It was a beautiful morning in Pimlico, and Captain Richard Fitzwilliam slept through his alarm.
This would have been a problem - he had physio scheduled in the late morning, and therapy in the afternoon; missing either would do no good for his prospects of returning to active duty, which were already pretty bleak - except that Richard’s family, a reliable source of upper-class English melodrama since at least the Tudors, blew up their WhatsApp group like a metal fork in a microwave. Richard’s phone buzzed like a constipated bee next to his ear for a full five minutes, resisting all attempts to snooze it, and forcing him to turn onto his back and recognise that the sun was up. Which meant he should be up.
Richard peeled himself out of bed and put the kettle on, swore at the clock on the kitchen wall, and went hurriedly back into his room to dress. This was harder than he thought it ought to be, with one arm still at about 60% strength. But the therapy homework - which he definitely hadn’t done, and which he would now have to do on the Tube - had included a lot of stuff about positive framing, so Richard tried to think about how much easier everything was than it had been four months ago instead. Shirts that did not button up the front were available to him, and he was now permitted to wear his favourite old leather cuff over his soulmark instead of the itchy disposable ones the hospital had required for infection control. Richard didn't remember much about either his injury or the associated Christmas season, but he did remember hating those bands so much he had tried to tear them off single-handedly, too badly fogged by pain and opiates to recognise that he didn't have other options.
Richard turned the bathroom light on and counted the products on the shelf instead of thinking about that.
He brushed his teeth, turned boiling water into coffee, and stuck a note under his flatmate’s door about the state of the kitchen. Mary Crawford was the kind of musician that either starves for lack of funds or enjoys an enormous inheritance; Richard had a full collection of her commercially available harp recordings and a great appreciation for her carefully invested stocks and shares. He was less keen on her habit of sharing midnight feasts with her girlfriend and leaving all the dishes in the sink. It meant he always ended up washing up, which he did now.
Richard had finished this task, shaved, and was standing before the mirror rinsing off the last of the shaving foam and mentally rehearsing his discussion points for the therapist when he remembered about his phone. He picked it up on his way out the door, glanced casually at it, and nearly fell down two flights of stairs.
The family group had so many notifications, he had to restart WhatsApp. When he did so, he realised he also had one notification from Sybil, three from Julian, six from his father, and twelve (and counting) from Honoria. Maybe her wife was on another artists’ retreat, because as a rule when Isadora was around Honoria confined herself to pacing the kitchen, shouting. This upset the neighbours, but not her soulmate, who invariably dealt with this by putting on the noise-cancelling headphones she carried everywhere like a talisman against idiot Fitzwilliams and their baroque feuds. This safety valve clearly did not apply now, because the message count from Honoria was mounting by the minute.
The group itself - The Family Fitzwilliam (heart emoji, family emoji, hug emoji; Sybil meant well) - had thirty-one new messages. It seemed to have stabilised at that point.
A message from Honoria flashed up: DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHATS GOING ON ITS 1030 AND I NEED A DRINK.
Richard scrolled briefly through her messages, and understood immediately that none of this would make sense until he’d spoken to Marjorie.
RICH I KNOW YOU SAW THAT
Richard opened the gif keyboard, and selected an image of Elmo shrugging. Then he put his phone on Airplane mode, and started playing Tetris instead.
His physiotherapy session went well, Richard thought, which made it all the more dispiriting that the uniform-clad sadists in charge of the physio gym made discouraging neutral noises when he talked brightly about how he would soon be fit for work. The contrast with their approval of his diligent home physio routine was striking, and made Richard think sourly that he was being off-ramped, nudged out the door as gently as possible. He went in search of lunch in a foul mood, and recoiled from the queues at Leon and Yo Sushi. They were the healthiest options available, and Richard had been sticking dutifully to their calorie-counted whole-food meals since he began his outpatient physio at the hospital nearby. But right now they seemed to be rammed with students and office workers, and the thought of managing his lunch and his bad arm in a packed shop where someone would certainly barge straight into him was not pleasant. Richard had realised, since being injured, just how little attention people paid to those around them. Worse, few of those that were thoughtful in the beginning remembered to be so later in your recovery. His own father - admittedly not the most observant of men - had invited him clay pigeon shooting the other week. Richard had been forced to point out that the kick would do his shoulder no good, and the Earl of Matlock had sighed and looked at him like a defective puppy that couldn't help not being up to standards.
Much the way he looked at Richard's sister-in-law, actually. Richard remembered the series of untouched messages and winced.
Fuck good health and complex carbohydrates. Richard went to Starbucks.
Starbucks was no less crowded, but it had more seating space, and the baristas knew him. He used to meet Georgiana here regularly during the early stages of his physio, an opportunity for the two of them to talk that Darcy had cunningly framed as Georgiana helping Richard. Georgiana had been solicitous enough, and Richard had hammed up his injury enough, and their visits had been frequent enough, that the baristas still recognised Richard and hurried to clear a dirty table and bring him his drink, sandwich and slice of cake on a tray. Richard felt like a bit of a fraud, but was much too polite to say so.
Seated and halfway through his sandwich, Richard took a gulp of tea for fortification and turned Airplane mode off. His phone paused for a single, apocalyptic second, and then went completely bananas. Richard shut his eyes in silent frustration.
He put the stupid thing face down on top of the napkin, got out the French book of short stories he was struggling through in an attempt to develop suitable hobbies outside work, and tried to focus on deciphering the tale of a sweet (doomed) country girl who had come to Paris in search of her soulmate instead of listening to his phone throw a tantrum.
Three pages in, his phone had stopped buzzing. Richard finished the sandwich and the short story, and then tentatively turned over the phone to inspect the damage.
Honoria had now sent him forty messages, the last of which began with "Fuck this, I'm going back to therapy". The WhatsApp group was now on two hundred and six messages, a number of which - Richard skimmed quickly - seemed to have come from one of his evangelical cousins. A few of them had been added to the group in a fit of festive bonhomie a couple of years ago and never usually said anything, except when any Fitzwilliam had done something they considered unChristian. Since the immediate family included Honoria and Richard, respectively too gay and too bisexual for acceptability, Isadora, Honoria's soulmate, and Marjorie, who for some unaccountable reason would not resign her seat in Parliament and retire home to raise the kids she couldn't have, their charming cousins never had to look far to something to shout about.
Richard scrolled up until he thought he was going to sprain his thumb, and discovered to his surprise that his mild-mannered eldest brother Julian had originated the argument. Since Julian was seriously dyslexic, relied on autocorrect, and used both gifs and emojis with a virtuosity more usually associated with Carrie Fisher, Richard only understood the first sentence. It read I HAVE HAD IT WITH THIS SHIT.
Richard assimilated this, followed by the gif of a woman walking away from a burning car and a long string of emojis that included a lot of babies, and began to get an inkling of the issue. Instead of torturing himself by reading all the remaining two hundred and five messages, he muted the chat and opened Sybil's. It was commendably brief and straightforward, and had been sent at two in the morning, which was an occupational hazard of having a sister who ran a hotel in Tahiti; Sybil had gone travelling on her gap year, met her soulmate on a beach in New Zealand, and promptly moved back to Tahiti to help him run the family business. Richard often thought longingly of how much saner family life must be when you experienced it on the other end of a ten-hour time difference.
