“But, really,” said Mrs. Bennet rather loudly, placing her teacup back into the saucer with a loud clink. “I think that any young man with such an income should really be searching for a wife. What a waste of all that money if not spent on children and a wife.”
Mrs. Lucas nodded in agreement, reaching up one hand to touch the brim of her wide hat. One of the false chrysanthemums tucked into the wide band drooped sadly, its little floppy leaves reaching towards her shoulder.
Ever since she had strong armed her husband into taking a 23 And Me genetics test—and discovering he, and therefore their five daughters—were 88% English and Scottish, she had instituted biweekly afternoon tea in the smaller of the two sitting rooms of The Longbourn Inn. It didn’t matter if half the time the only people who showed up were her friends, or her sister.
Mrs. Lucas was the closest neighbor to the inn and more a friend of convenience, but their children had grown close over the years. “More tea, Eugenia?” Mrs. Lucas asked, picking up the pot and pouring into her cup.
On the opposite side of the room Elizabeth Bennet, the second eldest, crossed her arms and leaned against the doorframe. Still staring at the women laughing over their tea and gossip, Liz said, “They’re already plotting which of the summer crowd they’re going to set us up with,” recognizing the sound of approaching footsteps.
Jane smiled gently at her sister’s shoulder.
“If Mom was single, she’d probably go out with one of them herself. She just wants to be a cougar so bad.”
“Lizzie,” Jane chided. “That’s not a very nice thing to say about Mom.”
Liz raised her eyebrows. “That doesn’t make it not true.”
The sitting room was directly down the hallway from the side entrance of the hotel, mostly used by regulars, staff, and the Bennet family, so when the sister heard it slam, it was easy to guess who was coming.
Lydia and Catherine clattered down the hallway, their heels tapping on the tiles, looking flushed and excited. There was a pair of binoculars around Lydia’s neck and her long, honey blonde hair was pulled into a ponytail that laced through the back of her baseball cap. Her eyeliner was slightly smudged. She snapped a piece of bubble gum and grinned.
“Where have you been all day? Spying on the neighbors?” Liz poked at the binoculars. “If you’re not careful, you’re going to get a restraining order for real this time.”
“That was one time!” Lydia stuck her tongue out. When Lydia was fourteen, she had almost been arrested sneaking in to see her boyfriend, despite his parents refusing the relationship and eventually barring her from the house. “And no, just some specific neighbors. Mom asked us to do some recon on the new renters ‘round the lake. That big house at the end of Netherfield Drive has been empty for two seasons, did you know that? They were asking way too much for summer price—but someone rented it out this summer! So, the new family’s got to be rich.”
“Maybe they dropped the asking price?” Jane suggested.
Lydia tossed her ponytail over her shoulder. “As if.”
Cat grinned wide, damp with sweat from sitting in a car all afternoon, with small tendrils of loose hair sticking to her forehead; she looked a little wild. “They looked rich.”
Jane sighed loudly. “Cat, you can’t tell that just from looking at people. Making assumptions is rude.”
Lydia snickered. “Tell that to the Tesla in their driveway.” She pushed past her sisters into the sitting room, waving her phone in the air. “Mom! We’re back!”
“Oh, Lydia, wonderful! Who did you see?”
Cat ran after her into the room. “You were right, Mom. Someone did rent that house. We saw two dudes walking around outside and it looked like they were talking about the house.”
“He’s so cute,” Lydia sighed as she fell into one of the empty chairs. “I tried to take a picture through the binocular but it didn’t work.” She held up her phone to show off a shaky image of two men standing by the front gate. One of them was taller, with dark hair, and the other was a little stockier with orangey colored hair. It was nearly impossible to make out the face of either man.
“Which one?” Liz asked, leaning over the edge of the chair. She could barely make out a single facial feature, the way the image was pixelated and blurred.
“The one who owns the Tesla, obvi.”
Liz shook her head but pulled the phone out of Lydia’s hand, curious despite herself. Jane stepped next to her to join. Liz thumbed through more of the pictures. The first clear image was of the two men standing next to what indeed appeared to be a Tesla. The dark haired one had his hands on his hips, wearing a white shirt. The redhead appeared to be gesticulating—even from the distance of the photo, she could see the grin on his face.
“Oh, let me see, girls!” Mrs. Bennet cried excitedly. Lydia plucked the phone back from Liz and passed it to their mother. She and Mrs. Lucas huddled together over the images. She clucked her tongue. “So far away. Hopefully, there will be an opportunity to get a little closer soon.” Then she giggled like a 12-year-old. Cat leaned over the back of the couch, joining in on sighing over the pictures.
Liz turned her back and make a fake retching motion for Jane to see. Jane covered her mouth, half in humor and half in censure. “Lizzie, stop!” she admonished in a whisper so their mother would not hear.
“Lydia, excellent job, my love. These seem like perfectly lovely men. They must be invited to the start of summer party.”
