(If you need to start at the beginning, here’s the link: Chapter One)
Darcy managed to put the events of the Meryton assembly behind him during the following two days of riding from one corner of the estate to the other, spending countless hours reviewing the accounting ledgers, and visiting Netherfield Park’s tenants, inspecting their cottages. Charles Bingley had been a willing, if not easily distracted, accomplice.
On the evening of the third day, they were back in the carriage headed towards Meryton, this time for a gathering at Lucas Lodge, the home of Sir William and his family.
“Do we have to?” Miss Bingley whined.
“Yes, Caroline,” her brother, to Darcy’s surprise, staunchly replied. “We need to establish ourselves in the neighborhood. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to attend every social occasion offered by the citizens we will interact with for years to come. Our presence at Lucas Lodge will advance our position in Meryton society. Surely, you cannot find even a minimum of fault with this plan.”
In all honesty, Darcy understood her plea. There had been little in the way of stimulating company at the assembly. His sense of fairness had absolved the second Bennet daughter—he could not recall if he had been told her name—of her lack of decorum in making him the object of a jest. After all, even though his insult had been delivered solely to his friend, had she heard, his own manners could have been found to be at fault.
Thus, it was to his chagrin when he was later partnered with the Bennet girl in a game of treasure hunt. Usually, he enjoyed the challenge of the game. Nonetheless, being in her company for possibly hours, depending on the clues offered, left him feeling unsettled. His earlier conversation with Bingley had already proven that the night held the potential for harm.
“Can you not relax your stiff upper lip long enough to find, at the least, a minimum of enjoyment?” Charles Bingley pulled at the cuffs of his jacket as he surveyed his appearance prior to departing his home for Lucas Lodge. “You will never attract a worthy woman standing against a wall with your arms crossed and a glare in your eye. Darcy! How could they possibly see your charming personality at its finest with you hidden away? Are you listening to my sage advice?”
“Sage advice? From you?”
Fitzwilliam Darcy, master of one of the largest estates in the Kingdom, had met his friend a year after leaving Cambridge. He had returned for information on a subject of interest and happened upon bullies pounding young Bingley for daring to pollute the halls of the university with his roots in trade. Using his full height and strong muscles, he had set the fools on their ears and made a good friend in the process.
Charles Bingley, at three and twenty, adored women of all shapes, sizes, and ages. From toddlers to dowagers, females freely approached him. Darcy had been in awe the first time a small child of about four years picked a flower and gave it to his friend, batting her eyelashes in youthful innocence. Other than his sole sibling, Georgiana, no child had done the same for him.
Darcy knew his reputation of holding himself aloof at social gatherings was his own fault. He despised fortune-hunters, yet his fortune attracted them like flies to a honeycomb. He felt decades older than the younger man, rather than the five that separated them.
“You are a flirt, Bingley.” Darcy adjusted his own cuffs although his valet had turned him out impeccably. “One day, you will turn your many charms on the wrong woman and her father will have you at the front of a chapel so fast your head will spin. This dangerous game you play can cause hurt of the most grievous sort and I shall have none of it, my friend.”
“A flirt, you say?” Bingley lifted his chin to examine the knot and placement of his cravat. “Not at all.” Apparently, finding out of alignment, he stepped away from the mirror strategically placed over the mantle to approach the drinks table where crystal decanters and their contents gleamed in the candlelight. “I am merely being friendly—neighborly, if you will.”
“No, Darcy, do not balk. For, most of the ladies we met at the assembly are uncommonly pretty. Some of them I can charge with being outright beautiful.” Bingley poured two glasses and took a sip from the one he retained in his possession. “This is not a game I am playing, at all. For you see, by standing close I can easily determine if she is hiding wrinkles or freckles or a bad odour. I can see if her teeth are rotted by engaging her in conversation. If I tilt my head towards her, I can determine if the colour of her hair has been altered to cover grey strands she is attempting to hide. When I casually touch her arm, I instantly know if I am attracted enough to pursue a friendship and, possibly, even a courtship.” He shook his head slowly. “No, this is certainly not a game.”