Marjorie is coming to stay, it read. Dad's been a bit much and she's really had it. Omai and I are treating her to a spa package with us. Julian's flying out later. If everything kicks off, ignore them. It's all okay!
She ended this message with an array of multicoloured hearts. Sometimes Richard thought Sybil was his favourite sister.
He checked Julian's message, just in case - this had been written in a calmer mood, going by the improved spelling and blurry selfie from the champagne and oyster bar of a large Heathrow terminal - and found it confirmed his suspicions. Julian had sent him the aforementioned selfie, a screenshot of his departure board with the flight towards Tahiti circled in rainbow colours, and the words:
Sorry for the (theatre mask emoji) i just can't stand b and watch them insulting them M anymore!! ITS NOT GER FAULT. I hope they choked on yet pamphlets!!!!
Autocorrect clearly hadn't had much luck with this one, but it was still easier to follow than the usual run of Julian's messages. Richard took another gulp of tea, re-entered the family chat, and scrolled back to Julian's original message. Just below it was a video, sent very late last night, presumably immediately before Julian's flight took off. Richard took a deep breath and pressed play.
The video began silently, with an unfocussed shot of Marjorie and Julian's kitchen sink. For some reason this had a Diptyque candle burning in it. Julian's hand appeared, bearing a sheaf of IVF leaflets - Richard sighed - and lifting them towards the camera. They went in and out of focus, but it was obvious what they were. One of them, Richard saw gloomily from the logo, was supported by a Christian organisation his mother had sat on the board of. One of her cousins still did.
On the screen, Julian lowered all the leaflets into the sink, and touched them one by one to the flames until they caught. It was a surprisingly slow process, but when they were all alight and burning merrily, Julian waved his middle and index fingers, and then his wedding ring finger, at the camera. Then the smoke alarm went off, spoiling the effect of the stern silence and crackling flames, and Julian said "Fuck!" very loudly and dropped his phone.
Richard sighed heavily and skimmed through Honoria's messages again, just in case there was something he'd missed that might have been covered by Honoria's rage précis. Once he'd stripped out several messages that were mostly keysmashing, and focussed on the distilled fury and dense analysis of the rest, he thought he had a pretty thorough picture of exactly what had happened.
Richard sighed again, and put his phone down. Strangely enough, his family had come up in therapy before, and Richard had a feeling he'd be talking about them again today, too. The therapist had used words like "seeking for acceptance" and "modelling others' wishes". Richard had been surprised to find that under tactful questioning he had admitted both to himself and to the therapist that he'd stayed in the army because his father looked at him as if he understood him again. That had been a rare and precious feeling since Richard had turned sixteen, and his revealingly ambiguous soulmark had pushed him into admitting he was bisexual long before he had been ready to come out. Assorted members of his family had been trying to talk him into one direction or another since that day, but most people had given up and dealt with it when he was in his mid-twenties. Not the Earl.
He hadn't given up on Marjorie's childbearing prospects either, which seemed to be at the root of today's melodrama smorgasbord.
The problem with the Earl of Matlock - one of several problems with the Earl of Matlock, if you asked Honoria, who had moved to be with Isadora in Glasgow for a very good reason - was that he was a convinced traditionalist. Largely politically liberal, and distinguished for that liberalism in the House of Lords, his belief in continuity was less obvious to the general public. That included the continuity of the earldom itself, which the Earl felt strongly should pass down through one of his sons. The fact that Honoria was easily the best suited to the time-honoured family sinecure of Unfireable Thorn In The Government's Side was acknowledged, but uneasily set aside. It was tradition. Which was why the Earl would have much preferred it if Bénet had been female, or (at the very least, and with a certain amount of harrumphing and reddening) if Richard and Bénet had been considering surrogacy to expand their family; it had been obvious even then that Marjorie was struggling to conceive. It was all academic now, since Richard and Bénet had broken up and both of them would have preferred adoption over surrogacy anyway, but it had happened.
The Earl also believed in soulmarks, which was why he had been so happy when Sybil had met Omai, Julian had met Marjorie, and (somewhat more grudgingly) Honoria had met Isadora. But he had some kind of hazy idea that soulmates should be able to procreate, and Julian insisted that he and Marjorie were soulmates and therefore - per the Earl’s thinking - they must be able to procreate. As a result, poor Marjorie had spent the last several years under siege from an ever-increasing barrage of unwanted medical advice, referrals, hints, and suggestions, often delivered by the Earl's female relatives who either agreed with him or weren't sharp enough to understand what was going on. Aunt Catherine, for instance, had been an enthusiastic participant, but Georgiana had become determinedly deaf, mute and stupid when the Earl tried to get her to say how much she would like a little cousin. And then, Richard remembered, had felt terribly guilty for not being able to defend Marjorie better.
Marjorie had tried all kinds of fertility treatments, Richard knew, including two excruciating cycles of IVF, and all she had got out of it at the last attempt was a heartbreaking miscarriage two months and twenty-seven days in. That had been only a few months ago, which was why Richard knew about it. He had lain in his hospital bed, floating in and out of a painkiller-induced doze, while Marjorie sat by his bedside and wrung the handles of her Furla handbags between her fingers, talking in a murmur barely audible above the machines monitoring his vitals. She had actually torn a strap once, which had roused him enough that he'd suggested a therapist. Marjorie, startled, had caught herself up on a false little laugh and said that she was just clumsy. In hindsight, perhaps Tahiti was overdue.
The Earl kept talking about how Julian had always wanted children. This was perfectly true. But since Julian would be thrilled to adopt, and in any case was deliriously happy volunteering, pottering through work on the complex Matlock estates, and being the perfect political husband to Marjorie while she extended her reign of terror to the entire House of Commons, why continue to provoke him?
The Earl didn't really know how not to, the same way he didn't know how to accept not getting the perfect children and perfect life he somehow felt he deserved.
Richard picked his phone up again, stifled a third sigh, and glanced at Honoria's last few messages. His father's outraged response to Julian flouncing out of the country on a first-class flight, followed by confusion as the family tried to dissect Julian's Cher-inflected hieratic, and then the intervention of the wretched bloody cousin sermonising about faults, sin, and marriage having been ordained for the procreation of children - which had made Honoria flare up like an grease fire with a lid clapped on it - accounted entirely for Richard’s unusual wakeup call. Richard just wished it could have been something a bit less personal, like England losing at the rugby. Not only was this enormously painful for Marjorie, who had done nothing to deserve the family she'd married into, it meant the Earl now watched him for grandchildren. The Earl had three already, and loved them all with undoubted sincerity, but it was painfully obvious to everyone that he specifically wanted his sons' children. To carry on his line. And he expected Richard, fresh off a (Richard winced) possibly career-ending injury and an agonising breakup, to find a nice girl somehow called Bennet and provide them.
