At All Costs: A Pride and Prejudice Variation Novel
“I publish the Banns of Marriage between…”
Bingley felt an unusual tingle of excitement skitter up his spine and across the skin on his arms as Philip began to read the first banns for Marcus to be followed by the final banns for Darcy. Soon, it would be his turn to have such a service rendered him. As soon as he could prove to Jane that he was worthy of her trust.
“This is the first time of asking.” Philip paused and then began again. “I publish the Banns of Marriage between…”
Bingley glanced across the church and, catching Jane’s eye, smiled. The way she bowed her head and the colour that stained her cheeks were charming. How had he ever listened to Darcy and his sister? He lifted his shoulders in an imperceivable shrug. Listening to Darcy was perhaps understandable. Darcy was after all slightly older and therefore, supposedly, wiser. But listening to Caroline — if there was a character flaw amplified in this whole ordeal, that was it! He had been far too willing to listen to Caroline and Louisa. It was a trust that was sorrowfully misplaced but would not be again.
“This is the third time of asking.” Philip once again paused.
“Mr. Darcy is betrothed to another,” a voice called out from the back of the church.
Bingley saw Darcy’s spine stiffen and the brilliant hues of anger creep up his neck.
Philip’s eyes grew wide as he looked first at the well-dressed woman at the back of the church and then Darcy.
Darcy rose and turned toward the woman who accused him. “Lady Catherine, have you come all this way to speak lies?”
Every eye in the church was fixed on either Darcy or the woman Darcy had addressed as Lady Catherine.
“I believe she is his aunt,” some woman whispered to left of Bingley.
“It is not a lie,” Lady Catherine countered. “Mr. Darcy has been betrothed to my daughter.”
“We are not betrothed,” countered Darcy with a look toward Philip. “It was merely a wish of my aunt’s. There are no papers signed. There has not even been an offer made or an overture of preference shown to my cousin on my part.” He turned back to Lady Catherine but looked past her to the ashen-faced girl trying to hide in the depths of the pew. “Cousin Anne, what have you to say?”
“She is not well,” said Lady Catherine. “The trip was long and taxing, but when I heard the news that you were to be married.” She clucked her tongue. “That you would defy your own mother in such as way as to marry,” her eyes swept the church until they landed on Elizabeth, “her.” She glared at Elizabeth before returning her focus to Darcy. “I could not sit by and allow it.”
“Is there record of a betrothal?” Philip asked. “Documentation that I might see?”
Lady Catherine raised a brow at Darcy and pulled a folded paper from her reticule. With a flourish of skirts, she marched up the aisle, handed the paper to Philip, and waited as he scanned its content.
“This is an agreement between yourself and your sister,” he said in a hushed voice.
“But you can see, young man, that it is an agreement that my daughter and Darcy are to marry.”
“This is merely a wish that it might happen,” Philip countered still in a hushed tone. “It is not legally binding.”
“You are too young and appointed by him.” She attempted to snatch the paper away from him.
Philip held the document out of her reach. “Would you accept the opinion of one who is older than I and was appointed by Mr. Darcy’s father?”
Lady Catherine shifted uneasily and after a moment’s consideration nodded.
“Mrs. Dobney, if you would so kindly help Mr. Harker to the anteroom. Darcy, Lady Catherine, if you would join me. We shall have this sorted out in no time.”
The frail young lady in the last pew on the right-hand side of the church jumped, rose swiftly to her feet, and followed her mother to the small room on the side of the church.
“Come with me,” Darcy said to Bingley. “And try to keep me from doing anything foolish that will land me in jail.”
Bingley slid into the room and stood behind Darcy where he could poke him if necessary without being seen by the others. This was not the first time that he had stood behind his friend like this. But, at those moments, Darcy had not looked so displeased as he did now. There were degrees to Darcy’s foreboding look varying from the leave me be, I could not be bothered with the likes of you, to his current guns at dawn expression. Bingley leaned forward and whispered near Darcy’s ear. “I’ll not be your second. Besides, I am certain you cannot call out a lady.”
Despite the tense mood, Darcy let out a quiet laugh and shook his head. Bingley sighed in relief. Darcy was no longer looking murderous.
“I do not see why we could not have done this out there,” grumbled Lady Catherine.
“I am afraid that is my fault,” said Mr. Harker. “My eyes are not good, so Mr. Dobney will need to read the paper to me.”
Lady Catherine huffed.
“I assure you, my lady, that my mental faculties have not left me. I shall be able to judge wisely and fairly.”
“You are agreed that Mr. Harker has the final word on the legitimacy of this protest?” Philip asked.
Lady Catherine looked from Darcy to Mr. Harker to Mr. Dobney. “I feel I have no choice.”
“We could call for the magistrate if you prefer,” said Darcy.
Lady Catherine narrowed her eyes. “No doubt a friend of yours.”
“There are not many who are not.” Darcy flinched and clamped his lips closed as Bingley poked him between the shoulder blades.
