“An Unexpected Harvest”

TGIF! I’m happy you’re here! Some promising conversation in this chapter, a little glimpse of farm life, and a peek at the dynamics of Will’s relationship with his father. Also, just a reminder – these chapters haven’t undergone a final edit yet. Happy reading!

Chapter 6

“You seemed excited about it earlier,” Jane said as they stood in her bedroom a while later. She’d just pulled on her dress and was touching up her makeup. “In fact, you seemed a little too excited. Now you don’t want to go?”

“You know how I am when I’m around people I don’t know. Remember the barn dance?”

“Do I remember the barn dance? Of course I remember, Miss Congeniality. How in the heck did you get a job in advertising—a profession that relies on communication—if you don’t like to talk to people you don’t know?”

“I feel less self-conscious at work. The focus isn’t on me, it’s on my client.”

“Well then, tonight I’m your client.” Jane spun around and faced her sister, who was still clad in jeans and a sweater. “And I’m sorry, honey, but you need to dress better than that if you’re representing me.”

Elizabeth sighed and walked down the hall to her room. On the one hand, she really wanted to go tonight. She wanted to support Jane and put her best foot forward for her sister. But on the other hand she didn’t want to go, because yes, she hated trying to make small talk with people she didn’t know.

But it wasn’t just her lack of conversational skills that had made her nervous; she was far more anxious about seeing Will. Would he speak to her, or blatantly ignore her? And if he did speak to her, would he be angry or civil? Would he attend the party alone, or would he bring a date?

And why the hell do I care?

***

Elizabeth watched and listened as Will gave his pitch, as Charlie had called it, for the Stockbridge Food Bank. He was all business at first, giving statistics about donations and about the number of families in town who relied on the generosity of others. But during the second part of his presentation he focused on the children in these families, tugging on the heartstrings of business owners and encouraging them to remember the season and dig deeply into their wallets.

Her attention hadn’t wavered from him while he spoke, and she found herself distracted by his appearance. He still sported a beard, but it enhanced his rugged good looks. Gone were the blue jeans, flannel shirt and worn-down boots. Tonight he wore a pair of charcoal gray dress pants, a deep red button-down dress shirt and black shoes. His clothing complimented a fit physique, and she flushed when she realized she was ogling him.

Keep it black and white, she reminded herself. No gray area.

Still, her eyes were drawn to him, even when she was talking with Jane and Charlie or any one of the dozens of people Charlie introduced them to. She watched Will as he made his way around the room, obviously in his element. It seemed as though everyone knew him and beyond that, everyone liked him. He was greeted enthusiastically by men and women alike, and he laughed and joked and kept a smile plastered to his face during every conversation. He’d caught her staring a couple of times and she’d quickly looked away, but her eyes always found their way back to him.

They nodded and said hello in passing, but ended up running into each other near the punch bowl, of all places. They stood there in awkward silence, looking anywhere but at each other, until he cleared his throat.  

“You know, if we’re going to stand here and drink this lousy punch, we could try to have a conversation.”

“Oh, sure. Um, what–what did you want to talk about?”

He gave a short laugh. “I have no idea.”

He seemed uncomfortable, so she chose an obvious, safe topic: his work at the food bank. She asked him a few general questions about it, and he told her about the various services that were offered in addition to providing groceries to needy families, as well as Pemberley’s involvement.

“For me, it comes down to my family owning this huge farm that produces healthy food, and yet there are still families around here who can’t make ends meet or keep their refrigerators stocked. Helping out, whether it’s donating food or volunteering my time, is a no-brainer.”

She nodded. “It makes sense. And it’s very generous of you.”

They fell silent again, the voices of the party-goers and the soft strains of Christmas music filling the air around them. She stole a glance at him out of the corner of her eye as she took a sip of her punch. He was scanning the room, watching everyone, but didn’t seem to be looking at anything or anyone in particular.

She racked her brain for something else to talk about, and almost asked him about his name. Fitzwilliam. But then he’d probably want to know how she found out about it, and what could she say?

