* * *
Darcy headed into his office. He picked up the holiday-themed Tupperware and a few cards from his desk, added them to the shopping bag Sara had filled with the stray gifts, and sank into his leather chair. He glanced down at the dog bed behind him. Coco was in the middle of a dog dream, her paws flexing, her gray muzzle quivering. He smiled, tilted his head back, and closed his eyes. The long holiday weekend with his aunts, uncles, and cousins would be exhausting.
He knew Charles was still seeing Jane Bennet. Hell, after barely two months of dating, she was practically living with his best friend. It came so easily to Charles. See a girl, buy her a drink, and fall in love. There was always a girl, always a date to be had. The man was never lonely, never alone. Darcy wasn’t sure Bingley even knew how to be by himself: to sit in a room and think, listen to music, or read. He always kept busy. He was not a solitary man. Unlike me. He pushed away that unwelcome thought.
Darcy compared romance to the baseball games his mother had taught him to love. Three strikes and you’re out. Bingley knew how to swing and connect with women; he got on base—made a date—every time. But Darcy always knew by the third date, the third conversation, or the third anything whether he could or should invest any more time and emotion on a woman. His relationships were always short-lived. On paper, his life might resemble that of a playboy or man about town, but few of those women decorating his arm had ever had him in their beds. And none had ever been in his. He envied Bingley’s ease even as he knew he could never live that life. Nor would he have given Jane Bennet a second look.
But her sister? He hadn’t expected to give her a second thought. But he had. And a third and a fourth. He'd had a handful of conversations with Elizabeth Bennet. He'd spent most of a night with her: sleeping, talking, kissing. He couldn’t forget the kissing. He had a hard time not thinking about it. He'd played soccer with her, cooked with her, driven with her. She'd been sweet with Coco. And though he tried not to admit it, she didn't have any of the normal strikes against her. She wasn’t shallow, didn’t appear obsessed by her looks or her clothes, she was pretty and funny and smart. All right, very pretty and very funny and very smart. He’d seen the thick paperback copy of Dos Passos’s U.S.A. sticking out of her bag. That was interesting. She was normal and read important novels. He didn’t meet many women like that.
For the first time in a very long while, he had wanted the game to go on. He’d wanted to keep the conversation going, to keep their interaction going. But he couldn't. She’d made it clear that what had happened between them was a mistake. He'd felt that way himself once he’d had a little time to think. And had taken a cold shower.
He’d told her things he almost never spoke of: his family, the accident. He was an idiot for letting himself slip, for feeling something for her. There was no possibility he could risk more with a woman who’d made it clear that night meant nothing to her—less than nothing since she didn’t seem to remember much of it. It meant something to him, and it would mean something to that boyfriend. Right…there was a strike: she cheats on her boyfriend. And another one: she’s forgetful and careless about mixing drugs and alcohol. A bloody head case. And finally, strike three: she was part of that orange-wearing state college football factory. Enough said. Move on. Even if Charles was going to splash in the shallows, he would not. Especially if it took hip-waders.
And maybe Charles had gone beyond the shallows, maybe he was in deep. He’d been unavailable for just about anything since October. Since Jane. The angel. Darcy sighed. He knew he was being unfair. She was a very nice, genuine person. He pulled out his phone and texted Charles. “Are you at home? Have to stop by on the way to Matlock.” The response, when it arrived a few minutes later, put him right back in a foul mood. Sod it. Queens? On Christmas Eve? Great. At least it’s on the way to East Hampton. Sort of.
After two hours driving through a snowstorm and ten minutes yelling at Google Maps for its inability to find the Forest Hills subdivision called Longbourn, Darcy finally arrived at his destination. He pulled over to the curb and eyed the two-story Dutch colonial. A faded plastic Santa Claus was plopped in the center of the front yard. A dozen or so smiling penguins lined the walkway, red ribbons wound around the front porch columns, and lights hung haphazardly from the gutters, glowing in the mid-day gloom. Lovely. Now he definitely felt the Christmas spirit.
It only got better as he neared the front door. A giant plastic wreath, bedecked with shiny rubberized berries and pinecones, greeted him. He could hear loud voices and laughter inside.