Richard practised self-care by muting all the relevant WhatsApp chats, eating cake, and playing Tetris until he judged it was time to leave for therapy. He ordered himself a coffee on the way out, and stepped aside as a bickering family of women descended en masse on the delivery station, waiting for their own orders. A graduate from UCL, her mother, and some sisters, Richard deduced. One of the younger women was wearing a cap, gown, and martyred expression, and trying to explain her undergraduate thesis to her mother, who was teetering on a pair of high heels and straightening her rose-pink skirt, while occasionally interrupting the graduate to scold a different daughter for wearing trousers. They were pale chinos, tapered and cuffed at the ankle and paired with a sea-green blazer, and they looked perfectly smart to Richard, but the woman's mother was complaining bitterly that Lizzy, you never have any sense of occasion, look how Jane dresses -
"Matcha latte, soy milk flat white, Earl Grey tea with lemon, and - uh - double shot caramel mocha frappuccino, coconut milk, extra syrup?" interrupted Emily the barista.
The four women took their drinks and shuffled slightly to the side. Only two of them said thank-you.
"- no wonder you can't get a boyfriend," the woman in pink continued, "considering -"
"Mum, the last person I went out with was my cousin, and he didn't tell me it was a date until I showed up at his house and there were roses! I was trying to interview him!"
Richard tried to dodge past the woman in pink, who was between him and Emily, already holding his drink.
"William Collins is a very nice -"
"Black coffee for Fitzwilliam?" shouted Emily the barista, waving Richard's KeepCup desperately over the graduate's head. Richard twisted to lean over, and reached for the cup with his bad arm unthinkingly.
Richard's world was suddenly full of double shot caramel mocha frappuccino, coconut milk, extra syrup. He dropped his KeepCup, which splattered all over his shoes.
"Oh my God," gasped sea-green, as Richard sniffed and tried to get mocha frappuccino out of his eyes. "Oh my God, Mum."
"Bless you!" said the sister known as Jane. "You must have sneezed! What awful timing! You poor man, I'm so sorry. Mary, go and get Mum a tissue."
"Just do it, Mary."
"Oh my God," said sea-green, suddenly much closer. Richard squinted through the run-off, and saw that she was standing right in front of him, offering him a handful of napkins. "I am so sorry. Really, I am so sorry. Please let me replace your drink, uh - Fitzwilliam? And pay for your dry cleaning. I'm so sorry, I hope you don't have an interview or anything."
"It'll come right out, I'm sure," Richard said, with a confidence he didn't feel, cleaning off his face properly and dabbing at his jacket. Sea-green had lovely hazel eyes and she looked like she wanted the floor to swallow her up. "And it's actually Richard; Fitzwilliam is my surname."
"I'm Elizabeth," she said. She was blushing so hard her ears had gone pink. "Bennet. Elizabeth Bennet. And I definitely owe you a coffee."
This is a work of fiction. No aspersions should be cast on any politicians or journalists who might have real-life incarnations.
The Bennet family home in Wimbledon was miles from Elizabeth and Jane's flat in Kilburn Park, and when Elizabeth got to Waterloo the train she'd aimed to get was cancelled, so unlike Jane - kindly tutoring Lydia through English A-Level, a subject she hadn't actually studied, but then most frogs had a better grasp of academics than Lydia did - she was late for Sunday lunch. Elizabeth hurried up the road from the station, and prepared to be castigated both for being late and for having turned up wearing a black jacket. Mrs Bennet had decided some time after Elizabeth had graduated university that she was now sufficiently adult that a leather jacket didn't make her look like a chav, but black clothing of any kind on Elizabeth always inspired a homily about how she was a warm autumn and should not be wearing black, which drained her. Arguments that Elizabeth was a grubby journalist and black didn't show stains carried little weight.
Elizabeth knew that her mother was much better off for having an occupation - unlike the younger three, she and Jane were old enough to remember life with Mrs Bennet, the stay at home mother - and also that she was very good at what she did. But occasionally she rued the day Mrs Bennet had heard of Colour Me Beautiful.
Instantly distracted by the thought of going back in time and shoving Aunt Sandra into a cupboard before she could even utter the words "doing your colours", Elizabeth wondered if she could adapt the concept to some recent ministerial shenanigans and work it up into something comic for the column she'd acquired earlier that year. 'Politics, but make it funny': a brief Elizabeth had no problem with, since politicians were frequently idiots, and therefore hilarious. The problem, Elizabeth thought, was that she’d leaped at the chance to write a book at the same time. The two didn’t combine well.
She made a right turn onto the street where she'd grown up, and discovered her sister Kitty, hanging out on the corner vaping fervently and staring at her phone like it bore the key to earthly salvation. The French bulldog puppy their mother had bought to get their father to exercise, and whose every move she chronicled on Facebook, gambolled around Kitty's feet.
Down the road, assisted by some open windows, Elizabeth could hear the faint sounds of Mrs Bennet having it out with the Aga. An appliance she had coveted for years, bought on a financing deal nearly as frightening as the mortgage, and then comprehensively failed to learn how to use.
"I thought Jane was cooking," Elizabeth said.
Kitty jumped convulsively, and flung her phone into traffic. A weekend cyclist gave them both a filthy look and swerved out of its path, and Lizzy stepped into the road to pick it up.
"You startled me!" Kitty said, feebly.
"And I thought you quit vaping," Lizzy said, by way of a reply. "Because of the whole asthma thing. Mum will absolutely flip if she catches you." She inspected the phone - no worse off than it had been before, complete with faux-marble case and spiderwebbed corner of the screen - and handed it back to Kitty, who examined it anxiously and put it back in her pocket.
"I know," Kitty said guiltily, reflexively hiding the vape pen in her fist. "But… you know…"
A gust of wind brought the sound of Mrs Bennet absolutely losing it at Mary for, by the sounds of things, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Both sisters winced.
"My inhaler! My inhaler!" blew past their ears and died on the breeze.
Lizzy sighed. Her mother was asthmatic, like Kitty, but much less seriously so. If you asked Lizzy - which nobody at all had - the tightness in her chest probably reflected the anxious tizzy she worked herself into whenever she was crossed rather than the state of her lungs. Kitty, however…
Lizzy could understand the nicotine addiction, especially while Kitty was home for the Easter holidays and trying to study for her first-year exams in the febrile atmosphere produced by Mary's job-hunting, Lydia's studying for her A-Levels, and Mrs Bennet's everything. But that didn't mean she had to condone it.
"Have you heard of a thing called popcorn lung -" she began.
"Yeah, I know, I know, I have, you showed me pictures." Kitty kicked gloomily at the sad little sapling the puppy was sniffing around. "At least I don't buy the, you know. The off-brand ones."
Elizabeth assimilated her phrasing, and the guilty way her voice lifted over off-brand. She pinched her nose. "Kitty, is Lydia buying weed cartridges from fuck knows where to vape with?"
"You don't have to answer, just nod yes or no."
"Is this what you do to your interviewees, because if so I really get why Sarah Vine hates you."
