“An Unexpected Harvest”

Hello and happy Friday! I’m glad you’re here! I hope you’re enjoying An Unexpected Harvest so far. And just a heads up – my new blog post is coming next week, and will feature a contest that involves both Sanctuary and AUH, so be sure to check it out! And now, for your reading pleasure…

Chapter 7

Sunday, December 26th

The rest of the week passed quickly and before Elizabeth knew it, Christmas had come and gone. She and Jane had spent the morning in front of the fire, exchanging gifts and opening those sent by Lydia and their only other relatives, their mother’s brother Edward Gardiner and his wife Madelyn, who lived in New York.

Elizabeth had been close to them once upon a time, but when she’d made the decision to leave Harvard, her uncle was just as disappointed as her father. The expectation was that Elizabeth would join them at Bennet Capital, and after finishing high school a year early, she headed off to Harvard ready and willing to fulfill those expectations—or so she thought.

By the end of her freshman year, she’d begun to rethink exactly where and how she wanted to invest her time and energy. David Bennet had built his career and substantial wealth on the floundering businesses of others, swooping in to purchase and dismantle them and sell them off in smaller chunks to the highest bidders. By the start of her sophomore year, Elizabeth decided that instead of tearing businesses down, she wanted to build them up. She liked the idea of being a creative force behind the success of a company or product, providing it with the proper exposure to help it grow and flourish. 

The decision to leave Harvard had been a difficult but necessary one, as the prestigious school didn’t offer a degree in advertising. But Boston University did, and she knew in her heart that a transfer was the right move. It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back; while her father was already incensed she wouldn’t be working with him in the future, he was downright furious with her for leaving Harvard.

Their relationship had deteriorated from that point on, and it crushed her. She tried her best to bridge the gulf between them, but their relationship remained superficial at best. She steeled herself against the pain and guilt, locking it away and only letting her older sister occasionally see glimpses of it. More than anything, she wanted her father to be proud of her and what she’d accomplished. But if he ever felt that way, he never told her. And now he was gone.

Lydia will be the one to make up for all of it.

He’d said those words often enough, throwing them at Elizabeth and making it clear there was plenty to make up for. His hopes and dreams for Bennet Capital now rested squarely on his youngest daughter’s small shoulders. Lydia had risen to the challenge, graduating third in her class from The Berkshire School, even though their father died during her senior year. His death spurred her on; she buried her grief and became consumed with her education and doing all she could to fulfill his wishes.

Lydia had stayed away from Longbourn as much as possible since then, and seemed determined to keep staying away, distancing herself as much as possible from the grief and betrayal that Longbourn represented.
Betrayal.

Elizabeth was fully aware she and her sisters were long overdue for a conversation about the events that surrounded the last six months of their father’s life. She hoped the pain and devastation Lydia suffered at the hands of someone she thought to be a good and trusted friend wouldn’t linger forever.

Jane had only been guilty of supporting Elizabeth, and although that had been enough to upset their father, he hadn’t distanced himself from her completely. Then again, he’d never had a plan in place for Jane to join Bennet Capital; he always thought of his oldest daughter as being a little too soft. Not enough of a killer instinct, he’d said.

So what does that say about me?

Elizabeth had wondered more than once what her father would have thought of Jane’s return to West Stockbridge, and concluded he probably would have been fine with it. But she also wondered if Jane had thought about it; had she agonized over her decisions as Elizabeth had done—and was still prone to do?

Since her return, Jane had become lighter and bubblier, if that was even possible. She’d always been the most optimistic and outgoing person Elizabeth knew—the yin to Elizabeth’s yang—but now, she was virtually glowing with happiness and contentment.

Well, up until this past Wednesday night, anyway.

Her glow had dimmed significantly since then. She wanted desperately to have a heart-to-heart with Charlie, but he’d been scarce since the Chamber party. They’d talked on the phone a few times, including yesterday when he called to wish her a merry Christmas, but the conversation she needed to have with him couldn’t be had on the phone.

“He’s just been busy,” Jane explained as the sisters were out for a walk on Sunday morning, enjoying the brilliant sunshine and the break in the frigid temperatures. “He’s had a lot of catching up to do, and he’s still behind. He really can’t do much with that boot on his foot.”

