Meryton Matchmakers Book1: Lottie Pursues Bill

A Modern Pride and Prejudice Variation

By Kristi Rose

Chapters 1-5

CHAPTER ONE

 

LOTTIE STEPPED FROM the house and eased the door closed with a quiet click. The dewy air was cool but would soon enough be too warm for her to enjoy the walk to her café. The sun, still tucked behind the ending night, brought with it the hint of a summer heavy with oppressive heat. Last year they’d had two brownouts. What would this summer bring?

With stun gun in hand, she slung her bag over her shoulder and began her peaceful stroll to work. The stun gun was because Bill forced her to carry it just in case. She didn’t like to think about what just in case meant. Besides, what could happen in the small farming town of Meryton? Would she get spooked by a cow? Possibly. Instead of considering the scarier possibilities, she liked to think about the day’s menu and new cupcake creation. Her taste of late had run towards spicy and feisty.

Oh, that rhymed. She should use that as the theme of the day.

“Morning, Lotts,” Bill said stepping out from the pasture and onto the walkway beside her.

“Jesus Christ,” she yelled and fumbled with the stun gun. It flew from her fingertips and landed somewhere in the grass. “You scared me to death, Bill. What do you think you’re doing walking up on someone in the dark?”

“I announced myself. You know that stun gun has a flashlight. You should use it. I almost couldn’t find you.”

“That’s the point. I’m not trying to give my location away. Just enjoy the walk to work. Sorry about the—er—using His name in vain.” It’s not like he hadn’t met her on the early walks before. It’s that she usually saw him before she heard him. Today, he had caught her completely unaware.

Bill flicked on a flashlight, the one she’d given him for Christmas that he carried on his keychain, and started searching the grass. “Some people think it’s bad—and nothing more—to say the Lord’s name in vain. I like to think that in a time when you were scared—or at the very least startled—you weren’t saying His name in vain but calling upon Him for help. That means a lot coming from an agnostic such as yourself. There’s hope for you yet.”

Lottie saw the little power-zapper in the grass and snatched it up. She flicked the switch and made it spark. “I prefer pagan,” she teased.

Bill held up his hands. “Pagan then.” He chuckled. “Temptress, even. With those wickedly sinful cupcakes. But you will not tempt me. No, ma’am.”

“Says the man who has a juvie record.” She clicked off the charge, turned on the flashlight and shone it in his face.

“Hey.” He blocked his eyes. “Those records are sealed, and you were sworn to secrecy. You pinky-promised.”

Lottie shook her head and walked backward. After all, she did have to get to work. She might be responsible for opening the café, now that her father was reducing his hours, but even then he had an uncanny ability to know if she was late or not. Lecturing her about the necessity of timeliness and responsibility seemed to give him great pleasure. “Who would have thought you would grow up to join the ministry, and I would—”

“You didn’t have my father.” He sighed heavily.

She knew it wasn’t from the weight of his childhood, which had been heavy indeed, that led him to the Church. But from the outcome. He could have had an entirely different life. One not so easy, enjoyable, and acceptable as the one he has now had someone not offered him support.

“If it hadn’t been for the de Bourghs and the Church, I wouldn’t be walking my pretty friend to work. I’d be walking the yards. Doing time. Deep within me, Lotts, there’s a dark criminal. An evil—”

She punched his shoulder. “Oh, please. However do you get your fix? Are there mass graves of abducted dogs behind seminary school, or are you a cat burglar we haven’t heard of yet?”

He snorted.

“Deep within you, Billy, was a scared kid who’d lost his mother and was stuck with a father whose querulous nature was exacerbated by his grief following his wife's death. You’re no more evil than I am.”

They nudged each other with their shoulders a couple of times and continued a few steps in silence.

“Hey, I forgot to ask. How’s the sermon writing from Pastor Rasch going?”

“If I keep up the good work, I might get the church when he moves on up,” Bill jerked his thumb toward heaven.

“That’s the plan? You going into the church?”

“That’s the push,” he corrected.

She inspected the path behind his shoes. “Are those drag marks?” Because he never talked about having his own church; she just assumed that was what he’d do. “Isn’t that what every pastor wants?”

“I never saw myself standing at a pulpit screaming hellfire and damnation.”

Neither did she honestly. She held the flashlight under her chin, the light casting upwards in the same manner camp kids did to spook others. “Hellfire and damnation, William Collins. A man of the cloth doesn’t want his own church?” She drew out the last word, hoping to make it creepy. “The world is coming to an end.”

“Precisely.” He pulled the light from her hand. “You’re freaking me out.”

“What do you mean precisely?”

“I mean, I went to seminary school so that I could be a help to people, kinda like a tour guide way from bad to good. And when the zombie apocalypse comes and I’m running for my life, trying to keep you safe, and blasting them away, I like knowing there’s something stronger than me out there. I like knowing I have someone on my team at all times.”

Lottie drew out the awww until she was out of air. “You’d try and save me during the apocalypse?”

Bill stopped and faced her. “Yeah. Of course, I’ll need someone who knows how to cook.”

She whacked him on the arm as hard as she could. “Give me that stun gun. I’m going to zap some sense into you.”

Bill chuckled but held the device out of reach. “Can I make a confession?”

She nodded but knew he didn’t need the affirmation from her. They told each other everything.

“Have you seen the congregation? They’re so old!

“Bill!” She shoved him harder. “You could turn it around. Bring in the younger people.”

He shrugged. “Sounds like a lot of work. I like teaching at the seminary school. And as for the sermons? Let’s just say Pastor Rasch doesn’t appreciate my humor. I also really like the counseling work I do at Meryton. Interesting, too.”

She stopped and faced him. The streetlights that lined the sidewalk cast just the right glow that she could see the large smile on his face. “What do you mean he doesn’t like your sermons? What did you do?” She couldn’t wait to hear this story. By nature Bill was a needler. He liked to poke the soft spots of others in a gentle way. He claimed that until one knew where their weaknesses lie they would never be fully strong.

“A few weeks back he gave a sermon so boring I was reminded of Eutychus, he was the one who fell asleep listening to Paul preach and fell out a window. I kept leaning against the big plate window up front. You know, the one by the cross? Nothing. If ever there was a time to be abandoned by the Lord.” He shook his head. “Later Rasch asked me what I thought. I told him it might behoove him to try something new. Raise his voice, maybe. Do a rap or something.”

Lottie laughed. “And of course he didn’t make any changes in his sermon.” She would have heard about it immediately from her father, a strict and pious man in his own right. “Besides, where would Rasch get a rap? I can't imagine he'd write it.”

“I wrote one about Jesus dying on the cross.”

“You did not.” She couldn’t hold back her laughter.

“I certainly did. Dr. Dre, Puff Daddy. They’ve done it. What a better way to spread the word than through a song that sticks. Know what I mean?”

Of course she did. This was not a new idea from him.

“You’re a nut,” she told him.

“Takes one to know one.” He flung an arm around her shoulder. “Want some help making the donuts?”

“I don’t make donuts, and you know it.” Her stomach flopped. She loved how his hand rested lazily on her shoulder. “You know I always like the help. But what are you avoiding? What’s going on here?”

If he tried to deny it, she would stick her elbow into his ribs. That always worked.

Bill wiped his free hand down his face. “My fair lady is coming to town. She’s bringing her nephew, Darcy.”

“But you love when Lady Catherine de Bourgh comes.”

“Yeah, but this time it’s about the matchmaker business, and I think it might not be good. I can’t decide what I should do. If I share my fears with the Bennet sisters, and I’m wrong, then I caused worry for no reason.”

Lottie stepped closer. The sisters, Elizabeth and Jane, were her roommates. Was she expected to keep this from them as well?

“Just be honest. When does she come?”

Bill shrugged one shoulder. “She wasn’t specific. She just said this week.”

They arrived at the back door to Lottie’s family’s café. In business for over fifty years, and most days it felt like they still served from that tired outdated menu. She turned over the locks and stepped into the dark back room. It smelled like vanilla and sugar. Bill flicked on the lights, and the brightness forced her to cover her eyes.

“I love coming here,” he said while locking the door behind him. “It smells like how home should be.”

She smiled up at him. “That’s one of the best compliments I’ve ever been given.”

They stared at one another, smiling. She wondered if he was thinking about all the escapades they shared as children. Or if maybe he remembered the quiet times in her tree house where he would read to her.

