Chapter Two ~ Caroline

The arrival of a carriage alerted Nathanial Kerr that his anticipated guest finally arrived. He rose from his desk to meet the gentleman whose wedding he would be officiating in a little over three weeks. The tall form of Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy came up the front path and he hurried outside to greet his friend and patron.

“Darcy, I am so glad to see you again. It has been several months since we last spoke.”

“I have had an interesting year. I assume you received my missive?”

“Yes, on Friday by express post. May I congratulate you on your upcoming nuptials?”

“Thank you.” Darcy hastened them to enter the parsonage. “I will not dissemble, Kerr, I wish to have a word with you before Mr. Bingley arrives.”

Filled with much curiosity, he guided Mr. Darcy to his study where the interview was slated to take place. The strange nervousness which the Master of Pemberley exhibited was intriguing, to say the least. As soon as they were safely in the privacy of his study Mr. Darcy began without preamble.

“What I have to say is a bit distasteful and I hope you will not be offended by my choice of language as I do not have much time. Bingley will be here in but a few moments.” He paced to the fireplace and then turned to face Nathan. “I have kept your family connections secret from my fiancé’s family. There are a few members who have a proclivity to… behave in somewhat vulgar manner. Of Mr. Bingley’s family, I cannot say.”

“Are you sure that is necessary, Darcy? I have never sought to hide my family connections although I must admit none of my – your – parishioners, with the exception of Mrs. Crenshaw, have knowledge of my title. I simply introduce myself as Mr. Kerr.”

“Sadly, yes. Miss Bennet and Elizabeth will be told as they are both full of good manners and not given over to hysterics… I am sorry, Kerr. This is beneath me to complain.”

They both turned when Mrs. Crenshaw, Nathan’s housekeeper, knocked on the door.

“Mr. Bingley’s arrived, Mr. Kerr.” She bobbed a quick curtsy to Mr. Darcy and backed out of the room.

Charles Bingley strode into the room and Nathan immediately like the pleasant young man. He was a perfect foil to Mr. Darcy’s quiet nature. After introductions were made, sans title, the men quickly took their places and began discussing the upcoming joint weddings. After about an hour, Nathan set down his quill with satisfaction. He rested his gaze on Mr. Darcy.

“The banns will be read over the next three Sundays and I am honored to preside over the wedding ceremony of you and Miss Elizabeth, and” – he turned his gaze to Mr. Bingley – “you and Miss Bennet the first of November.”

Both men looked at each other and smiled. Of all his duties, weddings were fast becoming his favorite. This one, for his benefactor and patron, was particularly special.

“When you offered me this living three years ago, Mr. Darcy, I had hoped this day would come. Your father, were he here, would be overjoyed at your finding a woman who brings you much contentment.”

“I very nearly missed her,” Darcy said. “I thank God daily He allowed me to see the folly of my ways and mend them. Elizabeth will be a good helpmate with my estate and a true sister to Georgiana.”

“I am inclined to agree with you. From what you have stated, she and her sister, Miss Bennet are most amiable. I believe both of you will have long and prosperous marriages.”

“True words, Kerr. My hope is that one day you will find a woman who will compliment your position here, in Kympton.”

“I pray you are right, Mr. Darcy,” Nathan stated with a slight smile. “Only the good Lord knows who would be a fitting companion for a vicar such as I. Not everyone is as lucky in love as you two.” He glanced down at his notes. “The ladies are in agreement with the ceremony taking place here instead of near their home?”

“I know Louisa and Caroline, my sisters,” Bingley offered as explanation, “would prefer our weddings to take place in London, but Pemberley seemed the most appropriate choice. If it were not for Darcy, my Jane and I might never have re-connected.” Mr. Bingley turned to his friend with a large grin. “He will not allow me to thank him properly, but I have no hesitation in declaring Mr. Darcy as the truest of friends.”

