Meryton Matchmakers Book1: Lottie Pursues Bill
A modern Pride and Prejudice Variation
By Kristi Rose
THEY CONTINUED TO walk in silence. Bill was certain, like him, Lizzy was lost in thought. Perhaps hers wasn’t as erratic or random as his. He’d thought about what might be coming tomorrow or the day after, but then he’d jump to the future and try to picture it in broad terms.
Funny, how he also saw himself working at Meryton Matchmakers.
Not so funny that yet again his single status was a discussion item.
Having been left to his own devices for so long after his mother died, he was used to having no one waiting for him at home. Why should that change? He liked his little one-bedroom apartment in the now converted split brownstone. It didn’t need any feminine touches. It was perfectly suitable, and when he thought about adding to his life, well, he couldn’t picture it. What did he have to offer? His infinitesimally small pay? His juvie record? Would it impress a girl to know he could still pick locks?
Maybe it was not meant for everyone. Or maybe it was only meant for those who wanted it.
The big issue at Seminary school was not how well he taught his class or the quality of his lessons. No, it was that he was unmarried. For some stupid archaic reason, the elders who ran the school felt temptation was greater for the single man. Bill thought temptation was temptation, and the person’s character was the key. Single or married. Go figure.
It ticked him off that they dangled different churches or seminary promotions in front of them. He wasn’t immune to success. There was a strong competitive streak in him he’d managed to mask. Like any man, he wanted to climb the professional ladder and be the best he could be. But when he looked at the top, well, it didn’t appeal to him half as much as competing for the positions did, quite frankly. When he considered those positions in isolation, they didn’t really appeal either. Nah, he liked the eager, new students coming in, either overly confident or terribly afraid—either way uncertain of the path they were about to embark upon. He liked knowing he was guiding them. It was rewarding, and getting married simply so he could keep doing that seemed downright unfair. It irked him, it really did. Which was probably more reason why he wasn’t married. Bill wasn't about to make a big decision like that based on someone else's opinions and beliefs.
On the flip side, he was acutely aware the other jobs that gave him the greatest satisfaction were the ones that placed him one-on-one with someone. Counseling at Meryton. Teaching and mentoring at the school. He liked when there was nothing between him and God, no middleman to jack things up.
Sure, he knew it reflected on him negatively that he wasn’t married with a pack of kids. How could a counselor talk of the marriage traps when he himself had yet to experience them? But when Bill thought about himself in the future, he didn’t see a little Missus. Problem was, his future vision was shortsighted because what he did see was watching gory flicks with Lottie and experimenting with her wacky cupcakes.
As if on autopilot, their walk led them to Lottie’s shop.
Elizabeth paused and glanced at her watch. “I was supposed to come for lunch. I’m a bit early.” She seemed confused. As if this would be a problem for Lottie.
“Call it brunch.” He opened the door and gestured for her to enter. “The timing is perfect because the lunch crowd hasn’t come yet. You’ll get more time with her.”
Elizabeth nodded. “Yeah, good call.”
A few stragglers were sipping tea, reading books, or working on their laptops. Bill followed Lizzy to the counter.
“Give me something spiced up, Lottie.” Lizzy pounded her hand on the counter. “I’ve had an awful day, and it’s not yet noon.” She pointed to Bill. “All because his Lady Catherine needs to make more money.”
Lottie met Bill’s gaze. He knew she was thinking of their conversation yesterday when he’d struggled between warning them and potentially causing problems that might not come to fruition. Except, today they had.
“Maybe she needs something calming. Like that tea you favor—chamomile, is it?” Bill grimaced and shook his head.
“What's this all about?” Lottie asked.
“The Bourgh is giving us forty-five days to buy her out or go automated so we can turn heavier profits. Large numbers make her happy. And she said she wants us to get married.”
LOTTIE’S HEART FROZE.
Bill did not need to be rushed into marriage. He was already getting flack from the school and now Lady Catherine? If he were to take this edict seriously, would he’d look right past her? She was afraid he would. She hadn’t planned or currently possessed the courage to make her desires known. More accurately, she’d planned on easing him into it until one day he woke up and assumed they’d fallen in love naturally.
Her mind scrambled to find the right words to ask the question. But she didn’t even know what to say.
Would he take this seriously? Of course he would! On some level, of course, because he took nearly everything to heart that came from Lady Catherine. As if his own dearly departed mother had whispered it into Lady C’s ear and she were simply the messenger passing it along.
“Lady Catherine said you should get married?” she stammered and turned wide eyes to Bill.
“Yes, she said all of us should get married. Who would want to be matched by unwed people, she said… She's really something else! Oh, hand me a scone, please.” Elizabeth blustered.
On automatic pilot, Lottie reached into the display and pulled out a scone, forgetting to use gloves or even paper to pick it up. It didn’t bother Elizabeth, though, who took it and bit right in.
“Wait, tell me again. She thinks all of you should be married together or she thinks you and Bill should be married?” Lottie forgot how to breathe as she waited for the answer. Her lungs burned from lack of oxygen.
Bill laughed. “No, she didn’t say we should get married—as in me and Lizzy.”
Lottie sucked in a deep breath.
“She said the company was run by too many single people who didn't know anything about marriage and maybe that was part of the problem with the profits. Who wants to seek help from people who can’t find love themselves, much less aren’t married?”
“I see,” Lottie said, letting her body relax against the counter. “For a second I thought she suggested the two of you get married.” Not that Bill had ever shown an interest in Lizzy. But she was very pretty and a strong, confident woman. Bill was drawn to those types. To believe something like that could never happen was only an invitation for it to happen. Murphy’s Law.
Bill tossed back his head and laughed, deep and loud. “Me and Lizzy,” he said between guffaws.
“Did I miss the joke?” Elizabeth asked Lottie, whose response was to shrug.
He stopped for a second, his face contorting in an effort to gain control. “Do you not know our Lizzy? To think Lady Catherine could make a suggestion and our Lizzy would go through with it, even entertain it really, is pretty funny.” He leaned closer to Lottie. “She’s so stubborn that even if the right man was standing before her, even if it was me, she’d never see it.” He wiped mirth from his eyes.
“Lady Catherine had suggested—” Lottie defended.
“And of course you thought I’d jump.” He shook his head.
“It’s not that. It’s that I know you respect her counsel.”
“So much I’d marry Lizzy?” He began to laugh again.
“Why are you laughing?” asked Elizabeth. “It’s not that obscene of an idea, is it?”
Bill stopped laughing, but his lips continued to twitch. “No, of course not. We’re not very suited are we, though? You want to hang out with Lady Catherine when she comes to town? I can picture how that would go down.” Though he’d probably get some good stand-up material. Bill shook his head. “Granted, we are the same religion, but we are also distant cousins, and there’s something wrong with that. I mean our ancestors might’ve done it. But no thanks. Not this day and age. Not really going to happen.”
“I think I’ve just been insulted,” said Elizabeth. “This is one fine day.” She shoved another bite of scone in her mouth.
“How about I grab some food and we can sit and chat?” Lottie offered. “I’d like to hear more about today.”
Elizabeth nodded, mouth full, and indicated to a table. The café door chimed as it swung open, and Darcy entered. Henry, Anne, and Jane behind him.
