Georgiana Darcy waved until her brother’s carriage disappeared round a curve, drew her shawl more closely about her against the morning chill, and sighed. Juno, understanding something was amiss, leaned against her mistress, and Georgiana absently caressed the deerhound’s silken ears. Georgiana placed two fingers between her lips and whistled–a skill she had acquired from her brother–and Juno’s mate Jupiter returned to her side. She turned with a sigh and re-entered Pemberly, closely followed by the two dogs.
None of the visitors was stirring yet, though the servants had long been awake. Georgiana made her way to the breakfast-parlor where an early breakfast had been laid out for her brother. Sighing again, she helped herself to tea, buttered a slice of bread, and sat down to consider what had happened.
Yesterday morning, Fitzwilliam had returned from a visit to Lambton with bad news. “An emergency has called Miss Bennet and the Gardiners back to Longbourn,” he began. “Miss Bennet wished me to tell you how sorry she was to miss their dinner engagement this evening.” He leaned over and patted her shoulder. “She asked particularly to be remembered to you.”
Dinner had been a subdued affair, and Georgiana had prepared herself for another tedious evening with their guests. Mr. Bingley was always delightful–witty and charming, he had a knack for overcoming Georgiana’s shyness and making her laugh. But his sisters were entirely different. Miss Caroline Bingley seemed to spend her evenings alternately denigrating Miss Bennet and trying to ingratiate herself with Fitzwilliam. When she spoke to Georgiana it was either insincere flattery or praise of her own brother, recommending his many amiable qualities. The other sister, Mrs. Hurst, chimed in, while Mr. Hurst spent most evenings snoring drunkenly.
Miss Bingley had been especially poisonous last night, and Fitzwilliam had taken a pet and abruptly left the room. Georgiana had taken refuge as she usually did, at her piano, until a footman entered and whispered that her brother requested her presence in his study.
“Georgiana,” he had said, handing her to a chair and seating himself next to her. “I find that I may be able to assist the Bennets by making a trip to London. I may be gone for a few weeks, but I feel it’s my duty to do what I can.”
“Of course you must go, Fitzwilliam. I’ll be fine here.”
“I’m sorry to leave you saddled with the Bingleys and the Hursts. Mrs. Annesley will be here of course. And I’ll write to you when I can.”
Georgiana had smiled mischievously. “Do not worry. I’m sure Mr. Bingley will come to my rescue if his sister becomes too rumbustious.”
Fitzwilliam had laughed at that. “Rumbustious! I’m not going to ask you where you heard that word, but it’s a pretty accurate description of Caroline Bingley. Would you do me the kindness of asking Bingley to come here to me when you ladies move upstairs for the night?”
He had hugged her and kissed her forehead just as he always did when they parted. “I’m very proud of you. God bless you, and I’ll return as soon as I can.”
* * *
Georgiana poured herself another cup of tea and sighed. Feminine voices in the hall signaled an end to her early-morning quiet. The butler and several footmen arrived to begin setting an array of hot dishes on the sideboard for the guests. Georgiana squared her shoulders and smiled.
After breakfast and an hour’s practice at the pianoforte, Georgiana rose, stretched, and went in search of her guests in the small drawing-room the family always used in summer. She found the sisters engaged in books while Mr. Bingley busied himself with a letter at the writing-table against the wall.
“Ah, Georgiana! Practicing as usual, I take it?” Caroline’s voice seemed artificially high. “As if your playing weren’t exquisite already.”
“Yes. I was thinking of getting some exercise. The painting-master will be here this afternoon after luncheon. I came to see if anyone would like to accompany me.”
“But how sweet and thoughtful you are!” returned Caroline. “Louisa and I are engrossed in our reading. But I’m sure Charles will be delighted to accompany you.” She turned to her brother. “Charles. Charles!”
Bingley looked up from his writing with a start.
“I’m sure you will like to accompany Georgiana on her walk this morning.”
He looked at Georgiana and raised his eyebrows. “Are you desirous of company on your walk, Miss Darcy?
“You are most welcome, sir,” she replied with a slight curtsy. “I must go and get my hat.”
