Miss Darcy's Companion: A Pride and Prejudice Variation

BOOK: Miss Darcy's Companion: A Pride and Prejudice Variation
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MISS DARCY’S

COMPANION

 

A PRIDE & PREJUDICE VARIATION

 

 

* * * *

 

 

JOANA STARNES

 

Copyright © 2016 by Joana Starnes

 

Cover photos, artwork and design ©2016 by Joana Starnes. Ornamental vectors designed by Freepik.

 

The right of Joana Starnes to be identified as the Author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All characters and events in this publication are fictitious or are used fictitiously and any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication (with the exception of brief quotations in reviews) may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author or a licence permitting restricted copying.

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal use only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to others. If you would like to share this ebook, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and it was not purchased for your use only, please purchase your own copy.

 

* * * *

 

Kindle Edition

This book is also available in print

 

* * * *

* *

 

 

Non lo dirò col labbro, che tanto ardir non ha

Forse con le faville dell'avide pupille

Per dir come tutt'ardo, lo sguardo parlera

 

‘Non lo dirò col labbro’ ~ ‘Silent Worship’

‘Ptolemy, King Of Egypt’, George Frideric Handel

 

My lips dare not reveal my love

But bright and eager eyes might show the raging fire

My eyes will speak for me

 

 

* *

PART ONE

 

Darcy

 

CHAPTER 1

 

 

Fitzwilliam’s hand had barely left the knocker when the front door of Malvern House, his father’s Mayfair residence, turned swiftly on its hinges to allow their entry. The second footman promptly bowed in greeting.

“Welcome back, Colonel – Mr Darcy. I trust you had a pleasant journey,” he offered as he relieved them of their hats and gloves.

“Fair to middling,” Fitzwilliam cheerfully retorted. “So, anyone at home?”

“Everybody, Sir. His lordship and Lord Stretton have just gone into the study– ”

“Then we shall not disturb them,” Fitzwilliam promptly interjected, in no great haste to see either his father or his elder brother. “I assume the ladies are in the morning room.”

“The garden, Sir. Miss Margaret and Miss Hetty had a wish to picnic on the lawn.”

“Thank you, John,” the Colonel casually dismissed him and the footman straightened from another bow to see them wandering off towards one of the many rooms that led into the garden.

Fitzwilliam strode into the eastern parlour, but instead of walking up to the tall glass doors, he made a beeline for the port decanter. Stopper in hand, he met his cousin’s raised eyebrow with a smirk.

“What? Surely it does not surprise you that I should require fortification.”

Darcy gave a muted laugh.

“It does not,” he quietly conceded. Lady Stretton often had that effect on people, and particularly on her brother by marriage.

Fitzwilliam wordlessly offered to pour for his cousin too, but Darcy shook his head.

“I thank you, no. A tad too early in the morning for me.”

“Suit yourself,” the other shrugged, then made a face. “I thought the Strettons were to remain in Wiltshire till the summer, but no such luck, eh? So there we have it, Coz. From the frying pan into the fire.”

“You can say that,” Darcy smiled ruefully in his turn. After the long, gruelling month spent at Rosings, they could have done without Lady Stretton’s society thrust upon them without warning. “I hope she has not been here for the entire time we were away,” he added with a frown.

Had he but known it would come to pass, he would have reconsidered the decision to let Georgiana spend some time with their Fitzwilliam relations while he and Richard were making their yearly penance into the depths of Kent.

“Upon reflection, I will have that glass,” he spoke up, making Fitzwilliam chortle.

“Good man. Here, get this down thee. You can take it from a seasoned soldier, this is the perfect time for a drop of Dutch courage.”

The peal of laughter that came to greet his words was not his cousin’s – too light and sparkling, and the wrong pitch as well. In the same instant, both gentlemen turned to its apparent source, somewhere beyond the open windows. Glass in hand, they wandered closer to cast a glance outside.

The sight that caught their eye was at the very least surprising, for neither could remember the last time they had seen young ladies playing sticks-and-quoits on the lawn of Malvern House.

One of them, Darcy noted with a surge of pleasure, was Georgiana. She had just caught the beribboned circle and flicked it with uncommon skill towards Lady Amelia, who caught it in her turn and made it fly sideways to her eldest niece. Margaret caught it too and squealed delightedly, making Darcy wonder if she had been the one whose peal of laughter had first caught their notice. But it mattered not, and he sipped his drink, a smile warming his countenance as his glance drifted back to his sister.

