Excerpt: The Weekday Meal
It has been a hectic month, so I’m reverting to the preverbal cakewalk and sharing with you the next chapter in my latest WIP. If you want to receive notifications of any of my new releases, please follow me on Amazon using this link.
I hope you enjoy the excerpt!
Plain gauze curtains hung over the enormous open windows, allowing sunlight and air to fill the room while holding back those weak, winged creatures that did not possess the insight to know they were unwanted. When the wind tried to push the drapes aside, they rustled their resilience. A single yard of fabric was no match for a spring breeze, but spanning nearly the full length of the wall, even the lightest of cloth had strength. Yet, despite their size, they were sheer and subtle and demanded no more attention than the stitching on Lady Catherine’s gown.
Unassuming—just like Charlotte, Elizabeth thought. She sat beside Colonel Fitzwilliam and could feel his gaze upon her.
“I should very much like to know what you are thinking,” he said.
She pointed across the room. In front of the windows, Mr. Collins sat, running his fingers over an embroidered silk throw pillow that, according to their hostess, was imported from the Orient and cost over ten pounds. Beside him was the empty seat Elizabeth had vacated under the pretense of getting a closer look at a lampshade that was imported from Italy. Her escape had come at the price of abandoning Charlotte, who was now ensconced beside her husband, staring at her hands which were folded in her lap.
Elizabeth watched the couple. Mr. Collins was speaking and making animated gestures. She frowned.
Perhaps Mr. Darcy is not the very last man on earth I’d marry. He may be insufferable, but at least he is can recognize the advantages of silence.
Guilt pricked her heart. Daily, Charlotte suffered her cousin’s company. Elizabeth visited to offer her a reprieve. Yet, instead of comforting her friend, she spent the day stewing over Mr. Darcy. Even now, while Charlotte sat flanked by two intolerables, she thought of him.
But what was I to do? I could not remain sitting beside him. I cannot be expected to endure both Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine. She sighed. That makes it worse. How many times has Charlotte had to suffer their company?
It would not do to share her thoughts, so instead she said, “I am a little sorry for the curtains.”
A smile pulled at the Colonel’s lips. “I am afraid I must ask you to elaborate.”
“When we first entered Rosings Park, Mr. Collins took great pains to point out every example of finery we came upon. He needn’t have bothered. The opulence and grandeur of it all struck Sir William and Maria dumb. It is impressive, to be sure. I admit I too was in awe of its beauty.”
Richard nodded. “My aunt would be pleased to hear you approve. It is the work of many generations. But… do you find the curtains lacking?”
“No, not at all.” But Mr. Collins does. They are the only item in this room he did not catalogue. “They are doing a valuable job and are beautiful in their own way. It is just—well, the elements that turn a house into a home, that make a room comfortable, are often the very things that are under-appreciated. It is a pity—wealth holds appeal while qualities of greater substance go ignored.”
Again, her mind wandered back to Mr. Darcy’s proposal.
I tried to resist. You offer neither wealth nor connections. In every way, you are inferior…
Time had squelched her anger, and reason reminded her society established its own values. Still, her sense of justice made it difficult to reconcile herself to this truth.
Richard examined the Collinses before turning back to Elizabeth. “Are you still speaking of curtains, or are you reflecting on the marriage of a friend?”
Elizabeth blushed. “A little of both, perhaps.”
“I cannot say if this will bring you any comfort, but I know my aunt. If I were those curtains, I would not mind at all that she took no notice of me. Maybe the same is true in some marriages.”
He was right, of course. Boredom notwithstanding, Charlotte had to prefer playing second string to Lady Catherine over the alternative of bearing the full weight of her husband’s attentions.
“You make a strong case. One should never make a sweeping argument advocating for change without acknowledging that the specifics of a situation might alter the analysis. But my argument is sound. Placing too much value on wealth harms more than the curtains of the world.” She pointed to Mr. Collins. “Do you not see how swollen that pillow is? The one my cousin holds?” Tassels of dark chocolate, the exact shade of Mr. Darcy’s hair, graced the object’s corners. “After being reminded of his value and exotic nature, do you not think it is pride that causes him to puff out his chest? I suspect, in the dark of night when all the household sleeps, that pillow snubs those industrious curtains, jealous that something so inferior should live in the same parlor.”
Richard tapped his upper lip with his index finger, appearing to give the matter considerable thought. “There is a flaw in your logic. You have a prejudice against pride. You assume it is always detrimental. It can be, yes, but it can also push one to be his best self. In your example, the pillow is better for his puffery, as he is plush and full.”
Elizabeth glanced at Lady Catherine. “What you say may be true for pillows, but you cannot convince me it is the case for man.”
