September - 1810, Hertfordshire

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that single man of good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters. And so it was for Mrs. Collins of Hertfordshire, who's sharp management of her household knew what an advantage such a thing could be for a family of six living on a very strict income.

Her husband, Mr. Collins, had inherited Longbourne Estate through an entailment, the death of the previous owner without male issue resulting in his current rise into landed gentry. He had not grown up as well-off , a miserly and barely literate connection to his genteel cousin, so it was a very strong stroke of good luck for him that Bennet had only managed to father daughters. Being a poor relation with little education meant that the opulence of Longbourne, such as it was, was closely guarded under his avaricious control. He knew full well what it was to do without, and guarded his inheritance fiercely. Any effort to scrimp, save, or generally economize was taken full advantage of. When the estate had fallen under his control half the staff had been cut, and the allowance of those under his care had been reduced to figures so small they hardly signified.

Like many marriages, it was the duty of Mrs. Collins to ensure that her husband's exacting standards were met in all ways. She was very much the chatelaine, always on a mission to ensure such tight-fisted stringency with her family, her staff, and her tenants as well. Therefore when the news reached her of a gentleman of means entering the neighborhood, she set forth on a very determined course of action. Netherfield Park had been let at last, to a Mr. Bingley of Yorkshire, unmarried, and worth 4,000 a year at least and it was to the unmarried lady in her house that he would belong to.

Longbourne, though a small estate with only a middling income, had been the principal seat of the county for many generations. It had at it's start, been more prosperous, but a few unforgiving winters and weak harvests, combined with poor choices by previous owners in management had lead to it's present state. Mrs. Collins knew that such an estate simply could not afford to keep up maintaining the large family it was beholden to, especially on the allowance provided by her husband.

Longbourne currently supported three dependents, and Mr. Collins grew more resentful with each day that they passed under his care. They were not his daughters after all, and their father should have done more for them in his lifetime to see them well situated after his death. Bennet had left his children next to nothing -no dowry worth speaking of, and no skills that could give them useful employment. It was only by the pleading of his wife, and the carefully chosen sermons of Christian charity by the local vicar that he induced him to allow them to stay on. Mrs. Collins was at heart an optimist, but even she realized that her husband's patience would wear thin. The Bennet girls were being to come of marrying age - and it was time to remove them to another man's household. It is not an easy thing, to find husbands for dower-less gentlewoman in as confined and unvarying a society as Hertfordshire, so Mrs. Collins chose to view Bingley's arrival as a much needed boon, his fortune her ultimate and unyielding object.

According to Mrs. Collins' plans, the companion of Bingley's future life was to be Mary, the eldest of the girls still under her protection. Although not truly beautiful, Mary

was a pretty thing in full bloom of her youth at nineteen. Being a Bennet, she had little to recommend in the way of fortune, but she was by far the most accomplished young woman in the county. She could play, sing, speak French and German, cover screens, embroider cushions, design a menu, budget a household, and to all this was added the great improvement of her mind, through extensive reading. She might have become a blue-stocking prone to moralizing if she had been left to her own devices, for Mary found her greatest comforts in scripture and education; but Mrs. Collins had been adamant in teaching her that godliness was not the only virtue a young lady of insignificant means needed in order to procure a husband or secure a position. Lead by Mrs. Collins example, her manners were cultivated to be everything charming, and although naturally shy, she was known to be well mannered rather than a wallflower.

The need for Mary to marry was great indeed. Although she was a gentleman's daughter, Mr. Collins did not intend to allow his charges to reside on charity forever. She had been taught many skills that would make for a decent enough governess, and should she not be married upon reaching her majority, he fully meant to set her on that coarse. The tight-fisted Collins did not allow for any kind of loafing about - even his son from his previous marriage, the heir to Longbourne, had been made to find a living until his turn came to inherit.