How many years were there since he had seen her thus? Cheerful and carefree, thrilled by a childish game, rather than burdened by their parents’ loss, by loneliness and the proverbial Darcy shyness. Georgiana was in dire need of companionship her own age, yet in all her years at school she had formed no special friendship with any of the other young girls entrusted to Mrs Rossiter’s care. Which was one of the two reasons he had suggested she remain with Lady Malvern while he visited in Kent.

The first was of course Lady Catherine. No one in his right mind would think her suited to drawing a shy child from her shell and putting her at ease. The other was Amelia, Lady Malvern’s youngest daughter. She was of Georgiana’s age and of Fitzwilliam’s open disposition, and Darcy had long thought that fostering a greater closeness between her and his sister would be to the dear child’s advantage. Yet the scene before him was even better than he had allowed himself to hope. Perhaps, to some extent, he had wronged Lady Stretton. It was plain to see that Georgiana took great pleasure in spending time with her two daughters.

Darcy smiled again as the youngest, Hetty, tottered into view, balancing the circle on the crossed tips of her well-polished sticks. She cast a quick, uncertain glance to her companion, the governess perhaps or another minder of some sort, judging by the dark, utilitarian attire.

“Just so?” the child asked and her minder promptly crouched beside her.

“Yes, Hetty,” the assurance came in kindly tones. “Keep pointing the sticks up, then spread your arms wide as fast as you can.”

The little hands shot sideways, but the quoit had already fallen into the grass at Hetty’s feet. She gave a cry of disappointment and her lip curled, but her distress was instantly forgotten as soon as her companion reached for the circle and, covering the tiny hands with hers, she guided them into sending it high up into the sky, the white and purple ribbons fluttering behind it.

“It flew, Miss Bennet!” Hetty cried excitedly. “Did you see? It flew!”

“And so it did. Well done, Hetty.”

“But it was you, Miss Bennet,” the child lisped, only to be warmly contradicted.

“Oh, no, I could not possibly have done it without you.”

Hetty beamed, happy to regard it as a joint effort, and smiled a trifle smugly at Georgiana’s further praise, then wrapped her chubby little arms around her companion as far as she could reach and stood on tiptoe to plant a loud kiss on her youthful cheek. Too young for a governess. A nursemaid maybe?

“Ah, there you are. I was wondering what kept you.”

The flat voice behind him disrupted Darcy’s idle musings and he spun around to greet his eldest cousin’s wife.

“Lady Stretton.”

“Welcome, Darcy – Brother. I have just been informed of your arrival. Will you not join us in the garden?”

Darcy thinned his lips. His charitable frame of mind towards the lady might have lasted longer, had she not been so eager to play hostess in Lady Malvern’s home. Her time would come no doubt, but not too soon, one hoped. Thankfully Lord Malvern was of strong constitution.

“We were about to, but did not wish to spoil their fun,” he spoke up for both himself and Fitzwilliam, with a nod towards the goings-on in the garden.

The brief glance showed him that although Hetty had not caught the circle that Amelia had carefully cast her way, she was apt to send it up into the air, this time without assistance. The others clapped their sticks together to honour her achievement and her companion lifted her off her little feet and they both twirled in celebration. Darcy chuckled. At his side, Lady Stretton pursed her lips.

“I think you should join us. Their antics have lasted long enough,” she retorted crisply.

Quite clearly, Lady Stretton did not approve of fraternising with those in one’s employ, and no exception was made for her daughters and their cheerful minder. Fitzwilliam rolled his eyes and drained his glass and, slightly mollified by the shared exasperation, Darcy followed suit.

“Shall we? This way, if you would,” Lady Stretton indicated towards the door she had come through. “Lady Malvern and I were just about to take tea in the orangery while we were keeping an eye on the young ladies.”

The gentlemen complied, each seething, Darcy assumed. Fitzwilliam, at being instructed how to reach his own father’s garden. Himself, at Lady Stretton presuming to
‘keep an eye’
on Georgiana. Thankfully it must have been just a figure of speech; that, and arrogant presumption. It was not likely that her ladyship would join them in their game of sticks-and-quoits.

The ludicrous picture sent forth another chuckle. Fitzwilliam eyed him briefly, as though questioning his sanity. With no hope of sharing his amusement, Darcy merely shrugged.

By the time they reached the orangery, the second footman had already brought refreshments and was pouring Lady Malvern’s tea.

“Ah! The prodigal son and Darcy,” her ladyship smiled kindly, offering her lined cheek to the first and her hand to the latter. “Come, dear boys, do sit and tell me about Kent. You found no great changes at Rosings, I assume.”