Elizabeth choked and swallowed audibly. “Oh great. Is no place sacred?” she mumbled.
WELL, YOU KNOW the church is,” Bill answered and elbowed her in the ribs.
Elizabeth turned and started moving toward the back door.
“Where are you going?” Bill asked, grabbing her elbow.
“Church. I bet he can’t pass over the threshold.” She made devil horns near her ears.
“Come on. How are you going to know how to beat them or meet this challenge if you have no idea how they work or what they're planning?”
True. It didn’t make her feel any less petulant, though. Wasn’t she allowed to have her moment to sulk and stomp her feet before she moved into action?
Darcy sat at the table she’d selected moments earlier, his broad shoulders making the chair appear child sized. He sat stiff, one hand on his upper thigh. Elizabeth knew no one was speaking by Jane’s downcast eyes and lack of interaction. She was playing with her cuticles under the table. Something unlike her normally pleasant sister.
Anne came up to where they were standing. “I thought I might get us all something to drink.” She showed them Lottie’s chalkboard with the daily specials. “Tell me about this Spicy Feisty,” she asked Lottie.
“It’s Mexican hot chocolate-chocolate cupcakes with chili frosting, and I have a variety of spicy coffees as well. Your options are Spiced Coconut Coffee, Hot Pot Coffee—which has a pepper flavor, and Indian Spiced Coffee—which is more chai in flavor.” Lottie was the most creative person Elizabeth knew, and she beamed at her friend.
“Wow, all those sound awesome. Can we get—” She turned to do a head count. “Four of those Spiced Coconut coffees?” Anne looked at Elizabeth and Bill and the cups in their hands. “I’d get you two something, but you’re already set.”
Elizabeth watched the ease at which Anne spoke with Lottie and Bill. She came across open and receptive, and Elizabeth was hit with a pang of remorse for her behavior.
“I’m sorry for being rude earlier,” Elizabeth said.
Anne brushed it off. “Listen, if some battle-ax came in and told me what to do, I’d be rude too. Heck, I might dye my dark hair blonde, cut it off in a cute boyish style—if I do say so myself—and jet off on my own to have sex with strangers across the globe.” She wagged her brows. “Just pretend you didn’t hear that, Bill.”
“Easy enough,” he said. “Because I don’t believe you.”
Anne drew back and stuck her hands on her hips. “What part seems unreal to you?” She gestured to her blonde short hair.
“Yeah, the part about the strangers. You’re a cautious person by nature and a private one at that.” He touched her covered arm causing Anne to jerk away. Poking out from her sleeve was red, flaky skin.
Elizabeth wanted to ask but held her tongue.
“You’re such a buzz kill, Bill. Keep that info to yourself. It’ll hurt my reputation as a player.”
Bill snorted. “I swear to God I won’t tell a soul.” He crossed his heart and nodded to Elizabeth. “What about her? You gonna have her taken out or something?”
Anne scanned Elizabeth up and down. “Nah, she looks the sort who knows how to keep her mouth shut.” Anne winked and Elizabeth smiled. Perhaps working with Anne wouldn’t be so awful. She was easygoing. But the remark about sleeping with strangers. Hm, an idea teased at Elizabeth’s brain. One about love and marriage and Anne de Bourgh’s lonely heart.
“Shall we join the others?” Anne asked and took the tray of coffee from Lottie.
“Let me grab some food, and I’ll be right over.” Elizabeth smiled before turning back to Lottie. “Set me up with an assortment, please. Also, you still have that cream Lydia made you? For the chafed hands you get from the hot water?”
“Yeah, it’s in the back.” Lottie gave her a puzzled look.
“Can I take it? I’ll get you more tonight from home. I think Anne might need it.”
‘Sure. I’ll bring it out with the food.” Lottie narrowed her eyes. “Why are you smiling? You had a glower to scare the meanest man, and now you’re all bright eyes and smiles. What’s up?”
“I have an idea. One that will help the company and make a girl happy, too. I see someone who needs to be matched.”
“Oh my God,” Lottie whispered and clasped her hands to her red cheeks. “Please don’t tell Bill. Please. He’s not ready to know how I feel.”
Elizabeth felt her mouth drop open and she quickly slammed it shut. She leaned as far over the counter as she could. “I wasn’t talking about you.”
Lottie’s eyes bulged.
“But now that I know how you feel, you sly dog, I’m going to add you to the list.” Elizabeth pushed her friend in the shoulder. “Why didn’t you ever say anything? I’m a matchmaker, for Pete’s sake.”
Lottie shook her head. “No, he can’t know. Ever.”
“Which will make marrying him kinda difficult. Don’t you think?” Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Lottie, you’re his best friend. There’s not a better foundation to build love upon than that. And half the work is already done. We just have to make Bill aware.”
“I’m not his type.”
Elizabeth waved off such ridiculousness. “Please! How so? You aren’t what he’s physically looking for? Nope, he wouldn’t be friends with you if he found you repulsive. Take Darcy over there. I find him so repulsive that there’s not a snowball’s chance in Hades anything could come of it. And it’s not that he’s ugly. No. He’s quite attractive. It’s his core that turns me off. He destroys businesses for a living. I mean seriously? What’s redeemable about that? But you and Bill—no, this is good. Real good.”
“I will spike all your food and drinks with laxatives if you so much as murmur a word to him.” Lottie dropped her hands from her face and stabbed a finger at Elizabeth. “You got me?”
Elizabeth feigned horror but lost it to laughter. “Loud and clear. But I’m not worried. I won’t have to say anything.” She winked at her friend and backed away from the counter singing in a hushed voice. “Lottie and—ahem—sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G.”
Lottie threw a bagel at her, which Elizabeth caught and burst out laughing. When she turned toward the party waiting for her, she found them all watching, Darcy's frosty blue eyes drawing her attention.
Elizabeth slid into the last empty chair and caught her sister's eye. “What’s this about?”
Henry, sitting to her right, leaned back and shifted toward her. “I’d first like to state that we are here, in this situation, because we work for our Aunt— Anne’s mom. We are not here because we see you as the weak gazelle on the plains and have formed an attack. She wants one thing from you and another from us, and part of that includes what she laid out earlier. So I hope you understand we aren’t here to purposefully make your life miserable.”
Elizabeth searched his face for some twitch or indication he might be conning her. Though in her most rational part of her brain she knew they were simply doing their job, yet that did nothing to make her feel less hunted. Less like a target.
“Because it’s not personal, it’s business.” She said.
Darcy shifted in his seat.“Precisely.”
Elizabeth huffed, “Says the person with nothing at stake.”
Darcy leaned toward her suddenly, “All of us here have something at stake. It may not be exactly what you have, but for each of us it’s valuable.”
Elizabeth met his unwavering stare with one of her own. Oh, the poor billionaire. What could he possibly have at stake with this situation? Certainly not money. If he were getting a cut of the sale, the amount to him would equate to pocket change. “Is that so?” She challenged.
“Okay, let’s move away from what puts us here and get to the gist. My mom wants to make more money or have you buy her out—”
Bill shook his head. “Is there no way to discuss this further with her?” he asked both Anne and Darcy. Each shook their head.
