By: Sue Barr

Chapter 1

Caroline Bingley descended the grand staircase and proceeded toward the breakfast room, barely acknowledging the footman who’d efficiently pulled a chair away from the table for her. With a soft swish of silk, she settled on the seat. When the second footman poured her tea, she deigned to give him a slight nod of approval, but that was because she was in a fine mood.

She noted through the window overlooking her sister’s favorite garden that it was a beautiful fall morning, the leaves of the oak trees a riotous flame of red and orange. October was just around the corner and her good mood, which had been in evidence since late August, showed no sign of wavering. She’d even gone to church the day prior for mass and enjoyed the hymns, although the bishop nearly bored her to tears.

As she fussed with her morning meal, she mentally ticked off plans she and Charles had for the upcoming week. Charles had papers to sign with their lawyer to quit the lease at Netherfield Park and she had a fitting with Madam Beaufort before the much anticipated Annual Michaelmas Ball at Lady Addleworth’s mansion.

Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy was sure to attend the ball. He and his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, who’d arrived in Town the other day, were spending an inordinate amount of time with Charles. She hoped it was because Charles finally decided to pursue an arrangement with Georgiana. Darcy and the good Colonel, as her guardians, would finalize the articles of marriage as well as details of the dowry. With luck they would announce their engagement before the ball and with his shy little sister taken care of, Mr. Darcy could now concentrate on his own happiness.

At last Charles was safe from Miss Jane Bennet, although he’d been reminded of her when they had the misfortune of running into her sister Elizabeth while at Pemberley in early August. For a few days she’d worried Darcy might continue to grow in affection for the well-tanned miss with muddy hems and ‘fine eyes’, but fortunately she exited Derbyshire rather abruptly the very next day. Caroline didn’t need the ever present Miss Bennet to ruin her plans for Charles and Georgiana as well as those for herself. After three long years of careful planning, she would not be denied her future by a girl of little consequence.

How she longed to be Mistress of Pemberley. To have others look to her for guidance, to run the household the way it should. First order of business would be to dismiss Mrs. Reynolds. The housekeeper was by far too smug and too familiar with Mr. Darcy. Why, she let anyone who knocked on the door run amok within the house and on the grounds. Such behavior would be stopped the minute she and Mr. Darcy exchanged their vows. Pemberley needed a strong hand to run efficiently and she had the fortitude to make it happen.

She bit into a light-as-air croissant and sighed. This was her only indulgence, otherwise the dress Madame Beaufort designed would never fit and she needed to look spectacular the night of the ball. Darcy would propose before night’s end or her name wasn’t Caroline Anastasia Bingley.

Their butler, Hobson, entered the room with a slight bow and signaled the footmen to remove the food trays. A light frown creased her forehead. Her sister Louisa took breakfast in bed and Mr. Hurst rarely awakened before noon, but surely Charles would be annoyed if he came down and there were no sausages and eggs readily available.

“Has Mr. Bingley been down to break his fast, Hobson?”

“No, Miss Bingley. He left at first light with Mr. Darcy.”

“Mr. Darcy?” Astonished, she set down her tea cup. “Did he state where they were going?”

“I believe he said they were going to Hertfordshire, ma’am.”

Laden with heavy trays, the footmen exited the room and with another slight bow the butler followed.

“Hertfordshire,” she mused aloud. “Why on earth would they go to Hertfordshire?”

Her mind whirled with possibilities. Charles may have decided to complete a final inspection of Netherfield Park before signing over the lease. She gave her head a quick shake at the thought. They had a perfectly good steward who took care of those details. And why would Darcy attend with him? Puzzled, she finished her croissant and tea before daintily dabbing her mouth with a linen napkin upon completion.

First thing, before attending her fitting, she’d write her brother a letter and remind him of his duties and engagements in London. The last thing she needed was for Charles to inadvertently come across the ever amiable and angelic Miss Jane Bennet. Although convinced his desires no longer lay in that direction, she didn’t want to take the chance he might second guess his decision to quit Netherfield Park and Hertfordshire for good.

She took small comfort in the fact Darcy was along for the journey. If anyone could keep Charles from becoming entangled with a family of no social standing, and with the silliest of women in all of England for a mother-in-law, it would be Darcy. After all, it was he who helped convince her brother marrying Jane Bennet would have been social suicide, and not a moment too soon. After the ball at Netherfield, Charles was clearly besotted and it took the whole next day to convince him she did not have the same regard for him. Based on the mother’s words and actions, Jane Bennet was nothing more than a beautiful fortune hunter.