“What about me?” Cat asked. “I drove us there…”
Mrs. Bennet’s eyes remained glued to the phone screen. “Yes, you too, Kitty.”
“Mo-om,” she groaned, lowering her forehead against the couch cushion, “don’t call me ‘Kitty’ anymore! I go by Cat now.”
Mrs. Bennet smiled vapidly and patted her daughter’s cheek. “You’ll always be my Kitty, baby.” Cat let out a yell, stifled somewhere in the back of her throat, and stomped out of the room. “Now, girls,” she continued, single minded, “we need to find out when they’ll be home and how many people will be staying there…”
Like a dog with a bone, Liz thought glumly several mornings later, stirring her cereal and watching her mother whirl around the kitchen in a frenzy. Since seeing proof of the young men on Netherfield Drive, she had been planning the most effective way of inviting them to the large party the Bennets hosted at the start of every summer to kick off the tourist season.
The window above the sink was open and a very pleasant breeze blew around the curtains. Cat sneezed, loudly, several times in quick succession. “Cat will you please stop with your incessant sneezing? It’s impossible to think with that racket!”
Cat blew her nose on a napkin. “Sorry for my allergies. God!”
To fit a family of seven at a table all at once required a very large table. Both the dining room table—long—and the kitchen table—circular—could fit them all, with a little squeezing. Liz kept bumping into Jane, eating her eggs on one side, and Mary, highlighting lines out of a research article on photons on the other.
“Lydia, you should go. And perhaps Jane can come with you?” Mrs. Bennet tapped the back of her pen to her lips. “You are so outgoing, my dear, I am sure they will find you personable.”
Lydia slurped loudly on her offensively green smoothie. “Or something like that.”
“Now, what kind of cookies would be best to bring with you? Something more interesting than chocolate chip. We must make a good first impression.”
Mr. Bennet sighed, very loudly, from the other side of the table and folded his newspaper. “My dear, I am very sorry to spoil your plans, but I have a confession to make.”
Mrs. Bennet’s head shot up; she stared daggers at her husband. “Confess to what?”
“I have already made the acquaintance of the renters on Netherfield Drive. At least the men. Charles Bingley, the one who is actually renting the place, his brother-in-law Ned Hurst, and his friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy. I had the excellent pleasure of meeting them last week down at the golf course.” As a general rule, Mr. Bennet did not enjoy the game of golf, but he had found over the years that it was very good for business if he could play. As such, he tried his best to make it to the course every fortnight or so, when the season was right.
He winced visibly at his wife’s shriek of pure delight. “Then they have been made aware of our open invitation?”
“Yes, yes they have.”
“What an excellent father you have, my dears,” she announced to her daughters as she rounded the table in order to peck her husband on the cheek.
He took the affection silently, making faces and wiggling his eyebrows at Liz all the while. She covered her grin with her hand. When Mrs. Bennet pulled back, he folded the newspaper crisply back and in place and said, “There, Cat. Now you can go back to sneezing,” before promptly quitting the room.
When Mr. Bennet inherited the inn from his father one of his first moves as exclusive owner had been to move his personal office from the second floor to the first, into the room directly next to the library. It was considerably smaller, with fewer windows, but nothing would have made him more content. He had 11 years on Mrs. Bennet’s age and they had married after a whirlwind romance, despite the differences in personality. Perhaps in another life, where they did not have five children, with their so very different temperaments, personalities, and intelligences, they might have found reason to divorce. But as long as he had his solitude and she her lavish parties and gossipy brunches, they found a peaceful equilibrium for the household.
The family lived on the grounds, behind the hotel in a comfortable farmhouse-style home that had been built by his grandparents when they purchased The Longbourn—he could hardly complain about his morning commute. The Bennet family had owned The Longbourn for three generations. The original venture had been started with a partner. When the two men retired, they passed the business along to their sons, who had a falling out. By the time the present Mr. Bennet was born, the men had split their resources, leaving the Bennets with The Longbourn, and the Collins The Meryton Golf Course and Club. Mr. Bennet did his best not to think about the income that was lost on the club every time plumbing fixtures needed to be updated, kitchen appliances broke, or Mrs. Bennet had found a way to stick her nose in another home renovation magazine. They turned a tidy enough profit during the summer months, but it was all gobbled up by the off-season. And with three daughters in college at once, and Jane struggling to make a career… In some small part (some very small part) he was grateful that Lydia had been so adamant upon taking a gap year.
He mused on the differences of his children as he jangled his keys in one hand, on the way to his office to prepare the accounts for the beginning of the tourist season. Mr. Bennet had been surprised, but resigned, to each subsequent daughter born. Each of them quite mystified him in her own way, except perhaps for Liz. Jane was an unshakeable optimist, determined to see the best in every person she met. After her degree in political science, she was determined to find a job as a political aid in Washington; her eyes sparkled when she spoke of all the changes she was determined to make in the legislation. Mary was bright and her intensity dazzled them all. Her first love was miniature objects and tiny dollhouse décor. Her second was particle physics. But he had yet to interest her in a classic novel or a nice detective story, and their intelligences never quite meshed. Cat and Lydia were the most bemusing to him. Boys and make up and social media… And not three A’s to split between them on a report card. Cat was enrolled only part time in the local community college, but Lydia had whined and wheedled her way into a complete gap year.