“Yet, the potential for harm hovers over you each time you approach a lady who is actively searching for a mate.” Darcy sat in what he had already determined was the most comfortable chair in Bingley’s study. “The rules of propriety are in place for a reason, my friend. They enforce what it means to act the gentleman. We do not touch. We do not stand too close. We do not engage a lady in extended conversation and we do not stand up to dance more than once in an evening unless we desire our name to be tied permanently with her. These are for our protection, and hers. In fact, within moments of standing up with Miss Bennet, her mother was loudly sharing her opinion of your intentions to marry her eldest.”
Setting his glass on a side table, Bingley dropped into the opposite chair. “Then how are we to get to know them? How are we to learn if they would be our perfect match?” He smoothed the fabric over his thigh. “While I comprehend the need to not increase expectations, especially within the first few moments after an introduction, I cannot understand how in the world a man is to determine whether she is his wife-to-be unless he does the things I have observed others doing.” Bingley paused in thought. “I am aware that I push the boundaries of what is socially proper, but I cannot believe this is wrong, Darcy. Since I inherited, I have been in fear of becoming attached to someone I later find out is entirely wrong for me. My friendly nature allows me to know, usually within a dance or two, whether to pursue or to refrain. I save time and effort as well as my emotions by acting in this manner.”
“This is not the first time we have had this conversation, Bingley. I have yet to carry my point and you are yet to convince me to a different opinion.” Darcy cleared his throat as he stood to check his own cravat in the mirror. “No, I cannot believe you are just in your thinking. Nonetheless, if you are content to suffer the consequences of your actions, who am I to judge?”
Darcy took a final drink as the butler announced the ladies and the carriage were ready to depart for Lucas Lodge. As he gathered his coat, hat, and gloves, he could not help but reflect on the impact a flirtation had on his almost sixteen-year-old sister. She had been left crushed and broken early that summer when she overheard George Wickham declare he was solely pursuing her for an elopement to gain her sizable dowry and enact revenge upon the heir to Pemberley. Despite the passage of a few months, her pain was as vivid now as it was when Darcy had held her as she sobbed her initial heartbreak.
No, Bingley’s conduct at the assembly had not been proper. Nor, had his.
The names of the attendees willing to participate had been placed on small scraps of paper and placed in a bowl where Lady Lucas could easily choose pairs of two. Miss Jane Bennet was partnered with Mrs. Hurst. The next pair drawn was Miss Elizabeth Bennet, yes, that was her name, Elizabeth, and Darcy. They were followed by Miss Charlotte Lucas and Bingley and a younger Bennet named Kitty and Mr. Hurst. The Lucas’s only son, John, was to play in company with Miss Mary Bennet. To her apparent displeasure, Miss Bingley was drawn as the final pair with Miss Lydia Bennet. The only hard and fast rule was that you needed to stay with your partner at all times.
He looked to Miss Elizabeth as the first clue was read. Would she run in the opposite direction from the solution to the riddle or would she follow him as soon as he figured it out?
I look at you and see me.
He tilted his head and whispered. “The mirror,” as he then tipped his head towards the large piece of glass hanging over the mantel.
“I know, Mr. Darcy.” She stood her ground, not moving to search for the clue which was undoubtedly hidden behind the lower corner of the frame.
“You have no intention of playing this game?” He should have known. Frustrated, his tone was snippy.
Finally, she turned her face to look directly at him. “I have every intention of playing the game.” At his lifted brow, she added, “Let us allow the others to find the first three clues so they can all participate. These were created by Sir William, who has used the same style of riddles since we were young. The last three are composed by my own father. You will find they are much more of a challenge.”
“Has your father shared these riddles before?” Her attitude was passive when compared to his innate desire to be the first to find the answer. How childish of him!
“Why, that would be cheating, would it not?”
He could not tell if she was teasing or if her tone was accusatory. Darcy thought his best defence was to watch her and say nothing.
