Will chuckled as he considered how to explain Mr. Bennet’s plot to Elizabeth. “He is resting in the room next to you and is quite content. I do not think you will find him in much pain,” he grinned, “and as he has requested all the best books in the house brought to his room, he declares he may never leave.”
Elizabeth laughed. “He is usually such a terrible patient. He must be feeling much better already.”
Will said nothing, only smiled at her response. Bennet had admitted he had not truly injured himself on his ride. He believed bringing Elizabeth to Netherfield would allow them time to court but believed she needed a chaperone. Recalling their past breaks in propriety, Will even entering Elizabeth’s room when she had stayed at Darcy House, he had to see the wisdom in Mr. Bennet’s plan. Of course, if Elizabeth became ill over the scheme, he would never forgive himself.
“Why are you frowning?” Elizabeth hissed in his ear.
“Nothing but my own insecurities,” he answered.
Elizabeth searched his face. “I wish you would tell me one day.”
“When you are my wife, I intend to share everything with you.”
“But not before?”
“Miss Eliza, you must be positively freezing,” Caroline said and pulled Elizabeth’s arm into her chamber.
Will watched her go with regret as Caroline closed the door nearly on his face.
“Come, man,” Charles said at his side. “She is under this roof. You will see her soon enough.”
Will nodded and followed his friend to the billiards room. He would not have sent for Elizabeth under such guise. She had wanted an open courtship, and that meant calling at Longbourn—even if Mrs. Bennet did not approve. Making love to Elizabeth before her entire family would be no easy task but surely it would not be any easier under Caroline Bingley’s watchful eye.
The afternoon passed, and Charles enjoyed many good-natured laughs at his friend’s expense for Will’s focus and attention was fixated on Elizabeth. At last, dinner was served and the relief he felt at seeing Elizabeth, dressed in a borrowed gown and looking fresh, was more than he could describe. He had never before cared for Caroline Bingley’s gowns or noticed them except for when she begged for his compliments, but the more fashionable and expensive attire suited Elizabeth very well. She no longer looked like Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourn but rather his Mrs. Darcy of Pemberley.
Although not seated near one another, Will observed Elizabeth during the meal. She carried herself with more grace and confidence than she had five years before. Her cleverness and coyness had not diminished as Miss Bingley, and Mrs. Hurst hoped to find ways in which to mock her, but some of the more biting edge to her commentary had been softened. She was no longer a carefree youth, experiencing her first bit of Society.
“Mr. Phillips, the solicitor, is your uncle? And your other one a merchant in London?” Mrs. Hurst had asked with a sly look at Caroline.
“Do not you remember,” Charles answered. “Mrs. Bennet is Miss Elizabeth’s step-mother. Those would not be her direct relations.”
“They would count as connections, at the very least,” Caroline snapped. “Well, you do put on such a good face for a girl with no money and such low connections. Bravo for you!”
Charles blinked in a stupefied manner, and an angry defense was on the tip of Will’s tongue when Elizabeth answered in a cheerful tone.
“I am not ashamed of my connections and, indeed, I call them relations. The Gardiners are among my favorite people in all the world, and you will not meet a more gentlemanly man than Mrs. Bennet’s brother in London.”
“Upon my word!” Caroline cried. “The most gentlemanly man in all the world is surely Mr. Darcy.”
Elizabeth gave Will an apologetic smile. “I only speak as I find but perhaps we must make allowances for the affection of a favorite niece.”
“What sort of business does he do?” Charles asked with a panicked look between Will and Elizabeth. “We have an uncle, lately of London, who had been a clothier.”
“Charles!” Louisa exclaimed. “Uncle Bertrand has not lived in London in nearly three decades.”
“Ah, not so very different from Sir William Lucas then,” Elizabeth nodded. “Once he was knighted, he quit London and his shop, and bought Lucas Lodge and about the same time your uncle left Town. What is the name of your uncle’s estate?”
“He…he…resides in Scarborough,” Caroline admitted.
“Oh, how lovely,” Elizabeth said with a smile and then sipped her wine.
“But what of your other relations, Miss Elizabeth?” Mrs. Hurst asked. “Surely your mother had a family.”
“Of course,” Elizabeth nodded. “I believe you met Mrs. Long at the assembly. My mother was her sister. Their father’s estate was entailed, and their other sister married the heir. Unfortunately, they soon died with only two daughters surviving them. For many years, Mrs. Long—who never had any children of her own—raised her nieces in Sussex and they have only recently settled back in Meryton.”
