Mr. Darcy was at his desk reviewing contracts, analyzing new investments, and researching new ways to grow crops to make Pemberley even more prosperous. Two months ago, he had returned from Hertfordshire, hoping that he could forget about his unfortunate time there.
The memories were undoubtedly bittersweet. On the one hand, he and Elizabeth shared all those special moments, and on the other, everything that separated them. It was January twenty-six, and it had been exactly two months since he had seen the woman he admired most.
Although he knew it would take a while to forget her, he was happy to leave her in his past. Also, he was proud of having helped his friend Bingley make the same decision regarding Jane Bennet.
In the two months he had been in London, he had decided to participate more in the city's social life. He always received invitations to balls, dinners, and social gatherings. Although he usually declined most of them, this time, he decided to socialize more, meet new people, and hopefully meet a woman who would help him forget the one he could not marry.
But so far, everything was in vain. Most of the women he had met were of similar character. They always agreed with everything he said, and it seemed they had no personal opinion that deviated from his own. But, of course, they were so different from Elizabeth. From the first moment he got a glimpse of her character, he was attracted to her. No matter how much he wanted to deny it, he finally admitted that she was beautiful but, above all, fascinating. She did not seek to agree with him but rather to exchange opinions, and she always did it with firmness in her convictions but with a friendly tone and with a smile that had made him lose sleep on more than one occasion. But Elizabeth was in the past, and there she would stay.
As he reflected on all that had happened in Hertfordshire, Mr. Hayes knocked on the door and asked permission to enter. "Mr. Darcy, Mrs. Hurst, and Miss Bingley want to talk to you. They say it is urgent."
Mr. Darcy felt troubled by the news. He did not like the idea of receiving his friend's sisters. He very much disliked that they assumed they had that level of closeness to arrive at his house whenever they wanted uninvited. But he knew he could not slight them, so he told Hayes to tell them that he would be with them in five minutes.
On her part, Caroline was fascinated with everything she saw around her. Although she had been in Darcy House more than once, she always discovered something new to admire. She dreamed of the day that all would be hers, and she could invite her friends so they could admire the elegance of her new house and how handsome her husband was. She was smiling, just thinking how everyone would envy her.
"Mrs. Hurst, Miss Bingley, my butler told me you wanted to speak with me. How can I be of assistance? Mr. Darcy asked as he bowed in greeting.
"Mr. Darcy, something terrible happened, and we need your advice urgently," Caroline said.
Mrs. Hurst continued. "Yesterday Jane Bennet and her sister paid us an unexpected visit."
Caroline continued, "Thank goodness Charles was not home, but I do not know if we will be so lucky if she calls on us again."
Mr. Darcy was greatly alarmed by the news that Jane Bennet was in London, but even more so that one of her sisters was with her. Who was that sister? But he did not dare ask. Caroline Bingley had always suspected his interest in Elizabeth after he had said that foolish comment about her fine eyes.*
For her part, Caroline was unwilling to tell Mr. Darcy that the impertinent Eliza Bennet was in London, so she said nothing more on that score.
"I think you should wait a few weeks before returning the call. Then, when you do, make it clear that a friendship is impossible between you due to the social differences between the families." Mr. Darcy concluded, unhappy with the whole situation.
"Should we tell Charles that Jane Bennet came to visit us? I think it would not be a good idea for him to know that she is here trying to resume their acquaintance," said Mrs. Hurst.
"You are right, Mrs. Hurst. It is best to leave Bingley out of all this." Mr. Darcy did not like lies or deceit, but in this case, it was necessary to protect his friend from a woman who only sought financial stability in him.
Immediately the conversation about Jane Bennet ended, Mr. Darcy excused himself, explaining that he had a lot of work to do, and Louisa and Caroline left Darcy House. However, when Mr. Darcy returned to his office, he could not help wondering who Jane Bennet's sister was. If she was Elizabeth now, she was in the same city as him.
"I told you, Jane, those two women have never been your friends. They do not want to have any relationship with us. I hope it was clear to you the day we visited them by seeing the cold and almost rude manner in how they treated us. If that is not enough proof, it has already been more than a week, and they have not called upon us yet, and I believe they have no intention to do so." Elizabeth said to a disheartened Jane.
