This year will mark a sea change in the way I work. Not only am I beginning to ramp up my work on certain fantasy projects, but it may be some time before you see a full length variation from me. As I noted in a previous post, I’ll be submitting new manuscripts to the audiobook publisher for consideration. If accepted, we’ll do a coordinated release which will likely take six months or so, meaning a manuscript submitted today would likely not hit the shelves until July at the earliest. If you have followed me at all, you likely know this is far longer than my usual processes take. Once I we get to that point, we’ll proceed more or less as we have in the past, but getting there will take a little time. Of course, if the publisher rejects a manuscript, I’ll publish on Kindle and paperback as usual.
But I’d prefer not to go silent for so long without any new material, so I have outlined a couple of shorter variations, a little longer than novella length, but shorter than the publisher will consider. For this month, I thought I’d share the first pages of one of them with you. This is so hot off the presses that I have literally just finished writing it today! I have tentatively titled the work More Agreeably Engaged, and the story will will end up being somewhere in the range of 45,000 words. It is unedited and raw. But I hope you enjoy it. It will be my next release, likely in February.
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Elizabeth Bennet had always considered herself to be a calm, rational, forgiving sort of woman. On the morning in question, however, she felt anything but calm, completely irrational, and possessing an implacable bitterness toward those who had wronged her.
Slipping from the house that morning, the gate and the paths she loved to walk beckoned, and she hastened her steps, eager to retreat from the uproar of the home that had never been the haven she supposed a home should be. Should her mother spy her and demand her return, Elizabeth was in such a temper that she thought she might even disobey. Her father had shown without reason to doubt that he supported her, so she might even emerge unscathed from her mother’s wrath when she returned. Then again, unscathed was a relative term when used to describe her relationship with her mother, and her father was not blameless in this matter either.
Fortune smiled down on her, for Elizabeth reached the edge of the property and hurried out onto the path without the expected call for her to return. That did not slow Elizabeth’s steps—rather, she increased her pace, determined to put as much distance between herself and her home. Had she the legs for it, she felt she might allow her steps to lead her to the edge of England, to the sea and far beyond. At present, she had no desire to return to her home.
The soothing calmness of the woods to Longbourn’s north soon began to work their magic, and Elizabeth’s clipped stride soon slowed, though she had ever been a brisk walker. The sun, she noted, was shining brightly, so at odds with the gloom of the morning, and she felt a moment of gratitude that the cold and rain of the days before the ball had given way to unseasonal warmth. Had cool weather or stormy skies persisted, she might even now be caught with nowhere to retreat, doomed to listen to her mother’s harangues on the subject of her stubbornness, to subjected to Mr. Collins’s injured and petulant silence. Not that the man possessed the ability to remain silent for more than thirty seconds together.
What a spectacle it had been! A more inept proposal Elizabeth could not imagine, nor a more ineffectual man than Mr. Collins. To think the man thought the way to a woman’s heart was to congratulate himself on his fortunate position, assure himself that any woman would be fortunate to share in it, and speak of his reasons for marrying, including his virago of a patroness’s silly words, all with no mention of his affection for the woman to whom he had offered his addresses! Then again, Elizabeth knew that any such professions would suspect in the extreme, for Mr. Collins had not been in her presence long enough to have developed any true affection for her. That did not prevent her from knowing him well enough to understand that marrying him would lead to a life of misery. Her mother’s protestations of her ruining the family Elizabeth considered not at all. The price to pay for saving her mother from her own folly was too high a price for anyone to pay.
And Mrs. Bennet shared a prominent position in Elizabeth’s estimation with the execrable Mr. Collins in Elizabeth’s estimation. What a silly woman she was! How could she have thought that Mr. Collins would be a good match for Elizabeth? What possessed her to put him up to such nonsense, especially when her third daughter, pompous and silly in her own right, might be more receptive to Mr. Collins’s assurances?
