Jane placed her hand in Captain Harris’ hand and allowed him to help her from his carriage. Mary Ellen had invited Jane and Elizabeth to join her on a drive to Lambton. There was a particular shop that Mary Ellen wished her new friends to visit with her. According to Mary Ellen, this particular shop had the best trimmings and a greater selection than could not be found in Kympton. As it happened, it was a shop that was well-known to both Elizabeth and Jane as their aunt’s brother was the proprietor. Although neither Bennet lady had been to the shop itself, they knew of the goods and had met their aunt’s brother and his wife several times when in London. Lydia had no knowledge of the shop and was intrigued when the outing was proposed a day ago during a dinner at Aldwood Abbey. So, the entourage of patrons was not a small one. Not a lady from Willow Hall, Aldwood Abbey, Pemberley, the vicarage or Aunt Tess’ home was left behind. All, with gentlemen in tow, squished and squeezed into the several carriages and made the journey to visit this one shop in particular and others as time would allow.
Mary Ellen had arranged that Mr. Bingley might join her and Jane in Captain Harris’ carriage. Captain Harris had, on returning to Derbyshire and finding a lady worthy of driving about the countryside, inquired of his father for the use of the family’s barouche. Seeing as Harris had not shown interest in any particular lady for nearly three years, the request was greeted with great enthusiasm.
“An estate must one day have an heir, after all,” his father had said while slapping his son on the back.
“Pris was a lovely thing, but it is time to move on,” agreed his mother.
And so it was that Jane found herself seated on the soft seats of the Harris’ well-sprung carriage. Had it not been for Jane’s need to pretend favour to Captain Harris while Mary Ellen smiled and laughed with Bingley, it might have been a pleasant trip. However, as it was, the trip had been frustrating, and not just for Jane. Bingley found his dislike for Harris growing with each syllable that passed through the man’s mouth. So both were thankful for the change of scenery and companions that disembarking in Lambton brought.
As they stood gathered in a rather large group on High Street in Lampton, Mrs. Abbot suggested that the gentlemen find a means of amusing themselves while the ladies perused the goods in the shop. Mr. Abbot took up his wife’s cause, whether this was in support of her idea or just a means to escape the discussion of lace and frills, it cannot be said, but with a little persuasion, he found himself leading the men to a tavern just down the street and around the corner.
Jane wrapped her arm around Mary Ellen’s as they made their way into the shop. “I am uncertain I can continue this charade and not grow to dislike you.” This was the third day of their scheme. First, there had been an afternoon of rambling about the countryside. Then, there had been a dinner at Aldwood Abbey, and now, there was this trip.
Mary Ellen sighed. “It is true. I have wished at least once to remove your dazzling smile from your face when you have turned it on Colonel Fitzwilliam. A sampling of your lace, if you will.” This last was said to the clerk before Mary Ellen turned back to Jane. ” You have not discovered that you care for him, have you?”
Jane shook her head. “Most decidedly I have not! What of you? Mr. Bingley’s charms are hard to ignore.”
“His are not the charms I wish to claim,” assured Mary Ellen. “Must men be so slow to act?” she asked with a sigh. “I should have thought they would have grown at least a little uneasy and ill-tempered, but both still act the part of the perfect gentleman. There has not been a huff or a cross word. It is quite remarkable.”
Jane agreed that things were not progressing as wished. “How long shall we continue before we declare defeat?”
“Defeat?” Mary Ellen laughed. “I shall not leave the field without my colonel! However, we may need to adjust tactics.” She ran a finger over the fine lace that the sales woman had brought out. “Two more days? Can we endure until Sunday?” She lifted the lace. “This is lovely, is it not?”
“It is,” agreed Jane. “I think it would look very lovely on my blue fichu.”
“Sunday?” Mary Ellen asked.
Jane sighed and nodded. “I believe, I can endure for that long.”
“What will happen on Sunday?” asked Lydia, who had joined them to look at the lace.
“Nothing,” said Jane. She attempted to smile and act as if she was not concealing anything, but the blush that stained her cheeks was all the encouragement Lydia needed.
“It is something,” Lydia tipped her head to the side and studied her eldest sister.
“Truly,” said Mary Ellen. “It is of little significance.”
Lydia’s eyes narrowed. “If it were of little significance, none would seek to hide it — particularly Jane.” She crossed her arms and waited as if expecting an answer or retort of some sort.
Jane fidgeted and lowered her eyes.
“Very well. I know people do not trust me.”