“Ah, but I can. I have an excellent example. My cousin Darcy…”
In his enthusiasm, Richard had raised his voice just enough that a woman sitting at a distance of fifteen feet could hear him, if she were bored enough with the course of her current conversation to focus on something else, that is.
“Are you speaking of Darcy?” Lady Catherine called out. “I shall not forgive him. He said he would remain here until tomorrow.”
The undercurrent caught Elizabeth pulling her into a conversation with all those in attendance. Gone was her tête-à-tête with the Colonel, but she did not mind. If forced to choose between listening to an amiable gentleman speak of Mr. Darcy’s virtues or listening to a surly old lady complain about him, Elizabeth would take the latter.
Lady Catherine crossed her arms and stomped her foot.
Elizabeth had to stop herself from laughing at the childish antics.
“Mother, it is only one day. It cannot make a great deal of difference.”
Lady Catherine’s eyes narrowed. “Anne, you have yet to gain the wisdom that comes with age. It is not like him to break a commitment. I want to know why. If I allow every little broken promise to slide, it will become a habit, and that will not do.”
Elizabeth was certain her hostess was referencing a marriage, although it was Lady Catherine’s sister who made that promise.
“He said he had business in London,” Richard offered. His aunt sent him a scathing glare, and he lowered his head, rolling his eyes as he did so.
“Richard, you of all people cannot believe that. You were to travel with him. It was very inconsiderate of him to abandon you.”
“On the contrary. He left his own driver and coach behind for my departure.”
Lady Catherine shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “Yes… well… in that case, he must have wasted all day making new arrangements for his own transportation home—and for what? He has a very capable steward and lawyer. What sort of unexpected news could require his personal attention, and how could it be so urgent that he would strand you here in order to leave one day early?”
Anne twisted her handkerchief in her hands. “I hope Georgiana is well.”
Lady Catherine shook her head with vigor. “He received no letters or correspondence of any kind yesterday, so how would he have known she needed him? Besides, he refused to tell why he was leaving. If it had to do with my niece, he was obligated to tell me. I have the right to know everything that is happening in this family.”
Richard made a noise that sounded like a laugh but lifted a fist to his mouth to stifle it. He hit his chest, pointed to a glass on the end table beside him, and said, “Sorry, went down the wrong way.”
Anne set down her book. “You should re-examine your last interaction with him. Whenever the detective in my story needs to solve a mystery, he begins by doing that.”
Catherine scoffed. In an exaggerated fashion, she groaned and rolled her eyes, moving her chin to follow her irises’ path. “As if I can find Darcy’s motivation in a silly—.” She fell silent.
Elizabeth watched her mind at work. There was something familiar about Lady Catherine. She had witnessed such expressions before.
Catherine’s steady gaze swept across the room, starting with Richard and ending with Mr. Collins, who sat closest to her.
His head bobbed like a bunny, making tiny little hops as he focused on something above them. After each nod, his lips moved. With his patroness’s attention elsewhere, he appeared to be counting the number of rosettes pipped onto the ceiling.
“Mr. Collins.” She did not raise her voice, but there was a sharpness in her tone that had the intended effect.
He jumped, then composed himself. “My apologies…”
Lady Catherine cut him off with a wave of her hand. “Have you done something to chase my nephew away?”
Mr. Collins blinked. “What? No… I… I…”
“The day prior to his departure, your party arrived for tea. As soon as you entered the room, his expression darkened. He was clearly upset.”
Anne sat up. “Mama, he wasn’t upset with Mr. Collins. He was ill. Not more than five minutes later, he announced he had a headache and went to his room.”
Lady Catherine lowered her brow and her gaze darkened. “Did you hear that, Mr. Collins? You made him ill.”
“He did not,” Charlotte protested. “You may recall, Elizabeth did not accompany us to tea either. She, too, was unwell. They likely both suffered from the same malady. My husband had nothing to do with it.”
Lady Catherine turned to Elizabeth. “Come here. Let me look at you.”
Elizabeth did as she was asked.
After a moment of scrutiny, Catherine nodded. “Yes, you are pale and have dark circles under your eyes. No one would look so dreadful unless still recovering. Now, sit back down over there, near my nephew, and stop hovering so near my daughter. She cannot afford to fall ill.”
Elizabeth returned to her seat, and Lady Catherine’s mood was much improved. Nodding, she said, “That is a reason that makes sense. Darcy left because he was unwell. He did not wish to risk Anne’s health but said nothing of his illness because he was concerned it could upset her to discover he was cutting his visit short out of concern for her well-being.”
“Yes, I am sure that is it,” Richard called out.
“Your nephew’s consideration knows no bounds,” Mr. Collins added.
“Humph. If that were true, he could have made a formal announcement about his intentions toward my daughter before he left. Neither of them is getting any younger, and I should like to have the engagement party next month when my garden is in bloom.”