“Bingley, you give me too much credit.” Darcy gave a small wave of his hand as if fending off his effusive compliments. “Pemberley is the obvious choice because our chapel is larger than the one in Meryton and we will have three families attending the ceremony. Please do not read anything more into it than that.”

Nathan watched the two men banter back and forth, their easy friendship such a blessing. He and his brothers shared such a comradery, at least when they weren’t trying to best each other. Nothing was off limits in their quest to win. They even went so far as to holding a spitting contest. Which would not have been so bad, but their target had been their mother’s favorite vase.

She’d arrived in the sitting room to find the priceless Ming vase covered with tiny, wet, sticky wads of paper. Their punishment had been to polish all the silver in the house and after ‘the incident’, as it became known, all of them agreed Mother’s things were off limits.

But for the most part, the brothers kept their more spirited adventures outdoors. Nanny had her hands full mending cuts and bruises, not to mention a few broken bones.

All came to an end when Maxwell went off to Eton, followed by George the following year. A long two years elapsed before Nathan joined them and by that time Max was preparing for Cambridge. Yet, the brothers remained close, more so when their father died late last year and his title fell to their eldest brother. At eight and twenty, Max never expected to become a Duke.

Nathan was grateful for Mr. Darcy’s offer to become vicar of his family’s church at the village of Kympton, a short distance from Pemberley Estate. After resigning his commission he’d no desire to remain in London. At the time, as the son of a Duke, he’d have been invited into many great homes, but his heart lay in a humbler direction and near the end of his seminary studies, Darcy approached him. Because Darcy attended Cambridge with Max, he knew Nathan was in want of a good living.

“Is there anything more you require, Mr. Kerr?” Darcy asked, breaking into his thoughts.

“I would like to meet with the young ladies and have a discussion with them to assure myself, and the Church of England, they are indeed ready for the great adventure which lies before them.”

“I believe you wrote earlier you have business to attend in London next week.” Nathan affirmed with a quick nod. “Then I will arrange something during that time. Elizabeth and Jane will be in Town for their trousseau fittings and a quick interview can be arranged at their Uncle’s home.”

“Excellent. I look forward to meeting them both.”

All three men rose and made their way outside. A gleaming black coach with the Darcy coat of arms on the door and four matching greys waited. Darcy himself may not have a title, but his noble heritage ran deep and long, going back even further than Nathan’s and there were enough Earls and Viscounts in the family line to satisfy an inspection of Debrett’s Peerage by ladies of the ton.

“Good day to you, Mr. Kerr,” Darcy said as he entered the carriage. Bingley swung up on his horse and waited. “I shall have my steward come around with a date and time for you to meet our brides as well as the Gardiner’s address.” He closed the door and tapped the carriage roof to let the driver know he could proceed.

Nathan gave him a courteous nod and watched them leave. He could not wait to meet the woman who’d captured the elusive, very private Mr. Darcy. She seemed a paragon of virtue and if there was one thing he knew to be true, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy did not give compliments easily. Nor censure. The fact he worried enough about the behavior of his betrothed’s family to give warning made Nathan pause for a moment.