Oh, you know, I spent a little time cyber-stalking you today.

“It seems like you know most of the people here,” she said instead.

He nodded and kept his eyes focused on the party. “I do. Everyone, actually.”

She’d met a fair share of them through Charlie and thought she’d never seen so many farmers, plumbers, electricians, shop owners and contractors assembled in one room. Jane had also met quite a few of the local inn owners. 

“This is definitely a blue collar town,” she noted.

He turned to her, eyebrows raised. “And that’s a problem? A negative?”

Even though she felt like stomping her foot and telling him to stop misconstruing everything she said, she remained calm. “No, it’s just an observation. Am I wrong?”

Once again, he looked at the people around them. “I guess not. But you make it sound like it’s a bad thing. Then again, being from West Stockbridge and living the corporate dream… I suppose you’re used to a white collar crowd, right?”

“Mostly. But that’s not a bad thing either. It doesn’t mean I don’t work as hard as these people. Or you.” A dimple emerged on his cheek and she frowned. “What’s with the smirk?”

“How long are you here for?”

“Three weeks, give or take. Why?”

“I don’t think many of the people in this room have ever taken a three-week vacation. As a matter of fact, if we asked around, I bet you wouldn’t find a single person who has.”

“You may be right, but what does that have to do with how hard I work? Don’t you think the people here each deserve a three-week vacation?”

“Sure, of course they do. They just don’t have the means to take one.”

“Well I’m certainly not going to feel badly that I do. I work very hard, but I happen to work for a company that provides me with benefits and rewards me for my hard work. I won’t apologize for that.”

He turned to her. “Did I ask you to?”

She stared up at him, noting the way his eyes glinted, and softened a bit. “No, you didn’t.”

“If you can make an observation, I can too.”

She sighed. “Touché. But it is a working vacation. I mean, I am doing some work while I’m here.”

“How can I forget? Sitting at the dining room table in sweatpants, sipping coffee and eating a scone, typing away on your laptop. Nose to the grindstone.” A smile lit his face and he lifted her hand, inspecting it closely. “How are your fingertips? Any calluses yet?”

A flush crept up Elizabeth’s neck as she tried to suppress a grin. He’d just described her appearance and work environment on Monday morning to a tee. “You’re ridiculous, you know that?”

He chuckled as he looked down at her. “Yup.”

Their gazes locked for a moment, until he dropped her hand and looked away. But she’d felt something; a zip of electricity when their hands touched, a spark…something. It was quick, passing between them in seconds, but it was there.

This was the longest, almost civil conversation they’d ever had, and she was determined to keep it going, even though she felt like she was on guard—for anything untoward that might come out of her mouth or anything impertinent that might come out of his.

“Um, do you have any big plans for the holiday?” she asked.

“No, just…staying home. You know,” he paused, “with my parents.”

She cringed. “Listen, I wasn’t–I didn’t mean whatever it is you thought I meant when I said that. I was just—”

“Let me guess. Shocked? Amused?”

“Well, yes, shocked, or–or surprised, I guess, but not amused. Why would that amuse me?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Lots of things about me seem to amuse you.”

Her mouth dropped open slightly. “That’s not really fair.”

She wanted to defend herself, and felt an inexplicable need to apologize for the things she’d said about him the first night they met and explain why she said them, and how she came to the realization—albeit slowly—that she’d behaved horribly.

But before she could do any of those things, Jane and Charlie wandered over to join them. They all chatted for a few minutes, but Elizabeth was too out of sorts to contribute much.

And Will knows it

He excused himself, saying he saw someone he wanted to speak to. She watched him, and again he caught her staring. She narrowed her eyes, and he raised his cup of punch in a mock salute, grinning crookedly.

Insufferable. But pretty freaking hot.

***

The sisters were back at Longbourn by eleven o’clock. It had been a quiet ride home, and while Elizabeth knew the reason she was feeling less talkative, she wasn’t so sure about Jane. She seemed to have fun, and Charlie had introduced her to dozens of people. But something didn’t seem right. She took off her coat and watched as Jane removed hers and hung it on the rack.  

