“Louisa must be exaggerating.” Bingley’s attempt at cheer fell short at his eyes. “You are certain you remember nothing of Mr. Dunham?”
Darcy shrugged. “He was three years my junior.” The boy had been fair and possessed of a good allowance, enough to supplement the house meals. He had also been fond of sweets, Darcy remembered vaguely. And ostentatious, the sort of boy who would do anything to impress others with his wealth and bravery.
Bingley and Darcy sat across from each other in his carriage. Bingley, not a reader, attempted, with limited success, a game of Patience on a tray upon his lap.
Darcy, not one for cards and having no attention for his correspondence sent forward from Pemberley, held an open letter in his lap while his gaze traced the passing landscape.
Bingley forced a smile. “Louisa has always been a bit high-strung when it comes to her sister. If Caroline were to fall in love, she would do so carefully, and with someone wholly appropriate. When we arrive, we will find Caroline has the situation well in hand. Then, we shall bathe in the sea and entertain ourselves with cards and dancing.”
“I am not one for dancing.”
Bingley chuckled. At least that was genuine.
For most, a trip to Brighton was a holiday. For Bingley, whose sister might be engaged in an unfortunate courtship, it was an issue of fraternal pride and duty.
For Darcy, the journey was a reminder of his failures and possibly an attempt to redeem himself.
Darcy’s secret rested like a hot worm in his guts. Miss Elizabeth’s revelations of her sister’s affection for Bingley had seemed genuine. The woman had certainly spared no thought for impressing or pleasing Darcy. She had met his every approach with fire, and though her judgment of him and Wickham, the cad, could not be farther from the truth, Darcy did not doubt the sincerity of her emotions. Which meant Miss Elizabeth at least believed in her sister’s affection for his friend.
Whether Miss Elizabeth was correct was another matter.
If Bingley, still trusting in his friend’s judgment, had not begged Darcy to come and reacquaint himself with his schoolmate, Darcy’s would not have gone to Brighton. But whether Bingley knew it, Darcy recognized the debt between them. He had wronged his friend, and he had no true way to mitigate the offense.
To determine if Miss Bennet’s affections were still true to Bingley, Darcy would have to return to Longbourn and speak with the young woman. Worse, he would have to face Miss Elizabeth, who had so thoroughly unmanned him in the projection of his proposal.
Blast her! Blast her observations and her unwillingness to accept his affection. Perhaps, he was willing to admit at least to himself, he may have been in the wrong to express his opinion of her family as a part of his proposal. Though Miss Elizabeth, being imbued with a higher gentility, ought to have recognized the compliment he paid her in the comparison.
Darcy was considered a fine catch to other women of his acquaintance. Miss Caroline Bingley had practically thrown herself at him given the least provocation.
Which made Miss Bingley’s sudden courtship with another unsettling, even as Darcy had no interest in marrying the woman himself.
How had Darcy gone from being admired to reviled and then ignored in a span of weeks?
Or perhaps, he had never been admired for himself. Perhaps it had always been his 10,000 a year and extensive lands.
A humbling thought.
Worse, he could not put Miss Elizabeth Bennet from his mind. Perhaps because her interest in him, or lack of it, had nothing to do with his 10,000 a year or property.
Has Miss Elizabeth read his letter? It had been improper to write to her directly, and yet, how else could he explain the error in her judgment and, humiliatingly, the error in his own?
“Darcy, are you well?” Bingley said, looking up from his cards.
“I had thought you disinterested in my sister. The thought of her marrying another man cannot – –.”
“No. I am not thinking of her sister.”
Bingley raised an eyebrow. “Then who are you thinking of?”
Bingley laughed. “Yours is not an expression one wears when thinking of ‘no one’. I know. I have seen it in my own reflection enough these past months.” Bingley’s voice softened. “Someone has broken your heart, have they not?”
Darcy’s first instinct was to reject his friend’s words. Yes, he had proposed to Miss Elizabeth, and yes, she had taken every effort to stomp his heart into dust, but had she succeeded? No. He would not give her the satisfaction.
Best to put Miss Elizabeth Bennet from his mind. Darcy was here to help his friend whose sister might be taking an unfortunate path. He said, “I have not spoken with Mr. Dunham since we were in public school.
Darcy tried his best to remember the younger man. “His father gave Phillip a healthy allowance, and he spent it. At first on fine foods, and later on women. But none of this is unusual for a young man. and I had always felt him more interested in impressing others than vice its own sake.” As Darcy spoke, the young man grew clearer in his mind: large boned and stocky with a small but noticeable rounding of his gut. “If Mr. Dunham is still pursuing such interests, Miss Bingley will set her attention on more suitable prospects,” Darcy mused.
Bingley nodded, but his lips were pressed together. He tapped his finger against his cheek and said, “Perhaps if Mr. Dunham were an ordinary man. But he will inherit a title, and my sister has always been enamored of titles. Caroline and Louisa were treated terribly by the other girls at the seminary school my father sent them to when they were younger because our money comes from trade.”
