A continuation of the prompt fic “Disinclined to Dance” (Pride and Prejudice and Twilight Saga crossover). Happy New Years to all (… and let me know if you would like more of Bella and Darcy)!!
II. (or when Bella meets Caroline Bingley)
Netherfield Hall was indeed the finest house in the neighborhood. It was certainly favourable to see it alive with activity, the carriage met by a servant in livery, and gardeners out in around the park making improvements.
Kitty had her nose pressed against the glass and was the first to step out. Bella was twisting her bonnet ribbons from her fingers as it dangled from her hand, when she stepped out into the sunlight.
“Do you think he’ll be here?” Kitty asked excitedly, as she skipped up the stairs, Bella closely behind her.
A smile twinged on Bella’s lips as she thought about the possibility. “I hope so,” she admitted carefully, her dark eyes glancing upward.
Kitty looked over her shoulder and grinned brightly. She lifted out her hand, and Bella happily accepted it as the sisters moved up toward the front door, a footman on either side present to open it for them.
Bella let her eyes glance about discreetly before allowing a footman to take her bonnet before they were led into an open sitting room, a lovely woman (in the latest fashions) standing to greet them.
Social niceties were comforting to Bella – the courtesy, the greetings, the politeness. Conversation was dictated by convention. Elizabeth would twist it at social calls, Jane hide behind it, but Bella found it a familiar guide and friend. It allowed her to demure from speaking and to listen and yet could gift her a voice when she desired it.
“Miss Bingley,” she greeted when they were seated and delicate cakes had been presented, “you have certainly made Netherfield comfortable to guests and yet allow it to hold a distinct elegance.”
Caroline Bingley smiled slyly yet not unkindly and took up her cup of tea. “Were you and Miss Catherine familiar with Netherfield?”
“Indeed,” Bella agreed, “although its owners have been in Bath almost exclusively for the past two years.”
Kitty nodded. “Yes, it was a shame, but now we have the opportunity for new neighbors.”
Another smile from Miss Bingley and an offer of jam.
“I hope – so far – you are enjoying the neighborhood,” Bella offered, considering the woman before her. Miss Bingley could not be more than twenty herself, possibly younger. They were, indeed, of an age, although their lives were undoubtedly different.
“I have not seen much of it,” she confessed. “My brother – I believe you have not met –“ A pause, an arch of a brow, a test.
“We have not,” Bella confirmed, turning to her tea.
“—my brother has received calls from all of the gentlemen and returned most – but you are the only ladies of the acquaintance of a single member of our party. It is a relief, I must confess. I do not like to be gawked at – I am certain you understand – and I feared a local introduction at an Assembly would lead to such an eventuality.”
Her eyes were steady, a heady green, and settled on Bella with singleness of purpose.
Kitty was there, then, not just for politeness, but as witness to the request.
“I have never attended,” Bella confessed.
“But surely you are out?” Miss Bingley inquired. “You might sit with me and tell me who everyone is – of the bachelors, of beaus, of the ladies whose acquaintance I should cultivate –“ Another pause, a glance at a picture of the wall so Bella wouldn’t feel pressured.
Bella looked over at Kitty whose gaze was on her in excitement. “I am certain that Jane would lend you her pink ribbons,” Kitty offered, “and Mama would be pleased for you to attend.” Her sister was giving her an opening, a piece of bait, but one that could just as easily be refused. “You need not dance.”
“No,” Miss Bingley agreed, looking over at the sisters again. “But I would enjoy an acquaintance of rank and refinement.”
Feeling a hot blush overtake her face, as Bella felt herself to have neither, just a natural clumsiness and little beauty. She dipped her head and took a sip of tea. If she were candid with herself, Bella should like to see Mr. Darcy, however. She felt giddy just thinking of him, as she had every evening as she slipped to sleep since she had first made his acquaintance.
Decided, Bella cleared her throat carefully to signal that she was ready to make a pronouncement. “If Mama permits, then I should be happy.”
Miss Bingley smiled genuinely for the first time, her teeth small and white and nearly perfect. “Then do call me ‘Caroline,’ Miss Isabelle Mary.”
Before she could respond, however, Bella heard the door open and turned her head to see Mr. Darcy enter, clearly by design and nearly perfectly timed.
She set her cup down carefully and reminded herself to breathe as she stood with her sister and (after a moment) Miss Bingley.
“Mr. Darcy,” Miss Bingley greeted. “You are just in time to hear of my triumph. Miss Isabelle Mary has agreed to attend the Assembly, as long as she is not forced to dance.” The words were pleased and Bella was grateful when Kitty reached forward and squeezed her hand in the folds of her deep green dress.
