“An Unexpected Harvest”

Chapter 1

Friday, December 10th

Elizabeth Bennet guided her sleek Audi along the Massachusetts Turnpike, leaving the towering skyscrapers of Boston behind. The rolling hills ahead of her—not quite mountains, as she hadn’t yet driven far enough west—were coated with deep drifts of snow, turning the scenery into an idyllic winter wonderland.

Her thoughts turned toward her destination. She was heading home—or rather, to what used to be home. She hadn’t called West Stockbridge home since she’d left for college almost eight years ago. Home for her now was her spacious loft in Boston, nestled in the heart of the Back Bay.

Two hours later, she turned into the driveway of Longbourn, her family’s sprawling, picturesque estate. Snow frosted the leafless branches of the trees and the enormous front yard, but smoke rose from the chimney and lights glowed from within, emanating warmth from the massive stone home.

She smiled when Jane emerged from inside, her long blond hair shining in the waning winter daylight. The sisters hugged tightly in greeting and after taking Elizabeth’s luggage from the trunk, they headed indoors.

“Are you hungry?” Jane asked. “I have a crockpot full of stew.”

Elizabeth smiled and patted her stomach. “I’m always hungry for your cooking, you know that.”

“Good, because I made enough to feed a small army.” They walked through the foyer and toward the stairs. “I’m putting you in your old room, is that okay?”

“Sure.”

Elizabeth followed Jane to the second floor and then to another set of stairs that led up to the third. Jane turned on the bedroom light and gestured for Elizabeth to walk in ahead of her.

“Still looks just about the same, doesn’t it?”

Elizabeth’s eyes slowly scanned the room and she smiled. “It does.” Same trophies on the dresser and desk, same books on the shelves, same quilt on the bed. “Are you doing anything to the rooms up here?”

“I’ll remodel them, but they’re sort of the last thing on my list, since they won’t be guest rooms. I’m keeping this floor as my living space. You and Lydia will have plenty of room when you visit, which I hope will be frequently.”

“I want you to come to Boston, too. When was the last time you were there?”

“Before I moved to California, so four years, at least.” Jane pulled her sister into another hug. “I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve missed you so much.”

Elizabeth squeezed her back. “I’ve missed you too. Let me get changed, and then we can catch up over dinner. Oh, that reminds me.” She turned and dug through one of her bags, producing a bottle of red wine. “For us.”

Jane grinned and took it from her sister’s hands. “Perfect. I’ll meet you in the kitchen.”

Elizabeth took off her coat and sat for a moment on the bed, fingers tracing the embroidered patterns on the quilt as she studied the awards and trophies scattered about. Puffing out her cheeks, she fell back onto the bed and stared up at the ceiling.

Growing up in West Stockbridge had been wonderful; it was the quintessential quaint New England town. But by the time Elizabeth had accepted her high school diploma from the Berkshire School—a year early and ranked at the top of her class—she was ready to leave her hometown behind.

Attending Harvard University was a given. Her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had all been proud alumni as well as generous benefactors, and it was assumed she’d follow the trail they’d blazed. And she did, until about halfway through her sophomore year. It was then she decided she was more interested in blazing a trail of her own. She’d left Harvard and her father’s dreams behind, and had transferred to Boston University.

Jane’s dreams had changed as well. She’d left behind a burgeoning career in San Francisco, working as a digital marketing manager for an international hotel and resort chain. It was a fantastic job—she’d said so herself just six months ago.

But when faced with the decision of whether or not they should sell Longbourn, Jane had done an about face and approached her younger sisters about turning their childhood home into a bed and breakfast. Being the proprietor of her own inn was something Jane had always talked about when they were younger, but Elizabeth had always thought it was just that: talk.

Like Elizabeth, Jane had been swept up in the visions of their father. Talk of selling Longbourn had caused her to have an epiphany and she’d managed to figure out—also like Elizabeth—that his visions were not her own.  