The sadness in Lydia’s soft voice caused Jane to look up, and when she did, she saw that the expression on Lydia’s face as she turned away, matched the tone in her voice. Jane’s heart could not bear to be the cause. “It is not that,” she said.
“It is always that,” Lydia returned. “Lydia is too stupid and foolish to be trusted.” She shrugged. “I had hoped, perhaps, that…” She shook her head. “It does not signify. Everyone is entitled to their own little secrets.”
“We do not think you stupid or foolish,” said Mary Ellen.
Lydia’s head cocked to the side again, and she gave Jane a questioning look.
“I am sorry, Lydia, but you have not always been wise,” said Jane, accepting her parcel of lace and turning to leave with Mary Ellen.
“You have not always been wise either,” said Lydia, following Jane out of the store.
“Pardon me?” Jane asked in surprise. Lydia said harsh things to Elizabeth but rarely to Jane.
“Forgive me, Mary Ellen,” said Lydia before turning to Jane. “You should be married to Mr. Bingley and had you fluttered your eyes or allowed your hand to brush past his when passing, instead of being so entirely proper, he would not have been able to stay away from Netherfield. You are beautiful, but you are…” her shoulders rose high and fell sharply as she drew and released a breath. “You are bland. It is like having a ball gown in the perfect shade of blue — like the midnight sky.” She turned to Mary Ellen. “Blue is lovely on Jane, much like red is on you.” She turned back to Jane. “Instead of wearing that gown and being the most sought after, you have hung it in the wardrobe and rarely wear it — and when you do, you hide it under a wrap of gray.”
“He left,” said Jane. “It was his choice.”
“Perhaps,” said Lydia, “but did you give him reason to return?” Lydia shook her head. “Again, I must apologize, Mary Ellen,” said before continuing. “Do you really wish to marry with Captain Harris?” Lydia did not allow for Jane to answer. “It would be a sin, really, if you did. His colouring does not match yours at all, and he is a gossip.” Lydia shook her head again. “No, you must marry Mr. Bingley, and Mary Ellen must marry Colonel Fitzwilliam.”
Jane’s brows furrowed, and her mouth dropped open slightly.
Mary Ellen sighed and rolled her eyes. “That is precisely what we are attempting to arrange.”
“It does not look like it.” Lydia’s eyes were wide with astonishment.
“We are attempting to make them jealous,” Mary Ellen admitted in a whisper.
“Then, you are doing it wrong,” said Lydia. “You are giving your full attention to the other gentleman when you should flirt a bit with the object of your interest and then turn away from him. Entice and retreat.” She shrugged her shoulders.
“Entice and retreat?” repeated Mary Ellen.
Lydia nodded. “Precisely, but if it does not work, tell me, and I shall arrange it all. It is really not so very hard to get a gentleman to come up to scratch — well, most of them. I did think for a time that Marcus was not going to comply.” She smiled as she saw him approaching. “But he did.” She was about to flounce off to greet him when a thought stopped her short, and she turned with a very serious look on her face. “But not until he was told he should. That might be the answer.”
Jane snatched Lydia’s arm. “Please, do not say anything.”
Lydia patted Jane’s hand. “I can keep secrets, you know. I am actually very good at it.”
Jane gave her sister a thankful smile and released her arm.
“Were you successful?” Bingley asked as he approached.
Lydia gave Jane a meaningful look as she tipped her head in Mr. Bingley’s direction.
Jane smiled and heartily admitted that the trip had been well worth the effort. “I found a lovely piece of lace to go on the collar of my blue fichu.” As she spoke, Jane placed a hand on the side of her neck and ran her fingers lightly along where the collar might lay, stopping and resting her hand just at the base of her throat before turning from Mr. Bingley to Captain Harris and opening her parcel to show him and only him the contents. She bit her lip and glanced toward Lydia who winked and smiled.
Bingley knew that he now wished to squeeze every last ounce of breath from Harris. The man’s eyes had only momentarily dropped to inspect the lace before returning to look where Jane’s hand lay — or was Harris looking a bit lower? Bingley clenched his teeth together firmly and forced himself to smile and turn to Mary Ellen to inquire about her success. As he did so, he offered her his arm and with a small word of excuse, drew her away from the group, an action that to his delight was not missed by Jane. He must be more direct with his attentions to Mary Ellen if he was going to cause Jane to forget Harris. He congratulated Mary Ellen on her fine choices and declared that he was certain no other lady of his acquaintance had quite such good taste in trimmings.
“I say, Bingley,” said Richar, “I had not taken you for such a dandy.”
