Read Free: MM1 Chapter 18-20 and Epilogue

Meryton Matchmakers Book 1: Lottie Pursues Bill. A Modern Pride and Prejudice Variation.

Chapter 18

 THE FIRST DAY of summer was a scorcher. Before the sun was fully up, the temps had reached the high nineties. By noon it was one hundred and one degrees.

Because the media warned of potential power outages, everyone at Meryton was crammed in one office using one overworked and on-its-last-legs window AC unit. Elizabeth wasn’t sure which irritated her more, the heat or Darcy taking the seat next to her at the table they’d moved into the room for everyone to work on.

Oh, how she longed for the days when they peacefully went about their business, helping others fall in love.

To top off her irritation was the fact that Lottie was mad at Bill. Not even speaking to him. When Elizabeth asked what had happened, she’d gone red in the face and stormed off mumbling about men and their lack of brains.

“Okay,” Jane said for the third time. “We should start. I apologize, but the heat has me distracted.”

No more than the man sitting next to her Elizabeth observed. Chaz and Jane had spent the last ten minutes smiling at each other and talking in hushed tones.

“Maybe we should wait,” Elizabeth suggested.

As if on cue, the window unit turned off. The air it had been blowing came to a slow end.

Bill jerked his thumb upward; the lights were out as well. “Brownout I bet.”

Elizabeth pulled out her phone and checked the local sites. “You are correct. They project it will last the rest of the day. How did we miss this information?”

She swore Darcy snickered. Likely a poke at her lack of technology use or maybe that she had poor awareness. Who knew what the man thought?

“I can’t work like this,” Bill said. He wiped his arm across his brow.

“We could pop over to Rosings and swim in the pool,” offered Anne.

Bill was staring at Elizabeth, making weird eye movements as if willing her to interpret their meaning. “Yes, water is very refreshing.” He smirked.

She totally got the message. “I’ll call Kitty,” she shouted, jumping up from her seat and pointing at him.

“Lotts,” he replied.

“Jane,” she answered.

“What’s going on here?” Anne asked. “Have you two lost your mind?”

“I’m texting Lydia now,” said Jane.

“Would someone please explain,” Anne yelled.

Bill waited for Elizabeth to do so, but she indicated he should go ahead.

“Occasionally, on days that are excessively hot and being inside is unbearable, like today, we engage in a…sport if you will. Something to pass the time.”

“A sport? In this heat?” Chaz asked Jane.

“There’s no concern for a water shortage so we take advantage of that. We play kickball.” Jane smiled innocently.

“Water kickball,” Bill clarified.

“Some call it extreme slip-and-slide kickball,” added Elizabeth. “I’ve texted Lottie and she’s getting the stuff ready.”

“I want in,” Anne said.

“Me, too,” added Chaz.

They both turned to Darcy, Elizabeth did not. She knew he would never engage in such…frivolity…with country folk. Her thoughts almost made her laugh out loud. In her head she could hear him say it in his droll voice. If he only knew what she thought about him.

“You and Elizabeth are on opposite teams?” Darcy asked, and she turned to face him.

Bill answered, “Usually. If we have enough people then we join up.”

Darcy studied her.

“I’m sure you all are more than willing to stay and tough it out in the heat and no electricity, but I’m calling off today and I’m letting all my employees go home,” Elizabeth told him, challenging him to deny her the right.

“What if someone should come by desperate for love and need immediate assistance?”

“We put a sign on the door,” Jane answered.

Elizabeth slid her laptop into her bag and moved to her desk to retrieve her purse. “I’ll see you there, Bill. Have a good day, Mr. Darcy.” She left as fast as her feet could carry her.

At home she collected the blow-up pools, drop cloths, and air pumps. A peek out the window showed Mr. Yelvington had recently mowed, which would make playing all the better. Changing into running shorts and a tight T-shirt, because getting plastic or grass burns was a complication of the game, she and Lottie went out to the pasture to set up. Mr. Yelvington was such a sport that he allowed them to use his water, as their hose wouldn’t reach from her place.

They had the pools blown up and were laying out the drop cloths when Bill showed up with Chaz, Anne, and Darcy. Each of them dressed to participate.

“Bill, what’s going on?” She nodded to Darcy.

“We’re going to play them versus us.” He handed her four bottles of laundry detergent.

“There are not enough of them.” They needed at least five to a team.

“Mary is playing with them.” Bill set out the arches for third base. Each year they added an obstacle to make rounding the bases harder. Last year had been the arches that required sliding under to reach third base and this year was a sprinkler set to go off randomly placed at home base. Nothing distracted a kicker more than a shot of water to the kisser.

“Where do you want these cardboard boxes?” Anne’s arms were laden down.

“Start putting them under the drop cloths.” Elizabeth handed Darcy flat top stakes. “You can pound these into the cloths to keep them still. Please.”

He took them without a word. She wondered if she staked him would it have any affect because his soul was already dead.

Bill used spray paint to mark off the bases, pitcher’s mound, and home base. Kitty and Lydia arrived. Lydia decided to be a backup player should anyone get hurt and need a break or a hospital visit. Elizabeth followed behind Darcy and poured a bottle of laundry soap along the length of the drop cloths.

Darcy whistled. “Someone could hit their heads.”

She didn’t bother to stop pouring but said, “Dare I hope it knock some sense into them?” She flashed him a grin. “You don’t have to play. My little sister Lydia can take your place. She broke her pinkie last time.”