Even though she was surprised Jane had walked away from the life she’d created in California, Elizabeth wasn’t sorry about it; having her older sister just a three-hour car ride away pleased her to no end.

The prospect of keeping Longbourn in the family hadn’t required much discussion, and once the legal and financial details were hashed out, Jane officially became the sole owner of what would eventually become The Inn at Longbourn. Things had happened quickly after that; Jane had given notice at her job, packed up her life in San Francisco and hied back to the East Coast.  

Elizabeth sighed heavily and glanced around her room again. It felt good to be here, but it felt odd, too, as if she was slightly disconnected. She hadn’t been at Longbourn since her father had passed away almost two years ago. She’d stayed for three weeks then, helping Jane and Lydia sort through and pack up their father’s personal possessions. His death had been sudden and unexpected, and the sisters had moved through their tasks as if mired in quicksand.

Their mother had died nineteen years ago, shortly after giving birth to Lydia, when Elizabeth was almost five and Jane was eight. Other than a couple of pictures on the large stone mantle over the fireplace, there were few reminders of her here.

And now this was Jane’s home, her business and livelihood. It was hard not to feel…well, like a guest, Elizabeth supposed. It was as if she was seeing her old home with new eyes. And going back, going home again to where it all began… It certainly wasn’t the same as never leaving to begin with.

***

A short time later, the sisters had each polished off a bowl of stew and had moved into the living room. A fire kept the room cozy and warm, and they settled onto the plush couch, wine glasses in hand and slipper-clad feet resting on the coffee table.

“So how’s work?” Jane asked. “Are you still dominating the world of advertising?”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Oh, you know me. Ruling it with an iron fist.”

Jane laughed. “I can only imagine. Seriously, how did you manage to get so much time off?”

“We always close for the week between Christmas and the New Year. Mr. Philips is all about celebrating the holidays and wants everyone to enjoy a nice vacation. I just tacked on a couple of weeks before, since I haven’t taken much vacation time this year.”

“You’re staying through Christmas, right?”

“Through the New Year, if you don’t get sick of me first. I want to spend some time with you! It’s been a while since we’ve been together for the holidays.”

Elizabeth wasn’t being completely honest with her sister, and felt a little guilty about that. The truth was, she also had an extra two weeks to spend here after the New Year, if she so desired.

How could you possibly think of staying there for five weeks?

That question had been posed to her by her best friend Kit, when Elizabeth had talked about extending her stay in West Stockbridge. Kit was convinced Elizabeth would be ready to “head out of the boonies” and hightail it back to Boston the minute the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, and honestly, Elizabeth wasn’t so sure she was wrong. But things had been getting a little hairy back in Boston, both professionally and personally, and she needed to get away.

Counting her two-year internship during college, she’d worked at Coastal Media Associates for nearly six years. They were a small but well-respected advertising firm, and she’d moved up through the ranks to creative director, a job she loved. But over the past two months, Mr. Philips had been talking to her about the need to downsize and streamline. It was a stressful situation—especially since she was the only one in the office aware of it—and so it seemed the perfect time for a break.     

But it wasn’t just work she was trying to escape. She needed to distance herself from Colin Williams in order to sort out her feelings for him, and thought that being in the fresh mountain air might help. But truthfully, there wasn’t much to sort; she already knew how she felt about him, she only needed to suck it up and tell him.

When she’d been here two years ago, she couldn’t wait to get back to Boston. By the end of the second week, despite the grief and sorrow and shock, she’d started to feel restless and stifled, though she was well-aware those feelings may have arisen from the circumstances and not necessarily from her location. Still, she couldn’t be sure the same thing wouldn’t happen this time, so she would wait and make the decision to stay or leave when the time came.

“Have you heard from Lydia?” Jane asked.

“I saw her last night, actually. We met for a bite to eat. She has classes for a few more days, and then she’s taking off.”

“How is she?”

