CHAPTER THREE ~ Caroline

Caroline pulled the ivory lace gloves high upon her forearms and perused her hands. After trimming her nails almost to the quick and soaking them in rose water, her fingernails did not look as ghastly as they had earlier. She would have to remove the gloves to eat, but with Darcy seated to the right of Charles and she directly across from them, the two men would be none the wiser. Louisa might take notice, but as hostess she would be seated at the other end of the table, next to her husband and most likely would say nothing.

She descended to the first floor and made her way toward the drawing room. Familiar male voices carried out into the hall and for a moment she stopped and took a deep breath. How could she face Darcy, knowing he’d never be hers? She heard Charles laugh, followed by, “I say, Darcy. That vicar of yours is a fine man. He has a good sense of humor and will suit you and Miss Bennet admirably.”

A sharp pain lanced through her heart. She did not know if she could face her greatest disappointment without bursting into tears. Words of her grandmamma seeped into her consciousness. When in doubt, trust in the Lord. He has nothing but good things for you.

Dear grandmamma, a hardworking tradesman’s wife, spent much time in prayer, her worn out bible constantly by her side. She’d always known the right words to calm her headstrong granddaughter’s heart and thoughts.

“Thank you, grandmamma,” she whispered as she took a deep breath, squared her shoulders and swept into the room. Charles and Darcy stood by the fireplace and Mr. Hurst lounged in his favorite chair, a glass of port within easy reach. Caroline decided on a forthright approach and not let Darcy know how crushed she was by his asinine decision.

“My congratulations, Darcy, on your upcoming nuptials.” She gave him a small curtsy in greeting.

“Thank you, Miss Bingley.” He nodded his head in return, his expression inscrutable. Unnerved by his cool demeanor, she turned to her brother.

“What were you saying about Darcy’s vicar, Charles?” She made her way to the settee and took her seat, mentally cringing in remembrance of the state her brother found her earlier.

“I was saying he is full of good humor.” Charles moved toward the drink tray and poured a small sherry for her. She briefly wished he would give her a splash of bourbon or something stronger to calm her nerves, but she smiled and accepted the overly sweet drink. “He is nothing like I expected from a man of the cloth.”

“How did you find him, Darcy?” She took a sip and shuddered when the ghastly concoction of sweetness hit her taste buds.

“I attended Cambridge with his brother. He knew I was looking for a candidate as the position had been vacated by the untimely passing of Mr. Penfound. He contacted me and as soon as Mr. Kerr completed his seminary studies, I offered him the living at Kympton.”

“How fortuitous for you. I know you wanted a good man there. Does he have a wife, children?”

“No, the vicar is a single man. There is no rush for him to enter the estate of marriage.” Mr. Darcy took a sip of his drink. “But, I am sure when he does his wife will be extremely content.”

This small talk gave her a headache. Frankly, she could care less who led the Darcy family through the gates of heaven. She only needed them to think she was happy with their dismal choices and move on in her life. She took another sip of her sherry, willing it to stay down. Charles and Darcy talked quietly for a few moments and she took advantage of their inattention to assess the situation.

The Earl of Matlock was Darcy’s uncle and Darcy himself was on friendly terms with other members of nobility. The guest list had a distinct probability of being high ranking and very influential, which was fortuitous as she needed a new plan. At that moment, Louisa made her entrance and without further delay the party proceeded to the dining room.

~~~ooo0ooo~~~

“With the wedding being held at Pemberley, the Earl of Matlock can attend with ease. That must please you, Darcy.” Caroline cut into her excellent salmon as she spoke across the table to Mr. Darcy.

“Both he and my Aunt, along with my cousins will travel down the day of the ball.”

“The ball?”

“Yes. It’s a longstanding Darcy tradition. We host a ball a few days prior to the wedding. As both Charles and I, along with our brides shall depart directly from the wedding breakfast, this is a chance for everyone to meet and become better acquainted in a less formal setting.”

Caroline should have listened to the small voice of reason urging her to temper her words, but she still smarted over the set-down from Charles earlier in the day and spoke without thought.

“Are you quite sure your esteemed family is prepared to become better acquainted with your new in-laws, Darcy?”

She realized her error as soon as the words left her mouth.

“Those who cannot accept this marriage are not welcome at Pemberley, Miss Bingley.” Darcy replied in tones cold enough to freeze the Thames. “Fewer table settings at our wedding breakfast will not make it a sad affair.”

“Fortunately for us, Mr. Darcy,” Louisa’s voice carried down the table, “we shall be welcome at Pemberley for a long time as we adore the Bennet’s.”

Caroline gripped her fork tight. She hadn’t missed Darcy’s intentional emphasis on her proper title of ‘Miss’ Bingley.

“Most certainly, Louisa and I commented this very afternoon on what a sweet girl Jane Bennet is and how lively the conversations are when Miss Eliza is around.”

She willed herself to smile and took a bite of her salmon, which felt and tasted like sawdust in her mouth. However, enraged she was at these two fools becoming entangled with the Bennet family, she would not allow herself to act upon that anger. Her momentary loss of control this afternoon would not be repeated.

After the meal the ladies retired to the drawing room while Charles, Mr. Hurst and Darcy remained to enjoy a glass of port. Louisa fussed with her skirts after settling in her favorite chair. Caroline paced in agitation for a few minutes until Louisa implored her to sit.

“Sister, you shall wear out the tread in my new carpet, prowling around like a caged animal.”

“I am sorry, Louisa. This evening has been most trying.”

“Pull yourself together before the men join us. We have but a few minutes while they enjoy their port.”

“You mean while they pat each other on the back over their most advantageous marriages.” She flopped onto the settee, uncaring if the silk of her skirt became wrinkled and huffed out a sigh. “It is unconscionable what Charles and Darcy have done.” Her heart squeezed a little tighter at the thought of Eliza Bennet being mistress of Pemberley in place of her. “What could I have done different?”

“Apparently, nothing. You never were and never will be a woman Darcy considered marrying. Cast your net on the other side of the boat, Caroline. There are other fish in the ocean.”

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