Renata’s Musings on Writing

Using A.I. in Books

A.I. can create beautiful images.

Except the woman’s hand does not look quite right.

For my book, Becoming the Enemy, I thought it would be fun to illustrate it with A.I. images. (Becoming the Enemy is science fiction and not a romance.) I found it very frustrating because it took many trials for me to find what I could use. I decided to create some examples to show some of the problems.

For the fun of it, I tried the prompt, “Darcy and Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth is shorter than Jane and Lydia. Darcy is tall. Are Jane and Lydia as tall as Darcy? Is Elizabeth standing on a stool?

Here are two pictures, out of four, I got using the prompt, “A regency era woman wearing a gown with a high waist standing in front of a table.” (Yes, I know “Regency” should be capitalized, but I don’t think the computer cares.)

She isn’t standing and her dress is not high waisted.

She is standing, but not in front of the table. Her gown is not high waisted.

None of the gowns were high waisted. Perhaps A.I. doesn’t understand “high waisted.” So I googled “empire waist” and got, “An empire waist is a style of clothing where the bodice is fitted and ends just below the bust.”

I used the prompt, “A regency era woman wearing a gown with an empire waist walking briskly with a dashing gentleman in a garden.”

This does not look like a couple walking briskly. Also, I don’t think Regency women would wear their hair down like this.

I was never able to get a high waisted gown.

Here is an image I used in Becoming the Enemy despite the rather weird left hand the woman has. Daisy is a minor character, but I think I would have mentioned it if she had such an unusual hand.

I was hoping no one would notice the hand.

My prompt was, “Two men and two women playing cards in the Regency era with a militia lieutenant observing.”

Where are the observer and the second woman?

In the following image, I think the man’s right hand appears twice and I’m not certain what is going on with the woman’s left hand.

I’ve been asking for four images and only using one. For my last example, I’m giving all four. My prompt was, “A carriage with matched bay horses is driving through Regency London.”

This doesn’t look like it will work.

I’m not certain what is attached to what.

It is customary with one horse to put it in the center. Also, having one horse simplifies the problem of finding those that match.

Is there a carriage? What is the horse on the left attached to?

Perhaps A.I. will take over many jobs, but it still needs some work.

I hope you will try reading Becoming the Enemy where I was able to get pictures I could use.

Becoming the Enemy – Prologue

Becoming the Enemy will be published sometime in February. There is no romance in the book. None. It is a post-apocalyptic, science fiction story.

A devastating war killed most of Earth’s population. A few of the survivors resolved that they would repopulate the world but do so in a way that would ensure that such a war would never happen again. How could they avoid future violence when they couldn’t eliminate it in the present?

Sandra would have liked to step aside and let others make decisions. The others were senior citizens and probably would be wiser than she was. However, her pregnancy gave her a greater stake in the future.

This short novel (about 46,000 words) describes the aftermath of the deaths of most of humanity. Although it was inspired by Renata McMann’s and Summer Hanford’s Pride & Prejudice and Planets, it contradicts that book in many ways.

There are A.I. illustrations in the book.

Prologue
When his connection died, Ben closed his laptop and put it in his backpack. He headed out with his backpack and suitcase, wondering if they had waited for him. They had. Alice’s SUV was at the door. Ben’s, James’, and Daisy’s cars were still in the parking lot. Ben had never seen the parking lot so empty.

The back of the SUV opened invitingly, and Ben stowed his luggage. As he was doing so, he asked,“No one else?”

“They didn’t believe me,” Alice said. “They think I’m a crazy old lady with delusions.”

Ben didn’t think it would be wise to comment that believing her was the only strategy that had a chance that he would be alive in a week. He did voice one practical thought. “Shouldn’t we bring another car in case of problems?”

“It’s too easy to get separated. The roads will be crazy.”

Everything was crazy. Why should the roads be an exception?

As Ben was getting in the SUV, James said, “Dying for a cause can be praiseworthy. Dying for a lost cause is stupid. No one will care that you stayed at your post until you lost connectivity.”

“Ben cares,” Daisy said.

Yes, Ben did care. He still expected to die along with the rest of mankind. Alice’s safe place was so unlikely that he could easily consider it to be a delusion, no matter how reasonable she had been in the past. But the man, who is dying of thirst in a desert, still crawls toward what he perceives as water, even if his rational mind knows it’s an illusion.

A slight hope is better than no hope.

Pride & Prejudice and Planets Images

Long before eBooks, I read a library book with no dust jacket. I had a vague image of the heroine in mind. Later, I saw the cover illustration and my reaction was that the picture on the cover wasn’t the heroine. Using an AI program, Summer Hanford has been trying to create images of the characters in our forthcoming book, Pride & Prejudice and Planets. Although the images are nice and don’t contradict the book we have written, they aren’t my characters.

Wait a minute. If the images aren’t the images of the author of a book, aren’t they wrong? Not really. There are two of us and I could happily live with the images being Summer’s images. But the AI program Summer is using doesn’t read minds. The words used don’t perfectly translate into pictures. I doubt that the program could find the perfect Darcy or the perfect Elizabeth.

Jane Austen never described Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. We know she was more beautiful than any of her sisters, but we don’t know the shape of her face or the color of her hair or eyes. We know she was shorter than Lydia and heavier than Elizabeth, but that isn’t helpful in knowing what she looked like. Jane Austen left that to our imagination.

Perhaps we should have left character images to readers’ imaginations, but the AI images are fun, and we decided to share the fun with our readers. Feel free to say to yourself, “That is NOT Darcy!!!” You will be right. Summer did not get the AI to do exactly what she wanted and agrees with that sentiment.