“Are you going to see him anytime soon?”

“He said he’d call me today, so maybe we’ll make a plan.”

“What will you say to him? Have you thought about it?”

“I know what I want to askhim, but I think it would be best if I winged it.”

“Are you sure?”

Jane nodded. “I feel comfortable enough at this point to be totally open and honest. I’m not afraid of letting him know how I feel, but I’ll make it clear that I expect the same from him. That’s not too much to ask after two months of this, right?” Jane suddenly stopped walking. “Do you think he’s staying away on purpose? Do you think he’s avoiding me?”

“You just gave me a bunch of reasons why he hasn’t been around, so… What do you think?”

“Part of me thinks he’s avoiding me, but another part of me truly believes he’s busy. But if it is that, if he has been busy and he’s not avoiding me, why hasn’t he made a move yet?” She groaned. “God, I haven’t been this twisted up over a guy since college. I forgot how much it sucks.”

Elizabeth looped her arm through Jane’s and tugged her forward. “It does suck.” And I know what you mean.

The job at Longbourn was quite extensive and would keep Charlie busy for a long time, and a thought suddenly formed in Elizabeth’s mind.  

Could it be that all of his attention is based purely on business? Is he worried he’ll lose the work if he declares he isn’t romantically interested?   

Jane sighed. “Can we talk about something else? I’m excited to see Lydia! I can’t believe she’ll be home in a week.”

“I know, me too.”

“She needed some convincing. She was almost going to come for New Year’s Eve, but she changed her mind when I told her about the party.”

Elizabeth came to an abrupt stop. “What party?”

Jane grinned as she disengaged her arm from her sister’s and backed away. “Didn’t I tell you about it?”

Elizabeth eyed Jane suspiciously. “What fresh hell are you talking about now? Who’s having a party?”

Jane laughed and took another step back. “I am.”

“You’re throwing a party? On New Year’s Eve?”

“Yes.”

“But–but that’s crazy! You–you hardly know anyone!”

“Gee, thanks for the support, sis.”

“You know what I mean. It’s just—” Elizabeth paused. “It’s just that you haven’t had the time, or the opportunity, to make a substantial number of acquaintances.”

Jane grinned widely. “Oh, you said that so nicely, Lizzy! Very good use of your words. And that’s the thing; I’ve met people, but I really haven’t had the chance to mingle with them. I thought a get-together would be the perfect way to do that. I mentioned it to Charlie at the Chamber party and he thought it was a great idea.” She sighed. “I realized that since I’ve been here, I’ve mostly been with him. I need to spread my wings, especially if this thing we have isn’t really a thing at all, and I think a New Year’s Eve party is the perfect way to do that.”

Elizabeth studied Jane’s hopeful expression. “You’re right, it’s a good idea.”

It was perfect; what better way for Jane to get to know people than to welcome them into her home? Unfortunately, nothing could be less appealing to Elizabeth. But she wanted to support her sister, so she’d suck it up and muster up some enthusiasm.

“How do you know who to invite?”

“I have contact info from the Chamber and a really good memory.”

“Like an elephant. But it’s only five days away; you’d better get on it.”

“Oh, I’m ahead of the game. I sent out a couple dozen invitations on Friday and I’ve already received a few responses. You can help me with the food and all that.”

“You know I can’t cook to save my life.”

“That’s okay, I’ll teach you. We’ll stick to easy stuff.” Jane smiled fully now and looped her arm back through Elizabeth’s. It was quiet for a moment, with only the sound of their boots crunching in the snow.

“I’m not surprised Lydia didn’t want to be here for New Year’s Eve, then,” Elizabeth said.

“She’ll come on Sunday. And then you leave on Tuesday, right?”

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. I can stay longer if I want to, and I think I do. I want to spend more time with you and Lydia. I think it will be good for us. So after this week, I still have two more weeks. But I have to work, a lot more than I have been. It can’t just be playtime.”

There was another reason she wanted to stay—a tall, dark-haired, brown-eyed reason—but she refused to voice it.