“I’m playing,” he grumbled. He too was dressed in running clothes, and it was funny, really, how she once thought him powerful and intimidating. There was no question that he exuded strength, but she found him so off-putting that he seemed to shrivel in size. Perhaps that was how she coped with the fact that this man could end her career tomorrow—by reducing him.

Bill ran the hose over the drop cloths one final time then gave a sharp whistle to get everyone’s attention. “We’ll let our guests go first. Typical kickball rules, but five innings, four outs an inning. You must run and slide into third.” Bill gestured to the white lines by the slides. “This is the foul line. Please don’t aim for faces, Kitty.” He tossed her the ball.

“I did it once. And we won the game. Who’s complaining?” Kitty, a tomboy from the day she started moving upright, challenged the group. “Anyone?”

“Not me,” Elizabeth said.

A car pulled up on the far side of the field, and Elizabeth strained to see who it was.

“That’s Caroline,” Chaz said, waving.

“I’ll get her a seat in the shade.” Jane jogged off to where Lydia was and set up a chair for Caroline.

Elizabeth wished she could be a fly on the wall at Rosings tonight and listen to what Caroline had to say about all this. Elizabeth would be willing to wager it wouldn’t be kind.

“Places, team,” Bill said. “Lotts, you want to pitch?”

She glared at him. “I always pitch, Bill. Why would that suddenly change?” She snatched the ball from under his arm and stomped off to the pitcher’s box.

Everyone chose to ignore the awkward vibes they were putting out. Besides, burning some energy and being on the same team was likely to bring them around and resolve any issue. Ideally. Elizabeth hoped.

The game started out at a turtle’s pace as the newbies were slowly testing the slide potential. Anne was the most adventurous of all, sliding or jumping into each of the pools. She also scored the first point.

The points added to the scoreboard were slow. One an inning, each team alternating. As the game progressed, Darcy and the others found their comfort zone and were sliding into all the bases.

For as hot a day as it was, they didn’t mind being in the sun. They were having far too much fun.

Bottom of the fifth and only Elizabeth and Bill were left.

She kicked the ball, sending it sailing past second base with Chaz running after it. Sprinting down toward first base, Elizabeth had learned how to shift her weight into the slide and try to control it. She jumped into the first pool and rounded toward unprotected second base. She did the same there and knew Chaz was closing in on her by the way Darcy had his arms up and was weaving around her to get the ball. She dropped, slid under the arches, up the makeshift ramp, and into the pool. She came up sputtering and laughing.

“I’m safe,” she told him as Darcy stood over her, ball pressed between his palms.

“It’s not often I’m impressed, but that was amazing.” For the first time since she met him, he smiled at her.

It was disarming. Unnerving. She was spooked.

“Why are you frowning? I paid you a compliment.” His smile faded.

“And you followed it up with a smile. That’s so unlike you.” She blurted it out, had a moment of remorse, and then decided to let it go.

“You think you know me?”

“I think you’ve been here nearly two weeks, and that’s the first smile I’ve seen. How would you interpret it?” She lay in the pool, enjoying the banter and refreshing coolness of the water.

“I’m about to offer you my hand to help you from the pool. Please be forewarned.” He stuck out his big mitt.

Elizabeth rolled her eyes and laughed. Taking his hand, she let him hoist her up.

“Thank you.”

He grunted, and Elizabeth knew the moment—awkward as it was—had passed.

Bill was up. This was it. The teams were tied. If she could score, they’d win the game. If Bill could come in, too, they’d smoke them. Something Elizabeth fervently wished for.

Bill kicked it long toward third, and Elizabeth took off, she dropped at the halfway mark and slid the rest of the way in. After all, it was harder to tag someone with a ball when they were low to the ground. When she reached the pool, she flipped over to check out where Bill was.

“Come on, Billy, run,” Lottie yelled. She’d apparently forgotten she was mad at him somewhere around the bottom of the third.

Bill was booking along the slides. Going faster than Elizabeth had ever seen him do. She saw him glance at Lottie, and a sick pit of something awful settled in her stomach. Chaz was coming in; Darcy was in prime position to get him out if he tried to push for home. She jumped up and began waving him off. “Stay at third, Bill. Stay.”

But he didn’t listen. He rounded, lost control briefly, collided with Darcy but miraculously managed to keep his balance, for a few steps at least, and then his arms were wind-milling as he attempted to stay upright. At the last minute, he must have decided to take his chance on a slide when he dropped awkwardly on his left side and came barreling into the pool. Elizabeth had jumped out in the nick of time.

With a massive splash, Bill brought home the points that gave Elizabeth bragging power.

“Way to go, Bill,” she said and bent to check him out. He had landed awfully hard.

Anne ran over, her cheeks flushed from the energy of the game. “That was incredible, Bill. You’ve been holding out on me. I could have been playing this every summer? Amazing. And you’re a natural.”

“Thank you,” Bill said weakly, still not getting up from the pool. But Anne didn’t hear she continued to prattle on, excitedly, “You know what, you could even start a league and make some money. It could be a good back up for you now that Mother’s accountant has run off with the majority of both your accounts. Well, and mine too. I’d go in on a team.”

Bill sat up. “Wait. What did you say?”

Darcy placed a hand on Anne’s shoulder, which seemed to calm her instantly. That or the severity of what she’d just tossed out caught up with her.

“You want to have this conversation now or after you’re done at the hospital?” Darcy nodded to the arm Bill was cradling.

Bill looked down and when he removed his hand from his forearm both Elizabeth and Lottie gasped. Already it had swelled to twice its size and was an ugly purplish color.