“Sir, you should know that Charlotte Lucas is exceedingly cleaver and highly competitive. Right now, she holds back to determine Mr. Bingley’s performance.”
“Whether or not he has the intelligence to figure out the simplest of clues?” Darcy nodded his head at the brilliance of the plan. Then, it hit him. “Are you doing the same to me?”
Surely not! He graduated at the top of his class at university. Men like Bingley routinely came to him for advice on all matter of subjects. He would not be the dunce when it came to a silly parlor game. Would he not?
She smiled and said not a word. Finally, when he could stand it no more, she bade him to watch.
Lydia snatched the clue from the back of the mirror while Caroline Bingley looked on with pride at being first to discover the scrap of paper. With a flourish, Lydia handed the next riddle to Miss Bingley to read.
I can stop the sun’s rays from shining and the raindrops from falling.
While Miss Elizabeth’s youngest two sisters squealed possible solutions, Mr. Hurst moved to the umbrella stand in the entrance hall and plucked the next riddle from inside the fabric-coated frame.
Elizabeth whispered, “Would you consider Mr. Hurst to be a wit?”
“Not at all.” Darcy admitted. “I am quite surprised the solution came to him quickly. His wife is of the same inclination.” He tilted his head towards where Mrs. Hurst and Jane were standing. “Your sister?”
“Do not be fooled by her innocent appearance, Mr. Darcy. She, too, is a quick thinker. What keeps her from winning is a complete lack of any desire to achieve what someone else wants. As the epitome of genuine kindness, she would want everyone to win. Should Mrs. Hurst choose not to participate or fail to follow the meanings of the riddles, Jane will be content to stand aside.”
Darcy looked to where the others stood. “So, our competition will be Miss Lucas, and Miss Mary?”
Miss Elizabeth scoffed. “You are giving no credit to their male partners. Are you so severe upon your sex?”
Before he could reply, Hurst read the third riddle.
On land I am useless. At sea I am Relentless. What am I?
At first, none in the party moved. When Darcy leaned towards Miss Elizabeth to ask her a question, she shook her head as she watched the others and uttered softly, “A moment, please.”
When none of the others offered a clue, Darcy’s partner pondered aloud. “Let us see. I believe the information we need to focus on the most are the words ‘sea’ and ‘Relentless’. Does this spark any ideas from any of you?”
Darcy could no longer refrain. Again, leaning towards her, instead of saying what was on his mind, that the Relentless was a sailing ship many craftsmen formed models of and sold in the shops near the docks in London, he was caught off guard by the smell of honeysuckle. Images from his childhood summers spent under the alcoves covered with the fragrant plant with his mother wafted through his brain. It was her. Miss Elizabeth was wearing the scent. It was light and pleasing, not cloying like the rose oil many ladies apparently bathed in.
His face started to heat, and Darcy knew he should not have been thinking about ladies bathing, especially Miss Elizabeth. She was his partner, for heavens sake!
John Lucas and Miss Mary led the participants to Sir William’s study where, sure enough, there was a large wooden model of the vessel perched upon the mantel above the fireplace. Young Mr. Lucas reached inside the hold for the next clue.
Darcy eagerly anticipated the words on the scrap of paper. According to Miss Elizabeth, they would now be actively engaged in determining the answer. He wanted to rub his hands together and could not seem to keep from smiling.
John Lucas cleared his throat.
Mr. Smyth was found dead of a Sunday Morning. His valet immediately sent for the constable, who questioned the wife and the servants. The constable asked for each of their alibi’s during the period immediately preceding the crime. The valet had gone below stairs to get a breakfast tray from the cook. The maid was filling a basket with produce from the garden, and the butler was getting the post. The constable immediately arrested the murderer. Who was it?
Miss Lucas took off at the same time as Miss Elizabeth. Darcy stood there thinking about the clue. Mr. Lucas reread it aloud, then dropped the paper and left the room. Darcy followed. There were the two friends standing in the entrance hall next to a wooden table with a silver salver on top. Miss Lucas lifted it while Miss Elizabeth retrieved the paper.