Lottie remembered those times too. But that was not the first thing she thought about when she saw Bill. Nope. Her first image was one that was burned in her brain and haunted her at night. She saw Bill like she had a few months past, working shirtless in his garden. If looks could sear she’d burn his shirt right off right now to get an eyeful of his mouthwatering, well-defined chest.

“What’s the theme for today?” The apron he slipped over his head was the one with the bare, sculpted male chest printed on the front.

Lottie’s mouth began to water. It was time for her to stop dreaming about what she wanted and to start going for it. Professionally and personally. But she’d have to tread cautiously with Bill. Confessing her desire to get to know him in the Biblical sense, for the rest of her life, had a high probability of freaking him out.

“Lotts? The theme?” He waved a hand in front of her face.

“Surprise.” She gulped. “The theme is surprise.”

 

CHAPTER TWO

IT IS A truth universally acknowledged, that a single man seeking a relationship (or spouse) would be in need of a wingman. Who better to fill that role than the staff at Meryton Matchmakers? Particularly when one is seeking something permanent with the opposite (fairer) sex. Elizabeth Bennet knew this to be a truth that had stood the test of time.

“How are the numbers this month?” Elizabeth asked her sister over her laptop.

Only the top of Jane’s head showed as she had the rest downward and was typing madly. She made a grand gesture of waving her hand, pressed one key then looked up.

“Not good. Not bad. Sorta a lull.” The printer behind Jane started up, made a whirling sound, and then spit out a paper.

Elizabeth was thankful every day she worked with her kindhearted and easygoing sister. Even sharing an office with their desks pushed to face one another did not wear on either their bond as sisters or their business relationship. Plus, the arrangement allowed them to communicate without so much as saying a word.

Sister-speak.

“Is there a trend? Does love have a down season?” Elizabeth asked and took the paper her sister passed over.

“Apparently. Or, perhaps more precisely, we do.” She crossed her arms.

Jane, the picture of beauty with peaches and cream skin and sun-kissed tresses, possessed a sharp business mind. It was she, after all, who’d drafted the initial business plan on cocktail napkins for Meryton Matchmakers the same evening Elizabeth pitched it to her four years ago over tapas and wine.

“Let’s spend some time this afternoon talking about marketing and troubleshooting some new ideas.”

Elizabeth nodded. Nothing made her feel less effective and unimaginative than a marketing meeting where she’d struggle to produce one sound, quality idea.

“All personnel to the conference room immediately, please. Be quick people.” The voice of the phone systems speaker belonged to Bill.

Contracted as the spiritual advisor for the business, Bill was an on-call employee. Yet that didn’t stop him from popping in most days and hanging about. Mainly to talk about what had happened on Game of Thrones or some other show.

He was a good guy with a quick wit, even if his floppy bangs drove Elizabeth nuts. She wanted to take some scissors to them. They didn’t help his cause to be taken seriously. Particularly when clients were present, and he wanted to be called Mr. Collins. It took a lot of will for Elizabeth to not break into a boy band song when he was around. But the wicked scar he had under those bangs kept her from needling too far.

“What could he possibly want?” Jane asked as she pushed away from her desk.

“I’m half tempted to bring my laptop so I can scoop him with spoilers. If this is about some show—” Elizabeth said.

“Lizzy, you would never be so rude!” Jane wouldn’t swat at a fly, much less try to one up it.

“You’re right. I shall bring my phone. Just in case.” She tucked her phone under her arm and grabbed a notepad and pen. At the very least she could get lost in creating a zentangle or make a to-do list. As much as Kitty and Mary enjoyed the watercooler chats, and some days she did as well, the numbers on the paper Jane had handed her earlier were weighing on her. She wasn’t in the mood to talk about The Walking Dead.

“Be quick.” His excited voice echoed throughout the rooms.

“He’s using his Reverend Collins voice. This can’t be good,” Jane said, her voice laden with worry.

Elizabeth closed her laptop and fingered the edge. He did sound…different. More business-like.

Though Bill’s employment was a direct result of his beloved Lady Catherine’s demands, a condition of her investment, he was an integral part of the team. He was quick to recognize pairs who might present well on paper but in person would be a wreck together. Plus, Bill had a knack for defusing arguments between her younger sisters and making the others laugh.

Following Jane into the large central waiting room, Elizabeth glanced through the large glass divider that separated the room from the lobby. Their younger sister Kitty, their part-time receptionist, waved madly at them.

“I’ll be along in a moment, Jane. Kitty’s having a fit.” Crossing the room, Elizabeth opened the glass door and popped out her head. “You need something, Kitty?”

“Do you think he wants me to come?”

He being Bill.

“Why not ask?” There were no clients in the building, as it was the ungodly hour of half-past eight in the morning, and people seeking love and the Matchmakers to bring said love to them usually didn't come around until after ten. Well, the really anxious (dare she say desperate) occasionally came in right as they opened.

Making her way to Kitty’s desk, Elizabeth picked up the receiver and pressed the intercom. “Do you want Kitty to come, Bill?” She intentionally put her lips as close to the receiver as possible so as to muffle and amplify her voice. She did enjoy vexing him so, a task she’d done since they were young children.

She’d no sooner put the phone on the cradle when he responded, his voice heavy with exasperation.

“What have I said about calling me Bill at work, Elizabeth? If we are to be perceived as professionals, we must behave as such and treat each other in the same manner. My most generous mentor has said this on several occasions, and I most heartily agree.” The snicker that followed gave away his jocular manner.

Elizabeth nudged Kitty, who’d covered her mouth to stifle her laughter. Because Bill was their third cousin once removed or something of that sort, the ribbing they gave each other spawned from days when they were children in Mr. Yelvington’s field tossing cow patties.

Elizabeth held up one finger. It didn’t take much patience to outwait William Collins, particularly when he had something he wanted to share.

“Elizabeth?” He breathed into the phone.

“That’s Miss Bennet to you, sir.” It echoed loudly throughout the offices. “If that estimable Madame de B were here, she’d be exceedingly distressed at your lack of professionalism.”

Teasing him about The Bourgh, as Elizabeth liked to call her, was too easy.

Bill laughed. “Kitty, just stay there. Someone can fill you in later,” he said drawing out every vowel possible.

Elizabeth shrugged. “Can’t be that important then.” But Kitty had turned away to answer an incoming call.

“Meryton Matchmakers. If you have a lonely heart, we have the key.” Her phone voice quite engaging.

Elizabeth gave her double thumbs up, because Kitty had been trying to come up with a catchy pitch line. Some of the previous ones had been bloody awful.

Meryton Matchmakers. We’re located near Rosings Park where love comes to bloom.

Meryton Matchmakers. We have an eight-five percent success rate. Take a chance on us and find love.

Or not, Elizabeth had argued. Why highlight their failures?

Kitty smiled at the thumbs up and launched into the pitch about the company.

“Elizabeth!” Bill bellowed, after sticking his head out the conference room door. “We’re all waiting on you. Come quick.”

She made her way to him, slowly of course, knowing he’d prefer her to speed walk or likely preferred she’d run. The longer she took, the larger his eyes grew.

“What’s the matter, Bill? Your eyes look as if they’re going to spring right from your head.” When she reached the door, he gave her a slight shove toward a chair and slammed the door behind her. Elizabeth made a production of slapping her notebook on the table and uncapping her pen.

“What’s all the drama for? Your favorite person bite it on TV?” Elizabeth plopped into a chair.

“Hey.” He wagged a finger at her. “No spoilers. Mary and I were working the soup kitchen and haven’t seen anything yet.” He turned to Mary. “But Lottie’s coming over tonight, and you should too so we can get caught up. Maybe she’ll make those cupcakes that have that oozy red center.”

“That’s disgusting,” Lydia said.

It had not escaped Elizabeth’s notice that the two most spiritual people in the room were also the most macabre.

“Bill? The reason for the rush?” Elizabeth knew they’d get off track if she didn’t refocus them.

“The rush is because if I made a simpler request, only a small percentage of you would come.” He faced Mary. “Thank you for being so nice, Mary.” He turned to Elizabeth and Jane. “I have something to share.” He clasped his hands before him with a loud smack and began nodding vigorously. “I have some exciting news. Lady Catherine de Bourgh will be here this week. Tomorrow even. Isn’t that wonderful?”

Elizabeth narrowed her eyes. If it was so wonderful, why was he wringing his hands? And what was up with the manic nodding.