“Good then! It’s all settled!” If possible, Caroline Bingley’s voice was even more shrill and brittle. “Charles will meet you in the sunken garden. Such a lovely, romantic spot!”
A few minutes later, Georgiana, shadowed by Juno and Jupiter, met Bingley in the sunken garden. There was an awkward pause, and it was finally broken by Bingley. “My sister is quite outspoken. She, ah, she likes to manage things. I fear she has caused you some embarrassment.”
Georgiana blushed. “No, not at all. Juno and Jupiter and I welcome your company on our walk.” She looked over to where Jupiter was squatting awkwardly. “It’s just that they don’t usually accompany me in such a…such a formal area of the gardens.”
“I see,” replied Bingley with a smile. “Let us walk down towards the river then.”
Georgiana called to the dogs, not wanting to show off her whistling skills, and they turned to stroll down a somewhat rougher path to the river. After a short time, they entered a wooded area.
“I venture to say that Miss Elizabeth would adore Juno and Jupiter,” observed Bingley. “She spent a few days at Netherfield when her sister became ill, and she became fast friends with Duke and Duchess, the deerhounds I keep there. Like you, she has no fear of them.”
“She has grown even further in my estimation,” smiled Georgiana. “Does she enjoy walking?”
“Very much, I believe. Yes, very much so.”
“And do you miss Duke and Duchess? I miss my dogs terribly when I’m in London.”
“There’s a great deal I miss about Netherfield.”
Georgiana sent him a sidelong glance. “Tell me more about Miss Jane Bennet,” she said quietly.
“Well, she’s taller than Miss Elizabeth,” he began. “She has blonde hair, and she’s quite–quite soft-spoken and serene.” He stopped, his eyes focused on some distant vision Georgiana could not see.
“She sounds lovely.”
“Yes, I would say so. She’s quite lovely.” He squared his shoulders and offered her his arm. “The path seems to be getting steeper.”
“This leads down to one of my favorite views of the lake,” replied Georgiana.
They walked together companionably for another few yards until a turn in the path revealed a view of the river.
“What an enchanting prospect!” cried Bingley. “I don’t believe I’ve ever been this way.”
“It is one of my best spots.” Georgiana smiled and pointed to a bench. “I should like to sit down for a few minutes.”
They enjoyed the view of the river in silence until Georgiana spoke again. “It appears my brother holds Miss Elizabeth Bennet in great esteem. Do not you think so?”
Bingley regarded her with some astonishment. “Yes. Yes, I do think so. What has prompted you to say so?”
Georgiana blushed and looked out at the river before drawing a deep breath and continuing. “Well, I confess it is very bold, and it has taken me a great deal of effort to say it. But I think–I think my brother is not allowing himself to be managed.”
“Yes. He is free to bestow his affections on the young woman of his choosing. No one, despite efforts to the contrary, will be able to persuade him to another course. You and I, on the other hand. . .” she broke off, momentarily too embarrassed to continue.
“Pray, go on.”
“You and I are either so amiable on the one hand, or so shy on the other hand, that we are in danger of allowing ourselves to be managed right out of our happiness.”
“And where will you find your happiness, Miss Darcy?”
She faced him. “I am sixteen years old,” she said simply. “My happiness will be found in the future. My brother has told me is that one of the blessings of being a young woman of considerable fortune is that there is no need for me to rush into marriage. I may continue my studies for as long as it pleases me. I am content that it should be so until I am older.” She paused for breath. “And where does your happiness lie, Mr. Bingley?”
Bingley looked out at the river for a long moment, and when he replied, his voice was quiet. “I believe my happiness may be waiting for me at Netherfield.”
“I hope you will find it ere long, Mr. Bingley.” Georgiana stood. “I must return to the house. It is nearly time for luncheon, and then the painting master will be here. There is a much shorter path to the house over there to our right.”
She looked around, and when she did not find the dogs, she placed two fingers between her lips and blew an ear-splitting whistle. Juno and Jupiter bounded up.
Bingley smiled and offered her his arm. “Well done! Your brother taught you to do that.