“She’s great. I think she’s having a good year.” Elizabeth paused. “She pushed herself so hard last year. And I know it was her freshman year and it’s Harvard—I remember what that was like—but it’s like she was possessed.”

“It was her way of dealing with Dad’s death; you know how close they were. I talked to her a week ago and got the impression she’s finally figured out how to handle the workload and manage her time a little better. That’s what’s made the difference, I think. And I think rooming with Rachel again was a great idea. They’ve become pretty tight.”

“Did she mention if she’s playing again?”

“No, and I didn’t want to ask.”

Elizabeth glanced at the baby grand piano, still in its familiar spot in the back corner of the spacious living room. “She probably would have said something if she was.”

“I asked her to spend Christmas with us, but she’s not ready. She promised she would think about visiting for a few days in January.”

Elizabeth stared at the flames dancing in the fireplace. “I wonder how long she’ll avoid Longbourn. I thought maybe this year, with you being back on the east coast and both of us being here…” It was quiet for a long moment before she turned to Jane. “I guess I thought it would make a difference. I thought she would want to celebrate Christmas and ring in the New Year with her sisters.”

“She’ll be ready to come back at some point. Atlanta will be a good distraction for her. She needs to cut loose and have a little fun. It was nice of Rachel’s family to invite her.”

“You’re right.”

“And how nice that she has a roommate from a warmer climate!” Jane laid her head back on the couch and sighed dramatically. “That’s what I miss the most about California.”

Elizabeth’s eyebrows rose. “Are you sure that’s what you miss the most? You don’t miss your job or what’s his name, that guy you were dating?”

“I miss the people at the job. And I don’t miss the guy, we’d only gone on a couple of dates. His name was Mark, by the way.”

Elizabeth grinned. “There were so many, I’ve lost track.”

Jane’s jaw dropped and she reached to lightly slap her sister’s thigh. “There weren’t that many.”

“Are you serious?”

Jane smiled. “There were less than a dozen.”

“But more than a half-dozen. And they were all the one. How did you find so many ones?”

“It’s California! There are gorgeous men everywhere. And what about you? You always avoid my questions about men and dating.”

Elizabeth frowned. “Did you remember to turn off the crockpot?”

Jane glanced toward the kitchen. “Yes, I think—” A grin lifted Elizabeth’s lips and Jane reached out to slap her sister’s leg again. “Ugh, see what I mean?”

Elizabeth laughed. “I’m not avoiding your questions, I just don’t have much to say.”

“It’s your job, it sucks up too much of your time. Haven’t you ever heard that all work and no play makes Lizzy a dull girl?”

Elizabeth sighed. “Okay. I have been seeing this one guy for a little while, but it’s not really serious. He’s nice, he has a great job, he’s good-looking…but it’s becoming complicated.”

“What is seeing one guy for a little while?” Jane made air-quotes with her fingers. “And why didn’t I know about him?”

“I told you, I didn’t think we were serious. It’s only been a few months. Five or so… Something like that. We see each other when we can, there’s no pressure to get together all the time or whatever. It’s very casual. At least, that’s what I thought. But now he wants to see me more, wants me to meet his parents, wants to meet you and Lydia… And then out of the blue, he mentions living together. It kind of freaked me out.”

“So?”

“So I’ve sort of been avoiding him, as much as I avoid your questions. I’m really, really good at that, like you said.” Elizabeth grinned and took a sip of wine. “Alright, enough about men. Tell me what’s going on with you and what you’re doing to fix up this old place.”

“Well, it’s funny. I realized once I got here that I know absolutely nothing about running an inn.”

Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “You didn’t realize that until you got here?”

“Yes. So while I have a lot of cosmetic stuff to do, with painting and window treatments and new pictures for the walls and refinishing the furniture and buying new linens and towels and redoing the bathrooms…” Jane took a deep breath and blew out a long exhalation of air. “I thought I should focus on learning the ropes first.”

“And how are you doing that?”

“Well, to start, I registered for a class at Berkshire Community College.”