“Bill?” Jane asked. “Do you know why she’s coming?”

“Why else does Lady Catherine de Bourgh, such a blessing her presence will bestow upon us, need to come but to see me?” Bill tossed his bangs out of his eyes before briefly tilting his face upward as if thanking his maker. Then his gaze met Elizabeth’s, and she knew he was deflecting. Something was going to happen, and it might not be good.

“Bill,” Elizabeth warned.

“Honestly, I don’t know why she’s coming. I’d only be speculating if I were to say,” he answered.

Unable to control herself, Elizabeth snorted, which resulted in an elbow to the ribs from Jane. There were two characteristics people could possess that Elizabeth was not overly fond of: a pretentious mannerism and conceit. Lady Catherine—whose now deceased husband was some ninny who’d bought a title simply so she would be called Lady—de Bourgh embodied both of those human flaws and was quite proud of it.

“I feel a bit under the weather.” Elizabeth coughed in her hand for good measure.

“Oh, no you don’t.” Bill pointed at her then blew his bangs upward. They fell directly as they had been a moment ago, the jagged scar beneath barely seen. “I do know she is bringing her nephew, Mr. Darcy, and they both want to meet with head of Human Resources and Public Relations. You will be here every day this week.” He glanced between her and Jane, the tempo of his wringing increasing.

Even without being the head of HR, she knew there was no way around skipping it. Not that her degree in psychology and human behavior were the qualifications needed for the head HR position, which is why she did the extra course work for an HR certification, but her primary degrees were what made her such a spot-on matchmaker. Any failures to match had not been because she’d targeted incorrectly but because the person in question hadn’t been as ready as they’d thought.

Jane’s job was to spin love in such a way to make people flock to Meryton Matchmakers in search of it. Elizabeth didn’t envy her. Of the two of them, Jane had the hardest job, but who better suited to market love than a person who was decidedly a true romantic?

“Do you not think it’s suspicious Mr. Darcy’s coming?” Jane’s question sounded less threatening coming from her. Something about her easy nature and soft voice brought out the best in people.

Bill shrugged and leaned toward her. “I’m not sure, but I’m told he’s learning the ropes. She wants him to learn about MM is my speculation. It could mean he’s going to be stepping into a more active role in her empire. Again, just a guess.”

“What aren’t you telling us?” Elizabeth asked, pointing to his hands and the inordinate twisting.

Bill went still.

“If you think there is something we should know—” This from Jane.

“Ecclesiastes 3:7 A time to tear and a time to mend. A time to be quiet and a time to speak,” said Mary, the sister behind Elizabeth in birth. She had a verse for everything, though usually ones that didn’t promote the cause at hand.

“I know what the Bible says, Mary,” huffed Bill. “I am a minister.”

“Speaking of which, shouldn’t you be at your other job? I think the fact that you are here telling us this is a bad omen. Go off to work and don’t come back until you have some holy water and can bless this place,” Elizabeth said. What he’d said here today could have easily been passed along in an email.

“Yeah, like so she won’t be able to cross the threshold,” said Lydia.

Jane gasped, and Elizabeth smothered a chuckle.

“Be nice, Lydia. Lizzy. We have this job because of Lady Catherine,” Jane scolded.

Not one to hold her tongue, Lydia, the youngest, merely shrugged before she continued. “Well, I for one don’t like it.” She slapped her hand on the table. “Things are fine here without their interference. I don’t want anyone telling me how to do my job.” Lydia ended her tirade with trout mouth, a puckered lip pose she thought was so becoming and probably pouty, yet, looked quite stupid. Her sisters had told her this. Not that she listened to any of them.

“Oh go pluck your eyebrows or something,” said Mary.

“You should pluck your eyebrows or should I say eyebrow.” Lydia drew an imaginary line straight across her forehead.

“Knock, knock,” Bill said. As the company’s spiritual advisor, it was his job to make sure there was peace among the staff as much as it was to make sure the couples who got matched together were well suited. Spiritually. For the staff he’d known to use humor, specifically knock-knock jokes. Elizabeth only hoped he didn’t do this with the clients.

“Please, not a joke.” Lydia covered her eyes.

“Knock, knock.” Bill said again with more force.

“Who’s there?” Mary always took the bait.

“Babylon.”

“Babylon who?”

Bill watched at Lydia, who peeked at him through her fingers before answering, “Babylon with hurtful words all you want, but cuts require time to heal.”

“That’s not even a joke.” Lydia crosses her arms over her chest.

Aware that the meeting was moments from deteriorating, Elizabeth went for a distraction. “Mary, is everything set for the mixer Friday?”

Their biggest event yet, an outdoor concert and BBQ, mixing happily matched clients with new ones and (hopefully) potential ones. Only three days were left to weed out problems.

Elizabeth made a note on her pad to stop in and speak with Lottie Lucas, her bestie and the caterer for the event.

Mary consulted her two calendars before answering, “Yes.” She kept both for fear she’d mess something up.

“We have two video shoots today. One is that dreamy Captain Wentworth. I do love a man in uniform. I hope he’ll let me do his hair at least.” Lydia sighed dreamily.

“That’s unlikely, and remember you are not allowed to date the clients,” Elizabeth reminded her. Not that it was written explicitly in their handbook, but it was pasted into the one they gave Lydia and Kitty. A fortuitous insight on Jane’s behalf.

“Whatevs.” Lydia tossed her curls and rolled her eyes. She was quite masterful at it, really. “One day, I’m going to get a real job in a city much bigger and better than this one. Watch and see.”

Everyone had one such person in their family, Elizabeth assumed. The obnoxious-know-it-all-entitled one. Yes, that was their Lydia. As much as it annoyed her, she tried to remember this Lydia-monster was the product of two things: being the baby of the family and their mother’s influence. A diva in her own right. What couldn’t be overlooked was that Lydia continued to ride it so long. It couldn’t be easy not having all your expectations met.

Mary snorted. “One day you’ll go to a bigger city, you say? That’s not hard to do. Meryton had less than five thousand people.”

Lydia ignored Mary. “While Lady Catherine is here, see about moving the company to New York? Why you two picked here—”

Elizabeth didn’t bother to raise her voice. “Privacy. That’s why.” They’d repeatedly had this conversation. Not one to flog a dead horse, Elizabeth stood and effectively cut off further discussion. “We’ll not be suggesting a move to anywhere. Is that all, Bill? Any other bombs you’ve got up your sleeves? I’d like to get back to my desk.”

Bill pantomimed pulling his sleeves wide and peered up them. He then faced Elizabeth and shook his head.

“Jane,” Elizabeth whispered. “You think she’ll give us a hard time about how nearly our entire family works here?” This was not a new concern for Elizabeth and something she’d voiced before. More than once.

“No, we’re the owners. We don’t need to run every decision by her.” She shrugged. “I’m not worried, Lizzy. Everything works out.”

Normally, Elizabeth would roll her eyes at such blind optimism, but Jane had been that way since she was in diapers.

They walked back to their shared office in silence. Though Jane immediately took a seat and got to work, Elizabeth stood at her desk staring at her to-do notes but not really reading them, all the while flipping her phone over repeatedly in her hand.

“I don’t like this, Jane. Why didn’t she tell us she was coming?” Elizabeth plopped into her chair then lifted the top of her laptop and started searching her emails for answers.

“I think she may have.” Jane ducked behind her laptop.

Instantly, Elizabeth’s attention was back on Jane. “I beg your pardon?” It was not like Jane to forget something of this magnitude.

“She asked me to talk to you about automation so we could all speak about it at a later date.”

“Why didn’t you tell me about this?” Something niggled at her memory pushing to come forward.

“I tried, remember? A few weeks ago at Mom and Dad’s?”

What she was kindly not saying was how Elizabeth nearly bit her head off at the mention of turning their beloved company into something like those online sites. If she didn’t have to have a website she never would.

“I’d told her we talked, and that it wasn’t in MM’s future. We continue to believe in human factor.”

Elizabeth nodded and returned to stare at her computer.

Pulling up a search engine she typed Mr. Darcy, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. A few articles down she found what she was looking for, the Wiki page for William F. Darcy, billionaire. Who, oddly enough, couldn’t take a picture that wasn’t blurred.

It didn’t take much reading to get a bead on what was really going on.

