At All Costs: A Pride and Prejudice Variation Novel
Darcy looked up from the letter he was reading as Bingley and Richard entered the breakfast room the following day. He gave the briefest of nods in greeting and tossed the letter on the table.
“Not a good morning?” Bingley asked as he filled his cup with tea.
“No, it is most certainly not a good morning.” He leaned back in his chair, arms folded, eyes narrowing as he scowled. “Do you know where our aunt went when she left yesterday, Richard?”
Richard slowly lowered the forkful of food he was about to place in his mouth. There could only be one place she could have gone. “Matlock?”
“Precisely.” Darcy uncrossed his arms long enough to take a large gulp of his tea. “Your father is attempting to calm her, but she has told him the same tales she shared with us at the church. He is concerned that I might be being taken in by a fortune hunter and requests that I put off the wedding until he has had a chance to mollify our aunt a bit and meet Elizabeth.”
Richard’s brows rose. “He is questioning your decision?”
Darcy’s jaw clenched as he nodded. “It appears he is, although he claims he is only doing what he thinks will work best to appease Aunt Catherine and cause the least amount of disunity.”
“Are you going to do it?” asked Bingley around a mouthful of toast and jam.
Darcy shrugged. “I will speak to Elizabeth, and if she is amenable, then yes — but for no more than a week. And it will only be a postponement. I will be marrying Elizabeth.”
“Father is usually quite reasonable,” Richard assured Darcy. “He is merely attempting to keep the peace as much as possible. His visit will be a mere formality. He knows, as well as anyone that you are your own man.”
Darcy relaxed slightly. “I hope you are correct.”
“I am.” Richard returned to his plate of food. “He allows Aunt Catherine to feel she has been heard and then tells her what will be.”
Darcy nodded. He had seen his uncle use that very tactic with Lady Catherine, and it usually worked with only a small amount of stomping and snorting from his aunt. He picked up the letter, read it once more, and rose to go write his reply. He would give his uncle until the day after tomorrow to meet Elizabeth, and he would not agree to a postponement until he had indeed discussed the issue with Elizabeth. He drained the last of his tea as he stood next to the table.
“Sir,” said the butler, entering the room before Darcy could do more than place his empty cup back on the table, “you have a visitor.”
Darcy checked his watch. “It seems early for callers.”
“I am told it is not a social call, but one of great importance and requires your attention as well as Mr. Bingley’s.”
Darcy’s brows rose.
“It is Mr. Williams, sir,” continued the butler.
“Shall we meet him here?” Darcy asked Bingley, who was still devouring his breakfast.
Bingley wiped his mouth. “No, your study might be best. You have that letter to write.” He motioned to the paper in Darcy’s hand.
“But your plate is not empty.”
Bingley grimaced. “I have had enough.” He emptied his cup of tea and stood. “Richard, you will join us?” He gave him a significant look.
Richard’s eyes grew wide. “You think I will be needed?”
“If it is about whom we discussed last night, yes.”
Richard popped the last bite of his toast in his mouth and finished his tea before following Bingley and Darcy from the breakfast room. He was just a step or two behind Mr. Williams in entering Darcy’s study.
“I had planned to come see you later today,” Bingley said quietly to Mr. Williams. “It seems Lady Catherine learned of Miss Lydia’s trip to Derbyshire from Wickham.”
Mr. Williams’ face grew even more grave than it had been when he first entered the room. “Did she mention anything about Miss Bennet’s and Miss Elizabeth’s stay at Netherfield?”
Bingley’s eyes grew wide. “No. She only spoke of Miss Lydia’s journey to Derbyshire with Wickham.”
“Then,” said Mr. Williams, turning to include Darcy and Richard in the conversation, “we have an additional problem. I had thought it might be Wickham who had begun such a rumor as I heard,” he scratched at the stubbly beard on his cheek. “I suppose it might still be him, but he has been gone for some time, and this is the sort of thing that does not take very long to circulate.”
Bingley swallowed. His stomach roiled uneasily.
Mr. Williams looked first at Darcy and then Bingley. “There is no easy or gentle way to say this, gentlemen, but your honor and that of your ladies has been called into question.”
“What?” Darcy’s roar was low.
“How?” Bingley added in a dangerously cool voice. He drew deep, deliberate breaths. He would know the details before he allowed himself to feel the full force of his anger.
