At All Costs: A Pride and Prejudice Variation Novel
By the look on Caroline Bingley’s face, she had not expected her brother to be the one opening the carriage door. “Ch…Charles,” she stammered.
“Caroline, you are not expected here.” He turned his attention to Mr. Hurst, who was gripping the top of his walking stick so firmly that his knuckles were white. “Did you not receive my letters?” Bingley asked him.
“We did,” said Louisa, “but –”
“I did not ask you,” Bingley snapped, causing his eldest sister to gasp and cover her mouth in surprise.
“We did,” said Hurst uneasily, “but you know how your sisters can be.” There was a note of pleading for understanding in his voice. “I accepted the invitation to ___ house party, and we are expected there, but…” He shrugged and looked at Bingley apologetically. “There are two of them and only one of me.”
As angry as Bingley was to have his sisters arrive unannounced, he did understand how they could wear a man down. Is that not how they had often gotten their way all their lives?
“When are you expected?” Bingley asked.
“Tomorrow,” Hurst replied. “I had thought to stop one more night and then continue on so that we,” he nodded his head toward Caroline, “would appear to best advantage when arriving.”
Bingley nodded his approval of the idea. He knew that Hurst was equally as anxious to be rid of Caroline, for though she was the youngest of the Bingley siblings, she was the most overbearing. Louisa had not the temperament to stand up to Caroline, and so, what Caroline suggested, Louisa did, even now as a married woman.
“There is an inn in Lambton. There would be a greater distance to be travelled tomorrow, to be certain, but it could be accomplished.”
“An inn?” said Caroline in shock.
“Yes, an inn.” Bingley gave her a hard, unwavering look.
“Might we stretch our legs?” Louisa asked. “Please. I am quite stiff.”
Bingley looked first at one sister and then the other and back again. “You may get out of the carriage, but you are not entering Pemberley.” He stepped back and allowed Hurst to help his sisters from the carriage.
“But Charles,” said Caroline, “a little refreshment is needed.”
Bingley shook his head. “No, you may refresh at the inn. It is not so very far to Lambton.”
“Seriously, Charles, an inn?” Caroline gave him a look of amused disbelief. “There are plenty of rooms at Pemberley. It would not be an inconvenience for us to stay the night.”
“I am not jesting, Caroline. You may stretch your legs and then be on your way. Did I not explicitly say you were not to come to Pemberley?’
Caroline waved his words away. “There was no reason for us not to come. Pemberley is on the way to ___, and Darcy is our friend as much as he is yours.”
“Darcy is polite and tolerates you.” Bingley gave a bitter laugh. “And I have been no better, forcing him to put up with the likes of you.”
Again, Louisa gasped and covered her mouth. Bingley could well imagine her surprise at his actions this afternoon. It was not often that he allowed his anger to get the best of him in the presence of ladies — even if those ladies were his sisters.
“Me?” Caroline’s blinked wide eyes at him. “It is not I who has done him the disservice of seeing him connected to those beneath him.”
Bingley’s eyes narrowed. So, they were to come to it. “Do you dare stand before his home and disparage the lady he will call wife in one week’s time?”
“Charles,” Caroline’s tone was cajoling, “even you must admit she is not of his sphere. It will become apparent to one and all soon enough, and then do you think he will remain your friend? You, who led him to such a place as Hertfordshire?”
Bingley stepped close to Caroline and lowered his voice. “You go too far, Sister.”
“Oh, I do not think I have gone far enough. Had I done more this travesty might have been prevented. Indeed, it still might.” Caroline smiled slyly.
Bingley’s jaw clenched and relaxed. “Darcy is marrying Miss Elizabeth. Take one last look at Pemberley and be gone. You shall not see it again.”
Caroline cocked her head and patted her brother’s arm before stepping around him. “Mr. Darcy, it is good to see you.”
Bingley closed his eyes and shook his head. Of all the unfortunate times for Darcy to appear! Two minutes longer and Caroline would have been gone.
“We are on our way to ____,” Caroline explained in her sweetest voice, “and since Pemberley was on our way, we could not resist the opportunity to call and wish you joy.”
“Indeed?” Darcy’s eyes looked to Bingley in question. “I had it from your brother that you would not be visiting.”
Caroline laughed lightly and shot her brother a triumphant smile. “It was not planned. We only wished to stop for a few minutes before continuing on to the inn in Lambton for the night. We are expected at __ tomorrow, you see.” She looked about as if expecting to see someone. “Would we be so fortunate as to see Miss Eliza and Miss Darcy?”
