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Miss Bingley Regrets

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She looks like an angel that got lost on her way down from heaven.

It's a ridiculous thing to think and yet you think it, staring at her from across the crowded assembly room. You have never seen anyone like her, not in London, not in Scarborough, not in all of England. You wish, covetously, that she were yours: a doll in your arms; a portrait in miniature; the dearest, most secret friend of your heart.

Her gown is six months out of date. You do not care in the least.

Your breath catches slightly as you realize that she is coming near you, part of a gaggle of women: all but one handsome and all but another young, all half-a-dozen of them lead by the ridiculous old knight that is your new neighbor, there to perform the introductions. Miss Bennet, she is called. You wondered, wildly, madly, what her Christian name might be and if you might someday be so lucky as to call her by it. Miss Bennet, you think, and you engrave that name upon your heart.

Charles asks her for the second set of dances. You can feel your stomach twist, sour with jealousy.

You get to know her better over a series of visits: she and her sisters to Netherfield, you and your sister to Longbourn, both households to any number of shared engagements in Hertfordshire. You find yourself liking Miss Bennet better every minute your spend within her company; however, the other Bennets fare rather less well with you (though Louisa is able to cajole you into admitting that Miss Eliza is probably the best of a bad lot, which is not saying much.)

You find yourself counting each treasured smile and then comes the moment when Miss Bennet looks to you with--dare you think it?--admiration. You decide to invite her to visit you on her own at the first convenient occasion.

Though, perhaps not when Charles is at home. You don't like the way he looks at her.

The convenient occasion comes not very many days later, when the men are invited to some sort of barracks room soiree--you aren't entirely sure what it is they are attending and you don't really care much, to be honest. Alone among women, it seems, you've never had any interest in soldiers.

As soon as they are gone, you dash off a note, hoping against hope that today is the day you might finally learn Miss Bennet's Christian name. When she appears at the door soaking wet, it's all you can do not to grin.

After all, she'll have to stay the night now.

Miss Bennet's name is Jane, but that doesn't matter anymore, because Miss Bennet is sick in bed with a cold that doesn't look at all triffling and you are positively wretched when it comes to caring for sick people, you are the absolute last person who should ever have charge of a sick room. When Miss Eliza comes it's almost a relief, no matter how mud-spattered her hem and impertinent her conversation.

Almost. Perhaps not at all. You don't mind Miss Eliza when she's tucked away caring for Jane--it's just every moment she's not in the sickroom that vexes you so. And of course, there's the matter of Darcy.

You aren't in love with Darcy. You never pretended to be. But he's a handsome enough man of good breeding and no little wealth--not to mention the Seat in Commons--and so ever since Charles introduced you to Darcy, you've felt proprietorial. As a woman you must marry and if you must marry you certainly could do much worse than Mr Darcy. He might be a bit taciturn at times, but he's certainly preferable to a brainless, preening dandy like Hurst. (Louisa may find it humorous that her husband takes longer on his daily toilet than she does. You don't.)

And of course, Darcy had never seemed to be all that interested in women. You'd liked that, too. Perhaps he wouldn't bother you after you bore him a son.

That was before. Now, however, he is head-over-heels in love with Eliza Bennet and it is all you can do not to scream. You feel betrayed, bamboozled, bereft. You weren't in love with Darcy, but he was yours and now? Now your only hope from that quarter is that Darcy is able to keep a clear enough head to remember that the wretched girl has no dowry to speak of and low relations.

Every day Eliza Bennet stays at Netherfield, the chances of that grow less and less likely.

You had begun to look forward to the ball if only to give you a chance to see Jane again, but once it had arrived you realized that your first instinct of dread had been completely, utterly correct. It was clear the moment you saw Jane gaze so very fondly at Charles when he wasn't looking.

She was in love with him.