“Did you have a good night?” Elizabeth asked brightly.

“I did. Everyone was so nice, weren’t they?”

“Yes, very nice.”

“I told you you’d be fine,” Jane said over her shoulder as she walked out of the foyer.

Elizabeth followed behind her. “Um, are you going up to bed, or do you want a glass of wine?”

Jane paused at the bottom of the stairs. “I have a little bit of a headache. I think I’ll just go up.”

“Are you sure that’s all it is? Nothing else?”

“I just have some things I need to think about.”

Elizabeth frowned. “Did something happen?”

“No, that’s just it. Nothing happened.”

“With Charlie?”

Jane sighed heavily. “We were standing under a stupid piece of mistletoe, so he kissed me… I mean, he kind of had to, right? And it was sweet, but he looked so unexcited.” She shook her head. “The way he kissed me last Saturday was fantastic. But during the three days he stayed here…”

She shrugged, and Elizabeth could see she was close to tears. “You need to have a heart to heart with him and ask him to be straight with you. That’s all you can do.”

“I know, I’m going to. Tomorrow. I’m not going to put it off any longer.”

Elizabeth lightly squeezed her sister’s hand. “I’m here if you want to talk. You know that, right?”

Jane nodded and managed a watery smile. “Can you read minds? Because I need someone to read his.”

Elizabeth thought of Will; if anyone knew what was going on in Charlie’s head it would be him. “I wish I could, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But it looks like you’ll have to find out what he’s thinking the old fashioned way.”

“I suppose so. Are you staying up?”

“Just for a little bit. I’ll see you in the morning.”

They said goodnight and Elizabeth wandered into the kitchen. She was tempted to pour a glass of wine, but settled for hot cocoa instead. She took her mug and headed into the living room, enjoying the silence and the soft glow of the lights from the Christmas tree.

She thought back to her interactions with Will during the party and the way they’d taken on a teasing quality. He’d laughed and smiled and hadn’t been tense or standoffish. Even when the topic came up of him living at home, he didn’t seem annoyed or insulted.

He had every opportunity to walk away from her, but he hadn’t. He stood there, drinking that godawful punch, and he’d talked to her. Teased her. Maybe he was offering an olive branch? Maybe…

She groaned when she realized, with some degree of alarm, that he was firmly entrenched in a massive gray area. One that seemed to be growing wider by the moment.

***

Will woke early, while it was still pitch dark. Falling back to sleep proved to be impossible but he forced himself to stay in bed, tossing and turning before finally rising at six o’clock. Shivering in the chilly morning air, he went into the bathroom and minutes later was pulling on wool socks, jeans and a heavy sweatshirt and was heading downstairs to the kitchen.

The rest of the house was quiet, though he knew there was a good chance his father was awake. Robert’s internal clock continued to function with precision, rousing him at the same time every morning, even though there was little he could do but lie in bed and wait for his body to catch up with his brain.

Will put the coffee on and stared sleepily at the pot while it slowly filled, as if it held the answers to the questions swirling through his head.

After leaving the party last night, he’d thought of little else but Elizabeth Bennet and already this morning, she and her green eyes were worming their way into his mind. He just didn’t get her, couldn’t figure her out. She’d seemed so condescending and arrogant every other time they talked, but last night she seemed almost…nice. 

Well, until she went and said something about Stockbridge being blue collar, like it was an illness sweeping the countryside. Watch out! You’ll get the blue collar bug! The working mans’ disease! He chuckled to himself as he took a mug from the cabinet and filled it with coffee.

He leaned against the counter and drank slowly, and as the caffeine did its job, he let his thoughts wander further back into the evening. His annoyance over her question about him living with his mother had waned in the days since she asked it, so he thought he’d be nice and offer her a cup of punch. She’d looked uncomfortable standing there by herself, and before he knew it he was being Mr. Polite and striking up a conversation with her.

