For Miss Elizabeth Bennet, love is the cipher she cannot crack.
Outside the Longbourn house, Elizabeth Bennet is an ordinary country miss. But in secret, she and her father crack codes to foil Napoleon’s schemes against England. More than anything, Elizabeth wants to be loved for herself, but how can she when she lives a double life?
For Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, a coded letter hides the key to his heart.
After Fitzwilliam Darcy’s brother is killed in France, a coded letter carries his final words and a dangerous secret. Mr. Darcy brings the letter to the Bennets for answers. But soon the code is the least of Mr. Darcy’s conundrums as he finds himself falling for Elizabeth Bennet. Caught between an assassin and an old enemy, can Mr. Darcy accept his feelings and win Miss Elizabeth’s heart before it is too late?
Find out in Mr. Darcy’s Cipher, Book 1 of the Spies and Prejudice series. Mr. Darcy’s Cipher is a Pride and Prejudice variation with heaps of romance, humor, suspense, code-cracking, and two sometimes bullheaded but lovable leads who struggle to save a nation while falling in love.
If you love Pride and Prejudice variations with a twist of espionage, start reading Mr. Darcy’s Cipher now!
It was not Mr. Wickham’s first evening at the gambling hell known as “the Danny house,” but it had been, by far, his best. An excellent supper filled his belly, and his skin hummed with the pleasant warmth of first-rate whiskey while the taste of an outstanding cigar settled comfortably at the back of his tongue.
“You ought to try one of these,” Mr. Wickham said, inhaling another puff of his cigar.
“I prefer to enjoy my drink unencumbered,” Mr. Smith, a wide-eyed, self-proclaimed country gentleman in well-kept clothing that was a decade out of fashion, stared at his hand and tapped nervously with his index finger on his cheekbone. “We are not so fond of the pipe in Monogan.”
“More’s the pity,” Mr. Wickham responded absently. Though Mr. Smith did a fair job of hiding his northern accent, there was an odd tone to his vowels that betrayed he was not a Londoner. Better for Wickham. He’d spent enough time in the gambling hells that most knew to give him a wide berth, both because he was a fierce player and his ability to pay his debts shifted with the capriciousness of his own luck.
Commerce was a simple game and one where Mr. Wickham excelled. Three cards were dealt, and one tried to get cards of a kind or runs with the cards in order. He stared down at his hand: ten of clubs, jack of clubs and a four of hearts. One card away from his third straight of the night.
If Mr. Wickham was inclined towards crises of conscience, he might have felt badly about how he’d spent the past two days cleaning out the other man’s purse, but luck was a fickle mistress. More often than not, she took from Wickham more than she gave.
Mr. Smith fiddled with his cards before taking two of them and placing them facedown on the table. “Deux,” he said, with a remarkably smooth French accent.
Mr. Wickham smiled, “You must have had an excellent tutor,” he said and slid two cards across the table.
“Oui,” Mr. Smith smiled. Beneath his bushy mustache, his teeth were white and straight. “She was like a mother to me.”
A stab of jealousy passed through Mr. Wickham. He’d never been able to forge as close a relationship to the nannies or governesses as Darcy. Probably because Darcy had been the young master of the house, while Wickham only a hanger-on, or as whispered in the servant’s quarters, a by blow. Thoughts of Darcy fanned an inner core of rage inside Wickham that never eased. Simply by an accident of birth, proper, stick up his bum, Darcy had stolen from Wickham what ought to have rightfully been his.
Mr. Wickham discarded the jack and took another card from the top of the pile. A queen of hearts. He was experienced enough cards not to let his delight show on his face. Though they were not of the same suit, it was a lovely straight, and that would allow him to make enough of a payment to keep his creditors off of his back for at least a few more weeks. If he didn’t instead spend the bulk on whores, like he had last night after Mr. Smith had retired.
Mr. Smith looked at his cards. His finger paused at tapping on his cheek for a brief second, then resumed. He had pulled something good, but Mr. Wickham had confidence in his own hand.