“As I was saying—” Anne elbowed Bill, and the teasing lightened the mood a bit. Elizabeth had to remember that Bill, a person’s whose life’s work was to not take sides unless sin was in question, was squarely in the middle of this. “I understand that you’re not sold on going full-on automated. I respect that. But I need to do something. I don’t do idle well and in an act of good faith—I’d like to show Mother you aren’t closed off to technology completely. If you’re willing, I’d like to update your website. It’s a tad pedestrian.”
Elizabeth and Jane exchanged a glance and a smile. “A tad?” Elizabeth said, holding her hands three feet apart.
Everyone but Darcy laughed.
“It’s something we’ve been talking about for a while,” Jane added.
Anne clapped her hands together, clearly pleased. “Fabulous. I’d also like to put a page up there for testimonials.”
Jane’s laugh was soft and loaded with frustration. “We’ve been trying to get testimony. You’d be surprised at how many people don’t want others to know they used a matchmaker. I see these couples on TV who admit to using online services, and I swear they must be actors.”
“Or paid handsomely,” Elizabeth added.
“Let’s create the page anyway and see what we can do. Can you think of anyone who might be willing?”
“I’d do it if I’d been a customer,” Bill said.
Elizabeth had an idea and it could be seen as an act of goodwill. “Do you think it would be easy enough to get our questionnaire online?”
Anne snorted. “Not only would it be possible, but I can make it private and automate straight to you. Give me something hard to do.” Her smile was sincere and inviting, and though Elizabeth had no intention of cavorting with the enemy, it was easy to not see Anne as such.
“Here you are,” Lottie said and placed two plates laden with baked wonderfulness before them all.
Darcy pushed the plate closest to him toward Anne. “Do you have any fruit?”
“I do. I’ll bring it out.” She handed Elizabeth the small jar of lotion she’d asked for.
Anne took a large chocolate muffin off the plate and set it before her. “Once we get through these negotiations I’m going to reward myself with this morsel of goodness.”
“Each day she does a different theme. Ironically, today’s feels very apropos.” Bill took his own cupcake from the plate, peeled the paper from the sides, ripped the bottom off, and stuck it on top of the icing then bit into it. Dark ganache seeped out. “Cripes, this is sinful,” he said before taking a second bite.
“Ok, I can’t wait.” Anne bit into hers and sighed with delight. “This is insanely good.” She brushed dark crumbs from her mouth. “I shouldn’t eat this stuff but OH MY WORD!”
Lottie had come to the table with Darcy’s plate of fruit. “I’m glad you like it. I hope you saw the disclaimer by the pastry counter—I don’t use any dairy products; almost all my pastries are vegan. Not because I am, but because I noticed it takes the majority of allergens out of the equation. The peppers you taste in the ganache came from your mother’s garden. Bill stole them for me.”
Bill choked. “I did not steal them. They were withering on the vine so I rescued them.”
Anne smiled. “At least they’re being used.” She paused then raised up her arm and lifted back the edge of her sleeve to expose the red, welted skin. “I have eczema, and so I should really watch what I eat. Not that I’ve been successful with elimination diets in the past.”
“Here,” Elizabeth handed her the small jar. “Our sister Lydia makes this cream. Lottie’s hands used to be awfully chafed from all the hot, steaming water and cleaning. This cream has worked wonders. I’m not saying it will do the same for you, but it might be worth a try.”
Anne shrugged, “I’ve tried everything under the sun. Why not this?” She tossed the small jar into her purse.
“Are we done here?” Darcy asked. His fruit plate untouched.
“You’re the ones who came here? You tell me if you’re done?” Elizabeth crossed her arms over her chest.
“I think we are. We can discuss everything else tomorrow.”
He was an unmoving solid brick. Only his blinking and the subtle moves of his mouth when he spoke gave any indication he was human and not solid mass. She imagined him to be quite the hunter. Able to out wait his prey. Elizabeth took in Henry, Colonel Fitzwilliam. His short military-cut hair and the bulky dive watch on his wrist. Both of these men were predators. One on the battlefield, the other in the corporate arena.
If she were to stack them against Meryton Matchmakers, she and her sisters didn’t stand a chance. She and Jane were going to have to step-up their game.
“Ah, actually, tomorrow we have a mixer in the town park. We have several potential clients, current clients, and successful matches coming. We also have the media as well. So we will be a little bit busy tomorrow.” Calling her mother—New England’s biggest gossip—the media was a stretch. Though her column, which ran in several tell-all magazines, was wildly popular, it would be difficult to get the positive press from her that they needed.
What was the saying? Even bad press was press? Elizabeth held fast to that belief. Not that their mother would write bad or inaccurate remarks about Meryton—it was more that she would gloss over them in general or find ways to scandalize the situation. But Lydia had mentioned the party and Mother had invited herself and the rest was—as they say—history.
“I can push this out on social media?” Anne asked and reached for a scone.
“Yes, please.” Jane said. “I’ll give you all the passwords.”
“Good. Let’s be done.” Darcy stood.
“Hang on.” Elizabeth stood as well. “If we have to be open to this whole automation process you need to spend some time doing things our way as well. So I expect to see you all at the barbeque tomorrow.”
Darcy shook his head. “I have friends arriving. My lawyer and his sister.”
“Bring them.” Elizabeth was not going to let him off so easily. “What time do they arrive?”
Darcy looked over his her shoulder. Probably trying to come up with an excuse.
Elizabeth was determined to not give him an out. “Please know that I fully realize updating the website is the first step in your automation process. I’m sure this was something that was strategized before our first meeting.” She knew she was right when he glanced at Henry, who coughed. She smiled smugly at Darcy.
Darcy shifted and slid his hands into his pockets. “Fine. We’ll be there.”
“Great.” She pressed her lips together into a thin smile. Game on!
He stood and, following a brief nod to Jane and Lizzy, left. His colleagues behind him.
“I almost want you to go with them, Bill, and spy,” Elizabeth said and slid back into a chair.
Bill shook his head. “He’s not saying anything of interest. He’s the sort who, when he has an idea he wants to push forward, will tell us all at the same time.”
Lizzy quirked a brow to show her uncertainty then turned to Jane. “You okay?” She was unusually quiet.
Jane chewed her lower lip before answering. “Yes, I’m fine. I need to ask Anne something. I have an idea and will talk to you tonight at home.” She stood abruptly and dashed out the door.
Elizabeth shrugged. “Speaking of ideas, when Anne gets the questionnaire online—would you mind giving it a test run?” She felt bad fibbing to a pastor, so she dropped another hint. “I mean you can then show The Bourgh you’re serious about getting a wife. Whether you are or not.”
Bill sat back in his chair and rubbed his chin. “I certainly don’t like being told to get a wife.”
Elizabeth laughed. “Tell me about it.” She glimpsed Lottie watching Bill from across the room. When she saw Elizabeth looking her way, she turned and went into the kitchen.
“If you’ll excuse me, Bill, I’m going to have lunch with Lottie and set all this aside for now.” She stood and stretched, letting the tension fall away from her.
“I’m off to the school. Got a lecture to give.” He snagged an apple strudel and then pushed away from the table.
Following a quick wave goodbye, Elizabeth skirted around the counter and went into the kitchen where Lottie stood before a large pantry, not moving.
“Hey, is it okay I’m back here?”
Lottie jumped and faced her. “Sure. I was just thinking about tomorrow’s theme.”
