in Hertfordshire, seemed to have not been a figment of a moment but of an enduring nature.
“I can send her to live with our aunt. I do not see Hurst abiding her presence for more than a few months,” Bingley replied.
“That would be effective as long as your aunt remains well, but what if the worst should befall her? Then where would your sister reside?”
Bingley blew out a breath and shrugged. “I would hope she might be married,” he said uncertainly. He had no desire to have his sister in his house after he married, knowing how abominably she had treated Jane. He could see her causing trouble to prove that she had been correct about Jane not being the best choice of wife.
Jane smoothed her skirt, her eyes watching her hands’ motions. “Why hope?” she asked, lifting her eyes to his again.
Bingley could see the unease that mingled with determination in her features, and he admired her courage as he waited for her to continue.
She swallowed and drew a fortifying breath. “It could be arranged.”