Bingley shook his head when Darcy looked his direction.
Darcy gave a small incline, barely a tip, of his head in acceptance of Bingley’s unspoken suggestion. “They are occupied at the moment. Miss Bennet felt a headache developing, and Miss Elizabeth and Georgiana are seeing to her needs.”
“Miss Bennet? Miss Jane Bennet?” Caroline cast a concerned look toward Bingley.
“Yes, she is visiting the area along with her aunt and uncle Gardiner. It seems my tenants at Willow Hall are related to the Gardiners.”
“Oh,” said Caroline, “how fortunate.”
Bingley smiled at the disappointed tone in her voice.
“Indeed, it was most fortunate. I had not thought to see Miss Elizabeth again so soon after leaving her in Kent this spring.” Darcy cut a glance toward Bingley and, catching his eye, winked at him and flicked a brow up quickly.
“In Kent?” Caroline could not contain her surprise at this bit of information.
“Yes, her cousin is my aunt’s parson,” Darcy replied. “I believe you met Mr. Collins, did you not?”
“He married Miss Lucas. You remember her, do you not?”
Again Caroline nodded.
“Elizabeth and Mrs. Collins are good friends, so it was only natural that a visit must take place. Happily, it was the same time my cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and I were visiting my aunt, Lady Catherine.”
“How fortunate,” muttered Caroline.
“My cousin is here now. We are gathered in the garden. Perhaps a stroll before you are on your way would be beneficial?” Darcy motioned to the side of the house.
Bingley breathed a sigh of relief. Darcy was not going to play the gallant and insist on Caroline and the Hursts staying at Pemberley. Bingley would have to thank him for that later.
“That would be lovely,” said Louisa, “I have always enjoyed the grounds here. They are so well designed.”
Darcy gave a bow of his head in thanks and led the way toward the garden.
Caroline accepted the arm of Captain Harris when he offered to escort her around the garden.
“I have heard your name mentioned,” said Harris as they began their walk, “and I am most happy to now to have made your acquaintance. The militia has kept me away, you see.”
“You said your father lives near here?” Caroline asked as she studied his features. He was nearly a head taller than she was, and his shoulders were wide while his waist was narrow. The arm on which her hand rested was firm, and she guess him to be very strong. His hair fell around his ears in wisps of golden brown, and his face was angular but not harshly so. Overall, he was quite fine attractive, but looks were not the salient point when judging a gentleman. No matter the perfection of the physical specimen, it was his accounts and holdings that truly defined his worth to Caroline.
“He does. Not six miles from Aldwood Abbey. Mr. Dobney is my uncle — my mother’s sister was his wife.” He glanced down at Caroline. “Have you been to Aldwood Abbey?”
“Well, then, I shall compare my father’s estate with it since you might remember how large Aldwood Abbey is?”
“Oh, I remember every estate I visit. I am very good at that sort of thing. I admire architecture and finishing, you see. The way they lead the eye and present themselves is of great interest to me. So much can be said of a man and his character just by the state of his garden.” She hoped from the smile he favoured her with that he understood her meaning. She would not even consider a man without a proper estate that was well-tended. There were areas where appearances were important, and in the impressing of callers, the care of a garden, the right drapery and paintings, and a proper placement of furniture must all be considered as necessities.
“I quite agree, and should you even visit my father’s home, you would find gardens as fine as these,” he waved his hand toward the garden, “they lack only size in comparison. My mother has a fine eye, and father dotes on her — though not to extravagance.” He shook his head. “Oh, no, Father is far from extravagant.”
“So your father’s estate is well-tended?”
Harris nodded. “Yes, quite. But, we digress. I was to describe to you the size of the estate.”
Caroline looked to him anxiously. He seemed to possess a proper understanding of the importance of appearances and holdings. He seemed to be a man who would use his money wisely to increase his standing, and she found this fact to be almost as attractive as his face — and the longer she looked at him, the more she had to admit that his face was handsome.
