It’s October, and here on Austen Variations we’re celebrating the fabulous Halloween season by indulging in some fantasy. I’m delighted to have this opportunity to present a segment from my one and only Pride and Prejudice inspired fantasy novel. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, here’s a little excerpt to entice you to enter that strange and wondrous world as Darcy deals with a rather different Lady Catherine.
Rich, by the way, is Darcy’s younger half-brother, a sort of Wickham figure.
More than two centuries of tradition had instilled in Darcy an unbreakable rule: breakfast and dinner were family time, and that time was sacred. Though lately he had been more than tempted to break with tradition.
As he approached his place at the head of the table, Katrin put down her fork. Not a good sign. It meant only one thing. She was lying in wait for him, and they were about to have a Serious Conversation. He cast a regretful glance towards the door. Perhaps he could grab some food and make a dash for the door before she started?
“Darcy dearest—” purred Katrin.
“—we need to have a Serious Conversation. I hear you’ve acquired a new girlfriend? Want to tell your mamma all about it?”
Her violet gaze fixed on him, gleaming fanatically. Darcy turned to the automaton hovering to his left and requested eggs, sunny side up. It looked like Rich had been busy yesterday, playing his usual games by spreading gossip and pushing Katrin’s buttons. Weren’t the newscasts bad enough, with their speculation and innuendo? This was precisely why he never brought anyone he was dating home.
“You really should stop listening to Rich, Katrin. You should know better by now. He rarely tells the truth if he can help it,” said Darcy. “The young lady in question is a scientist and a potential employee. Her name is Miss Seraphene Grant. I was hoping to recruit her.”
But she turned me down.
“Is she from a good family at least?”
“She’s from the Crooked Lane.”
Katrin gasped. “Should you be bringing that kind of woman here? To Longbourn? Think of your sister. Your ancestors will be spinning in their graves.”
“I can’t help it if my ancestors have nothing better to do than to spin, can I now?” said Darcy.
“Of course you can help it,” said Katrin. “And what’s more, you can make sure your sister doesn’t come in contact with that type of person.”
“Now I wonder what type you mean, mamma. Did you have anything in particular in mind?” He put down his fork in disgust. Why had his father chosen such a ninny for a wife? “Really, Katrin. I employ scores of women in various positions. Not all of them were fortunate enough to be raised in our Upriver community. Some of them even hail from the Western States. The only thing they all have in common is that they are some of the best minds you can find and they are among the best at what they do. My sister would be privileged to come into contact with them.”
He picked up his fork again, determined to eat and get out, but the fried egg he’d requested watched from his plate like a yellow eye. He put down his knife and fork, suddenly squeamish about cutting it. He picked up some bread instead.
Katrin hadn’t finished with him yet.
“Darcy, you’re almost thirty. You really have to get married soon,” said Katrin. “Soon. Or at least generate some legally ratified offspring.” She began to use her hands, a sure sign that she was getting worked up. “You don’t know how many sleepless nights I spend living in dread of something happening to you. Richard would descend upon us like a jackal and where would we be then? You don’t think he’s going to let us live here, do you? I wouldn’t put it beyond him to sell Longbourn and pocket the money.”
Anyone listening to his stepmother would have thought she was in the eminent danger of being cast on the streets, and that Longbourn was the only property they owned.
“I suggest that you have the doctor prescribe you a sleeping drought. It will help you with your sleeping problems. And have some faith at least in my continued good health. Thirty is not very advanced in years. We don’t live in the Middle Ages.”
It was no use reminding her that he had taken every step possible to make sure – in the hopefully unlikely event of sudden death – his inheritance would go to his half-sister Gianna. Both of them knew that Richard would spend a fortune paying a corrupt lawyer to contest it, and it would be years before Gianna would have access to the estate, if she ever did. The legal battle could well last a lifetime, unless Gianna was willing to settle.
The bread stuck in his throat. Familiar guilt gnawed at his bones. He wasn’t doing his duty to the family name. He was letting the family down. He pushed guilt resolutely out of the way. He would not give in to it. It was his father’s constant theme, one way or the other. The Darcy Family mantra.