Jane came between the gathering crowd. “Here, I have this material. We can use it for a sling.” She handed it to Kitty.

“Ha! You all made fun of me for taking CPR when we were younger, but you need me now, don't you? Laughed when I made splints for the dogs. Maybe you all should listen to me and take some classes.” She surveyed the group.

“Kitty,” Jane whispered. “Can’t you see he’s in pain?”

“Oh, all right. I’ll do what I can. Can you scoot out of the pool, Bill?”

He moved forward and winced.

Kitty had him set to go in short time.

“You better be at the hospital waiting for me, Anne de Bourgh. You got’s some ’splaining to do,” Bill yelled over his shoulder as Lottie tried to rush him away.

“Knock, knock, Lotts.”

“Seriously, Billy? A joke?”

He stopped walking. “I’m the injured party. Humor me.”

She shook her head. “All right. Who’s there?”

“Eel.”

“Eel who?” She wrapped an arm across his uninjured side as a way to move him toward the car faster.

“Eel is what this bone will do after the doctor puts it in a cast.” His voice faded as they moved away.

Jane turned to the group. “Let’s clean up and get to the hospital.”

Working together, they broke down the game and stored everything that was salvageable. Not bothering to change, Elizabeth drove Anne to the small Meryton hospital. Chaz and Caroline had begged off, but Darcy was following in his car. A fancy silver Range Rover, naturally.

It wasn’t Elizabeth’s place to ask about the money, though she really wanted to. Lady Catherine needing the money cast a new light on the situation, but it was not one that made Elizabeth feel any better. She and Jane were texting their speculations, and though Jane, forever optimistic, thought this was a good sign, Elizabeth did not. It made Lady Catherine desperate. Elizabeth considered Darcy and Anne. What were their situations?

She wanted to ask. She really did. She also wanted to mention that her team had won. But she couldn’t bring herself to do it, even though she had ample time while they waited.

She turned when the door separating the action from those waiting swung open. Bill and Lottie walked out, Bill with a bright tie-dye cast on his left arm.

“Good news. I broke one bone in one place. Healing should be quick and easy.” He held the cast up. “Sure hope I have the money to pay for this little visit.” He zeroed in on Anne.

“I’m leaving. Lizzy, can you take him home?” Lottie asked.

Elizabeth nodded, relieved she would get some much wanted information first hand. She hated this for Bill and for Anne, but she was trying to save her company after all.

“You aren’t staying? I’d like your insights on this.”

Lottie shook her head. “This is your business, Bill. I have my own to make some decisions about, and before I do so, I need to speak with my parents because it directly affects them.” Following a wave she was gone. Bill stared at the door she’d left from. He turned back to the group.

“So?” He tried to cross his arms, but the cast made it difficult so he stuck them on his hips instead.

“Why don’t we sit?” Darcy gestured to a clump of chairs tucked in the corner of the waiting room.

Elizabeth followed them there but paused before sitting. “Shall I go, Bill? Give you privacy. I can wait outside.” It was the right thing to do.

“Nah, you might as well hear it now instead of later.” He fell into a chair with a heavy sigh. He waited for Anne to start.

She studied her nails and mumbled, “It’s easy really. Mother’s trusted accountant was skimming off the top of every account she had with him.”

Darcy snorted.

“All right, skimming from the top, middle, and the bottom too. He helped himself. We discovered it when I turned twenty-five. I inherited more of my trust fund. You remember how Dad broke it up in three installments? Anyway, I had decided to buy a house and was going to use some of the money for that. I went into the nearest branch to make the transfer. You know Mother, screaming at me about how I was going to take a hit in taxes, but thankfully I didn’t listen or we still might not be aware. When I showed them the statement and it didn’t match the account balance, well, that’s when we started to put it together. He had a computer-savvy friend set up a program to run false statements. It’s very easy.” She smiled apologetically.

Bill sat frozen.

“It took about two weeks to get to the bottom of it all and figure out what the loss was. It’s devastating for Mother. That’s where Darcy comes in. He’s looking into all her holdings to see what he can do.”

Bill wiped a hand down his face. “Why am I just hearing this now?”

Anne glanced at Darcy before answering Bill. “She doesn’t want you to know. Not if you don’t have to know. She was hoping to make up the money and stick it in your account, and you would be none the wiser.”

“I had advised her against this. I thought you needed to know right away.” Darcy said. “Overall, you have a seventy-five percent loss of the total from the account.”

Bill barely nodded that he heard. “Most of that money was from my mother and what the government sent following her death.”

Elizabeth grabbed Bill’s hand and gave a squeeze.

“Thankfully Darcy made sure Mother spread her holdings out, or this guy would have cleaned her out totally,” Anne twisted her finger and glanced at Bill nervously. “I’m sorry, Billy.”

“What about the accountant?” Elizabeth asked.

“I have a private investigator tracking him down. He’s covered his tracks well. Hopefully, but I doubt, he’s hiding in a country that believes in extradition,” Darcy answered.

Elizabeth had to give him points there. At least he wasn’t being passive about the situation. Now that she understood where he was coming from, maybe they could find a common ground from which to approach both of their situations.

Bill stood. “I suppose that’s that. I think I better go home before the pain medicine really kicks in. Ready, Lizzy?”

She stood and nodded.

“Call me if you have any questions,” Darcy said while rising.

Bill and Elizabeth walked to her car in silence. After they were within the confines, the engine running and blasting cool air, Bill vented his spleen.