“So your mother was the daughter of a gentleman?” Caroline asked in an accusatory tone while sawing at her meat.
The conversation carried on with Caroline and Louisa interrogating Elizabeth, finally hitting upon the topic of the inheritance of Longbourn now that the heir had died. Will frowned and glared at them when they both noticeably began to treat Elizabeth better upon hearing that it would go to the second eldest grandson of Mr. Bennet. Charles, however, seemed only to notice that they suddenly began asking after Miss Bennet.
At last, the meal ended, and the ladies left the gentlemen. When the men returned to the drawing room, they found the ladies at a discussion on poetry.
“I like many a verse,” Elizabeth declared, “but I do think the notion of writing a sonnet for your beloved quite silly indeed. What are words to do with love?”
“I believe many consider poetry to be the food of love,” Will observed as he sat near her.
Elizabeth turned her face to him and their eyes locked. “Everything nourishes what is already strong. I am convinced that a lover would do much better by proving their faithfulness with actions rather than words. It is worth, too, understanding the desires and temperament of the receiver. Surely, there are some, where even a good sonnet might drive them away when they had preferred or expected a bouquet instead.”
“I say,” said Charles, “all this talk of poetry can hardly satisfy me. I had much rather talk of a ball or a play.”
“That is because you value doing much more than thinking, dear Charles,” Caroline sniffed. “How would you expect to pass an ideal evening, Mr. Darcy?”
“If you mean what is ideal than surely being at a ball or play instead of merely talking about one would be mine,” Charles laughed.
Elizabeth smiled encouragingly at Will. She wanted to know this of him, he realised.
“An ideal evening, for me, depends much more on the company than the activity,” he answered. “Any event with the proper partner heightens the enjoyment and if one’s companion is disagreeable then what is pleasurable at any other moment becomes loathsome.”
“And what would make the most agreeable partner?” Caroline fluttered her lashes in his direction.
Meeting Elizabeth’s eyes once more, Will answered, “I enjoy surrounding myself with companions who have an open temperament and friendly nature. They do not meet others simply to puff themselves up. There is no false compliments and sneaky mockery. They have more class and grace. Neither do they become flustered when they meet with unpleasant individuals. They understand their worth and know the low opinion of such sour people could never denigrate it.”
“Hear! Hear!” Charles cried, bringing Mr. Hurst from his rest and he awoke with a loud snort. “I think you have described our friend Sam Bennet and I confess I miss him greatly.” He smiled sadly at Elizabeth. “You were blessed to have such a brother.”
“Indeed I was,” she answered. “This discussion has been most fascinating, but if you will excuse me, regardless of what I find ideal, this evening, I desire to visit with my father before retiring.”
“Will you not share your opinion?” Will asked hastily as he stood to bow at her exit.
Elizabeth paused for a moment as her hand rested on the doorknob. She looked over her shoulder. “I believe evenings with old friends to be the very best sorts.” She bobbed a curtsy and left.
Elizabeth spent much of the following morning in her father’s chamber. Will and Mr. Bingley were kind enough to visit. While there, the mail was delivered. Elizabeth watched as Will read his letters. The lines between his eyes deepening with each successive piece of paper.
She took the momentary silence to study him. Who had cared for him all these years? They had not had an opportunity to speak about it, but years ago, she had sensed that his father was not of like temperament or really understood his son. He seemed to request—even demand—things from the reserved young man that were intensely difficult and nigh on impossible for him to accomplish. Elizabeth knew that Lady Anne had died while Will was a boy and he met Sam soon after. She had supposed that Sam was a support to Will during those years, but since his death who did Will have? He had said Mr. Bingley and his cousin were of help but how much assistance could they be when they had their own affairs? Even if Sam had lived, he would have needed far more than the support of a friend upon inheriting Pemberley.
Emotion clogged her throat and tears welled in her eyes as Elizabeth considered for the first time how much he must have needed a wife—needed her. He had ample opportunity to find another woman to court and wed. She had told herself, as she obsessively read the Society papers looking for the day an announcement would appear and dash all her dearest wishes, he must have been too busy. However, they often reported attachments that all came to nothing. They hinted at secretive meetings with less than reputable ladies and while that injured Elizabeth, she supposed he did not marry anyone out of continued care for her.
