Caroline Bingley descended the grand staircase and proceeded toward the breakfast room, barely acknowledging the footman who efficiently pulled a chair away from the table for her. With a soft swish of silk, she settled on the seat. When the second footman poured some tea, she deigned to give him a slight nod of approval, but that was because she was in a fine mood.

She noted through the window overlooking her sister’s favorite garden that it was a beautiful fall morning, the leaves of the oak trees a riotous flame of red and orange. October was just around the corner and her good mood, which had been in evidence since late August, showed no sign of wavering. She’d even gone to church the day prior for mass and enjoyed the hymns, although the bishop nearly bored her to tears.

As she fussed with her morning meal, she mentally ticked off plans she and her brother had for the upcoming week. Charles had papers to sign with their lawyer to quit the lease at Netherfield Park and she had a fitting with Madam Beaufort before the much anticipated Annual Michaelmas Ball at Lady Addleworth’s mansion.

Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy was sure to attend the ball. He and his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, who’d arrived in Town the other day, were spending an inordinate amount of time with Charles. She hoped it was because Charles finally decided to pursue an arrangement with Miss Georgiana Darcy. Darcy and the good Colonel, as her guardians, would finalize the articles of marriage as well as details of the dowry. With luck Charles would announce their engagement before the ball and with his shy little sister taken care of, Mr. Darcy could finally concentrate on his own happiness.

At last Charles was safe from Miss Jane Bennet, although he’d been reminded of her when they had the misfortune of running into her sister Elizabeth at Pemberley this past August. For a few days she’d worried Darcy might continue to grow in affection for the well-tanned miss with muddy hems and ‘fine eyes’, but fortunately she exited Derbyshire rather abruptly the very next day. Caroline did not need the ever-present Miss Bennet to ruin her plans for Charles and Georgiana as well as those for herself. After three long years of careful planning, she would not be denied her future by a girl of little consequence.

How she longed to be Mistress of Pemberley. To have others look to her for guidance, to run the household the way it should. First order of business would be to dismiss Mrs. Reynolds. The housekeeper was by far too smug and too familiar with Mr. Darcy. In fact, she let anyone who knocked on the door run amok within the house and on the grounds. Such behavior would cease the minute she and Mr. Darcy exchanged vows. Pemberley needed a strong hand to run efficiently and she had the fortitude to make it happen.

She bit into a light-as-air croissant and sighed. This was her only indulgence, otherwise the dress Madame Beaufort designed would never fit and she needed to look spectacular the night of the ball. Darcy would propose before night’s end or her name wasn’t Caroline Anastasia Bingley.

Their butler, Hobson, entered the room with a slight bow and signaled the footmen to remove the food trays. A light frown creased her forehead. Her sister Louisa took breakfast in bed and Mr. Hurst rarely awakened before noon, but surely Charles would be annoyed if he came down and there were no sausages and eggs readily available.

“Has Mr. Bingley been down to break his fast?”

“No, Miss. He left at first light with Mr. Darcy.”

“Mr. Darcy?” Astonished, she set down her tea cup. “Did he say where they were going?”

“I believe he said they were going to Hertfordshire, ma’am.”

Laden with heavy trays, the footmen exited the room and with another slight bow the butler followed.

“Hertfordshire,” she mused aloud. “Why on earth would they go to Hertfordshire?”

Her mind whirled with possibilities. Charles may have decided to complete a final inspection of Netherfield Park before signing over the lease. She gave her head a quick shake at the thought. They had a perfectly good steward who took care of those details. And why would Darcy attend with him? Puzzled, she finished her croissant and tea before daintily dabbing her mouth with a linen napkin upon completion.

First thing, before attending her fitting, she’d write her brother a letter and remind him of his duties and engagements in London. The last thing she needed was for Charles to inadvertently come across the ever amiable and angelic Miss Jane Bennet. Although convinced his desires no longer lay in that direction, she did not want to take the chance he might second guess his decision to quit Netherfield Park and Hertfordshire for good.

She took small comfort in the fact Darcy was along for the journey. If anyone could keep Charles from becoming entangled with a family of no social standing, and with the silliest of women in all of England for a mother, it would be Darcy. After all, it was he who helped convince her brother marrying Jane Bennet would have been social suicide, and not a moment too soon. After the ball at Netherfield, Charles was clearly besotted and it took the whole next day to convince him Jane Bennet did not have the same regard for him. Based on the mother’s words and actions, her eldest was nothing more than a beautiful fortune hunter.

Satisfied all would be well, Caroline left the morning room and made her way to an ornate escritoire. Within minutes she’d penned a quick missive, sanded and blotted the heavy personalized vellum and skimmed the contents to make sure she hadn’t missed a thing.

Grosvenor Street, London
September 14, 1812

Dearest Charles,

 How wonderful you are attending Netherfield Park one last time before quitting it. Make sure you have not left a stray cravat lying about.

I am but teasing, sweet brother. However, I do want to remind you in the most loving way possible, of your appointment with our solicitor this Thursday. As well, Lady Addleworth’s Annual Michaelmas Ball, which isn’t until the following Tuesday, but there is much to do beforehand. Where would you be if I did not attend to your social calendar? I am so looking forward to this event as every one of our friends shall be in attendance. This will be a grand affair.