Mr. Smith started the betting. “One hundred pounds.”
Mr. Wickham made a show of squinting at his cards, but he knew he had the other man. It was only a matter of how much money he wished to take. And Mr. Wickham planned to take it all.
The bets went back and forth until a staggeringly large sum was promised on the table. Then, they agreed to show their cards. Mr. Wickham triumphantly bared his straight. Mr. Smith, his hands trembling, put his cards down with a sudden bright smile. “I got this, old man,” he said. In front of him was the queen, king, and ace of diamonds.
Mr. Wickham cursed his own luck. Calculating the sum on the table against his previous winnings, much of which he had won over the past two days had gone to whiskey and loose women, Mr. Wickham realized he lacked the funds to pay. Nor would any of the local moneylenders extend his credit. In fact, he had taken to avoiding them as their requests for repayment grew increasingly insistent.
Mr. Wickham forced a smile. It was bad luck, pure and simple. The same bad luck that had plagued him throughout his entire life. Luck was a fickle whore who displayed her wares and then after allowing a man the briefest touch, snatched them away and left him holding the bag.
Wickham would have to play another hand and win his money back. He was the better card player, and that, more than luck, would win out.
“You wounded me!” Mr. Wickham said with an exaggerated expression. “At least offer me a chance to win a little of my money back.”
Mr. Smith, who had been nursing the same glass of brandy for most of the evening, raised it to his lips and said, “It was mostly my money, Mr. Wickham, and I think it might be best for me to take my leave at this point.”
“The night is young,” Mr. Wickham said, and though he did his best to feign a casual manner, he heard in his own tone a hint of desperation. “I must have at least one more hand to redeem my honor.”
“Your ability at cards gives me pause,” Mr. Smith said with a laugh. “You have claimed the bulk of the winnings every day since we have met.”
“And it seems your luck is turned,” Mr. Wickham said. “It is I who should ask to the ending things, as another game will force me to pay a visit to my home vault.”
The vault was as imaginary as Mr. Wickham’s country estate, but Mr. Smith had no way of knowing that. And the tension in Mr. Wickham’s chest eased as he noted the gleam of interest in Mr. Smith’s gaze at the mention of the vault.
“Just one more hand,” Mr. Wickham said. “For your honor and mine.”
“As you wish,” Mr. Smith said. “But if we are to play, it should be for more substantial stakes, don’t you think?”
Mr. Wickham, with reckless confidence, downed the last of his whiskey and waved for another glass. “Certainly,” he said. “I am not one to brag of what I possess,” as he possessed nothing of value, “but of my lands, I do have a small country estate. I’ve spoken of it to you before. Pemberley. Such a small country house may not interest someone of your means, and it is not the most ostentatious country homes, but…” Mr. Wickham described his childhood home.
Mr. Wickham would never have dared to make such an assertion had he been playing cards with someone local, but Mr. Smith had only been in London for a short time, and as Mr. Wickham described the French and Christian influences as well as the natural elegance of the estate’s gardens, he fell into his own tale. What made Fitzwilliam Darcy more worthy of inheriting this estate and the rest of his father’s lands than Wickham himself?
They had both grown up together, they had had the same tutors, and hadn’t Wickham also excelled? At least in so far as one could excel at impressing an instructor who only required one regurgitate a simple series of facts and opinions as similarly as possible to the instructor’s own thoughts? Wickham had as much right to Pemberley as Mr. Darcy himself! Only an accident of birth, of luck, that fickle whore, led Mr. Darcy to have everything while Mr. Wickham gnawed at the scraps.
At the least Darcy could have allowed him Georgiana’s dowry.
Mr. Smith leaned forward on his elbows, his chin on his palm as he listened to Wickham’s description of the estate. Mr. Wickham was struck again at the unfortunate mix of features that made Mr. Smith appear at first glance far older and less handsome than his smooth skin and bright, brown eyes suggested. Set beneath heavy brows, the eyes were sharp and almond-shaped. His brows and bushy, unfashionable mustache were a slightly darker color than his thick, sandy-brown hair, which receded at his temples.