 “Why, did your business degree from Boston College expire?”

Jane laughed. “I just felt like I needed a little refresher, that’s all. I’m just taking basic accounting to start.”

“Good idea.”

“I’ve already done a couple of webinars with a great company that works with aspiring innkeepers, and I’m going to a conference at the end of February in Vermont. I can’t wait!”

“It sounds great.” Elizabeth was happy to see her sister excited about her new career, although she couldn’t quite relate to it. How is it that she’s so excited by the idea of living here for the rest of her life, bringing strangers into this house, waiting on them and cleaning up after them? The very thought of it simultaneously mystified and horrified her.

She looked around the large living room, her eyes traveling over the familiar, well-worn furniture. “I know you said the cosmetic stuff will come later, but have you decided on anything yet? This room could use some updating.”

Jane set her wine down on the coffee table and rose to walk around the living room, telling Elizabeth all that she had planned. Renovations, furniture refinishing, painting, appliance updating, landscaping… The list went on and on.

“You could always blow out the wall between here and the dining room,” Elizabeth suggested. “It would open up the room and make a great gathering place.”

“I thought of that. Charlie just needs to figure out if it’s a load-bearing wall.”

“Charlie?”

“Yes, Charlie. Bingley. I told you I hired him.” Jane tucked a long piece of golden hair behind one ear and then repeated the motion on the other side. “Well, I mean I hired Bingley Builders. And he’s…it. He’s them. He’s Bingley Builders.”

Elizabeth watched her sister fidget. “I figured. From the name.”

“He’s been working on the plans, so sometimes we have dinner and go over them.”

“You look at the plans over dinner?”

“Yes. Sometimes. We meet out or he comes here, and we just happen to eat a meal.”

“Uh-huh.” Elizabeth narrowed her eyes and waited patiently for what she knew would happen next.

“It’s just… He’s so nice, Lizzy, and so gorgeous! And he’s been a huge help. The mountain of paperwork I had to do for the zoning board alone was overwhelming. He and one of the guys from his crew moved all of the furniture from the second floor bedrooms into the basement so I could start refinishing them, and he even showed me some great techniques and told me exactly what products to buy. He explains everything to me, and he really seems to understand what I want—”

“I’ll bet he understands what you want.”

“Shut up, it’s not like that.”

Jane sat down again and took a sip of her wine. “Okay, so maybe it is like that. Sort of. We’re not involved or anything, but I really like him. He’s unassuming and quiet, but he’s so–so manly. And I think he likes me too. I mean, he hasn’t said it, but the way he looks at me and smiles at me… Oh, I could drown in his eyes, they’re so blue.”

Elizabeth dropped her head back against the couch and groaned.

“I know! I know what you’re thinking, but I’m telling you, Charlie is different.”

Elizabeth turned to her sister. “So now he’s the one? A builder from Stockbridge whom you’ve known for all of a month and a half is the one?” A vision of her father rolling in his grave flitted through her mind.

Jane lifted her shoulders in a half-hearted shrug. “I think he could be. And I want to find out.”

~~*~~

Will Darcy heard the approach of a vehicle and pulled his head out from under the hood of his pickup truck. It was almost time to quit anyway, as he was rapidly losing daylight. He rubbed his hands together and blew on them, then spotted his gloves resting on the front tire.

He recognized Charles Bingley’s SUV as it came up Pemberley’s long driveway. Leaning back against the truck’s front fender, he waited for his friend to emerge from the warmth of his vehicle.

“It’s freezing out here, Will,” Charles grumbled as he climbed from the front seat and zipped his coat up. “Why don’t you put that thing in the garage while you work on it? Better yet, why don’t you just trade it in for a newer one?”

Will shook his head. “It’s a reliable truck. And I have two tractors in the garage that need work, so there’s no room in there for the truck at the moment. And, I can’t afford a car payment right now, on top of everything else.”

“Right. Sorry.” Charles nodded toward the house. “Why doesn’t George come out and help you?”