“We’re in trouble, Jane. Mr. Darcy is not coming to learn more about us. I’m willing to wager this year’s salary he’s coming to automate us or…worse.”

“What do you mean by worse?”

“Darcy, according to this page.” —she turned the computer so it faced Jane— “is a business broker.”

Jane leaned toward the screen. “Why is he fuzzy? Are there no quality pictures of him?”

“Perhaps he’s so unsightly the camera breaks every time it snaps a shot of him. This is what we get.” Elizabeth tapped the grainy, squint-inducing images.

“What do you mean by ‘business broker’?”

“I mean that’s a gentle way of saying corporate raider. Most of The Bourgh’s assets come from what he’s acquired and sold.” Now more than ever, her Star Trek reference seemed more relevant. Too bad no one in her family got it.

“Why would he be coming here?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “Why indeed?”

Meryton Matchmakers was a rising matchmaking company, and it was her matchmaking company. And Jane’s, of course. Too bad Lady Catherine de Bourgh struggled to remain the silent partner she was intended to be. In today’s world, where people made up and broke up on social media, a TV bachelor sparred pencil-thin, fame-seekers against each other for his affections, and wooing was done though text messaging, Elizabeth and Jane figured Cupid could use a hand.

Ironic as it might be, Elizabeth wasn’t a believer in love. At least not the love she saw today. No, she was worse than nonbelievers; she subscribed to the ideal that each person had one true soul mate. The odds of finding them were exceedingly impossible, and though Elizabeth knew she might never find that person, she couldn’t imagine going her entire life not having tried.

Hopefully, what they did here everyday at MM narrowed those odds some, and she wasn’t about to let money get in the way of people, like herself, finding the love of their lives.

 

CHAPTER THREE

 AS WAS HER custom, Elizabeth ran between four and six miles each morning before work. When one lived and worked with one’s sisters, one needed as much time away as possible and an activity to work out frustrations. For Elizabeth, that was running, and today was a runner’s dream.

The sun, unobscured by clouds, the blue sky its moment to shine. Mother Nature offered a gentle breeze, and by glancing at her watch, Elizabeth was pleased to see she’d increased her running pace by seven minutes. Using the tab on her headphone cord, she upped the volume and let the beat of the heavy pulsing metal band push her. She hoped to harness some of the vibe for work. She was going to need it. The Bourgh’s visit was scheduled today, according to Bill’s intel, and she was determined to make this day as positive as possible. Increased run pace was a great start.

The morning had yet to begin for the rest of Meryton. Only the local tea and coffee café and grocer were seeing any action. Elizabeth’s best friend Lottie’s family-owned Lucas Lodge and Café used to be a hotel and tearoom back several generations ago. Now, having conformed to the time, the hotel part was long closed and the tearoom offered breakfast, lunch, and catering.

Elizabeth knew Lottie started her day before the sun rose, and it would be right about now she could be persuaded to take a break.

The sidewalks of Meryton were wide and offered a tremendous amount of room for walkers, strollers, and the like during the normal hours of the day. Imagine her surprise when she turned up the block toward Lottie’s café and standing directly in her path was a tall guy doing a remarkably good impression of a statue. He was built like one, too. Broad and solid, his stance wide as he held a coffee cup in one hand, the other tucked in his front pocket. He stared out toward town completely unaware that she was headed for him.

“Heads up,” Elizabeth shouted over the music only she could hear.

He turned his head slowly toward her, still not moving.

“Go up, please.” She assumed he would follow her instructions.

Not so much.

Simultaneously, they moved in the same direction, closer to the buildings. Then closer to the street. Then back again.

Elizabeth pulled her ear buds out. “Go up.” She waved manically for him to move, hoping to not break her stride, but it was too late. Their uncoordinated dance caused her to falter her steps. It was not one of those cute excuse me-oh no, excuse me dances where both parties tried to move from each other’s path only to find themselves closer and laughing. No, the thin press of his lips told her he found nothing cute about it, and as she drew closer, he briefly arched one brow before he brought the mug to his lips. He came off almost…haughty. As if she was putting him out.

Next, she noticed his light blue eyes. Then his demeanor. He wasn’t smiling nor was he glaring. He’s searched her up and down with his flinty regard, his brows winging slightly.

Elizabeth knew he wasn’t from the area. There wasn’t a single thing about him that spoke of their small country town. Not his dark-washed jeans and light knit sweater in matching soft blue. Like he was meant to be on a magazine layout. Yet, there was something awkward, or dare she say stiff, in his posture.

When his gaze met hers, a thrill of something so wholly unfamiliar to her raced through her body and heated her from the inside out. That alone was enough to help her find her manners.

“Good morning.” She was surprised she managed to sound normal because, at the very least, she expected her racing heart to affect her speech. Make it stammer or something.

He nodded slightly. “Morning.”

She wanted to say something else, something clever, but that was hard to do with a complete stranger. She went with, “Next time queue up to your other left. Unless you were trying to get me to collide with you.” She gestured toward the top of the pavement and smiled so he knew she was teasing. Maybe even think she was flirting. Which she might have been? She wasn’t sure. It had been so long since she’d found anyone worthy of the energy.

“Do you always run on the sidewalk where most people are milling about?” There was a subtle clipped tone to his words, and Elizabeth stepped back.

Racy heart and heated blood aside, she was instantly perplexed by his standoffishness.

“Generally, in the ten years I’ve been running this path, I’ve not come across someone standing in the middle of the walkway at this time in the morning. You can imagine my surprise.”

“Can I?” He sipped from his mug again.

“Can you not?” Now the clipped tone belonged to her. He lacked imagination, she mentally noted. She liked men with imagination. In one second she’d considered him someone she might like to know, but he came off that list in the next one.

“Is it a good path to run? Is there not some place that doesn’t cross through town?” He looked over her shoulder in the direction from which she came.

Elizabeth shrugged. “It depends on what you are looking for. I like this path. I get a variety of scenery and challenges.” She stepped aside and toward the café.

“And the kilometers?” Still looking down the sidewalk.

Kilometers? What country did he think he was in? Was it his way to say he was a runner as well? There were less…pretentious ways to do so.

She did a quick calculation. “Nearly six and a half. If you go around the lake and through town.” Her heart rate had slowed, and the idea of a nice cuppa for her cooling off and stretching period appealed to her immensely. He jerked his attention to her, surprise briefly flashed across his features but it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. He then nodded and returned to his study of the direction she'd come from.

“Well, then.” She had no further conversation to offer. Opening the door, she wished him a good day before entering.

“Without a doubt,” he said.

Elizabeth stepped into the shop and paused long enough to inhale the loveliness that was all Lottie’s doing. Pastries that were out of the world. Add to it the tea and coffee, and it was a cornucopia of goodness.

“Do I smell something spicy? Cayenne maybe?” Elizabeth smiled at her best friend and roommate. One couldn’t be tight with a foodie and not learn to identify scents or flavors while blindfolded.

“Morning, Lizzy, you staying or going?” Lottie waved at her from behind the counter.

“Morning. That depends on what that amazing smell is.”

“Today’s special is Mexican hot chocolate, and I’m working on a sinfully good cupcake with cayenne pepper and cream cheese frosting.”

Sounded unusual, but Elizabeth knew it wouldn’t be anything less than unbelievably decadent. Lottie was a cupcake prodigy. She was part of the reason why Elizabeth ran. Frequent taste-testing was part of her friend-duties, and there was no way Elizabeth could say no to that.

“How was your run? Day starting out well?” Lottie handed her a large black coffee. Elizabeth loaded it with a splash of cream and two sugars.

“My run was fabulous. But—” Elizabeth leaned over the counter to get closer. “I just had the oddest conversation.” She peeked over her shoulder to find the man watching her through Lottie’s large paned window. Quickly, she turned away. “Ack, he’s still there.” She grimaced.

“I should hope so. He’s got one of my mugs. Did he say something rude to you?” Briefly, Lottie considered the guy outside.

“No, he…I can’t describe it. It felt odd.”

“I see,” she said but halted the conversation when Bill came in from the back whistling a jaunty tune.

“Morning, Billy,” Lottie said, moving toward him. She took the bag he held out to her.

“Fresh cayenne from Rosings Park’s garden.” Bill crossed his arms and rocked back on his heels, a smug smile across his face.

Elizabeth stepped toward him. “Did you—”

“Help myself to peppers from the abundant garden at Rosings? Where there are so many they are rotting on the vine? Perhaps.” Bill winked at Lottie.