“Perfect,” she said. “I’m excited to showcase my maple and bacon cupcakes.”
“Sounds incredible. Any chance you can put a magic elixir in there to make everyone fall in love with the right person?”
Lottie leaned against the wall. “If I had such a thing, I might have dumped some in Bill’s coffee every day.”
Elizabeth searched her face and saw the fear and uncertainty there. “Except you fear he wouldn’t fall for you?”
Lottie gave a sad shrug.
“You never know.”
“I know he sees me as little Lotts from next door. I don’t think he’s even noticed I have these.” She pointed to her chest. “Not once has there been even a smidge of potential interest from him. Only on my side. I was hoping time would bring him around.”
“That’s been your plan? Time?” Elizabeth shook her head. “No, sometimes men need to be shown what they’re missing.” Elizabeth snapped as if the idea had just come to her- except it had been brewing for a while. “You should fill out our matchmaker questionnaire. Let him know you’re open and looking.”
Lottie paused and played with the end of her braid. “Maybe. That might be a good first step.”
“Listen, I don’t give you advice about cupcakes. But I do take your advice when I’m baking.” She shrugged to show there was no ill will intended. “Maybe give my matchmaking skills a shot.”
Lottie nodded. “Okay. I’ll do it!”
Game. Set. All Elizabeth needed was to get the match!
DINNER AT ROSINGS Park was much like he expected. A long litany of what he needed to improve, how to improve, and even suggestions for future scenarios should they occur. It made him feel loved and comfortably cared for in the bosom of his pseudo-family.
Bill knew he was lucky. Life could have been filled with only his contentious father for company and a long jail stint for petty crimes. He said a prayer of thanks.
Tonight’s theme was find Bill a wife and improve his life. Dangling over him was the position at Lady Catherine’s church in New York City. It was a prestigious position to be sure.
“Make her quiet, a good listener,” she said to Bill at the beginning of the evening. During cocktails. “Your wife should be of modest personality and presentation. Wouldn’t you agree, Darcy?”
His nod made it appear as if he was listening, but the vacant look in eyes spoke a different story.
During the actual meal, however, Lady Catherine lost steam and became distracted and more reposeful than he knew her to be. Generally, she would turn her advice on anyone who would listen and carry on with it during the evening.
Regarding Bill, her favorite topics were about marriage and the church and some about his father and how Bill should not shut him out completely. And her usual favorite topic—money. However, nothing on money tonight. Probably because of the situation with Meryton matchmakers. One could say many unflattering things about Lady Catherine, but they would never be able to say she encouraged gossiping and would ever put him in the position of being, well, where he felt he was—in the middle. And he appreciated it. He didn’t want to know anything he didn’t need to know. He’d rather find out when the sisters did, honestly. He’d feel like a traitor if Lady Catherine confided secrets to him about Meryton.
Feigning a headache, Lady Catherine retired immediately after dinner and Anne and Bill took drinks out on the large brick terrace that extended into the back yard. Several large hurricane lamps glowed in the night.
“Want to see what I did with Meryton’s website?” She flipped open the laptop she’d brought out with her, typed with rapid speed, then swiveled the computer around so he could see the screen.
Bill was impressed. “Wow, you did that today?” It was a completely new design that managed to couple a modern feel with the intimacy of the company.
“Well, truth is I started the framework on the plane. The sisters had a great foundation, and I built on that.”
He loved the warm colors. “Have you shown them?”
“I sent Elizabeth and Jane a text. I haven’t heard anything back yet.” Her gaze dropped but quickly sprung back up.
“It’s likely they’re busy with the event tomorrow and haven’t checked. You’re going to blow them away with this.”
“I don’t want to make enemies.”
“You won’t. Unlike this guy.” Bill pointed to Darcy who’d come out onto the terrace.
“Mind if I join you? I won’t impose. I’m not staying long. I’m getting up early to run.” He slid into a chair and rolled his shoulders back, letting out a deep sigh.
“Stop,” Anne said. “You can stay the entire time, drink too much, and do a striptease on the table, and you’d still not be imposing. Though the tease would get really awkward since we’re related and all. Bill here was saying you’re doing a bang-up job making enemies.”
Bill tipped his beer toward Darcy. “How long do you plan on being around?”
“Not long. I have no timeline, but I expect a few days max. Trying to get me to leave sooner?” He kicked his legs out and crossed them at the ankle.
“Nope. I was wondering how we might make the tension between you and Lizzy ease up some. It’s going to be hard to negotiate any change with resistance being the first reaction.”
Darcy stared at the drink in his hand before sliding the tumbler onto the table. “I’m here because Aunt Catherine needs me to be here. I’m here because Henry needs me to be here. As soon as I can, I will leave and go home because Georgiana will be finishing school and needs me. That is what’s important to me. I wish Elizabeth was able to set aside her emotions and find objectivity—and maybe that might still happen—but that is not my concern. Now, if you’ll excuse me. The sun rises early.” Slowly, he pushed from the chair and stood.
At the same time Henry, wearing running shorts and an Army T-shirt, came across the yard and stepped onto the terrace. “You leaving? Is it me?” He teased his cousin by sniffing his pits. “I had a great run. This is a beautiful town and thanks for that running tip, Darcy. Perfect.” They exchanged a fist bump.
“I’m off to check a few financial things, my email, call my sister, and get caught up on sleep. When Aunt Catherine called I was in Nepal. I’ve yet to acclimate the time change.”
Bill couldn’t find any sign of fatigue or jet lag, no excessive yawning, no bags under the eyes. William Darcy was a man who didn’t allow such things. He’d been taught and mastered schooling emotions. Trouble was, even in the privacy and comfort of his family home, he was having trouble letting his guard down.
“Planning on Everest are you?” Bill admired Darcy’s drive to summit the major peaks. But Everest never appealed to him.
“I did it. Had just come down when I got the call.” He nodded, slapped Henry on the back, and reached for his tumbler. Like a bandit raccoon, Anne snatched it before he could.
“I'll finish this for you.” She smiled. “Mine’s empty, and I’m too lazy to go in and get another.”
Darcy motioned toward the glass. “It’s yours.”
“What’s next now that Everest is done?” Bill stared at the man he’d known since they were boys. For someone who’d just accomplished a huge goal, there was an emptiness that Bill had seen before. A deep loneliness perhaps? The loss of his parents within such a short time frame would certainly leave anyone looking the same, but Bill expected a little shimmer of something. Heck, the only time he’d seen Darcy come alive, such as it were, was when he talked about his sister. It was quite sad, actually.
“That’s the big question I suppose,” Darcy said. “Good night all. See you in the morning.”
Trouble with William Darcy was he’d always exhibited a quiet, more reserved nature. If he were lonely, perhaps, it might be hard for his friends to know. Bill could not recall an incident of an argument or flared temper. Darcy's steadiness was much to admire, yet, Bill's instincts told him Darcy being surrounded by people who loved and cared for him might be the best place for him. He made a mental note to reach out to Georgiana and see if she could come here instead of Darcy leaving.
Henry dropped in to Darcy’s vacated chair. He pulled the computer toward him. “Nailed it, Anne. This is great.”
“I have the questionnaire done as well. Who wants to give it a go?” She scooped the ice from Darcy’s tumbler and popped it into her mouth.