“Can you believe it?” he yelled while pounding his fist on her dashboard. “Can you freaking believe it? Is that why she offered me a church? Guilt?” After each word, he’d pound some more. Elizabeth worried he might break his fist and then have a cast on each side. “I’m so angry, Lizzy. I need to tear something up.”

“Do you mind me asking how bad is this for you?” If it had been her, she’d have been financially ruined. If she decided to cash everything in to buy out The Bourgh, she’d essentially be in the same position. Financially ruined.

“Thank God my father was fastidious about tithing. I have a separate account that’s healthy, but this…this was a cushion I liked having. It gave me options. Now, I’m not sure I have that luxury anymore.”

“I’m sorry, Bill,” she said quietly.

“And what was with Lotts. Leaving like that?” He faced her. She could see the frustration etched on his face, and she wondered which was more a blow—the money or Lottie leaving? She couldn’t tell.

“She’s not your wife or your girlfriend, Bill. It was really awkward for me to stay. I imagine it would have been similar for her.”

“She’s my best friend. I would hope it wouldn’t be awkward for her,” he bit out.

“Except Lottie doesn’t want to be just your best friend and you know that. When you have a crisis, you call her. When you have a church function, you take her. How many nights a week do the two of you spend together, eating or watching TV? You do charity events together. Where is the separation?”

Bill turned to stare out the window.

“Let me say it like this. When two friends are as close as you two are, when they share as much as you two do, but one of those people wants more, hopes for more, all those things you share start to become painful. They are no longer getting the maximum satisfaction from the relationship.”

“I’m going to lose her, aren’t I?” he asked quietly.

“If you don’t feel the same way. If you don’t want the same things. Then, yes.”

Chapter 19

 AFTER ELIZABETH DROPPED Bill off at his place, he’d choked down another pain pill and lain in bed thinking about…well everything. He’d tossed and turned, and when he did sleep his thoughts created crazy dreams. Riding a roller coaster with no safety belt. Teaching with no class. Lottie not at her café.

The last one brought him round to what he knew was really bothering him. Lottie not being around. He tried to picture what days would be like without her. He couldn’t do it.

He tried to picture himself speaking to a congregation every week, and he couldn’t do that either. Not unless the congregation was made up of teens. That seemed less dull, more impactful.

The one thing he did know he needed to do was pull his application from Meryton Matchmakers. He wasn't husband material. Financially he had very little to offer, and he wasn’t ready anyway. Why pretend simply to make an old lady feel better?

The anger he felt toward himself and Lady Catherine was nothing compared to the tremendous guilt he carried. Had he not brought her into the Bennet sisters’ lives so they’d be better off? Guilt that he’d been so oblivious to Lottie’s desires. Had he been more astute, he might have been able to salvage this relationship.

He knew Elizabeth was right. Something had shifted between he and Lotts, and it wasn’t good. And he found himself right back where he started, trying to picture her not coming around. Not sharing news with her. Not laughing with her.

The cycle was certainly vicious.

Life promised to only get more complicated as today was the last day of school for the summer, and he would find out if he had a job next year. The students loved him. If placement were determined by that alone, he’d be head cheese. But that was too easy, and he was staring down having no position at all.

Bill tossed an arm over his eyes, blocking out the sun, hoping to ignore that it was time to get up and face the world.

His cell phone buzzed on the table next to his bed.

A text from Anne, Mother wants you to come for breakfast.

Darcy. Bill was sure he’d told Lady Catherine that Bill had been brought up to speed. He rolled to his side and winced when he tried to push up with his broken arm. He did the best he could with his grooming, which wasn’t half bad as it was his non-dominant arm that broke. Forgoing a shave in order to gain time, he drove to Lottie’s café for a coffee. He knew they needed to talk, and he thought it best if they scheduled that instead of hoping for an opportunity. That was a surefire way to procrastinate what needed to be said.

When he arrived at the café, he was surprised to find Lottie’s father behind the counter.

“Morning Mr. Lucas,” he called. “Where’s Lottie this morning?”

“Gone.” He handed Bill a large coffee cup.

It was certainly a perk when the owners of his favorite café knew him so well he didn’t have to order.

“Gone? Took the day off?” He filled it with a strong bold brew called Nectar of the Gods and felt a little risqué.

“Nope, went into the city for some business.”

Realization dawned for Bill. “Ah, so she’ll be back later. I’ll come by then.” He sipped his coffee.

“Nah, Bill. She quit the café. Won’t be back in. Said if we want to carry her baked goods, we’ll have to buy them from her. Wholesale, of course.” He chuckled. “Raised a smart one with her, I did. Now it’s Maria’s turn to learn the business.” He stepped away to help another customer.

Lottie quit? Was she in city to seal the deal with Thorpe? The thought of her working with him, much less being alone with him, made Bill want to club someone with his cast. Particularly the Twerpedo. Was she going to live in the city? Coming home only on holiday or funerals? He tried to imagine every day without her in it? He’d still come to the café and if Meryton Matchmakers didn’t close, he could work there. Maybe he’d become a marriage counselor and hang a shingle. But none of that felt normal without Lottie being present. It felt…lonely.

Before he could quiz Mr. Lucas further, his phone vibrated again.

Text from Anne: She’s starting to worry.

Knowing there was nothing he could do at the moment, and that Lottie hadn’t packed her worldly-goods and moved on yet, he banked his panic, and just like that—he had a moment of clarity and a plan. Sighing with relief, he waved goodbye to Mr. Lucas and then drove to Rosings Park. Lady Catherine met him at the door. Something she’d never done before.