As a teaser, a picture of Georgiana is included since I doubt that anyone will be too offended if their imagined version of Georgiana isn’t the same as the illustration.

A portraite of a young woman with dusty blonde hair. Her face is narrow and she has a smattering of light freckles. We can see the collar of her white button down shirt. She's in a rectangular frame with imaginary planets at each corner.

Statement From Renata

Summer Hanford, my co-author, has just published Once Upon a Time in Pemberley, a Pride and Prejudice variation she wrote without me. She apparently wanted the fun of making up the plot.  I offered to read it pre-publication, but she reasonably said that she would be too inclined to feel she had to follow any suggestions I made. 

Large Print Books

Summer Hanford and I have made To Fall for Mr. Darcy and After Anne available in large print.

I live in a large independent living community. The residents vary from those who are still employed to those who need help from aides or spouses. There is more than a forty year age gap from the youngest to the oldest resident. Not surprisingly, many people here are not computer literate, especially those over ninety.

But computer literacy does not mean people necessarily prefer eBooks. Many love the feel of a book in their hands. I understand that. I have spent too many pleasant hours with books not to love the physical book. But when traveling meant not being able to pack enough paperbacks, I saw to it that my kindle was well supplied. As my eyesight deteriorated, I embraced larger fonts, so I wouldn’t need reading glasses. And as someone who loves words, I liked being able to put my finger on a word and get a definition. I no longer keep a dictionary nearby when I read.

An additional problem is that I am a person who rereads. Sometimes I will open a book to reread a certain scene. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice completely through at least eight times, and I read many scenes much more often. Thus, I want to own books I’ve loved. But downsizing meant limited shelf space, so I had to make choices. A college roommate, majoring in library science, told me that shelf space is more expensive than books. I don’t think that has changed in the intervening years.

Summer Hanford and I don’t expect many sales of the few books we’ve put in large print, but we hope to expand the availability of some of our books to a few more readers. Thus, for those who have followed a different path than I have, we are offering two more large print books.

To Fall for Mr. Darcy Cover Reveal

I write the first draft of the books Summer and I publish together. I don’t plan a theme for the books, but sometimes one occurs. This happened in To Fall for Mr. Darcy. Five characters: Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, Lydia Bennet, Georgiana Darcy, and Anne de Bourgh all made choices that had repercussions. All faced the consequences of their choices. Elizabeth’s actions caused her to marry Mr. Darcy, a man she knew nothing about. I don’t think it will surprise anyone that both Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy learned to be very happy about those choices.

Cover Reveal

Darcy’s Other Letter

Darcy’s Other Letter

Darcy’s explained his actions to Elizabeth in a letter. The letter mentions another letter Darcy wrote, one he wrote to Wickham. In Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth, he wrote about Georgiana planning to elope with Wickham. Darcy then wrote:

I joined them [Georgiana and Mrs. Younge] unexpectedly a day or two before the intended elopement, and then Georgiana, unable to support the idea of grieving and offending a brother whom she almost looked up to as a father, acknowledged the whole to me. You may imagine what I felt and how I acted. Regard for my sister’s credit and feelings prevented any public exposure; but I wrote to Mr. Wickham, (emphasis mine) who left the place immediately, and Mrs. Younge was of course removed from her charge.

What did Darcy say in that letter to Wickham?

Darcy probably didn’t offer Wickham money, because he would end up paying again and again. Also, the offer of money would involve making an offer, negotiation, and agreement. It is not suggested that any of these things happened. There was a single letter mentioned, and it is unlikely Wickham left a forwarding address. What Darcy certainly didn’t write was that Georgiana had told him about the planned elopement. That would have been stupid, since Wickham could sell the letter back to Darcy for a large sum.

Darcy could not depend on Wickham keeping silent for Georgiana’s sake. This is confirmed to the reader by Wickham telling Elizabeth, “I wish I could call her [Georgiana] amiable. It gives me pain to speak ill of a Darcy. But she is too much like her brother–very, very proud.” Wickham only valued himself, not others

One possibility for the other letter is, “I’m here. Go away.” Aside from the likelihood that Darcy could never write a letter that short, what would he accomplish by it? Even if Darcy arrived late in the evening with tired horses and thus no ability to leave immediately, he would have at least two servants, possibly more. His servants could be instructed to turn Wickham away, and Darcy could leave with Georgiana in the morning.

It would be more satisfactory to pack up Georgiana and take her with him. If he ensured Mrs. Younge and the servants left too, it would give Darcy some satisfaction imagining Wickham arriving to an empty house. The household almost certainly had a carriage and Mrs. Younge and at least some of the other servants could leave in it. Even if he felt the need to stay a while, why inform Wickham? What Darcy wanted to accomplish was to physically separate Georgiana from Mr. Wickham and ensure that the intended elopement was kept secret.

Wickham hated Darcy. One thing he could easily do to hurt Darcy was publicize the truth: Georgiana had agreed to elope with him. The downside of this is that it would put Wickham in a somewhat bad light. But Georgiana (and thus Darcy) would be hurt more. The only credible reason I can come up with for Darcy’s confidence that Wickham would keep silent was that Darcy knew that Wickham valued his image so much that he would give up the opportunity to hurt Darcy a lot if he hurt himself a little.

When writing More Than He Seems, where we made Wickham a hero, I consciously changed this. Instead of a letter in More Than He Seems, in the aftermath of the non-elopement, Darcy and Wickham had a conversation. It was partially done for the dramatic impact, but also done because I had no idea what Darcy said in the letter. Summer probably kept it in because of the dramatic impact. In More Than He Seems, Wickham was not planning to elope with Georgiana, but Georgiana, Wickham, and Mrs. Younge all lied to Darcy for their own reasons.

