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AN: This has been published at Amazon in the Kindle Unlimited program for the past year, so I wasn't able to publish more than a sample anywhere else. But that time over! Enjoy, it is of course complete and about 100k words. I will try to update every other day or so, but no promises for perfect consistency.
Charles Fitzwilliam, fifth Earl of Matlock, was in the midst of a passage d'amour with his mistress when the express rider arrived.
It was a beautiful spring afternoon, bedecked with green and warmed by a pleasant breeze. Matlock paid no attention to the pounding hooves of the messenger's horse since Jenny's pretty squeals deserved his full attention.
After a last grunt, the earl finished and sprawled on the lush red sheets. He looked at her through a haze of masculine self-satisfaction. Jenny grinned at him, and she was panting with her face still very red.
By Jove, he still had it.
Lord Matlock had only passed forty, and none of the disgusting and debilitating matters of health which had started to attack his contemporaries had yet touched him. It was his solemn duty to those poor souls to enjoy his vigor as fully as possible while it lasted.
Jenny leaned across him to reach the nightstand, supporting herself with one pretty hand on his stomach. Her movement gave him an eyeful of her full breasts. She was a damned good looking girl. It would only take him another ten minutes to be ready for a second turn about the bed.
She pulled a cigar from the green porcelain case on the bed stand. Then, lying across him, she cut and lit the fine cigar. Jenny handed it to him, and Matlock took the first pull of tobacco as the knock on the bedroom door sounded.
"Damnation." Matlock filled his mouth with the mellow, flavorful smoke again as his valet cracked his knuckles against the oak door once more. "Jones, what is damned important enough to bother me?"
His man quietly opened the door, and a cold premonition snaked up and down Matlock's spine destroying his genial mood.
Jenny pulled the satin sheets up around to hide herself, but Jones was too intent upon his task to pay attention to the naked girl. The black color surrounding the envelope proclaimed its significance.
Matlock felt the punch in his gut. Who this time?
Embossed into the wax sealing the letter was the Darcy seal.
No! Not the babe. Not Georgiana. Anne died bringing Georgiana into the world — the little girl had always been so robust since her birth.
Or…was it young Fitzwilliam?
Matlock ripped the paper of the envelope apart. The stiff letter was written in an unfamiliar hand. He stared blankly at it. Only a scattering of phrases popped out:
George Darcy… Shot himself… You were named the guardian.
Anne's death had broken him, but Matlock had never thought George might do this.
How could he do this to Fitzwilliam and Georgiana? Why hadn't his love for his children kept him from murdering himself?
Anne was present in Georgiana's face and chubby giggle. She was there in Fitzwilliam's coloring and the dimples he showed when he smiled. Most of his face showed the Darcy traits, but those dimples were just like Anne's happy smile.
Damn. Damn. Damn.
Matlock stamped his cigar hard into the ashtray and swung his legs off the bed. Mr. Jones handed him his dressing robe and helped him fit his arms through it. Jenny had pulled herself up and sat with blankets pulled around her throat. She stared at him with sympathy.
Matlock paced the room as he read the letter more closely. Darcy had made a new will and left a suicide note with his lawyer before walking out into the woods to shoot himself. To avoid a scandal, the staff claimed it had been a hunting accident. Jones made a cautious half grunt, and Matlock saw the anxiousness on his valet's face. The man had been with him since his university days and was nearly as fond of the children as Matlock himself.
"It was Mr. Darcy."
Jones breathed out a soft, "Oh." His expression was half sad and half relieved.
Jenny spoke from the plush, oversized bed, "It is awful — so soon after your sister, Lady Anne. Why would the Lord—"
"He shot himself."
Matlock's voice came out harsh and clipped. He looked between them and breathed heavily. He should not contradict the story about a hunting accident.
Damn him. Fitzwilliam loved his father. And having Darcy had been a little like still having Anne. They had been such close friends for so long. Matlock paced to window and looked out at the drowsy day which went on heedless of the fact that George Darcy had killed himself.
Suddenly Matlock punched a hole clear through the plaster. "Damn him! Damn him! God damn him!"
Matlock swallowed and collected himself.
Jones and Jenny stared at him. Jenny was wide eyed, while Jones's expression shared his grief.
He peered at the letter again. The lawyer had sent no news to Fitzwilliam, thinking Matlock should decide how his nephew would be told.
He needed to tell Fitzwilliam that the father he adored had killed himself.
Matlock pulled in a deep breath; he let it out.