“William.” Her voice broke. “I am terribly sorry. It’s awful. Just awful and I’ve—”

“Lady Catherine, please.” He pulled her into a hug. “This could have happened to anyone, anywhere.”

“I feel so responsible and ashamed,” she whispered the last part.

“You have nothing to be ashamed of. But he does.”

She held him tight, her forehead on his shoulder. He wondered if he would have been close with his mother. If he could have gone to her and spilled his heart’s secrets. He said, “I’m not sure I want to have my own church.”

Lady Catherine stepped away and studied him.

“Are you saying…did you feel…have you decided…?” She stopped, appeared to gather her wits before she continued, “What is it you want, William?”

“I’m not sure, but I do know it’s not a church.” He wasn’t ready to share about his stand-up. Her guilt might be deep, but he’d bet it wasn’t that deep. She’d invested a lot of time and energy into him and his chosen profession. Yes, he’d chosen it. If he told her he was going to chuck it all for a life on the road, baring the scars of his youth for some laughs, she’d have a coronary.

Her lips thinned as she stood back, studying him. “I will do my best to support the decisions that you make, William. I’d love to see you lead people; you’ve a natural ability at it. Always have had it. But if that doesn’t make you happy…well, just don’t run off to the Netherlands, dye your hair blonde, and stop talking to me.”

He smiled. “I could never.”

They shared a moment that, for Bill, was what family was all about. Acceptance, even in the toughest of times. Why he’d feared sharing his concerns with her, he didn’t know. It was Lady Catherine, after all, who bailed him out of juvie and pushed him toward a better path. And it was Lottie who had been there every time. Even when he’d been one of the kids who’d vandalized part of her parents’ and the grocer’s storefronts with spray-paint.

“Come have breakfast. Darcy’s man has a report for us about that snake of an accountant.” She led him to a bright breakfast room. Darcy, Henry, Chaz, his sister, and Anne were all at the table. Darcy had a newspaper blocking his face.

“So, are we all good now?” Anne asked. She was wearing short sleeves and her arms, though still scarred, were not as red and welted as they had been.

“What have we here?” Bill asked, pointing to her bracelets.

“Oh, I got those in Africa. And the skin is compliments of Lizzy Bennet. I’m not sure what her sister puts in that cream, but it’s done something.”

Bill smiled and nodded.

“Of course, I won’t go out like this, but it’s too hot for long sleeves. So, there you have it.” She buttered a scone.

“Where’d you get these?” Bill slid into an empty seat and pointed to the pastries.

“We have Lottie Lucas make up some and deliver them daily. They’re excellent. I’m wondering if the coconut oil she uses has something to do with this.” Anne held up her arms before taking a large bite.

“Here’s a dumb question. When’s the last time you had allergy testing? Maybe it’s not eczema but food, or maybe it’s the good living here.”

“Or perhaps it’s boredom. Your rash has expired from boredom and moved on to another exciting host,” said Caroline Bingley. “I’m leaving as soon as I can. Darcy, are you coming with? You must be going out of your mind here?”

“I’m sorry you are unhappy here, Caroline.” Darcy folded the paper then passed it to Lady Catherine who opened it with a crack. He sat back in his seat, his coffee in hand. “I think I like it here. It’s quiet, and we all know how I enjoy that.”

“But the company. There’s no society, nor is there a good place to get a nice dinner. No, I’m headed back to the city.” She sighed as if these matters had worn on her greatly.

“I think I’ll stay a while longer,” said Chaz with a Cheshire grin.

“Chaz has a crush,” sang Anne.

“She’s very nice, Chaz, this Jane, but her family is awful.” Caroline shook her head. “Did you not see the way the mother attacked Darcy? And that article she wrote about him. I can’t support that.”

“Well, I’m not interested in dating her mother.” He stuck his spoon into a grapefruit.

“But they are part and parcel, are they not?” Darcy asked.

Bill felt the need to defend the Bennets, but he lacked anything favorable to say about Mrs. Bennet.

“You won’t find a purer heart than Jane’s.” It was a lame defense, and he knew it. Of course everyone could tell how sweet Jane was. “She’s quite savvy at what she does as well.” He wanted to stuff his foot further into his mouth so he’d shut up. The way Caroline glowered at him, he knew it had been the wrong thing to say.

“I won’t disagree that Jane Bennet is a lovely person. I have enjoyed getting to know her. They say her sister, Eliza Bennet is quite the catch, yet, I’ve found her to be very unbecoming. Overly confident and, dare I say it, a know-it-all.”

Bill cleared his throat.

“Remember Caroline that Bill works with the sisters—” Chaz said.

“They’re my distant cousins, even,” Bill added.

“And Darcy and his aunt are in business with them. Try not to insult everyone in one sentence please,” Chaz said.

“Are you insulted Darcy?” She faced him.

“I’m not in business with them, nor would I be. Too emotional. But I’m not insulted. No. And I don’t believe Lady Catherine is either.”

“How do you find Miss Eliza Bennet?” Caroline asked. “If you agree with me, then I can be smug to Chaz all day.”

“I’m afraid I can’t agree completely, Caroline. I like a strong woman, and Elizabeth Bennet has that in spades. What you call a know-it-all, I call sure-footed. I admire that.” He set down his coffee cup.

“And she’s quite pretty,“ Chaz added.

Darcy stood. “Well, there is that too.” He smiled. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go get that report and share the information.”