Up until her blue collar comment they were doing just fine. Actually, they were doing fine until she brought up the holidays, and he felt the need to get a subtle dig in. He probably should have let it go, but she’d kind of left herself wide open and he couldn’t resist. He’d watched a flush creep up her neck, and for a moment he’d felt guilty.

Not five minutes before that he’d teased her about her “working vacation,” and impulsively reached for her hand. She’d stared up at him, obviously trying so hard not to laugh, and he’d gotten completely sucked into her incredible eyes. His heart had given one heavy thump that he’d felt all the way to the pit of his stomach, and it had taken a good five minutes before the warmth in his fingers dissipated. It was a bit unsettling.

He took a few more gulps of coffee before placing the mug into the sink, then took two apples from the refrigerator. He donned his jacket and grabbed a pair of gloves, stuffed the apples into his pockets, stepped into his cold boots, and headed outside.

Though the sun wouldn’t be up for another half-hour or so, the sky was just beginning to lighten and he could see easily enough as he walked. He loved this time of day, no matter the season; it was perfectly still, the barn and the fields around him bathed in a dim glow. His breath steamed the cold air around his face and he inhaled deeply, fully awake now and ready to get to work.

A chorus of soft nickers greeted him when he entered the barn. He turned on the lights and headed to the first stall, trailed by Toto, who hovered around his legs. Will reached down to pet the grey tabby and told him he’d get his breakfast soon enough.

The moment he reached the half-door of Skip’s stall, he was welcomed with a nudge against his chest. He stroked the horse’s soft nose and Skip immediately nuzzled at his coat.

“You’re always looking for something, aren’t you? You guys can never just be happy to see me.”

He pulled one of the apples from his pocket and held it out, watching as it was devoured in one bite. He smoothed the horse’s chestnut-colored hair and scratched behind his ears before heading to the next stall.

While Skip sort of belonged to everyone in the Darcy family, Barnum belonged to Will. The large black gelding had a bit of an attitude, never letting anyone else ride him or get too close. Even now, he stood at the back of his stall and stared at Will as if to say, “Well it’s about time, don’t you think?”

Will opened the door and walked in, approaching the horse slowly and talking quietly. He wasn’t afraid, but Barnum could be temperamental. Eventually the horse lowered his head and pushed against Will, also searching for a treat. He patted the horse affectionately on the neck and laughed when Barnum pawed one large hoof against the floor.

“You’ll have to wait for yours, sorry.”

He walked out of the stall and left the door open, knowing Barnum would emerge as soon as he got curious as to where Will had disappeared to. By the time Will grabbed the wheelbarrow and a pitchfork and shovel—raising a ruckus with the goats and chickens at the other end of the barn—Barnum was walking down the center aisle. Will met the horse halfway and cross-tied him, then gave him the sought-after apple.

Mucking stalls was tedious but therapeutic. The only sounds were those of the shovel and pitchfork sifting through the shavings, the horses moving restlessly, tails swishing, and an occasional bleat from the goats. His thoughts traveled once again to the night before, and he wondered what it was about Elizabeth Bennet that had him so flustered.

He didn’t have to think on it long: he found her interesting, but in a baffling way. She was obviously intelligent, and although a couple of their conversations had become a little heated, he enjoyed the sparring—even when she was annoying him.

He certainly found her attractive. Her eyes drove him to distraction, as did the sweet curves of her body—including what had to be the most perfect ass he’d ever seen. He’d never been drawn to women who were rail thin and willowy, and always preferred dark hair over blonde, and paired with those green eyes…damn. She’d looked fabulous in the skirt she wore last night with those tall black boots…

There was a physical attraction he couldn’t deny, and he’d never felt it more than when he held her hand for that brief moment and let his eyes linger on hers a little too long. But just because he could acknowledge that she inspired certain feelings, it didn’t mean he had to like it. In fact, he didn’t like it at all. It bothered the hell out of him that he enjoyed talking to her last night. He didn’t want to be drawn to her and her perfect ass, didn’t want to find her interesting or smart or attractive, because no matter how he looked at it—looked at her—he couldn’t get past some of the things she’d said.

