Caroline Bingley was all elegance and all congeniality when she arrived a half hour later on her brother’s arm. She smirked at Mr. Darcy, who was sitting beside Bella as Mama had kindly left them to speak to Mrs. Lucas. At what was clearly meant as a private message, he relinquished his seat. After greeting Bingley with a grasp of hands (a congenial acknowledgement of longtime friends), he went to fetch the ladies refreshments.
“Well,” Caroline declared. “I am quite glad to have a friend. Everyone is staring!” She smiled at Bella and then asked, “Have you met my dear brother, Charles Bingley?”
Charles Bingley could be considered handsome if he were not so boyish. He also had decidedly ginger hair. While Caroline made it appear fashionable, Mr. Bingley just seemed even more like a young lad dressed up for his first party.
Bella looked to Caroline’s behavior. Normally, she would stand and curtsey, but Caroline had introduced them while she was sitting, and so Bella nodded her head to Mr. Bingley and smiled at him kindly. “A pleasure.” She wasn’t certain what else to say in response to his wide green and gleaming eyes.
“The Miss Isabelle Mary!” he greeted with enthusiasm before bowing to her in turn. “I have heard of little else since we entered the neighbourhood!”
Bella wasn’t certain how to respond. All she could think is that he sounded like a boy whose voice had just broken.
Fortunately, Caroline cut in. “She has four sisters, so do not think to ask her to dance!” she chided. Turning to Bella, she confessed, “I’ve told him this is your first Assembly and you do not wish to dance, but he’s been insisting!”
This Bella could answer. “I’m afraid I am to disappoint,” she offered carefully. Behind Bingley, she saw Darcy arriving with a lemonade in hand (for her) and a punch (undoubtedly for Caroline). “My sisters Jane and Elizabeth are dancing tonight,” she promised.
“Then I shall claim the privilege of a dance another evening,” he promised, bowing again slightly to show the gravity of his words. “By Jove, Darce, that was quick!”
Darcy did not respond, but instead proffered the lemonade to Bella first—showing his preference—and then the punch to a slyly smiling Caroline.
“Now,” Caroline demanded, turning to her new friend. “I understand Sir William Lucas is the man to meet!”
And so began the introductions, Sir William leading the charge as the hordes approached the newcomers, Bella there to facilitate introductions. Mr. Bingley gaily danced with Charlotte Lucas, and then with Jane, before dancing with someone Bella didn’t much notice.
Caroline did stand up with Mr. Darcy to begin her turn around the room, but only when she secured Bingley to sit with Bella—a kindness unneeded but appreciated.
“Do you like Netherfield?” she asked.
“Oh, yes. Fine house, fine neighborhood.”
“Fine shooting?” she asked with a hint of laughter.
“Indeed!” he agreed.
“Why did you choose Hertfordshire?” she asked as her eye caught Darcy’s from across the room.
At this, Bingley seemed lost. “It is fine country,” he did eventually manage.
Bella almost wanted to laugh, although that was unlike her. Elizabeth laughed at the foibles of strangers (and friends), so Bella refrained from undue mirth whenever possible to counter her lively sister. She was usually thought, not taciturn, but—someone had once told her she had been born middle aged. Bella hoped this wasn’t the case, as she thought—just perhaps—she wouldn’t mind dancing with Mr. Darcy at some future point.
“And fine dancing,” Bella offered carefully, uncertain if he would consider it a tease.
But she need not have worried, for Mr. Bingley cried, “Indeed!”
“Fine riding?” Bella then suggested carefully.
“Quite so, Miss Isabelle Mary.” He nodded as if to punctuate his point. “Do you ride?”
He looked a little too interested in her answer. Bella replied regardless.
“Yes,” Bella told him. “Not often, but yes.”
“Do you have your own horse?” was the next question.
At the specificity of the question—when he had been so congenial but unspecific before—made her wonder. Still, there was no option but to respond: “I don’t ride often enough to have my own.”
In truth, none of the sisters did. Papa had a horse for his use, and then there were horses for the carriage (two). Then there were three more for the land, that were unfit for a young woman to ride.
“And picnics?” he asked next.
“It’s October!” Bella laughed without thinking.