Darcy, who had been sent away for three years to Eton, knew how difficult other children could be. As the nephew of an Earl and a significant fortune forthcoming, Darcy had avoided the brunt of the other boy’s hazing. But for those without his bona fides, boys with parents in trade and the occasional child sponsored by a lord or lady as a charitable expense, had faced brutality. Children were vicious monsters much of the time. Bingley having also boarded at Harrow had somehow avoided the brunt of it, due to his unusually pleasant nature and a fine right hook.
Darcy nodded. He asked, “If you do not approve the match, will Miss Bingley…?”
“I had not imagined myself in a position to exercise better judgment than Caroline.” Bingley scrubbed a hand through his hair. “I may be the heir, but Caroline, as often as not, is the master of our affairs. She manages our household with an iron fist, and, our solicitor and steward are terrified of her. Once, I remarked, Caroline may have better been born the son and I the daughter, and she laughed and said the other ladies would eat me alive.”
Darcy wondered if he would have had a better impression of Miss Bingley if he had met the sister his friend spoke of so fondly. But even when he spent weeks at their home, Caroline was always the perfectly attired and composed lady. And content in that role, or at least adept at giving the appearance of contentment, which Darcy supposed was the same.
The carriage slowed as the road inclined towards the once sleepy fishing village. Salt scent drifted through the windows, and Darcy realized they had almost arrived in Brighton.
Bingley smiled. “Caroline’s troubles aside, I am glad we have an excuse to holiday here. It has been two years since I have been to the sea.”
“Longer for myself,” Darcy said. He had not had occasion for a seaside holiday since well before his father’s death. Mr. Darcy the elder had been ill for two years before he succumbed. With Darcy’s mother gone six years before, Darcy found himself occupied with caring for his younger sister and the full weight of being master of Pemberley while managing his own grief.
Bingley said, “We shall have a lovely time of it. Bathing. Beautiful women. Let us take our minds away from our heartbreak.” Though Bingley affected hearty tone, the sadness lingered in his voice.
Despite Miss Elizabeth having most forcefully rejected his proposal, Darcy could not help hoping for another chance. And how wretched was that? He ought, as Bingley suggested, drown himself in the amusements Brighton offered instead of grasping onto a hope that had been most thoroughly dashed.
Yet Darcy could not control his thoughts.
Miss Bingley and her sister Mrs. Hurst had taken lodgings at the New Steyne hotel, overlooking the sea. As a carriage ascended, Darcy looked out over the hillside, down upon the green cornfields leading to the sea. His breath caught. Darcy had always loved the sea. And if Miss Caroline Bingley had fallen, finally, for another man, then perhaps this journey might be a pleasant diversion, as Bingley suggested.
Darcy and Bingley made further idle conversation, and the carriage skirted the Old Steyne promenade.
The carriage circled a fenced enclosure where men and women enjoyed the sunshine and cool sea air. Darcy’s gaze passed over the Marlborough Steyne: large, handsome edifices surrounding the enclosure in tan, coral, and flint gray.
With Prinny’s passion for architecture, the balance of elegant structures and the beauty of the land surrounded maintained an excellent accord, despite the necessity of constructing most buildings with flint stones and mortar broken only by the brickwork at the doors and windows. The buildings were strong enough to withstand the intense storms and the occasional hurricane blown up from the Caribbean Isles.
Not that there was a cloud in the sky this afternoon. It was clear and blue, reflecting off of the sea and fractured kaleidoscope of light. Only a smattering of ladies ambled about in their fashionable walking frocks. The Promenade would fill as evening approached, and the weather cooled.
As they slowed to turn, Darcy’s heart caught in his throat as he noted two young ladies, walking together. Seeing them from behind, he noted the taller woman’s lustrous brown hair. The fall of it, and her way of walking, which he had spent far too long studying when she visited his aunt, reminded him of Miss Elizabeth Bennet.
No! It could not be. What reason did she have to visit Brighton? And the young woman at her side, small and fair-haired with her dress cut scandalously short, just covering her calves, no, Miss Elizabeth would not be seen in such company.
The fair-haired young woman turned, gesturing excitedly towards the carriage, and her companion followed the movement, turning her attention towards him.
It was Miss Elizabeth.
Darcy leaned back on his seat, hoping the curtain would block him from further scrutiny.
Of all the worst misfortune! Why had Miss Elizabeth, and the other young woman who Darcy could only presume was one of Elizabeth’s younger sisters, chosen here to holiday?
“Darcy?” Bingley said, leaning over to look out the window at what had spooked his friend. “What is – –? Is that Miss Elizabeth Bennet?”
“I do not know.”
“Perhaps Miss Jane Bennet is here as well?” Darcy’s stomach clenched of the hope in his friend’s voice. Then Bingley sighed and said, “Not that it matters, I suppose.”
“I – –.” To tell his friend about Darcy’s potential mistake meant he would have to tell Bingley about the proposal and his disastrous aftermath. Darcy was not willing to risk this without an assurance of Miss Jane Bennet’s fidelity.
Or at least continued interest.
“Perhaps Miss Bennet is here for the summer,” Darcy mused.
“Do you think she remembers me?”
“We shall see,” Darcy said, feeling more and more the arse.
Thank you for Reading! I’d love to know what you think of this book. Feel free to leave a comment below!