Henry cuffed Bill on the shoulder. “He’s the one—how had Aunt Catherine put it? Should have found a wife long before now. Slacker.”
“Gee, thanks.” Bill remembered Elizabeth’s advice about filling it out to show Lady Catherine he was actively trying. Basically, he should lie.
Anne pushed the computer in front of him.
Bill chose to focus on Henry. “You’ll have to forgive my prying Henry, but what are you doing here? If this is how you enjoy your time away from the Army, you really need to try something else. The beach or the mountains or something.”
Henry’s laugh was more derisive than humorous. “Thanks but no thanks, I’m all set with sand and overly warm climates. Three tours into the sandbox have sufficiently cured me of any desire to see a grain of sand again.” He stared out into the darkness. “In fact, the lush green here is very appealing.”
Anne snorted. “That’s not all that’s appealing. I saw you making eye at one of those sisters. The church one. What’s her name?” She turned to Bill.
“Mary.” Bill suddenly felt very protective of Mary and all the Bennet sisters. “She’s a bit fragile these days. Trying to find her place.” He hoped Henry could read the warning he was trying to impart.
“So is Henry. Our boy Hank is saying goodbye to the Army and hello to corporate life. He’s the next Darcy.”
Henry rubbed his hands down his face and sighed so heavily even Bill felt the weight he was carrying. He said nothing; experience had taught him that silence sometimes was what people needed.
Anne scooped another ice cube.
Henry took the drink from her and tossed it back, finishing it in one swallow. When he set the tumbler down he looked at Bill. “They want to medically discharge me, Bill. Do I look sick to you? I have a few scars here.” He showed one that ran several inches long and a thumb’s width that ran up the back of his calf. “I have all my limbs. I have my wits, but because I’ve had one too many concussive hits and have this little tremor—” he stuck out his hand which shook like a leaf blowing in a mild wind. “I’m no longer fit for duty. Seems snipers aren’t allowed tremors.”
Bill leaned toward him. “I’m sorry, Henry. That completely sucks. You’ve given your life for the service, and I’m sure this was not the outcome you expected. I’d be pissed too.”
Henry stared at Bill for a long second then a slow smile spread across his face. He ducked his head briefly before saying, “Thanks, Bill. If one more person tells me I’m lucky to be alive I might snap. But I’ll adjust to this new normal, right.”
Bill shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not. My suggestion is to not set a time frame to it. This may not be your next path. Be open to new ideas. Even if they’re crazy.”
Henry chuckled, “You mean crazier than this? Stepping into corporate America wearing Darcy’s shoes?”
“True,” laughed Bill.
Anne kicked out her legs and propped them up on the edge of Henry’s chair. “It’s crazy beautiful. I for one love having all of you here and being a part of this project. It’s been a long time since any of us have gotten together, and I’m sure even longer since we relaxed. This is going to be good for us. I can feel it in my bones.”
Henry knocked her feet from his chair. “You want to hug now or something?”
“Jeez, you’re already starting to sound like Darcy,” she teased and put her feet right back where they were moments before.
“Looky here, Bill’s filling out the questionnaire.” Henry tapped the screen.
Bill had clicked the START button, and before he’d realized was reading and answering the questions. Shoot, all this marriage talk was making him weak.
ELIZABETH TURNED HER laptop toward Jane and Lottie so they could see the new website.
Jane’s mouth dropped.
“You think I could have her work on mine,” Lottie asked while leaning toward the screen. “This is really incredible. It’s beautiful.”
Jane picked up her phone. “We should tell her.”
“Wait,” Elizabeth said. “I feel conflicted. Do we get excited about the website—which is technology. Or—”
“Stop,” Jane scolded. “Anne is not our enemy. She’s only doing her job. I know this is an us against them situation, but the them here is Lady Catherine. Not Anne. Not Henry—”
“Don’t say it, Jane. You can’t exclude Darcy. For all we know this whole thing came to The Bourgh’s attention because of him. I’m not willing to be gracious about him just yet.”
Lottie raised her brows. “I can’t imagine what his day to day must be like. Always the guy who’s taking something away from people. It’s no wonder he’s reserved.”
“Reserved! Ha. Try distant. Cold. His heart is probably a shriveled frozen mass like those glacial eyes of his.”
“My, that’s er…” Jane looked to Lottie who shrugged. “Ah, I think I’ll send Anne a text anyway.”
“Here’s the questionnaire, Lottie. You should fill it out.” Elizabeth pushed her computer toward her friend.
“Tonight?” Lottie pushed it back.
“Yeah, tonight. We want to start in on Bill right away.” Elizabeth had filled Jane in with Lottie’s permission.
“All right. I suppose you’re right.” She reached across the table to click the START button.
Elizabeth chuckled and repositioned the computer so it was in front of Lottie.
After a few clicks and some typing Lottie stopped and cleared her throat. “I was thinking that maybe I should have a makeover or something. Maybe cut my hair.”
Lottie pulled the band from her hair and waves of rich dark brown hair fell past her shoulders. “Maybe even dye my hair or add highlights or something.” If Bill didn’t notice her now, she knew she’d have to shake things up.
“No,” said Lydia coming into the room. “Sorry, I overheard.” She slapped a wad of money on the table before Elizabeth. “My half of the rent for the rest of the month. Utilities included.”
Elizabeth glanced at the money and then Lydia.
“I sold some more creams and a purse.” Lydia said with a shrug. “As for you—” She turned to Lottie. “There is nothing you need to change except your clothes, you’re beautiful, but you dress like a frumpy schoolmarm.”
“But everything gets dirty in the kitchen.” Lottie ran a hand down her plain white T-shirt, a dark stain on the neckline.
“I know. But maybe get a V-neck T-shirt and one from the woman’s section. Not a man’s undershirt. And try a color. The only thing I would change with your appearance is to try contacts. Though you could really pull off the hot librarian.”
Lottie beamed at Lydia. “You think?”
“Totally. You have a great figure. Show it off. And twist your hair like this with a few wisps.” Lydia pulled up Lottie's hair into a lose bun. “Little pink lip gloss and shazam!”
“Shazam?” Jane asked with a laugh.
Lottie used her phone’s camera to check out her reflection. Shazam was right. Where was Lottie Lucas, the girl next door who loved to read and eat sweets? She was now Charlotte Lucas, entrepreneur and smart woman. “Can you show me how to do this?”
“Sure? Give me a few minutes to get situated and grab something to eat.” Lydia shot Elizabeth a glower. “See, Lizzy. I do have a value.”
“I never said you didn’t, Lydia.”
“Hm.” Lydia pursed her lips. “I’ll just take this.” She reached across Elizabeth and took the last slice of pizza from the box before turning and leaving the room.
“You’re welcome,” Elizabeth yelled after her. “How’s the questionnaire going?”
Lottie, who was chewing at her lip, shrugged. “It’s really easy. I’m wondering what Bill would put.”
Elizabeth pulled the computer away. “Don’t answer like you think it might make you more compatible with Bill. Just answer honestly.” She waited until after Lottie nodded to push it back.
“I have an idea, and to be honest, I won’t take any objection,” Jane said quietly from across the table.