“He’s not home. He’s…wherever George goes. What are you doing here, anyway? Besides harassing me.”

“I’m going for a beer, I thought you might want to join me. You could probably use one.”

“Sure, sounds good. You want to come in for a minute? I need to get cleaned up. I’m sure Mom would love to see you.”

“Okay. How’s your dad?”

Will lowered the hood of the truck. “He’s doing all right. Some days are good, some days are shitty.”

They walked together toward the large white house perfectly situated atop a small hill, their boots muffled by the layer of snow on the ground. Around them stretched acres upon acres of Pemberley land, land that the Darcy family had farmed for five generations. A large barn and several other outbuildings were scattered around the main house.

“No dinner with the new girl tonight?” Will asked.

“No. Her sister is coming into town so she’s hanging out at home. And she’s not really a new girl, she grew up in West Stockbridge.”

“Oh, a West Stock girl, huh? That’s a reach.”

“Shut up.”

Will laughed. “What’s going on with her, anyway?”

“Nothing. She has some major renovations to do on that massive house she owns, and she hired me. We’re friends.”

“Playing it cool, as always.”

“I’m not playing it cool, there’s just not much to say. She’s nice—”

“And according to you, hot.”

Charles smiled. “Yeah, she’s definitely that. Very easy on the eyes.”

They stopped before entering the house. “So all these friendly little dinner dates you’ve been having are purely work-related?”

“Mostly.”

“Man, you don’t give anything away.”

“Like I said—”

“I know, I know. There’s not much to say, right?”

“Right.”

Quiet as Charles was about this girl, Will knew there was more to it than what he let on. Charles wasn’t someone who would jump into a relationship quickly, but neither was he someone who would spend his evenings with the same woman—a friend—just because it was a nice way to pass the time. If he’d had more than a few dinners with her, he was interested.

They entered the front door of the house, and Will stepped out of his boots and took off his thick black jacket.

Abigail Darcy’s voice carried in from the kitchen. “George? Is that you?”

“No, Mom, it’s just me.”

“Oh, William.” She walked in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. “And Charles! How nice to see you! Have you been helping William with that truck? It’s a heap of rust, but he insists on keeping it.”

“There isn’t a single patch of rust on it, Mom. It’s perfectly fine, it just needs some TLC once in a while.”

“Of course it does. Charles, you’re staying for dinner, aren’t you? I’ve made chicken and dumplings, there’s plenty.”

She peered up at Charles from warm brown eyes, hands on her hips, as if daring him to turn down her invitation.

“It’s nice to see you too, Mrs. D. Um, I think—”

“We’ve actually made plans to go out,” Will interjected. “We’ll grab something to eat in town.”

“Oh? All right, then.” She looked her son up and down. “Why don’t you go and get cleaned up? Charles can keep me company.”

“We’ll probably go to the Lion’s Den. Don’t need to clean up for that,” Will teased. He had every intention of showering and changing, but loved to bait his mother.

“Fitzwilliam Robert Darcy, you will never find a girlfriend if you look like you just rolled out of a hay loft. And shave that scruff off of your face!”

He laughed as he walked toward the stairs. “Abigail Margaret Fitzwilliam Darcy, the only girl I’m interested in tonight is Stella Artois, and she doesn’t care if I have a beard.”

Charles laughed, and Mrs. Darcy’s eyes focused intently on him as Will’s footsteps echoed on the wooden stairs. “Did he just say Stella? Who is this Stella girl?”

“It’s just a joke, Mrs. D. There’s no girl.”

She frowned. “I worry about him, Charles. He needs to get out more. He’s twenty-eight years old, but he never dates, never mentions any girls…” She glanced up at him again. “Is he like his brother Richard? Do you think it could be that he’s—”

“He’s not gay, Mrs. D, he’s just busy. Pemberley takes up a lot of his time.”