He looked chastened. “Too cold then,” he seemed to realize.
She took pity on him, not wishing to see him low for something so trivial. “It’s not that,” she promised. “It is only I am certain my sister Jane would be scandalized if someone to suggest to her that she should stay out-of-doors for so long even on a sunny day.”
Jane would only dare the Autumn air for her roses and the occasional walk toward Meryton. Bella knew, from murmurings, that Jane had suffered a terrible Autumn chill when they were all small and had developed a fevered cough. However, even when she pushed her memory to the brink, Bella could not recall. She had no remembrance of Jane ever being poorly, and so her flits and flutters with shawls always seemed… affected.
Bingley leaned in and whispered, “Then we shan’t invite her.”
At the comment, Bella was stunned. She wasn’t used to being singled out—by anyone, let alone a gentleman she had just met. Bella knew it was a compliment on behalf of her friendship with Caroline. She also knew it was a compliment on behalf of Mr. Darcy’s friendship.
A blush crept up her neck, she could feel it, and she looked down at her hands, trying not to worry them. Clearing her throat (delicately, or Mama would be horrified), she suggested, “Apple pies are in season. And apple tarts.”
She looked up at Bingley carefully to see his face soft and kind.
“We could have apple jam as well,” he promised, bringing a smile back to her face.
“I do like apples,” she admitted, “crisp, and fresh from the tree.”
Bingley did not have a chance to respond, because the dance ended, and they each politely clapped to the performers. Darcy led Caroline off the dance floor, a vision in pink silks, and Bingley then relinquished his place to his sister.
Nothing more was said about apples or picnics, and Caroline danced with the next gentleman who asked her. Bingley excused himself asking Bella’s advice on partners, and she was left again with Mr. Darcy.
Mr. Darcy was attentive. Caroline proved herself a friend and deflected young men away from Bella, even taking a dance when the older Lucas boy didn’t want to accept Bella’s demurral. Bella even dared to take a turn about the room with Caroline, and later even suggested Darcy dance so she could attend to her Mama for the length of a set.
“Just one,” Darcy made her promise, his eyes hopeful, and she nodded quickly.
Unfortunately, she could feel the blush on her cheeks, but she rallied through. “You need not dance,” she promised him, sensing this was his desire. He did not seem comfortable with strangers—Bella the only exception. Even sweet, calm Jane was too vapid for him, and made him uneasy.
However, Bella was not a stranger anymore, she supposed. They were acquaintances, Bella thought, but the word seemed hollow and unfulfilled.
“I find I shall be thirsty after the breadth of a reel,” she murmured, uncertain of her own daring.
His green eyes, so vivid, lit up, and he took her hand in his, lifting it slightly in politeness, glove against skin—holding it steady just as when they had first met. “A lemonade in fifteen minute’s time,” he promised, and then she was escorted to her mother.
Bella attempted to attend to Mama and what she was saying, but her eyes followed Mr. Darcy wherever he went. Halfway through the dance, Mr. Bingley joined him. The friends spoke, solemn in the gaiety of their surroundings… and then Bella noticed Elizabeth. Her sister was staring at Darcy hungrily from where she was sitting nearby in a chair, having to sit out a dance due to lack of partners.
Her heart fell into her stomach at the sudden look of peevishness in Elizabeth’s eyes, but when she turned back toward Darcy, his green eyes gazed at her from across the room. That same, horrible blush rushed up her neck, and she turned to Mama to attend.
Still, she counted the seconds until the reel ended and Mr. Darcy, at the final chords, walked determinedly toward the refreshments before the rush of thirsty dancers. He did not need to say a word when he offered it to her, a smile in his eyes, and then he asked Mama, “And what is your prescription, Mrs. Bennet, for young ladies who wish to read Byron? My younger sister begs for his latest volume, but I find I cannot indulge her.”
At the words (and the memory of what she had been reading when they met), Bella’s eyes shot to Mr. Darcy’s calm face, and she realized—no, he had not even glanced at the spine. He did not know. He had been too enveloped in her blushes and shy smiles.
The thought warmed her, and she found herself wishing for the next time she would see Mr. Darcy, even though the night was not quite over.