****

Standing outside Elizabeth’s house, Lottie leaned against the low stone wall that surrounded Lizzy’s small front yard and watched lights flick on then off, as the sisters moved into or out of a room. Laughter occasionally floated out of a window. She felt her first pangs of…fear? She didn’t regret anything she’d committed to today. Only that with all the changes that were coming, some of it would be bittersweet. Like moving out of the house.

In that moment, it occurred to her that she’d never lived alone. She went from her parents’ house with all her siblings, to sharing a three-person dorm room at college, and from there to Lizzy’s house. But once she closed on the Gardners’ place she would be all alone in that rambling building. Lottie chewed her thumbnail. The sooner she decided if she wanted to turn the apartments into one large place for herself, the faster she could get the renovations done. If she kept them as apartments, then she wouldn’t be alone. Not that she was afraid of that. Nope. She moved on to chew her index fingernail. It was that it was new. Everyone was apprehensive about new. She hoped.

“Penny for your thoughts?” Bill asked from behind her.

Lottie screamed and leaped toward the front door. “Are you crazy? Sneaking up on me like that?”

“I thought you heard me coming. I called your name.” He straddled the stone wall.

“You did not.” She kept her eyes averted. She didn’t want to know if he liked his new haircut or ask if his arm hurt. She didn’t want to know anything more about him. She needed to make it a clean break, and the time to get used to having no Bill in her life was right now!

“Are you calling me a liar?” He chuckled. “Where were you today? I stopped by the café, and your dad told me you quit. What’s going on?”

The words wanted to spill from her. She was excited and scared, and he had an incredible knack for soothing any fears and being just as excited. There was so much about today she wanted to share with him. She’d had the pretend conversations in her head. From making the offer and having it accepted on the Gardner place, to her intense haggle with John Thorpe.

But she said nothing.

Asking about his arm was the only thing she could do. It was casual enough. “How’s it going?” She touched the cast.

“Lotts, come on. What’s going on? I’ll tell you my story if you tell me yours. Lots has happened to me today. Here, I’ll give you a teaser—I lost my job at the seminary. I mean, I’m not being picked up next term.”

Lottie gasped. She had a million questions. “I’m sorry. I know that’s a disappointment.”

He leaned forward and peered at her, studying her face. “What’s going on here?”

The sound of her swallowing the large lump in her throat was so loud the crickets paused their cadence. “We’ve been friends a long time, Bill. But I think now we have to go our separate ways.” She put a hand up to stop his protest. “I love you,” she said with an unapologetic shrug. “The real-deal love. Not because I’ve known you for so long, but because I’ve known you for so long and you just get better as you get older. Does that make sense?” She began to babble. “I mean, those teen years were rough. You were a heathen, and sometimes you made it difficult for people to love you, but I never stopped.”

“Lottie—”

“You don’t get it? I have been waiting for you to come around, to catch up with me for years, and it’s taking too long. When we kissed? I thought, finally! Now it was going to go somewhere, but you fought it. You fought me. And that hurts. And that’s when I realized being around you now is starting to hurt.” She wiped away the tears that coursed down her face.

“I never want to hurt you.” He crossed over the fence and stood beside her. He took her hand in his. “If you give me a chance—”

“I can’t. I can’t even be around you. I’m starting to get angry with you, and soon I’ll resent you. I just want us to go our separate ways on a high note. Preserve what we can.” Gently, she slipped her hand away.

“Please don’t leave, Lotts. I need you here.” He reached for her again, but she stepped toward the door, away from him.

“You need me outside? In the yard? Because you’re ruining my grand departure. I was going to close the door quietly in your face.” She crossed her arms. “Can’t you give me that?”

He furrowed his brows. “I mean, don’t leave Meryton. I don’t know where you’re planning on going, but it can’t compare to here.”

Lottie stepped toward him. “Wait, you think I’m moving away? You think I’m so wrecked about you that I would leave the town I love? Right out of college I had a job offer in the city making insane money, and I turned it down to come back here.” Granted, part of that was related to him but he didn’t need to know that. “You have some ego. Now? Now, I’m going in to slam the door in your face.”

He sprinted around her, blocking her way. “Wait, your dad said you quit and were in the city taking that offer. I just assumed—”

“Well, you assumed incorrectly. Move, Bill.” She waited for him to get out of her way, but he didn’t. “Oh never mind.” She turned on her heel, intending to go in through the back door, but he caught her arm and turned her toward him. Then he dropped to one knee.

“Charlotte Lucas. I am a horse’s ass. I’ve spent a large part of my life believing I didn’t deserve anyone, and when I tried to picture sharing my life with someone, I never could figure out how to work them in around you.” He chuckled, but Lottie didn’t. “Sorry.” He cleared his throat before continuing. “I don’t have a lot to offer you. I lost the job at the seminary school, but I’m okay with that. I don’t want to work for them anyway, with their antiquated ideas that have nothing to do with teaching and even less to do with compassion and tolerance. When those old geezers move on, then I’ll go back. But also, I lost a large chunk of money that would have been a nice cushion for the little Missus and me. Darcy thinks we can get a portion back, but it doesn’t matter. None of it matters if I don’t have you.” He caressed her palm with his thumb.

“I also informed Lady C that I didn’t want a church, so you can see I’m not really a prize. But I’ll figure something out. It doesn’t worry me. What does worry me is losing you. What sent a sharp pain to my chest was you saying I can’t be a part of your life anymore. That I cause you pain. And if that’s true, if that’s what you really want, I’ll go away.” He pulled a small black box from his pocket. He let go of her hand to open the cover. Inside was a large simple solitaire diamond. “I love you, Charlotte Lucas. I love that sometimes when you can’t find floss you use your hair, which is kinda gross when said out loud like that, but I love it anyway. I love how you fold up tight and tuck yourself in the corner of my couch when we watch movies. When you worry, you chew your fingernails. I really love that you work with chocolate and aren’t afraid to find unique and exciting uses for it.”