It was as if she didn’t have a filter, or was socially inept and completely unaware of how to behave around other people. Did she just feel awkward and blurt out whatever came into her mind? Or was she really that arrogant, thinking she was above the general population of Stockbridge?

Before he knew it, Barnum’s stall was done. Will untied him and led him back in, refilled his water and grain buckets and tossed in a few flakes of hay. He moved to Skip’s stall and went through the same process of cross-tying him, amused by the sounds of the two horses nickering and whinnying to each other.

Not too long ago, he’d thought it would be nice to have a girlfriend, someone to spend time with. It made him wonder, and not for the first time, if anything would have happened between him and Elizabeth if she was more…approachable.

But she isn’t. And even if she was, she’d never be interested in him, a lowly farmer; she’d made that pretty damn clear. He didn’t have time for people like her, who’d never learned the meaning of not judging a book by its cover. 

She’d be better off hightailing her perfect, white collar ass back to Boston and hooking up with someone who wears polo shirts and polished shoes, not jeans and dirty boots. 

Less than an hour later, after finishing Skip’s stall, feeding Toto and the chickens and letting the goats out into their pen and goofing around with them for a while, he headed back to the house. The early morning sun was shining brightly, but he wanted to give Barnum some time to digest his breakfast before saddling him up.

His parents would be awake and downstairs by now, and he needed to broach the topic—again—of hiring help. He expected Pemberley’s production to be through the roof this upcoming season, the best since he’d returned home, and there’d be no way he could manage on his own; it would be physically impossible. The new year was right around the corner, and with everything else he had going on, he needed to start looking for someone soon. The last thing he wanted was to be scrambling for help in the spring.

At the party last night, he’d spoken to an old family friend whose brother owned a farm in Connecticut. The farm manager there had given his notice due to his need to relocate to Lee, just a stone’s throw from Stockbridge, to take care of his ailing mother. He’d been given the man’s name and a phone number, and although Will wanted to call him right away, he wouldn’t unless his father gave the okay. So far they’d been at an impasse; Will wanted the help, and Robert didn’t feel it was necessary.

He stomped the snow from his boots and made his way into the house, where he was greeted with the smell of eggs and bacon. He hung up his jacket and stepped out of his boots, his stomach growling with hunger. His mother was standing at the stove, and he said good morning and kissed her on the cheek.

She gasped. “Oh, your lips are like icicles! What’s the temperature?”

“The temperature is cold. Where’s Dad?”

“He’s coming. His pills should have kicked in by now and I’m sure he can smell breakfast.”

His father walked in a moment later, and his eyes lit on Will. “Mornin’, William.”

“Good morning, Dad.”

“You been out already?”

Will nodded and sat down at the table. “Just to do the stalls and take care of the zoo. I’ll take Barnum out for a ride later.”

“Oh, that horse,” Abby chimed in. “I don’t trust him one bit.”

Will rolled his eyes behind his mother’s back, making his father laugh.

“Stop rolling your eyes at me, young man,” Abby said. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing when your father laughs like that.”

Will shrugged, sharing a grin with his father, until he noticed that Robert was tottering a little. He rose and helped him to sit. “I thought your pills were kicking in.”

“They are.” Robert held out one hand. Sure enough, the tremors were barely visible. “Some–sometimes I tell my–my legs to move forward, and they just–just wobble. I feel like–like I’m stuck in the mud.”

“I’ll get you some coffee.” Will filled a mug for his father and another for himself and carried them to the table. “There are a few eggs out in the barn, I’ll grab them later.”

“Oh good, I need them.” Abby filled plates for her husband and son. “I have pies and Christmas cookies to bake.”

“Mmm. What kind of pies are you making?”

“A pumpkin for you, and a pecan for your father and George. I’ll make a pumpkin for Charles, too. I know he loves it.”

George walked into the kitchen then, bleary eyed and yawning, hair sticking up in every direction.

“Oh, George,” Abby said. “I didn’t know you were home.”