The simple fact was Mrs. Bennet had not considered it at all. Elizabeth had no notion of when it had happened, but she had a good notion of how it had come about. Jane, her favorite and most beautiful daughter, had attracted Mr. Bingley, such that her engagement was a settled matter in Mrs. Bennet’s mind. Thus, even had Mr. Collins expressed an interest in Jane, Mrs. Bennet would have warned him away, leaving Elizabeth in his sights. In this manner, Mrs. Bennet would rid herself of her most troublesome and incomprehensible daughter.
Well, it had certainly not turned out as she wished. Even if Elizabeth had not been certain of her father’s support, she would have preferred being put out of the house than to forever demean herself as the wife of William Collins. A woman caught in such an unfortunate position must have no self-respect, for an afternoon in the man’s company would strip her of any such pretensions.
Mr. Bingley was, of course, another problem. Or perhaps the man was not a problem himself, but his supercilious sisters and odious friend most certainly were. The previous evening had been a disaster for the Bennet family, though Elizabeth fancied she was the only one who saw it for what it was. Mr. Bingley was such a genial man, Elizabeth thought it likely that he would ignore her family in favor of the benefit of having Jane for a wife. But his family and friends would certainly not see it that way. What they might do to convince him Elizabeth could not say, but she feared they would do everything in their power.
After the Bennet family’s performance the previous evening, Elizabeth found she could understand their concerns. Mrs. Bennet, doing her best impression as the world’s most shameless fortune hunter bragging of how her daughter would capture Mr. Bingley and introduce her other daughters to other wealthy men; Kitty and Lydia, running amok, proving they were fit for nothing better than the nursery; Mary, placing herself at the pianoforte without being asked and continuing on long after she should have stopped. And even her father, pulling Mary away in the most embarrassing manner possible! They had all conspired to make Jane unacceptable in the eyes of Mr. Bingley and his family, and none of them could see it! Elizabeth could not account for such wilful blindness!
With her father, Elizabeth was the most disappointed. As an intelligent and educated man, he should understand the great disadvantage his family’s behavior was to their respectability and position in society. And yet he was content to laugh at them. Even to her, his favorite daughter, he had executed his duty in a manner calculated to provide himself with the greatest enjoyment. If he was disposed to disapprove of Mr. Collins pursuing her, he should have warned the man away rather than allowing him to make this farce of a proposal, provoking her mother the way he had, and then shutting the door on them all. How could she possibly hope to live in such a madhouse after days such as the previous four and twenty hours had been?
“It is all too much to be borne,” said Elizabeth to herself. “And the moment I return, I shall be subjected to my mother’s demands yet again.”
Charlotte had proven her savior that morning, for she had come when the din had been at its most deafening, and proposed to invite Mr. Collins to Lucas lodge to dine with the family there. Elizabeth new that she owed her friend a debt of the deepest gratitude, and she knew Charlotte knew her well enough to know exactly how she might be of service. That Charlotte must now be chafing under the puerile attentions of the toadying person all in the service of her friend was not lost on Elizabeth. She would need to remember to thank her friend most profusely when next they met.
As Elizabeth walked, the activity which had always calmed her worked its magic, and she began to feel her temper ease, her equilibrium restored. She paused a moment, looking about to orient herself, having walked with little thought for the path she was taking or how far it was taking her from Longbourn. She had wandered, she noted, further to the east then she had thought, her steps taking her toward along loop that led to the edge of her father’s lands, where she would find a fine hill that provided an excellent view of the house at Netherfield. As this was as good a direction as any, Elizabeth shrugged, squared her shoulders, and set off on the path.
So bare of their summer finery, Elizabeth still found the rustling of the trees in the slight breeze soothing to her troubled heart. Eager to put the frustrations of the morning and the previous evening behind her, she set a good pace allowing the exertion to push her troubled thoughts from her mind. About her she could hear the call of hardy birds that had not fled the oncoming winter and gloried in the effects of unfettered nature on her peace of mind.
At length, she reached the low hill that overlooked the estate to the east. While it was wooded almost the full length of the path to the top, once she reached the rounded summit the trees to the right open up, allowing her to look out over the fields that made up Netherfield’s wealth, all the way to the manor house. When she reached it, she paused to look at the house in the distance.