“The lands attached to my father’s estate are equal to those of Aldwood Abbey, but we have a greater number of fields, and an attached farm to the west that is let out…but land holdings are not what most ladies find of interest at our estate. ” He again smiled down at her. “As I said the gardens are magnificent, but the house — ah, there is the true beauty of the estate. The house shines like a jewel surrounded by its gardens and back by the stand of woods. The drive is not as long as the one here, but there is ample time when a carriage is spotted at the turn for tea to be ordered before the guests arrive at the door. And then, well — my mother’s eye is as good at interiors as it is at exteriors. The rooms, and there are only two less than Aldwood Abbey — we have no chapel or chapel anteroom –, are so well furnished in a traditional classical style. If you were to be visiting longer, I would insist that you come visit. I am certain you would not be disappointed.”
“I dare say I would not be disappointed. You have described such a place as I would find every pleasure in seeing. Tell me, what were the impressions of the Bennets on seeing it?”
“Oh, I could not say. I have yet to persuade them to visit.”
There was a distinct note of disappointment in his tone that did not evade Caroline’s notice. Perhaps, Captain Harris might prove handy in creating a trying environment for Miss Eliza to be entering. “Do not tell me,” Caroline cried, “that Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth limit themselves to Pemberley when there are estates such as your father’s to visit!”
“No, no. They divide their time between here, the Abbey, and Kympton.”
Caroline’s brows rose. Was Jane attempting to ensnare Marcus? “They visit Aldwood Abbey?”
Harris nodded. “Their sister is to marry Marcus, so it is only natural that they would.”
“Miss Bennet is to marry Mr. Marcus Dobney?” she asked in surprise.
Harris laughed. “No, Miss Lydia is to marry Marcus.”
“Miss Lydia?” Caroline’s eyes grew wide, and her brows rose.
Harris chuckled again. “It is quite the story how it came to be.”
Harris’ lips curled upward slyly as he nodded.
“Do tell,” Caroline encouraged.
And he did.
Caroline could not believe what she was hearing. Such tales that could be shared! Oh, the pleasure of tickling Louisa’s ears in the carriage! The thought was nearly enough for her to wish to leave that moment, but one must not ignore an opportunity to add to succulent secrets. “I should say I am surprised, I suppose,” Caroline peeked up at him with a coquettish smile and flutter of lashes, “but I am not. The way the Bennets present themselves in public!” She gasped and shook her head. “Oh, the eldest girls present themselves quite well, but the mother and the younger girls — it is quite embarrassing.”
“I have no doubt,” said Harris. “Miss Lydia was the most determined flirt in Brighton. I heard rumors that she was not ungenerous with her charms.”
Oh, this was the opening that Caroline had longed for! A place where she might be able to see Jane and Elizabeth lowered as they should be. And so, she leaned closer and whispered, “I should not say this since he is my brother, but you seem the sort of person who can be trusted.” She looked at Harris and waited for the agreement that was not long in coming. “Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth Bennet stayed at Netherfield, the estate my brother leased in Hertfordshire, for several days. I cannot say for certain, but there were whispers amongst the staff that not everything was proper.”
“Do you mean, Miss Bennet or Miss Elizabeth was not proper?” He asked in surprise.
“I know it is shocking,” Caroline agreed. “I cannot say it was one or the other — some things are best left unsaid — but I can tell you that Miss Bennet was whisked away to her aunt’s home only a little more than a month thereafter, and, well, Mr. Darcy is excessively enamoured with Miss Elizabeth, so…” she let the story end there as Harris’ eyes grew wide.
“But your brother is not engaged to Miss Bennet. Is his honor not injured by not offering for her?”
Caroline shrugged. “I do not know that my brother did not offer and was rejected. Nor do I know if he found her — hmmm,” she tapped her lips with her finger, “untouched. She smiles very easily at all the men she meets.”
They walked along in silence for a few strides. “I fear I have fallen prey to her smiles,” Harris finally admitted, “but she seemed so decorous.”
“That she does,” Caroline said sadly. “I, of course, broke off my friendship with her as soon as I knew.”
“As you should!” declared Harris. “And as I will.”
“You will not say anything about what I have shared. She is a woman in need of a good home at some point. Her father is not well to do.”
Harris looked toward the house that was now just about before them. “I shall not whisper a word,” he assured her.
Caroline thanked him but knew that this secret would not stay hidden. How could it? It was tantalizing. Miss Bennet would not succeed with any gentleman in Derbyshire, and Charles? She shrugged mentally. It was possible that his reputation might come into question, but he was a man and as such, indiscretions were forgivable. However, she thought as a smile curled her lips, if it did hurt him, it was no more than he deserved for first, ruining her chances with Darcy and then, turning her away from Pemberley to sleep at an inn.
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.
Publication: February 2017