“Really? Oh, that would be so perfect. Two more weeks!” Jane wrapped an arm around Elizabeth’s shoulders and squeezed her tightly. “Lydia will be so excited. I told her that maybe the best way for her to face her demons, or whatever you want to call them, is with her sisters by her side.”

“You said that?”

“Yes, and she agreed. She knows it’ll be easier with the two of us here, especially you.”

“Why especially me?”

“Because you have your own demons to face.”

Elizabeth’s mouth dropped open, but before she had a chance to respond, Jane’s phone rang. She pulled it from her pocket and glanced at the screen.

“It’s Charlie.”

Jane answered the phone, and Elizabeth moved a little further down the trail to give her some privacy. She stared off into the dense, snow-covered forest and thought about Jane’s offhanded remark.

I have no demons. She had regrets and sometimes felt like a giant loose end of her life was flapping in the wind, but she wouldn’t call either of those things demons.

When she heard Jane mention Will’s name, her thoughts immediately went careening in another direction.

The last time she’d seen him—really seen him—had been Wednesday night at the party. She’d passed him on the road when she was driving to the grocery store Friday morning and had given a wave, but he didn’t wave back, and she assumed he hadn’t seen her. Or maybe he ignored me.

He’d popped into her head a dozen times on Christmas day; she thought about his father and brother and the things Charlie said about them. One sick, the other injured in an accident. Is Will the one who does it all?

There was no question Jane would invite him to the party. But with enough people there, it wouldn’t be so bad. The more people, the less likely she’d be alone with him, which meant there was less of a chance she’d put her foot in her mouth.

Jane ended her call and rejoined Elizabeth. “We’re going to Pemberley tomorrow.”

Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “Excuse me?”

“We’re going to Pemberley. Will’s farm. With Charlie.”

“And why are we doing that?”

“Because Will invited me when he came to Longbourn, and Charlie asked if we wanted to go tomorrow. He wants to show Will the greenhouse plans he’s been working on, and he knows Will wants me to see the farm, so—”

“So you’re going to see it now, when everything is covered in snow?”

Jane smiled. “Yes.”

“Brilliant.”

“And it’s weWe’re going. Charlie says it’s beautiful in the snow, and Will has horses and snowmobiles.”

Elizabeth groaned. “Even better, we might have to ride something. Do I have to go?”

She couldn’t tell her sister that the thought of seeing Will on New Year’s Eve already had her feeling anxious; the knowledge she’d see him tomorrow had her downright panicked. But at the same time, she was thrilled in a way that nearly made her giddy. 

“Yes, you have to go,” Jane said. “You can keep Will busy while I drag Charlie off to talk to him.”

“You’re going to talk to him there?”

Jane wrinkled her nose. “Not a good idea?”

“Maybe after, but not while we’re there.”

“Yeah, you’re right. But you have to go, Lizzy! I need the moral support.”

Elizabeth huffed. “Fine, I’ll go. But you owe me. Big time.”

Jane smiled happily. “Deal. Now let’s go home, my toes are numb.”

***

“So you decided that now was the best time for Jane to see Pemberley? When there’s snow covering everything?”

Charles laughed. “No, you decided that. You’re the one who invited her, remember? You said you’d be happy to show her around.”

The two men stood in Pemberley’s garage early Monday morning. Will had been spending his time anywhere but inside the house; that way, he was guaranteed to avoid his father. The man had been infuriatingly tight-lipped on the subject of hiring help, and the one time Will had broached the topic since their conversation the previous week, Robert’s response had been a short and succinct I said I’d think about it.

Will needed to keep his distance, or he’d end up losing his cool and saying things he’d regret. His frustration was at a boiling point, and now he had an afternoon of awkward conversation to look forward to. With Elizabeth Bennet.

“They’ll love it,” Charles said. “I told them about the snowmobiles—”

“Come on, seriously? Did you tell them to pack a picnic too?”

Charles slapped Will on the shoulder. “Lighten up. You need to burn off a little steam. Hell, we both do, so why not do it tearing around on a couple of Arctic Cats with two gorgeous women hanging onto us for dear life?”

Will’s eyebrows rose and he chuckled. “I guess there are worse things.