"No. I'm a lot meaner to them. Kitty, yes or no?"
Sullenly, Kitty nodded.
Elizabeth sighed again. "Okay. Okay, well. I'm going to kill Lydia."
"Before or after lunch?" Kitty put her pen away.
"Before, if Mum's cooking." Elizabeth's phone buzzed, and she glanced at it. Jane: Mum wants to know where you are.
Shit. Train was late, nearly there. She put her phone away. "We'd better go. Mum's getting antsy."
Kitty winced, but stepped away from the sapling, tugging on the puppy's lead.
"How's obedience training going?" Elizabeth said, eyeing the French bulldog, who had been named Havoc and was living up to it too.
"Not great," Kitty said gloomily. "I don't really understand how to get her to do what I want. Lydia never walks her except when she wants to show off, Mary says she's not her dog so it's not her problem, Dad always has something else to do and Mum just keeps feeding her stuff."
Elizabeth felt a pang of sympathy.
"If you would help sometimes on the weekends -"
Elizabeth's pang vanished immediately. "Nope. Sorry, Kitty. Can't."
Kitty closed her mouth abruptly, and was silent until they got to the foot of the steps up to the Bennet front door, when she said in a half-whisper: "Lyd's not doing anything wrong, Lizzy."
"She's going to explode her own alveoli," Elizabeth said, at a normal volume and with the outrage of someone who had bodily hauled Lydia away from electrical sockets at nine, used the Heimlich manoeuvre to expel a pound coin her airway at fifteen, seen her through her first hangover at twenty-one, and now, at twenty-six, confronted the prospect of her youngest sister getting high off unknown vape liquids. Lydia never seemed to learn, but - as their father pointed out - she was remarkably robust.
The front door flew open, so all Kitty could do in reply was look vaguely sad.
Jane stood silhouetted in the doorway, looking incredibly calm and soignée for someone who had been dragging Lydia through an analysis of Villette for the last hour. Still, as her closest sister, Elizabeth detected worrying signs of Jane reaching the end of her tether, which meant a very trying afternoon was in store. Someone had closed the front window that gave directly from the kitchen onto the street, but now the front door was open Elizabeth could hear that Mary was taking out the stress of her mother's frayed temper on Lydia. Something about not taking up all the space in the house with all her stupid books without actually doing any of the work, and having ten minutes' thought for other people, and if not for other people than for herself, A-Levels are important, Lydia -
Kitty let out a small, disconsolate noise. "Shit."
"It all gets so much easier when you move out," Elizabeth promised. It was a mark of Jane's own stress levels that she didn't disagree, only pinched the bridge of her nose and leaned against the doorjamb.
"I can't wait to go back to Leeds," Kitty muttered.
"Just keep it to yourselves, please," Jane sighed, glancing back into the house. "Mum's making a roast and it's all a bit stressful. And I don't know where Dad's gone."
"Locked himself in his office," Elizabeth predicted, shepherding Kitty and Havoc the puppy up the steps and closing the door. Havoc tangled around both of their ankles to the point where Kitty fell over and Jane had to leap back out of the way.
"We've got to get that dog to obedience classes," Jane said, as Havoc jumped onto Kitty's stomach and climbed onto her chest to lick her face with loving enthusiasm. "It's cute now, but -"
"Who's a gorgeous girl?" Kitty crooned, apparently paying no attention. "Who's a gorgeous girl? Ugh! Ow, Havoc, no!"
The puppy, who had just licked Kitty's right ear, whined.
"She's a dog, Kitty," Jane said, with loving patience. "She doesn't know the difference between the ear with a fresh piercing she isn't allowed to lick and the ear with no fresh piercing she is allowed to lick." She unhooked Havoc's lead, picked up the puppy, and helped Kitty to her feet. "I would go and clean that if I were you. And if you could tell Dad lunch will be in fifteen minutes..."
Kitty wrinkled her nose, but kicked off her shoes and ran upstairs, calling loudly for their father. Jane and Elizabeth were left staring at each other in the hall, over a wriggling puppy.
"You look like you have a headache," Elizabeth said bluntly.
Jane wrinkled her nose just like Kitty. "It's fine. I have paracetamol in my bag. Lydia was paying some attention, I think. But never mind that, tell me about - you know -"
Elizabeth felt her ears going pink, and (with great presence of mind) pictured Ann Widdecombe doing the tango on Strictly Come Dancing, a mental trick which had distracted her from reflexive social embarrassment in moments of professional stress so often she taught it to every intern she met. When she felt a little calmer, she said: "It was great. Lovely, actually. We should have an ice-cream night and talk about it. Are you free tonight?"
Jane grimaced. "I would love to, but Charlie and his sisters have asked me to come over for dinner and a movie -"
"Oh my God, no, you have to go." Elizabeth's hair was coming loose from its clip and falling down in her face; she pulled the clip free and retwisted it, lifting her left hand to pin it back into place. Jane's eyes followed her wrist unconsciously, in reaction to the subject of their discussion. "You like him, don't you? A lot?"
Jane went a beautiful delicate watercolour pink - unlike Elizabeth, who tended to blotch, and therefore suppressed her blushes on grounds of personal aesthetic as well as the brass neck required of a political journalist - and nodded. In order to avoid meeting Elizabeth's eyes she knelt down and tidied up Kitty's shoes, lining them neatly up on the already chaotic shoe rack.
"Well, I'm glad," Elizabeth said, who had been privileged to meet Charles Bingley when he came round to pick Jane up for a date the previous week and had immediately seized the opportunity to cross-examine him while Jane was getting ready. He probably wasn't the quickest guy in the room, but he was kind and thoughtful and he found Elizabeth funny, all of which she very much counted as points in his favour. "You've liked a lot of stupider people called Charles. And I have to say, after Charles Musgrove, there was nowhere to go but up. I still can't believe he married that girl."
"I hope they're very happy," Jane said valiantly. "Mary sends me lovely Christmas round robins. Anyway, you and -"
"Don't say his name," Elizabeth hissed - somewhat too late, as Lydia came bounding up the stairs and demanded in her most piercing voice to know whose name Jane was not allowed to say.
"Take Havoc out into the back garden, Lydia, please," Jane said firmly, handing the dog to her in a way that didn't take no for an answer. Except apparently when Lydia said it, because Lydia's arms remained stubbornly empty of dog.
"But who aren't you allowed to talk about?" Lydia said very loudly, with a tone of innocence that contrasted painfully with her fiendish grin.
"How long have you been buying dodgy e-liquids off the internet so you can vape weed?" Lizzy retorted, and the grin metamorphosed into a scowl.
"Piss off, Lizzy. I just want to -"
"Take Havoc into the back garden, Lydia," Jane repeated, in the same steely voice she used on Year Nine, and thrust the puppy bodily into her youngest sister's arms. "Thank you."
Lydia flounced off.
"That girl is a menace," Elizabeth said. "Monday night for ice-cream?"
Jane nodded, and gave Elizabeth one of her enchanting smiles. "I am so excited for you, Lizzy."