He shook his head and re-entered the parsonage. He’d survived the panting mothers of Society and the wiles of many a deceptive debutante, surely, he could handle the bride’s family with ease.

~~~ooo0ooo~~~

“I am so glad you are home. I have some news.”

Caroline glanced up as Louisa entered the front parlor and took a seat across from her. Mildly surprised at her sister’s abrupt entrance, she set down the pillow she’d been stitching.

“Whatever is the matter? You look positively flushed.” Caroline picked up the tiny bell on the table beside her and rang for tea.

“I have received a letter from Charles−”

“Finally! He missed his lawyer’s appointment as well as Lady Addleworth’s ball. I do not think I can ever forgive him for leaving me without a dance partner.”

“Never mind the ball; he has done something absolutely dreadful.”

Without another word, Louisa pulled a letter from her pocket and handed the crumpled piece of paper to Caroline. She glanced at the front of it to see when the letter had been posted.

“This was mailed almost a week ago.” She tried to smooth the single sheet out and held it to the light coming from the front window. “No wonder it took so long to arrive, the address is smudged. His penmanship has not improved.”

Charles tended to run his sentences together and large ink smudges concealed a few words, but not all.

“His penmanship is the least of our worries.”

Raising an eyebrow at her sister’s caustic tone, Caroline attempted to read her brother’s hasty scrawl.

Hertfordshire, Netherfield Park

October 2, 1812

“He has not quit Netherfield Park!” She exclaimed when she saw the date and place Charles wrote from.

“Again, dear sister, that is the least of our concerns. Read on!”

Without bothering to look up at her sister, whom she knew was most likely gritting her teeth in anger, she continued reading.

Dearest Louisa,

I write you with the most wonderful news. Mr. Darcy and I attended Netherfield Park a few weeks ago and as they were a particular acquaintance of ours, we paid a visit to the Bennet family of Longbourn. We were graciously received and delighted to be invited to dine, en famille.

I will not keep you in suspense, dear sister. Miss Jane Bennet has accepted my offer of marriage. We are to be wed as soon as the banns are read. Mr. Darcy graciously invited dear Jane and me to be married the same day he and Miss Elizabeth exchange their vows. The ceremony will take place the first day of November at Pemberley.

I remember how much you liked Jane. You and Caroline stated she was a sweet girl, which she is, and she looks forward to being a loving sister to both of you. I am the happiest man in all of England. Nay, all the world.

I shall return to London once Darcy and I have finalized details with the vicar at Kympton.

Your loving brother,

Charles

The letter fell from Caroline’s fingers onto her lap. How could this happen? She’d worked so hard cultivating a friendship with Darcy, making sure she never stepped outside the bonds of polite society. She’d carefully selected friends amongst those who would advance their social status once married. Had all of it been in vain?

“Caroline? Are you quite well?”

“What?” She shook out of her dazed thoughts at her sister’s concern and stared at her.

“I asked if you were—”

“Yes, yes. I am fine.” She jumped to her feet, ignoring the pillow that fell to the floor and began to pace. “How could Darcy propose marriage to…to…”

“A woman he thinks quite handsome?”

“NO!”

Her heart could not stand the thought of Darcy finding Miss Elizabeth Bennet more handsome than she. Eliza Bennet wore simple muslin gowns and walked for miles in mud, not caring what anyone thought. Her family teetered one step higher than tenant farmers. Her uncle lived in Cheapside on Gracechurch Street, of all places! Eliza Bennet was a low born nobody and marrying her would drag the Darcy name through the very mud she liked to cavort amongst. How could he do this to her?

“At least he will be happy.” Louisa sounded almost weary and Caroline cut a quick glance at her.

Some sympathy coursed through her as she noticed pinched lines around Louisa’s mouth and eyes. Life hadn’t been easy for her. What should have been a great match to Mr. Hurst had turned sour when his character was revealed within the first year of marriage. He was a lazy man who liked nothing better than to spend Louisa’s inheritance on drink and cards. All the more reason Caroline set her cap at Mr. Darcy. He never gambled, nor drank to excess. His estate was profitable and the mistress of Pemberley would want for nothing. All her plans were ruined. Eliza Bennet would now live the life she coveted with every fiber of her being.

“Come, Caroline. Drink your tea before it becomes cold. There is nothing we can do about it now.”

She sank onto the settee, her hand to her chest as if constricted with an unknown pain. For the past year she’d subtly hinted to a chosen few of Darcy’s fondness of her and how she expected him to come up to scratch in the near future. That he would marry her, Eliza Bennet…