Lottie’s hands shook. Small tremors pulsed through her, causing her knees to lightly collide with each other. So many emotions filled her that she couldn’t sort but one out. Blissful happiness. Uncertainty followed quickly behind it. Was he on his knees because he loved her or because she was a crutch?

“I don’t know what to say,” she whispered.

“Well, let me officially ask. Will you marry me, Lotts? I can’t promise it will be easy, but I can promise you’ll laugh. And if we go hungry, we can sell your ring.” He stood and held the ring closer. “All it took was one moment where I’d thought you were gone. One moment I felt not part of your life, and it scared me. I tried to imagine you happy with another, and it made me angry. Nothing compares to what we have, and when I thought that was gone—” He shook his head. “I’ve never experienced it before, and I hope I never will again. So now what do you say?”

“I say yes.” She leapt into his arms, wanting him more than the ring.

Behind her, in the house, she heard the sisters clapping and hooting.

“About time,” someone said.

Chapter 20

 CHARLOTTE LUCAS AND William Collins were married a week later in an intimate and private ceremony at Rosings Park. By intimate, no more than thirty people were in attendance. Which to Elizabeth was rather large. But as one can surmise, when Lady Catherine was involved, events tended to grow. Hence the quick date. Had they decided to wait, Lottie knew she’d have a full church wedding with a major gala for a reception. This outdoor shindig suited Lottie perfectly. Bill as well, for that matter. She wore a simple white gauzy dress and Bill a lightweight tan suit, and they laughed throughout the vow exchange, holding hands and grinning like loons.

Elizabeth had asked for Lottie’s permission to rub the nuptials in Darcy’s face, but Lottie had squashed it.

“But it would do me good,” Elizabeth had protested.

“Leave him alone. He’s a good man.”

Elizabeth snorted.

“He is. Quiet, really.”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Why are we talking about Darcy? Look at you. You’re positively glowing. I’m very happy for you, Lottie.” They hugged tightly. “I will miss you in the house.”

“You’ll have to come by the new shop and hang out.”

“Of course. Was there any doubt?” They stood back from each other, smiling.

“This will happen for you too, Lizzy.” Lottie smiled.

“One can hope.” But Elizabeth knew the odds were against her. All the good ones seem to be meant for others. The ones left were arrogant cads like the stiff Darcy. How he had charming friends like Chaz Bingley was astounding.

She left Lottie chatting with Lady Catherine, which could be interpreted as abandonment, but Bill was with her and it was his job to rescue her from these things. Hoping for a distraction, she retrieved her phone from the small bag dangling from her wrist and checked the YouTube stats on Jane’s videos. She’d become quite obsessed with this of late. Jane was getting more hits everyday, and the impact was a steady number of sign-ups. Elizabeth didn’t want to admit it, and certainly not to the likes of Darcy, but she was thankful for the little automation they had put into place. They could have never handled the volume without it.

Jane had stumbled upon something quite brilliant with the videos. Checking her work email, Elizabeth found several new questionnaires in her inbox. She did a double take. Including one from Mary and Colonel Fitzwilliam. Elizabeth found them in the crowd, standing close together but not talking. The casual observer would miss their furtive glances, but she was catching every last one of them.

Could it be? Was it just sexual attraction? And to Mary who acted as if she would expire on the spot from saying any word with sex as its root?

Yet, there it was. The dance of interest. Each moving around the other, staying within a certain radius. Never too close or too far. Elizabeth watched Henry. What did he want from her sister? She flicked her gaze to Mary. What would she be able to give him?

She was still contemplating it when someone held a champagne glass in front of her.

Darcy.

“It’s time for the toast.”

She pushed her phone back into the small bag and took the goblet from him, at a loss for words.

When the toast was finished, she faced him, and touched her glass to his, no longer able to refrain from saying something. “What’s your computer have to say about this?” She nodded to Bill and Lottie.

“They’re a good match, Miss Bennet. But I have to wonder about matches you make for people you aren’t so close to. The question that begs to be answered is: are you able to recognize if you’ve made a poor match and willing to correct it?” He touched her glass a second time with a small clink, nodded once, and then strode away leaving her feeling smug, unsatisfied, and incredulous at the same time. Oh, she wanted to give that man a piece of her mind.

He was a master at the backhanded compliment, and what was he calling her? Too prideful that she’d sacrifice someone’s happiness willingly so as to not appear bad? She hoped his heels would burst into flames. It would be pure entertainment to see him hopping around trying to put it out.

She glanced to his cousin, who was staring at Mary over his own champagne glass.

What would Mr. Darcy have to say about his cousin and her sister?

She smiled at his retreating back, her mind putting a plan into place.

Epilogue

 HAVING DECIDED TO put off a honeymoon, Bill and Lottie focused instead on getting the kitchen at their new place updated. Still uncertain as to what they would turn the bottom portion of the Gardners’ house into, they knew a kitchen for Lottie to create in was essential. They decided to keep the apartments, hoping to rent them out for additional income.

They were coming out from her parents’ café with large coffees in hand and plans to drive into the city for Bill to try his act in front of the bigger names when a scruffy, rail-thin young man approached them.