“I know it does. His father relies on him for so much. But he needs to meet a nice girl to settle down and marry and have babies with. I won’t get any grandbabies from Richard, you know. And that’s okay, he has a very nice husband. Matthew is wonderful, but I’d like to have a daughter-in-law.”

“I know you would, but I don’t think Will is going to find you one tonight.”

Her eyes brightened. “What about your sister? What happened there? They were so sweet together in high school, and then when he came home from college… Why didn’t that work out?”

“That’s between Will and Caroline.” He cleared his throat. “So, do you have any plans for Christmas?”

They talked a bit about the upcoming holiday, and soon enough, they heard the sound of Will’s footsteps on the stairs. He walked into the living room, hair damp, dressed in fresh jeans, a button-down shirt and clean work boots.

“You didn’t shave,” Mrs. Darcy whined.

Will reached up and rubbed his hands over the thick growth of whiskers on his cheeks and chin. “I like it. I’ll probably keep it for the winter.” He bent over and kissed his mother on the cheek, then playfully rubbed his face against hers.

“William!” She slapped him lightly on the chest and despite her reprimanding tone, she smiled. “It’s just awful. No one can see your handsome face under all that hair.”

“I’ve been told I’m pretty handsome even with all this hair.” He smiled and winked at her. “I checked on Dad, he was taking his meds. I offered to walk him downstairs for dinner but he said he’d come down himself.”

“I worry about him falling.”

“His balance seems pretty good. He has his cane, just in case. I think he’ll be all right.”

“Okay.”

“See you later, Mom. I’ll eat some of that chicken for lunch tomorrow.”

“I’ll wrap it up for you. Please be careful tonight. See you in the morning.”

After Charles said a quick goodbye, Will donned his coat and the two men headed out into the chilly evening air. Once they were seated in the SUV, Charles glanced at Will.

“I think I’ve had the same conversation with your mother every time I’ve seen her over the past six months.”

Will laughed, staring out the window as they passed the snow-covered front fields of Pemberley Farms. “Let me guess. She’s wondering why I don’t have a girlfriend, which also makes her wonder if I’m gay, and she’s really, really wondering why Caroline and I don’t get back together.”

“Wow. You nailed it.”

“You know how she complained when I was growing up about not having any daughters? Now it’s all about not having daughters-in-law. She drives me crazy.”

“I bet she never thought she’d have a son-in-law, huh?”

Will chuckled. “Definitely not.”

 “How’s she been with your dad?”

“Okay. She knows part of the whole thing with Parkinson’s is that it affects the memory, but sometimes she gets impatient with him when he repeats himself or if he forgets things. I love her and I know it’s tough for her too, but she acts like she’s the only one who’s made sacrifices. It pisses me off sometimes.”

“I know it does.”

“Sorry. You’ve heard that enough.”

“No worries. You need to vent every once in a while. Blow off some steam.”

Will smiled. “A beer and some loud music is a good place to start.”

***

Two hours and a couple of burgers and beers later, the band was getting tuned up and the bar was getting crowded. Will liked going to the Lion’s Den; he knew a lot of people there, employees and patrons alike. Growing up in a town as small as Stockbridge meant you pretty much got to know everyone.

He sat across from Charles at a tall bar table, facing the door, and he smiled. “Uh oh, here comes trouble.”

Charles’s sister Caroline had already spotted them and was headed straight for their table. She was stopped by a friend, and Will looked her over appreciatively. He admired the way her faded blue jeans, tucked into a pair of tall black boots, clung to her figure, and the way her long, deep red hair fell around her shoulders.

Charles kicked him under the table. “Hey, pal. Stop staring at my sister like she’s your next meal.”

Will grinned. “Been there, done that. Not interested. You have to admit she’s pretty, though.”

“She’s my sister, I don’t have to admit anything.”

The subject of their conversation finally made her way over to them and wrapped her arm around Will. “How are my two favorite men tonight?” She turned to Will. “And how did you manage to pry him away from Jane Bennet?”