The only thing he and Katrin had in common was a desire to preserve the good name of the family. The honor of the family, to use a word that not many people used any more. He considered it important because he considered it a basic requirement of being a gentleman, a code of behavior. The Reformation had brought in many concepts from the past, but this notion of being honorable wasn’t one of them.
“You have to consider the family,” said Katrin.
Except that there wasn’t any family. Or at least, there was precious little left of it. His step-mother Katrin, his step-sister Gianna, his step-brother Richard with his mother Yelena who had gone back to live with her Russian noble family. His father’s other wives – four of them – had either chosen not to have offspring or been forced to sign some kind of pre-nuptial agreement giving up all claims on the Darcy properties.
That was all that was left of the Darcy family, not one of them worthy of the name, himself included.
“You’re so busy sometimes with your scientific investigations, your laboratories and your projects that I’m not sure you remember that the Darcys even exist,” said Katrin.
As if anyone let him forget it for one moment. How could someone forget one of the most influential politicians of the nineteenth century – a gentleman whose powerful speeches in parliament had changed the course of British history and had altered the lives of thousands of people?
The Darcy Family was a burden hanging over his head – one he was constantly expected to measure up to, somehow. As if anyone else in the Darcy family had been able to.
He’d learned to bow to the Darcy Family portraits along with his first words.
“You certainly hardly remember that women exist.”
That was because he tried to be discreet. Or did Katrin expect him to be like his father, each public appearance marked by a new young woman hanging onto his arm, posing for the newscasts?
“Even if I was dating her,” he said, finally braving the yellow yolk-eye, “which, for the record, I am definitely not doing – it wouldn’t mean I intend to impregnate her immediately and produce a darling Darcy baby.”
She hid it well enough, but he could tell by the flicker of her eyebrows – the most expressive part of her – that she was shocked by his crude summary of the situation.
Sometimes it was essential to call a spade a spade, even if it was a baby.
“You needn’t be so vulgar about it,” she said, mildly. “Is it too hard to understand that I want to see you happy, with a family of your own?” Her long eyelashes glittered with tears.
He was untouched by her tears. Katrin only ever cried when it was useful. Fortunately, she hadn’t passed that trait on to Gianna.
“It might help to recall that you’re not actually my mother. That you are not even the first of a trail of stepmothers. That I, in fact, experienced not only several stepmothers but also several of my father’s live-in girlfriends before you finally appeared on the scene, by which time I was twelve.”
“Now you’re unkind. You know I’ve always tried to treat you like a son.”
To be fair, she had, and the young Darcy had appreciated it. Which was the main reason she and Gianna now lived with him. Still, there were limits, and she had to accept that.
“I’m not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings. I’m just trying to prevent people from sticking their noses into my own private business.”
“It’s not your own private business, not when it affects the Family. I’m sure you’re not eager to see all this—” she gestured to her surroundings “—go to Richard’s son.”
The thought turned his stomach. He’d worked so hard to build this world. In the wake of the catastrophic disaster of slime rain, he’d worked excruciatingly hard to create a completely new model of business, something more human-based. He wanted to come up with something entirely different from what his father expected.
“I know you don’t have time to go on dates, but I can help. I have contacts. I can find you someone suitable. There’s nothing embarrassing about marrying the right woman with the right connections – in this day and age, it happens all the time.”
“When I marry,” said Darcy. “I’ll choose my wife myself. End of conversation.”
What he didn’t say – because it would be fodder for months to come – was that he would also pick carefully. This was one aspect of being a gentleman that he didn’t believe in – not the pedigree dog concept at any rate – but he did see that marriage was a good way to build alliances and connections. It was common sense. The fact that most of the influential families had fled the towns to live in the citiships made forging those connections more difficult but also more crucial.
He hadn’t built what the newscasts dubbed as his “Empire on the Charles” by being impulsive. Unlike his father, he wasn’t going to let his hormones run away with him when it came to marriage.
Katrin opened her mouth to say something, but fortunately, the door opened, and Gianna came in. He smiled at his step-sister, not least because she’d rescued him from a conversation he’d had too many times.