“You stole them.” Elizabeth sipped her coffee, using the cup to hide her smile.

“Billy’s going to help me make the cupcake batter. I’m short-staffed today.”

“He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor—”

“Yeah, yeah.” Elizabeth dismissed him with a shrug. She couldn’t pick on him for being a good guy. Aside from her, Bill was Lottie’s closest friend. They’d spent their entire childhood in the houses right next to each other. “I suppose I’ll take some treats to go. Can you add in a scone? They smell amazing.”

“I saw Lydia climbing in Kitty’s window this morning as I was leaving.” Lottie’s look was knowing. They both knew Lydia wasn’t coming from Mom and Dad’s place but from parts unknown.

Elizabeth shook her head. This was not the first time she, Lottie, and often Jane had this conversation.

Lottie handed her a bag. “We’re still good for lunch?”

“Of course.” Because they lived together, Elizabeth was allowed to keep an account at the café. Often, after a run she’d grab a drink without having to worry about carrying money.

“Good luck out there.” With her chin she gestured to the man outside.

Elizabeth wagged her brows. “Forget that, I’d rather use it for my meeting today at work. Don’t you be late, Bill.” She jabbed her finger at him for emphasis. Though she wasn’t too worried he’d miss his meeting with the grand dame herself. The Bourgh could almost be considered his demigod.

Bill went behind the counter and donned a fire-red apron that said Hot stuff coming through.

“As if,” he said in a voice that could be a smacking-good imitation of Lydia.

Lottie laughed and returned to refill customers’ coffee. She looked supremely happy even if her ponytail was starting to come undone and there was a smudge of chocolate on her glasses. Elizabeth wondered if she appeared this blissful when at work? She hoped so, though not likely today considering what was on the agenda, but definitely when she was talking with clients.

When she stepped outside, the guy faced her, though he continued to drink from his mug. With no words at her disposal, she turned and headed home. Though the urge to turn back, just once, was awfully powerful, she didn’t give into it. It was like people said, she really could feel his stare focused on her. Or at least she imagined she could.

Thankfully, at the block’s end she turned off, and he was out of sight. Her brownstone was within sight. Two things Elizabeth loved, her company and her house. She was lucky she had enough sisters to be able to let the rooms and cover her mortgage. Though technically Lydia still lived at home with Mom and Dad, she hadn’t slept a night there in nearly three months. Not that she was sleeping at Elizabeth’s place either.

Elizabeth made a mental note to start charging her rent.

Crossing a pasture, she climbed Mr. Yelvington’s fence, cut through a second pasture, and came up through the backside to a row of homes. Hers was on the end.

When she entered through the back door, the screeching of sisters fighting, a safe guess would be Kitty and Lydia, greeted her. Briefly, she considered turning around and going to work as is.

Instead, she went into the kitchen and found Jane sitting at the little table drinking coffee.

“Scone?” Elizabeth placed the bag before her.

Jane shook her head. “I think I’m too nervous to eat.”

“What’s the worst that can happen, Jane?” After plopping into a chair, she pulled the still-warm scone from the bag. Elizabeth liked to face all the possible scenarios.

“I’m not sure,” Jane said.

Elizabeth knew Jane would have a hard time conceptualizing something awful. It simply wasn’t in her nature. Her worst scenario was Elizabeth’s best case one.

“I suppose we go more automated. Though that’s not how I envisioned things when we mapped out this business.”

Case in point. Going more automated was what Elizabeth expected would be the push. Closing shop forever because of some unattainable demands was her worst case.

“How do you feel about that?” She pushed half a scone toward Jane.

“Honestly?” Jane waited for Elizabeth’s nod. “Maybe I’ve become disenchanted with love, but if our way hasn’t been successful enough for Lady Catherine, then how’s automating going to improve that?”

“How’s that?” Elizabeth wasn’t sure she followed. “What's this have to do with being disenchanted with love?”

Jane leaned closer “I truly thought the human factor would appeal to people. That clients would spread the word, and business would boom.”

“We are growing. Slowly and steadily. We’ve only been open four years.”

“But people don’t want others to know they’ve found love through a matchmaker, Lizzy. I thought people wouldn’t care. That the love would be enough, and they’d shout it from all over.”

Elizabeth had to agree. “It is surprising how private people are about this, all the while posting every other tidbit on social media.”

“Kitty! Give it to me,” Lydia screamed.

“That’s it. I’ve had enough.” Elizabeth slapped her hand against the table then rose. “Did you know she snuck in this morning? Lottie saw her as she was leaving for work.” Not waiting for a response, Elizabeth stomped from the room and came to a stop at the bottom of the stairs. Putting two fingers in her mouth like their dad taught her, she whistled long and loud. By the time she was done not only Kitty and Lydia were at the top landing but Mary as well.

“I’ve had enough. This is ridiculous. Jane and I can’t even have a conversation in the kitchen because we can’t hear each other. Here’s the solution. Lydia, if you want to live here, you need to start paying rent. Today.”

“But there are only four bedrooms.” She crossed her arms. “Why should I pay for sleeping over in Kitty’s room?”

“It’s my room too,” Mary says.

“That would be a sound argument had you actually stayed over. We’re not your beard, Lydia. You can’t tell Mom and Dad you’re staying here and not be here. What if something were to happen to you? No one would know until it was too late. You don’t want to pay rent? Stay home. But if you stay more than two nights a week then you’ll need to split Kitty and Mary’s rent with them. By staying over, I mean even sneaking in at four in the morning. You’re welcome to move in but not for free. You’ll contribute to groceries and utilities as well.”

Lydia stomped her foot and opened her mouth to speak, but Elizabeth held up her hand. “You can talk it over with Kitty and Mary today and let us know by this evening. But if you decide not to move in, you can’t sleep here the rest of the week. When was the last time you slept at home?”

“You’re an evil witch, Elizabeth Bennet,” Lydia said very near tears. Crocodile ones to be sure. The thing about Lydia was she had no money. As soon as she got paid, she blew it on shoes and handbags and whatever else struck her fancy. Not that Elizabeth wanted her to move in and bicker with Kitty all the time, but the responsibility would do her good. Elizabeth doubted it would happen. Lydia couldn’t afford it, and she’d need Mary’s permission to share the space, which wasn’t likely. Dad mentioned she’d maxed out two credit cards. How she even got those Elizabeth would never know.

With a shrug Elizabeth said, “See you at work.” Then she went back into the kitchen. It was blissfully quiet.

“You need to get ready, Lizzy. We should get to work earlier than normal today, just in case.”

Nodding, Elizabeth scooped up the remains of her scone and made her way to her room that, thankfully, was on the bottom floor. In order to offset the expense of starting the business and buying a brownstone, Elizabeth had converted the study into an additional sleeping space. She loved the wall of bookshelves and circular stained glass window and had no regrets offering Lottie the larger room across the hall.

Jane had selected the large room upstairs with the view. Elizabeth had the bucolic view of Mr. Yelvington’s cows and meadows. The downside was summer when the windows were open and a slight breeze blew from his field toward their house.

With summer hinting at making an early appearance, Jane and Elizabeth decided to take advantage of the slightly cooler morning air and walk to work. Soon enough, temps would be high. Air conditioners would be running non-stop, and their neighboring cities, New York and Boston, would be warning of possible brownouts.

On the walk, they discussed a few new ideas and strategies that might improve awareness of the company. All previous campaigns to bring clients out to rave about their services had failed. No one wanted to become a print ad saying they needed help finding their mate.

They beat Bill to the office by ten minutes. He was loaded down with fresh pastries and a box of coffee from Lottie’s. After cleaning out the coffee pot, he turned it on but didn’t set it up, instead dumping Lottie’s brew in the carafe and setting it on the warmer.

“Are we ready?” he asked while pouring a cup.

The use of ‘we’ irked Elizabeth, as he was nowhere to be found the last few nights while she printed data sheets. Standing up, she showed him her old school binder with all the figures and forms. “I’m more than ready.”

Bill pointed to the two-inch binder in her arms. “Yeah, that doesn’t scream a need for automation or at the very least some tech training. I’ll be waiting by the front door to greet them.” His boy band hair was combed more to the side so one eye was covered by bangs. Like a wannabe pirate. A glob of something brown was stuck to a branch of hair near his ear.

“Ah, Bill you might want to—” She gestured to the region near his ear and made like she was smoothing it out.