When Wickham finished, Mr. Smith said, “I am uncertain I have any lands of equal value. All I can offer is a small sum,” Mr. Smith stated an amount that made Mr. Wickham’s breath catch in his throat.
“Thirty thousand pounds!” Mr. Wickham exclaimed. It was the price of Georgiana’s dowry without the burden of a wife. With that amount of money, he could pay his creditors and live comfortably for the rest of his life. It had been his original plan with Georgiana, if only Darcy had capitulated instead of snatching the girl out from under his nose. Restraining his glee, Mr. Wickham added, “Yes, thirty thousand is acceptable.”
It was a pittance compared to the value of Pemberley, but Mr. Wickham did not care. Pemberley was a mirage. Thirty thousand pounds, earned cleanly at the gambling table, would be enough to pay off Wickham’s creditors, lease a small home, and still have enough set aside to slake his desires for women, wine, and a lifetime’s friendly games of cards.
As the pair engaged in negotiations, some of the other gentleman, officers mostly, had begun to gather around the table.
“Shall we begin?” Mr. Wickham asked.
They asked for paper to write down what they were offering for the bet.
From his purse, Mr. Wickham took out his most valuable and dangerous possession, a copy of his late father’s seal. The elder Mr. Darcy had been foolish enough to trust Mr. Wickham, his unacknowledged progeny, with free range of his office and papers. Mr. Wickham had stolen and copied the seal after the old man’s death. He didn’t use it often. Possessing such an item could see him jailed or possibly hung. But for special occasions, such as now, it was warranted.
This paper confers upon the bearer the ownership of Pemberley estate.
Mr. Wickham wrote out the relevant information about the estate and pressing the seal to a lump of hot wax at the bottom of the page, sealed the bet.
The cards were dealt.
Wickham looked over his hand. A pair of nines and the two of clubs. It took all of his willpower to keep his fear from showing on his face. If he lost this game, he would have to leave London for good. He might even have to leave England altogether and flee to Scotland.
Mr. Smith stroked his mustache. “If you wish to end this, we can call it a draw and––”
“I’ll see it through.” It was an insult to Wickham’s courage to imply that he should forfeit before the game had even begun. More importantly, he didn’t have the money to pay Mr. Smith his winnings for the last game.
Mr. Smith nodded. He took two cards.
Mr. Wickham discarded the two of clubs and took a new card. He hesitated and then picked it up. Queen of diamonds. A middling hand, but it was unlikely Mr. Smith had much better since he had discarded two of his three cards.
“Shall we?” Mr. Smith asked. As always, his “sh” vibrated a touch too long and pronounced almost near the back of his teeth.
Mr. Wickham laid down his cards. Then he looked across the table at his partner. A pair of nines and the ace of hearts.
Mr. Wickham felt like he was made of wax. His skin was thick and numb, and the surrounding noise was officers clapping Mr. Smith on the shoulder while others avoided looking at Mr. Wickham as they murmured what felt like condolences whispered over his own grave. Mr. Smith took the paper with Wickham’s seal, the rights to an estate Wickham did not own, and folded it into precise quarters.
Luck was a fickle whore, but Mr. Wickham had expected more than this. Perhaps it was galling because the game had been so close. The difference between a queen and an ace.
Mr. Wickham threw back the rest of his whiskey. The buzz was gone, leaving Wickham cold and empty. The faster he got out of here, the better. He stood. “I will leave you to your victory. I would be a fool to tempt fate again for a third time.”
Mr. Smith, in a far more authoritative tone than Mr. Wickham had ever heard from the northerner’s mouth, said, “We will need a private room.”
“No need,” Mr. Wickham demurred.
Mr. Smith stood and walked around the table, extending his hand. Mr. Wickham, having no polite way to avoid his opponent, clasped it. This close, the slight twitch at the corners of Mr. Smith’s lips and the glitter in his once soft brown eyes seemed sinister. The edge of his mustache seemed to curl up from his skin as though it was pasted on and not grown from his own flesh.