Despite having solved the problem of Darcy’s other letter for our book, I still wonder what Jane Austen thought was in that letter.

Why Wed?

Announcing Why Wed? a Pride and Prejudice Variation

by

Renata McMann

Elizabeth has an older half-brother Thomas, who is estranged from his family because he refused to break the entail. Despite her mother’s objections, Elizabeth goes to keep house for him at the Hunsford Parsonage near Rosings, where she meets Mr. Darcy again.

Mr. Darcy decides to marry his cousin Anne de Bourgh, but that doesn’t work out as planned.

Many characters from Pride and Prejudice marry for a variety of reasons, including health, wealth, and of course, love.

This sweet Pride and Prejudice novella has about 28,000 words. Note: is also available on Kindle Vella.

You can find Why Wed? on kindle here: http://getbook.at/WhyWed

Chapter 1 Longbourn, Elizabeth

Elizabeth Bennet had already made a formal condolence call on her recently widowed friend, Charlotte Collins, but she felt a second, more private call was appropriate. Charlotte’s parents, Sir William and Lady Lucas, had taken their daughter in after her very short marriage had ended with the death of her husband from smallpox. Charlotte was arrayed in widow’s black but was not weeping in her room. Instead, she returned to her former occupation of helping run her parents’ household with no sign of recently tears shed.

“I wonder how they managed in your absence,” Elizabeth said. She had joined Charlotte in the kitchen and the two of them were preparing potatoes for stew. This wasn’t something Elizabeth did at home, but it allowed her time with her friend.

Charlotte grimaced. She then took a potato and chopped it to tiny pieces.

“What are you doing?” Elizabeth asked.

“We are out of flour,” Charlotte said. “I’ve been told that potato can thicken stew. I’ve never tried it, but if I cut the potatoes in small enough pieces, it should help.” Charlotte kept chopping.

“Out of flour?”

“Yes. I shouldn’t criticize my sister. She tried but—” Charlotte broke off.

“She hasn’t yet learned to take over all the jobs you did,” Elizabeth supplied.

“She’s young to run a household, but our cook quit and neither Maria nor my mother had spent enough time in the kitchen. In fairness, Maria did very well with the chickens and the mending.”

“At least you are appreciated.”

“Exactly. From my point of view, my absence was the perfect length. My family is glad to have me back because Maria hasn’t yet learned to replace me.”

“If it had been longer, Maria would have learned your job. If it had been shorter, there wouldn’t have been time for things to have gone wrong.”

“So, I am appreciated here. I’m a respectable widow, rather than a pitied spinster. Lady Catherine has arranged a pension for me of twenty pounds a year, which is generous considering how short a time I was married. And I inherited Mr. Collins money, which gives me another £150 a year. I’m not wealthy, but I’m not poor. I received a bit of additional money from Lady Catherine for the contents of the parsonage.”

“You sold the furniture?”

“Furniture, linens, cooking utensils, everything. My father didn’t want to take anything home because some people here aren’t immune to smallpox.” Elizabeth had no idea if Sir William’s caution was warranted, but she certainly understood the fear.

Elizabeth looked at the faint smallpox scars on her friend’s face. They weren’t related to her husband’s recent demise, but from twelve years earlier. It changed Charlotte from an ordinary fifteen-year-old girl to someone who was plain. It had inspired Elizabeth’s mother to see her daughters and herself were vaccinated, although it took her several years to find how to get it done. “That was generous of her.”

“It was. I’ve been lucky.” After a long pause, Charlotte added, “Not in that my husband contracted smallpox three days after the wedding, but that I came out of the marriage better off than I went in.”

She was better off both financially and by having attained the status of a widow.

Elizabeth had a brief, odd feeling of envy for Charlotte. Mr. Collins was a distant cousin of Elizabeth, who had visited the Bennets to find a wife. Elizabeth had refused his offer of marriage which infuriated her mother, since her mother’s goal in life was to marry her daughters off. Mr. Collins had turned to Charlotte who was more interested in the status and financial security a husband offered than in his character. Elizabeth could be in the position of relative financial independence if she had accepted Mr. Collins’ offer. The fleeting feeling disappeared very rapidly when the image of Mr. Collins came into her mind. Amusement hit her. Wasn’t there some quote? “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.” The only reason she thought of the marriage to Mr. Collins as being desirable, was that he died.

Elizabeth had another motive for visiting Charlotte. Life at home was becoming increasingly unpleasant. She knew her mother would be angry with her for at least a day, since her fortnightly letter from Thomas would come. Although she looked forward to her brother’s letters, she did not look forward to her mother’s rant. At least her mentioning Elizabeth’s refusal to marry Mr. Collins was no longer brought up as often.

But when she arrived home, she found she was saved from the rant. “There’s no letter,” her mother crowed. “Maybe he’s dead.” When no one responded, she said, “With Mr. Collins dead, if Thomas dies, the entail is broken. Wouldn’t that be wonderful.”

“I do not consider the death of my son as wonderful,” Mr. Bennet said.

“But it would be. Then you can will the property as you wish, and we won’t have to worry when you die.”

“Mrs. Bennet,” Elizabeth’s father said, “It is highly inappropriate for you to wish for the death of my son.”

“But he wouldn’t break the entail,” Mrs. Bennet countered.

“Even if I am angry about that, it doesn’t mean I want him dead.”