“Please, Elizabeth. Don’t call me Bill while they are here. If you must use my first name at all, call me William. It’s more professional.”

Elizabeth wasn’t sure how he surmised that. Bill Gates might object.

He did as she suggested and came away with the glob in his hand.

“Chocolate cupcakes I’m guessing.”

“They’re here,” Kitty whispered over the phone’s speaker system. Bless her for coming in early. Thankfully, she didn’t press intercom, as the entire office, including the lobby, would have heard her announcement.

Bill jumped and quickly wiped his hand with one of the napkins he brought with him. He paused by the door, clutching his hands over his heart and said, “Dear Lord, we are so blessed.” Elizabeth had the sense he was not only trying to remind her of the good luck and fortune, but himself as well. Then he split.

Elizabeth wanted to understand his attachment to The Bourgh. Lottie had once tried to explain it. Something about Lady Catherine being a surrogate mother to him. Bill, having lost his mom when he was a ten, was left with a heavy-handed, ridiculously strict father. When his efforts to please him failed, Bill bought into the belief that any attention was better than none. He’d embarked on a life destined for future jail time had his mother’s long time friend not interceded and derailed him from his self-destructive ways. Whatever Bill’s mom and Lady Catherine had in common would forever remain a mystery to Elizabeth, and neither Bill nor Lottie were willing to part with the information. Regardless, Elizabeth knew he credited the current state of his life to her rescue.

“They’re here!” Elizabeth said in mock excitement to Jane. “However do we get through the days without them?” She shook Jane by her shoulders. “Oh, want to make a wager? I bet this Darcy character is unsightly. That’s why the pictures are all blurry. What do you think it is? Crossed eyes? Missing nose? A nipple in the middle of his forehead? Come on, take a guess.”

“Stop it, Lizzy.” She laughed and pushed her sister’s hands from her shoulders. “I’m sure he’s perfectly fine.”

Elizabeth shrugged. Perfectly fine took good pictures. What was this guy’s deal?

“Shall we then? Let’s go see?” Elizabeth gestured for Jane to precede her.

She followed her to the glass doors. Bill was stroking his chin, nodding excessively, and bobbing around like a mating-intended Bird of Paradise. The Bourgh was talking over his head to the person holding open the front door, though all Elizabeth could see was a forearm.

“Should we go out or let them come to us?” Jane whispered.

The person holding the door stepped in, and Elizabeth found her words lost, caught in her throat.

“Holy cow,” Elizabeth said.

“Yes,” echoed Jane.

It was a man. A tall—had to be over six feet—solid yet not bulky man who was meant to command armies. His close-cut hair and clean-shaven face spoke to a dedication to detail that was seen in his crisply ironed shirt, with narrow but prominent pleats that ran down the length from the breast pockets and were perfectly aligned.

Elizabeth swallowed. If this was Mr. Darcy, they might be in serious trouble. Going up against him would take a formidable will and even stronger constitution.

When their gazes met he nodded slightly and provided a slight smile. It was then Elizabeth knew he didn’t want to be here any more than she or Jane wanted him here.

This might be easier than she thought.

“Come on.” She pulled Jane with her as she entered into the main room.

“Good, good,” Bill said and clasped his hands together. “Lady Catherine, you remember my cousins, Elizabeth and Jane Bennet. It’s been a while since we all saw each other.”

Could one really say four years was a while? Seemed like it was only yesterday that The Bourgh had her lawyer hammer out her part of the deal.

Lady Catherine, a tall, well-coiffed woman dressed in a navy blue Chanel business suit, who continued to show signs of aging no matter how many times she had a facelift, scanned the sisters up and down.

“You’ve both matured into pretty things, I must say.”

“Thank you,” Jane said.

“Yes. Thanks.” Elizabeth echoed.

“But you’re awful at running a business. You should marry yourselves off and call it a day.” Not waiting for a response Lady Catherine gestured to the man behind her.

Something about him, maybe the way he stood stock-still or simply because he had similar blue eyes, reminded her of the man on the sidewalk.

“Let me introduce my nephew, Colonel Fitzwilliam. He is leaving the Army soon and will be joining the corporation.”

At the mention of his Army career, the Colonel pressed his lips into a thin line. Elizabeth considered his presence and knew it was a loss to the country that this dangerous man would no longer be protecting and serving. She’d not like to come across him in a dark alley.

Poop. If this man wasn’t Mr. Darcy, what were they to expect? If the corporate raider was anything like his cousin, they might be in for it.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

“WILLIAM.” LADY CATHERINE de Bourgh eased her thin-framed glasses from her face while scanning him from top to bottom. “You should come around more often for dinner. You’re getting too thin.”

He loved that she mothered him—in her bossy, not very maternal way. Though he hated when she called him William. It reminded him of his over-bearing and pessimistic father and made him wonder if others compared them—or worse—expected them to be similar because they shared the same name. He’d been teasing Lizzy when he told her to call him that. Sorta. He knew Lady Catherine would have appreciated hearing it.

But there would be no asking Lady Catherine to call him anything other than his given name. His mother had always done so, and Lady Catherine would honor that, hoping to preserve what little memories he did have of her.

“Thank you, Lady Catherine. You’re very kind. But we see each other weekly as it is, and sometimes coordinating those are very difficult.” He smiled widely. “You are a very busy and sought after woman. You have better things on your agenda than dining with me.”

“Nonsense, William. I adore you as much as I do my own child.” She brushed the bangs from his eyes. “I will be staying at Rosings for the next few weeks while we iron everything out here. You will come at least three times each week to dine. I will not allow for less.”

Fortunately for Bill, he saw right through her haughty mannerisms. He knew she’d been struggling with loneliness since her husband, Lewis, passed a few years ago. With Anne having moved out right afterward—well he didn’t mind filling in some of the emptiness. Sometimes she would talk about his mother, and he’d have those rare and sudden memory-moments where he would recall how she sounded or how lovely and airy she smelled.

“Speaking of children, has Anne showed up yet?” Lady Catherine glanced at her watch, a delicate piece encrusted with diamonds, and then sighed with dismay. “Is it possible for that child to ever be on time?” She focused on Bill. “While here, William, I expect you to use your positive influence on Anne. Guide her toward the right path—”

She cut off her words as the front door swung open and in stepped Anne de Bourgh. She’d cut her long dark hair and now sported a short, sporty style that was dyed blonde.

He liked it. It suited her lanky frame.

“Ah,” she said while lifting her hands in praise. “My brother from another mother. Well, and father. If you were Catholic, Billy, we would need to spend some time in a confessional—if you know what I mean—I just got back from the Netherlands.” She ended her greeting with an exaggerated wink then stepped toward him with arms held wide.

“It looks like it suited you. Dutch living.” He refocused on the people before him.

Hugging Anne felt good. Like he’d been the one who’d gone on a long journey and just come home to the safety and comfort of his family. Except they were the ones seeing the world and would be moving on soon enough. Rosings Park was respite for them. But as Lady Catherine liked to say, “sleep and rest were for the dead and weak.”

Not the first time, Bill wondered if that was why he liked to sneak into the city and frequent the open mic comedy opportunities. It was another Bill, another lifestyle. An adventure. Heck, traveling into the city was its own undertaking of commuter trains and seedy parts of town, but standing under a spotlight in front of strangers and trying to make them laugh was a high he’d yet come to understand.

After they separated, Anne flung an arm around his shoulder and leaned in. “You, me, and some beers, and I’ll tell you all about it.”

“If it’s anything like that time you went to Ireland, perhaps it’s best you not share.” He nudged her with his shoulder.

“Ah, Ireland. And the sublimely perfect Ollie.” She sighed happily.

“I thought you said his name was Seamus.”

Anne pulled away, pushed up her sleeve and scratched at a raw, red-welted area, surrounding by rough patchy, scarred skin.

Bill averted his eyes because he knew Anne was self-conscious, knew she hated everything about the fact that she had eczema. Not that Bill was convinced that was Anne’s real issue. All the money in the world and no successful treatment could be had.

Lady Catherine stepped close to them. “This is quite the reunion. Perhaps we should have come in a day early so as to do this in private.”

“You know you love the attention, Mother,” Anne said.

“What I would love would be a grandchild.” Lady Catherine swung her focus to him. “Any chance that’s a possibility, William?”

