To Paul, the love of my life and my own Mr. Darcy, and Deb Werksman, my editor at Sourcebooks, for her guidance and patience
Fitzwilliam Darcy paced up and down the side of the road. He had been within five miles of Netherfield Park, the country estate of his friend, Charles Bingley, when the carriage had veered violently to the right. After learning from his driver that the axle was bent, he had sent his footman in search of a horse, so that he might continue his journey.
A month earlier, Bingley had signed a lease on a handsome two-hundred-acre estate in Hertfordshire with a well-stocked lake and an uninterrupted view of the surrounding countryside. The manor house was the perfect size for Bingley and his small party. The rent on the house, which was owned by the Darlingtons, was reasonable, and above all, it had stables and pastures for Charles’s horses.
Before Darcy gave his opinion on signing the lease, he had gone into the neighboring village of Meryton and had found a typical market town near enough to the London road so that it had some amenities, such as a circulating library, an assembly hall, and a variety of shops that would meet Bingley’s simple needs, if not those of his sisters, Caroline and Louisa, who were to keep house for him. He also made inquiries as to the local society. With Sir James Darlington, a baronet, gone to take the waters in search of a cure for his gout and relief for his wife’s arthritis, Sir William Lucas, who had been knighted the previous year, was the only person of rank within easy riding distance of Netherfield Park. Darcy knew that Bingley, who loved dancing almost as much as he loved horses, would sign the lease as soon as he heard that there was an assembly hall in Meryton.
By the time his footman had returned with a horse, a light rain had begun to fall, but Darcy would push on to Netherfield nonetheless and hope that the weather would improve or at least not get worse.
The weather got worse, and by the time Darcy made his entrance at Netherfield Park, his only interest was in being shown to his room, as he was chilled to the bone. Despite dripping all over the tile in the foyer and his apparent discomfort, Caroline Bingley was attempting to engage him in conversation, and her sister, Louisa Hurst, whose voice resembled a newly hatched chick, was asking if he wanted her to order some tea.
“Thank you, Mrs. Hurst, but I would prefer to go straight to my room, so that I might change out of these wet clothes.” He looked down at his feet and an expanding puddle, and Louisa directed a servant to show Mr. Darcy to his room.
A short while later, Bingley came bounding in. Charles’s enthusiasm for life was usually infectious, but Darcy was so tired from the ride that all he could think of was his bed. “Darcy, we were expecting you hours ago. Were you waylaid by highwaymen?”
Darcy merely shook his head. “If you were hoping for a bedtime story about how I eluded capture by brigands, I am sorry to disappoint you, but perhaps your governess is in residence?”
“Ah, good old Darcy, always in fine form no matter what the circumstances.” As he watched his friend shed his wet garments, he explained that he had sent a servant to rummage through the house to look for clothes for him. “Unfortunately, Sir James Darlington was a rather rotund man and not a great tall fellow like you are, and you could not get into a pair of my breeches with a shoe horn. So let us hope that your carriage will be here early in the morning.” Bingley exited the room, but then poked his head back in. “Oh, by the way, there is an assembly in the village tomorrow evening.”
“Bingley! An assembly? We will speak of it in the morning,” the exhausted traveler answered.
“No need, Darcy, I have already accepted an invitation on your behalf,” and he quickly left the room.
The next day, Darcy tried to find an excuse for not going to the assembly. But if he did not go, Caroline and Louisa would have a reason to stay behind, and then Darcy would have to play cards with them or listen to Mr. Hurst drone on about how difficult it was to find a shop that stocked brandy and French wines, and if you did, how damn expensive they were. The wars on the Continent were a great inconvenience to Bingley’s brother-in-law.
“Come now, Darcy. It will do you of world a good. I am told there are many local beauties, and they most certainly will be in need of partners.”
The matter was finally settled when Mr. Hurst, who had been sprawled out on the couch, sat up and let out a loud belch.
“If you insist, I shall go, but I warn you, Bingley, I am in no humor to dance.”