“He has no family feelings,” Mrs. Bennet said. “Last time he visited here he stayed less than two days and was very picky about his food. I provide a good table and he hardly ate anything. He even accused me of trying to poison him.”

“He said what you served him made him sick,” Elizabeth said, unable to keep silent on the issue.

“It didn’t make anyone else sick,” Mrs. Bennet said triumphantly.

It hadn’t, but with her long correspondence with her half-brother, Elizabeth was aware of the lengths he went to avoid eating wheat. Elizabeth remembered her grandfather didn’t eat bread, saying that it gave him indigestion. Surely, Mrs. Bennet remembered her own father had a mild problem like the one Thomas had. Jane once brought it up, but Mrs. Bennet dismissed its relevance by saying old people often had imaginary digestive problems.

As the days went by without a letter. Elizabeth assumed it had gone astray and didn’t worry much, but each day Mrs. Bennet was happier and happier, and even talked about inquiring if Thomas Bennet had died, but his letter arrived five days late.

“I don’t suppose he’s changed his mind about the entail,” Mrs. Bennet asked, as she always did.

“No.” Since her mother always asked that question, Elizabeth didn’t need to answer in any detail.

“He’s content to let his family live in poverty when Mr. Bennet dies,” Mrs. Bennet complained as usual. “He never does anything to help any of us.”

“He did offer,” Elizabeth’s sister Mary said.

“Inadequate and ridiculous,” Mrs. Bennet said. “Imagine a son telling his mother what she can say.”

“Now he’s your son?” Mr. Bennet asked.

“He would be my son, if he had been dutiful.”

Elizabeth decided to discuss the contents of Thomas’ letter privately with their father. She was tired of the anger her mother continually expressed toward Thomas, who was a product of an earlier marriage. When Mr. Bennet was widowed with a two-year-old son, his deceased wife’s mother took Thomas in and raised him until he was old enough to go to Eton, even though Mr. Bennet remarried when his son was five. Thomas spent the time he wasn’t in school with his grandmother, only visiting his father’s family twice a year.

But when Thomas was eighteen, Mrs. Bennet presented him with an agreement to break the entail when he reached twenty-one. He refused to sign, which led to a rift between him and the Bennets. His grandmother paid for Cambridge and Thomas was ordained at twenty-three. He became a curate in a largely rural parish and lived in a room in a farmhouse near the church.

When his grandmother died three years later, Thomas inherited two thousand pounds. He then wrote his father and made an offer. He would sign a document saying that after Mr. Bennet died, he would give each of his five sisters fifty pounds a year until they married. In return, he would live with the Bennets, receive an allowance of £200 a year, he would be fed a diet that did not include wheat, and Mrs. Bennet would never complain about the entail to anyone.

It lasted less than a week. The only condition that was met was Thomas receiving £50 as his first quarter’s payment. He repaid his father and left, after becoming sick from what he was served. In addition, Mrs. Bennet could not hold her tongue. She considered the conditions unreasonable. She was to receive nothing from Thomas, and her daughters could hardly live on fifty pounds a year. She complained to anyone who would listen. She did not mention that since she had the five thousand pounds that was settled on her, she would have an income of £250 pounds a year. Thomas visited again but left when little attention was paid to his dietary requests.

Elizabeth waited until it was unlikely her mother would connect Thomas’ letter to her slipping into the library. Perhaps her mother was fooled, but her father wasn’t. “What did Thomas have to say?” he asked.

“He wants me to visit. No, it’s more than a visit. He has a living, and he wants me to help with his household for a while until he gets settled.”

They discussed the details for a while and then announced it to Mrs. Bennet. For once, Mrs. Bennet was uncertain as to what to say. She was angry with Elizabeth both for refusing a marriage proposal from Mr. Collins and corresponding with Thomas, but she was genuinely glad to get rid of her least favorite daughter for months. When Mr. Bennet announced he was going to escort Elizabeth to Kent, where the Thomas held a living, Mrs. Bennet had a legitimate source of complaint. He was taking the carriage.

“Aside from not approving of Elizabeth traveling alone, I would like to see my son,” Mr. Bennet explained.

“He’s an undutiful son,” Mrs. Bennet said. “You should not see him.”

“Enough. Would you have married me if I had signed away my rights under the entail and my father willed his property to someone else?”

“You owned the property when we married,” Mrs. Bennet said. Elizabeth wasn’t quite sure if that qualified as a non sequitur.

Mr. Bennet’s comment changed the subject. “By the way, the living Thomas has is the same one Mr. Collins had.”

“But that was eight or nine hundred pounds a year! How could he afford that?” Mrs. Bennet protested, clearly unhappy that Mr. Bennet’s son had so high an income.

Thank you for reading.

You can find Why Wed? on kindle here: http://getbook.at/WhyWed

Both Darcy and Wickham Lied

“But disguise of every sort is my abhorrence.” From Darcy’s letter in Pride and Prejudice

This statement occurred after Elizabeth criticized Darcy for telling her all the reasons he shouldn’t marry her. The statement not only said Darcy hates lying, but he hates deceiving people. He certainly didn’t hide his contempt for the assembly where he “danced only once with Mrs. Hurst and once with Miss Bingley, declined being introduced to any other lady, and spent the rest of the evening in walking about the room, speaking occasionally to one of his own party.”