Will’s eyes lit up. “Ah, so even your sister knows about her.”

Charles closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “Shut it, Caroline.”

“Oh Charles, you know I’m teasing.” She moved to his side of the table and gave him a hug. “She’s very nice, I like her.”

“You like everyone,” Will chimed in.

“That’s true.” She turned and batted her eyelashes at Charles. “I’m awfully thirsty. Care to buy your little sister a beer?”

Charles sighed and rose from the table. “Be right back.”

Caroline climbed into his vacated seat. “Is it my imagination or is he a little cranky?”

“I think you hit a nerve when you said the ‘J’ word. He’s not saying much about her.”

“Of course he isn’t. But when he does talk about her, I can see a little sparkle in his eyes.” She grinned and leaned across the table a bit further, whispering conspiratorially. “He said she calls him Charlie.”

Will’s eyebrows flew up. “Yeah? And he doesn’t mind?” It was common knowledge that Charles preferred to go by Charles and not Charlie.

“He said it doesn’t sound so bad when she says it.” She laughed softly and sat back in her chair. “I think he likes her more than he’s willing to let on.”

“I think so too.”

She stared at him for a moment. “It’s nice to see you out. It’s been a while.”

He shrugged and took the last sip of his beer. “Yeah, well. You know how it is.”

“Farm keeping you busy?”

He nodded.

“And your father? How is he?”

He studied the empty bottle in front of him. “Some days are good, some days are shitty.” That was his stock answer, and he was sticking to it.

She reached forward and covered one of his hands with her own, rubbing his knuckles lightly with her thumb. “I know it’s tough for you, having everything on your shoulders. I’m always around if you need me. You know, to talk, or vent, or…whatever.”

His eyes flew to hers, their bright blue color vivid against her pale complexion, and he immediately understood what she was offering. “That didn’t work out so well for us the last time, remember?”

“I’m not looking for a relationship, Will. You know I don’t want that.”

“I know.”

“We’ve known each other since fifth grade. I’m not coming on to you or trying to start anything, I’m just offering you some…distraction. Some stress relief.”

“Thanks. I appreciate it.” He stared at her long and hard and for a brief moment, he was sorely tempted to take her up on her offer. They’d had some good times together, and he hadn’t had sex in a long time. Even so, too much had changed between them. “I’m going to pass.”

“Okay, but my offer stands. Just let me know if you need me.”

“Thanks.” He wondered, then, how many men would have turned down her offer. Sex with a beautiful redhead, no strings attached? Half of the guys in this bar probably would have jumped at the chance.

And he knew her offer stemmed from genuine concern. There was no ulterior motive, no angling for something more. As much as they’d been through in all the years they’d known each other, they had a solid, real friendship. She was being honest when she offered what she’d offered; a way to relieve his stress, a distraction from the demands of his life. Temporary, but undeniably tempting.

“Hey, sweetie.” She squeezed his fingers. “Don’t overthink it, okay?”

She released his hand and sat back, and he was about to respond when Charles wandered back over, carefully carrying a beer for each of them. He set the bottles down and then stole a chair from another table and moved it over to join them.

There was a bit of a commotion at the door, and they turned to see Will’s younger brother walking in with a few other men.

George chatted up some guys at the bar, and someone put a beer in his hand. Will chuckled and shook his head. “There he is, the life of the party. I don’t think he’s bought a beer for himself in two years. It’s amazing.”

George soon spotted their party of three and sauntered over, a wide grin on his face.

“Hey bro, what’s up?” He set his beer on the table and punched Will’s shoulder. “The Bingleys managed to get you off the farm tonight, huh?”

“Looks that way. What are you up to?”

George picked up his beer. “The usual. I mean, it’s a Friday night in December and we’re in the hopping metropolis of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Could life be any more exciting than this?”

They all laughed, but the sound was immediately drowned out by the band as they launched into their first number. George set his beer down and reached for Caroline.