“Excuse me.” He shuffled nervously. “I’m looking for Padre Bill. I have his card right here.” He held up Bill’s card. “I went to the church, and they told me to try here.”

“I’m Bill. Padre Bill.” He stepped in front of Lottie just in case.

The kid chewed his lip. “My friend Kyle said you really inspired him. He’s getting his life together and well—” His lower lip began to tremble. Bill rested his hand on the kid’s thin shoulder. “I could use some inspiration, Padre.”

“Have you had anything to eat today?” Bill asked.

“No, sir.”

“What’s your name?”

“Michael, sir.”

“Well, It’s hard to be inspired when you’re hungry, Michael. Let’s go inside and get you something to eat.” Bill moved to get the door but Michael stood stock-still.

“I haven’t got any money, sir, and I didn’t come here to beg food.” His voice was gruff.

Lottie had seen an attitude like that before. When Bill was struggling as a teen. She stepped around him and smiled at Michael.

They had fifteen minutes to get on the road, or else they’d likely miss their train into the city. Weathermen were predicating a good rager of a storm that would make traffic a nightmare.

“Bill,” she said quietly, her eyes darting to the large town center clock. “It’s your call.”

He smiled at her, then Michael. “To be more precise, I think it’s my calling. We were just about to go home, Michael, and make dinner. Why don’t you come with us?”

“The deal is, though, you have to help. Then we won’t be giving you a handout. You’d be earning your meal by doing all the work.” She wracked her brain for what was in the fridge that they could make. “Have you ever made chicken cacciatore?” Lottie asked.

“No, ma’am.”

She could see the fear in his eyes.

“You still at home, Michael, or are you living on the streets?” Bill leaned back against the storefront and sipped his coffee.

Lottie wanted to berate someone, Michael’s parents for sure. It broke her heart watching him struggle. She wanted to rush this young kid home, offer him a shower, and then help him find a way to survive. At least Bill had always had her and her family and then Lady Catherine. Where was this child’s protector?”

“I’m on the streets now. Well, I couch surf.” He shuffled again, one step forward, another back showing he was uncertain if he was coming or going.

Then it hit Lottie like a freight train. She knew instantly what she wanted to do with the Gardner house, and there was no doubt it was the right, best thing to do.

“You want a job, Michael?” she asked him.

“A job?” he said.

“A job?” Bill echoed with just as much uncertainty.

“Yeah, a job.” She smiled at Bill before turning back to Michael. “I am opening a bakery. I already have orders to fill I can barely keep up with because I have no help.”

“Hey, I help,” Bill argued.

Lottie sighed. “I have little help. If you aren’t afraid of some hard work, sometimes some long hours, I can teach you all about making…” She didn’t want to make it sound too girly. This scruffy kid with his worn leather jacket might find making a pastry offensive. “Sweets. Desserts. Once we get that down, I can teach you the basics of cooking as well. You would be able to work as an assistant to a chef or even a short-order cook. You interested?”

“You mean like Cake Boss?” He licked his lips.

“Yeah, exactly.” Lottie knew he was so close to saying yes.

“And for free room and board, we can offer you a place to live, you’ll have to help with some renovations—you are eighteen aren’t you?” He turned to Lottie. “Don’t want to get in trouble for child labor.”

“Yeah. I mean, yes sir. I am.” Michael pulled out a state ID to prove he was legit.

“You aren’t wanted by the police are ya?” Bill asked.

“No, sir. Just have to get out of my house. It’s not safe…it’s not good there.” He stood taller when he said it. As if he’d said something so awful, which it was, but in turn was expecting repercussions for it.

“So how about we start with chicken cacciatore?”

“Yeah.” Michael nodded. “That sounds good.”

Bill grabbed Lottie’s hand. “Thank you,” he said and kissed her soundly.

Michael cleared his throat.

“Knock, knock, Michael,” Bill said pushing off the wall. He threw an arm around Lottie’s shoulder.

“Who’s there?” Michael answered. Albeit hesitantly.

“Water.”

“Water who?”

“Water you going to do? Stand there all night? Let’s go eat.” Bill turned Lottie toward the house, and they made for home.

It felt like minutes, but it had to really have been only seconds when they heard Michael’s footsteps fall in behind them.

“My friend Kyle said you were really funny. I hope you got better stuff than that.”

“I do,” Bill said, and winked at Lottie. “I’m the luckiest man in the world.”


.

Click Book for purchase options

Ready for more? Start book 2 today!

Five things Elizabeth Bennet believes William Darcy has single handedly come close to destroying: 
1.  Her matchmaker business- Meryton Matchmakers

2.  Her sister Jane’s hope at finding love and happiness with Chaz Bingley
3.  Her belief that everyone has a heart. So far this doesn’t appear to be the case with stiff, no humor Darcy
4.  Her belief that everyone has a perfect love match. She’d have to search the world a thousand times over and still would not find one for Darcy
5.  Her faith in mankind. Why would a man (Darcy) propose to a woman(her) while saying he thinks its a bad idea? And what about how he treated Geo Wickham? 

Who will Elizabeth's match next?

Following a head injury, Colonel Henry Fitzwilliam is being forced from the military. Angry, Henry finds laughter and comfort with Mary Bennet. Hiding behind a know-it-all persona, Mary's surprised Henry sees through it, no one ever has. Though, no matter how finely sculpted and sweet talking Henry is, she's not about to let him play her. Elizabeth knows Mary and Henry are a perfect match. With some gentle guiding, she finagles opportunities to force them together, it’s up to them to accept or push away what’s before them.