He learned from Elizabeth’s reaction to his behavior. When explaining to Elizabeth about his actions in helping Lydia, he said about her family, “Much as I respect them…” Darcy respects Elizabeth’s family? Darcy respected the Gardiners, but I doubt he respected the Phillips. Even Elizabeth showed no sign of respecting her mother or younger sisters. She is also aware her father is flawed. I doubt Mr. Darcy could logically be said to respect her family, even if he respected a few members of it. This partial truth was misleading at best and a lie at worst. It isn’t objectionable if he treated them with respect and never revealed his true feelings.

Darcy showed respect to his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Did he really respect her? We never enter his mind on the subject, but he was too intelligent not to see her flaws. So, disguise is acceptable when dealing with an older, related woman of higher rank? It is also acceptable when hiding secrets about his sister. He was not very happy with himself for concealing Jane’s presence in London from Mr. Bingley, but he did it to benefit Bingley.

Darcy cannot be absolved of lying. but his lies were either the polite, social lies that almost everyone tells or for the good of someone he cared about.

Wickham’s lies were malicious. Perhaps he benefited from them by receiving sympathy and attention from people, but it seems more likely that they were designed to hurt Darcy, not to help Wickham. Mixed in with Wickham’s lies about Darcy depriving him of his inheritance was “[Darcy’s pride] has often led him to be liberal and generous, to give his money freely, to display hospitality, to assist his tenants, and relieve the poor.” Wickham even praises Darcy’s social skills with the caveat they are only used with people who were “his equals in consequence.”

Like all skilled liars, Wickham only lied about what to him were the important points. He stuck to the truth as much as possible.

On a personal note, my mother-in-law’s signature dish was homemade meat ravioli. It was good, but not extraordinarily so. I praised it more than it was worth and ate more of it than I should have, which supported my lie. I never told anyone, even my husband, what I really thought. After she died, I was free to tell people. I lied, but I felt my behavior justified, especially since I was uniform in my praise both when she was present and when she wasn’t. After she died, I doubt anyone cared. I certainly felt no need to carry that secret to my grave.

The difference between Darcy’s and Wickham’s lies is in motivation not truth. Our book, More Than He Seems, gives Wickham a better motivation.

Announcing Mr. Collins’ Will

by Renata McMann and Summer Hanford

Mr. Collins was a fool, yes, but not a fool who deserved to die.

Torn between anger with her cousin and remorse on his behalf, Miss Elizabeth Bennet must navigate the changes Mr. Collins’ demise brings to her family and sort out her feelings for both the charming Mr. Wickham and not-so-charming Mr. Darcy. In addition, she must discover the reasons behind a rash of anger directed her way. But most of all, she needs to learn what, if any, impact will befall her because of Mr. Collins’ Will.

Fitzwilliam Darcy knows he, his family, and his friends are all too good for the likes of the Bennets. Or are they? Decades old secrets and impulsive, and not so impulsive, proposals start reordering Darcy’s view of the world. Will he come to terms with what truly defines a person’s worth in time to claim the woman he loves, or lose her to a charming man seeking a fortune?

Mr. Collins’ Will is a Pride and Prejudice Variation of approximately 100,000 words.

Chapter One

The Netherfield ball, certain to be dubbed the event of the year in their corner of Hertfordshire, stuttered to a slow and agonizing end, none too soon for Elizabeth Bennet. More aggravated than tired, she climbed into the second of the carriages employed by the Bennet family that evening, along with her mother, youngest sister Lydia, and their cousin Mr. Collins. Seated beside her cousin, Elizabeth very much wished she’d squeezed into the first carriage with her father and other three sisters: Jane, Mary and Kitty. The way Mr. Collins gazed at her, his fawning expression illuminated by the lanterns lining Netherfield Park’s drive, turned Elizabeth’s stomach.

The carriage rolled forward, her mother’s voice filling the interior with a babbled recounting of all that had transpired that evening, as if no one else in the carriage had been present to observe the goings on. Fortunately, Elizabeth was so accustomed to Mrs. Bennet’s voice that she could readily ignore it in favor of the thoughts swirling in her head.

Much of the evening had been a disaster. The man Elizabeth had most wished to dance with, her new acquaintance Mr. Wickham, had made no appearance. Mr. Bingley had invited all the officers from the militia recently stationed in Meryton, and all but Mr. Wickham had come. He’d excused himself to London, with no real word of why or when he might return.

But Elizabeth knew why. Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. That self-important gentleman despised Mr. Wickham to the point that he’d even denied the man a living left him by Mr. Darcy’s father, in some quibble over the exact wording of the will and in complete disregard to the deceased man’s wishes. Mr. Darcy treated Mr. Wickham with even more disdain than he showed the rest of those he felt beneath him, a designation he applied liberally in Hertfordshire insofar as Elizabeth could tell.

It was to avoid Mr. Darcy’s glowers that Mr. Wickham had remained away from the ball. Elizabeth, who fancied she could become smitten with the handsome and charming Mr. Wickham, had planned to converse and dance with him to an almost inappropriate extent. She greatly resented Mr. Darcy’s interference.

Perhaps worse, Mr. Darcy had danced with her, forcing conviviality for the object of her pique. A whole set, spent in mingled boredom and agony. They’d all but quarreled and had found no bridge for enjoyable conversation. At least Mr. Darcy cut a comely figure and danced well. She could say that for him.

Unlike Elizabeth’s cousin, who still gazed at her adoringly. Mr. Collins had danced with Elizabeth so poorly as to cause acute embarrassment and had then insisted on remaining by her side much of the evening. Adding to that her mother’s rant about Jane’s marital prospects with the host of the ball, Mr. Darcy’s friend Mr. Bingley, her sister Mary’s atrocious singing, Miss Bingley’s snide remarks, and Mr. Bennet’s choice to seek amusement rather than curtail any poor behavior by his family members, all meant Elizabeth had trouble finding much enjoyment in the evening. If not for some amusing exchanges with her dear friend Charlotte Lucas, and Mr. Darcy dancing well, not a single bright spot would exist in Elizabeth’s memory of the ball.