Just a few months before, when Darcy had been drunk, his brother-in-law confessed that he believed Anne's death was God's punishment for him not being a virgin at his wedding.
A disgusting idea — more irreligious than Matlock's own suspicion that all religion was superstitious nonsense — to think that the Almighty would punish Anne for his behavior.
Matlock didn't understand. Affection, caring deeply for another, wanting their happiness — he approved of that. The people we cared for were what made life worthwhile. Darcy had abandoned his friends, his children, himself because another fragile human had died, and he refused to go on without them.
Fitzwilliam must never be allowed to think that way. The boy was only thirteen, he could be influenced yet. With proper guidance, he would grow up to be a sensible gentleman who thought of sexual congress and women in reasonable terms.
Matlock would try to make sure the boy never fell in love. He would ensure Fitzwilliam kept a mistress as soon as he was old enough to want one, and he would make sure the boy knew that marrying for love was dangerous nonsense.
Anne would be so angry with George. Maybe the priests were right, and she lived on in some way. Maybe right now she was screaming at Darcy for his selfishness and stupidity. It was pleasant to pretend they still existed.
He'd been pacing for some minutes. Jenny had at last overcome her embarrassment and scooted into a dressing gown while Jones theatrically turned around so he could not see her.
"Jones, have them prepare the carriage. We shall set off immediately for Eton."
His man bowed and went off.
Matlock turned to Jenny, who stroked her hand along his cheek and gave him a calming kiss. He pulled his mistress close to him and embraced her tightly. He needed to feel a warm, living body against his.
Darcy was dead.
They would never again enjoy a morning hunt. They would never again drink together late at night while laughing and slapping each other's backs as the room spun. They would never subtly tease Cathy when visiting her and Sir Lewis again. They would never…be able to comfort each other in times of sadness.
His own children would miss their uncle greatly.
Jenny made cooing sounds, and he cried without embarrassment.
A phrase from Hamlet crossed his mind: "A' was a man. Take him all in all. I'll not see his like again."
How could he have stopped Darcy? He should have known.
Jenny handed him a perfumed handkerchief, and he rubbed at his eyes. Nothing could be done now. He would always watch his friends closer when they suffered such a loss.
Life was short and beautiful, and his affection for others, even for Darcy, demanded he live as happily as he could. He must care for those still left.
"The story put about is that he died in a hunting accident. I fear I shall be much engaged in managing affairs. It will be some weeks before I see you again."
She nodded, and Matlock kissed her quickly. He saw through the window that his carriage had been pulled around to the front and was near fully loaded.
What was he going to say to Fitzwilliam?
The afternoon sunlight slanted over Lord Matlock.
He pounded his palm on the stone table they sat around and exclaimed, "Damn all that. Darcy, you need a new woman."
The earl leaned back in his wicker lounge chair and contentedly puffed his cigar. Matlock was a few years past fifty and still healthy and vigorous. He was still as lean as he'd been in Darcy's earliest memories of his uncle. Best of all, while Matlock's hair had gone grey, it was still thick and vibrant.
Darcy really hoped it was an omen for his own future. He admitted he was a little vain of his appearance, and going bald would not suit him at all. Though he would still be very tall. Happily, he was seven and twenty. Several of his friends had receding hairlines already, so if that horrid curse were to strike him, it likely would have started already.
"Three months. Three months since you and Miss Wickham parted ways. Too long — too damned long to go without taking a woman."
Darcy grimaced. He'd known when he arrived at Matlock for a week of hunting before going south to Hertfordshire to visit Bingley that his uncle would bring the subject up. Repeatedly. At least he'd gotten through a few days of the stay without being bothered.
Matlock just wanted to help. Even if it was deuced annoying to be treated like some green schoolboy who couldn't find a new mistress without having his hand held. By Jove, he could manage his own affairs. Darcy groaned in disgust and grabbed a bunch of grapes from the table and popped several into his mouth.
Darcy's cousins, Viscount Derwent and Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam lounged around the grey stone table, puffing their own cigars. Darcy did not have one. One habit he had kept from his straightlaced father was that he did not smoke since it made him cough.
They had just returned from a delightful afternoon of shooting deer in Matlock's park. It was always excellent game. The four men sat in buckskin breeches and hunting coats, and the was table piled with nectarines and oranges and apricots and other fruits from the orangerie. Each had a large mug filled with beer from a keg that had been just pulled out of Matlock's cellars.
Darcy knew what his uncle would say next. And blast it all, not this time.