There was a certain measure of activity about it, and though the distance was above a mile, Elizabeth thought she could see a carriage drawn up on the drive with tiny figures scurrying about it, like ants exploring the terrain about their lair. What this bustle could portend, Elizabeth did not know. It was the usual custom of families to sleep late after a night of such activity as the previous night’s ball. Given how she had observed that Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley preferred to keep town hours, she might have thought they would keep to their rooms until much later in the day.
Or perhaps what she could see portended some other future, something detrimental to Jane’s future happiness. Given her family’s performance the previous evening, Elizabeth could not imagine that Mr. Darcy would not move quickly to save his friend from what he considered would be an imprudent connection. The thought did not endear the gentleman to Elizabeth anymore than he had made himself agreeable, but she could not fault him if that is what he felt.
Such gloomy thoughts were not palatable to Elizabeth at that moment, and she decided that she did not wish to consider the matter as if it were settled fact. There was no reason to borrow trouble, and as such Elizabeth put the commotion around Netherfield to the back of her mind. If Mr. Darcy persuaded Mr. Bingley away from Jane, the Bennets would have only themselves to blame. Perhaps Elizabeth would make that fact clear to her family if the time came. For now, there was no reason to consider it further.
With the decision made, Elizabeth turned her attention to the fields and woods of Netherfield, appreciating the beauty she saw before her, wishing again for the coming spring and the verdancy she would witness on that day still several months distance. when she had filled herself with whatever peace she could obtain, she turned away, her steps leading her down the other side of the hill to the north. The path she followed, she knew, would loop around the west and approach Longbourn From the northwest. It would bring her home sooner than she felt equal two returning, but though the day was warm for late November, Elizabeth was becoming a little chilled and knew she had no choice but to return.
She had not walked far, before she became aware of the sound of hoof beats drumming on the hard soil of the path. Elizabeth was not certain who might be riding along this little used path of her father’s estate. But she felt herself ill equipped to greet anyone with any civility. Unfortunately, there was little she could do other than to flee into the woods, and as such she stopped and set her feet, ready to deal with anyone who should appear. To her great surprise, Mr. Darcy, mounted on a large stallion came around a bend in the path. The man appeared as surprised as she when he caught sight of her.
Though unknowing, Darcy’s frustration was a match for Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s that morning, though the reasons for it were more nebulous than hers. Everything she feared he disapproved of in the Bennet family’s behavior the previous evening had not escaped his attention nor his condemnation. But those thoughts, which had been so prevalent in his mind the night before, had given way to other considerations. Or perhaps they were still connected, for they had, in part, formed the basis for the other frustrations of the morning.
“Darcy!” Bingley had greeted that morning when he had appeared for breakfast much earlier than Darcy might have expected. “I see a late night does not prevent you from rising early.”
“It is one of the reasons I find the season so draining,” Darcy had replied without thought. “While I can sleep a little later if the occasion demands, I am always wide awake by a certain hour, and have little hope of finding sleep again.”
Bingley laughed as he fixed himself a small plate from the sideboard. “You should be more like me, my friend. I can sleep like that dead whenever I am tired!”
“That is why I am surprised to see you this morning,” replied Darcy. “I might have thought I could ride out to the furthest reaches of the estate and return long before you would make an appearance.”
“I shall have plenty of opportunity for sleep later,” said Bingley, “as I am for London this morning.”
“You go to London?” asked Darcy, reflecting this was so like his friend. The words he had exchanged with Miss Elizabeth the day her mother had come to see her eldest at Netherfield had not been idle boasting.
“I do,” said Bingley, but with a frown. “Did I not inform you of it?”
“No, you did not,” said Darcy. “With this sudden announcement, I thought this determination the work of a moment.”
Bingley laughed yet again. “Yes, I imagine you consider me well capable of such a thing. As I remember, you said as much to Miss Elizabeth.”
“If you recall,” said Darcy, “you made that boast yourself.”