Bingley raised a brow at the brusqueness of Richard’s tone. “I am not. I just have been schooled in all the finer things of fashion by my overly zealous sisters.”
“Should have joined the militia,” replied Richard with a laugh. “You can be assured there is very little talk of the finer points of fashion among the men.”
“Your men never notice what the ladies are wearing,” Mary Ellen fluttered her lashes and feigned a look of innocence.
Richard laughed again. “I did not say that, Miss Dobney. They are not without excellent powers of observation, but their discussion never delves into the latest colour or the particular style of sleeve.”
She leaned into Bingley’s arm. “Then, I am fortunate to have found a gentleman of such refined talents.” She again fluttered her lashes before turning to smile up at Bingley.
“Yes, very fortunate,” Richard ground out. “If only we could all be as superior as Bingley.”
“Indeed,” said Mary Ellen.
“It is not a refinement I have sought. It is rather a serendipitous result of the hours of torture I have endured listening to my sisters on the subject.” Bingley looked questioningly at Richard. Why was that gentleman so gruff? This was the plan they had contrived. He, Bingley, was to play the part of a smitten swain, but it was only a part — and yet, Richard was acting very much like a jealous beau. Bingley opened his mouth to add a comment about the number of times one or the other of his sisters had placed projects before him and asked his opinion, only to tell him where he had gone wrong. However, before he could utter a sound, he clamped it closed again and shifted his body away from Mary Ellen.
Well, this was a fine kettle of fish, he thought to himself as he watched Richard warily and Harris with contempt as the group walked down the street, stopping here and there for an exploration of one shop or another. Much to Bingley’s relief, it was finally suggested that they gather the few things they needed for a small al fresco meal. This was quickly done — Mrs. Abbot and Mrs. Gardiner being very proficient in organizing and orchestrating such tasks — and before long, the party was gathering at a small grove they had passed on the trip earlier that day.
“Why did you not tell me?” Bingley whispered as he and Richard spread blankets on the ground.
“Tell you what?” demanded Richard.
Bingley accepted the gratitude of Mrs. Abbot for having done such a fine job of preparing a place to sit, and then, with a nod of his head, removed himself and Richard a distance from the others. “Why did you not tell me you cared for Miss Dobney?’
Richard blinked. “Why should I tell you that?”
“Because it is true!”
Richard’s brows furrowed and his lower lip protruded slightly as he frowned and shook his head.
Bingley chuckled. “You do not like her?” There was disbelief in his voice. “Then why did you act as if you wished to see my head on a pike when we were in Lambton?”
Richard shrugged. “I do not know.”
Bingley shook his head and chuckled once again. “I think I should ride with Darcy on our return.”
“You mustn’t,” said Richard. “Our objective will not be met if you do.”
Bingley sighed. “No, it will not. However, I am rather more concerned about your jealousy than I am hers. She may break my heart, but she will not run it through as you might.”
“I would do no such thing,” scoffed Richard. “I am only disagreeable due to the warmth of the day.”
Bingley’s brows rose in disbelief. The day was warm but not without a cooling breeze. “Very well, I shall continue as we have, but if you find that it is not just the weather making you cross, you have only to say so.” He paused before turning back to take his place with the picnickers. “Have you seen any indication that our plan is working?” he asked.
Richard shrugged. “She is watching us. I dare say that is something, is it not?”
Bingley was not certain it was, but he allowed it to be. As the day ended, Bingley still could not tell whether their machinations were working or not. The one thing of which he was certain was that he disliked Captain Harris immensely, and it was on this thought that he was dwelling later as he and Richard rode to Kympton to find a place other than the games room at Pemberley to wash away the aggravating mental dust of the day.
More in the Willow Hall Romance Series
A Pride and Prejudice Prequel ~ Willow Hall Romance, Book 1
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.
Click cover image to find this book in your favorite store.
A Pride and Prejudice Variation Novella ~ Willow Hall Romance, Book 2
When Fitzwilliam Darcy bought Willow Hall, he thought he was helping a friend escape an untenable situation. Little did he know he was purchasing a second chance for his own happiness.
Click cover image to find this book in your favorite store.
A Pride and Prejudice Variation Novella, Willow Hall Romance Book 3
Lydia Bennet only meant to surprise her sisters and enjoy some fun. She thought she had planned well enough to avoid any disagreeable consequence, but she did not. However, when plans go awry, the results, much like the lady who made the plan, can be very unexpected.
This story has been removed from the blog in preparation for publication in February 2017.