What in the devil?
In a low tone, Mr. Smith said, “We have much to discuss.”
The accent, which Mr. Wickham had mistaken for some ill-disguised northern brogue, had thickened. Now, it sounded almost Continental. That perfect French pronunciation he had used earlier in the game.
“A man of means,” Mr. Smith said. “One who has much to offer and much he can take away from an ambitious man. Or shall we instead leave now so I might claim my estate of…what was the name…Pemberley?”
Mr. Wickham’s mouth was dry. Stealing away a dead man’s seal and using it to give away an estate one did not own was enough of a crime to see him hanged. And Darcy, already against him, would be vengeful in his rage at the discovery of Wickham’s audacity.
“We can talk,” Mr. Wickham said.
Mr. Smith grinned. “Excellent.”
Stepping away from Mr. Wickham, but not letting go of his man’s hand, Mr. Smith called out again for a private room.
The edge of Mr. Smith’s mustache was definitely peeling. It was subtle, and Wickham doubted anyone else would notice, but the mustache, like everything else about this man bothered him. Who was Mr. Smith?
As he followed Mr. Smith up the stairs to the private room he had requested, Mr. Wickham feared his question would be answered all too soon.
Despite Mr. Bennet’s initial recalcitrance, he called on Mr. Bingley almost immediately, and Mr. Bingley returned his call with a visit of his own a few days later. Though Mrs. Bennet tried to have Elizabeth stay in the study, the visit had nothing to do with code craft and so Mr. Bennet sent Lizzie to wait with her sisters.
“Once Mr. Bingley has left must get your father to tell us everything about the young gentleman,” Mrs. Bennet insisted. “Mr. Bennet can hide nothing from you, nor does he wish to.”
Elizabeth was less certain of that supposition. Nor did she have any desire to learn more about Mr. Bingley, who she had determined must have a similar temperament to his close and irritating friend, Mr. Darcy.
An hour after Mr. Bingley had left, with arms linked and Mrs. Bennet’s hand atop her daughter’s arm to keep her daughter from attempting to flee, Mrs. Bennet led Elizabeth into the study. “Lizzie, you must help your father complete that cipher. No dawdling.”
“I can walk on my own,” Elizabeth said.
Mrs. Bennet ignored her.
When they entered, Mr. Bennet stood in front of the window by his desk with his cane in his right hand.
“My dear! How delightful it must have been for you to receive company!”
“I suppose you wish to ask about Mr. Bingley.”
“Why, Mr. Bennet, I would never presume, but as you have brought up the subject—”
“He is a fine young man with pleasant manners.”
“I could hardly be trusted to give such an opinion, now could I?”
“My dear Mr. Bennet! Your eyes are not failing so much as that! Was he fair or dark? Large or thin? He appeared from the window to have wide shoulders and an easy gait.”
“Are you wishing our daughters to marry the young stallion or race him?”
Elizabeth smothered a laugh.
“He is young enough and fit enough I suspect for both endeavors.”
“Must you always reduce things to jest?” Mrs. Bennet coughed furiously. “This conversation is not fit for a young lady’s ears.”
“Then I will spare you further humor, my dear,” Mr. Bennet said. “For you are as fair as the day I married you, and I would not ask you to age a day.”
“Well!” Mrs. Bennet clasped her hands at her throat. “Oh, my dear Mr. Bennet.”
Elizabeth averted her gaze. Her father was never needlessly cruel, but she sensed some manipulation in his compliments. Perhaps it was because of the traits he valued, beauty had become—with the deterioration of his eyesight—the least important to him.
Still, it made Mrs. Bennet happy, and that happiness eased some of the tension between mother and daughter. For that, Elizabeth was relieved.
Mrs. Bennet attempted to pull a few more details about the gentleman from her husband, but it was in vain. Eventually, in a flurry of movement and chatter, she left again.
