A messenger came a half hour before they left for the Netherfield Ball with Bella’s half-filled dance card. The first (Darcy), the second (Bingley), the third (Collins), the Supper Dance (Darcy), the Final (Bingley again). It was a thoughtful gesture on Caroline’s part.
There was also a note—something about the new surgeon accepting an invitation to the Ball. Bella set it aside.
It was custom for all women (except those in mourning) to wear white to balls of such standing, and so Bella wore white for that simple reason. She had a memory—somewhere in her mind—something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. She had a bit of blue ribbon, but that was the best she could manage. Since her first (and only Assembly) she had gone out in society exclusively with her hair in a tight knot at the base of her cranium, her thick strands of hair all pulled to that one spot, and she favoured that hairstyle again that night, although she did allow Kitty to accent it with a blue ribbon to match the rest of her ensemble.
She looked in the mirror and thought she looked presentable.
“If he does not propose,” Mama told her in confidence when she came to check before they would meet in the foyer, “then it shall not be for want of trying. You are certainly lovely, my dear Isabelle Mary.” Tears came to her eyes.
Turning in her seat, Bella looked at her mother in worry. “Whatever is the matter?”
“I had hoped,” Mama admitted, “to have you a year or two longer.”
“Oh,” Bella sighed, embracing her Mama, not caring for the trim of her gown, “I shall be inviting you to Pemberley after Christmas, be certain of it—but not Elizabeth unless you must have her!”
The mother and daughter laughed to each other, before pulling away. Mama dabbed at her eyes and hurried away to speak to Jane and Bella dabbed rose water on her handkerchief, and then she was ready.
The carriage was a bit full as Mr. Collins was joining but Jane and Bella were good-natured and Mr. Bennet decided to ride in front with the driver. Mr. Collins, with a flourish, handed out Mrs. Bennet and then Jane (with a bow, he was a little silly), and Elizabeth was forced to accept his hand as well.
Bella should not have been surprised, but when she stepped out, the hand presented to her was none other than Mr. Darcy. She smiled up at him instantly. “Will you be here waiting for me every time I step out of a carriage?” she asked him happily.
“It is my intention,” he promised her, his fingers squeezing her gloved hand lightly.
She looked over to see that Mr. Bennet had somewhat successfully ushered the rest of the Bennet family (as well as the curious Mr. Collins) forward toward the house.
For a moment, Darcy seemed uncomfortable, but then he looked down at her and asked, “In the course of the Supper Dance, Miss Isabelle Mary, would you do me the honor of a moment or two on the terrace for private conference?”
He breath caught in her throat and she found she could not form a word. So, instead, she nodded, a blush creeping across her cheek. His free hand came to cover the one he was holding, and a bloom of reassurance coursed her and her dark eyes flitted to his.
The Hall was done up beautifully, but Bella barely noticed. She drank a glass of champagne and was introduced to the new surgeon—a Mr. Carlisle Cullen—who claimed Bella for the fourth dance, and was seen on the dance floor with Elizabeth.
It was during the third dance—her dance with Mr. Collins that they were discussing the beauty of Rosings Park—that she introduced him to Mr. Darcy, where he was most effusive on the subject of Lady Catherine and the inestimable Miss Anne DeBourgh. Bella felt, if Mr. Collins had been left in his natural habitat, it could have been a potentially embarrassing affair. At least she had had all the information and the opportunity to introduce the two men in a semi-private setting and—if Darcy was going to ask for her hand—and if Mr. Collins was to ask for Jane’s—surely they would not be out of each other’s company in the upcoming years.
Elizabeth had never appeared enamoured before but she walked with Dr. Cullen to Bella for his dance and reintroduced them.
“You are the night surgeon, I believe,” Bella inquired, taking the seat he offered them, Elizabeth sitting beside her without invitation, her eyes full and set on the new doctor.
Dr. Cullen looked between the two sisters. “I am,” he agreed. “I am just up from Cambridge and find myself in your idyllic Meryton. Lemonade?”
“No, thank you,” Elizabeth answered for both of them.
Bella looked at her in surprise, but didn’t contradict her. “Where are your people from, Dr. Cullen?”
He cleared his throat slightly. His eyes almost seemed pink in the candlelight, his blond hair almost white, his skin… paler than moonlight. He was as seductive as an incubus, but could never be called handsome. “My father was a preacher in London. I think our people were from further North.”
Elizabeth seemed to be hanging on his every word but unable to answer.
It fell to Bella then. “Like the Bingleys, then,” she commented. “Mr. and Miss Bingley hail from Scarborough or thereabouts.” She offered him a small smile.
Dr. Cullen gave her one of his own, but when his gaze shifted to Elizabeth, he seemed decidedly uncomfortable, although he hid it well.
Silence stretched between the three and music shivered across the ballroom.
“You are unmarried, then, being so newly up from Cambridge,” Bella checked, because she knew Elizabeth (and the entire neighborhood) would wish to know.
At the question he seemed decidedly uncomfortable, but the handsome unnaturally handsome young doctor rallied. “I have not proved fortunate in that regard of my life. I applied myself to the study of medicine, I’m afraid, to the exclusion of all else. Now, you young ladies and indeed all of Meryton and thereabouts might have the benefit of my honed medical skills.”
Elizabeth breathed out (a bit of a gasp and even a bit of a moan) and sighed, “Surely we young ladies may now benefit from your single status as well, in your company at the whist table and at dances, such as this?”
It was terribly forward, and Bella looked at her next eldest sister in shock.
Elizabeth, however, wasn’t paying attention to her. She was staring completely and with open adoration at none other than Dr. Carlisle Cullen, whom she had not known for no more than half an hour.
Determined to get the conversation onto safer subjects. Bella opened her mouth to say—something—when the ballroom doors sprang open and an officer with blood trickling down his neck bellowed! “Duel! Duel! We need a surgeon!”
And with that, Dr. Cullen was gone—toward the melee and away from Bella—and suddenly all conversation in the ballroom was about something other than whist and dances.