"And to think," Elizabeth said. "I owe it all to Mum insisting on Starbucks."
When Mr Bennet and Kitty came downstairs from the home office, Elizabeth and Jane were in hysterics.
Lunch was alternately crispy and soggy, the unfortunate consequence of Mrs Bennet’s struggles with the AGA, and plated up in complete chaos. Havoc the puppy spent the whole time barking at everyone’s feet and trying to get hold of scraps of meat, Lydia barged carelessly around moving her English revision off the table, Mr Bennet caused a diversion by slipping on a loose biro, and Mary and Lydia sniped at each other throughout. Kitty automatically took Lydia’s part, because Mary was excoriating Lydia’s studies and Kitty (as well as being closest to Lydia) had had her own run-ins with Mary’s very strict ideas of how a proper student should behave. Eventually, the roast potatoes started to burn, and Jane sat their mother down in an armchair and took charge. Lydia mysteriously disappeared to the bathroom when told to lay the table, Elizabeth climbed on a chair and used a wooden spoon to turn the smoke alarm off, and Kitty ran upstairs for Mrs Bennet’s inhaler, which she didn’t actually need so much as she needed to step outside and take several deep breaths. Mr Bennet put down his copy of the Times in the most inconvenient place possible, sat down in his chair, and played with Havoc. He had claimed to Elizabeth that he didn’t like the creature, but he seemed quite affectionate with it when Mrs Bennet wasn’t harping on about how the puppy’s purpose was to persuade him to get more exercise, and how they’d default on the mortgage and be tossed onto the street if he dropped dead of a heart attack.
By the time the meat had gone tepid, however, they were all sitting down at the table, playing at Happy Families and passing the roast potatoes (burned bits scraped off by Jane) and damp cabbage (covered in butter and salt by Elizabeth, in the hopes that this would make up for the fact that it had boiled for a full five minutes longer than necessary and now had the consistency of wet paper towel). This meant that Mrs Bennet was fishing for information about Richard Fitzwilliam, who she’d last seen when she spat half a frappuccino over him, Mary was disdaining taking part in the conversation, and the two youngest girls were watching Elizabeth avidly, keenly aware that something of interest was happening, but not sure what. Only the older three and their parents knew what Elizabeth’s soulmark read, so all they were aware of was that Mrs Bennet had accidentally tipped sugary iced coffee over a strange man - but so handsome, Mrs Bennet said untruthfully - and Lizzy had since been on a date with him. That was absolutely fine with Elizabeth, who liked Richard and his pleasant smile very much but would rather have died than say she’d met the other half to her soul in a Starbucks a week previously. Every time Jane met yet another Charles - or Charlie, or Chas, or once, at university, never repeated for excellent reasons, Chad - their relationship came in for a special, fascinated scrutiny, as if it were somehow magically more serious. Elizabeth had taken to judging Charleses by the degree of calm and good humour they showed when they met the Bennet family, and blessed herself almost daily that she had chosen to keep her soulmark to herself. Even in the 21st century, it was quite a private thing, but it would have been more usual to trust a sister with it than to keep it as rigidly secret as Elizabeth had. But most people, Elizabeth told herself, didn’t have sisters like Kitty and Lydia. By the time Lydia and Kitty had turned sixteen - the age when Elizabeth had shown her mark to Mary - Elizabeth had a) moved out and b) decided that Lydia was the least trustworthy person she knew, and that Kitty would immediately tell Lydia anything Lydia didn’t already know.
Still, Elizabeth thought, trying vainly to keep up a conversation about the foibles of local MP Stephen Hammond and his hockey games with her father while her mother speculated quietly about what a pleasant man Richard seemed to be, if Mrs Bennet carried on like this, Lydia and Kitty could hardly fail to realise the truth. And much as Elizabeth liked Richard’s charm and good sense and his attractive smile, she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to be pitchforked into a haystack of family drama for the sake of a nice smile and a sense of humour that complemented her own. They had been on exactly one date, for God’s sake, and that had largely been so she could compensate him for her mother’s unexpected expectoration.
The fact that he had already asked her out on a second date was a totally separate matter.
Mr Bennet made a wry joke about taking up hockey in his old age to support his cardiac health - “But that’s why we have Havoc, Henry!” - and Elizabeth tried to spear a roast potato and accidentally catapulted it into Lydia’s glass of water. Lydia shrieked and swore at Elizabeth, both parents chastised her for her bad language, there was a short but unpleasant scene and Lydia stormed off.
“Lydia Bennet,” Mr Bennet snapped from his seat, but didn’t go after her. Mrs Bennet groped for her inhaler, and Elizabeth sighed and pushed the offending potato - now retrieved - to one side of her plate. The silence was hideously loaded, and Lydia could still be clearly heard crashing around upstairs, but at least no-one was saying anything about Richard.
Small blessings, Elizabeth supposed gloomily, and heard Jane - sitting next to her - give the tiniest of all possible sighs.
“I’m seeing Charlie tonight,” Jane blurted out brightly, leaping into the breach.
Out of the corner of her eye, Elizabeth saw Mrs Bennet light up like a Christmas tree. She trapped her own second sigh in her chest, and resolved to go out of her way to the big Sainsbury’s to buy Jane the good lactose-free Ben and Jerry’s for tomorrow.
Sunday lunch broke up in disarray. Jane did the washing up, and Mary dried the dishes, while Kitty persuaded their mother to go upstairs and have a nap. Elizabeth went upstairs and strongarmed Lydia into coming downstairs and making a few sullen gestures towards helping clean up, but Mary almost immediately said something so snooty about Lydia finally contributing that Elizabeth couldn't really blame Lydia for stamping off again. Going by the look Jane threw over her shoulder, up to her elbows in soap suds and her younger sisters' drama, Jane didn't blame Lydia either.
"Mary," Jane began. "That wasn't-"
"What?" Mary said snidely, cutting Jane off. "Nice? Lydia isn't nice. She's always been spoiled and now she's just a brat who doesn't do anything but party and get high, and Mum thinks it's just having fun when you're young, and Dad doesn't see anything beyond the end of his nose because he can't be bothered to look. You don't live here any more. You have no idea what it's like."
Jane leaned her head against the cupboard over the sink and visibly prayed for patience. "Mary…"
"At least she's not a complete bitch who treats anyone who wants to have a bit of fun like total shit," Kitty said, reappearing in the kitchen at this inopportune moment.
Kitty fled to the garden with her vape pen and Havoc, who had been whining to be let back in for half an hour but whose whines quickly turned to yelps of delight when Kitty sat down on the unkempt grass to throw tennis balls for the puppy and suck on her vape pen like the elixir of life. Elizabeth decided not to yell at her, just this once.
"You see?" Mary dropped a handful of cutlery into the drawer and slammed it shut with a cacophonous bang. "Nobody ever bothers to try to keep things organised around here except me."
"If you bitch at your sisters, you'll get what you give," Elizabeth said, filling the kettle from the sink in the small downstairs bathroom. Mary gasped like a Tube train door creaking open, and went alarmingly pink in the face. "Tea?"