Master Collins had been ordained the previous spring, and had sought and found a very reasonable living to support him until the care of the estate would fall to his hands. Mrs. Collins took this recent development as a boon as well - one less mouth to feed at Longbourne, a decent living and good connections coming to the family. The news had brought some good humor to her husband, who could not be called an amiable man. Seeing Mary wed would only add to their good fortune, and especially to Mrs. Collins own peace of mind. Though she had learned to guard it well, she had a very tender heart, and she could not abide the thought of any young girl being cast out to make her own way in the world, to starve in the hedgerows, least of all her own dear sister.

Securing Mr. Bingley was a necessity to the well being of the family, in Mrs. Collins' eyes. With such an important mission before her, she set off, squaring her shoulders, and entered her husband's study, banishing away the sadness that such a room brought with it, with memories of the previous master of Longbourne. There was no purpose in losing oneself in melancholy when there were such tasks to accomplish. Mr. Collins spoke not a word to his wife as she entered, only looked up from the ledger book with the austere countenance of a humorless man who did not wish to be bothered, and waited for her to speak.

"Pray, Mr. Collins, I beg you would forgive my interruption. However reports of a most alarming nature have recently reached me - have you heard, Netherfield Park is let at last?"

He said nothing, but the furrowing of his brow told her to continue with haste. She must come to her point before he lost what little patience he possessed. It was never a pleasant thing to incite his ire, and it was easily brought about. "It has been taken by a Mr. Bingley, of Yorkshire, an unmarried man, who brings his sister to keep house for him. As the principal seat in Hertfordshire, it is your duty as the head of this house to call on him, and welcome him to the neighborhood. And you must secure him an invitation to the assembly in a fortnight."

"How dare you presume to remind the master of the estate what his duties to his neighbors are, Mrs. Collins? You forget yourself." He gruffly replied, his brow creasing with the beginnings of anger.

Sensing his displeasure, his lady immediately sought to sooth him. Having been married nearly seven years, Mrs. Collins knew immediately when to change her tactics. Her husband was rarely in good enough humor to give consequence to the thoughts of a woman, especially her, but when she demurred and flattered he was more ready to listen. Casting her startling blue eyes towards his feet, she willed her flush of angry frustration to transform into a becoming blush, then glancing up at him through thick dark lashes she softened her voice. "I pray you excuse me, husband. You are surely the best of masters and the best of men. I merely seek your urgency in this matter, if you could be so good as to humor me. You must know I am thinking of dear Mary's interests, as well as your own, in securing him for the assembly as soon as may be."

"Mary." Collins spat the name like a curse. "It always come back to her, does it not? You take such an eager interest in her concerns."

"Oh Mr. Collins," his wife allowed herself to transform his name into a purr, "surely you must know that in looking after her interests, ultimately I am looking after your own. I know that in becoming the master of this estate and my husband you have been placed with many more burdens than should have been yours. Allow me to ease your suffering. With Mary safely married one of your burdens would belong to another man, another family, forever."

"Who will wish to marry such a plain, spindly little thing as her?" He asked, though his wife could see the softening of his resolution. "She is headed toward a life of service, I am sure of it."

"This could very well be true," she acquiesced, "but before we resign ourselves to such a fate, we must remember what would be most beneficial for Longbourne. Mary's alliance to any man would be of help to us here, but a man of five, or six thousand a year? Now that would be something. It would lead the way for the other girls to make fortunate alliances, once they are out in society. A sister in service would do no such thing, only lower our connections."

"Six thousand a year did you say, Mrs. Collins?" The number was enough to turn the miserly man's head though nothing else would. "Perhaps it would be best to make this Bingley's acquaintance with haste. After all, it would not due for those Lucas's to forget their place once more. Longbourne is the head of the society here, and I am the head of Longbourne." Here Mrs. Collins saw her husband began to build himself up with pride, and she encouraged this conceit to the best of her abilities.

