Mary Bennet tucked the book she had just finished reading back on the shelf and pulled out another. The selection of books at Rosings was not small, but — she sighed, there were just not enough books of substance, at least, not the substance she sought. She flipped through the pages covered in verse.
There was only so much poetry she could read, and she was certain she had surpassed her limit. In her opinion, poetry did nothing to secure the mind in the realities of propriety. In fact, lately, it had done the exact opposite. It had her dreaming of walks in the forest and along streams with her hand in that of a very handsome gentleman — a gentleman who was not within her reach.
She shoved the book back onto the shelf. Poetry was not what she needed. He would be here soon. She needed to have something more serious to read. Something that would keep her mind from wandering to his wide shoulders and muscular calves. Young ladies should not have such thoughts, especially young ladies who were determined to be an example of propriety to one and all. However, no matter how she tried, Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam could not be thought of as serenely as other men. It was really quite vexing how he tormented her with thoughts that caused her to smile at impropriety. A sermon was needed and the sooner, the better.
“If Lady Catherine is looking for me, I will be at the parsonage,” Mary told Fletcher, Rosings’ butler, as she tied on her bonnet in preparation for her walk. “I will not be long.”
“The parsonage?” Lady Catherine de Bourgh stood in the doorway to her sitting room just down the hall from where Mary was attempting her escape. “We have guests arriving. It would not do for you to be gone when they arrive, and if I know my nephews, they will be early just to vex me.”
“I will not be long,” Mary tried to keep the pleading tone from her voice. “I only wish to borrow a book from my cousin.”
Lady Catherine’s eyebrows rose. “Are there not enough books in the library?” She knew precisely the sort of book Mary sought, but it was better to not let the young lady know.
“It is lacking in sermons.” Mary looked at Lady Catherine’s toes. Lady Catherine was not pleased to have her library or any part of her home criticized, nor was she particularly fond of Mary’s choice of reading material. Mary had endured more than one lecture on broadening her repertoire.
“It is lacking in nothing that a young woman should need.” Lady Catherine had taken a liking to Mary when she met the young lady at Pemberley the second summer after Lady Catherine’s nephew Fitzwilliam Darcy and Mary’s sister Elizabeth had married.
Mary was the most likely of the three youngest Bennet sisters, who were in residence that summer, to need improvement and need it the earliest. Lydia and Kitty did not seem to lack an interest in society the way Mary did, nor were Lydia or Kitty in as great a need of a husband since they were younger than Mary.
However, there was something else that endeared the young lady to Lady Catherine — nothing that could be quantified beyond a spirit of gentleness mingled with a will of iron. She smiled. It would be lovely to have such a lady added to her collection of relatives in a closer fashion. It had not escaped her notice how often she found the young lady watching Richard nor how often Richard found reason to be in the presence of Mary.
Mary’s shoulders drooped. “I have faithfully read the novels you gave me and the book of poems. May I not read just one book of sermons?”
Lady Catherine pursed her lips. “One book?”
Lady Catherine sighed. “Very well, but be quick.”
Mary dipped a curtsey. “I will, my lady.”
Lady Catherine watched her scurry out the door. It might be best if Mary were gone when the others arrived. It would make discussing her with Darcy and Elizabeth a good deal easier.
“Have the tea things brought in in half an hour,” she said to Fletcher before returning to her sitting room. She sighed. The house was so empty these days without Anne and Mrs. Jenkinson to keep her company. It was partially why she had requested of Mr. Bennet that Mary come to stay with her.
She chuckled. Her meeting with the gentleman had been very productive. Not only had she gotten permission for Mary to come stay at Rosings, but she had also received his blessing to play at matchmaking for the one whom he considered his least-likely-to-marry daughter.
She settled into a chair that stood in just the right place to see the drive and took up her stitching. She would not be caught unawares. Her nephews might attempt to ruffle her feathers by thwarting her carefully scheduled life, but they would not succeed. The thought of ruining their fun with a bit of her own pleased her excessively. She would know when her guests had arrived well before they had stepped one foot from their carriage.
She did not have to wait very long. The tea service was just being laid out when she spotted them. Darcy’s fine carriage appeared first, and then Richard followed, seated high on his horse.
He was a fine specimen of a gentleman. Even she could see that. For all the detractors that found him less handsome than his cousin — which he was since there were few as handsome as Darcy — there were an equal number who found him enticing, especially when he was riding his horse or causing a general stir with some fascinating tale. Mary would be a very fortunate young lady to have such a husband.
And he would do well to have a sensible and devoted wife. Lady Catherine gave a little shrug. It was perhaps Richard who was getting the better end of the bargain. Mary was no wallflower, no matter how much she might attempt to be one. True, she did not shine like Jane or sparkle like Elizabeth, but she was not without charm. It was just that hers was the kind of beauty that lay quietly, waiting to be noticed.
Lady Catherine laid aside her stitching and watched as the carriage came to a stop and Richard jumped down to claim Alexander from his parents. He would make an excellent father despite his tendencies to exuberance and impropriety. She could not help smiling as he trotted off toward the garden with a laughing child on his shoulder.
It appeared the moment had come, and she smoothed her skirts nervously as she rose to greet Darcy and Elizabeth. With neither of the objects of her scheming present, now would be the best time to inform her other guests of her intentions to see Mary and Richard happily wed.
Mary did not spend very long at the parsonage, just a few minutes with Charlotte, hearing about the antics and accomplishments of the two young Collins boys and inquiring after Charlotte’s health as she was preparing for the arrival of a third child. Then, after a mere five minutes of listening to Mr. Collins wax eloquent on the book he was lending, she was free to leave.