Elizabeth went to the shelf and took down some of her and her father’s notes on previously solved and common keys for substitution ciphers. She dropped the books on the desk with a satisfying thump before beginning to page through them.
“And you, Lizzie, did you have questions about young Mr. Bingley?”
“He is a friend of Mr. Darcy’s, is he not?”
“Mr. Darcy is staying at Netherfield Park as Mr. Bingley’s guest.”
“Then there is nothing more I need to know.”
“You should not let this Mr. Darcy irritate you so,” Mr. Bennet said.
“It is fortunate I dislike him. If he were a gentleman in manner as well as inheritance, then for fear of breaking my mother’s heart at the possibility of a good match, I would feel badly for letting him learn of my eccentricities,” Elizabeth said bitterly.
“Most men do not search for ciphering in a wife.” Even if Mrs. Bennet had not insisted on telling Elizabeth such at every available opportunity, Mr. John Dunn, her first suitor, had taught her how damaging to her prospects sharing her love of codes and ciphers could be.
“A woman may play with puzzles, but for heaven’s sake, no more talk of war. Such missives are not appropriate for a lady or a wife.”
Jane had grabbed and held Elizabeth’s arm before she could smack him, and then later that evening, Jane held Elizabeth as she cried.
It was fortunate then, that Elizabeth despised Mr. Darcy. His dismissal of her had been irritating, but since she had no hope or interest of a match with him, she was free to prove herself and, without physical violence, remove that expression of smug coldness from his face.
Mr. Bennet said, “Lizzie, you are a diamond of the first order. If a man cannot recognize that, it is his failing, not yours.”
Elizabeth swallowed. Her father was sometimes selfish in his jests, but he loved her, and, almost as importantly, he understood her.
Unfortunately, he was also wrong.
To secure a husband, Elizabeth would have to play the fool and hide her own abilities. It didn’t preclude a love match, which was her true desire. After she had achieved her husband’s regard in other areas, she would reveal her ciphering. Society expected a man and woman to marry knowing little about each other. Every person had their secrets. Love was born of an instinctive understanding of another’s character. She would do better to abandon the foolish hope of finding a husband who encouraged her less acceptable interests. It was foolishness, plain and simple.
“Papa, would you have chosen a wife who could decipher as well as you?”
Mr. Bennet laughed. “Dear Lizzie, I doubt any woman could decipher as well as myself, excepting you, who are a part of my flesh and blessed with a youngster’s eyes.”
Elizabeth flipped through the books quickly. None of the standard keys had yielded results or inspiration, a surprise to neither her nor her father.
Over the following week, Elizabeth split her time between a slew of decoding requests from Sir Drake’s office and Mr. Darcy’s cipher.
Though the afternoons held the brisk, watery sunlight that Elizabeth found ideal for walking, even during those sabbaticals, Mr. Darcy’s letter dominated her every sense. She would solve it and prove to the prig that she was not merely an ornament, but a capable and intelligent if not a proper woman.
Latin substitution ciphers were relatively simple, each word a replacement for a letter in the alphabet. Of course, it depended on the alphabet. This letter had been addressed to Mr. Darcy’s younger sister. An educated young lady of her age was likely to know French, Latin, and English at the least. Considering the letter had come from France and was written in mock Latin, English was the most likely language for the message to be written in.
Elizabeth first determined which words in the Latin “prayer” appeared most frequently, and assigned them a common letter: S, R, E, L, O, and T. Then through various iterations, tried to get a sense of what the message might be. It was complicated by a lack of punctuation or sign of spaces between words, not to mention the splotches of water on the final two pages.
Every day, after they finished their official work, Elizabeth read out each trial to her father, and they discussed the possibilities for the message’s content until Mr. Bennet dozed off. Then Elizabeth continued on her own, and, through brute force, she managed to make sense of the first half.
DELIUERTHISTOLORDCUNNINGHAMANDREMEMBERTHEBUTTERFLIESFrom there it was lines and lines of gibberish, further confused by an increasing number of water-stained words on the final two pages, rendering the last few lines illegible.