"Yes please," Jane said, in a tone that strongly implied the words should have been O God, in your mercy, hear my prayer. "Mary, that's not at all how I would have put it, but Lizzy's not wrong. If you treat people like they're awful, they quite often decide to live down to your expectations. Take it from me. I teach Year Nine."
"But-" Mary whined, sounding more like Lydia than she would have liked to admit.
"Mary, for the sake of your mental health," Jane said, "and also for the sake of my headache, you need to either learn to accept that Lydia isn't like you and you can't control her or you need to move out."
"I can't afford to move out!"
"There you are, then," Elizabeth said unsympathetically. Mary always managed to be absent when Lydia was, for example, vomiting up her own bodyweight in Bacardi Breezers, but she did always seem to be there to inspect the hangover. Much though Elizabeth could have cheerfully drowned Lydia for her escapades, she found Mary's attitude intolerable too.
“Augh,” Mary said, stuffing the carving knife into the knifeblock, which was designed to look like a cartoon man being stabbed, and all too often provided the Bennet sisters with displacement activity for grievous bodily harm.
“Do you want tea or don’t you?” Elizabeth said.
“I’ll make my own, thank you,” Mary said, in a tone that she probably thought was cool and cutting, but from her older sisters’ perspective just sounded ungracious.
Elizabeth threw one teabag of Yorkshire Tea into a mug printed with the text of Wendy Cope’s How to Deal with the Press and a second into a Samuel Pepys mug, set down a third with Hello Kitty on it, and waited for the water to go off the boil before she poured it over Jane’s camomile tea. Mary crashed around angrily putting plates away, and Elizabeth ignored her with the aid of long practice to pass Jane her tea. Kitty’s mug she took out into the garden with her own, and left her father’s tea to stew to death, the way he liked it.
Kitty tried to hide her vape pen when Elizabeth came up, which was sweet of her, in a naive sort of way.
“I’ll overlook you vaping this time if you’ll promise not to call Mary a bitch again,” Elizabeth said, picking up a distinctly gooey tennis ball and throwing it into the most overgrown corner of the bottom of the garden for Havoc, who was overjoyed.
Kitty rolled her eyes, which told Elizabeth she’d gone onto the defensive on Lydia’s behalf. Not a good sign. “She is such a bitch sometimes, though. Like, I know she’s stressed and everything -”
“Jane and I have told you about the graduate employment market, right?”
Kitty rolled her eyes again. “Yeah, but you were all right.”
“I was lucky,” Elizabeth said, sitting down next to her. “And so, so broke.”
“You’re publishing a book and everything though.”
“Remind me to explain how publishing works too,” Elizabeth said dryly, blowing over the top of her tea.
“It sounds cool,” Kitty said. “I like books. When I don’t have to read them.” She sighed. “But Mary says I don’t read anything but rubbish anyway. It’s shit, Lizzy. She doesn’t have a word to say to any of us that isn’t how we should be improving ourselves.”
“That does indeed fucking suck,” Elizabeth agreed. “Which is why I suggest you ignore her.”
“She insists on working at the kitchen table where we can all see her figuring out her life.” Kitty went nose first into her tea. “Thank you for the tea.”
“You’re welcome. I’ll tell Dad to make her work at her desk. Or get her a reader’s ticket for the British Library or something.” Elizabeth stretched out her legs and turned her face up into the sunshine. “Just don’t copy Lydia’s way of going through life, either.”
“She’s just having fun,” Kitty said. “She’ll be fine. I was fine.”
“You actually cared about passing your A-Levels,” Elizabeth said. “Which is why you got into Leeds in the end.”
Kitty squirmed. “She’ll be okay. I know she wants to get into university. She was totally into it when she came to visit me at Leeds.”
“She wanted to pass her driving test, too.” Lydia had now failed her test three times, due to lack of practice and general carelessness on the road, and Mr Bennet had said he wasn’t going to pay for another one. Which, since Lydia didn’t have a job, and spent the allowance Mrs Bennet gave her as freely as she got it, meant Lydia would not be driving any time soon. “And what she was into was the partying. I won’t ask where you took her.”
Kitty squirmed again. “I wouldn’t let her get into trouble.” The puppy, having finally dug the tennis ball out of the pit of nettles and overgrown bushes that sat at the bottom of the garden, ran up to them and dropped it at Kitty’s feet. She bounced onto Kitty’s lap and panted excitably at her, causing Kitty to slop tea onto her hands and yelp.
“Lydia finds trouble like Havoc finds fox poo,” Elizabeth said, getting to her feet. “I’ll ask Dad to get Mary out of your hair.”
“We should be so lucky,” Kitty said miserably.
“That was bitchy,” Elizabeth said. “Just remember. It’s only another week or so before you’re back in Leeds.”
“Eleven days,” Kitty moaned. “I’ve been counting. Lizzy, can I come and stay with you?”
Kitty flopped backwards onto the grass and let out a groan.
Elizabeth laughed, and went indoors.
Henry Bennet was an indolent man at the best of times - active enough, in a middle-aged sort of way, but not so much that his wife’s conviction that he needed more exercise wasn’t accurately borne out by his blood pressure. Professionally, he had been active and determined enough to secure a moderately prestigious position at the British Library, and although the graduate students he worked with occasionally had to ambush him in order to get his input on their theses he was still considered helpful enough - and almost as importantly, funny enough - to have a decent reputation among his junior colleagues. He undoubtedly loved his daughters, but equally undoubtedly he had checked out of raising the younger two, and although Elizabeth really wished Mary had not ruined Jane’s twenty-first birthday dinner by asking their father point blank why he and Mum hadn’t got divorced yet, she also had to admit that Mary had had a point. And she hadn’t stopped having a point over the last six years, despite occasional forays into marriage counselling.
All things considered, it was totally typical of Mr Bennet that he had gone upstairs almost immediately after lunch to write up a piece for the London Review of Books, and responded to Elizabeth’s tap on the door with silence. Elizabeth, who knew him well enough to know that this was a ruse, opened the door anyway.
“Oh, it’s you, Lizzy.” Mr Bennet took his feet off his desk and folded up the Sunday Times, review book and computer abandoned on his desk. The computer, Elizabeth noticed, wasn’t even on.
“I brought you tea.” Elizabeth put down both mugs on the desk, where his feet had been, and her father eyed her mug.
“Hostile, friendly, sober, pissed,/Male or female – that’s the rule,” he quoted. “When tempted to confide, resist./Never trust a journalist. You really went for Siobhain McDonagh in your column the other day, didn’t you?”
“She earned it,” Elizabeth said.
“No, honestly, Dad. Legal wouldn’t let me put the worst bit in because I couldn’t get anyone on the record.” Elizabeth took a gulp of her cooling tea, and her father picked up his own mug. He had bought her the mug when she’d got her first job in journalism; it had been an internship, which had lasted barely six months and paid almost nothing, and she knew exactly how lucky she was to have been paid anything at all. But her father had been extremely proud, and very much invested in her success. There was a reason why he came joint first in the acknowledgements with Jane, and a reason he had turned around the proofread for her book proposal in half the time his grad students might have expected.