“You’re looking good today,” he said, and she was. She was the very image of demure femininity that was all the rage right now.
Her white starched blouse was perfectly pressed, her black bustle skirt reached down to cover her ankles, and her black hair was tied back into a faultless pattern of ringlets cascading from under a small black velvet Fanchon hat with white lace. To judge by the striped white and black parasol, the white gloves and the black lace reticule she set down on the side table, she was preparing for a shopping expedition.
“Have the driver bring round the Barouche, will you?” she said to the automaton.
Darcy frowned. A shopping expedition, on a Wednesday morning?
“Aren’t you supposed to be at school?” said Darcy, mildly, choosing at random one of the five clocks around him and giving it a significant glance. “As far as I recall, school began at nine o’clock.”
Surely she wasn’t on vacation again?
He opened his snuff-box to examine the calendar inside the cover. No vacation marked on it. He always marked the vacations.
She ignored his question, settled into a chair as far away from him as possible, and gestured for the automaton to put food on her plate. Sitting ram-rod straight, she took up her knife and fork.
“Is there some reason for that disapproving stare?” she said, digging into her food without even looking at him.
“I believe I made a valid point.”
“Enough, Darcy,” said Katrin. “You might like to recall that you’re not her father. You don’t have a daughter.”
The glint in her eye told him she was paying him back for his earlier remark and making her point at the same time.
“I’m her guardian, which amounts to the same thing. I ask you again, Georgiana, why aren’t you at school?”
She shrugged, a delicate feminine shrug. Darcy wasn’t deceived by it, not at all. Gianna had a will as sharp as a knife.
“She has permission to take time off school,” said Katrin. “She’s working on a project.”
“I suppose that’s why I received a communication from your Headmistress asking why you have so many absences?” said Darcy.
He’d received no such thing, but he wanted to put Gianna on the defensive so she would admit to something.
Katrin made a sound somewhere between a moan and a mew. Or perhaps the sound had come from the cat that had stretched languidly and jumped off the window sill to come and rub against his legs.
“I do have the note right here. About the project,” said Gianna, digging into the chatelaine bag attached to her waist and producing a crumpled paper. She tossed it across the table towards him.
“You should treat paper with a bit of respect. It’s a rare commodity,” he remarked.
“Why should I? If the school wastes half its money on paper just to impress the parents, it’s not my problem.” Gianna examined the tip of a gold-edged fingernail.
Family meals were becoming less of a pleasure and more and more something to be endured. Still, Darcy would endure them. It was their time together, and he would not give it up.
He took up his monocle and examined the waxed school seal at the bottom of the page. The projected golden lettering hovering above it looked intact. It wasn’t impossible to forge wax seals, but it took a lot of equipment and patience, something he doubted Gianna possessed.
“It looks genuine enough,” he said, handing it back.
Gianna shot him a triumphant look.
“But that doesn’t account for your other absences.”
“Not that I’m learning something at that idiotic school. I wish you would just have a tutor brought home for me. I’ve been telling you for ages.”
“You need to get out and socialize with people your age.”
“You mean with people that have fluff between their ears?”
“That is not a nice thing to say,” said Darcy.
“It’s not like they can hear me. Anyway, it’s the truth.”
She was becoming too arrogant for her own good. Had been for some time.
He was at a loss how to handle the situation. Dealing with a resentful, spoiled teenager was nothing like negotiating terms with adults, no matter how difficult the adults chose to be. With Gianna, he was apt to react too emotionally, too harshly, perhaps. But he couldn’t help wondering if Gianna might not be turning out to be like Richard.
He wiped up the last of the egg with the bread and, popping it into his mouth, he rose.
“Speaking of projects,” said Gianna, her lip curling like Richard’s, “are you still working on your Pemberley Project?”
It was her little joke. At some point, the Pemberley Project had become an object of derision to her. She constantly harped on how long it was taking him to complete it. Little did she know. Fortunately.
“Still working on it,” he drawled.
He wished, as he had wished a thousand times before, that Gianna did not regard him as the Enemy. He was still hoping she’d work it off when she got beyond the adolescent rebellion stage, but at sixteen her resentment was showing no sign of abating.