“I knew you’d see it my way.”

Will nodded toward the boot on Charles’s foot. It was bulky and extended up his calf. “Are you sure you’re up to it?”

“This thing isn’t going to slow me down. I haven’t seen Jane since Wednesday night, so I thought she’d enjoy this. Something fun.”

“How are things going?”

Charles shrugged. “Slow. But that’s my fault.”

“Did you get her anything for Christmas?”

“She likes Caroline’s soaps, so I had Caroline make up a basket for her.”

“Nice idea. Did she like it?”

“I haven’t given it to her yet.”

“You haven’t–you do know Christmas was two days ago, right?”

“I told you, I haven’t seen her since Wednesday night.”

Will shook his head.

“Quit giving me shit, all right? We’ve talked on the phone, but I’ve been straight out at work.”

“Yeah, okay, I know. Still…today maybe? Tonight?”

“Definitely. Maybe.” Charles paused. “She’s been a little quiet. On the phone.”

“Listen, Charles. I think she’s into you. If you feel the same way you need to let her know, because she’s probably wondering what the hell is going on. You need to go for it, because if you don’t, someone else will. I can practically guarantee it.”

“Shit.”

“As a matter of fact, maybe Jane can ride with me today and you can take her sister.”

Charles laughed. “Like you’d pass up the chance to have Lizzy wrapped around you on the snowmobile.”

Will’s eyebrows flicked up but he said nothing, and Charles gave a low chuckle.

“I thought so. They’ll be here around one.”

They made small talk for a few more minutes and after walking toward the house together, Charles drove off. Will went inside, knowing he needed to talk with his mother before the Bennet sisters arrived.

He found her in the laundry room moving clothes from the washer to the dryer, and he stepped in to help her. She smiled when he finished and patted his cheek, her eyes soft.

“You’re a good boy, Fitzwilliam.”

He knew she was bothered by the standoff that existed between him and his father. “I try, as pointless as it is.”

She started the dryer. “It’s never pointless. Now come and have a cuppa with me.”

“Where’s Dad?”

“George took him into town for a haircut. Come on, there’s one slice of pumpkin pie left with your name on it.”

He poured them each a cup of coffee while she plated the piece of pie. They sat at the table in companionable silence, and Abby watched her son devour the last of their Christmas dessert in short order.

He grinned crookedly as he swallowed the last bite. “Sorry.”

“Did you eat this morning?”

“Yes. It’s just good pie.”

“Your grandmother Fitzwilliam taught me well.” She tilted her head. “How long before you move your things out to the barn?”

His eyebrows rose. “Huh?”

“Well, you’re just about living out there now, aren’t you? You can’t get out there fast enough in the morning, and you don’t come in until after dinner.”

Will shifted in his seat. “There’s a lot to do. I fixed the two tractors, they’re ready to go.”

His mother said nothing, only stared at him, lips pursed.

“I don’t want to get into it Mom, okay? Unless you tell me I can hire someone, it’s pointless to talk about it.”

She sighed. “You know, I try to stay out of anything that has to do with the farm. Pemberley was here long before I came along. It’s not something your father and I built together, it’s something I married into. And everyone says that marriage is a partnership, right?”

“That’s the rumor.”

She narrowed her eyes at his tease. “It is a partnership. For us, it always has been…unless it was about the farm. I’ve never had a say in anything to do with Pemberley, unless it happened here, inside this house.” She tapped her finger on the table for emphasis. “If it happened anywhere else, it wasn’t my concern.”

“And that’s why you never speak up.”

She nodded. “I don’t think it’s my place. And maybe by now I should, but I don’t. It’s always been easier for me to let your father make all the decisions, even when I’ve thought he wasn’t necessarily making good ones.”

“If this is supposed to be a pep talk, it isn’t working.”

He knew what she was doing—she was trying to explain her silence, and even though he understood, it didn’t mean he wasn’t disappointed.

“It’s not meant to be a pep talk. I’m just letting you know that on this issue, this–this lack of help, I’m going to let your father know how I feel. George is supportive of your plan, and so is Richard—”

“You talked to Richard?”

“Yes. He told your father to listen to you.”