If only he would take as much of an interest in things which didn’t have a natural attraction for him, like, for example, keeping Mary and Lydia from drawing battle lines over the kitchen table.
“I was talking to Kitty,” she said. “Apparently Mary’s been doing her job-hunting on the kitchen table and using it as a vantage point for judging everyone in the house. Now, I judge Lydia just as much as the next person does, but I don’t think Mary’s attitude is helping. And I don’t think constantly watching Lydia is helping Mary either. She really did expect to be kept on after that internship, it’s not surprising she’s lashing out.”
“No. True.” Mr Bennet sipped at his tea. “I sense that you have a plan, Lizzy.”
“Get Mary a reader’s ticket and persuade her she’d be better off working at the library,” Elizabeth said, bluntly. “Maybe top up her Oystercard a couple of times to help out. It won’t be hard to get her to come with you. She's always going on about how you need to keep a schedule for the job you want.”
“Wise,” Mr Bennet conceded, “and it requires very little effort on my part, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t try it. Any other ideas?”
“Get Lydia and Kitty to quit vaping?” Elizabeth suggested.
“Nobody is ever ready to quit until they want to,” Mr Bennet pointed out, which had the dubious virtue of being both true and lazy.
“Okay, then, confiscate Lydia’s CBD capsules.”
“Weed will probably not do her that much harm. I grant you if I catch her at it I will remove them from her possession and read her the Riot Act as strictly as you like, but in case it has escaped your notice, Lydia is rather faster than your old father.”
Elizabeth sighed deeply, and slid down in her chair. “It’s not the CBD oil I’m worried about, not really, it’s the other stuff in the capsules. Remind me to tell you about popcorn lung.”
“Please don’t,” Mr Bennet said, pulling a face. “Very well, Lizzy, I’ll do my best.”
He put his feet back on the desk and returned to the Sunday Times. Elizabeth sipped at her tea and stared distantly out of the window, into the branches of the surprisingly hardy magnolia her parents had planted when Jane was born. For obvious reasons, younger daughters had received less ambitious horticultural tributes, and most of these had died off. But Jane’s magnolia was still thriving.
They enjoyed several moments of peace, and then Mr Bennet folded over a leaf of his paper and said: “Lizzy… this young man your mother showered with Starbucks.”
Elizabeth shut her eyes briefly, heart sinking all the way to the worn and torn carpet on the floor. “It was a double shot caramel mocha frappuccino with coconut milk and extra syrup, if you want to get technical, Dad.”
“I do not. Though it is a constant source of amazement to me that your mother still has teeth. No, I am primarily concerned with this man Fitzwilliam.” Mr Bennet shut his paper, a sign of great disturbance, and looked over at Elizabeth. “Tell me about him, Lizzy.”
“His actual name is actually Richard,” Elizabeth said, knowing she sounded too defensive. “Because this is not the eighteenth century, Dad. Um, he’s a soldier, but he’s currently on leave, because his shoulder got messed up. He was taking a break from physiotherapy when… frappuccino. He likes books. He can read in French. He’s funny. He has a weird family but I think he was trying not to talk about them -”
“You have so much in common already,” Mr Bennet observed.
“- and he has a nice smile. That’s it.” Elizabeth tucked her feet under herself. “I know Mum’s making a big thing out of it…”
“Quite.” Mr Bennet folded the paper. “In the true spirit of BBC balance, I am here to tell you not to make a big thing out of it. Names don’t necessarily mean as much as we think they do. Look at your mother and myself, for instance.”
“I’d rather not,” Elizabeth said automatically, and instantly wished she could sink through the floor. But her father did not take offence.
“Exactly. We truly believed we were soulmates. The names on our wrists match. But there’s more than one way to be someone’s soulmate - purely romantic love is not necessarily -”
“Yeah, Dad, I know, I know.” Elizabeth had been on the receiving end of this lecture on several occasions, since the day shortly after her soulmark had come in when her father had caught her searching Facebook for boys her age named Fitzwilliam.
“I know you know.” Mr Bennet finished his tea, and then looked sideways and caught her eye. “Just don’t get carried away, Lizzy. I would so much rather you didn’t repeat my mistakes.”
“Not likely,” Elizabeth said, swallowing assorted pangs regarding her father’s obvious lack of respect for her mother and passive behaviour in the face of an unsatisfactory home life with the ease of long practice, and getting up to kiss him on the cheek. “I’m so much more self-aware, after all.”
“A hit,” Mr Bennet said dryly, picking up the book he was supposed to be reviewing. “A palpable hit.”
The house and gardens with Pemberley were buzzing with happy visitors; Richard drove round past the tourists’ entrance and parked his own battered Range Rover next to Georgiana’s silver Mini and Darcy’s sleek Lexus hybrid in the small family car park. A number of curious people goggled after him, but Uncle George had negotiated well with the National Trust, and the entrance to the chunk of Pemberley that still remained in Darcy hands was discreetly hard for tourists to get to. This was a relatively small part of the original buildings, which had been a very decent-sized family home when Richard’s uncle and aunt were alive, and which now tended to rattle a bit, with just Georgiana and Darcy around. The main house, neoclassically beautiful with stunning parks and gardens, was now divided into the postwar style Uncle George had been born into, the 18th-century Enlightenment golden age, and the Industrial Revolution period, when some long-dead Darcy had made a fortune off railways and decorated parts of the house in an incredibly gaudy style. This last had been so faithfully restored that fastidious Darcy couldn’t look at it without wincing.
Though Pemberley remained home, Georgiana and Darcy were often in London, Georgiana studying at the Royal College of Music, Darcy pursuing the law. He had stayed up north when Georgiana was younger, commuting to Manchester to work, but had moved south when she finished school, nearly two years ago now. For a while, after the whole Wickham incident, it had looked to Richard as if Georgina would go and bury herself in Pemberley and never leave again, and Darcy would correspondingly drag his entire law practice up there with her. But Georgiana had slowly begun to venture out again, and had applied to conservatoires and music courses with something like her previous interest. She would even play music other than Rachmaninoff without being asked, which Richard knew was a considerable relief to Darcy, who had manfully listened to every extremely depressing piece Georgiana had hammered through the keys the year she was eighteen.
Richard paused outside the front door and listened to the music filtering through an open window: the Carnival of the Animals, a longstanding favourite of Georgiana’s. When he knocked, the music stopped abruptly, and Richard smiled at the sound of running feet.
Georgiana came through the front door without allowing her feet to touch the ground; Richard angled himself to grab her in his good arm and ignored the slight jolt to the bad. She was laughing with delight, and Richard felt his own smile broaden in response.
“We weren’t expecting you until later! Fitzwilliam is still shouting at Cuadrilla.”
“Oh right,” said Richard, who had been privileged to hear his cousin lose his shit over fracking in the UK since they were both still at school. Very little had changed in the intervening years except that Darcy now had a law degree and was better at channeling his anger. “Do you know when he’ll be done?”