Was that shrieking? He took a deep breath and rang the doorbell. The door swung open within seconds. A pale, sullen teenager swept her eyes up and down him, and then squinted at his car. “You’re not my Chinese food.”
Another girl suddenly filled the doorway, fixing her heavily made-up eyes on the bulging shopping bag in Darcy’s hand. “Oh my God. Are those for us?” He was sure her loud, high-pitched Queens accent had cracked the crystal on his watch.
Another voice, deeper, louder and even more heavily accented, filled the air. “Lydia! Mary! Get back in here and clean up your mess!”
“In a second, Ma!”
He clung tightly to the bag’s handle as the two girls leaned forward and stared inside the bulging bag. The one desiring Chinese food looked at him dolefully. “Are you here for Jane too?” She sighed and walked away.
Relief quickly arrived. “Darcy! What have you been up to? C’mon in here.” Charles greeted his friend and pulled him by the elbow into the foyer. He smiled at the overstuffed shopping bag in Darcy’s hand. “Look everyone, Santa is here!”
Jane smiled. “Hi Fitzwilliam. I’m so glad to see you. Please let me take your coat.”
Darcy shook his head. “Hello, Jane. Er, I can’t stay. I’m expected elsewhere. I, um, left the car running. Coco is asleep inside.” He looked around the cozy living room; it was full of oversized furniture, a huge Christmas tree, and an upright piano cluttered with Christmas figurines. “You have a lovely home.”
“Thank you. It’s actually my parents’ home. You met my sisters, Lydia and Mary?”
Elizabeth is from Queens?
“Oh c’mon, Darce,” Charles cried. “Go get Coconut and bring her in. Stay awhile. The girls are making cookies.”
Although nodding to acknowledge the warm aroma filling his senses, Darcy demurred. “I just need to drop off a few things. There was a –.”
Suddenly he noticed Elizabeth walking toward them, her hair pulled up, wearing a baker’s apron.
“Hello, Darcy.” She gave him a tight smile. “How have you been?”
“Fine, thank you. And yourself?”
“Fine. Working. Wrapping. Baking.”
Charles stared between the two of them, his eyebrows raised. “Oh for goodness’ sake, Lizzy. Tell him your big news.”
Darcy’s eyes suddenly focused on a figure lounging in the doorway, his eyes fixed on Elizabeth. He was smiling at her. Possessively. Great. Another boyfriend?
“Oh, um. I finished my master’s program,” Elizabeth said.
“Your MFA? Congratulations. That’s fantastic,” he replied. So who’s the guy? “Sorry, what was your field of study?”
“Creative writing.” She withstood his silent, impenetrable gaze, waiting for a follow-up question. None came. He stood transfixed by the dark sparkling dare in her eyes, heedless of any ensuing conversation.
Bingley laughed. “Creative writing…Miss Modest here is writing a book, Darce.”
Lydia snorted. “Is it a bustier-ripping romance novel? Or a shades of grey rip-off? I hear people write those on the Internet all the time,” she tittered.
“I’m not writing it on the Internet, Lydia.” Elizabeth said flatly.
“But it is a love story, isn’t it, Liz?” Charles said.
“A love story? Something like that.” she said, smiling enigmatically. “I think my cookies are ready. Merry Christmas, Darcy.” She turned away and headed toward the kitchen. The hulk followed.
Darcy shook his head. Love story? What? He stared after them until he realized Jane was smiling at him. Does she ever not smile?
“Lizzy is making some of her amazing cherry-chip sugar cookies. Are you sure you can’t stay?”
He shook his head. “No, thank you, I should be going. I just stopped by to deliver these to Charles.” He raised the bag in his hand. “There was a shipping mix-up at the office.”
All eyes turned to the bulging bag, shiny foils and ribbon sticking out of the top.
“Sweet, Darce.” Suddenly Charles froze. “Dammit, I sent yours to Matlock. That was right, right? You’re heading there?”
“Every year. Though you never need to—”
“Nor you, buddy. You sure you can’t stay?” At Darcy’s demurral, Charles offered to walk him to his car, asserting he wanted to see his favorite dog. He threw on his coat and followed Darcy outside.