“So I did,” mused Bingley. “On this occasion, however, you are incorrect. My need to go to London is not a moment’s whim, but a matter of business of which I have known for several days. I shall not be long—perhaps four or five days at most before I shall return. If you are of a mind to stay, I should be happy to have you here for Christmas, though I understand if you wish to spend it with family.”
Darcy did wish to spend it with family, but of them his sister was the most important. Darcy might have suggested inviting her, even with Caroline Bingley in residence, if Wickham were not in Meryton spreading his evil among the townsfolk. The thought of the libertine made Darcy’s teeth clench painfully, and he pushed the thought of his personal nemesis away.
“Then I wish you a safe journey, my friend,” said Darcy. “I shall attempt to bear your sisters in the interim.”
Many men might have been insulted at such a jest, but Bingley was not one of them, for he laughed. Bingley was well aware of his sisters’ particular foibles and appreciated Darcy’s ability to endure Miss Bingley for the sake of their friendship.
“Then I shall leave you to it. I suppose I shall depart perhaps by midday, for I have a few letters I must write before I depart.”
“Then you shall be here until at least supper,” said Darcy. “At least if you intend them to be legible.”
Again, Bingley laughed, attending to his meal. Had the matter ended there, Darcy would have been well pleased. But he had not counted on the other denizens of the house rising early, nor what form their activities would take. Darcy had gone to the library, intending to immerse himself in a book, but he had not turned more than five pages before the ladies bustled into the room, clearly looking for him.
“Mr. Darcy!” Miss Bingley had exclaimed upon first seeing him. “How fortunate we are to have found you, sir. I would not have been surprised to learn if you had gone out riding to escape this estate.”
“Not at all, Miss Bingley,” said Darcy, closing the book with his finger keeping the page. “It is the end of November, and I suspect the days are becoming too cold for riding.”
“Well, I am grateful for it,” said Miss Bingley. “I assume you understand that my brother is to go to London today.”
“I have heard of it.”
Miss Bingley seemed to expect him to say something else, for her countenance fell a little when he did not. “Then I believe we should all go, for I have no more desire to stay in this neighborhood.”
Curious, Darcy watched her, allowing his expectant air to be enough of a question. It works, for the woman clicked her tongue and could not speak fast enough.
“Surely you saw the attention Charles paid to Miss Bennet last night.”
“I did. What of it?”
Darcy knew very well what she meant, and in truth he harbored some of those same misgivings. Provoking Miss Bingley to speak, however, would display her true motivations on the subject, something Darcy was keen to hear before he would ally himself with her.
“Why, Miss Bennet is so unsuitable, of course!” exclaimed Miss Bingley. “I cannot allow him to make so inappropriate a choice to become my sister. I would never be able to hold my head up in town with the Bennets as relations!”
With that, Miss Bingley revealed her true agenda. While she might consider Miss Bennet unacceptable as a wife for her brother, it was not due to any concern for his welfare; her ambition was to climb high in society, and Miss Bennet would not assist such an endeavor. The girl had no dowry or connections, it was true, but her brother’s wants and needs in a wife were beyond Miss Bingley’s interest.
If Darcy were honest with himself, he wished to be gone from Netherfield, though his reasons were not similar at all to Miss Bingley’s. Or maybe he did not. Sometimes Darcy did not even know for himself what he wished. When he looked into the eyes of a young woman, so far beneath him in society but so much his intellectual equal, he wished to do anything but leave her behind, her improper family notwithstanding.
The matter of Bingley was, unfortunately, a complicated one. Miss Bennet’s ill-bred mother had made it clear the previous evening that she meant to have Bingley as a son and would allow nothing to stand in her way. Miss Bennet was a beautiful, well behaved young woman, unassuming and gentle, and in some ways, she would be a good match for the more gregarious Bingley, the disadvantages aside. Darcy had observed her the previous evening and had observed that she felt little for his friend, though he was certain she would accept a proposal from his friend at her mother’s insistence.
