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Darcy and Bingley stood just inside the foyer of a neat but modest home on Gracechurch Street waiting for their cards to be presented to the mistress of the home and her niece.
“The Gardiners do not appear to be destitute or even wanting,” Bingley whispered. “This paper is new.” He nodded toward the wall. “Caroline has admired it and had begged me to allow her to redecorate the front sitting room with it. However, I prefer paint over flowers.” He pursed his lips as he studied the paper on the wall. “Unless of course my wife prefers flowers, and then I shall prefer them as well.”
Darcy chuckled. “I have not considered my preference one way or the other. I simply wish my surroundings to look…” His brow furrowed as he thought of how best to describe his taste in decor. It really was not something he considered often. He knew what he liked and what he did not, but he had not put significant effort into deciding how he would decorate a home. His mother had done that sort of thing, and now, if a space needed refreshing, he simply deferred to the opinion of either Georgiana or Lady Matlock. He shrugged. “I prefer my rooms to be welcoming and not garish, homely and not ostentatious.”
“Which is why my sister should not be allowed to decorate your home or mine,” Bingley said with a smirk. “Are you prepared to see if it is possible to convince a Bennet lady to take on such a task?” he whispered as they followed behind the maid who directed them to the sitting room on their right.
They had discussed how they would approach this interview as they had travelled together today. It was decided that the folly of both Caroline and Darcy should be broached directly as neither gentleman wished to be left wondering as to their position in hoping to attain their happiness.
“Mr. Bingley, Mr. Darcy, it is a pleasure to meet you,” a lady, dressed in the current fashion of the day and appearing to be no older than Darcy, if she was even that, greeted them as they entered the room.
“The pleasure is ours, Mrs. Gardiner,” Bingley said, as he took her hand and bowed over it. “It is a pleasure that should have been ours much earlier had we known your niece was in town.”
Mrs. Gardiner barely contained a grin. “That is a welcome sentiment, is it not, Jane?” she asked as she extended her hand to Mr. Darcy.
“Indeed, it is,” Jane replied.
“Please, be seated while I arrange for tea.” Mrs. Gardiner slipped behind Mr. Darcy and into the hall for a moment but was back before either gentleman had settled into their chair completely.
To Darcy, she rather flitted about like a bird, happily doing all that needed to be done. She tucked away some material that lay on a work table and pulled the table out to be used, he assumed, for the tea service. Then, she perched lightly in her chair, looking at ease but ready to fly away again if she should be needed for something.
“Mr. Bingley, I understand that you have been considering an estate in Hertfordshire,” Mrs. Gardiner began, directing the conversation to exactly where Darcy and Bingley had hoped it would eventually fall. “Will you return to it once the season draws to a close? I understand you are in town because you have a sister in need of a husband.”
Darcy found the way the lady’s lips twitched with amusement to be telling of what she had likely heard about Miss Bingley, and the way that her eyes danced reminded him of Elizabeth. He was certain he would enjoy having this woman’s acquaintance.
“Of course, you are also unmarried,” she continued, “so I suppose you might also be looking for a wife while squiring your sister to this function and that.”
Even Darcy could not mistake the meaning of Mrs. Gardiner’s words when accompanied by the pointed look she gave Bingley. It was apparent that Mrs. Gardiner was not the sort of lady to play games but came directly to the point, and that fact made him like her all the more.
“I should not say it, but I will be beyond elated when my sister finally marries,” Bingley admitted. “She is no small trial.”
“Oh, we all have relations like that,” Mrs. Gardiner said with a grin. “Some are born to us. While others are attached by marriage. I do hope she finds a husband who does not add to your affliction.”
Bingley chuckled. “I most heartily hope the same.”
“And what of you, Mr. Bingley? Has the season been kind to you — aside from the trials of a sibling?”
Determined and not to be thwarted in her pursuit — Darcy added these qualities to the list of items that recommended Mrs. Gardiner to him.
Bingley held Mrs. Gardiner’s gaze. “Not until this moment,” he said before darting his eyes toward Jane and returning them to her aunt and adding, “I hope.”
“Very well said,” Mrs. Gardiner replied with no small amount of approval in her voice. “We had heard you had intentions of a marriage in the future when a particular lady was finally presented to society.” She stood to pour the tea as the maid laid out the service for her.
“You speak of my sister.”
Mrs. Gardiner acknowledged the veracity of Darcy’s words with a nod of her head.
“Neither Bingley nor I have ever harboured such a wish for any such joining of our families.”
Bingley gave his fervent agreement. “I assure you that I view Miss Darcy as nothing more than the sister of a very good friend. If our families are ever joined, it shall not be through either of our sisters.” He turned to Jane. “I must apologize for the actions of my sister. I only learned last evening that you were in town and that is only because Darcy told me.”
Jane looked between the men in confusion.
“Miss Bingley told me of your call when I stopped to drop something off to Bingley yesterday afternoon.” Darcy accepted a cup of tea from Mrs. Gardiner and then began his painful confession. “She thought I would be delighted about how she had snubbed you. I was not, of course, although I admit to not remonstrating her for her actions but only accepting her account and fleeing as quickly as I could.”
Bingley chuckled. “You must forgive him for that. Darcy knows my sister’s intentions in regards to his marital state and has no desire to encourage those attentions or to find himself unwarily caught in a trap from which his honour will not allow him to escape.”
“You do not like Miss Bingley?” Jane asked Darcy in surprise.
Darcy grimaced and looked at Bingley apologetically. “Not particularly. However, there was a reason for her to think I would find her actions towards you acceptable, and for that, I must apologize. You see, I supported Miss Bingley’s desire to leave Netherfield and persuade her brother not to return.” He closed his eyes and shook his head in self-remonstration. “I abhor disguise, Miss Bennet, and yet, I prevaricated most grievously. I agreed with Miss Bingley that a connection between her family and yours would not be beneficial to her brother.”
He stood and placed his untouched tea on the tea tray. He knew admission of his failings would be difficult, but to see the pain in the eyes of a woman as kind and sweet as he knew Miss Bennet to be made the task far harder than he had imagined.
“I will admit to having certain reservations about your family.” He grimaced. “They have nothing to do with your ties to trade. They are — were solely based on what I have perceived to be improper behavior.” He shook his head again. “Not even I can deny how arrogant that sounds.” Indeed, as he said the words here, in the sitting room, standing before both Miss Bennet and her relation, the words sounded like those of a pretentious fool. “Please forgive me.”
He drew a breath. He needed to complete his admission of guilt, no matter how painful it might be to do so. “I worked to keep Mr. Bingley from returning to Netherfield as he wished.” He smiled sadly at Jane whose eyes had grown wide at his comment. “He wished to return to you. However, I had made a promise to remain with him at his estate until he had decided on either purchasing or moving on and then, if he purchased, until he had enough knowledge to stand on his own as master of his own domain. However, I could not return.” He shook his head slowly as he returned to his seat. “I simply could not be there.”
“I should not have allowed myself to be persuaded,” Bingley said softly.
“No,” Jane agreed, “you should not have.”