Elizabeth sat up straighter. If there was one thing she could count in it was Jane being easygoing, so starting with a disclaimer that her idea was not up for discussion was curious, if not a bit unsettling. “Am I going to hate it?”
Jane paused and tilted her head, probably giving Elizabeth’s words thought. “More because you’ll think I’m doing it for the wrong reasons. But I’m not. Here’s my idea, I’m going to start a vlog. My story from singlehood to marriage and how using Meryton Matchmakers helped me achieve my biggest wish. I’m going to vlog about dating issues and meeting people. At the end, hopefully, I’ll be married.”
Elizabeth felt her mouth drop but was unable to produce one coherent thought much less put sound to it.
Jane held up her hand. “I know what you’re thinking, Lizzy, I do. But I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I’m determined.”
“I’m glad you know what I’m thinking, because I don’t,” Elizabeth said, still trying to understand what would prompt her sister into exposing herself in such a way. Her gentle, amiable, and wouldn’t-swat-a-bug sister was putting her soul out on video.
Elizabeth sucked in a deep breath and released it slowly. “Please tell me you aren’t doing this strictly to keep the company afloat. Because if that’s the case, we can go automated tomorrow. Or I can get a second mortgage for this place and sell my car and maybe sell some shares and we can buy out The Bourgh.”
“No,” Jane said shaking her head adamantly. “I’ll confess Lady Catherine’s barb about none of us being married struck home, but I’ve long wanted to settle down. You know this. I’m almost thirty. I want babies. I want a husband. I want to be something more than Jane, the business owner and sister. Can you understand?”
In her own way, Elizabeth could. Though she wasn’t as desperate about it as Jane suddenly seemed, she couldn’t deny her day for it was coming. But she didn’t want to venture down that path, because what if she never found him—the one? Was she willing to be a spinster? A fun aunt to her sister’s children?
“I can understand that, and I’m not trying to talk you out of it. But hear me out, please.” She waited until Jane nodded. “You’re beautiful, and you’ll come across quite compelling and interesting on the screen. Men will flock to meet you. It gives credit to Darcy and The Bourgh’s automated plan and weight to their desire to add a page to the website where people can scroll and judge others on physical appearance only.”
“No one ever said that specifically,” Jane said, ever so diplomatic.
“Please! What else can they mean? And you’re okay with giving it to them?”
Jane raised one finger. “I’ve thought of that.” Picking up her phone, she messed with it a bit then handed it to Elizabeth. “We made this today. Anne, Lydia, and I. All those video and Photoshop courses I took came in handy today. What do you think?”
Elizabeth pressed the circle to start the video and leaned toward Lottie so she could watch as well.
The backdrop was the sky blue interview room at work. It complemented Jane’s blonde hair and white sundress. Though her face wasn’t showing as the camera was positioned to show only the back of Jane but from an angle. Occasional glimpses of her profile were seen but not enough to make her recognizable. There was no way to determine her weight, or height, or much else other than her hair color, part of her top, and the sweetness of her voice. The profile shots were teasers, really.
In the video, Jane introduced herself and her purpose. She talked about what she was like and what she was looking for. She ended it by asking if anyone was interested in meeting her to see if he might be compatible, he should sign up at Meryton Matchmakers. She reassured the viewer this was not a commercial but a true search for a life partner, and that her journey’s ups and downs would be chronicled here.
“It’s well done,” Lottie said.
“I agree. I think you will get lots of interest. But what if we have lots of people sign up and pay the start fee? Are you going to meet all of them?”
Jane shook her head. “They’ll go through the same process we put everyone through, and I suggest we waive the fee the first week or maybe first few days at least. Something I think we should consider is having other people do this as well. We can use me as a guinea pig, so to speak, and turn it into a tool. But the fact is, we can no longer go without testimonies. People have to be willing to speak out about us or Lady Catherine wins.”
Elizabeth looked between her two closest confidants before nodding. So much was going to change, and—as she well knew—even with good change came some bad.
“How much more needs to happen to make this video live?” Elizabeth asked.
“It’s ready. Anne set it to go out tomorrow at eight Eastern. It’ll hit all our social media sites. I was thinking if our response was low I might do a few Facebook ads.”
Yes, Elizabeth thought. It was all about to change. She couldn’t stop herself from blaming that darned Darcy if she tried. The day he moved on would be one of the happiest in her life.
You've been reading Meryton Matchmakers Book 1: Lottie Pursues Bill. A Modern Pride and Prejudice Variation.
ELIZABETH STOOD NEXT to Lottie, who was standing back from the tables with her arms crossed. To Elizabeth, the set and atmosphere were perfect. The grills were going, the drinks were being mixed and served in mason jars, and the people were starting to arrive. The town’s park was the perfect venue, and even Mother Nature complied and was cooling the area with a slight breeze. She couldn’t have engineered a better event if she tried.
And Jane’s video. Holy smokes! By noon she had half a million views. Anne was scrambling to get more bandwidth to support their server and keep the system from crashing. People were signing up in droves.
All right, droves might be an exaggeration but since the video launched, they’d had over three hundred new sign-ups and questionnaires submitted. The no fee was likely helping as well.
“Why are you frowning?” Elizabeth asked.
“It bothers me that there is no obvious theme,” Lottie answered.
“Sure there is. It’s summer fun or summer is here or—”
“That’s my point. And the cupcakes, jeez. Naughty or Nice? What was I thinking? Sounds like Christmas.”
Elizabeth watched her friend closely. She’d gone from chewing her lip to biting her thumbnail.
“Lottie? Is this more about our Bill-game plan or about the food? Because I love Naughty or Nice.”
At the mention of Bill, Lottie swung around and appeared to be searching for him.
“Relax. He’s still at the college. As for the theme, I think it plays well into us—The Matchmakers. Come mingle, relax, meet people, and let us know which are you deep down? Naughty or nice?”
Lottie visibly relaxed and began smoothing her top. “This okay? I was wondering if I should pop home and change.”
Elizabeth smiled. “You're going to render him speechless.” Lydia had created a lovely fishnet braid with soft wisps around Lottie’s face. Though she was wearing her glasses, her eye makeup brought out the green of her eyes complemented by the Kelly green V-neck T-shirt she wore. She finished the outfit with navy capris and cute navy wedge heels. “How’d you manage those all day?” Elizabeth pointed to the shoes.
“I didn’t. I changed into them before I came here.” She tapped at her temple. “I’m cooking with bacon today. Even changed my shirt. But I still feel- you know—like myself. Shouldn’t I dress up more?”
Elizabeth shook her head, “You’re perfect. And speaking of perfection here come Jane and Bill now.”
Elizabeth stepped close and lowered her voice. “Relax. Nothing has changed. He’s still your friend. We are just trying to get him to see you as a woman and not the girl who feeds him all the time. Got it?”
“I might be sick.” Lottie whispered back.
Elizabeth tucked her arm through Lottie’s and spun her to face Bill and Jane. “Hey you two, what’s up?”
“Oh, Lottie, I love your hair,” Jane said. She was dressed in a light pink sundress with a linen shrug that set off her pale blonde hair and gave her an angelic appearance.
“Thanks,” Lottie mumbled.