Will was dumbfounded but pleased. “I talked to Richard on Christmas, he didn’t say anything about it.”

“That’s because I asked him not to. We were having a nice day and I didn’t want to upset the applecart.”

“I appreciate what you’re doing, Mom, but what makes you think—”

This is what makes me think.” She covered his hand with hers. “You’ve given up everything to take care of us. You’re doing a lot for the farm, and you’re taking care of all the equipment and the animals. And you’re running things at the food bank.” She paused and stared at him, her eyes wet. “You have no time for yourself, no time to meet a nice girl and go on dates, and no time to have fun with your friends. When I met your father, he was working this farm and he worked hard, but he had time to do those things. We were young and we had fun. I want that for you.”

His lips twitched. “You want grandbabies.”

She laughed softly and wiped her eyes. “Of course I do, but I want you to be happy first. That’s what’s most important to me. I want you to have a life outside of Pemberley. I will talk to your father, and I’ll tell him he is to let you hire someone or I’ll be out there driving those tractors. And believe me, none of us wants that.”

Will chuckled and then grew solemn. “Thanks, Mom. I appreciate it.”

She patted his hand. “Thank you, Fitzwilliam.”

She rose from the table and carried his plate and their mugs to the sink, and he figured now was a good time to talk to her about the Bennets. His mother could be a little overenthusiastic at times, and the last thing he needed was for her to make assumptions about…well, anything.

“Um, Charles is coming out around one o’clock today with a couple of friends. We’re giving them a tour of the farm.”

“Oh, that’s nice. Anyone I know?”

“No. They’re sisters. One lives in West Stock, the other lives in Boston.”

She didn’t respond, and he knew why; the moment she’d heard the words they’re sisters, the wheels started spinning.

“Is there a reason they want to see the farm? Or are you just…spending some time together?”

“The one who lives in West Stock is opening a bed and breakfast. Charles is doing some work for her and she mentioned she was interested in finding a local farm to supply her with fresh produce. Naturally Charles thought of Pemberley.”

“Oh. Yes. Naturally.”

She turned to face him, and he noted the gleam in her eyes. “Okay, I know you’re ready to pop at the seams, so get it out of your system before they get here.”

She flicked a dishtowel at him playfully. “I am not ready to pop at the seams…but I am a little curious. Are they single girls? Pretty?”

“Jane and Charles might have a thing going, I don’t know. I don’t even think Charles knows. But it doesn’t matter, so please don’t get carried away.”

“Fitzwilliam Darcy, what are you saying?”

“I’m saying I know you, and you can get carried away. If I’m within thirty feet of a single girl, you have some kind of internal radar that goes off. So please listen to me. Jane and Charles might have a thing, like I said. I don’t even know if the sister is single, but it doesn’t matter. We barely know each other and she lives in Boston. And she’s a little…abrasive. Sometimes.”

“Oh, that’s a shame.”

“No, it isn’t. They just want to see the farm, and Charles said we’d take them for a ride on the snowmobiles.”

His mother beamed. “Now that sounds like fun.”

Will rolled his eyes. “Yeah, a blast. Just don’t get all excited like you do. You might not meet them, anyway.”

“What do you mean I might not meet them?” Abby’s hands went to her hips and she frowned. “Where are your manners? They’re coming here to see the Darcy family farm, aren’t they? The last time I checked, I was part of the Darcy family.”

Will’s jaw dropped. “Ten minutes ago this was Dad’s farm, but now that there are women coming to visit it’s your farm?”

“It’s your father’s farm when it comes to all that decision making. When it comes to meeting and greeting visitors, it’s my farm. I expect to be introduced.”

“Mom, come on. I’m not fifteen. I’m not sneaking off into the barn with one of them.”

She smiled mischievously. “I wouldn’t stop you if you tried. And it wouldn’t hurt for you to run a razor over that handsome face of yours.”

Will dropped his head into his hands. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“But you did, so you make sure to bring them up to the house so I can offer them–oh! I’ll bake a pie.”

He groaned into his hands. “I’ll bring them up here to meet you, but this is not what you think. It’s just business, that’s it.” He lifted his head. “And we are not having pie.”