“The insinuation is that things were not entirely proper during the ladies’ stay at Netherfield.”
“How improper?” Bingley’s voice was still low and controlled.
“There is speculation as to why Miss Bennet left Hertfordshire for London within a month of her stay and why her stay in town was for an extended time.”
Bingley’s drew a great breath and held it as he waited for Mr. Williams to continue.
“She returned in a state of sadness that indicated some loss. Whether it was because Mr. Bingley refused to do his duty by her or due to the loss of a child is up for discussion.”
With a whoosh, Bingley expelled the breath he had been holding.
“I have heard that some think it is due to both.” Mr. Williams turned toward Darcy. “There is no talk of Miss Elizabeth ever having been with child, but there is speculation that you are marrying her due to…” he shifted a bit uneasily, “certain charms.”
“They think she has seduced Darcy?” Richard’s voice held as much astonishment as his face.
Mr. Williams nodded. “That is what one of my men heard and relayed to me.”
“It is not true,” said Darcy when he could finally find his voice.
“I never thought any of it was true,” Mr. Williams assured him. “I just knew you should be made aware of the tales before you heard them elsewhere.” He glanced at Bingley. “I had also hoped that the source of the rumors might be Wickham since his reputation is not for honesty; however, after what Bingley has said about your aunt not mentioning this, it seems unlikely.”
“Who would know such detail and conjure such a story?” asked Richard.
Bingley slumped slightly in his chair as the weight of understanding settled on his shoulders. He closed his eyes and shook his head against the thought. “Caroline,” he whispered. He looked at Darcy. “Who else could it be?” He rose and paced the room. “She left far too easily on Saturday. She even smiled when saying her goodbyes.”
Darcy sank back in his chair and nodded his agreement.
Richard’s brows drew together. “But your sister was only here and then gone — unless she spoke to someone at the inn.”
Bingley stopped mid-stride. “I will kill him,” he muttered. “How –” Bingley shuddered. “It is disgusting! To make love to a woman and then to turn on her and defame her! It is beyond the pale!”
“You know who is to blame?” asked Mr. Williams.
Bingley nodded. “Without a doubt.”
“Who?” Mr. Williams asked.
Bingley’s face twisted in disgust as he spat the name. “Harris.”
Richard moved to the edge of his chair. “How do you figure?”
“Do you remember how cozy Caroline and Harris looked when walking the garden?” Bingley shook his head. He should have known his sister was up to no good. She was far too pleasant for having been denied the chance to stay at Pemberley — and that on the heels of learning of Darcy’s engagement and ergo his unavailability to herself. “And, then, Harris could not remove himself from the premises fast enough. He did not even deign to bid farewell to Miss Bennet. He just foisted her off onto Darcy and me — not that I minded his departure or the foisting. I thought him rude to do it, but this?” Again, Bingley shook his head. He had wondered at Harris’ willingness to walk away from Jane that day. Harris had been doing an admirable job of placing himself between Bingley and Jane at every meeting. The fact that he had left the field open for Bingley should have sounded warning bells, but Bingley had just been too glad to be rid of the buffoon.
“How widely spread is this rumor?” Richard asked Mr. Williams.
“Assessing the lay of the land?” Mr. Williams smiled conspiratorially as Richard nodded. “My man heard it in Lambton at the ____ .”
Richard’s brows rose. “Not the sort of place I would have expected Harris to frequent, but then I did not think him the sort to start ruinous rumors, either.” His eyes grew the smallest bit wide as he looked from Darcy to Bingley as both men growled. “Perhaps we should leave Harris to me,” he suggested.
“No. It is my fault that there are any rumors at all. If I had stayed at Netherfield or even returned –”
“If I had not persuaded you to leave!” Darcy interrupted.
“Caroline is my sister.” Bingley was not about to allow Darcy to wear the blame for this. “And I did not have to listen to you. It is my mess, and I will see to it.”
Darcy stood and crossed the room to where Bingley paced. “No,” he said, grabbing Bingley’s arm. “We will see to it. Harris has maligned my name and Elizabeth’s as well as yours and Miss Bennet’s. I will leave your sister to you, but I will be part of the rest.”
“Perhaps,” suggested Richard again, “Harris should be left to me.”
“Why?” Bingley and Darcy swung toward him and spoke in unison.