A small smile formed on Mr. Darcy’s lips as he bowed to the Bennet sisters and they curtseyed in turn, their hands still entwined carefully, though Kitty withdrew her fingers just a moment later.
“A very pleasant surprise,” Mr. Darcy greeted. “Miss Isabelle Mary – Miss Catherine. I hope you are enjoying your tea.”
“Indeed,” Bella agreed, taking in how well he wore his cravat. “Caroline is a gracious hostess.”
When she looked over at Miss Bingley, she saw the pleased expression on the other woman’s face, as if the compliment – or the use of her name – was a personal triumph. “Do join us, Mr. Darcy.” She indicated the chair directly beside where Bella was sitting, placed at an angle so that the two would be nearly as close as Bella was to Kitty, who was sitting upon the same sofa.
Kitty, fortunately, took up the polite conversation. “Who else, if I may inquire, is a member of the party here at Netherfield? We know of Mr. Darcy, of course, and yourself – and then Mr. Bingley, but the gossip is varied and hardly reliable.”
Caroline took a moment to respond, and Bella carefully added,
“We would be sworn to secrecy, of course. Kitty and I are merely curious. Do you, perhaps, possess other brothers and sisters among your party, Caroline?”
“My sister,” she agreed, “Mrs. Louisa Hurst – and her husband.”
“Yes,” Darcy agreed as he accepted a cup of coffee. “My sister might join the party at a later time.”
“How wonderful to have sisters,” Bella agreed. “I am the third of five,” she confessed.
“Good heavens, so many, Miss Isabelle Mary?” Caroline asked, clearly startled.
Bella smiled slightly. “Please, Caroline. Isabelle Mary – or even Isabelle. You gave me your name, please accept mine in friendship.”
Nodding, Caroline glanced at Darcy, but he was staring quite openly at Bella who was attempting to behave naturally and not blush more than she already was. She inwardly cursed her pale skin – an old joke of being an albino from Arizona crossed her mind, but it was more of an incoherent musing than actual thought – but he did not seem to be looking at her to criticize.
“Isabelle,” Caroline agreed. “I confess I never enjoyed having an older sister growing up. I can’t imagine having both older and younger.”
“It is an unusual experience,” Bella agreed. “However, I do not know different.” She had once – perhaps – a mother to her mother, a single child in her own right, an estranged father who held to the back country. His name was forgotten, his face no longer remembered, perhaps a fabrication of a feverish nightmare.
Kitty took another biscuit. “Isabelle Mary is our peacemaker. She can cure any ill feeling among any of us, and although they say Jane is the more beautiful, I’ve always disagreed.”
Startled, Bella looked over.
Her sister smiled back unabashedly.
It was Darcy, however, who spoke. “You are indeed quite beautiful, Miss Isabelle Mary. When I came upon you in the countryside, I thought you were a wood nymph who had lost herself in the wilds of Hertfordshire.”
Bella’s eyes quickly swept over to Darcy, baffled but flattered, the horrible blush again across her cheeks. Her dark gaze met his steady one – and she saw open admiration on his face, steady and almost severe in its intensity.
“I have never known you to compliment so unreservedly,” Caroline remarked, although Bella didn’t remove her gaze from Darcy’s steady eyes. “You should be aware of what a great compliment, Isabelle.”
At this, Bella finally broke eye contact, and gave a small smile to her new friend. “I am certain I am aware, yes.”
“It is not empty flattery,” Darcy argued good naturedly, “only the unreserved truth.”
Bella returned her attention to him, willing her face to not betray her insecurities and her hopes, but not willing to back down from a challenge, either.
“Our Isabelle Mary is unused to compliments,” Kitty informed them, “even though they are proffered often within our family.”
Darcy was regarding the sisters now together, but his gaze slid back toward Bella as she took a sip of her tea. Caroline looked far too amused and pleased with herself.
“Tell me, Caroline,” Bella rallied, “what you wish to know before the Assembly.”
“Well,” Caroline decided with a grin, “of course, with whom to dance and who to avoid!”
Bella laughed despite herself. “Well, dance with anyone of your party, of course. Sir William is an older gentleman with children now grown, but he is the highest ranking member of our community. If he should ask you, it would be politic to accept or ask for his recommendation on a good natured partner. He is always happy to give advice.”
“That,” Caroline told her, leaning forward a little as if to impart a confidence, “is exactly the sort of thing I meant. – I should commend you, Mr. Darcy, for finding us a guide to Hertfordshire, and quite by accident!”
At this, Bella couldn’t help but try her hand at teasing. “Do not commend Mr. Darcy yet, Caroline. I may still prove a disappointment.”
“I highly doubt you could prove a disappointment in any sense,” Mr. Darcy told her flatly, but his eyes were shining with an expectancy that only warmed his features.