“I hope I have not come at an inconvenient time, Mrs. Bennet,” Bingley said politely.
“Oh, no! You are welcome here at any time. Our dear Jane will be so pleased to see you.”
Mrs. Bennet took Mr. Bingley’s arm and towed him down the hallway toward the sitting room all the while chattering to him about the wedding plans. When the door opened and he stepped inside, Jane looked up and gave him that sweet smile of hers causing his heart to do a little dance. Now that they were engaged, he experienced a particular thrill in knowing her special look was for him alone.
“Mr. Bingley,” Jane said, setting aside her sewing, “you have returned early. I hope your business was successfully concluded.”
“Doesn’t our Jane look lovely today?” asked Mrs. Bennet urging him toward the chair next to Jane’s.
All morning he had tried to think of a way to be alone with his angel but had not been able to come up with a better excuse than a walk.
“I will go fetch my pelisse and bonnet,” she said without hesitation. As she crossed the room, he thought, not for the first time, just how much her grace and beauty never failed to please him.
While waiting for Jane to return, Mrs. Bennet proceeded to carry on about all about her plans for improvements to Netherfield. Trying to put an interested look on his face, he half-listened as she chattered on. Finally, to his relief, Jane reappeared, and they were able to make their escape.
Once they had turned down a nearby lane and were out of sight of the house, Bingley stopped and turned to look into his fiancé’s upturned face. Holding both of her hands in his, he said, “Oh, my angel! While I was in London, I could think of nothing but you. I concluded my business as quickly as possible so I could return. I hope you thought of me, too.”
Jane smiled sweetly. “Of course I did, Mr. Bingley.”
“I thought we had agreed you would use my first name, especially when we are on our own?”
At that, Jane blushed and glanced down at the ground. Putting a crooked finger gently beneath her chin, he lifted her face up. Even one look into her clear, blue eyes was enough to tempt any man. After all, they were engaged now. Perhaps…
“When we are apart, you are never far from my mind, Charles,” she admitted shyly.
The sound of his Christian name on her lips was too much. Unable to resist temptation, Bingley pulled her into his arms. Much to his delight, Jane responded by relaxing against him and laying her head gently on his shoulder. Her faintly lavender scent was intoxicating. Bingley could still scarcely believe his luck that after all those months apart she still loved him. He was forgiven for not returning to Netherfield last fall, and in just a short time, she would be his. He wanted nothing more than to kiss her, but discretion won out, and he decided they were too near the public road for any privacy. Still, once she was in his arms, it was difficult to let her go, and he was pleased to discover that she made no attempt to pull away. After enjoying the intimacy of their embrace for a few moments more, he reluctantly pushed back, took her hand, and tucked it safely in the crook of his arm.
“You cannot know how much I wish we could steal a few moments alone. Really alone,” he confessed in a low voice.
“And you, sir, might be surprised to know that is exactly what I most wish for, also,” she said very softly.
Bingley was so surprised by her comment that he was temporarily unsure if he had heard her correctly. Turning, he discovered she was watching him, and they shared an awkward, nervous laugh. Feeling his self-control slipping away at this revelation, he decided to change the subject to something less volatile.
“Your mother was telling me about her plans for improvements to Netherfield,” he said lightly.
“I was just wondering how much of what she told me is her idea and how much is yours,” he asked with some hesitation.
“There has been so much to do! I have not had time to turn my mind to that yet, although I have heard it said that it is best to live in a house for a while before making serious redecorating decisions. Do you also think that is true?”
Bingley breathed a sigh of relief.
As if reading his mind, she said, “Charles, although I have always tried to please my mother, you must know by now that she does not speak for me.”
“I know, but I am pleased to hear you reaffirm it.” He patted her hand as it rested on his arm. Although the temperature was cool, the sun was warm as they slowly strolled down the lane. He knew he was stalling but how to begin? The subject he really wished to discuss with her was delicate, and he had no experience of how to start such a conversation, but start it he must.
“You know I was able to renew the lease on Netherfield for another year without committing to a purchase.”
“Yes, you have mentioned that.”
“I have until next summer to decide whether or not we will settle here more…ah… permanently. Since the owner’s ultimate goal is the sale of the estate, he has written certain terms into the lease agreement. As a result, I have just one more year in which to decide whether to buy Netherfield or look for a different property.”
“Making a such a significant purchase is an important decision,” Jane said quietly.
“Darcy thinks the property would be a good choice although some major improvements would be necessary if we stay. Netherfield is large enough to bring in a good income but not so large that I will not be able to learn to manage it with the help of my new steward. And of course, with Darcy’s counsel, too.”
“Yes, Mr. Darcy has been very helpful to you,” Jane said.
“I have always thought you would want to live here in Hertfordshire to be near your parents. That started me wondering if I should begin negotiations with the seller now rather than wait for summer.”
Jane looked up at him calmly. “As your wife, I will, of course, let you make an important decision such as that. I am certain you know what is best,” she demurred.
Blast! Why couldn’t this be easier, he thought.
“Yes, but I would like to hear what you think so that I may take that into consideration,” he asked boldly.
“Oh, I see,” she murmured. They walked on for a few minutes in silence.
“Of course, there are certainly advantages to being near family. When we have children, for example,” she said.
Bingley could see that Jane’s cheeks had reddened slightly at the mere mention of their children and found that his own face felt a bit warm, too.
“On the other hand, I shall miss Lizzy terribly,” she added. “In fact, possibly more than I will miss my mother and father.”
Bingley tried his best to puzzle out what she was not saying. Finally, he decided to be more direct.
“Do you mean you would prefer to live near your sister rather than your parents?”
“Lizzy and I have always been very close,” she said. “Also, I confess I am not certain how I feel about the thought of my mother being able to drop in at any time she chooses.” At this, her sweet smile turned into a slightly impish grin.
Although he had been thinking that very thing, to hear it from Jane was a great relief. It meant she was not as tied to her mother as he had feared. Although he was prepared to make the adjustments necessary to live in such close proximity to the Bennets, he had not exactly been relishing the idea. He only knew that he would do whatever made Jane happy.
“Apparently, your sister has had similar thoughts. Darcy recently offered to keep his eyes open for any possible leases in Derbyshire, but I was uncertain if I should tell him to go ahead.”
“I would very much like to visit Derbyshire,” Jane said brightly.
Bingley had a difficult time containing his excitement. “Then when we visit Pemberley, we will also make a tour of the area to see if it is to our liking,” he said.
Jane squeezed his arm. “That would please me greatly.”
They walked on for some time talking about small things. He told her funny stories about his childhood, and in turn, she shared some of her misadventures, although he noted that Elizabeth had generally been the one to instigate these escapades. Late afternoon arrived too quickly and the sun’s warmth began to fade signaling time for their return. Reluctantly, they turned back. Not too far from Longbourn, they passed by a small wooded area very near the lane.
“This is a perfect spot for gathering pine cones,” she said indicating the nearby stand of trees. “Will you assist me?”
When he gave her a questioning look, she grinned and taking his hand, gently pulled him away from the lane.
“Those woods look rather dense, Jane. We might lost sight of the road or become turned around.”
“Oh, Charles, my dear, that was exactly what I was hoping for!” And blushing all over, she firmly lead him toward the trees.
Suddenly, Bingley thought that gathering pine cones seemed like the best idea in the world.