She let out a sigh as they continued to jounce down the long drive. They passed another lantern, the light once again illuminating Mr. Collins’ foolish, besotted look. Elizabeth angled firmly to stare out the window, even as they turned from Netherfield Park’s drive and onto the roadway, devoid of any light but the carriage lanterns. She didn’t care if she could see any of the scenery, so long as she didn’t have to witness her cousin’s stares. With her mother babbling on and the weight of Mr. Collins’ regard, Elizabeth deemed it a thoroughly miserable carriage ride.

Finally, they reached their own home of Longbourn, their drive noticeably shorter and less well-lit than Netherfield’s. The comparison aggravated Elizabeth as she recalled the horror on Mr. Darcy’s face when he contemplated the idea of her sister Jane wedding Mr. Bingley. Unfortunately, an equally infuriating disdain had contorted the features of Mr. Bingley’s sisters, Miss Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, at the notion. It seemed Jane’s cause would find no champions among Mr. Bingley’s friends and relations. With their wealth and connections, they thought themselves so above Elizabeth’s family, it was a wonder they could see Jane, they were forced to look so far down.

Elizabeth permitted a scowl, her face still averted from her companions. If the Bennets were crass and uncouth, Mr. Darcy, Miss Bingley, and Mrs. Hurst were equally ill mannered in their pomposity and condescension.

The carriage rolled to a halt before the front steps and Elizabeth realized that at some point during the drive, her mother had switched from chattering to sleeping. Lydia, the youngest of Elizabeth’s sisters at only fifteen, rested her head on their mother’s shoulder and snored. Mr. Bennet, Jane, Mary, and Kitty headed inside, their carriage having already arrived.

Elizabeth reached across the carriage to shake her sister’s shoulder. “Lydia, we’re home. Wake up.”

“Home?” Lydia mumbled with a yawn. She stretched, unwittingly punching their mother lightly on the shoulder.

“What?” Mrs. Bennet asked, head snapping up.

“I am so sorry to wake you both,” Mr. Collins said, though he hadn’t done so.

He turned to Elizabeth, his eyes wide and his face so foolish that she attempted to recall how much she’d seen him imbibe that evening. Of course, his face was normally somewhat foolish. Maybe it took little alcohol to exaggerate that.

In what she assumed he meant to be sotto voce, he continued, “With them both asleep, you do realize we were hardly chaperoned?” He offered a grin, lopsided with drunkenness rather than intent.

Lydia giggled, her amusement breaking off into another yawn.

The door beside Mr. Collins opened and one of their footmen, Edward, handed Mrs. Bennet down. Lydia scrambled out after her, snickering. Mr. Collins, seated between Elizabeth and the waiting footman, accepted Edward’s assistance next, and would have tumbled face first into the yard without the footman’s strong arm. Shaking off the footman’s support, Mr. Collins turned back, swaying, and extended a hand to Elizabeth.

“I do apologize for disembarking before you, dear cousin,” he said as she reluctantly placed a gloved hand in his. Locking eyes with her, he squeezed her hand.

Elizabeth stepped free of the carriage, rented for the occasion to augment the family’s single conveyance, and yanked her hand from Mr. Collins’ over-tight clasp. “I fail to see how you could have done otherwise, sir.” She nearly added, ‘without me climbing over you’ but the disturbing heat in his gaze curtailed the words.

She hurried to come abreast of her youngest sister and mother, where the latter leaned on the arm of the former. Edward, Elizabeth suspected, would trail behind to ensure Mr. Collins didn’t end up an ignominious heap in the yard. Elizabeth wished the footman were less conscientious.

“Lydia, you’ll see me up, won’t you?” Mrs. Bennet asked. “I’m too tired for the stairs on my own. Oh, what an evening, but it has left me exhausted. What dreams I shall have. Mr. Bingley and Jane wedded. What a fine evening.”

“Yes, Mama,” Lydia said, for once too exhausted for more than simple compliance.

All her sisters except Jane were tired, Elizabeth realized as she joined them in the entrance hall. Lost in a world of her own, if Jane’s dreamy expression were any clue, she seemed blind to the rest of them as she tugged off her gloves, pulling on one finger at a time. Elizabeth smiled, some of her ire over the events of the evening dispersing in the glow of Jane’s happiness.

“Mr. Bennet, a word,” Mr. Collins called as he stumbled through the front door.

Mr. Bennet, who’d been about to head up for the night, turned back. Kitty and Mary skirted him and went up the stairs, Jane following.

“Yes, Mr. Collins?” Mr. Bennet asked and stepped aside to make room for Mrs. Bennet and Lydia to pass.

Elizabeth wished she could join her mother and sisters, but she had a horrible suspicion what Mr. Collins might ask her father and wanted to be there to put a swift end to any such talk. Edward came in behind Mr. Collins and quietly closed the door.

Mr. Collins, who’d been staring at Elizabeth again with that obnoxious smitten look, tipped his head up and sniffed. He sniffed again and scowled. “Wasteful.”

Elizabeth blinked. That was not what she’d expected her cousin to say.

“What is wasteful?” Mr. Bennet asked.

Mr. Collins swiveled around to point at Edward. “He had a fire in the fireplace.” Mr. Collins barreled up to Elizabeth, who adroitly stepped aside, and then passed her, into the front parlor. “This room is too warm,” he cried. “Do you see this, Mr. Bennet? Servants should not waste valuable firewood.”