He was saved the humiliation of admitting he had not yet figured out the solution when one of the younger Bennet’s asked, “how did you know, Lizzy?”
Her smile was not one of a braggart and neither was Miss Lucas’s. “There is no post on Sunday, Kitty, so it was the butler who killed Mr. Smyth.”
Bingley moved to stand close to his partner. Bending his head, he bumped his shoulder into Miss Lucas’s and congratulated her from her brilliance. Miss Lucas’s smile was radiant.
Miss Elizabeth had been correct. Her two youngest sisters walked back to the drawing room as did Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Hurst. With their partners no longer willing to play, Mr. Hurst and Miss Jane Bennet soon followed. The three couples left looked each other over, sizing up the competition.
“Charlotte,” Miss Elizabeth curtsied to her friend, a teasing grin on her face. “Pray do the honors of reading the next clue. I am all anticipation.” She turned to Darcy, her hands clasped together under her chin as she almost bounced in place. She was delightful.
Darcy caught the twinkle in her eyes which caused a reaction in him he had rarely felt before. She is beautiful. How could that be? At the assembly, he had easily overlooked her, only noting her laugh. Yet, in the brief second of time he saw in her something wonderful. Miss Elizabeth was a happy person. She kindly allowed others to go ahead of her, and she had solved the last riddle with a speed he did not have.
From the corner of his eye he spied Bingley reaching for Miss Lucas’s hand. The pair looked at each other briefly and then at Miss Elizabeth, eager anticipation shining from their faces.
He wanted to clasp Miss Elizabeth’s hand in his own. What? How could this be? Fitzwilliam Darcy intrigued by a simple country miss?
At the reading of the next clue (I am a little house full of meat, with no door to go in so I may eat. What am I?), she grabbed him by the sleeve. How humiliating. She had, again, discerned the answer before he did.
Her and Miss Lucas rushed towards a small tray containing cracked nuts. Sure enough, the next clue awaited the victors underneath.
Darcy wanted to stomp. Bingley, on the other hand, enthusiastically and inappropriately wrapped his arm around his partner and pulled her to his side. He was grinning from ear to ear, proud of her accomplishment.
This time, it was Miss Lucas who read the final riddle. Darcy was determined to defeat them all. Setting aside the honeysuckle scent, and the finest eyes he had ever found in a woman, he paid close attention.
First in honour comes Charles Greville. Next is Philip Stanhope. Third is Henry Somerset. Last, but not least, comes Henry Murray. Where are they?
Miss Elizabeth hesitated and so did Miss Lucas. The middle Bennet girl, nodded towards her partner and leaned in to whisper, what Darcy assumed was the answer.
He had this. Turning his back to the others, he stood in front of Miss Elizabeth. Bending down so none of the others could hear, he opened his mouth to reveal his conclusion. All four men were Pages of Honour. A book is made up of ‘pages’ and the one with honorific titles was…
“Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage.” Elizabeth supplied as she spun to leave the room.
Darcy was stunned. How had…? He had not…
“Are you coming along, Mr. Darcy?” Her chipper tone irked his masculinity. Where he typically stood tall, he felt…small. He did not like the feeling at all.
Bingley chuckled as he walked in front of him with Miss Lucas. “Perhaps you will have more success if they have dancing. It takes little knowledge to count the steps from one to four.”
In a daze, he followed them. Miss Mary and Mr. Lucas held the prize, the directions to the treasure It turned out to be a small plate with exquisitely designed chocolates hidden in the top right drawer of Sir William’s desk. Darcy was unsurprised that the man who mentioned St. James as often as Sir William did would have a copy of Debrett’s in his study. Darcy, whose family lineage was well founded in the book could not immediately recall where in his extensive library his own copy was.
His confidence on that night had taken a beating so it would do him well to remember the Darcy position and reputation. Or…he looked at the young lady standing next to him…would it?