Elizabeth penned out a letter outlining her initial progress. It was frustrating to have to take so long with it. The codes used by their own agents were more regular, and perhaps Elizabeth had grown complacent with the ease of solving them. Worse, the second half of this cipher looked like a different code altogether. Whoever Lord Cunningham was likely had the key on hand. Elizabeth doubted it concerned Miss Darcy at all, but she had promised herself she would decipher the entire thing, and giving up halfway felt like admitting defeat.
She tried running the remaining text through various shift and substitution ciphers, but without a hint as to the method of encoding, it was a like throwing horseshoes blind. Frequency yielded little insight. Elizabeth’s eyes were burning when Jane stepped into Mr. Bennet’s study and called the pair for dinner.
“Huh?” Mr. Bennet sat up suddenly. His glasses sat askew on his nose, and he adjusted them. “What time is it?”
“Dinner, father,” Jane said. “You worked through tea. How goes Mr. Darcy’s puzzle?”
Elizabeth looked down at her scrawled notes. “Soon,” she said. “The first half is done.”
Jane smiled. “That is good news. I gave you and Papa as much time as possible, but our mother and sisters await us.”
Elizabeth stood and stretched her arms over her head as her joints cracked. Outside the window, the rosy orange of sunset kissed the horizon. Now Elizabeth was not caught up in the cipher, she realized she had become quite chilly.
“Go ahead with your sister,” Mr. Bennet said. “I will straighten up in here.”
Which was Mr. Bennet’s excuse to forestall sitting at the table and being subjected to his wife and daughters’ girlish chatter for as long as possible.
“Yes, Father,” Elizabeth said, and linking arms with her sister, they walked together from the study.
As they entered the dining room, Lydia and Kitty were both flushed with excitement, their voices high and fast as they spoke to Mrs. Bennet, who leaned forward with interest, and Mary, who sat back ramrod-straight with her hands folded on her lap.
“Madame Godiva said my future husband has hair like the sun, and that I would meet him soon.”
“She said your fate was entwined with a man with bright blond hair—” Kitty interrupted.
“Of course!” Lydia exclaimed, tapping her palm on the table. The china rattled. “That gentleman is my future husband. Why else would my fate be entwined with a strange and handsome man?”
Mrs. Bennet nodded eagerly. “I have heard from some of the ladies in the village that Madame Godiva has some Gypsy blood, and this allows her these visions.”
“She did not say. But—”
“I think you should be more cautious, sister,” Mary interrupted. “Does not the Bible warn us of becoming enamored of false idols?”
“I do not intend to worship the woman,” Lydia retorted with exasperation. “I merely state she has a gift. I told you about the buggy accident.”
Elizabeth glanced at Jane, who gave a minute shake of her head.
Lydia, seeing that her two oldest sisters had joined them, exclaimed, “Good and finally, you are here. I am famished. Where is Father?”
Lydia breathed out sharply through her nose. “I wish he would hurry. We are having Cornish hens with blackberry sauce.”
“You were telling us about Madame Godiva,” Mrs. Bennet said.
“Yes! Yes! Kitty and I, as has become our custom, went to pay a visit to the soldiers in town, and that is where we met Madame Godiva. She has a gift!”
The door to the dining room opened again, and Mr. Bennet entered. He stood straight and tall, barely leaning on the ornate wooden cane in his right hand. It was an unacknowledged truth in the household that Mr. Bennet used the cane more to ensure he did not trip over any small objects in the halls rather than to steady his gait. He glared in Lydia’s general direction and said, “What is this ruckus? I thought we were having dinner.”
“Mr. Bennet!” Mrs. Bennet crossed the room and linked her arm through her husband’s free one. “It is a joy to see you up and about.”
“I am often up and about as there is nothing wrong with my legs,” Mr. Bennet responded crossly.
“Or your stomach, I suspect. Girls, say good evening to your father. I will have the first course brought in.”