“Guess what? I have had over a million views. Granted, some have left creepy remarks but most have been very pleasant and nice. I was asking Bill what he thought my next video should be, and we decided it should be here. Mingling. So Lydia’s gone off to get a friend of hers, a guy named Denny, to work the camera,” Jane gushed the whole thing in one breath. Clearly, she was excited.
“Okay. Sounds great.” Did she really have a say in this? Not if Jane was this excited. Though the creepy remarks did worry her, and she made a mental note to talk to the group regarding security.
“She wants me to do my own video, maybe snag me some candidates.” Bill, hands stuffed in his front pockets rocked back on his heels and smiled thinly. “I thought if I had a hard decision making a selection, I might convert to being a Mormon and get me some sister wives. Logic, it’s a powerful tool.” He laughed. “Maybe they’ll do a Bachelor episode on me—‘Marry the Preacher.’ I could have you come on, Lotts, and be my informant. Tell me which ones are crazy and which aren’t.”
Elizabeth knew he was teasing, but next to her Lottie stiffened.
“You’re crazy!” she said. “If I went on as your informant, I’d tell them about how you are too lazy to match your socks, how you drink your milk from the container, and can eat an oversized cupcake by shoving the entire thing in your mouth at once. That’s what I’d tell them! If you’ll excuse me, I need to check the grills and the dessert table. The crowd is already looking larger than we expected.” She turned in a huff, looked in both directions, and then stomped away.
Bill’s head swiveled from the direction in which Lottie had made off to the sisters. “Ah, well, I mean. I’m the only one who drinks the milk so why not out of the container? It’s not like I offer it to people when they come over, because I don’t.”
Jane patted his arm while casting Elizabeth a knowing look. He was clueless, and it was going to take more than a V-neck shirt and cute hairstyle for him to notice what was in front of him.
Elizabeth pursed her lips in thought. Then she remembered an email from this morning. “Bill, did I see that you filled out the questionnaire? Were you serious about having a video done?”
He shrugged. “Not really, but I suppose I could.”
Elizabeth wanted to stomp her feet. Why did men feel it was so hard to commit? Either he wanted a wife or not.
“So if I delete your questionnaire, you’ll be okay with that? Lady Catherine won’t scold you for not trying to find a wife.” She needed to know what his intentions were and to make sure they were not motivated by his desire to please. But most importantly, she needed to know if he even wanted a wife.
Bill’s eyes narrowed. “Truthfully, it’s not been something I’ve been thinking about to be honest. You want me to do a video to help with the company. I’ll do it. And it get’s Lady Catherine off my back.” He crossed his arms.
“I’m trusting you to keep this to yourselves. I’m not asking you to beat the bushes or anything to find me a woman.”
“Wow, such a romantic,” Elizabeth said. “Why would we have to beat the bushes to find you someone? You’re a good person and a handsome man.”
Bill snorted in disbelief.
Jane rubbed his arm reassuringly. “Bill, it’s okay if you really want to get married. Women actually think it’s sexy when a man says he’s looking to settle down. That he might like to be a father. It can be quite the turn on when a man is very decisive and determined about these matters. It’s okay to want it. You don’t have to pretend around us.”
He sighed, shifted, and then stuffed his hands back into this front pockets. He stepped closer. “All right. Truth is, even if I had been thinking of getting married—which I haven’t—what do I have to offer? Who finds pastors sexy? A rare woman, that’s who. They want burly lumberjacks and firemen—”
“I’m going to cut you off right there. Plenty of women will find you sexy and funny actually. Which is also sexy.”
Jane nodded adamantly. “She’s right.”
Bill shifted again. “Jeez, this is awkward. Or maybe more like torture. I think I need to go do something manly. Like break something and then fix it.”
“Go fix things with Lottie. Ask her if she needs any help. And for all things good and holy—don’t make jokes about getting a wife.”
Bill furrowed his brow.
“Trust me on this, please.”
“All right, but if she takes off my head, I’m holding you responsible, and I want to be buried in one of the bio urns. I want to be a crab apple tree if they have it.”
“What are you talking about?” Elizabeth asked.
“I’m talking about Lotts. She’s got something bothering her, and she needs a bit of time to let it work itself out.” He nodded with such determination she almost bought it.
“Come on, chicken, we’ll go with you.” Elizabeth tugged him into action with Jane taking up the rear in case he faltered. A matchmaker’s work was never done.
They found Lottie working the cupcake display. She’d divided the table into two halves with a sign in the middle saying Give us a hint. Playmate or Soulmate?
“What happened to Naughty or Nice?” Elizabeth asked.
“I changed it.”
On the playmate side were four different cupcakes labeled: Lust, Passion, Sex on the Beach, and Ménage à Trois.
Elizabeth pointed to the last one.
“It’s three layers, chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry with cream filling between each. The frosting is champagne.”
“Wow, that sounds great,” Bill said while reaching for one.
Jane stepped on his foot.
“What?” He turned to the sisters.
“I can’t see what the other flavors are,” Elizabeth said and pushed him toward the partner side.
Bill bent to see the cupcakes. “Simple and Sexy, which is vanilla with chocolate icing, Wedded Bliss—also vanilla with—”
“Champagne flavored icing and a Grand Marnier ganache filling.” Lottie held up the first cupcake. “That’s not just chocolate icing. That’s Nutella icing. This one, Happy Days, is strawberry poke cake enriched by strawberry liqueur with a chocolate icing, and the last one, Forever Love, is marble cake with cookies and cream frosting.”
“Might I have one?” Bill asked. His hand hovered undecidedly in the air.
“Of course,” Lottie said without looking at him. “They’re here to be eaten.”
“Choose wisely,” Elizabeth whispered in his ear.
“I’m a sucker for cookies and cream.” He took one from the back.
“Thanks for not messing up the display,” Lottie said.
“Of course. You need any help?” Bill peeled the wrapper away and plopped the whole thing in his mouth. “Oh, my gaw, ith is tho ’ood.”
Lottie shook her head but laughed. “If you did it in bites you might enjoy it better.”
He chewed several times then swallowed. “I do that with the really big ones you make. I want a dozen of these in that supersized version.”
“They are fantastic,” said a guy standing next to Bill. He’d come over moments earlier and was scanning the table. “Don’t tell, but I’ve worked my way through the playmate ones and now am trying the partners. I can’t decide which I like best.”
“Thanks. That’s quite a compliment.” Lottie said, her cheeks turning a charming tint of pink.
“Are you the baker extraordinaire that created these concoctions? They are exquisite.” He was a tall, debonair-looking man, Elizabeth noted. A business man, for sure. The short stylish cut of his hair, the gold watch on his wrist, and his well-groomed appearance gave her that impression. That and the way he schmoozed Lottie.
“I am. And thank you again.” She stood with two cupcakes in her hands, not moving. Only blinking and smiling.
“There is nothing more enchanting than a beautiful woman who can cook and bake. That may sound outdated, but let me assure you, I’m a baker as well. Run a few stores in the tri-state area.” He stepped closer to Lottie.
“Oh? I have a café here. Well, my parents do.”
“Not Lucas Lodge and Café? I was in there this morning and had the house blend. Custom creation?”
Lottie nodded and if possible turned even pinker. “I have a roaster in Maine who loves to experiment. We’ve created several good coffees.” She studied the cupcakes in her hand and frowned.
