“No. She loves you to distraction, I am certain of it,” Jane insisted. She turned to Caroline. “Susan will miss her godmother, too. But you will be on your honeymoon, so her other aunts must console her in recompense for her loss.”

Caroline shook her head at her sister’s blind goodness. Jane, sweet Jane! Who could not like Jane?

When Caroline had found herself sitting in a Meryton church on a December morning watching her brother’s wedding, she at length had reconciled herself to the union. True, she did not have the connections Caroline had been taught to desire in a sister-in-law, but Jane was sure to prove to be a loving partner to Charles, a good mistress of Netherfield, and an attentive mother, and that counted for much. Caroline would be there to watch this unfold, for she could not live with the Hursts, and she was too clever to want to pay the whole of the expense of living in Bingley House in Town.

Caroline tried to be of use to her brother and sister, but the servants would not mind her commands. When she complained to Charles, she discovered to her horror that they were acting under his express orders. There would be only one mistress of Netherfield, and her name was Mrs. Bingley. Caroline learned there was a bit of steel beneath Jane’s kind and soft exterior.

The relationship between Jane and Caroline grew much improved during and after Mrs. Bingley’s confinement. Caroline took over many of Jane’s duties prior to the birth, but took pains to act (for the most part) as she believed Jane would wish and never hesitated to ask for direction. That she disagreed with many of Jane’s decisions did not stop her from holding her nose and acting correctly.

Still, Caroline was stunned that later Jane would have her join Mr. Darcy as godparents to her daughter. As astonished as Caroline was to learn that, despite all expectations, she grew to adore little Susan Frances. She took true joy in the child. Her efforts were not lost upon Mrs. Darcy, who was visiting her sister and was in the early stages of her own confinement. The two old adversaries finally had something in common—love for Charles and Jane’s daughter.

The door opened again, and Caroline’s initial look of annoyance at yet another interruption in her preparations changed instantly upon her recognition of the woman in maroon standing in the doorway.

“May I come in?” asked Mary Bennet Tucker.

Without hesitation, Caroline rose and moved to greet her visitor with a smile, upsetting much of Abigail’s work.

“Mary, my dear! Come in! I am so very glad to see you.” She kissed the slim, dark-haired woman on the cheek with genuine affection before allowing Mrs. Tucker to accept the welcome of the other ladies. Reclaiming Mary’s hands, Caroline swept her critical eye over the lady’s dress.

“Mary, I am sure I taught you better. The color of your gown complements your eyes, but the cut! It is positively matronly!”

“Caroline!” protested Jane. “Mary’s dress is lovely.”

Mary smiled. “No, Jane, Caroline is right. My dress is modest by her standards, but as I am married, I think it suits me better.” In a manner reminiscent of Elizabeth Darcy, one of Mary’s eyebrows rose as the woman took in Caroline’s decolletage. “It is certainly not as shocking as yours.”

“Shocking? Mary, you must remember I am not yet married.”

“And you wish for your intended to remain your intended?”

“Precisely!” The two laughed lightly.

Jane shook her head. “That is unnecessary, Caroline. Sir John is violently in love with you.”

Some of Caroline’s smile slipped from her face. She did not doubt Sir John’s admiration, but love? No, it was too much for which to hope. Jane had the very good fortune to marry for love, but that was as rare as hen’s teeth. Caroline only hoped for a marriage better than Louisa’s. Mutual respect was enough.

“I must go down to see to the preparations,” said Jane as she kissed Caroline’s cheek before leaving the room. Caroline returned to her dressing table to allow the long-suffering maid to repair her hair while Mary and Louisa conversed.

*   *   *

Caroline’s friendship with Mary Bennet was as much of a surprise to the participants as it had been to their relations. Two more different people could scarcely be found. While neither were classic beauties like Jane, only Caroline took pains in her appearance. If left to her own devices, Mary would wear the same dark, dreary dress every day. Mary had time only for her books, particularly Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women, while Caroline lived for gossip.

However, the two were more alike than they knew. Both felt unequal to the world about them—Caroline for her lack of connections and Mary for her lack of attractiveness. They both took on superior airs, knowing all the time the only ones deceived were themselves. They were actors trapped in their roles, and Jane’s and Elizabeth’s marriages were the unanticipated agents of the two ladies’ liberation.

Caroline had no occupation but to help Jane receive her daily invasion by the female contingent from Longbourn—occasionally Mary, often Kitty, but always Mrs. Bennet. Caroline’s first impulse was to flee these meetings, but she thought better of it. If Jane was to be her sister, then Caroline must treat her as such, and Jane needed her support, even though Caroline felt that she did not quite trust her. For Mrs. Bennet was full of advice— rarely helpful, sometimes contradictory, often ignorant and outrageous, and always expressed in a loud, rude voice. There was nothing for it, for Mrs. Bennet would brook no request to temper her voice or opinions, and sweet Jane would not throw the baggage out. Caroline therefore attempted to find as much diversion from these performances as she might.

As the Mistress of Longbourn continued to hold court, Caroline’s attention invariably would be drawn to her new sisters. At first, she found them trite and stupid, but in studying them day after day, Caroline realized there was more to Mary than met the eye. She would say little, save for some inappropriate moralistic comment or a rather obvious quotation of scripture. However, Caroline would soon see that, while uninformed, Mary meant well, but she suffered from the total neglect of her mother. She sought attention; that was why the girl would leap to perform on the pianoforte given any encouragement.

As for Kitty, the insipid girl needed better examples than her mother or her outlawed sister, Mrs. Wickham.

Caroline developed a plan: If she could be of no use to her brother and his wife, then her occupation would be to help improve her new sisters, for her own sake as well as theirs. Apparently, Elizabeth Darcy came to the same realization and quickly invited Kitty to act as companion to Miss Darcy.

With Kitty’s removal to Pemberley, Caroline spent even more time with Mary. Caroline found the task more pleasant than she expected. Desperate for a companion, Mary was still leery of Lizzy’s nemesis. They found their common ground in music. Before, Mary played for attention, and Caroline played because it was expected. As they discussed music and technique, they both discovered that they truly loved the sound of the pianoforte. A friendship grew as the two spent many hours in pleasant occupation.

At first, Mary resisted any attempt to broaden her choice of reading material beyond the Bible or Fordyce’s Sermons. Finally, Caroline suggested poetry, starting with the Psalms. Mary had not considered that Holy Scripture also could be regarded as literature, and her curiosity was inflamed. A few discussions with Caroline showed that, while King David was writing of his love of God, it could also be shown that the Psalms spoke of the universality of love—including that between a man and a woman. It was as if a light had been lit inside of Mary. She began devouring any book of poetry in her father’s or brothers’ libraries. Caroline enjoyed poetry as well and introduced Mary to some of Shakespeare’s more risque sonnets, to the girl’s embarrassed delight. This had an odd impact on Mary; she began to spend more time on her appearance and seemed to be more attentive during the other ladies’ discussions of fashion.

Caroline had never before had a friend like Mary. Most of her acquaintances were people of fashion, cultivated not because of common interest and pleasant conversation but for the value of their connections. In Mary, a girl who could bring her nothing, Caroline had a protegee in whose company she found contentment. There was no need of performance. Mary was care and ease.

In the aftermath of the debacle at Almack’s, Louisa offered what consolation she could, but it was Mary who saved Caroline, and in a most considerate manner. She simply left Caroline’s Bible open by her bedside, a particular passage of the gospels indicated by an orange feather.

When Caroline found what Mary had done, she gasped; it was the story of Christ and the adulteress. Is this how Mary sees me? she had thought. Caroline held her temper, recalling how

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