“The meeting’s already run over by an hour,” Georgiana said. “Come and have hot cross buns with me instead. I tried to get crumpets but there weren’t any. How was the wedding?”
“Lovely. The bride was beautiful, the groom knew he was happier than he deserved to be, everyone cried.” Richard grinned. “Beatrice and Arthur send their love. And Darcy may have mentioned there were no crumpets, so I stopped at a M&S motorway services and guess what I found -”
Georgiana’s grin split her face, and she laughed. Up above, the window of Darcy’s study opened, and Darcy - iPhone still glued to his ear - stuck his head out and waved. Richard waved back.
“With respect,” Darcy said into the phone, sounding like respect had never come into it, “that’s not relevant to the matter at hand. With - I said - No, carry on.” The window closed again.
“Box of Smarties says we have to wait another hour,” Georgina said, staring up at the window.
“Well, that’s fine,” Richard said. “I’m not leaving until tomorrow.”
Darcy - or rather the representatives of Cuadrilla - kept them waiting for one hour and fifteen minutes, in which time Georgiana and Richard had eaten most of the crumpets and covered a lot of the obvious conversational ground. Darcy entertained them both very much when he came downstairs venting his spleen against his opposite numbers in the fracking industry, and a brief discussion of his present work kept them talking until Georgiana went upstairs to shower and Darcy started to cook dinner. Some kind of pork belly dish with a barbecue-style sauce, that could be stuffed into the oven and left there for a while to cook. He poured Richard a glass of wine without asking - ready chilled when Darcy very seldom drank, and exactly the kind that Richard liked - and stewed quietly over the food.
Richard came to the conclusion that it wasn’t just Cuadrilla that had him irritable, or at least off-balance. He waited.
Eventually, Darcy said: “I’ve been thinking about what you told me.”
The cousins were close: Richard ran down an abbreviated list of the things he had recently discussed with Darcy and fetched up with several alternatives that might have him discomfited, not least of which was Richard’s most recent rant about his career. “You’ll need to be more specific.”
“Elizabeth Bennet,” Darcy clarified, and Richard’s stomach swooped.
“Oh,” he said. “Yes.” A rather silly smile crept onto his face. “Yes, we’re still - we’re still talking.”
“I know you’re having a difficult time at the moment,” Darcy pronounced, encompassing in this understated sentence the ongoing Fitzwilliam family fracas, his healing wound, and the probability that Richard’s career was about to come to an abrupt end. Darcy knew all about the latter two - he had been one of the first to find Richard in hospital, and had been the easiest person for Richard to confide in since - and was sufficiently well-informed about the former that the Darcys had gone completely radio-silent to the older Fitzwilliam generations. Georgiana had been born through IVF, and Darcy had been old enough to witness much of the difficult and painful process. The attempts to force Marjorie to keep trying for a baby had upset both siblings, and Darcy had accordingly exited the family WhatsApp chat and taken Georgiana with him almost immediately after Julian had made his dramatic declaration of independence the following week. He had also stopped taking the Earl of Matlock’s calls, replying to voicemails very civilly and coolly by email, which Richard perfectly understood but which he had no intention of explaining to his father. The Earl of Matlock had once, shortly after Uncle George’s death, tried to exert avuncular Head Of The Family influence over Darcy, and it was Richard’s firm opinion that his father wouldn’t be trying that again in a hurry.
The pause in the middle of Darcy’s sentence stretched too long, which usually meant Darcy was trying to think of a way to end the sentence that wouldn’t hurt your feelings, and was not very likely to be successful.
“Spit it out,” Richard advised, with cousinly affection.
Darcy rolled his eyes. “I know you’re very excited to have met someone whose name matches your mark, but be careful,” he said bluntly. “I’ve made this mistake too.”
Richard wasn’t sure whether to be offended or touched. “If you’re talking about the incident on Bumble three years ago,” he began, recalling without any difficulty the exceptionally beautiful and exceptionally horrible Elizabeth Elliot who Darcy had dated for a truly grim six months, “I… don’t think this is the same thing, Darcy. I wasn’t… looking for my - well - you know what I mean. met Elizabeth by total chance. And I like her. I don’t think you liked, um…”
“I thought I was supposed to like um,” Darcy said acidly, pulling down the rice from a cabinet and eyeballing the fridge’s crisper drawer with an austerity that indicated he was uncomfortable and trying to pretend he wasn’t. “Because…” He left a significant pause.
Richard put his glass of wine down and pinched the bridge of his nose. Darcy had briefly shown him his soulmark after Richard had become more regularly conscious, in some kind of a trade for an occasion when Richard had, heavily sedated, taken violent exception to the hospital band on his wrist and ripped it off in front of a roomful of people. Darcy had replaced it so none of the nurses would see, and had later shown Richard his own, for a full half a second before he had clapped his hand back over the mark. Richard didn’t think it was a necessary sacrifice for so private a man to have made - Darcy had a personal space bubble the size of the Tower of London - and had told Darcy so at the time. At least the reveal had explained his foray into dating Elizabeth Elliot, a woman whose ambitions would have been better suited to some kind of prince than to a wealthy but working lawyer most of whose ancestral estate was in the hands of the National Trust. But explanation or no explanation, Richard wasn’t amused by the comparison of his fledgling relationship with Elizabeth Bennet to Darcy’s catastrophe with Elizabeth Elliot.
“It’s not like that at all,” he said at last. “I don’t like Elizabeth because anyone expects me to. We’ve only been seeing each other a few weeks, it’s not -”
“Just be careful,” Darcy said, tossing a brace of carrots onto the kitchen counter and digging among the bell peppers. “I wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”
“I can take care of myself,” Richard said, now more touched than offended.
“I did witness the Benet incident,” Darcy pointed out.
“Yes,” Richard conceded. “But this is… this is different.”
Darcy abandoned his excavation of the crisper drawer and turned around to stare at Richard. “Richard. Do you really think -”
“I - well,” Richard said, and took refuge in his wine glass.
“Because -” Darcy said, but then they both heard Georgiana’s footsteps on the stairs and caught each other’s eyes with perfect understanding.
The only person who rivalled Darcy’s love of privacy was Georgiana. A lot of girls her age found it fashionable to wear a cuff that only just covered the soulmark, or slid back and forth over it, or only covered parts of it. There was even an Instagram trend for photos that hinted at a reveal ( #showyoursoul, a hashtag Richard had been obliged to hear all about when Marjorie was working on legislation that guaranteed the rights of individuals detained by law enforcement to conceal their soulmarks, and was probably never going to be able to forget even if he pickled his brain in gin). Since Wickham, Georgiana had worn a full fingerless glove that covered her left arm from knuckles to elbow, whatever the weather.
“Did you enjoy the wedding?” Darcy said. “Scotland can be very beautiful at this time of year, as the days really begin to get longer.”
“Oh, it rained throughout,” Richard said. “But Bea and Arthur aren’t the kind to be put off by that.”