Marriage was their one bone of contention. She wanted him to do it yesterday, and he wasn’t sure he’d do it ever. He shook his head. “Illegitimate children. Hmm. Don’t think that’s a wise move for someone in my profession.”

Anne tossed back her head and laughed.

“Shall we take this back to the conference room?” He gestured toward the inner offices. Hoping to change the subject and deflect the interest away from him.

“Anne, where’s your cousin?” Lady Catherine asked.

She flicked her hand toward the Colonel. “Really, Mother, perhaps you should get your prescription checked.”

Lady Catherine stared down her nose at her daughter.

Anne sighed. “He’s still outside on the phone. Probably complaining about being here… Well. You know.” She widened her eyes and then moved to the door and pushed it open.

“Your presence is requested,” she said to someone they couldn’t see. Bill had spent time with Darcy off and on as they were growing up. Though, while he and Anne had run roughshod over the property, Darcy had been more inclined to fish in the lake or read by a tree.

Anne gave an exaggerated, beckoning wave then stepped away from the door, holding it open with an extended arm. She sighed heavily, rolled her eyes, and then stepped away, preceding him.

“Here he is, Mother. The Prodigal Son.” Anne did a flourish of hand gestures as she presented Darcy. He was like Bill remembered—tall, dark, and reserved.

“William.” Bill stepped forward, hand extended.

“Bill. Good to see you again.” They did a brief shake

“You as well. How’s Georgiana?” Around William Darcy, Bill felt the need to stand with his hands on his hips and feet wide apart. Much like Darcy did. He was also overcome with the urge to make a fire from rubbing sticks together and camp. Without a tent. Darcy was, in Bill’s estimation, more a man’s man than he was. Of course, Bill was more a people’s man. Equal opportunity, God created everyone equal, and all that. But next to Darcy, it was hard for anyone to feel equal. He made quite the impression; his physique was a large presence in the room without him so much as having to say a word.

“She’s doing well.”

“I’m told she’s planning a gap year.”

Darcy shook his head. “Not if I can help it.” He deadpanned.

Bill smiled. “I’ll add it to my prayers.”

Darcy grunted in a way that Bill knew was a laugh. “I’ll take all the help I can get.”

Bill turned to the others and clasped his hands together. “Now that we are all here, let me make the introductions and then we shall take this to the conference room.”

****

Elizabeth couldn’t believe her eyes. It was the odd man she’d nearly ran down this morning. Clearly his impersonation of a statue was not because the hour was early, the view beautiful, or the coffee contributing to a transcendental state. No, this man was a stiff. His laughter a short one-syllable sound. If one could count a grunt as a laugh.

“Allow me to present my cousins, Miss Jane Bennet and Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”

Ack! She hated that he prefaced the introduction with the fact that they were cousins. It felt incongruous with the professionalism he professed to desire.

Bill stood next to Jane and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Meryton Matchmakers was their brainchild, and I must say they do a wonderful job with it.”

Lady Catherine snorted.

“May I introduce Mr. William Darcy,” Bill said.

“My cousin,” added Anne quietly.

Jane took a small step forward but didn’t extend her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Darcy.”

He nodded. “You as well, Miss Bennet.”

His attention swung to Elizabeth’s, and the distant looks she’d seen in his eyes earlier remained.

“We’ve met,” Elizabeth said and continued when Jane gave a puzzled expression. “This morning when I was out for a run. Mr. Darcy was outside Lottie’s.”

He nodded, offering no further explanation to her story. There was no gentle teasing about their earlier encounter. No ease that came with the beginnings of a familiarity. Nope. There was a force field around Darcy that’s sole purpose was to keep people away.

Maybe it was the electric pulse from said force field playing havoc with cameras, which would explain why his pictures were the way they were. And if one were to be honest—Elizabeth prided herself on being honest—she was glad the pictures were blurry. Had they been clear she might have, on occasion mind you, fantasized about the mysterious man. He was very striking in a rugged outdoorsy way. As it was, the state of his pictures allowed her to have little opinion, and their run-in today was all the first impression she needed. Thinking he was an impersonal stiff helped her cleave tightly to her bubbling anger. If this granite man were going to put her out of business, it would not do for her to be swoony.

“Let’s take this into the conference room.” Bill held open the glass door and Jane led the way. As it would happen, Darcy fell in line next to Elizabeth but said nothing. As they approached the conference room, they passed Mary and Lydia’s office. Jane motioned to someone inside to join the group, and Elizabeth assumed it was Mary.

Sure enough her sister burst through the door, notepads clenched in her arms, and careened right into the Colonel.

“Oomph,” he said and caught her.

“Holy Lord,” she cried, “take me.” She stared up at him, her eyes wide.

“I’m sorry?” Fitzwilliam asked.

“I mean, how embarrassing. I’m sorry to nearly run you down.” She was still being held up by his grip on both her shoulders.

“You want me to take you somewhere?”

Elizabeth heard the laughter in his tone.

“Actually, I wanted the Lord to open up a hole and take me away from here. I meant to think it. Not say it.” Mary batted her lashes several times. Elizabeth stepped closer.

“I’m Henry.”

“Mary.” She sighed wistfully.

“Mary,” Elizabeth said, hoping to draw her stare away from the Colonel and back to her job. Maybe she could snap her out of what had come over her.

“I’m going to let you go. You steady?”

“Mm-hm.” Mary nodded.

One hand at a time he released her shoulders. Mary swayed toward him a bit but stayed upright.

Henry stepped away, and Elizabeth moved to stand in front of Mary.

“Ready?” She tried to convey with her eyes that Mary needed to snap out of it. Elizabeth was aware of Lady Catherine’s presence and her repeated sighs and harrumphs.

Mary, still captivated by Henry, murmured, “Sure, sure. I’m ready.” She nodded for emphasis.

They continued into the conference room, and when Henry sat next to Mary, she giggled. Elizabeth and Jane shared a look. One that said perhaps someone should sit between Mary and the Colonel and block her view of him.

Clearly he was a distraction for Mary, and Elizabeth wasn’t sure how to handle it. This was a never-been-seen before Mary. Kitty or Lydia, sure, giggly girl was something they’d been for years—ever since they’d become aware of the opposite sex. But Mary? No. She was more devout than Bill. Elizabeth shrugged and took a seat at the end of the oval table next to Jane. Darcy and The Bourgh stood. Bill sat next to Elizabeth.

Lady Catherine cleared her throat, put on thin-framed glasses, and then clasped her hands before her. “I won’t beat around the bush. I have asked for this meeting because I am going over my investment portfolio and need to make some changes. This little endeavor here is on my list to investigate further.” She held out a hand, and Henry handed her a small tablet. Elizabeth wasn’t sure from where he’d produced it.

“According to my records, this company has made a profit, albeit a small one.”

“We are seeing the profits grow each year. Double basically.” Elizabeth interjected.

The Bourgh stared down her nose at Elizabeth. No one said anything.

“As I was saying. A small profit is nice but doesn’t do much to boost my overall income. I’ve had some research done and well…quite frankly, in order for me to keep my money in this small little affair, I’ll need a great return.” She scowled at Elizabeth.

Elizabeth held the stare and tried to stave off the heat flooding her cheeks. She knew it! Hadn’t she instinctively known this was coming? Oh, how she wished she’d been more prepared. How she could have gotten more prepared was uncertain, but she wished it nonetheless.

“What are you proposing?” Jane asked mildly. Her hands folded neatly in front of her, resting on the table.

The Bourgh stared down her nose at Jane. “Either we start seeing an increase in monthly profits to this level.” She showed the tablet to Jane and Elizabeth. The number was shockingly high. It was more than doubling their yearly profit, it was quadrupling it, monthly. Impossible. “Or you buy out my investment, and then you are free to do as you want.” She swiped her finger over the tablet and showed another figure. “This is what my percentage is worth.”

Elizabeth gasped. She hadn’t meant to show her surprise, but it was double what they owed her. Hoping to cover up her shock she asked, “Of course, you will let our accountant review your figures and our books and come up with what we think is a reasonable buy-out price?” Over her thin little glasses The Bourgh inspected Elizabeth, who held her return gaze steady.

“You have two weeks.”

This time Jane gasped, her hands pressed to her chest. “Two weeks!”

“Sixty days.” Elizabeth countered and watched both The Bourgh and the ever-silent Darcy. He stood next to his aunt, arms crossed, and rocked on his heels. Briefly, he ducked his head but not before Elizabeth caught the slight wisp of what she thought might be a smile.