***

Jane glanced at the dashboard clock and saw it was almost one-fifteen. “Can you go a little faster? We’re late.”

“The roads are icy. I’m not going any faster.”

Jane sighed. “What’s wrong? Why are you so uptight?”

“I’m–I’m not uptight.”

“You have a death grip on the poor steering wheel.”

Elizabeth flexed her fingers and cast a quick glance at her sister. “I’m just nervous, I guess.”

“Why?”

“If you haven’t noticed, Will and I haven’t exactly hit it off. I feel like I have to constantly watch what I say around him. And then sometimes I say something because I think it’s okay, but I manage to annoy him anyway. I can’t win.”

“You seemed to be getting along fine at the Chamber party. I saw you laughing with him.”

“He was making fun of me,” Elizabeth grumbled. “I was just being a good sport.”

“I think you like him a lot more than you’re willing to admit.”

Elizabeth’s face flushed, and suddenly Pemberley’s driveway came into view. “You’re way off base. And this conversation is over.”

“For now.”

“For good.”

They turned into the driveway, their attention diverted by the sight of Will and Charles racing each other on snowmobiles across Pemberley’s front fields.

Elizabeth’s stomach dropped. “Oh my God. They are going really, really fast.”

Jane squealed and clapped. “I can’t wait!”

By the time Elizabeth pulled up to the front of the house, the snowmobiles were parked and Charlie and Will were removing their helmets. The sisters stepped from the car and everyone exchanged hellos and belated holiday wishes.

Elizabeth’s eyes lingered on Will a little longer than they probably should have, but it couldn’t be helped; he looked ruggedly appealing in his thick black coat, blue jeans and heavy boots. He wore a knit cap with the John Deere logo emblazoned across the front, and his hair was long enough that a few dark brown waves escaped the bottom and brushed his collar. She wondered if it would feel as soft as it looked and had to quell the urge to find out.

His beard had grown in a little more, and combined with his longish hair and the occasional flash of those amazing dimples, he looked pretty damned irresistible.

“I’m glad you thought to wear ski pants,” Charlie said. “You’ll be warmer when we go for a ride.”

Jane nodded. “That’s what we figured. But no ski pants for you?”

Charlie grinned and winked. “Real men wear long johns.”

Jane and Charlie continued to chat, and Elizabeth stole a glance at Will. He was staring at the house, and she wondered what he was thinking. Her eyes traveled over the sprawling home, and when she finally turned to Will again, he was gazing at her quizzically. Their eyes caught and held, and she smiled.

“It’s beautiful.”

He nodded and thanked her, and then took advantage of a break in Jane and Charlie’s conversation. “So Jane, what do you want to see first?”

“Oh, um…” She turned to her sister. “Lizzy? Any thoughts?”

Elizabeth shrugged, wanting to defer to Jane. “This is your tour. You pick.”

“We can go out on the snowmobiles later,” Charlie said. “What about the barn?”

“Oh, I’d love to see the horses,” Jane responded. “We used to have ponies when we were younger. Lizzy was the Bennet equestrian star.”

They walked beyond the house toward the large barn, and Elizabeth fell into step beside Will. Charlie and Jane were lagging behind—mostly due to Charlie’s boot.

“Equestrian star?” Will asked.

She laughed and lifted her chin. “Yes. No other ten-year-old riders could defeat the team of Bennet and Argo.”

“Argo?”

“Yes. Not familiar?”

“Not at all.”

His eyes held a glint of amusement, and she found it hard to look away. “Obviously, you weren’t as rabid a fan of Xena: Warrior Princess as I. Argo was her horse.”

He chuckled. “Oh, okay. I remember Xena pretty clearly, but her horse…not so much.”

She rolled her eyes. “Big surprise there. In any case, my pony looked absolutely nothing like Argo, but that didn’t matter. What kind of horses do you have?”

“A quarter and a Friesian.”

“Oh, you have a Friesian? They’re gorgeous. I’ve never seen one in the flesh.”

They approached the barn doors together, and when she noticed that Charlie and Jane had stopped a ways back, she shrugged. “I guess they’ll catch up.”