Charlotte was so very good at distracting her husband when he began meandering. Mary hoped that when she married, she might find a sensible husband. A parson would be nice — one with a good living or two. Such an arrangement would afford her the comfort she desired. Of course, the wedding papers would have to be created in such a fashion as to leave her and any children she might have with ample means to live without relying on the charity of relations too much if she should be left a widow. She did not wish to have to worry about such things as her mother did.
She sighed. If only she were an heiress. Then, she would have a home and a husband that would provide everything for which she wished, but she was not an heiress, and so she must put fanciful and imprudent dreams out of her head. Colonel Fitzwilliam would not be hers, no matter what her heart’s desire was on the matter.
She rambled along the tree lined lane with her book under her arm and mind firmly engaged with one of those imprudent dreams. In this one, she was walking this very lane leaning on the colonel’s arm. She sighed. She had noticed how his arms had been so very firm and strong whenever she had had the chance to walk with him at Pemberley. So strong. She wondered if a parson would be as well muscled as a colonel. She supposed not. After all, a colonel spent his time in riding and other gentlemanly pursuits while a parson spent his time studying. Reading, though a magnificent exercise for the brain, did very little to strengthen the body.
It was on these things that she was pondering when she turned from the lane and entered Rosing’s garden in the exact place where Richard was being chased by a squealing Alexander. She was not prepared to confront him just now. She had not had a moment to read anything grave! How was she to not allow her mind to be filled with him when she had fed it with nothing but poetry and novels? So, being totally unprepared, she was doomed to be struck most soundly by his presence and the charming prospect of him as he might be as a father. Had Alexander not stopped when she appeared at the edge of the garden, she might have been able to slip back into the lane and find a less provocative route to the house or a place to sit and read a bit before she ventured back into the garden.
“Miss Mary!” Colonel Fitzwilliam drew to a halt not far from her. “I did not expect to see you at Rosings? Are you visiting your cousin?” He directed the question to her but turned to make certain Alexander was still close. The child had moved, but not away. He had taken a few steps toward Mary and was tipping his head to the side as if he were trying to figure out who she was. “It is Aunt Mary,” Richard told him. “Mama’s sister.” He held out his arms in invitation to Alexander. “Come. Give your greetings as a proper young gentleman should.”
It did not take more than a minute for the child to find his way into Richard’s arms where he managed to give Mary a sweetly proper greeting by repeating everything that Richard told him to say.
“It is good to see you, Alexander,” Mary replied. “Is your mama in the house?”
Alexander twisted to look back at the house. He pointed and babbled about mama and biscuits.
“Ah, yes, Uncle Richard did promise you a biscuit, did he not?” said Richard. “Shall we invite Aunt Mary to join us and share our biscuits?”
Alexander’s brows furrowed.
“She will not eat many,” Richard assured him. “Shall we ask her?”
A smile crept across the young boy’s face, and he nodded his agreement.
“Very well. Miss Mary, will you join us for biscuits?”
“And tea?” Mary asked Alexander.
“Tea.” His head bobbed up and down.
Richard, extending an arm to Mary, steeled himself for the pleasant jolt he always felt when she accepted his assistance. He had not prepared in vain, for as she lay her hand on his arm, there it was again. If only he could find a woman of the ton with a substantial dowry who could cause the same reaction in him. He had searched diligently for three months now, attending soiree after soiree and dancing with every quiet, soulful-eyed debutante he could find. When none had been able to attract him as Mary did, he had cast the net so far as to dance with the more exuberant and popular young ladies. Still, with not success.
“How long are you visiting your cousin?” He hoped it would not be long. For if it was, he would have to go back to London and its balls and parties before he could be reminded too fully of all that Mary was. A fresh memory of her would do nothing to assist him in his attempt not to compare every young lady to her.
“I am not visiting my cousin,” she said.
“You are not?”
“No, Lady Catherine has asked me to come stay with her. She misses Anne.”
Oh, this was not good. Not good at all. He would have to create an escape plan. Perhaps a supposed letter from a friend could call him away. “Are you staying long?”
“Indefinitely,” Mary replied. “Or until I find a husband. Your aunt is insistent that she can see me well-matched before the end of next season.” Unfortunately, it would not be to the man she desired, but one did not always get what one wished.
Richard had known she would eventually marry. She must. It was not as if she had the independent means to live on her own, and he supposed she did not wish to spend her whole life without a husband and family. When Alexander was just an infant, Mary had visited Pemberley and had been so naturally good at calming the child and tending to his needs. She was born to be a mother. It really was too bad she was not an heiress, for he would very much like for her to be the mother of his children.
“Next season? So a year or nearly so?”
Mary shrugged. “Unless a worthy candidate stumbles into Kent and presents himself before then. I will be given some time to visit my family, but the majority of my life shall be here — under Lady Catherine’s tutelage.”
“I am surprised Darcy has not mentioned this.” It was unlike his cousin to keep information from him.
“I only arrived three weeks ago. Lady Catherine thought it unnecessary to inform him since he would be arriving for his annual visit in such a short time.”
Alexander began to squirm as they got closer to the house and demanded that he be allowed to walk.
“Will you hold my hand?” Mary asked him.
He agreed with alacrity, and Richard was forced to relinquish both his possession of the child and Mary’s hand. It was just as well, he supposed, as he walked beside them. It was not as if he had a hope of ever truly claiming her hand, so he had best get used to seeing it claimed by another.
This thought did nothing to ease his displeasure, nor did the knowledge that the gentleman stealing her hand away from him was only two years old and her nephew. He shook himself. A letter. He must write a letter to himself and then ride out and have it posted, for an escape was definitely necessary.