“He is under my command. I am able to do more than you might without risking my neck.” He gave them a small smile. “We cannot have Miss Elizabeth and Miss Bennet crying at the bottom of a gallows, now can we?”
Bingley glanced at Darcy and raised a single brow in question.
“We need to know why he did what he did,” said Mr. Williams. “I know that you may not agree, but although as you said the _____ is not a place Harris would frequent, it is not unfamiliar territory for Wickham — nor was it for Tolson.”
“You think Wickham is involved?” asked Richard.
“I do.” He turned to Bingley. “Which brings us to what you wished to see me about today.”
Bingley looked warily towards Darcy. He had not wished for Darcy to know about the arrangement with Wickham. Darcy had wanted to pay off Wickham, but when he had presented his idea to Williams, Darcy had been told that the matter had been settled., though Williams would not say by whom.
Bingley cleared his throat and took a step away from Darcy. “He has breached our agreement.” Bingley pulled the letter he had written last night from his pocket and handed it to Williams. “Do I send that or see to it myself?”
“You?” Darcy grabbed Bingley by the shoulder and attempted to turn him, but Bingley shrugged out of his grasp.
“Yes, me,” he replied without turning. “I paid his debts and gave him a small sum to remain silent.”
“And a warning.” Mr. Williams shifted his eyes to look up at Bingley. “A warning must not be given in vain.”
“It has not been,” Bingley assured him. Wickham was not going to walk away from what he had done.
Richard reached over Mr. Williams’ shoulder and took the letter. “You have access to ships?” he asked as he reread the letter.
Bingley nodded. “I do.”
Richard pulled in a deep breath and released it. “Wickham will be expected back with his regiment…” he furrowed his brow as he calculated the leave he knew that Forrester had allowed his men, “two days hence.”
“So he was not returning to his regiment when he visited Kent?” Darcy asked in surprise.
Richard shook his head. “No, I suspect he went to Kent with the purpose of sharing what he knew with Mrs. Collins and at the same time notifying Lady Catherine of your betrothal. He would know about Anne.”
Bingley cursed. “Can we use your plan?” he asked Richard. “Transportation seems too kind.”
Richard gave him a minatory smile. “Not if he can never return, and as you said yourself, voyages can be dangerous.”
Bingley cocked a brow. “Explain.”
“Abandonment of duty is a serious offense.” Richard handed the letter back to Bingley. “Detain the party who is in breach of contract longer than two days hence and then offer him a means of escape to some godforsaken destination. He’ll take it.”
From Darcy’s tone Bingley could tell he did not agree with Richard’s plan, but to Bingley, it seemed a worthy scheme.
“A bit of ale, a smidge of rum, perhaps some brandy,” Bingley said with a smile. “It is not kidnapping if one is simply too drunk to remember the day. I have a few quid I could allow to be lost in a game or two.”
“Throw in a light skirt or two,” said Mr. Williams, “and it will be like boiling a frog — cooked before he know it.”
“I do not like this,” said Darcy gravely.
Bingley turned toward his friend, taking a wide stance and crossing his arms. “He has sullied the names of you and me as well as Miss Lydia, Miss Elizabeth, and Miss Bennet. Do you wish me to trick him into leaving the country or do you prefer me to kill him? His days of causing harm to those we love are done. He will be leaving England either on a ship or in a casket. Your choice, Darcy.”
Darcy studied Bingley’s face for a moment. “You would kill him?”
“I told him I would.”
Darcy’s eyes widened.
“I am from trade. I know people who could cause an accident,” Bingley explained. “We from trade are a rough lot, don’t you know?” he added with a smirk.
“You would seriously kill him?”
“I would prefer not to.” Bingley held Darcy’s gaze.
Darcy sighed. “Can we not just purchase him passage on a ship and send him sailing?”
“You would trust him not to return?” Richard asked.
Darcy sighed again. “No. He is not trustworthy.”
“Then we ply him with liquor, cards, and women for a couple of days before buying him passage?” Bingley asked.
“Aye,” Three heads bobbed their agreement as their voices joined as one.
More in the Willow Hall Romance Series
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Events from the past combined with threats in the present threaten to tear Lucy and Philip apart unless Darcy can help his friends save their blossoming love and rid Lucy of her uncle once and for all.Click cover image to find that book in your favorite store.
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