“Queens, Charles? Seriously?”
“Hey, it’s on your way, right?” Charles ignored Darcy’s glare.
“I didn’t realize Jane was from Queens.”
Charles chuckled. “Why? No accent? She and Elizabeth didn’t grow up here. Their father moved them from New Jersey when he remarried. They were teenagers.”
“But the younger ones?”
“Stepsisters. They are Kowalskis. Queens born and bred.”
“Hmm…divorce?” Darcy asked quietly.
“Yes. Sylvia—Jane and Elizabeth’s mom—is a singer.”
“In a theme park in Missouri,” Charles replied reluctantly. “Jane says she’s quite good.”
Indeed. How bloody mortifying. Darcy shuddered. “Oh. Sorry I asked.”
They reached the still-running Range Rover. “I’m glad to see you, Darcy. It’s been awhile.”
Darcy tilted his head and gave Charles a wry look. “You’ve been busy, my friend.”
The other man broke into a huge grin. “Yeah. Jane is amazing, just wonderful. You have to get to know her better. She’s the real thing.”
“I do, hmm? All right.” Darcy nodded, but he couldn’t erase the image of a garishly costumed amusement park performer from his head. The real thing? So many absolutely stomach-turning possibilities.
“Great. Maybe the four of us could get together after Christmas?”
“Please, Charles. I’ve told you to never again put me in that situation with Caroline.”
Charles laughed. “Not my sister—Jane’s sister! Elizabeth is great too, isn’t she?”
Darcy stared past his friend and nodded. “Yes, great. But I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Oh, are you still holding that sock search against her? C’mon, Lizzy’s not looking for a date either. And you two seemed to get along well at Netherfield. Made quite a soccer team, I thought. And we left you two home alone that night when it stormed. I never asked. What did you do? Oh, let me guess—Scrabble? Or did you read Shakespeare aloud by candlelight?”
He chuckled. “Honestly, I should apologize to Lizzy, leaving her home alone with you and your books and your boring old Bach.”
“While you were off mooning to your easy-listening music, we made do. Talked about music, our families…that’s about it.” Darcy looked down at his feet and frowned.
“Really? That’s good. I was kidding about the Bach, you know. Lizzy is a great girl. Smart, pretty, and obviously a damn good soccer player. You should get to know her better.”
“Look, Jane is wonderful, all warmth and kindness.” And hopefully more faithful than her sister. “She’s perfect for you. But her sister is a different story. Elizabeth is, well, quite the opposite.”
Charles, his brow furrowed, slowly shook his head. “God, Darcy. Jane and Elizabeth are nothing like their mother. So what’s the problem? She isn’t one of your society chicks? You can be such a jerk.”
“So I’ve been told,” he replied quietly. “You know none of them mean anything, Charles. I’m merely an escort.” Darcy keyed in the code and opened the car door. Charles reached in and patted the dog.
“She looks good, Darce. Healthy.”
“The surgery was a full success. She still sleeps quite a bit, but her appetite is back.”
“That’s great. I mean, she’s what, nearly fifteen years old?”
Darcy nodded. “I should go.”
Suddenly, Jane was beside them, holding out a paper bag. “Lizzy’s cookies, fresh from the oven. Plus, I put in some coconut snowballs and raspberry chocolate stars and a few other kinds.” She put the bag in Darcy’s hands and gave him a brief hug. “Drive safely, Fitzwilliam. Merry Christmas.”
Lump firmly in throat, Darcy smiled and croaked out a thank you. He shook hands with his friend, wished him happy holidays, and drove away, Coco curled up on her blanket beside him.
Charles put his arm around Jane and steered them back to the house. “That was sweet of you. He doesn’t often get homemade cookies in a lunch bag.”
“Hey smarty pants, there was festive holiday Tupperware inside that bag!”
“Okay, okay. It was very thoughtful. And nice of Lizzy to send out a few cookies too.”
Jane shook her head. “Well, she wasn’t happy about it. One batch was a bit burnt, and I took some of the good ones. Just five or so, but she didn’t want to spare them.”