"All you need to do is call upon him, my dear husband." Mrs. Collins replied, taking his weathered hands in her own soft pink ones and throwing him her most dazzling smile, "Call upon him, secure him for the assembly, and you may leave the rest of it to me."

"Perhaps it would be best if I chaperone Mary, in your stead. It would not due for Mr. Bingley to make your acquaintance so soon. You are five times as lovely as any of the insipid creatures in this county, Mrs. Collins. Mr. Bingley may decide that he likes you best of all." He gazed up at her, half transfixed in lust by the beauty of such a smile, the other half filling with only the jealously an old man can feel when beholding his young, nubile, and stunningly handsome wife.

"Oh husband!" She cried with a laugh, kissing his hand, "How you do run on! Certainly come if you are so inclined, it is my greatest pleasure to have your company at such events, however, I know how you dislike the activity so. It is only my wish to spare you such a tedious evening." And pulling herself away, she curtsied with a practiced manner of flirtation, excusing herself from the room before her husband began to fill his head with jealous and lustful notions.

Her object for the morning had been satisfied, and Jane Collins, once Bennet, had much planning to do.

—-

In a small, comfortable room some many miles away in Town, a young woman fingered the delicate petals of rose blossoms that had been gifted to her with a wistful smile. There were many such arrangements crowding the space, filling the whole room with a heady, intoxicating scent. Admirers and patrons, men and women alike, were always sure to curry her favor, just as she was to curry theirs with wit and conversation at any opportunity. Some merely dropped a pretty line, a compliment for an ego already self-satisfied with her own talent, others elaborate displays to parade their own wealth and ostentation…a pack of peacocks fanning their feathers in competition. Yet the simple arrangement of six red roses, wrapped in a black ribbon overshadowed anything else.

The note that accompanied read simply:

Little dove - Though I am sure that today congratulations are in order for your masterful success, I do not forget to give you my sympathies as well.

-Forelli

If the recipient of such a note had to blink away a few tears at the reading of it, there were none to witness. In the whirlwind of activity that had lead to this night, the months of hard work and anticipation as she finally, finally took to the boards in the role she had long coveted…it had been easy to overlook this year what so many past had been impossible to ignore…the anniversary of her dear father's death. But he, darling man!, had remembered, despite everything else. He was always thinking of her, taking care of her even when she did not realize it was needed or necessary. What a balm he was to her troubled spirits whenever she was low, what a source of comfort and voice of reason! She thanked God nightly for placing the gentle Italian in her life when she had needed him most.

Their meeting had been unconventional to say the least. She was little more than a child when she had first come to Town, to stay some months with her Aunt and Uncle after Father had passed. Her family was in trade, a profitable line that meant the pair often rubbed elbows with an eclectic mix of London society, lords and ladies, the working class, and the strange set that somehow fell in-between…artists. Benito Forelli was a rather famous portrait artist that had been brought from Italy to England when mad King George had been in rather a better state of mind, and finding the strange city to his liking, he had decided to stay indefinitely. It helped as well, that the English aristocracy paid rather well for portrait work of supreme quality. It was happenstance chance that brought him to her Uncle's warehouse on the same day and at the same time that she and her Aunt had stopped in while making social calls. He had been seeking a bolt of fabric with the proper degree of sheen to reflect the light exactly as he wished it for his most recent commission, and had been recommended to her Uncle by a mutual acquaintance.

It was her laugh that had initially caught his attention and caused him to turn his head, but when he met her eyes, he was lost. Immediately upon seeing her, he had stomped over and grabbed her hand bowing over it furiously.

"Come please, little girl, come and sit. I must sketch you. Your eyes are unlike any I have ever seen." His accent had been very thick then.

Rather affronted at such a poor display of manners, her Aunt had stepped in swiftly. The two had argued, Uncle had soon been located and brought into the discussion, and soon it was decided amongst the adults that she would sit for him for two hours to sketch, while her Aunt completed her morning calls. She had not been overly keen at the notion of leaving her young niece in the care of a foreign gentleman she was entirely unfamiliar with, but only agreed when pressed with the weight of what a compliment from such a distinguished gentleman could mean for the business - and when a suitable chaperone could be acquired. One of the older ladies who worked in embroideries was brought in to chaperone the sitting, and off she had went, albeit it a trifle reluctantly.