"I'll find you a new girl. I know a dozen women looking for a protector. You would like one of them very much."
"Not this time."
Matlock blinked, and he tried, without success, to adopt a hurt expression. "Whatever are you talking about, my dear boy."
"You know exactly what I'm talking about. I was barely sixteen when you had the sister of your mistress at the time instruct me in the delicate mysteries."
Both Richard and Derwent grinned at Darcy openly.
Darcy glared at them, "It is what he said. That was a very memorable week, and I remember quite clearly."
Richard shrugged. "I know it is what he said. He told me the same thing when it was my turn. But I'd already tumbled one of the girls on the side of town. You were the one who needed such instruction."
"Then," Darcy continued, "when I was quite bored of her, you immediately hounded me to find another girl, and pushed that opera singer on me. She had a pretty voice, but not a brain in her."
"You didn't mind then."
"Yes, I did. Why do you think I ended it so quickly? I minded then a great deal."
Richard exclaimed, "I recall her. That was the year you told me you hated that none of the girls you met spoke Latin."
Darcy blushed but shot back, "Several of Catullus poems are quite directly about amorous congress. I wanted to whisper them at proper moments. But no chance to use my memorized knowledge. It's a deuced nuisance that they make us learn all that nonsense, but they don't teach the girls to understand it."
Matlock puffed at his cigar. The soft breeze brought the familiar scent of the smoke to Darcy's nostrils. "Don't be so ungrateful about the opera singer. Besides you've nothing to complain about. I found you another girl right after her who you liked far more. That actress, what was her name?"
"Exactly. You do know what I am talking about. And then when Lord Matterson seduced your actress from me, not that I minded by then in slightest, you arranged for Miss Wickham to become my mistress."
"Not my choice that time. You picked her. You looked at her with those cow eyes every time she was in the room."
"I have never looked like a cow in my life."
"You did too." Matlock sliced an apricot in half with his knife, and popped one part into his mouth. "Don't try to deny it. If you'd looked at her like a bull, you'd have seduced the chit on your own. She wasn't hesitant in the slightest."
"She was almost gently born, the sister of my father's godson. I never dreamed of seducing her."
"You should have. Just because she hadn't run off to be an opera dancer, didn't mean she didn't want you to seduce her. Gentle born girls have the same desires as every other woman. You know that. I didn't even need to talk her round to thinking the arrangement a good idea. She had hoped you would approach her."
Darcy sighed and rubbed at his forehead. "I admit it. I was not much of a strutting stallion then. But not a cow. I was nothing like a cow. Dull creatures, useful only for milk. I should have approached her myself, I know. My compunctions then were full of nonsense. But not this time."
Richard snorted. "You find your own girl? We tried. By Jove, you've no damned sense with women — you'll make an awful muddle of it."
"I can too find my own girl."
Matlock stopped Richard's reply. "Don't make this a matter of strutting pride or some damned bet." Matlock set his mug down and leaned his elbow on the table. "Why'd you end it with Miss Wickham? It's a damn pity her brother tried to seduce Georgie, but our girl saw through him — no lasting harm was done — you said Miss Wickham knew nothing of the matter."
"She did not." Darcy's mind went to the awful day when Georgiana returned to Matlock from Ramsgate, sobbing because she had briefly believed she was in love. "I was terribly wrong to shout at her so about it. She never liked her brother, not even as a girl, and I knew that. But…I was bored of her conversation, and she was happy to accept an independency."
"Bored of her conversation!" Matlock pounded the bottom of his mug on the table. "By Jove, at your age a man shouldn't keep a mistress for talking."
Richard said, "Ha! Darcy wanted a mistress for talking when he was much younger. Remember, that's why he got rid of the opera dancer. She only could sing."
Darcy replied, "I want clever conversation in a woman who I plan to spend so much time around." Darcy spat a mouthful of grape seeds onto the ground. He gestured at Matlock. "You and Madame Perrin talk more than anything else. And about serious topics. I do not like that you made Georgiana's governess your mistress. I like even less that you told Georgiana all about it, but you've been settled that way for many years."
Their affair had started two years after Madame Perrin became Georgiana's governess, and she had already been nearly forty. Matlock had devoted himself to their education, so naturally he spent a great deal of time in conversation with Madame Perrin, and the two found they liked each other very much.