Richard leaned in and used his hand to shield his mouth from view. “This is the part where she stops being an investigator and becomes a matchmaker. Unfortunately for you, in her mind, Anne is spoken for, and I am a lost cause.”
Before Elizabeth could ask what he meant, Lady Catherine said, “You two, what are you doing? What are you over there whispering about?”
“We were speaking of Miss Bennet’s marriage prospects,” Richard said with a mischievous smile.
Lady Catherine pulled back her shoulders. “Oh? You did not mention any suitors when we last spoke on the subject, Miss Bennet.”
If Richard’s aim was to guarantee his aunt stopped speculating on Mr. Darcy’s sudden departure, he succeeded. She had the same demeanor as a cat that had just spotted a mouse.
“That is because I have none,” Elizabeth said. “I spend most of my time in the country, and I have grown up with the few men who live in my community. They are so like brothers to me, I could not consider any as suitors.”
“Yes. When Mr. Collins first spoke of your family, I suspected as much. But there is something that has puzzled me. You have no prospects, yet, when I sent one to you, you rejected him.” She turned to Charlotte and said, “Although I am very happy for you that she did.”
“She has unrealistic expectations,” Mr. Collins said.
“No. I would just prefer to remain unwed rather than enter a marriage without being in love,” Elizabeth said.
“Balderdash. You are too old for false pretenses, Miss Bennet. It is every woman’s wish—nay, her duty—to marry. I will offer you a piece of wisdom. There is nothing wrong with having ambition, but the most eligible of bachelors are claimed during the season.” She glanced at Anne. “Or… their parents find matches on their behalf. All things considered, you cannot again afford to decline another acceptable offer.”
To Elizabeth’s great relief, the conversation seemed to near its end until the Colonel, with a devious glint in his eyes, said, “Did you not mention you will soon travel north, Miss Bennet? You will undoubtedly meet new bachelors during your journey. Maybe my aunt would be kind enough to provide you with some advice should you encounter a suitable man.”
Charlotte said, “While any advice from her ladyship is always insightful and treasured, I am afraid Elizabeth and I must be leaving. We have promised to meet my sister Maria, and I just noticed the time.” She pointed to the clock on the mantel.
Elizabeth could have kissed her. Instead, she prayed for forgiveness for having abandoned Charlotte earlier.
Mr. Collins rose, but Charlotte shook her head. “There is no reason for you to cut your visit short, Mr. Collins.”
He took her hand and kissed it. “Thank you,” he said.
After saying their goodbyes, the two friends began their journey back to the rectory with linked arms. It was not until the house had vanished from view that Elizabeth’s future resurfaced.
“It is wrong of Lady Catherine to pry, especially as she is only interested in a distraction from her boredom, but as your friend, I must implore you to consider your stance on relationships,” Charlotte said.
“If you intend to persuade me from personal experience that a loveless marriage is tolerable…”
“No. I do not ask you to amend your standards. While our opinions on love may differ, I can accept it is a requirement for your happiness. But you are not being honest with yourself regarding your desire to marry. I have known you all of your life. I was with you when we gathered wildflowers and took the sheets off the clothesline so we could dress up as brides. You have told me of your longing for motherhood.”
“I may want to marry, but I will not settle.”
“I believe the problem is not in your expectations alone. Rather, you will always be dissatisfied because you apply judgement too quickly and presume a suitor cannot meet your standards. Your prejudice prevents you from properly assessing him.”
Elizabeth stopped walking and released her friend’s arm. “My what?”
“Surely you recognize how quickly you make judgements and how reluctant you are to adjust them, even when presented with evidence that suggests your initial assessment was wrong.”
“Mr. Collins, for one. You objected to his intellect. He has many flaws and is socially awkward, but he is intelligent. Despite all the time you have spent with him, you cannot see this, because you have already decided.”
Heat rose to Elizabeth’s cheeks. “If I have insulted your husband or made you feel embarrassed by your match, I apologize.”
“No. In that instance, your prejudice has benefited me. I use this only to illustrate a point.
“I know, even now, you do not believe me, but he is intelligent. You were right to reject him, though. You would not have been happy with his other flaws, but you misjudge him on this one.
“My fear is that you will reject a more suitable offer in the future because you refuse to recognize your first impression could be wrong.”
Elizabeth took back Charlotte’s arm, and they continued their journey. “You are the second person this hour to accuse me of being prejudiced. I suppose I can be quick to judge and rigid in my opinions. I will try to do better.”
Charlotte smiled and patted her hand. “My brother, John, will be pleased to hear it. I think he hopes you can one day not view him as a sibling.”
Elizabeth could feel her face warm. She lowered her bonnet, afraid she might burn.