“Charlotte feels like she’s coming down with something. She doesn’t want me sick, too.”

“That’s smart. Would you like some breakfast?”

He shook his head. “I’ll make myself something later.”

He poured his coffee and made to leave the kitchen, but Will stopped him. “Can you hang out for a minute? I want to talk about something and I want you here for it.”

George shrugged and sat at the table, while Abby set plates in front of Will and his father and joined them with her own.

“Is something wrong, Fitzwilliam?” she asked

“No, everything is fine. I think we need to talk about hiring some help.” Robert immediately began to shake his head, and Will’s patience slipped. “Dad, hear me out. Don’t say no yet.”

Abby patted Robert’s hand. “Let him talk.”

Will took a deep breath. “I can’t do this by myself anymore. When you were running the farm, you had Richard and George and me helping you. And when Grandpa Preston was running the farm, he had you and us boys. As soon as we were old enough we were out there, working alongside him and learning as we went. It was easier.”

Robert leveled his gaze at Will. “It’s–it’s never been easy.”

“I’m not saying it was easy, just easier. You had three extra pairs of hands, and Grandpa had four. I have one.”

George held up his hand and grinned. “Actually, you have half a pair.”

Will chuckled despite the tension. “And you said yourself you haven’t been much help.”

George nodded and looked at his father. “Dad, Will is doing all this stuff for the farm and he’s doing it by himself. If he says he needs help, then he needs it.”

“I can help,” Robert answered. “I’m–I’m not useless.”

Will’s shoulders sagged and his voice softened. “I’m not saying you are, but you have a disease that’s only going to get worse.”

“Fitzwilliam!” Abby whispered harshly.

“What? We know it, Dad knows it, and we have to be up front about it. It’s no one’s fault Dad got Parkinson’s, and no one ever thought George would get his arm torn off.” He paused. “You guys asked me to come home and help, and I did. I left school and came back, and I’ve worked my ass off. You know I have, and you know I wouldn’t ask for help if I didn’t need it. My projections are through the roof for this season, and with the inspection coming up… I need you to give me this.”

Robert shook his head. “We can’t afford it.”

“We can squeak by with paying someone part-time.” Will’s gaze flickered briefly to George. “Some of George’s settlement is promised to the farm, and that will help. It’s just going to be a little tight until then.”

Robert’s eyes dropped away from Will’s. “It’s a–a family business.”

“You’re right, it is,” George said. “The last time I checked, there were five of us in this family. One lives in another state, one has Parkinson’s and one is missing an arm. That leaves Mom and Will. You good with her working out in the fields with him?”

Will knew what George was doing and was thankful for the support. He’d fought this battle with his father a year ago, and came out on the losing end. This time he was determined to make his point.

“I need help,” Will said. “Why are you having such a hard time understanding that, Dad? Do you think I want help so I can slack off?”

Robert’s eyes traveled to Will’s and he shook his head. “No.”

“Then help me out. There’s a guy moving to Lee who was the manager of a farm in Connecticut. He might be a good fit. He did a lot there, really turned the place around.”

Robert frowned. “You–you talked to someone before talking to–to me?”

“No, someone approached me at the Chamber party and asked if I was looking for help.”

“What–what do people think, Pemberley is–is falling apart?”

Will dropped his fork to his plate and sat back. “Pemberley is falling apart. You know as well as I do that it’s not what it was thirty years ago. Hell, it’s not even what it was ten years ago. I’m bringing it back, but I’m barely hanging on. I can’t do it by myself.” He paused. “You asked me to come back here and make Pemberley my future. But if you don’t trust me, it won’t work.”

“He’s right,” George said. “Everything Will is doing is growing the farm. Time to hand over the reins, Pop.”

Robert glanced at George and then stared at Will for a long moment. “I’ll think about it.”

Will wanted to shout and curse, but instead he calmly rose from the table and walked into the entryway, grabbed his coat and stepped into his boots. “Great. You think about it. I’m going for a ride.”

***

Thanks for reading! Chapter 7 will be posted on/around April 2. Have a great weekend!