But a niggling thought pricked Darcy’s surety, his understanding that she behaved with perfect propriety, showing the exact degree of interest one might consider proper. It was possible, he thought, that she hid her interest behind her reserve, much as Darcy would have himself. If he persuaded Bingley away and she was attached to him, it would hurt her, to say nothing of how Bingley’s honor was very nearly engaged.
While Darcy had been thinking, Miss Bingley continued to enumerate the various ways in which having the Bennets as relations would be insupportable. Darcy had heard them all before and did not need to hear them again, for he knew they had not changed in the interim. Then, however, she said something that struck him as wrong and underhanded.
“We need not take action now, Mr. Darcy,” said the woman, her tone syrupy sweet. “My brother will depart the house by noon. Tomorrow will be early enough to follow him to London, and it will save us an argument here, and the possibility of his stubbornness. It will be easier to convince him in London than when Miss Bennet is so nearby.”
“I thought Miss Bennet was your friend,” said Darcy, stalling for time to consider what he did not like about her suggestion.
“Friendship is one matter, Mr. Darcy,” said Mrs. Hurst, speaking for the first time. “But it does not extend to allowing our brother to make such a mistake as to offer for a wholly unsuitable woman.”
“You suppose she is unsuitable?” said Darcy.
“Of course, she is!” cried Miss Bingley, throwing her hands in the air and beginning to stalk the room. “She is a good sort of girl, and if she had the right dowry or connections, I might be content to allow her to marry my brother.”
The word “allow” did not improve Darcy’s mood, nor did the knowledge that Miss Bingley would be eager for such a sister because she thought Miss Bennet would be easily dominated.
“But she has none of these things,” said Miss Bingley. “She is all but penniless, her father is a ruffian who cling to the title of gentleman with the tips of his fingernails, and she has no one of more consequence as a connection than a ridiculous parson and an uncle in trade. Can you imagine I would wish for such connections as these?”
“Miss Bingley,” said Darcy, his tone causing her to start, “I understand your concerns. I also suggest you allow your brother the benefit of knowing what he wants in life. Whatever you say about Mr. Bennet, the man is a gentleman. His estate, though small, entitles him to that designation. Miss Bennet is the daughter of a gentleman, and as such, is an eligible match for your brother.
“I understand your concerns about wealth and connections,” interjected Darcy when they might have further protested. “But do not demean your neighbors by asserting they are less than they are.
“As for your determination to follow your brother to London, I am not certain I favor such a step. Please allow me to think on it. As you do not propose to follow until tomorrow, I should have ample opportunity. For now, I believe I shall take myself out for a short ride, for I believe I should benefit from a little exercise.”
With a bow, Darcy departed the room, forgetting he had declared it too cold to ride not five minutes earlier. It was fortunate, indeed, that he had been wrong, for the day was quite comfortable for late November. The ride was exhilarating, allowing him to forget his thoughts for a time, and when he reined in, finding himself on a secluded road, he thought he had actually departed Netherfield for one of the neighboring estates, likely Longbourn. That was not in itself an issue, as gentlemen were usually not averse to their neighbors riding the paths of the estate as long as they did not cause problems. But it did lead to a curious encounter.
Seeing Miss Elizabeth Bennet standing there in the path, her hair a little blowsy from the wind, her bonnet clasped forgotten in one hand, Darcy had rarely seen anything so beautiful. Her cheeks were reddened from the chill, but her eyes—those beautiful, expressive orbs that had always beguiled him so, were keen and bright, pools if intelligence and deep understanding. They were, he thought with an absence of mind, her true claim to beauty, though nothing else about her was lacking.
For a moment, Darcy considered nodding and riding off, for he was not certain he could resist her lure, was not certain he wished to resist. Then the discussion that morning and his thoughts of the woman’s sister entered his head, and Darcy knew here was the perfect opportunity to answer some of his questions. Should the woman’s sister be impervious to Bingley’s enthusiasm, he could discover it, then following Bingley to London. That would be a path undertaken in service to his friend, rather than a duplicitous stratagem aimed at misleading him.
As such, Darcy dismounted and led his mount closer to her, a greeting on his tongue.