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Having had a lively discussion about what to do about Lady Catherine, the Earl set about writing a letter for his lawyer.

"And after that I expect you want to talk about Owlsbury, Richard."

"Owlsbury? What has that to do with me?"

The Earl looked at him for a moment and then shook his head. "Go find your mother and then we'll talk."

He found his mother in time to hear her ordering Miss Bingley to her room and, once she had left, made no effort to restrain his laughter. The ladies admonished him, though it was clear that they were all amused as well. He escorted his mother back to his father and asked what was going on.

"I know you were trying to communicate something when you mentioned the place at dinner, but I did not understand you."

"I could see that. And there you were being noble and trying to leave."

"Leave? Do you mean she refused you?"

"He hasn't asked her yet, Henry. He thinks he can't afford to and so was leaving to avoid raising hopes and breaking hearts."

"I can't afford to," Richard said, deciding against pretending ignorance. In response his father located a piece of paper and handed it to him. "What's this?"

"A copy of my Aunt Cassandra's will."

Curious, Richard skimmed it for mentions of Owlsbury Hall. He found it fairly quickly. She had left it in trust to her nephew, with the intention of it going to a younger child who wished, but could not afford, to marry someone they loved.

"And you intend to give this to me?"

"You're the only child in your generation that can't afford to marry where you choose. If you had not fallen in love, it would have gone in trust to your brother for the next generation."

"I know nothing about running estates."

"You're one of the youngest ever to have been made a general, Richard. I'm sure you'll figure it out."

"You said it was in Hampshire?"

"Yes. It's in desperate need of redecoration, but otherwise it's in good repair. It brings in about £3500 a year, I think?"

"That's about right. There's also a house in town, which is currently rented out."

"Well that will be convenient -- save the War Office from lodging me somewhere."

"You could resign your commission if you wished."

"I'll give it some thought. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a young lady to court."

He left his parents and went in search of Elinor.

"What is she like, Helena? I wasn't paying too much attention when we were introduced."

"I like her, and I think you will too. And since you were too busy fuming over Catherine, I presume you didn't notice William's Miss Elizabeth either?"

"No, I didn't. I take it you like her too?"

"I like them all, except Miss Bingley," she said.

 

Richard went back to the conservatory where he had seen the ladies last. He found only Miss Bennet, seated in a sunbeam.

"Miss Bennet. All alone? I am surprised."

She smiled. "It is difficult to be alone in a party such as this, but I confess that I sometimes long for the peace and quiet of solitude."

"Then I will disturb you no longer."

"Oh, I didn't mean you should leave. Especially since you're planning to return to London soon.  Though I expect you probably have a hundred more important things to do."

"My plans have changed. With the news my father and brother brought I do not expect to leave earlier than originally planned."

"I'm pleased to hear it."

"So where have the others got to?"

"Elinor and Georgiana have gone out sketching. Lizzy, Mr Darcy, my aunt and uncle, Marianne, and your brother have gone walking. I believe Mrs Hurst is in the music room, and Mr Hurst is in the library with Colonel Brandon."

They sat quietly together, only speaking occasionally.

"Miss Bennet..."

She turned her head to look at him, but said nothing. This was not the first time he'd attempted to speak what was on his mind, but he was not having much success.

"I really don't know how to say this."

"Why can you not say it plainly?"

"I do not wish to either offend or insult you."

"And you think that likely, do you?"

"I have no idea. I don't normally have this much difficulty speaking to ladies."

"Perhaps you should stop thinking of me as a lady and think of me as a friend."

"I certainly should," he grinned, "but you are another's friend before you are mine, and as I wish your advice on my friendship with her I am not certain I should say exactly what I think."

She smiled broadly at him, "I will certainly not betray your confidence any more than I would hers. I should very much like to hear what you have to say on the matter."

"I shall speak plainly then, as you asked me to. Now, I understand that you are a young lady of small fortune who had her heart broken by the thoughtless behaviour of a relatively worthless gentleman?"