Worse, she was inclined to see a lot of Richard, much to Katrin’s dismay. Even if she was only doing it on purpose to annoy them, it still rankled.
“By the way, who’s the girlfriend?”
Was every single in the household going to ask him about Seraphene?
“The so-called girlfriend is a scientist from MIT, and I’m planning to hire her to work on the Pemberley Project.”
“Oh, the Project. Of course. It had to be something to do with the Great Project. Just when I thought you’d finally got a life,” said Gianna, scraping back her chair. “Oh, sorry. I forgot. You’re too busy to have a life. Or maybe you just can’t do it?”
Something snapped inside him and anger boiled up to the surface.
He’d put up with a lot from Katrin, because she’d been kind to him when he was a sullen twelve-year-old and because he wanted the family to be together. But when it came to a young teenager who had no other goal but to hurt his feelings…
He’d been wrong to indulge Gianna. Gianna had been getting worse and worse, and someone had to put a stop to it. If he didn’t do something now, it would soon be too late. He shuddered to think what she’d be like when she got her hands on her inheritance.
“That remark was entirely uncalled for,” said Darcy, gritting his teeth.
“Someone has to tell you the truth,” said Gianna, undeterred. “Everyone’s too afraid to step on your toes to say anything.”
Darcy tried one last time to confine his anger. But the pressure had escaped the valve and could no longer be confined.
“I seem to have made a serious error in judgment. I should never have kept you at Longbourn. I gave in to your mother’s wishes not to send you away for schooling, and consequently, you’ve turned out to be an utterly self-centered, egotistical brat.”
“You’ve only kept me at home so you can control every move I make.”
He smothered the hurt that rose up in him and held onto the anger. Not successfully enough, to judge by the intense satisfaction that passed across Gianna’s face. She wanted to hurt him.
“I suppose you expect me to grovel at your feet like everyone else does. Well, I won’t. I’ll say it straight. I don’t want to be living in this museum. I don’t give a fig for the Darcy legacy. I don’t care about living in a fairytale past. I’ve been hearing a few truths about you from Richard. He says grandfather used to think you were a loser. He used to call you a lost cause.”
Next to her, Katrin gave a sharp intake of breath. “Enough, Gianna, dearest,” she cajoled. “We can talk about this later when everyone calms down.”
But Gianna hadn’t finished. It seemed that now that she had started talking, she couldn’t stop. “You never listen to what I want, or what I need. I don’t see the point of having me live at home. I’d much rather be at a boarding school than have to see the same clueless faces every day over breakfast.”
“If that is your wish,” said Darcy, in clipped tones, “Then I’ll be happy to oblige you. I’ll have one of my staff look into an appropriate boarding school immediately. You can start packing.”
He meant every word he said. He’d had enough of the snide remarks and the constant jeering. He’d made too many excuses for Gianna. She was still young. She was a teenager. She was going through her rebellious stage. But there was a difference between rebellion and a deliberate desire to hurt others.
He should have put an end to it long ago.
Gianna shrugged. “You always threaten to send me off.”
Katrin’s purple gaze, however, fixed on his face. She’d turned pale. She knew he was serious this time.
Gianna needed to go away, to be away from the influence of her mother and to deal with life at a boarding school where she wouldn’t be indulged and where she’d be forced to interact with her peers.
“Don’t do this,” said Katrin.
“I’m sorry Katrin, but it’s for the best. Trust me on this.”
A spark came into her eyes. “I’ll take you to court.”
“Do as you please. I have legal custody of Gianna, remember? My father wanted to make sure she grew up a Darcy, in case you remarried. You appealed, and you lost. I have the best lawyers in Boston.”
Gianna was looking from one to the other in surprise.
“Why are you making a fuss, mamma? You know he won’t go through with it. He loves me too much.” She gave him a sudden grin that was meant to charm him. “Nice talking to you, but I’ve got to go. The Barouche’s waiting.”
She rose, twirled her parasol and strolled over to the window. A footserver brought down the steps from the Barouche and linked them to the metal latch outside the window.
With a quick friendly wave, she lifted her long skirt and ascended gracefully into the air carriage.