"I know, Lizzy, I am neither so innocent nor silly. I think it was a mistake to visit them, and we should forget about the Bingley family and enjoy the company of our aunt and uncle." Jane said, visibly resigned.
"I am sure when Mr. Bingley discovers that you are in London, he will immediately visit you," Elizabeth explained to Jane.
"Lizzy, I would prefer if we discuss something else," pleaded Jane.
Elizabeth, seeing Jane so sad, decided to change the subject. A few minutes later, both sisters took their three young cousins to play in the park near the house and managed to forget about their problems, at least for a moment.
Jane was disappointed. She thought she was still in love with Mr. Bingley, but she finally accepted that he was not the gentleman for her. Jane knew she had nothing to offer to a wealthy gentleman that only married women of similar status.
For her part, Elizabeth was still very sad about everything that had happened in Longbourn after she rejected Mr. Collins. Her mother had made her life miserable with constant recriminations and complaints, which became more frequent and more intolerable when Mr. Collins married Charlotte.
Therefore, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner invited her to spend time with them in London. Elizabeth felt isolated and unwelcome in her own home. On more than one sleepless night, she dreamed of meeting an attractive, intelligent, and friendly man who could afford to marry a poor woman like her and from whom she might fall in love.
Albert Reed was twenty-seven, tall, blond, and quite handsome. But what stood out the most about him was his affable nature, sympathy, and generosity. Even though he was a wealthy man, he fervently believed that all people were equal and treated everyone with the same respect and dignity, regardless of their upbringing.
He was the son of a successful Manchester businessman. His grandfather started the cotton mill family business that had made his father immensely prosperous. His family was among the richest in the north, dominating an essential part of the country's wool production.
Albert was a proud businessman. He came from a family that, in three generations of hard work, had achieved everything they had.
Albert also greatly admired his father, Gilbert, and his mother, Martha. They had dedicated their lives to educating him and his two brothers.
Albert knew that men like him were not well regarded in the London social circles known as the Ton. He knew he was accepted because of his money, and he also knew that he was considered a social climber and a new rich. None of that mattered to him because he had never aspired to enter those social circles. In fact, he had a terrible opinion of the gentry because there was no merit in inheriting something, putting others to work, and living a life doing nothing more than hunting and attending social gatherings and balls. He was proud to belong to the class that would dominate England and much of the world in a very short time.
At that moment, he was in London because his family wanted to expand the family interests, and they wanted to explore the fabric import and export business. So he had made a detailed investigation of possible business partners, and it was how he came to the office of Mr. Gardiner, a brilliant, honest, and, above all, very cordial man. They had met on several occasions, and both were happy to partner and grow their businesses.
That night, Mr. Gardiner invited him to dinner so that he could introduce his family. When Albert learned that Mr. Gardiner lived in Cheapside, near his warehouse, he felt even more admiration for him. After carefully studying his new partner's finances, he knew his income would allow him to buy a house in an exclusive neighborhood. The fact that he had not done it revealed that he was cautious with money and was not interested in showing off, and was proud of his origins. Unfortunately, it was all too common to see families getting rich from trade and then despising those of their own class, such as the social climbers' sisters of his good friend Charles Bingley.
When he arrived at the Gardiners' house, the butler led him to the drawing room where the entire family was gathered, except for the small children, who were ready to sleep.
"Reed, good to see you. I am so glad that you could come. Let me introduce you to my wife, Mrs. Gardiner, and my two lovely nieces, Jane, and Elizabeth Bennet."
Albert greeted Mrs. Gardiner, who was as kind and distinguished as her husband, and the two nieces. Like many men, he was impressed with Jane's classic beauty, but it was Elizabeth who captured his attention.
"Delighted Mrs. Gardiner, Miss Bennet, and Miss Elizabeth," Albert chirped.
The evening was charming. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner reminded him a lot of his parents, and he could tell that they loved each other very much and worked together for the good of their family. They were also extremely knowledgeable and could discuss many topics, making any conversation enjoyable.
Miss Bennet was very polite too, and very kind, she knew how to listen, but she also could contribute to the conversation with her opinion. But Miss Elizabeth was like a fresh wind. A beautiful woman who showed no trace of vanity, cultured and well-educated, but above all, so funny and with a smile and eyes that could immediately make anyone fall in love.