"That's one way of putting it."

"And I understand that your friend finds herself in a similar situation?"

"Do you? Where did you hear that?"

"From Georgiana, when she was trying to determine my income and suitability as a husband."

"Not for herself I presume."

He looked horrified. "Georgiana's not coming out until she's thirty, if Darcy and I have anything to say about it. And possibly not even then."

Jane laughed. "Well, her information was quite correct. Did she consider you able to marry?"

"I have no idea. The important point is that I did not, and finding myself in an uncomfortable position I determined to leave."

"And now you are forced to stay due to family business. I do not think you need worry. I certainly considered that that may have been your motive for leaving. We are all aware of your situation."

He grinned at her. "You are not quite paying close enough attention, Miss Bennet."

"No?" she looked confused.

"No. I said that I did not believe I was able to marry."

"And was your belief mistaken then?"

"Indeed it was!"

"How wonderful!"

"Indeed. But I am sure you see my dilemma."

"I do not. What could possibly stand in your way?"

"My recent behaviour, which was intended to prevent certain things."

"Your behaviour was understood by us all. Well, no, not by Miss Bingley, I'm afraid to say, but I expect you will not concern yourself with that."

"I cannot think of anyone whose opinion I value less."

"Quite. I still do not see the difficulty. You can easily explain the change if anyone should ask. And, given your previous behaviour I would imagine that a change in your behaviour would likely indicate a change in your circumstances."

"Do you think so?"

"I do. And if it is not, then I can always volunteer my utterly disinterested opinion on the matter."

"Thank you."

They sat together companionably until it was time to dress for dinner.

 

Dinner was a lively affair, made more so by Miss Bingley's absence. Elinor found herself seated between the Earl and the Viscount and enjoyed herself immensely. Seeing the rest of the family gave her some insight into the General, and she allowed herself a few pangs of disappointment that they would not be her family as well someday. Thankfully the conversation kept her mind occupied, as she was having little success convincing herself to be happy with friendship. Every time Jane looked at her she smiled brightly, and she did so often. Elinor wondered what had occurred to make her so pleased, but assumed she would find out later.

Colonel Brandon, seated beside Jane, had also noticed her behaviour and spoke to her in his quiet manner. "You are distracted this evening, Miss Bennet."

"Oh, Colonel, I've been neglecting you. I am sorry."

"Do not be. You are obviously very happy about whatever it is. May I venture to guess that it involves Miss Dashwood?"

"You are quite correct, though I expect that required very little puzzling out."

"You are rather transparent in your joy. I shall also guess that Miss Dashwood is unaware of whatever it is."

"You are very astute, Colonel."

"No doubt you will explain all to her this evening after you retire, and she will be just as happy in the morning."

"Oh no, Colonel. I would not betray a confidence so."

"A confidence? Ah, well, I shall have to go to the source then. I admit myself surprised his family managed to make him see reason, he has always been fiercely independent."

"I shall neither confirm nor deny your suppositions."

"You may not say anything, but your face gives you away."

"Does it really? Lizzy has always said I'm so reserved as to be inscrutable."

"Perhaps you are to those who have open manners. I, however, am also reserved and have spent a great deal of time with Miss Dashwood, who is similarly reserved."

"You make an excellent point, Colonel. Take Mr Darcy, for example. My sister did not understand him at all at first."

"Indeed? Well, they certainly appear to have resolved their differences," he said, nodding to where they sat.

Darcy and Lizzy were very busy enjoying a rather heated debate on the merits of Cowper and Byron. Marianne and Georgiana joined in occasionally, but were mostly discussing music and the odd ways in which different people flirt.

 

During the separation, the Colonel attempted to interrogate the General about what he'd said to give Miss Bennet such joy.

"What! I thought Miss Dashwood was the woman?"