“I will begin,” said Philip. “It is hereby declared on this third day of May in the year of our Lord 1792 that it is designed and intended that Fitzwilliam George Darcy will upon or before the twenty-first birthday of Annella Catherine De Bourgh join with her in marriage.” Philip folded the sheet. “It is signed by Lady Catherine and Lady Anne.”
“I was seven, and Anne was not one!” Darcy’s shoulders twitched at the jab from behind.
“Your age does not matter,” said Mr. Harker. “Let us not discuss that it was a contract formed by females but instead consider that Mr. Darcy has not signed it. Anyone could create such a document. I could write on a piece of paper that Miss De Bourgh is to marry Mr. Bingley here, and I could even have Miss De Bourgh sign the paper, but it would not hold an ounce of power if Mr. Bingley had not signed it. Mr. Darcy is not bound by the law to marry your daughter unless he wishes to marry her. Do you?” Mr. Harker turned toward Darcy.
“No, I wish to marry Miss Elizabeth.”
“And you, Miss De Bourgh, I cannot see your face very clearly, but I see you shifting,” he smiled kindly at her, “do you wish to marry Mr. Darcy?”
Anne turned frightened eyes toward her mother.
Mr. Harker nodded. “As I thought. All will be well, Miss De Bourgh. I understand that you only wish to please your mother.”
“But it was planned!” protested Lady Catherine. “Will you deny your mother her wish?” She turned her eyes toward Darcy.
“Even if I believed my mother still held such a wish these twenty years later, I would deny it, for I will not marry a lady unless she has captured my heart. And Miss Elizabeth possess it now and will for all time.”
“Her mother is a tradesman’s daughter,” countered Lady Catherine. “It is unseemly.”
“Her father is a gentleman just I am and just as my father was,” retorted Darcy.
“I will not stand for it,” said Lady Catherine.
“You have no choice,” said Mr. Harker.
Lady Catherine huffed in displeasure. “I will not accept her.”
“You do not need to accept her,” said Darcy.
Again, Lady Catherine huffed. “Mr. Collins was right about her. She is an adventuress. She would not have him and his living because she saw you and your fortune. She was the same with Mr. Wickham — pleasant and even a bit of a flirt, but what is he in comparison to your wealth. And her sister is no different, I hear.”
“Mr. Wickham?” Darcy snarled, and Bingley allowed him to do so without as much as a nudge in reminder to Darcy to contain his anger. If Wickham were involved, Bingley wished to hear how.
“I did not see him, of course.” She raised her chin. “He is too far below me, but Mr. and Mrs. Collins were hospitable and saw to his needs. Mr. Collins is not too far above anyone in his behaviour.”
“Wickham called at Hunsford?” Bingley asked.
Lady Catherine barely deigned to spare him a glance. “Mr. Wickham called on his way through Kent. He is stationed at Brighton, I believe — or was it Portsmouth?”
“Brighton,” Anne offered quietly.
“Ah, yes. Brighton is where he is stationed. He knew Mrs. Collins when she was still Miss Lucas, and he thought it his duty to wish her joy on her marriage.” She shook her head. “Mr. Collins relayed to me that his wife was greatly distressed when she heard the extent of Mr. Wickham’s trip. He was to go as far as London, but your betrothed’s,” she gave Darcy a pointed look, “youngest sister — quite the wild thing from Mr. Collins’ description — charmed Mr. Wickham into conveying her to Derbyshire under the pretense of an elopement.” Her brows rose nearly to her hairline as her scowl deepened. “He claims there was never an arrangement or anything improper between them, and Mr. Collins assured me that he believed Mr. Wickham to be true — and Mr. Collins is very good at judging character. But, they did travel alone. And this, this family of wanton women, is the one with whom you wish to align yourself?”
“Mr. Wickham told all that to Mr. Collins?” Bingley tried to keep his tone cool so as not to betray the anger he felt. He had warned Wickham about speaking of Lydia.
Lady Catherine swept her eyes from Bingley’s toes to his face and with a slightly sour look, assured him that Mr. Collins had indeed heard the very thing from Mr. Wickham.
Darcy, whose shoulders had been lifting and lowering at a steady pace as he drew deep breaths, finally, spoke. “You will leave and not return. I never wish to see you again.” His voice wavered, and the murderous look had once again returned.
“You would choose her over family?” Lady Catherine asked in surprise.
“Go,” said Darcy in a low growl, pointing to the door.
“I will see you out the side door and safely to your carriage,” said Lucy, stepping between Darcy and his aunt. Thankfully, with a final look and huff at Darcy, Lady Catherine complied and was soon gone.
Bingley wished to be off after her — not to Kent, but to London — Wickham’s leave was not up. The scoundrel was not in Brighton. However, rash decisions were not what was needed, so, instead, he looked at the men in the room with him and smiled at Darcy. “She drove from Kent to make a false claim? Do you think she might be related to my sister?” The question did as it was intended, sending a diffusing chuckle around the group.
More in the Willow Hall Romance Series
A Pride and Prejudice Prequel ~ Willow Hall Romance, Book 1
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A Pride and Prejudice Variation Novella ~ Willow Hall Romance, Book 2
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