At least Liz liked books. His second daughter he could understand. They could speak of plays and history or sit comfortably in silence and read. And even if she did prefer Lord of the Rings or The Brambling Chronicles to Tolstoy and Dickens, at least she listened to audiobooks when she went for her morning run.
As he was walking, he met a familiar figure. “Good morning, Charlotte.”
“Good morning, Mr. Bennet,” said Charlotte Lucas. “Is Lizzie in?”
“She is. I’m sure she’ll be happy for a reason to get out of the house.”
“Oh dear,” Charlotte muttered as she stepped away.
Although Charlotte had been in the same grade as Jane growing up, she and Liz had always been friendly. Their camaraderie was sealed when Charlotte was the captain of the high school cross country team Liz’s freshman year, Charlotte’s senior. While attending the local community college for business administration, she continued to assist the coach and Liz continued running.
She followed the path up to the house, the gravel crunching beneath her sneakers. When she knocked on the front door, it was wrenched open in a moment to reveal Cat. Her braided hair hung over one shoulder. “Hey, Charlotte,” she said in a casual voice, before turning to look over one shoulder and screaming, “LIZ! CHARLOTTE’S HERE!”
“Coming!” came Liz’s faint voice from the kitchen. After a few moments and a clatter of plates in the sink, Liz appeared in the doorway. Her long brown hair was put up in a tight ponytail high at the back of her head and she had soft bangs that came down slightly longer on the sides to frame her face. She was already in a tank top and athletic shorts and she grabbed a pair of sneakers from the towering pile of shoes by the side of the door. Charlotte was always a little impressed that Liz always seemed to find the right shoes on her first try.
“Ready to go?”
“Yep,” she said, tugging on the back of her left shoe till her heel popped into place. “Let’s get outta here.”
Despite her short stature, Liz had always been an excellent runner. She kept stride with Charlotte all the way into town. Meryton was a resort town that sat along the edge of Hertford Lake. The lake itself was crescent shaped, the outward bulge being the town and the inward press made up of summer homes and rental houses of varying sizes, from comfortable to excessive. Netherfield Drive held only homes in the latter label, the largest sitting at the end of the dead-end road.
They stopped to rest in the park. Charlotte put one foot up on the edge of a bench and started stretching out her leg. Liz retied her ponytail and started to fill her friend in on the news. “So, aside from sending Lydia and Cat out to stalk them, she’s also planning on setting at least one of us up with them.” Liz took a deep drink from the water fountain and then added, “She’s being ridiculous.”
“Isn’t that always her modus operendi, though?”
“I mean, sure, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to complain about it! Besides, don’t you think she was going a little too far this time?”
Charlotte only shrugged. As an outsider, all of Mrs. Bennet’s antics looked more or less the same to her; she couldn’t tell the nuances Liz knew. Liz splashed some of the cool water on the back of her neck and they walked together the rest of the way to the Phillips’ Pharmacy, discussing summer plans.
Mrs. Bennet’s elder sister, a Mrs. Beatrice Phillips, also lived in Meryton. She and her husband owned the only pharmacy in the city limits. While it was stocked with normal drugstore goods and had a working pharmacy for prescriptions, it attempted to keep the charm of the resort town by stocking old style self-serve candy, an ice cream and malt counter, and freshly squeezed lemonade. Liz and Charlotte were after the lemonade that morning.
Although it was only the end of May, it was already sweltering outside. Liz could feel the hair sticking to her skin and she pushed her bags off her forehead. “We should have started out earlier in the morning,” she sighed as they stepped into the frigid air conditioning of the pharmacy. The little bell above the door tinkled gently. Liz stood still for a moment, her face pointed up towards the A/C unit.
“Good morning, Mrs. Phillips,” Charlotte called out, walking further into the store. Liz followed her in and took a seat at the old-fashioned laminate counter top, complete with vinyl-covered stools. Her aunt appeared in a moment, coming through the little archway to the backroom, pushing the gauzy curtains that functioned as a door out of her face.
Mrs. Phillips was a little plumper than her sister, her cheeks round and rosy. Her blonde hair was almost always tied or clipped in a bun. “Lizzie! Your mother has been texting me about those young men up on Netherfield Drive!” She waved her phone excitedly.
Liz groaned and slumped her head down towards her arms, folded on the countertop. “Aunt Bea, not you too!”
“It would have been lovely if Lydia had gotten clearer pictures of them.” She sighed, a little dramatically, in a contented way.
Charlotte patted Liz gently on the back and ordered their lemonades.