At the beginning of their make-shift session in Uncle's office, Forelli had been at first delighted, and then grew increasingly frustrated as the time passed. He had muttered under his breath as he worked, crumbling pages from his sketch book and dropping them to the floor in his agitation.

Without looking up from the page, he finally snapped. "Why do you stare so?" Her quizzical looks had burned through him.

"Why do you mutter so?" She shot back, innocent and wholly confident.

Forelli had sighed heavily, "I had thought it would be a simple study, to capture such fine eyes. But I can not make them out. Child - what are you? Are you angry, or sad, or are you laughing at me? Each time I look up from the page your look has changed entirely."

"I had not realized," she had "that human nature was so simplified by an artist's hand. Have you never laughed when you are afraid, or smiled through your tears? I will not explain my heart to you, sir, a stranger."

She had hardly been able to believe her impertinence as the words came tumbling out of her mouth. Father had always encouraged her quickness of mind, but she had better manners than to speak such a way to an adult, a stranger, her Uncle's client, and a respected member of society. If her mother had been able to witness such a display!

Forelli, however, did not appear affronted. He had merely looked up once again from his sketch pad…and this time he smiled in understanding. "You speak your opinions very decidedly for so young a person." She opened her mouth to apologize, but he held up a hand. "Please Miss, I find it refreshing." And suddenly his head had been bent down, back to work again. No more drawings were discarded until the end of their time together.

They had not met again for another year entire after this encounter, but it was one that neither the artist nor the girl could forget. Such boldness in one so young, such fire and passion in a delicate English rose, hardly blossomed, consumed and inspired him. What a juxtaposition to see a girl hardly more than a child, speak with such eloquence, to have such an expression of innocence and knowing too much of the world all at once! She had, unwittingly, become his muse, and his creative mind was sparked with a flame that would soon grow into a fire. She on the other hand, had simply marked it as one of the most singular afternoons in her young life, and turned it into an anecdote she shared with relish. They had no notion then, of ever meeting again…but fate had intervened in a matter as unusual as their initial meeting. Now, some six years later, the pair were as close as any parent and child could be, for all that they had adopted one another.

She sighed, pulling the simple arrangement up to her face and inhaling deeply. At this point, he simply knew her too well. Roses were always a reminder of home, of the quiet country life she had left behind to seek her independence. Mama had kept quite a garden through the spring and summer, that made it's impact by the virtues of both use and beauty. There were many beautiful bouquets decorating her small sanctuary, and while she appreciated the exotic novelty of hot house flowers, at the end of the day, there was nothing quite like a simple English garden. For all that she relished in the life she had made for herself here, the recesses of her heart still longed for the rolling hills of the place she had called home in another, faraway, life.

However, she was not of a constitution made for melancholy. The wit of her most beloved father had been his parting gift to her, a daily reminder of the life she had left behind, but her greatest source of strength. She tried to remember the past only as it's remembrance brought her pleasure, and to discard the darker days to make room for new, happier memories. Tonight was such a night -and father, if he could have been with her now, would have such sport to make of the throng of adoring fans who awaited her!

A knock sounded on the door, and her manager, dear Mr. Thompson, called out her. "Adelaide, my dear, are you ready? It is time to wow the masses once more."

"Yes, yes, I am coming presently. Just one moment, if you would." She called back, splashing some cool water in her face and pinching her cheeks.

"Make haste, I beg you!" His was rapidly loosing patience with every passing moment, "Lord and Lady Matlock have waited a quarter hour already to attend you, and you know they are one of the greatest patrons of the arts in this city! You would do best to curb your wild impertinence for an evening! This is one favor we must curry above all!"