“None whatever, Ma’am,” Fitzwilliam jovially retorted and took a seat next to his mother, the warmth in his eyes a clear proof of their shared thoughts, as well as their affection. Fitzwilliam was unmistakably her son – in looks, in disposition and in her heart as well – just as in all respects Lord Stretton was his father’s.

“And Darcy,” Lady Malvern turned to her second favourite with another smile and patted the spare seat beside her. “I take it that you have yet again returned from Rosings a free man,” she added with a chuckle, and Darcy echoed it in amused exasperation.

Lady Catherine’s firm determination that he attached himself to Anne was a source of some vexation to him, not only in itself, but on Anne’s behalf as well. She had no wishes of the kind either and, in their different ways, Lord and Lady Malvern were not helping matters. His lordship saw wisdom in the scheme. His lady – the only one apart from Fitzwilliam who understood it would never come to pass – saw it as a grievous upcoming disappointment to the chatelaine of Rosings, and thus a source of private amusement to herself.

It was to be expected that Lord and Lady Stretton should take Lord Malvern’s view of things. Lord Stretton always did, and as for the lady, she had long chosen whom to cajole and flatter. Thus, no one was surprised when she spoke up to change the subject:

“We should summon Amelia and Georgiana to join us for tea. John, would you?”

The footman bowed in acquiescence, and it was testament to his flawless training that, with a placid countenance, he seamlessly redirected his attention to the teapot when Lady Malvern counteracted:

“Nay, my dear, let them finish their game. They can join us later.”

Lady Stretton had the good sense to remain silent, and more gleefully so once it became apparent that she had her wish. Amelia had already spotted the newcomers and, with a loud cry of “Richard!”, she dropped her sticks, picked up her skirts and ran to her brother.

More decorously, but with no less excitement, Georgiana followed, and Lady Stretton smiled smugly to herself. With great forbearance, she still held her peace and refrained from censuring their hoydenish ways and lack of ladylike deportment. It was Lady Malvern’s place to censure her own daughter and provide motherly advice to Georgiana. That her ladyship saw fit to do neither was none of her own affair, Lady Stretton determined and instructed John to resume pouring the tea.

The heartfelt reunion between the young ladies and their respective brothers received little of her attention as she surveyed the table with a critical eye, only to be distracted by her eldest daughter, who had followed the other two and was now standing at her elbow.

“Hetty and I so wish to sit with Amelia and Georgiana, Mamma, and have tea with them. Can we? Oh, do say we can,” she insistently piped up, and Lady Stretton sighed to see her work so easily undone by unfortunate examples. Coming to stay at Malvern House had its vexing flaws as well as its advantages.

“Margaret, ‘tis most unbecoming for a young lady to be so outspoken. Besides, I fear that you have been quite uncivil. Pray greet your uncle and your cousin Darcy as a young lady should. Now,” the lady added once an abashed Miss Margaret had performed a couple of very proper curtsies and murmured the right words of greeting, “as to your request, my dear, you must see that although your aunt and Cousin Georgiana have been uncommonly kind to you, they are not your playmates. You and Hetty will have your tea in the nursery with Miss Bennet. Pray inform her she is to take you up.”

“Oh, Mamma, must she? Can we not at least have our picnic?”

“You chose to run around instead,” Lady Stretton observed rather sternly but, to her vexation, Lady Malvern did not seem to share her scruples about interfering in a mother’s dealings with her own offspring, for she interjected:

“No harm done, Susannah dear. Surely they can have their picnic.”

Thwarted at every turn, Lady Stretton sighed.

“Very well. Margaret, return to your sister and have your picnic on the rug. But pray keep your voices down and remind Miss Bennet that I have asked you and Hetty to deport yourselves as well-bred young ladies.”

Darcy did not miss the look of sympathy that Georgiana cast her little cousin, nor the brief glance suggesting she would much rather picnic with the three on the lawn than have tea with Lady Stretton. And frankly so would he, Darcy silently owned, but there was nothing to be done about it. Stretton had made his choice of wife and the rest of his relations could do nothing but endure it.

Thus, the smaller party was left to their cheerful picnic and the larger one to their more formal tea, with nary an exchange but the odd rueful glances from Lady Amelia and Georgiana, and on occasion from Darcy and Fitzwilliam as well, particularly when Lady Stretton was driven to pontificate.

BOOK: Miss Darcy's Companion: A Pride and Prejudice Variation
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