Was he about to go in for the kill?

“Thirty,” Lady Catherine responded.

“Forty-five.” Elizabeth sat back, reclined the chair and crossed her arms. Two can play this game.

“Fine. You have forty-five days to get your accountant's final assessment.”

“What if they can’t afford to buy you out? Is there no other option?” Bill asked.

“Of course, they can improve their bottom line.” Lady Catherine put a hand on Darcy's shoulder. “My nephew has put together some interesting research for me. From it I have decided that if Meryton Matchmakers were to go more automated, go global, then the profits would follow. People are looking for something other than what’s out there. Something fresh. For the love of Pete, even mountain men in Alaska have an online matchmaking site.”

“We pride ourselves on the human factor, making genuine connections. Not algorithms,” said Jane.

“And it shows. You’ve made some money, but your growth is much slower than it should be in this day and age. Technology has to be involved.”

Elizabeth wondered if her face showed the same panic and uncertainty Jane's did?

“The point here is you have forty-five days to decide which it will be. Pay off my aunt or automate.” Darcy raised one brow as if waiting for an argument.

“In the meantime, my daughter Anne will be staying behind to work on getting you updated with technology. Darcy and Henry will be staying behind briefly to get things moving in the right direction. They’ll need space to work.” Lady Catherine whipped the glasses from her face and jabbed them at Elizabeth. “You have anything left to say?”

“I have plenty, but I’ll save it for another time.” Elizabeth tried to smile, but it felt so forced and awkward. Her mind spun with possibilities. Could she take a second mortgage on her house? How much did she have in savings? Her IRA?

What she really needed was to get Jane alone and brainstorm.

“Lydia and I will move out of our offices, and you can have our space,” Mary told Henry.

“I don’t want to put you out,” he said.

“But I like being put out—I mean—I don’t mind,” she fairly cooed.

The Bourgh grunted and swiveled on her heel. She paused at the door and turned to face them. “I will be at Rosings Park all week if you’d like to discuss more. But let me say this. Part of my issue with this company is that you all profess to help others find true love, yet not a single one of you are married.” She shook her head. “Why ever would I come to you for love guidance?”

 

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

MARY JUMPED FROM her chair and faced Henry. “Follow me and I’ll show you to your new office.” She beamed.

“Mary!” Elizabeth hissed under her breath.

“What? You expect me to be rude?” She glared at Elizabeth before returning her megawatt smile to Henry.

Elizabeth considered Darcy, who’d not moved more than a foot when he stepped out of his aunt’s way.

“Lady Catherine is trying to take away your job and give it to a computer. Mr. Darcy thinks love and marriage can be found by putting starred rankings under pictures…or…or—swiping in one direction or another.” Elizabeth felt heat rush into her cheeks. She stepped closer to him. “If this were a virtual matchmaking world, I’d swipe left.” She made the motion that matched her words.

“This isn’t personal,” he said and stared down his nose at her. “I've been asked to review my aunt’s financial affairs. She’s interested in maintaining a stake in your business, but for it to earn to its potential things have to change.”

Elizabeth crossed her arms and snorted. “It may not be personal to you, but it’s personal to me. To us.” She hoped her glare was menacing or at the very least intimidating. She pressed her lips together for good measure.

Darcy appeared unaffected. “Perhaps that is why you have difficulty with objectivity. You should step away from the emotional aspect of your business and view it in terms of profit and success.”

“Every time we match people and make them happy, we profit and are successful. We’ve had over one hundred matches and a ninety percent success rate. Show me the flaw in that?”

“Shall I introduce you to your bottom line—”

Elizabeth snorted and repressed the urge to stomp her foot like a petulant child. Instead, she gave her head a quick shake. “Love isn’t about the bottom line. We’re about more than falling for someone’s profile picture. We’re about spiritual, intellectual, and emotional connections. It’s the right person, Mr. Darcy. A soul mate. Neither of those is plural. In fact—”

Henry stepped between them, his hands making the time out sign. “Truce. Let’s all take a breather. It’s understandable why you are upset, Miss Bennet. I would be as well. Let’s separate, regroup, and meet back here this afternoon to go over all the options. I promise then you’ll have sufficient time to rail at us. Until then, Darcy, Anne, let’s follow Mary here and get situated. Please excuse us, ladies.” He nodded to Elizabeth and then Jane.

“Sure,” said Jane quietly. She hadn’t moved.

After the newcomers left the room, only Bill remained with them.

“I’m sorry. I really am.” He stuffed his hands into his pockets. “The Colonel is right, though. No one should make any sudden decisions or moves. We have time—”

“Not that much, Bill,” Jane said.

“I could probably come up with half of it by taking a second mortgage and cleaning out my retirement accounts.” Elizabeth slid into a chair and sighed.

“No!” Jane said. “We will not do such a thing.”

“This is what I mean. Don’t run out and sell your house just yet. Let the dust settle. Let me talk to Lady Catherine. There are so many more solutions. I could buy into the business, we could find other investors—”

Elizabeth snorted. Not likely.

Bill continued. “We need to pause and catch our breath.”

Elizabeth sprung from her chair. “I need air. I can’t just sit here and do nothing. I need a plan.”

“I do as well, but I need time to consider the options.” Jane stood slowly. “I agree with Bill. Let’s go in our office and start talking options.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “I can’t work here. Not yet. I feel as if my privacy has been invaded, and I’m too angry to see clearly. Let’s go somewhere else. Let’s go to Lottie’s.”

Jane nodded. “You go ahead. I’ll grab a few things and meet you there.”

Elizabeth twitched to leave but doing so made her feel as if she were abandoning her sister. “I’ll help you.”

“No, go. I can tell you need to get out. Go with her, Bill, and make sure she’s okay.” Jane squeezed her arm. “It’ll work out, Lizzy. I promise.”

Elizabeth wanted to believe her. She wished she had Jane’s optimistic outlook, but in this situation it was very difficult to not feel as if the world was falling apart around her. And she was helpless to do anything about it.

Knowing tears were close, she swiveled on her heel and rushed from the room. She had no option but to pass by the office the others were now sharing. Mary was carrying her computer and her calendars toward Elizabeth’s office.

Not wanting to show them that they’d reduced her to tears and running away, Elizabeth paused outside the door to gain her composure. Eavesdropping was not her intention, and she really wished she hadn’t heard what she did.

“This is a nice town,” the deep gritty tone belonged to Henry.

“Small, very country. If one likes that sort of thing.” Darcy’s voice was muffled as if he was turned away from Henry and the door.

“The sisters seem nice. Pretty too.”

This time Darcy’s voice was clear. “The oldest one, yes. But the younger sisters. No.”

“Come on, man. Elizabeth is very pretty and Mary, well.” He coughed.

Darcy snorted. “Elizabeth is tolerable but not pretty enough to tempt me. I’m glad to see she doesn’t seem to believe she can use her feminine wiles on me,” he said in a lazy drawl.

“As if that would work,” Henry said drolly.

Magically, her tears dried up, replaced by disbelief. Who was this man? How dare he come in to their business, tell them to change, and then insult them while he was at it? At least the country people from her town had far better manners than he did. Arrogant cock.

Bill came out of the office and beelined for her. Without a second thought, she rushed past the door and out into the lobby. Not pausing to say anything to Kitty, she continued her flight out the front door, only slowing when she was half a block away.

Bill caught up with her. Come on, Lizzy, don’t let this get to you. Take a moment and think about it. Take a deep breath and don’t let this freak you out.”

“It’s hard not to, Bill, when I'm staring at losing everything. Who is he coming in saying we underperformed? We’re doing great. We’ve steadily made money. Granted not buckets of it like he expects but enough for us.”

“They have different expectations than we do.”

Elizabeth glanced at Bill. “I noticed you keep putting yourself on our side. I’m kind of surprised. Lady Catherine is like family to you. It could get awkward, don’t you think? Not that I mind you being on our side.”

Bill pushed his bangs from his head, his mouth quirking to the side. After a quick nod he said, “She is family. But so are you all. I happen to believe we are a society that’s too tech-dependent. I also happen to believe, like you, that love requires something more than algorithms to assist it. Besides, on a purely selfish level I enjoy working at Meryton. I don’t want to be replaced by a computer.”

Elizabeth nudged him with her shoulder. “Thanks, Bill.”

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