Elizabeth’s father cast her an amused look. “It’s not wasted. I appreciate coming home to a house that is warmer than the outside.”

“But there are coals in the fireplace,” Mr. Collins called from inside the parlor. A glance showed that he’d fallen to his knees before the grate. “At the very least, they should be taken to someone’s bed chamber.”

 “We’re all too tired for that,” Mr. Bennet said. “I’ll be in bed, asleep, before any coals would have the time to heat my room. I daresay my lady wife and daughters will be as well.”

“A waste,” Mr. Collins muttered at the coals. “Squandering. Lady Catherine would not approve. Not at all.”

“Sir?” Edward asked, worried.

Mr. Bennet shook his head. “Don’t give it another thought, Edward. You’ve every right to be warm.”

“Should I see Mr. Collins to bed, sir?”

Expression amused, Mr. Bennet shrugged. “You may make the attempt, but I suspect he’ll only argue with you. It was good of you to wait up. The warm entrance hall is appreciated.”

“Thank you, sir.” Edward bowed and went into the parlor. “Mr. Collins, do you require any assistance, sir?”

“Shall we?” Mr. Bennet asked Elizabeth, gesturing to the staircase as Mr. Collins voice rose in slurred command.

She nodded and headed up the steps at her father’s side.

In a quiet, kind voice, he said, “Do not worry. I know you don’t want to marry Mr. Collins and I won’t push you to do so. Your mother will try to, but I want you to be happy.”

Relief washed through her. In an equally quiet voice, she replied, “I’ve been trying to keep him from proposing.”

Below, Mr. Collins’ voice cried, “So wasteful. When I’m master here, things like this will not be permitted.”

“I don’t think a herd of horses could prevent your cousin from asking for your hand,” Mr. Bennet said, full of mischief. “Your Uncle Phillips took me aside this evening to tell me that Mr. Collins commissioned his help to write a will in your favor. Mr. Collins is convinced you will marry him.”

Elizabeth pursed her lips. “It is unfortunate that he will have to write another will soon.”

Edward’s voice carried from below saying, “Mr. Collins, let me help you. I don’t think the shovel is the best tool to carry hot coals.”

“I can do it,” Mr. Collins said with petulant impatience.

They reached the top hall and Elizabeth turned to go to her room, hoping Mr. Collins would give up conserving coals and go to sleep so she didn’t have to hear his voice anymore that evening.

A loud thump sounded below, accompanied by banging and the clatter of smaller items.

Elizabeth turned back to find her father had, as well. They faced each other across the head of the staircase, uncertain. She opened her mouth to suggest they go back down. Poor Edward shouldn’t be forced to deal with a completely unreasonable Mr. Collins alone.

“Fire,” Edward cried.

“Get water,” Mr. Collins yelled.

“Papa?” Elizabeth gasped.

“I’m sure it will be quickly extinguished, but I’ll get your mother and sisters. You get the servants. I want everyone outside where it’s safe.”

“Mr. Collins, sir, please, stop that. It won’t work,” Edward pleaded below.

“I said get water,” Mr. Collins bellowed.

“Go,” her father ordered.

Worried, Elizabeth grabbed handfuls of her skirt to free up her legs and raced down the hall to the servants’ stair. She looked back once to see her father at her mother’s door. Elizabeth plunged into the dark stairwell, heading upward. Their servants slept under the eaves, above the family’s rooms. A terrible place to be caught if the fire did get out of control.

Stumbling in the low, pitch black attic hall, Elizabeth called, “Wake up. Wake up. There’s a fire. Come out.” She found the first door and opened it. This was not the time for politeness or respect for privacy. “Fire,” she yelled. “Grab something warm but don’t take the time to dress.”

“Do I have time to take my things?” the voice of Betty, one of the maids, asked. There came a clatter and a spark, and a flame bloomed into life at the top of a stub of a candle.

“Not more than two minutes,” Elizabeth guessed. “Hurry, we must rouse the others.”

Betty rushed to the doorway and yelled ‘fire’ several times, louder than Elizabeth had. She pressed the candle into Elizabeth’s hand as one of the footmen came out of his room, then Betty went back in to pull the blanket off her bed. She started throwing shoes and clothing onto the blanket.

Servants spilled from the little rooms, too fast for Elizabeth to be certain she spotted everyone. Betty rushed down the steps with her makeshift bag. Candle in hand, Elizabeth checked each room. Everyone was moving except one of the kitchen maids, who somehow still slept.

Elizabeth went in and shook the girl, who finally blinked her eyes open.

“Fire. Get up.”

“Fire?” the girl slurred, alcohol on her breath.

Elizabeth wrinkled her nose. The cook must have left the sherry out again, and with the family at the ball, it would have been too tempting. “Fire,” Elizabeth reiterated.

With a startled squeak, the maid sat up and jumped from bed. She bolted past Elizabeth without taking anything with her.

Satisfied all the servants’ rooms were empty, Elizabeth rushed back down the narrow steps to the family’s floor. The doors she could see stood open. Thick smoke flowing up the staircase cut off any view of the other half of the upper corridor, where her and Jane’s room stood. Surely, though, her father had finished the task of ordering her mother and sisters out.

Elizabeth plunged back into the servants’ stairwell to follow the staff down. She nearly tripped and tumbled down the steps as something brushed against her legs. Catching the wall with her free hand, she spotted the kitchen’s tabby cat and scooped it up. Clutching the cat close, she clattered down the steps. They came out in the kitchen, the large pots scattered and water sloshed on the floor. The servants she’d roused were already pressing through the garden door, out into the night. Elizabeth followed, then rushed around the outside of the house, needing to see her family.