He did not want the evening to end. He was staying in a hotel because his house was not ready to move in. Except for the years in Cambridge, he had always been surrounded by his family, so he felt lonely. But he was delighted when Mrs. Gardiner invited him to the museum with them to see a new exhibition of landscape paintings from all over England. He was happy to get to know the Gardiners better, but especially Miss Elizabeth Bennet.
Mr. Darcy was waiting outside the museum for Georgiana and her aunt Hellen to arrive. Evidently, he came early to the museum, or as was his custom, on time, and the rest of his party would be late. Fortunately, Georgiana sent him a note warning him that her aunt had invited a friend and her daughter. His aunt was constantly introducing young ladies to him, hoping he would find a woman to marry.
He was not very fond of the idea, but he knew that he was twenty-seven and should start thinking seriously about the idea of getting married.
While he was waiting, he decided to hide behind a column at the entrance to observe his group before they saw him.
Suddenly he saw someone he knew, waiting at the foot of the museum stairs. At first, it was difficult for him to recognize the person because he was too far away, but when he approached the entrance, he realized that he was Albert Reed, his old university classmate and Bingley's childhood friend.
Fitzwilliam Darcy and Albert Reed entered Cambridge the same year. They always treated each other with distant respect and were never friends. On the contrary, there was always a kind of competition and rivalry between them because both represented two sides that rarely mixed.
Both were outstanding students, often tying for first place in many disciplines, with one winning in one and the other taking revenge in another. The same happened in sports both in boxing and fencing. The competitions between them gathered large crowds and bets since no one knew who would win. When Reed won, the merchants' sons celebrated, and when Darcy won, the gentlemen's sons celebrated.
The first time they shared and talked for a few minutes was when they were in their third year after Mr. Bingley entered Cambridge and became friends with Darcy. Mr. Darcy always thought Albert was conceited for showing off his family's achievements and believing that origin or belonging to a family with ancestral history was worthless. On his part, Albert thought Mr. Darcy was nothing more than an elitist who attached too much importance to things that had no value beyond pride.
Finally, Georgiana and his aunt Hellen arrived, accompanied by a young lady and her mother. They were both quite agreeable, but Miss Daniels, despite being pretty, barely spoke a few words. He was rather shy with people he did not know, so the whole situation at the museum was quite dull. Fortunately, the works on display were excellent, so he did not consider the entire afternoon a waste of time.
When he saw Georgiana alone for a moment, he offered her his arm immediately and discreetly walked away from their group. Mr. Darcy feigned interest in a particular painting, telling Georgiana. "Promise me, dear sister, that you will not leave me alone for the rest of the afternoon."
Georgiana could not help but smile, but she understood perfectly how her brother felt because something very similar was happening to her. "I promise, brother, we shall protect each other. Can we go to the next gallery? There are paintings about northern landscapes that I want to see". Mr. Darcy smiled back at Georgiana and escorted her to the next gallery.
"I assure you, Miss Elizabeth, that although the artists who made these paintings are very talented, nothing can reflect the beauty of some of the landscapes of the north of our country." Albert was captivated by Elizabeth's enthusiasm for beautiful paintings.
"I do not doubt it, Mr. Reed, I love nature, and I hope one day I shall get the opportunity to see all these beautiful landscapes," said Elizabeth sincerely.
"Mr. Gardiner will eventually have to travel to Manchester. Maybe, Mrs. Gardiner, you, and your sister can join him. My mother would be happy to have female company. She is usually bored with so many men in the house," jested Albert.
"The opposite happens to my father. He is bored with so much female company. It would not be a bad idea for them to switch places for a while, do you not think?" They both laughed when comparing the situation of their families.
At that moment, while Mr. Darcy was analyzing the details of a painting, he thought he heard a familiar laugh, that beautiful laugh that always visited him in his dreams. Still, Georgiana revived him when she said, "Brother, I want to see that painting over there."
The moment he turned with his sister on his arm, he almost collided with another couple. They were Albert Reed with Elizabeth Bennet on his arm, walking while laughing like great friends.
"Reed, Miss Bennet," said Mr. Darcy with a cold voice and a face of contempt so familiar to Elizabeth.
Albert shook his head briefly and replied, "Darcy."
Elizabeth was surprised and added, "Mr. Darcy... Do you know each other?"