Matlock replied, "That damned business with your father's godson proves I educated Georgie for the best. We were fool enough to trust Mrs. Younge to supervise a summer outing, but even unprotected with an experienced seducer, Georgie figured out that up was up. Delicacy. Bah. A term for keeping women stupid so they won't make a bother of themselves. They live in the real world. Best they know what it is like."
Derwent's first daughter had been born a year ago, and he said, "I will manage Susan's education when she becomes older. Like Mother kept your ideas away from Emma. Our sister has turned out quite well without any school trips to talk to filles de joie."
Darcy grimaced at the memory. Matlock and Madame Perrin had thought it was a good idea for Georgiana to know about such things. He remembered Georgiana's enthusiasm about her conversations with the prostitutes. It wasn't…delicate.
"Georgie is the most sensible young woman I know," Matlock replied. "I'm entirely pleased by her, even though her opinions are a bit radical."
Darcy shrugged. His sister was Matlock's responsibility, and in truth he was glad for it. Darcy had a high opinion of his own capabilities, but he would have made some dreadful mistake with Georgiana. And though she was completely lacking in delicacy, and they would have a dreadful time marrying her off, she was happy and likely to stay so.
"I have settled down, a little." Matlock stroked his chin. "You are too damned young to want to do so yourself."
Darcy shook his head. It had nothing to do with age. He disliked finding a new mistress every few years when he grew bored with her bland personality. He wanted the sort of companionship with a clever and sensible woman that his uncle had. Going to bed with a woman could not be impersonal for him.
Darcy replied, "Really? It bothers you so much that I wish to behave sensibly and without the rashness of youth? Singular. I thought old men always complained about young fellows mindlessly repeating their errors."
Matlock laughed. "I'm young enough to box your ears in. Don't doubt that."
Darcy shrugged, tossed the stem from the grapes aside, and grabbed an apricot. It had a good juicy flavor.
Matlock pounded the table with his mug again. "Three months — abstinence damages the organs, it causes mental imbalances, it harms the digestion. You need a woman and deuced soon. It is a matter of protecting your health."
"Father," Derwent exclaimed, "how would you know that abstinence is unhealthful? You never tried it long enough to find out."
Lord Matlock raised his glass high in acknowledgment and drained it. "At least it makes you stupid about women. If you don't have a good dance" — Matlock wiggled his eyebrows — "with a girl soon, you'll fall in love with the serving girl at a tavern."
"I do not intend to fall in love at all," Darcy replied sharply. He had long since become reconciled with how his father died, but he would not let himself make the same mistake. Darcy wrinkled his nose. "Certainly not with some tavern wench."
"No! Don't say that." Matlock blanched. "Now you inevitably will fall in love, and likely with a tavern girl. You read enough to know that soon as a gentleman proclaims he shall never fall in love, he inevitably does in the next hundred pages."
"I did not mean that I shall never feel passion or desire, but when I do I shall keep my emotions in proper bounds."
"Oh! So that is all you meant. You'll just keep what you feel in proper bounds. A simple task. Forgive my skepticism." Matlock rolled his eyes.
Derwent said, "Darcy can be stubborn when he sets his mind to it. He only lets pure disinterested reason control him."
Darcy kicked his cousin's leg. Derwent grinned and took a long pull from his cigar.
"All the determination in the world won't do any good," Matlock said, "if he is so tight packed that he is fit to explode."
Richard tore an orange peel apart. "While you search for this diamond who wants to talk about Latin while rutting, you do not need to remain celibate. There are madames who take a great deal of care to keep their girls clean. You've been a coward about brothels since that friend died of syphilis, but if you are careful—"
Darcy replied, "That is not why I avoid brothels. I like to have a reason to think a girl likes me before I take her to bed."
Richard grinned widely and opened his mouth. Darcy waved his finger in front of his cousin to stop him from speaking. "Some reason beyond masculine vanity."
"If you have enough vanity, it counts for everything."
Richard's offer tempted Darcy. Three months without a woman was the longest he'd gone since he was fifteen. It was too damned long. He suddenly wanted to have a woman desperately. An image of a line of young girls in transparent dresses waiting for him to choose floated in Darcy's eye.
Something was missing in his life and a courtesan wouldn't fill that gap.
"You should marry." Darcy looked at his uncle in surprise. "You've put it off too long — marry someone, and soon. It will give you an outlet for your needs, and I'd like more children to spoil."
"First you demand I find new mistress, and now you say I must find a wife? My dear uncle, I have been of age these six years."
"Darcy, you've always been like a son to me." Matlock furrowed his eyebrows. "You will never be so old that I don't try to help you."