"And so she is, brother. But as she was out with Georgiana, I took the opportunity of discussing some of my concerns over my recent behaviour with a friend."

"Good, good. I like your Miss Dashwood very much, son. Quite sensible and very amiable."

"Pretty too. Well, I never thought you'd marry before me, but I shall like her as a sister very much."

"I've not yet spoken to her, you really shouldn't assume that she'll accept me."

"She will," Colonel Brandon said. "I've seen the way she looks at you when she thinks no-one's watching."

"Richard is correct, however. He cannot be certain of his acceptance until he has received it from her."

"What would you know of it, Darcy? No sane woman would reject you," the Viscount said, surprised when Richard laughed and Darcy flushed red.

"Do you mean you have been rejected? Who would do such a thing?"

"Miss Elizabeth Bennet," Darcy muttered.

"What?!" Her uncle exclaimed. "She never said anything. How uncomfortable this must be for you both."

"Why did she refuse you?" the Earl asked.

"Aside from the bit where I insulted both her and her family, you mean? I behaved abominably towards her from before I even met her, so she had no trouble believing the worst of me when Wickham fed her his lies."

"Oh dear," Mr Gardiner said. "I can't imagine that was pleasant for either of you."

"You know your niece well. I currently hope that I am no longer the last man she could ever be prevailed upon to marry, and can only hope to win her in time."

"Did she really say that?" the Viscount asked.

"I should have thought that honour would go to Mr Collins," Mr Gardiner said.

"Mr Collins was already married to Miss Lucas," Darcy said, confused.

"Who accepted him not three days after Lizzy refused him."

"What! That obsequious little toad had the gall to offer for her?"

"Oh yes, Mrs Bennet was most displeased with Lizzy. Thankfully her father is sensible..." Mr Gardiner trailed off and started laughing.

Darcy was too incensed with Mr Collins daring to propose to his Elizabeth to see anything humourous in the matter.

"Don't mind me, I'm just picturing my sister's reaction if she were ever to find out Lizzy refused you!"

Mr Darcy did not find that terribly funny, but Mr Hurst laughed uproariously.

 

When they joined the ladies they found them clustered around the piano. They were followed by two footmen carrying Georgiana's harp. Once she had it positioned correctly she took her seat, as Marianne seated herself at the piano. Lady Matlock instructed all the rest to find seats.

"We have been working on a surprise for you gentlemen. Our lovely, talented musicians will be entertaining you tonight with pieces composed by the late Lady Anne Darcy."

She took a seat where she could see Darcy clearly. As Georgiana would be paying some attention to the music, she would not get the full view of her brother's reaction and her aunt had agreed to tell her all. Knowing of the plan, Elinor had secreted her sketchbook in the room earlier and surreptitiously sketched the faces of Georgiana's relatives The performance was well-received and the music lovely.

 

Caroline arrived at breakfast the next morning, to the surprise of the party. She was determined to impress the Viscount and ingratiate herself into his family. The Countess was likely a lost cause -- Caroline did not understand why she seemed to dislike her so. Not understanding the dislike there was nothing she could do to mitigate it. She assumed that it must be envy of Caroline's youth and beauty -- no doubt she was trying to keep Caroline down because she felt threatened by her.

She was disgruntled to find the Earl sandwiched between the Bennets and apparently enjoying their company immensely. He was, indeed, very happy with his position. He greatly enjoyed Elizabeth's vivacity and wit, and thought she would complement Darcy wonderfully. Especially since she had already rejected him and he could be sure that his position and wealth was not a consideration. He liked the older sister as well. Her aura of calm serenity seemed to spread outwards from her such that all around her felt the effects of it. He'd briefly considered her as a match for James, but when he suggested it to Helena she said that the lady appeared to be already attached to Colonel Brandon. Now that he was looking for it he could see the way she looked at him.