Elizabeth and Jane took their seats at the table while Lydia explained again in a rush about her discovery of Madame Godiva and what the fortune teller had shared about Lydia’s future prospects.”
Mr. Bennet asked, “How much did she charge you?”
“Nothing, Father! Madame Godiva stepped out of her shop, and when her gaze met mine, I was transfixed. Her eyes are two different shades of green, one bright and the other dark. And when her eyes caught mine, a curious sensation passed over me, as though the fierceness of her gaze had tickled something in my soul.”
“I should hope you didn’t laugh too hard,” Mr. Bennet said, his lips twitching with amusement at his own joke. “A tickling of the soul can be overwhelming.”
Mrs. Bennet asked, “What did this Madame Godiva tell you?”
“She said an inner revelation had compelled her to step out from her wagon, and that same impulse drew her to me. Me! She said she should like to read my palm, and I told her I had no extra coin, but she insisted. She said for one with her gifts, the compulsion to right a wrong sometimes took over her limbs and she had no choice but to do as her gift demanded.”
Now Elizabeth was intrigued. “Which wrong did she need to correct?”
“I could only imagine it was that horrible Mr. Darcy and how abysmally he treated me when he called on us. I hope Mr. Bingley is of a better temperament! Papa says he is a gentleman, but there are different types of gentlemen.”
Lydia sighed, and then resting her fork on her plate, continued. “But Madame Godiva led me into her wagon, and it was the most remarkable place, with bright red and gold curtains and a sweet incense that made me almost feel lightheaded.”
“You went with her on your own?” Mr. Bennet asked.
“What harm could she do? I had no money, and she was alone. Just one small, old woman and her wagon with all of her worldly possessions.”
“One small woman who you saw, and who knew how many other compatriots!” Mr. Bennet interjected. “I do not approve of you and Kitty going so far on your own. Not if you refuse to exercise such basic caution as to not throw yourself willy-nilly into a stranger’s wagon.”
“Oh, Mr. Bennet! Your fatherly regard and care for your daughters is without bound,” Mrs. Bennet said in a vain attempt to soothe her husband’s ire. “But two young ladies cannot be forced to spend all of their time indoors, constrained to the bounds of our estate.”
“I should think it would be easier on your nerves to know with confidence that all of your daughters are safe,” Mr. Bennet said dryly.
“Oh! And now you remind me of my nerves. Mr. Bennet, will nothing satisfy you beyond my accompanying Lydia and Kitty on their next excursion into town?” Before Mr. Bennet could respond, Mrs. Bennet continued, “Of course, nothing would satisfy you. I must accompany my daughters and witness this woman’s gifts for myself. Tomorrow. The assembly is in a fortnight, and we will have much in small essentials to acquire in any case. Mary will also join us.”
Mary’s head shot up. “Mother! I do not wish to consort with false idols.”
“Oh, calm yourself, Mary. She is a fortune teller, not a Biblical plague. We will stop at the music shop after she has told you something useful about your future and you can look over the sheet music.”
“Yes, Mother,” Mary pressed her lips together and stabbed her half-eaten meat with her fork.
“And Lizzie and Jane as well.”
Elizabeth looked up from her plate. She was not to be so easily persuaded by sheet music and platitudes. “I am satisfied with my existing gowns and bonnets for the Saturday assembly.”
“Satisfied! Well, that is hardly enough. All five of you, unmarried, and you will present only a satisfying appearance to Mr. Bingley. Should we play our hand correctly, he will certainly choose one of you as his wife.”
“If Mr. Bingley has hair like the sun,” Lydia said, “perhaps he is the man my fate is entwined with.”
“A man with hair like the sun is neither specific nor unique,” Mr. Bennet said. “How is it you are so convinced of this woman’s gifts?”
“Because of the cart. She said an unexpected calamity would slow our journey from town, but that all would work out by the evening. And our cart… the wheel was caught in the mud as we left town. I feared it was a broken axle, as did the driver, but a young officer—”
“And a handsome one,” Kitty interjected.