His speech would have continued then, gaining in alacrity if not for her appearance at the door way. Thompson was immediately stopped in his tracks, though he had known her many years now, her edifice still managed to strike him dumb. She was not a beautiful girl in any of the classic sense of the word but she cut an undeniably striking figure. In a modest, pale green evening gown of good quality, with silver plated, pearl encrusted combs containing her dark, wild, curls, she looked every bit the part of a lady. It was exactly the costume of the young lady who Mr. Thompson hoped to introduce, elegant, poised, and undeniably genteel. Yet for all her finery and perfect comportment, there was a sense of danger that hung about her, mysterious and intoxicating to all those who were so fortunate as to make her acquaintance.

Her features were cut in the strongest of cloth, and immediately made her stand out in a room of soft, delicate creatures. Her figure, was light, pleasing, and decidedly feminine in it's form but it was as always, undoubtedly, her eyes that captivated. Evenly placed on either side of rather long, thin nose, and framed by a bevy of thick, dark lashes her eyes at first appeared as a rather ordinary set of brown - but as you examined more closely, they began to come alive. What an explosion of colors awaited you, should you seek them out, from the deepest green, to grey, honey gold and back to a rich earth brown once more…what intelligence, what passion, what pain could be discerned within them! She was visceral, raw, and the most complex young woman Thompson had ever met. He had known the moment Forelli had introduced him that here was woman who could capture London with the force of her charm alone. His instincts had been right. Adelaide Bernard was a sensation.

A sensation that one of the greatest patrons of the arts in the country was now eager to meet.

Adelaide was not one who found herself to be overly impressed by aristocracy. The education of her youth by her father's knee had taught her to make sport of her fellow man, and allow others to laugh at her in their turn. Every person had their idiosyncrasies and foibles, no matter their elevation of rank. Yet on this evening, she found herself leaning on Thompson's arm ever-so slightly more than her usual wont. These were his relations. It had been almost two years since their last fateful meeting, but Adelaide had never forgotten Fitzwilliam's passionate regard, or his insulting proposal.

Now she would be introduced to people worth impressing, an acquaintance that could materially help her career. Yet she would supplicant herself to no one - she had been a beggar once in her life and would never do so again. She wondered what they had heard of her -surely the gossip rags had plenty to say, but had he? She took a fortifying breath and allowed herself to be lead by her manager.

The pair passed through the general thong of theatre goers who still milled about after the show, awaiting their carriages and hoping to see and be seen. Courtesies and nods were given to the general populace, as well as charming smiles, but it was made very clear that Miss Bernard had an important guest awaiting her and unfortunately no time to spare for her admirers. Finally they arrived at the private -sitting room, where the theatre owner, Sir Gregory, entertained his guests of important.

"Ah, Miss Bernard, Mr. Thompson how good of you to join us!" Sir Gregory began, the smile on his weather worn face positively glowing as he stood. "Allow me to make the introductions."

He indicated to the elegantly appointed couple in room, clearly the earl of Matlock and the countess. "Lord Fitzwilliam, Lady Eleanor, it is my very great pleasure to present The Royal Covenant Garden's blooming young star, Miss Adelaide Bernard, and the brilliant man who discovered her, Mr. Harold Thompson." Addressing Adelaide and Thompson, he continued, saying, "Mr. Thompson, Miss Bernard, it is my privilege and honor to present Lord Fitzwilliam, Earl of Matlock, and his elegant wife, Lady Eleanor Fitzwilliam, two of the greatest patrons of the arts in our great country."

Adelaide felt the assessing eyes of Lord and Lady cast upon her and immediately felt her nerves dissipating. Her courage always rose with every attempt to intimidate her. She smiled charmingly, and began her courtship of two of the most influential people in the kingdom.

Let Fitzwilliam Darcy say what he wanted about her - he had been right in one respect at least that fateful day, she was the consummate thespian. She would win them, as she had so many before them.