Caroline seated herself across from the Viscount and attempted to gain his attention. She received only cursory replies as he was deeply embroiled in a discussion of art with Elinor and Georgiana. The General was chatting with Darcy, though their attention was split with Elinor and Elizabeth, on either side.

After breakfast almost the entire party went outdoors to enjoy the day. The doctor had said that Mr Bingley could try out his crutches briefly, but was not to go far and to ensure he rested as much as possible. Mr and Mrs Hurst went upstairs to assist him. He did not feel up to trying the stairs just yet, but spent a half hour going up and down the passageway. He intended to keep at it in the hopes of making it down to dinner the next day.

Caroline attached herself to the walking party, who intended to go around the lake, as it included both the Viscount and Darcy. Neither Lady Matlock nor Miss Eliza were with the group so she was sure she would be able to obtain the attention she desired.

 

Mrs Gardiner had expressed a wish to speak to Elizabeth privately, so they had walked in another direction.

"Now, Lizzy, I do not mean to pry, but your uncle and I wish to be certain that you are well."

"How could I be anything else in a place like this?"

"Last night Mr Darcy told the gentlemen that you had rejected his proposal."

Lizzy went crimson.

"Neither of us had any suspicion of such a thing, though we could see how attached he is to you. If you are uncomfortable or do not wish to remain here for any reason, we will go."

"Oh, no. I was uncomfortable at first, but no longer. I feel as if I had not known him before, I misunderstood him so badly."

"Will you tell me about it?"

Lizzy did, sparing neither his dignity nor hers.

"You were perfectly right to refuse him, though I agree that you should not have let your temper get the better of you."

"We have both apologised for our conduct at that time and agreed to start anew."

"And how do you feel about him now? He told the gentlemen he had hopes of winning you in time -- if you feel that you will only ever be friends you should let him know as soon as possible, to avoid raising his hopes any further."

"Do you think I should do that?"

"I think what you should do depends entirely on how you feel."

"I do not know how I feel."

"You certainly like him and would wish to always be his friend."

"Yes, I know that much. And I respect him. Seeing him here at Pemberley has shown me how dedicated he is to his responsibilities and how well he cares for those in his power."

"Respect and friendship are the best foundations for a marriage. I think he would suit you very well if you came to care for him."

They were both well-pleased with their talk and their walk and returned to the house in good spirits.

 

The same could not be said for the other party. The walk around the lake was, generally, lovely, and a favourite with many. The General and Colonel Brandon had devoted themselves to their ladies and those four had enjoyed their walk greatly. This was partly due to the company and partly due to a desire to prolong their time together that led them to lag far behind the others. Elinor was greatly pleased by the change in the General's behaviour, presuming that she now had reason to hope.

Marianne and Georgiana had mostly enjoyed the walk, as they were generally left to themselves, though both Darcy and the Viscount attempted to devote some of their time to them. They were all greatly annoyed by Miss Bingley. She spoke loudly and continually tried to direct the conversation to what she wished to discuss. This involved more gossip than any of her listeners could bear to hear, but she was unstoppable. If they tried to discuss the landscape, or literature, or literally anything else, she simply spoke over them, desperate to show how well-connected she was.

They were all exasperated by the time they returned. The gentlemen went to Darcy's study to discuss business, by which they meant a stiff drink and some peace and quiet. Georgiana and Marianne excused themselves to rest, by which they meant hiding from Miss Bingley in Georgiana's room with a new novel. Caroline actually did go to rest -- she did not normally walk so far and had spent the last quarter of an hour complaining about the heat, the pace, and anything else that presented itself. They had tried walking faster in the hopes of her not having breath to speak, but had underestimated her need to dominate.

She felt that she had done well on the walk, keeping their attention on her while being suitably deferential. She was sure that Mr Darcy would now see how ladylike she was in comparison to the hoydenish Eliza Bennet, and his infatuation with the girl would fade. Of course, she'd also shown off her attributes to the Viscount, who would no doubt also be competing for her soon.