“His hair was brown,” Lydia said dismissively. “He helped extricate our cart, and we were able from that point to return home. So you understand, this was a sign of Madame Godiva’s power. She can see the future, and I believe I will soon meet the man I will marry.”
Mr. Bennet said, “So long as you are properly supervised and expect only your allowance to spend on her services, I suppose it’s no more of a frippery than another bonnet or dress.”
“Oh, Mr. Bennet!” Mrs. Bennet clutched her hands to her chest. “We must use all methods at our disposal before a woman of lesser quality than our daughters snatches this fine, available young gentleman away from us.”
“And if this Mr. Bingley is of a similar character to Mr. Darcy?”
“Impossible,” Lydia said, placing her knife in the joint of the hen’s wing and cutting viciously. “That stiff and insufferable man is one of a kind.”
Elizabeth was inclined to agree.
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Mrs. Bennet, a middle-aged blonde woman, her hair threaded silver, features touched with a remembered handsomeness and clothes clinging to youthful frivolity, guided Mr. Darcy into a small, well-cared for if not extravagant parlor area. “And Mrs. Darcy, how is she enjoying our fair town?”
It was not Mr. Wickham’s first evening at the gambling hell known as “the Danny house,” but it had been, by far, his best. An excellent supper filled his belly, and his skin hummed with the pleasant warmth of first-rate whiskey while the taste of an outstanding cigar settled comfortably at the back of his tongue.
In Mr. Bingley’s small but cozy library, Mr. Darcy and Miss Bingley occupied armchairs at a polite remove. They were technically chaperoned, though Miss. Caroline’s maid sat on the other side of the room with a book in her lap. She stared intently at the pages, even venturing to flip one every couple of minutes.
Madame Godiva’s leased home was at the edge of the main thoroughfare. The house was small, eighteen feet in front with a small yard in the back where her wagon was presumably settled. As they approached the door, it opened, and a small, simply dressed young housemaid answered. “I will inform Madame her guests have arrived.”
Elizabeth could describe her beginnings at Netherfield Park as discouraging. As she explained her reason for paying such a sudden visit, she was well and truly discomfited by the combined pressure of the Bingleys’, Hursts’, and Mr. Darcy’s attention. Especially Mr. Darcy, whose expression was as cold as ever but somehow made worse by his obvious interest in the state of her soggy hems. Or perhaps it was her face, flushed from the three-mile walk.
Elizabeth had little fondness for Miss Caroline Bingley, but her stories of London balls brought a light to Jane’s countenance that Elizabeth grudgingly appreciated. Jane’s illness still made her weak and inclined towards falling asleep, sometimes midway through speaking, but she was looking better as the day progressed. The treatments were helping, along with the honeyed porridge Mr. Darcy had sent. Despite her animosity towards him, Elizabeth appreciated his efforts.
Elizabeth and her sisters took turns giving Mr. Bennet sips of broth through the rest of the day. Mr. Bennet stirred after a few hours, opening his eyes and speaking, though his words were garbled and it was clear after a few moments he was not aware of his surroundings.
Elizabeth stayed up the rest of the night at her father’s bedside. Had her father been well, she still would not have slept. Too much had changed. Mr. Darcy’s actions in protecting their home had sparked some awareness in the core of her being, and Elizabeth had been unable to wrest her eyes from him as he fired the second shot.
Mr. Darcy could not keep his eyes from Miss Elizabeth. Her dress and sheer presence stood in contrast to Mr. Darcy’s dark suit and white half-mask that only covered his eyes. She wore her glorious dark hair up in an intricate weave of braids and curls. Laurel leaves nestled in her hair and she wore pearls from her ears and her neck.
A painful longing burst out of Darcy’s every pore. Was this love? Mr. Darcy had never given much thought to love beyond the familial, which he was obligated to protect. Mr. Bingley stepped in and out of love like dipping buff naked into a series of cool ponds in the dead of summer. Mr. Darcy had never felt the urge to stand naked in spirit before anyone. It was too risky, and Darcy abhorred unnecessary risks.