“C’mon, Red.” He led her to the dance floor, already crowded with patrons looking to burn off a little cabin fever.

Will grinned as he witnessed George’s attempts to flirt with Caroline.

“Is he getting any better?” Charles asked.

Will’s eyebrows rose. “What do you mean?”

“Dealing with everything. Helping out. You know, growing up and playing the cards he got dealt.”

Will looked at George again. His younger brother appeared completely unselfconscious that his left arm ended in a scarred stump just above where his elbow would have been.

Will shrugged, realizing there was more than one answer to that question. “I don’t know. He’s like my father, in a way. Some days are good, some days are shitty. Some days he jokes about it and makes fun of himself, other days he gets frustrated and lashes out at everyone.”

“Did he get his settlement yet?”

“Soon.”

“Not soon enough, I bet.”

The song ended and George worked his way back to the table to sit down, while Caroline headed off in another direction.

“Whoa, that girl can dance. I still can’t figure out why you dumped her. I don’t get it,” George said to Will.

“You don’t need to get it. It’s none of your business.” Will’s eyebrows rose. “Don’t you have a girlfriend?”

George grinned. “Yeah, I do. She’ll be here soon. I’m not interested in Caroline, believe me. She’s a great girl, but I’d never go after my brother’s sloppy seconds. Actually, more than just your sloppy seconds, huh?”

Charles glared at George and his voice lowered in warning. “Watch yourself.”

“I was just making an observation. It’s a small town, people talk.” He tapped his beer bottle against Charles’s. “I wasn’t insulting her. And you wouldn’t beat up a guy with one arm, would you?”

“Not any guy with one arm. Just you.”

“Hey, George.” Will’s eyes focused on the dark-haired young woman who’d just walked in. “Isn’t that Charlotte?”

“Yeah, that’s her.” George waggled his eyebrows. “See you later. Don’t wait up.”

Will and Charles both watched as George walked to her and greeted her with a kiss.

“I’ve never seen her around here. Is she new in town?” Charles asked.

“She lives in Great Barrington. I think he told me Anne DeBourgh introduced them, they have mutual friends or something.” Will noted with some surprise the besotted look on his brother’s face, and wondered how serious they were. “I’ve met her a few times. She seems like a nice girl.”

“I don’t have to worry about him hitting on Caroline, do I?”

“Nah, not at all. He was just trying to get you riled up.” He laughed at Charles’s annoyed expression. “It worked.”

Caroline made her way back to the table and smiled at Will. “Your brother is so cute!”

“Oh yeah, he’s adorable,” Will responded dryly.

She looked at her brother. “Hey, did you ask Will about tomorrow night?”

Will’s eyebrows rose. “What about tomorrow night?”

“I forgot. I’m not even sure I’m going,” Charles answered.

“You are, you’re going,” Caroline said firmly. “You invited Jane to go, and you told her to bring her sister. You can’t bow out now, it would be rude.”

“But what if her sister doesn’t want to go?”

“She’ll want to go, trust me. If Jane has told her sister about you, and the sister knows you’re going, she’ll go. That’s how it works.”

“Does someone want to tell me what the hell you’re talking about?” Will interjected.

“The DeBourghs are having their annual holiday barn dance tomorrow night,” Caroline answered. “You know how much fun it is. Do you want to go?”

Will nodded. “I forgot all about it, but I’ll go. C’mon, Charlie, what else do you have to do?”

Charles glared at his sister, who laughed.

“I’m sorry, it just…slipped out,” she said innocently. “I couldn’t help it.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Seriously, why would you want to skip it?” Will asked. “Do you have something better to do?”

“No, I have nothing better to do. Absolutely nothing.” A self-deprecating laugh escaped Charles, and he shook his head. “I’ll go. You’re right, I don’t want to blow off Jane.” He grinned at Will. “And hey, who knows? Maybe your mother will get her wish. Maybe we’ll finally find you a girlfriend.”

***

Thanks for reading! Chapter 2 will be posted on January 23rd!