Jane. Your Jane. In love with your brother, your twin brother. Who wasn't nearly as clever or handsome as you, who always let people cheat him out of stupidity and tenderheartedness. You knew Charles was in love with her--he fell in love so easily and your Jane is simplicity itself to love--but you hadn't realized that Jane herself--

She'd been so reserved with him. You honestly thought she'd felt nothing more than friendship with your brother.

You hate them both.

No. You don't. But this cannot go on. You cannot live in your brother's house and watch Charles and Jane fall more and more in love with each other as they forget about you. A Jane that is so close, yet so untouchable... this cannot go on.

Darcy is dancing with Miss Eliza.

You need to leave this place. Tomorrow.

In London you can breathe again.

At the start of it, Charles is a wreck, though he rallies tolerably in time. Given long enough, he'll forget about Jane Bennet. You wish you could.

At least there is Miss Darcy to distract you.

She isn't as beautiful as Miss Bennet and she's shyer than you remembered her being before--quite painfully shy, in fact--but she's a sweet, pretty thing and she thinks the world of you. And she's fond enough of Charles in her own way, but it's quite clear that she isn't in love with him. In fact, she seems quite wary of men now.

She blushes with touching humility when you make much of her, which leads you to praise her all the more. She lets you call her Georgiana. Her hair is smooth, her skin is soft. She's the most darling little thing, only a year removed from being a schoolgirl, and you want to wrap her in spun silk and keep her in your jewelry box forever.

You could quite easily fall in love with Georgiana, you think. She's such a good girl. She has that unselfish sweetness that Jane had with none of the reserve that kept you wary of showing the depth of your feelings until late. You don't feel awkward when you clasp your hands in hers, when you lean close to her, close enough that if you turned your head you could kiss that blushing cheek.

You wonder why you don't. Why you hold back. It doesn't make sense. The admiration you so missed is there in Georgiana's eyes. She would do anything for you.

So why don't you make love to her?

You could. Ever so easily you could. It isn't her youth that holds you back. You were as young as she when the cool and elegant Miss Jennings (then the age you are now and so lately engaged to a garrulous Devonshire knight) taught you first how to kiss and second how to make even the most prim and proper miss howl like a cat in heat. It would be so easy.

Except. Except Georgiana isn't yours any more than Jane was. She, too, is for Charles. You've talked it over with Darcy. It's a very good match. She has money, a good name, and a kind heart. He has even more money, a name that will be better for her wearing it, and an even kinder heart. And Georgiana, at least, lacks useless younger sisters for Charles to someday provide for.

And you are not in love with Georgiana nor lover to. That is the most important reason why. You could be. Oh, you could be. But you will not allow yourself to cuckold Charles nor be cuckolded by him.

(You will not, you cannot let that future you glimpsed at the Netherfield Ball come true. For Charles' sake, for the sake of your sanity, you cannot let him marry the woman you love, whoever she may be. You cannot let yourself love the woman he will marry, no matter how easy or tempting.)

There are other woman in London. Perhaps you will find someone else.

You meet Miss Elliot with her father at a private ball on Twelfth Night. She is the second-most beautiful woman you have met in your life—if you'd met her a year ago she would have been the most beautiful. She is elegant, superior, and intends to marry no lesser being than a baronet. She eyes you with frank appreciation and it is a balm to your weary soul.

You kiss her as the clock strikes one, hidden under the stair on what promises to be a beautiful Epiphany morning.

So of course Jane Bennet follows you to London.

No, not you. Charles. It's Charles she is here to see, not you. She cares nothing for you. She never did. She only wants your brother. You will never get to brush her hair, caress her cheek, or softly kiss her tears away. All that is for him. Not you. Never you.

It isn't fair. You were starting to recover from her. Between Georgiana's admiration and Miss Elliot's kisses you were starting to feel like a person again. But Miss Elliot and her father are gone, returned to their ancestral seat in Somerset and Jane, Jane Bennet is in London.