“Here, jeez,” Bill mumbled and took them from her, placing them on the table.
“My name’s John. I own Thorpe’s bakery. I’d love to talk to you some more about your cupcakes, Mrs.—?”
Elizabeth tried to keep from smiling as she covertly watched everyone's reactions. She couldn’t have planned a better scenario if she used Hollywood actors. Clearly, this John guy was flirting with Lottie—because he wanted her cupcakes or her would be determined later. But it was what Bill needed to see.
“Oh, it’s Miss Lucas. Charlotte. You can call me Charlotte.” She extended her hand.
He took it in his but held it, not shook it. “Charlotte. It’s my lucky day. Can I come around tomorrow morning and talk with you at the café?”
“Sure, that would be great…I mean fine. Yes, I’ll be there.” She stumbled her words, slowly pulling her hand from his.
“Perfect.” He picked up a Simple and Sexy cupcake, winked at Lottie and moved on.
“Wow. Wow. Did you see that? That was John Thorpe. He owns more than just a few bakeries. If he bought stuff from me, I could become a household name.” She gushed after he was out of earshot.
Bill rubbed his stomach. “What did you put in that cupcake? It’s not sitting right.” Lottie swatted him on the arm.
Jane laughed and turned away. “Oh look,” she said over her shoulder. “Here comes Anne, Mr. Darcy, and I suppose those are his friends he was picking up.”
They all turned in the direction Jane was looking.
“Now it’s I who has a stomachache,” Elizabeth said.
The group arrived moments later. Elizabeth found herself more uncomfortable when Darcy came to stand next to her.
“We’re here.” he said.
“Yes, I can see that.” She did large overt blinks to show him she had eyes.
“Jane, have you seen this?” Anne held out her phone to Jane who, when she saw the screen, gasped.
“What?” Elizabeth asked, trying to see to determine if her sister was upset or happy. “What?” She tried to see the phone.
“I’ve gone viral. Over two million hits.” Jane’s eyes were large with disbelief.
“Not only that, but we’ve seen a huge increase in applications. You’re a genius, Jane. I ran into Lydia, she and Denny are ready when you are. Let’s get you in the wild so to speak. Mingling.”
“Oh, okay.” Jane was still wide-eyed but looking beyond Anne to the man standing behind her.
A man so becoming Elizabeth had to blink twice to see if he was real. How had she not noticed him? Darcy’s dark presence must have blocked out his bright light.
Not that he was her type, not in the least. But his demeanor told her she was going to like him. He stood, relaxed, hands clasped behind his back, rocking on his heels, an inviting smile on his face. Had he been Mr. Darcy, the sisters would have been golden. Much like he was—golden. Like a Norse God. Tall, blond, with the trimmest of beards. Too bad the woman standing next to him did not come off as pleasant. No, quite the opposite.
“Hmm, so Anne, you’re saying that business has improved because of automation,” Darcy said quietly.
Elizabeth shook her head. “If by automation you mean social media marketing—then yes. The only thing that’s new is the process to apply online. Please, take all the accolades for that. It was your—well Anne’s—idea after all.”
“You’re my witness, Bingley. Miss Bennet just told me I was right.” He stared at her, making her want to step closer and stare back harder. He did not intimidate her.
“You require witnesses? Does that imply you are often wrong?” Her smile was close-lipped.
He nodded slightly. “Touché. These are my friends. Let me introduce you.” He turned and placed a hand on the upper arm of the woman. “This is Caroline Bingley and her brother, who happens to be my closest friend and lawyer, Charles Bingley.”
Charles stepped up to Jane. “But you can call me Chaz.” As if realizing they weren't alone he smiled at the rest of them. “You all can call me Chaz. It’s a pleasure meeting you.” He said the last bit to Jane.
Elizabeth watched the two stare at one another, shy smiles on each of their faces, and knew something was happening. Something magical. They were leaning toward one another without so much as saying a word.
“I’m Jane. This is my sister Elizabeth. We own Meryton Matchmakers,” Jane told him without looking away.
Chaz had eyes only for Jane.
Bill cleared his voice. “Of course you know me. We’ve met a few times, and this other woman with the third eye is Lo—”
“Charlotte Lucas.” Lottie said. “Try a cupcake.”
She scooped two from the table and held them out to the group.
Caroline Bingley stepped away from the dessert like a person does a venomous snake.
“When you said the town was charming, Darcy, I suppose I imagined antique shops and quaint cafés.” She scanned the park, a wry smile on her face. “And I suppose I can see what you mean, but perhaps provincial is more an accurate descriptor. I mean, a grocer, a hardware store, and one café. Not a yoga or art studio to be found.”
“I, for one, find this town exceedingly beautiful…um, I mean enchanting,” Chaz said, and both his and Jane’s cheeks showed an attractive tint of pink. “I’m here because I’m looking for a country home, and Darcy told me about the area. I like it already.”
“We have a lovely community. Very close,” Jane replied in a breathy voice.
Elizabeth winked at Lottie. Darcy stepped forward, looking between the cupcakes, Ménage à Trois and Wedded Bliss.
Lottie explained the difference between the two.
He cast Elizabeth a glance over his shoulder before selecting. “It would seem Wedded Bliss is the perfect cupcake for this occasion. We are—after all—hoping to celebrate an increase in love connections so Miss Bennet and her sisters can have the success they so desire.” He took the cupcake from Lottie with a smile that made Elizabeth want to slap it out of his hand or cram it in his face.
Yes, she was being petulant. But he was being smug. Coming over here so pleased that the little automation they’d done was so successful. A monkey could have done what they did and have seen the same results. It was something they had on their list to do anyway.
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Well, hang around. You might discover something you like.”
“Besides these cupcakes?” Darcy asked Lottie. “This is fantastic. Is that Grand Marnier?”
Lottie nodded, her smile wide. “Thanks.”
“Chaz, try one.” He turned to Caroline but said nothing.
“I’ll try the Happy Days one. Today seems like a happy day. Would you be willing to show me around the town, Jane?” Chaz said everything with eyes only on Jane.
“I would love to. Let’s start by getting a drink.”
“Hold up, you two. I’m coming with, because I’m going to do some filming for the site.” Anne turned to Elizabeth. “Could you text Lydia and tell her to meet us at the drink table? I’ll use my phone until he shows up.”
Elizabeth scanned the crowd. If she knew anything about the people she grew up with and her neighbors, it was their habits. She found Denny by the food table hanging near Lydia and Kitty, laughing and talking, the camera cradled in his arms.
“Denny will be where my sisters are. My sisters will be where the men hang out. That’s the food table. Your cameraman is to the right of the food table.”
Anne snapped her fingers then pointed at Elizabeth. With a wink, she said, “Now I know who to come to for insider info.”
“Woohoo, girls!” A voice called across the field. Elizabeth’s gaze jerked to Jane’s, whose eyes had gone wide.
“I was kind of hoping she’d have forgotten,” Elizabeth said to Jane in a low voice.
Who were they kidding? Their mother would never miss an opportunity to rub her Hollywood lifestyle in her former neighbors’ faces—even though she still lived only a few miles out of town and traveled for work. Elizabeth took in several deep breaths and tried to anticipate what sort of damage her mother could make, saying a silent prayer that luck might gift them and there would be no fallout.