Hoping this letter finds you in good health. Give my warmest regards to Darcy.

Your loving sister,

She sealed and addressed the letter before handing it off to Hobson for mailing. Satisfied her subtle direction would nudge Charles home quickly, she called to have a carriage brought round. Nothing and no one would interfere with her carefully laid plans.

Later in the week…

“Has my sister risen from her bed?” Caroline asked Hobson before handing her pelisse and gloves to her maid, Lucy. She’d returned from visiting Lady Miranda Blake, a thin scrap of a woman she’d met a few weeks prior through their mutual acquaintance, Miss Grantley. Lady Miranda’s father was only a Baron, but every step into higher circles of Society brought her closer to becoming Mrs. Darcy of Pemberley. Her social resume would be impeccable when he finally proposed.

“She is in the front parlor.”

“Lucy, lay out the dress we agreed upon for tonight. I shall be dining with Baron Blake’s family and want no wrinkles in the skirt this time.”

“Yes, Miss.” Lucy gave a polite curtsy and proceeded upstairs with Caroline’s pelisse and gloves.

“Have Bentley bring in some tea and cakes,” she told Hobson, who’d closed the front door and now waited for her to leave the foyer.

“Yes, Miss.”

Without a word of thank you, or even a polite nod at their long-time servant she breezed into the parlor. Louisa remained seated on a heavily tufted chair by the fireplace, her feet propped up on a small stool.

“Ah, Caroline. You have come home at last. I was dreadfully bored.”

“Good afternoon, Louisa.” Caroline settled on the settee across from Louisa. “I hope you do not mind, I asked Bentley to bring in tea.”

“That is fine, dear. You always think of everything.” Louisa slouched back against the chair with a huge sigh. “La, I am exhausted. I arose but an hour ago.”

“You have been exhausted a lot, as of late,” Caroline observed, noting the slight pallor of Louisa’s complexion. “You may want to stay home a few evenings this week. You look like a washed-out rag.”

“What, and miss all the fun? As you know, Mr. Hurst and I attended a dinner party hosted by Lord Waverly, the Marquis of Dorchester.” Louisa sat erect and leaned toward Caroline. “He gave us a tour of his home and I saw his coronet!”

“How droll, Louisa. As if I care about a ceremonial hat.”

“Do not put on your airs with me.” Louisa said, a mutinous look crossing her face. “I know for a fact you have been vying for an invitation to one of his soirees for months.”

Caroline bit the inside of her cheek to keep from retorting. Everything Louisa stated was true, but pride demanded she maintain a semblance of ennui. If she wished to move among the ton, she needed to emulate their disdain for anyone beneath them.

“Enough of the Marquis, have you heard from Charles? He did not attend his lawyer’s appointment this morning.”

“No, I have not, but then Charles is terrible at keeping Mr. Hurst and I in the know of his comings and goings.” She picked out a sugared candy from the bowl on the table beside her chair and bit into it. Around the candy, she mumbled, “Do you know where he is?”

“Did I not tell you? How remiss of me. He went to Hertfordshire with Darcy.”

“Hertfordshire!” Pieces of candy flew out of Louisa’s mouth, which she quickly brushed off her lap onto the carpet. “Why on earth would they go there?”

“I do not know. They left this past Monday.” Caroline eyed the half-chewed sticky mass on the floor and with great determination turned her focus back to Louisa. Not for the first time she wished her sister would not speak with her mouth full. In front of the wrong person, she could be mistaken for an uncouth gentlewoman, on par with Mrs. Bennet. “Lord knows there is nothing there except cows, chickens and those who tend them. I almost burst into song the day we shook the dust of Hertfordshire and Meryton off our shoes.”

“He probably inspected Netherfield Park one last time. You know how he loved that house.”

Neither of them needed to add he’d loved more than the house at Netherfield.

“Yes, he did, but why has he not written back?” Caroline ignored an internal twinge at the reminder of how despondent their malleable brother had become and the unspoken reason why. “I sent a missive as soon as I learned of their departure. Surely he has received it by now.”

“He and Darcy may have gone on to Pemberley, intending to return the day of the ball,” Louisa offered hopefully. “It’s a two-day trip from Hertfordshire to Derbyshire. Not much time to draft and post a letter and we all know how Charles abhors writing.”

“What you say is true.” Caroline stood and paced toward the window. She barely noticed the busy street with grand carriages parading up and down. Her mind was troubled by Charles’ lack of response. What if he hadn’t gone to Pemberley and instead tarried in Hertfordshire? The longer he dallied, the more apt he was to stumble across Miss Jane Bennet and that could be disastrous.

She turned at the rattling of a tray and watched as Bentley lowered the ornate silver tea set onto the small table in front of the couch. With a slight bow he took his leave, closing the door carefully behind him.

“Come, Caroline,” Louisa said as she poured tea into their waiting cups. “We’ll find out soon enough what Charles has been up to. Until that time, let me tell you who was at the Marquis’ dinner.”

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