She followed Will into the barn and inhaled deeply, the scent of the animals and the shavings instantly transporting her back to her youth. As much as she’d given Jane a hard time about going to the barn dance a couple of weeks ago, she really loved the smells and sounds of a working barn.

A small grey cat came out of nowhere and trotted toward them, immediately winding itself between her legs. She smiled and squatted down, laughing when the cat rose to place its front paws on her bent knees. “This must be Toto, the infamous mouser.”

“The one and only.”

“He lives in the barn?”

“Yes. He’s never wanted to go in the house, so I feed him out here and make sure he’s locked in at night.”

“He’s very sweet.” She gave him one last scratch behind the ears before standing.

“And he’s a good employee. I can pay him in kibble and he doesn’t complain.”

She laughed and watched the cat wander off. “Cheap labor.”

He led her to the first stall and introduced her to Skip. “He’s the quarter, obviously.” The horse lumbered over to them and immediately nudged Elizabeth’s shoulder, leaving a swath of slimy dirt on her coat.

“Skip, come on,” Will admonished softly, gently pulling the horse’s head toward him.

“Its fine, I don’t mind.” She reached up to stroke Skip’s neck, aware of Will’s eyes on her.

“Obviously, you like horses,” he finally said.

She nodded, still focused on Skip. “I love them. So powerful, yet so gentle.”

“When I introduce you to the Friesian you might change your mind.”

He led her to another stall and called to the horse with a series of clicking noises. The large animal headed toward them, but stopped a few feet away from the door.

“Oh, he’s beautiful,” Elizabeth murmured, admiring the horse’s coal-black coat. “Is he shy?”

Will chuckled. “Barnum’s just full of attitude. Give him a minute, he’ll decide if you’re worth his time.”

“Wait, his name is Barnum? Your horses are Skip and Barnum?”

“Yes.”

She grinned widely. “Who’s the Little House on the Prairie fan?”

His surprise was evident. “My mother. You actually know those names?”

“Of course! I read every Little House book when I was young. I wanted to be Laura Ingalls in the worst way. I begged my father for all the DVDs of the television series, and between birthdays and Christmases, he bought them all. I still have them.”

The sudden, vivid memory brought an unexpected sting of tears to her eyes and she gave her attention back to Barnum. The horse tentatively made his way to the stall door and stretched his neck to sniff at the sleeve of her coat.

“Careful,” Will warned. “He’s been known to bite.”

Barnum moved closer, and she slowly raised her arm to stroke his neck. “He’s so tall. He must be incredible to ride.”

Will combed his fingers through the horse’s thick black mane. “He is, though no one else rides him but me. He can be unpredictable.”

They were interrupted by the opening of the barn door.

“We thought we lost you,” Will said as Charles and Jane walked in.

“Sorry,” Charles answered. “We were just catching up.”

Elizabeth eyed Jane closely, but her sister seemed fine.

“Catch up to us at the other end.” Will nodded toward the far end of the barn. “Um, the goats and chickens are down there. Do you want to skip them, or…?

Elizabeth shook her head. “Of course not.”

They walked away from the stalls and her mind swirled frantically. The short conversation they’d just had was probably the easiest and least awkward of any they’d had since meeting three weeks ago, and she was hyper-aware of every time their arms accidentally brushed together while they were looking at the horses, even with their thick winter coats between them.

She knew the reason it hadn’t been like this from the start was because of her. She was the one who said those awful things and put him on the defensive. She was the one who insulted him without giving him a chance.

I wish I could undo it all and start over. 

As they approached the far end of the barn and another set of doors, she knew what she needed to do: apologize. She might not have the chance this afternoon, but she would do it soon. It seemed like they were connecting today, even if it was only over a shared love of horses. If anything, they might come to some sort of understanding and become friends. Beyond that, nothing.

Her stomach lurched at the thought, and the words lingered in her mind just long enough to leave an odd feeling in their wake. Sadness? Regret? Whatever it was, she knew her thoughts would be full of Fitzwilliam Darcy long after she left Pemberley.

***

Thanks for reading! Chapter 8 will be posted on/around April 17. Have a wonderful weekend!