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The Murder of Mr. Wickham
Author: Claudia Gray

 

Prologue


   June 1820

   The marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Knightley of Donwell Abbey had been a surprise to those who knew them best and not in the least surprising to those who knew them hardly at all.

   “But they’ve always been at odds,” protested her sister, Isabella, a tactful and soft-spoken creature, as soon as she read the letter with the news.

   “You mean they fight like cats and dogs” was her husband’s blunt reply. Since he was not only brother-in-law to the bride but also younger brother to the groom, he’d observed their bickering at length, and with some exasperation.

   They were both correct—partly. Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley had disagreed about many things: the need for a gentleman to dance at parties, the propriety of arriving in a carriage rather than on horseback, and, above all, the matrimonial prospects of everyone around them. Emma’s wishful thinking had often led her into error, but in the end she didn’t hesitate to make the most unlikely match of all: her own.

   Yet the regular people of the village of Highbury were far less astonished. Mr. Knightley was the wealthiest, most eligible man of the parish; Emma Woodhouse the wealthiest, most eligible lady. Such individuals seem to fall in love with each other quite often. Why should it be shocking that this rule would prove as true in Highbury as anywhere else?

   What everyone would have agreed on, if asked, was the happiness of the marriage. For sixteen years now, they had lived as man and wife. Emma Knightley had borne her husband two fine children, a daughter named Henrietta, who arrived on their second anniversary, and a son called Oliver, who followed five years later. By now they were well settled into Donwell Abbey, the picture of family harmony…though not today.

   “Why should a man not invite guests to his own home?” Knightley said as he stood at the sideboard, making his plate for breakfast. “Darcy and I were great friends at Oxford, and he is a man of considerable estate. Why then should he and his wife be unwelcome at Donwell?”

   “Oh! You insist on misinterpreting me,” Emma replied, in no good temper. “It is not that Mr. and Mrs. Darcy are not welcome here on principle. It is that you have invited them at the same time we have other guests!”

   “Cannot Donwell offer beds and shelter to all? Are we so impoverished that a houseful of guests will bankrupt us?”

   Emma gave him a censorious look—one she had learned from his own face, long ago. “My point is that we can hardly do credit to so many guests at once.”

   Knightley sighed. “So perhaps it is you who should not have invited your cousin—”

   “But Brandon is recently married, and I hear his young wife is singularly charming. We must meet her, mustn’t we?”

   “Or the daughter of that wild lady novelist you befriended in Bath—”

   “Catherine Tilney is not the least bit wild, nor are her books. She is an entirely respectable woman and the wife of a clergyman. Her daughter Juliet is so isolated up at Gloucestershire—she should improve her acquaintance with the greater world.”

   “Or our tenants. Who ever imagined inviting tenants to stay?”

   Now Emma knew herself to be on firm ground. “Anyone who heard of the dreadful state of Hartfield would insist that we owe our tenants a decent place to await repairs!”

   (Her elderly father had refused any changes to the house in his last years, even those most conducive to safety.)

   This, Knightley paused to consider. “In that case, I take your point. It is only one large repair—”

   “A staircase collapsed.” Emma folded her arms across her chest for emphasis, though her argument needed none.

   Slowly Knightley nodded. “This summer is too hot for any additional discomforts to be borne. Are they not enduring enough already? Besides, Captain Wentworth and his wife seem both amiable and intelligent. Their greater acquaintance I anticipate with pleasure.”

   At a moment like this, Emma would never fail to press her advantage. “And who was it who invited his relations to stay?”

   “My invitation was an open-ended one, however. I could scarcely have anticipated that Bertram would bring his wife to see us now.”

   Having won a few points, she thought it wisest to move on. She was not one to lament long over difficulties, relishing challenges as she did. “We must make the best of it. Instead of a few guests, we shall have a proper house party. That will be just the thing.”

   “Even if it is not ‘just the thing,’ ” Knightley said, “a house party is what we have, and we must make the best of it.”

 

* * *

 

 

   If Emma and Knightley’s marriage had been surprising to some, the announcement of the engagement between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy had been astounding to all.

   At the time it was well known in Elizabeth’s community that Darcy was a proud, disagreeable man, so impressed with his own wealth and estate that he rarely even deigned to speak at social occasions. It was equally well known in Darcy’s set that Elizabeth Bennet was a mere country girl with no relations of worth, no dowry of any use, and thus no hope of ever marrying well.

   Had it not been for Mr. George Wickham, they probably never would have discovered each other’s true natures—or even their own. They certainly wouldn’t have spent the last twenty-two years happily married.

   Well, Elizabeth Darcy thought. Twenty-one years happily married. This last year didn’t count.

   She sat on her bed, staring at the dress her maid had laid out for her. It was yellow, Elizabeth’s favorite color. No doubt that was why it had been chosen. The shade was an attempt to help her make this transition from black, gray, and lavender.

   It’s been eight months, she reminded herself. Time to leave mourning.

   With that she got to her feet. In the moment before she would have called for the maid, however, Darcy walked in.

   He looked much as he ever had. Men’s attire did not alter as much upon entering or leaving mourning. For her husband, little had changed. Sometimes it seemed to Elizabeth that he had been completely unaffected by last winter’s tragedy.

   Whereas she felt entirely transformed from a cheerful, spirited creature into her own shadow. Passive, insubstantial, darkened.

   No wonder she and Darcy had had hardly anything to say each other any longer.

   “Not yet ready,” he said. From many husbands this comment would have been barbed. From Darcy it was merely a statement of fact, without judgment. “If you would rather we left tomorrow—”

   “No, no,” Elizabeth insisted. “They must already have our letter. It would be impolite to arrive late.” If only she hadn’t agreed to this—a house party made up of people she didn’t know, spending weeks away from her own home! At the time, she’d thought a change of scenery highly advisable. It would take her out of herself, allow her to see a county she’d never visited before, and introduce her to a host of new acquaintances. (Elizabeth felt that new acquaintances generally fell into two categories: those who were worth knowing and those who provided constant sources of amusement.) Now that the time had come, however, the mere effort of preparing for the journey felt unconquerable. How much worse would the visit itself be?

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