This wasn't the first time his uncle had hinted so. He wasn't so very young anymore. Perhaps it was time to father an heir. "I agree — next season I shall look."
Matlock eagerly rubbed his hands together. "It is not my advice that makes you amenable at last."
"Georgie and Mr. Wickham made me think…it is time."
"I shall hold you to it." Matlock clapped his hands together. "Susan will be delighted to figure out who are the best prospects. But with all your money — you merely need ask and most families will be happy to give a daughter to you. We shall find a very pretty and sensible girl for you. Don't doubt that."
Darcy grunted ill-naturedly. "I'm not going to make a God awful fool of myself over my wife like my father did, and I don't want a woman who will think I should."
"Susan will help you. But you'll need to make some pretense of being devoted to keep her happy. Most women aren't like Susan. Most are chuckleheaded fools."
What Matlock meant was that Lady Susan didn't care about her husband's affairs so long as she had a huge allowance. She was also a good mother and an asset in politics, and she took a careful care to ensure that none of her affairs gave him another man's child to care for.
The group fell silent and munched at the fruit. It was a golden day, warm, and birds chattered in the background. The beer had a strong, slightly spicy taste. Darcy rolled it around his tongue.
Matlock puffed out a cloud of smoke. "You will visit your friend Bingley next week?"
"He has been in possession of the estate he leased for a very short time, and he is eager to show off."
"Deuced good fellow, Bingley. Have him call on me when we are all in London for the season — the estate he leased is in Hertfordshire? How far from London?"
"About twenty-five miles. You can get there in under three hours with a good team, he swears. I understand the roads are excellent. A profitable turnpike runs past the nearest market town."
"If you like the manor, I'll visit Bingley for a week or so when it gets hot in the summer. It'll be an extra feather in his cap to host an earl. How long will you stay?"
"Until early December, then I'll spend a week or two in Pemberley before Christmas here."
"If you don't find a new girl by the New Year, I shall make you talk to a dozen or so actresses and the like looking for protectors. It would be six months then, which is far, far too long for a healthy man. Find some pretty light skirt in Hertfordshire."
Did Matlock plan for him to marry or to find a new mistress?
He wasn't supposed to see it as one or the other. He did not think ill of his uncle for keeping a mistress. But as long as he'd known her, Lady Susan had known and not cared, and in turn Matlock was happy to let his wife do as she pleased. As far as Darcy knew, Derwent's wife, Lady Emily, knew nothing of Derwent's mistress.
The thought of behaving in that way made Darcy feel dirty. He did not wish to ever lie to a woman. He abhorred deception. His uncle would worry he was thinking like his father if he said that he would probably follow his vows.
Darcy said, "I am to socialize with the local gentry — unless you think I should take up with a serving girl…"
"Let a randy widow seduce you," Derwent suggested.
"Do that." Matlock nodded. "Or seduce a pretty girl with no money and no prospects, like your old Miss Wickham. You can be charming if you try. Half the girls in such a situation would prefer to be the mistress of a handsome rich man they liked instead of a governess."
God he wanted a woman. He needed to find a girl to kiss and hold and press against.
Georgiana pranced into the clearing in a light summer dress and laughingly pecked each of her relations on the cheek before asking, "You are all so lazy — when are you coming back to the house?"
Matlock grunted and stood. "We might as well now. It's almost dark."
"What were you speaking about?"
Darcy blushed and half hid his face with a hand as they walked under a thick grove of oak trees. His uncle was going to say exactly what they were talking about.
"Your brother needs a new mistress. It is round about time he stopped longing after Miss Wickham."
"Oh! He does need a new mistress. He's been surly these past weeks. Fitzwilliam, why ever did you let Isabella go? She is as angry at Mr. Wickham as I am. Did you know she is getting married?"
"Already!" Darcy felt an odd twinge of unhappiness that she'd waited such a short time. "How do you know?"
Georgiana gave him a completely superior look. "She is my friend. You know I do not have so very many. Just because you forgot her, does not mean I have."
Darcy loved Georgiana dearly, but sometimes he thought he should have sought to gain her guardianship from Lord Matlock when he came of age. It simply wasn't…delicate for her to be on speaking terms with his former mistress.
When it came time to find her a good husband, Georgiana would offend anyone religious or overly concerned by appearances, and because Georgie froze and became terribly anxious and shy with new acquaintances, she'd find it hard to meet many people.
Matlock approved. "That shows a becoming loyalty. Give her my greetings next time you speak."