During this banter, Jane, Elizabeth, and Mary continued to the main drawingroom, quickly finding Charlotte, and joining her to catch up on all the latest news from Meryton. They had barely taken their seats when Mr. Bingley and Viscount Ashton joined them.
Jane had been uniformly silent about her two beaux. The viscount usually made an appearance at Longbourn in the morning, often joining them for breakfast. Mr. Bingley attended whenever anyone from Netherfield came for tea. It was during these visits Mr. Darcy also came tither and politely sat with Elizabeth, much to Miss Bingley’s chagrin.
Her musings were interrupted by a gasp from Jane, who laughed softly and tapped the viscount sharply on his forearm with her fan. The embers of Elizabeth’s sense of humor were stoked as she watched Mr. Bingley come to a slow realization his hunting field hosted another predator. Mr. Darcy showed no reaction, solidifying Elizabeth’s belief he was fully aware his cousin had been beating a path to Longbourn’s door.
She wondered why he did not join the viscount. Surely, if Viscount Ashton could lay claim to a familial connection – the reason he gave for his first surprising arrival just as they sat down to breakfast – then so could Mr. Darcy. He was as much a part of her father’s family as the viscount. His great-aunt, Lady Minerva Fitzwilliam-Hamilton, was her and Jane’s grandmother.
Awareness shivered across the back of her neck and she slowly turned to find the gaze of Mr. Darcy resting on their group. It would be foolhardy to imagine his attention was focused solely on her, even though he intimated as much at the assembly. Perhaps he was bored and she and Jane, along with the viscount, were the only people of rank he felt he could associate with.
Her brow furrowed.
That line of reasoning did not hold water as the taciturn gentleman was a good friend to Mr. Bingley. Granted, Mr. Bingley was very wealthy, but still… his roots were deep in trade. Her inner conflict was put into abeyance when Mr. Darcy joined them.
“Good evening, Miss Hamilton, Miss Elizabeth.”
“Good evening, Mr. Darcy,” she and Jane said in perfect unison.
Mr. Darcy turned to Mary.
“Pardon me, Miss Bennet. I did not see you. My cousin blocked you from my view.” He gave her a polite half-bow. “Good evening to you, Miss Bennet.”
Mary smiled in her own shy way and returned the greeting before saying, “I am going to ask Charlotte if she minds me playing some music in the background before we dine.”
“That would be lovely,” Elizabeth enthused. “I do hope you play the piece you have been working on this week.”
Mary ducked her head at her sister’s praise.
“I am not prepared to play that piece in public. Mayhap on our next gathering.”
“You enjoy playing the pianoforte, Miss Bennet?” Mr. Darcy asked.
“My sister, Georgiana, also loves to play that instrument. Have you had any instruction from one of the masters?”
“Papa invited Senor Giovanni to Longbourn last Autumn. He came for a few weeks to assess my ability and then I stayed with our aunt and uncle in town to further my instruction from him.”
Mr. Darcy’s eyebrows rose upon hearing the name of Mary’s music master.
“Senor Giovanni? My sister has longed to be tutored by him. You must have a rare talent, Miss Bennet. He is very particular in his choice of students.”
“I am aware and very humbled. He inspires me to work hard.”
“And, her diligence has benefited us,” Elizabeth added. “Our family is treated to a concerto nearly every day.”
“I must make an effort to attend one of these impromptu musicales,” Mr. Darcy teased, never removing his gaze from Elizabeth.
She blinked and lowered her eyes to study the pattern of Lady Lucas’s rug. Confused by his sometimes cold then sometimes warm manners, she decided to take each day as it presented itself and look no further. Today saw a congenial Darcy at her side. Tomorrow he may revert to the gentleman who had no time, nor patience for the citizens of Meryton.
It was exasperating, these attempts to discern his moods. She was beginning to believe it easier when she thoroughly disliked him. Black and white. No gray areas to blur the lines, especially when he smiled, as he was at this very moment.
Then…, with the smallest of touches, his hand brushed hers. Her startled gaze flew to his face, surprised to notice his full attention seemed to be focused completely on Jane and Mr. Bingley. Had she imagined the feather-like graze of his fingers? She, too, turned her attention to their small group when the back of her hand was brushed again. Immediately, she looked down and caught him ‘red-handed,’ so to speak.
With a subtle flick of her wrist, she took her fan and tapped him smartly on the fingers, while clearing her throat at the same time so no one would hear the soft ‘whack’ of her fan.
“Miss Elizabeth,” Mr. Darcy said, not missing a beat. “Would you care for a glass of punch?”
She leveled a stern look, reminiscent of her first governess in his direction. He had the grace to gift her a small smile, confirming he was very aware of his flirtatious behavior.
“A glass of punch would be welcome. Thank you.”
“Allow me to escort you to the refreshment table. Then you may choose which punch you prefer.” As they walked away, her hand lightly resting on his forearm, he said in a low voice only she could hear. “I hope you choose the liquid punch and not a solid left hook to my jaw.”
She could not help herself; she laughed out loud. What was she to do with this most frustrating man?