“Darcy, I cannot force you to dance, but may I ask that you remove that scowl from your face? We do not want to frighten our neighbors.”
In late morning, Darcy’s manservant arrived at Netherfield Park. Mercer, who had been with Darcy for the past five years, was the most capable and ingenious man he had ever met. Upon hearing the sound of crunching gravel on the main drive to the house, he went to the window and laughed when he saw his servant at the reins of a farm wagon carrying all of his chests.
Darcy was not looking forward to attending the assembly. He was always uncomfortable in these country settings. Even in Lambton, the nearest village to Pemberley, or on the farms of his tenants, where he knew everyone by name, he did not know how to converse with people not of his class, especially if they were of the opposite sex. You could discuss breeding sheep with a farmer, but what did you talk about with the farmer’s daughter? Fortunately, his young sister, Georgiana, had no such difficulties and was able to converse on any number of subjects, including, to his amusement, the need for road improvements between Lambton and Matlock with a local farmer.
Upon entering the assembly room, the party was introduced to Sir William Lucas and his daughter, Charlotte, a rather plain lady, but one who seemed to have a pleasant disposition. Following on Sir William’s heels was the master of ceremonies, who asked if there was any lady to whom Darcy wished to be introduced, but he answered by saying that it was not his intention to dance. Within minutes, the hall was buzzing with news of the amiable Mr. Bingley’s unpleasant friend, who refused to dance because he was above his company.
Darcy spotted Bingley dancing with a lovely creature with blond hair and blue eyes. This was all so familiar to Darcy. Wherever they went, Bingley’s engaging ways quickly won over his new acquaintances. Within minutes, he would be besieged by gentlemen wishing to arrange introductions for their daughters, and he would always end up dancing at least two sets with the prettiest girl in the room.
“Come, Darcy. I must have you dance,” Bingley said during a break in the music.
If Darcy gave any hint that he might be persuaded, he would have Bingley after him all night. So with great emphasis, he answered, “I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner.”
Bingley continued to push and encouraged him to dance with the sister of the golden-haired Miss Bennet. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet is very pretty, and I daresay very agreeable.”
After a quick glance, he said, “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me,” and told his friend that he was wasting his time. After Bingley left, he looked over his shoulder and realized that the young lady had heard what he had said.
“Blast it all,” he thought. He had not meant to give offense. His intention had been to stop Bingley from further entreaties. He was sure he had offended, but since he would not be seeing her again, he made the decision to say nothing. Instead, he went into the cardroom, where he soon found himself playing against competent players, who lightened his purse by a pound or two.
After spending most of the evening in the cardroom, he returned to the assembly and watched as Miss Elizabeth made her way through the complicated steps of a quadrille. Now that he had an unobstructed view of the lady, he saw that she was quite pretty, especially when she smiled, and he also noticed how softly her long, dark curls fell upon her shoulders and the brightness of her eyes and the fullness of her mouth. Shortly after realizing how appealing Miss Elizabeth Bennet was, he told Bingley he was sending for the carriage.
A few weeks after the assembly, on a lazy summer’s day, Charlotte and Elizabeth were walking along the wagon road between Lucas Lodge and Longbourn, discussing how their friend and sister seemed to have captured Mr. Bingley’s heart. And they were not the only ones who had noticed. Ever since the dance, the town was humming with rumors of an engagement between the two, and some of the shopkeepers were busy circulating the news that Miss Bennet had been in their shops looking at bonnets and ribbons and other paraphernalia, which would obviously become a part of her trousseau. This greatly amused Lizzy because Jane and she often went into the shops to see what new goods had come in on the London coach, but now everything Jane did had a hidden meaning.
Another topic of conversation was Mr. Darcy of Pemberley. Because Lizzy was one of the prettiest girls in this corner of Hertfordshire, Mr. Darcy’s remark that Lizzy was only “tolerable” had insulted every lady who was less attractive than she was. But Charlotte Lucas was of a different opinion.
“Lizzy, at the risk of challenging one of your reasons for disliking Mr. Darcy, I must say that I do not think his comments were directed at you.”