She rounded the building to find her parents and sisters all standing before the house, staring at flames that filled the front entrance and windows. Elizabeth gasped, staggering to a halt. She dropped the struggling tabby, then fell to her knees in the drive, too relieved and horrified to move.

Her father held his cashbox with a pile of ledgers at his feet. Beside him, Lydia, tears streaming down her cheeks, held a heap of clothing topped with ribbons and hats, and beyond her Mary clutched a jumble of sheet music, books and garments. Kitty and Jane knelt on the ground on either side of Mrs. Bennet, who seemed to have collapsed, gowns in heaps around them. Mr. Collins was nowhere to be seen.

“Elizabeth?” her father called. “The staff?”

Elizabeth struggled up to stand. She stumbled as she crossed the drive, unable to tear her attention from the malevolently glowing, violently thrashing flames to watch where she placed her feet. When she reached her family, Lydia let out a sob, dropped her gowns, ribbons and hats, and threw her arms about Elizabeth.

“The staff?” Mr. Bennet repeated urgently.

“They’re out of the attic. I think they all made it except…” Elizabeth trailed off, watching the flames. “Is Edward in there?”

Mr. Bennet shook his head, grim. The servants Elizabeth had roused trickled around the side of the building. Some came to stand with the family, others rushing about, looking for buckets. Elizabeth bit her lip, unable to voice her worry for Edward and Mr. Collins. She stroked Lydia’s hair. Her youngest sister continued to cry.

Edward stumbled around the corner of the house, soot coated, his eyes wide and over white against the charcoal smeared on his face. Sighting them, he rushed across the yard. “Did he ever come out? Mr. Collins, sir, did he ever come out?”

Mr. Bennet shook his head. “What happened?”

“I tried to stop him. I truly did, but he put the coals on a shovel and was going to carry them to his room. Then he fell and coals went everywhere. He started using a cushion to smother the fire. He moved to another coal and did it again, only the first coal flared up again and caught the carpet. I ran to get water again and again, Mr. Bennet. He kept trying to smother them, but neither of us realized that there was a coal near the curtains.” Edward let out a sob. “We might have been able to put that one out, but there were so many small fires as well. I tried to drag him out of the parlor, but he wouldn’t come with me. He kept apologizing and saying he wouldn’t let the house burn down.” Edward twisted his hands together, knuckles so white it showed through the soot. “I tried to get him to come with me, Mr. Bennet. I tried until I could hardly breathe, but he wouldn’t come.” Tears cut clear tracks down Edward’s cheeks.

“You aren’t to blame, Edward.”

“If only I hadn’t had a fire,” Edward moaned, wringing his hands harder.

“You aren’t to blame, Edward,” Elizabeth repeated firmly.

“Our fool of a cousin is,” Mary added, blinking rapidly.

Mr. Bennet drafted Edward to carry his ledgers and went to the cluster of servants to make sure everyone got out. Sir William Lucas arrived, along with his older two sons. Mr. Bennet went to meet them, still clutching his cashbox.

Mr. Bennet and Sir William organized a brigade to bring buckets of water from the back well to the front of the house. More neighbors arrived. Elizabeth wrapped her mother in a shawl from her pile of clothing, then led her to one of the benches in the rose garden. When her mother was settled, Elizabeth joined Jane and Mary in the bucket line, but it became increasingly obvious that the house would not survive. Soon, the fire was too hot to get near enough for the water to be effective. The bucket brigade became an attempt to keep the fire from spreading.

It was still dark when they gave up. Mr. Bennet sat next to Mrs. Bennet with his cashbox by his side and his most current ledger in his lap. Using the light from a lantern brought by a neighbor to see, he paid each member of the household staff their full quarter’s wages, recording it with a pencil that had been stuck in one of the ledgers. It was a month early, but he added enough money for them to spend a night in the inn in Meryton and get a meal. Probably none would go there, since most had family in the area and others would be taken in for a few days by local people, but he wanted to be sure they all had somewhere to go. Mr. Bennet assured the coachmen, grooms, and farm workers that their work would go on unchanged, as none of the outbuildings had caught fire.

Elizabeth watched the staff take the money with tears in their eyes. They knew as well as her father that he wouldn’t be able to hire them all back for some time, if ever.

By dawn, nothing remained of Elizabeth’s home but a charred, crumpled shell. The Lucas carriage arrived and took her mother and three youngest sisters to their Aunt and Uncle Phillips, in Meryton. Mr. Bennet, Jane and Elizabeth walked the short distance to Lucas Lodge. As she’d been unable to save any of her possessions, Elizabeth took half of Jane’s load. A miserable, soot coated Edward sniffled as he carried Mr. Bennet’s account books but answered in the affirmative when Elizabeth asked him if he would be staying with his parents.

When they came in sight of Lucas Lodge, Elizabeth looked back, expecting to see smoke with the early morning light, but there was none. Whatever whisps were left weren’t visible, although everything smelled of soot and fire. Her hands felt as if they were made of ice, but the remainder of her was numb.

“Poor Mr. Collins,” Jane murmured as they reached the entrance.

Elizabeth nodded, the movement shaky. He’d never come out. The last anyone had seen or heard of him was his apology to Edward. Much as she didn’t care for her cousin, tears slid down Elizabeth’s cheeks. Mr. Collins was a fool, yes, but not a fool who’d deserved to die.