The couple stopped at the front door. “She doesn’t like him much, does she?” Charles asked quietly.
“I don’t really know.” Jane wrapped her arms tightly around Charles’s waist. “She hasn’t said anything to me, and normally she has an opinion on everything.”
* * *
What a wonderful excerpt! Hmmm, odd behaviour from Elizabeth? I wonder what has got to her?! I feel so bad for poor, unwanted Darcy, not even worth a cookie. I read this story on the 'A Happy Assembly' website and really enjoyed it. I am so glad to see it published so that even more people can enjoy it and I wish J L Ashton all the best with her book.
“I don’t know why I ever thought we made sense.”
Smart, educated people are fools in love, especially when they’re mired in denial and misunderstanding.
In this modern spin on Jane Austen’s classic tale, Elizabeth Bennet, a grad student with literary aspirations, has found her big career break—and broken up with yet another forgettable boyfriend.
While grateful for the professional lifeline thrown by sports agent George Wickham, she is intrigued by the man she calls Mr. Noir.
Fitzwilliam Darcy, marked by tragedy, is a man accustomed to living his life in the spotlight even as his heart dwells on the dark side of loneliness. When he first meets Elizabeth, he thinks she looks like “a bloody pumpkin,” but he soon sees so much more. She, however, can’t even decide what to call him. Mr. Noir? Nurse Darcy? Sleazy British playboy? Ferdinand?
“So, it’s Fitzwilliam, right? That’s an amazing name, you know. Which came first—the name or the accent?”
He looked at her.
“Oh, come on. It’s like the name of a subdivision or a sofa at Pottery Barn. `Please note the extra firm cushions on The Fitzwilliam.’”
Can an accidental encounter that leads to shocking intimacy change the course they’ve both set and bring them into love’s light? Or will they stay mired in cold words and angry misunderstandings, overshadowing the deep connection they each feel? Getting beyond their own mistakes to find each other again is one thing; they also have to heal the wounds of their pasts. Can they do that together?
J.L. Ashton didn’t meet Jane Austen until she was in her late teens, but in a happy coincidence, she shares a similarity of name with the author and celebrates her birthday on the same day Pride & Prejudice was first published. Sadly, she’s yet to find any Darcy and Elizabeth candles on her cake, but she does own the action figures.
Like so many Austen fans, Jan was an early and avid reader with a vivid imagination and a well-used library card. Her family’s frequent moves in the U.S and abroad encouraged her to think of books and their authors as reliable friends. It took summers in London, a history degree, and another decade or two for her to start imagining variations on Pride & Prejudice, and another decade—filled with career, marriage, kids, and a menagerie of pets—to discover the world of JAFF. Today, in between writing Jane Austen variations, Jan lives and works in the Chicago area, where she volunteers far too often and is a member of the local and national chapters of the Jane Austen Society of North America.
A Searing Acquaintance is her first book.
Meryton Press are kindly offering a giveaway of 4 e-books and 4 paperback copies of the book, open to international entrants. To enter, just use the Rafflecopter below and who knows, you might find yourself as one of the lucky winners :)
Since this is a blog tour there are other stops for you to enjoy with reviews, guest posts from the author, J L Ashton and other excerpts. Please drop by the other stops to find out more about the book and have more chances to win.
A Searing Acquaintance Blog Tour Schedule
My Jane Austen Book Club
8 March: Guest Post & Giveaway at So Little Time…
9 March: Review at Tomorrow is Another Day
10 March: Author Interview & Giveaway at From Pemberley to Milton
11 March: Character Interview & Giveaway at Leatherbound Reviews
12 March: Excerpt & Giveaway at Babblings of A Bookworm
13 March: Review at Liz’s Reading Life
14 March: Review at Half Agony, Half Hope
15 March: Review at Margie’s Must Reads
16 March: Excerpt & Giveaway at Best Sellers and Best Stellars
17 March: Guest Post at My Kids Led Me Back to Pride and Prejudice
18 March: Review at Diary of an Eccentric
19 March: Review at Just Jane 1813
20 March: Excerpt & Giveaway at Delighted Reader
21 March: Guest Post & Giveaway at Austenesque Reviews