Everyone had been so delighted with the news of Harriette’s engagement to Richard—everyone except Lady Catherine, his haughty aunt and Harriette’s harshest critic. The elderly aristocrat had been outraged by what she surmised as Harriette’s betrayal, and she clung to her pursuant umbrage with dogged vengeance. What was worse, she had promised to settle the score even if it was the last thing she did.
Lady Catherine had attempted to play upon Harriette’s unabashed infatuation with Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. She tried to persuade the young lady to entice him into her bedroom under the cover of night, so they might be discovered. Never mind that such a discovery would have meant certain ruin for Harriette. Lady Catherine meant to drive a wedge between Darcy and Elizabeth—ideally causing Elizabeth to abandon him. She bargained on the premise that Elizabeth would be too naïve to realise that an unfaithful husband went hand in hand with matrimony in their sphere. Surely there would be a divorce.
Too clever to entangle herself with Lady Catherine’s shenanigans, Harriette put into motion her own scheme. Oh, she intended a dalliance with the man of her dreams, but not on Lady Catherine’s terms. Harriette devised a plan that entailed penning a missive to Darcy and placing it directly in his hand. She had not planned on Darcy then handing the note off to Richard, who claimed that it must certainly have been intended for him. Surely a single young lady would not invite a married man into her bedroom, he had posited. Harriette covered her face with both hands and blew her breath hard—an apt tribute to the bane of her existence.
Becky ceased packing and walked to her ladyship’s side. “Is something troubling you, my lady?”
“Oh, I was simply recalling the night in Matlock when Lady Catherine barged into my apartment thinking she would find me with her nephew.”
“With Colonel Fitzwilliam?”
“No—her other nephew.” She had no reason to be more specific.
Covering her mouth, Becky gasped aloud. “You never told me you had invited him to your room. At the risk of impertinence, what on earth were you thinking?”
What was I thinking? Thank goodness Darcy was an honourable man, far too smitten with his wife to take her up on her proposal. Thank goodness Richard had taken it upon himself to claim the missive as his own and find himself in her bedroom.
The entire incident had happened so quickly only to be interrupted by Lady Catherine’s arrival outside the door. When she forced a servant to open the door, the dumbfounded look on her face and her befuddled cry — ‘where is my nephew?’ were etched in Harriette’s memory. From that moment on, Lady Catherine had declared Harriette her adversary, so convinced was she that the young woman had entertained her favourite nephew, Darcy, in her bedroom one night and accepted her other nephew’s proposal of marriage little over a week later.
“Goodness, Becky! You know as well as anyone how much I fancied myself in love with him.”
“And that is your excuse?”
Though far from perfect, Harriette was not in the habit of making excuses for herself. The only daughter of one of the wealthiest men in England, she was in the habit of having her way. Richard had regarded her ill-guarded infatuation as folly—so had Elizabeth. Neither of them held it against her, nor did Darcy, for that matter—or did he? Even though she was married to his best friend, friend to his wife, and godmother to his heir, he rarely spoke more than two words to her outside company. Reticent and aloof is how she regarded him. How Elizabeth bore the taciturn man, she could not imagine. Thank heavens Richard is amiable and agreeable, else I should go mad.
Returning her attention to Becky, who looked as if she expected a measure of contrition to spring forth, her ladyship said, “You need not be so shocked! The point is Lady Catherine knows I was with someone. She believes it was Mr. Darcy.”
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