She broke off the thought, yet her mind refused to heed her desires, racing in a multitude of directions, all of which led back to the fact her attendance at the wedding was mandatory. Crushed dreams or not, she must present a pleasant face or risk becoming the laughing stock of the ton. It was only after Louisa went to speak with Cook about the evening meal that Caroline paced the front parlor, alone with her thoughts.

What was it about the men in her life that they became addlepated over two country misses? Had they no sense at all? She blew out a frustrated breath and continued to pace.

She’d argued with her sister that although they would attend the wedding, there would be no convivial visits during Christmas. Louisa, the viper, pointed out they’d have to attend any and all christenings as Charles always wanted a houseful of children. At that statement she almost brought back up her tea.

She stopped pacing and clenched her fingers into a tight fist. Why hadn’t Darcy kept Charles away from Jane, and more disturbing, why had he proposed to Eliza Bennet? If only Darcy and Charles had taken her with them, then neither would be marrying into that odious family.

Of that she was positive.

She pivoted from the window and sat on the settee near the fireplace. Her foot bumped something beneath the small couch and she pulled out the pillow she’d been stitching. Tension snaked through her body at the sight of her pitiful attempt to capture Pemberley in needlepoint.

She nearly tossed the unfinished reminder of her failure into the fireplace, instead, all her anger, frustration, all her tattered hopes and dreams coalesced into a fit of fury and she tore the pillow to shreds with her bare hands. Minutes later, fingernails broken and fingertips bruised, she threw the mangled mess to the floor. Great gasps racked her chest as she fell to the floor and sobbed.

“Caroline!”

She raised her head at the sound of Charles’ voice and attempted to wipe away her tears with trembling fingers. He rushed to her side and helped her onto the settee. With an impatient huff she swatted his hands from her arms and turned her back to him.

“Go away, Charles. I am not fit company at the moment.”

“I cannot leave you like this.”

A fresh linen cloth was pressed into her hand and she used it to cleanse the tears from her face.

“I am sure you have more important things to do than sit with a sister who has lost all her composure.”

Tears threatened to bubble up and flow down her cheeks once again. The settee shifted as Charles sat beside her, his shoulder bumping into her back, something he’d done when they were children.

“There is nothing I would rather do than comfort my sister when she is obviously in distress. Is there anything I can get you? Anything I can do to help you with…with, whatever this is?”

She turned slightly and glanced at him from the corner of her eye. His expression was sincere, with no hint of malice.

“Yes. Do not marry Miss Bennet.”

Charles uttered a harsh laugh and stood.

“That is something I will not do. I wasn’t going to mention this, given my extreme happiness, but I discovered you knew Jane was in London this past January and kept that information from me.” His brow furrowed slightly. “I have half a mind to cut your clothing allowance by half until you are well and truly married.”

“You would not!”

“Do not push my good nature, Caroline. If my marriage to the most amiable woman in England is the source of your anguish, then I suggest you find ways to cope. Miss Jane Bennet is an angel and I intend to marry her as fast as humanly possible.”

“But why, Charles?” Caroline sprang to her feet and faced him, the tear-stained linen cloth clutched against her chest. “We agreed before we quit Netherfield that she was not right match for you. What of Georgiana?”

“What of Georgiana?” he queried back, then his eyes narrowed and his body stiffened. “Did you think I was going to offer for Miss Darcy? She is but a child! Is that what ‘this’ is all about?” He indicated the shredded pillow on the floor.

“No,” she answered swiftly with a shake of her head. His gaze hardened and she relented, “Yes, but there is more to my distress than what you think. I am not a complete ninny-hammer.”

“Not from where I stand.” He gave her a stiff bow. “I will see you at dinner. I hope by then you will be composed.”

He exited the room and she fell back to the settee. How much worse could this day become?

“Oh, and Caroline…”

She sat more erect and glanced over her shoulder. Charles had returned and now stood in the doorway, his usually cheerful face dark with anger.

“…Darcy traveled with me to London as he has some business to attend and will dine with us this evening. Try to behave like a lady. Try to behave like my Jane would.”

With that he turned and this time she heard him ascend the stairs, his rebuke ringing in her ears. For better or worse she had to face Darcy. She stood, drew in a deep breath and smoothed down her skirt. With a heartfelt sigh she went upstairs to repair the damage her temper had wrought.

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