Louisa insists on allowing Jane a short visit in return for her friendship in Hertfordshire. You invite her over when Charles is gone and you know within minutes that this was a terrible idea. You make the return call at that wretched tradesman uncle's home as short as possible and when you leave you know you will not be back.

Her eyes will never light up for you. If you cannot see yourself reflected in her eyes, then you don't want to see them at all.

Winter turns into spring turns into summer. Charles is nearly himself again. You've stopped thinking so often about Jane Bennet: perhaps once a day and never very long. It helps that you have Georgiana. When she turns her eyes to you in worship it makes you forget about the eyes that saw only your brother.

She invites you to Pemberley. You're overjoyed, until you get there and see Eliza Bennet.

You wonder if Darcy has proposed yet. If he hasn't, it's only a matter of time. And of course, they will want Charles and Jane to stand for them at their wedding and all your hard work will come undone.

And Georgiana likes Miss Eliza, of all the wretched things. You thought you might at least commiserate with her, but she seems to think that Darcy's regard for Miss Eliza is proof that the little chit is worth admiring, as if it weren't only a matter of fine eyes and whatever else of her dubious charms that ensnared him.

Miss Eliza leaves. It doesn't cheer you at all, for Darcy soon follows.

Georgiana does what she can to distract you from your melancholy, but there's only so much she can do. It's not her fault that her brother is a fool and not the man you thought he was. It's not her fault that your brother was in love with a woman you cannot forget.

It does not help that no matter how sweet and dear she is, how womanly she looks, Georgiana is still only a young girl, just a year out of school. She knows nothing of heartbreak.

Charles asks Jane to marry him before the end of September and of course she accepts him. Reading his letter puts you in a particularly low mood and you wonder why you haven't read of Darcy's proposal to that other Bennet daughter, unless they were trying to keep it a secret.

A secret engagement. That's the sort of cunning and sneak that Eliza Bennet would enjoy, isn't it?

You can't quite say that you are proud of the letter you wrote Darcy's aunt, but writing it did make you feel better.

You need something to make you feel better. Jane Bennet will be your sister before Christmas.

(The night before you left Pemberley, Georgiana tried to kiss you. Sometimes you think you ought to have let her.)

Miss Elliot and her father are in London again. You invite her for tea one afternoon. It is altogether too easy to persuade her to stay the night.

Her Christian name is Elizabeth. Of course it is.

You wait until Miss Elliot is asleep before you allow yourself to weep.

The day before the wedding finds you in tears once more. Jane finds you as well, hiding beneath the stair. "Oh, Miss Bingley," she murmurs, taking your hand and patting it.

"Caroline," you whisper. "Please."

"Caroline," she says and the way she says your name, soft and sad, only makes you cry harder. She hands you her handkerchief.

"I don't think you and Mr Darcy would have been very happy together," she says quietly.

You shake your head. This isn't about Darcy. Well, not much. You try to tell her that, but it all comes out soggy and garbled. You doubt she can understand you.

For the longest time, neither of you says a word. Jane makes these soft, soothing noises and strokes your hair. A year ago you dreamed of her touching your hair like this and now that she has you're too miserable to properly appreciate it.

"Have you ever wished you were a man?"

The words tumble out unbidden. You feel your cheeks heat up. How could you have said something like that? She'll think you mad or worse.

"Yes," Jane says softly. "Of course I have. We'd have never had to worry about the entail and there were other things, too, it might have made easier."

"Oh," you say.

"I never expected to love Charles."

"Sometimes," you whisper, "I hate Charles."

"He loves you."

"I know," you say. "That only makes it worse."

"Mmm," she says and squeezes your hand.

"I wish this last year never happened."

She's quiet again after you say that. You start to worry you've hurt her again. You don't know how not to hurt her anymore.

"When we first met," she says finally, "I admired you so very much. Someday, I hope, I would like to be able to admire you again." She kisses your forehead, then. You look up at her in shock.

Charles was right. She is an angel.