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Darcy’s brows furrowed as he shook his head. “But she has my good opinion; she does not have to wish for it.”
“Oh, she knows she has your tolerably good opinion,” Mrs. Gardiner said as she rose and gathered empty cups. Both of her brows rose as she took Mr. Darcy’s cup from him. “I am afraid she heard your comment at the assembly. In fact, I am quite certain everyone who knows and is close to Lizzy has heard your comment from the assembly. I had it in a letter not two days after it was spoken.”
Darcy blew out a breath and closed his eyes for a moment. “Then, if she is so set against me, do I have any hope?” he asked.
Mrs. Gardiner placed the cups she held on the tea tray and then, as she crossed the room to summon someone to clear the things away, she stopped and lay a hand on Darcy’s shoulder much like Richard’s mother would at times when attempting to reassure him of something.
“Hope is not lost until she is married to someone other than you. Until that time, we must not faint.” She gave his shoulder a pat and then rang for the maid.
“Now, we must decide how to proceed,” she said as she returned to her seat. “I am not a matchmaker, mind you. However, I do long to see my nieces well-settled.”
Her smile and accompanying laugh were infectious, filling the room with a lightness it had not had for several minutes.
“I might be able to persuade her to visit,” Mrs. Gardiner said. “And then you can call just as you are now, and she will see that you are not as she thinks.” She winked. “I will be certain to sing your praises if she should disparage. An unhappy Lizzy is known to allow her tongue to get the better of her good sense. Aside from getting Elizabeth here and allowing Mr. Darcy to confuse and then charm her, are there any other contentious items that need our forethought?”
“I am positive she has been told some very disparaging stories about me,” Darcy said. “Mr. Wickham is not a champion of the Darcy name. I am right, am I not?” he asked as he noted how Jane drew her lower lip between her teeth and dropped her gaze.
Darcy shook his head. “I cannot tell you all that has passed between us, but I can assure you that it is not Mr. Wickham’s normal wont to speak truthfully regarding how things now stand between us. He is not to be trusted.”
“Indeed, he is not,” Bingley affirmed gravely.
“I have not believed him,” Jane said with a smile. “He spoke too freely with an acquaintance of a short duration. I told Lizzy to be wary, and I do not think she is completely convinced by his words. Did she not ask you about him at the ball?”
“If you would but answer her, her opinion might be swayed. I know you could not on a dance floor, but she is not thinking clearly. However, there is one item about which I should like to ask.”
“Whatever you wish to know, Miss Bennet,” Darcy offered.
“Are you betrothed?”
Darcy shook his head. “No matter how much my aunt insists that it happens, I am not betrothed to her daughter, nor will I ever be betrothed to her daughter. It will come as a great disappointment to her, I suppose.”
Jane’s broad smile at the comment was, Darcy recognized, the equivalent of another more vocal lady’s chuckle. He was beginning to recognize in the short time they had spent together this afternoon that her emotions were conveyed in small, subtle ways that required greater attention than he had given them in Meryton. She was not a fawning lady of the ton but was a gracious and demure lady of quality. His friend would do well to secure her.
“My mother was quite disappointed with Elizabeth in such a fashion recently.”
“I beg your pardon?” Darcy asked as his heart began racing in his chest and his stomach twisted. Wickham would not offer for a lady of little wealth — not even to spite Darcy. Would he?
“Mr. Collins, our cousin, made an offer. My mother was beside herself demanding that Elizabeth retract her refusal. The whole house was in an uproar until Mr. Collins removed himself to Lucas Lodge, where he found a lady who was more amenable to his offer.”
“Mr. Collins? The large man with an excess of words and an inability to dance without injuring his partner?”
At this, Jane actually giggled as she nodded. “Yes, that Mr. Collins. A most ridiculous match, is it not?”
“Indeed,” Darcy muttered. How would anyone with half a morsel of sense think that a lady as intelligent and quick-witted as Elizabeth would make a good match for a bumbling fool like Mr. Collins? The idea was far beyond ridiculous. It was ludicrous, and he was happy that appeared Elizabeth’s refusal had stood.
“He married Miss Lucas,” Mrs. Gardiner added. “But it is not Mr. Collins we wish to see married, now is it?”
Darcy found himself chuckling at her pointed look.
“No,” he replied. He hoped to see both Bingley and himself happily leg-shackled before his annual trip to Rosings at Easter, where he would both have to endure his aunt and Mr. Collins. A smile settled firmly on his lips. Perhaps if he were fortunate to secure a bride before Easter, he would not be required to visit Rosings at all since his aunt’s displeasure would undoubtedly take some time to quell.
“Do you think you can persuade Miss Elizabeth to visit soon?” Darcy asked. “It may take some time for me to convince her that I am not as unworthy as I portrayed myself.”
“Oh, I should think she would be very willing to visit soon. I imagine that there is a fair bit of unpleasantness to be endured at home since her mother is displeased to know that Longbourn is not to fall one of her daughters but to Miss Lucas. I will write today, and perhaps Jane will add a note of invitation as well?” She cast a questioning look at her niece.
“Please tell her that I came to call,” Bingley said as he rose to leave. “And that it was at Darcy’s insistence. In fact, it is through Darcy that I learned of Miss Bennet’s being in town. That should do some good in shedding a bit of a rosy glow on my friend, should it not?” He looked from one lady to the other.
“It will,” Jane said quietly.
Mrs. Gardiner, followed by Jane, rose to see their guests out of the room, and after a few words of parting and Bingley managing to get the directions to Mr. Gardiner’s warehouse, the two gentlemen stepped out onto the street, feeling very hopeful.