Yes, it was not just any sort of woman he needed—he needed her. She could see how the years had weighed on him. He smiled less, he laughed infrequently. He was far more commanding than the young man she had known, but he had lost much of his joy. While Elizabeth had often felt inadequate for the role of his wife, she considered now that she was precisely what he needed. He was not unhappy by nature—he wished so very much to be lighthearted. She could sense that part of her responding to a kindred spirit within him when they talked.
“Lizzy, you have not turned your page in many minutes,” Mr. Bennet said, biting back a smile.
Elizabeth blushed and closed the book she held. “I suppose it does not captivate my attention. Pardon my woolgathering. Do you need anything?” Her eyes went to the clock in the room. “Heavens! Is that the time?”
Elizabeth stood and busied herself at a table mixing potions to give her father a dose of the tonic as the apothecary had shown her years ago. Mr. Bingley also noted the time and excused himself, but Will remained.
“Lizzy, now that Mr. Bingley has left, I must speak with you and Will.”
Elizabeth handed him the glass and looked at him expectantly as he downed the mixture.
“I suppose Will did not tell you the truth. I am uninjured—” he spoke over Elizabeth’s gasp. “I considered this scheme the best way to allow you two some time to reacquaint yourselves and far more conducive than our drawing room.”
Elizabeth frowned. “Mama feared for your health when you left without speaking to us and just before the rain came.” She took the glass from his hand and returned it to the table with the ingredients. She whirled back around to face him and place a hand on her hip. “I ought not to have given you this.”
“Be at ease. The weather has pained me—I did not lie on that count—and the jostling of riding did not help anything. I just allowed imaginations to do the rest. I did not fall from my horse or step the wrong way or anything like that. No acute injury occurred.”
“I still cannot praise you for being so thoughtless about her concerns.”
“The woman’s anxieties do not last long. She knows one does not die from sore joints.”
“No,” Elizabeth shook her head. “It is not only that. You know she did not wish for me to come. She does not approve—” she winced as she had forgotten that Will was in the room.
“It is well, Elizabeth,” Will said. “It does not offend me. She cares for you, and I have injured you.”
“And this was the scheme you two agreed upon at Lucas Lodge?” She loved her father but had seen from an early age that he could be more courteous to her step-mother’s feelings. She would not wish for Will—who already had already thoughtlessly wounded her—to copy her father’s ways.
“Do not blame him,” Mr. Bennet interjected. “I did not tell him of my plans.”
“Are you very angry?” Will came to her side and lifted a hand to his lips.
“I am not angry,” she sighed. His lips on her skin pulled her focus from the topic at hand. “I only think your plan was ill-thought out, Papa.”
“I will allow your prerogative to disagree with my methods, but I doubt you dislike the effect.”
He chuckled, and Elizabeth blushed as she realised she had been staring into Will’s eyes.
“I give you leave to talk amongst yourselves over by the window,” Mr. Bennet said and picked up his book once more.
Will led Elizabeth to a chair by the window. They were at such a distance from Mr. Bennet that they could converse in privacy but he would see it all. Heat spread up her face as she thought, she would have preferred more solitude and a greater chance for an embrace and kisses.
“Did I understand you rightly last night?” Will asked. “You asked how I wanted to spend our evenings together once we wed?”
Nodding, Elizabeth smiled. “Yes, you see we are capable of more than misunderstanding one another.”
“I could not answer as fully as I would have wished. My days and evenings are often lonely and I would be happy to do anything so long as it is in your company.”
“Even dance?” Elizabeth teased. “I recall you did not enjoy it so very much.”
“I might dislike dancing more than ever,” he said and reached for her hand, “as I have found who I want as a partner for all of my sets. The thought of talking with other ladies is intolerable now.”
“Surely they are not all like Miss Bingley,” Elizabeth shook her head. She continued to wonder about how he occupied himself during their years apart but she could not ask—not with her father in the room and perhaps never.
“No,” Will sighed, “but neither are they you.”
“So you despise dancing still but are willing to do it with me,” Elizabeth observed. “I would never wish to make you go through motions you hate for all of our life. I am afraid you must tell me some of the ways you enjoy spending your time. Or perhaps I will confess the things I loathe, and you may join me. Tell me, sir, do you hate needlework as I do? We could be miserable together, or if you enjoy it, then you may rest easy knowing I will sit by your side although I hate every stitch I make.”
Will laughed heartily, and his smile reached his eyes. Elizabeth’s breath caught. Each time she made him smile or laugh, she felt as though she had unlocked a hidden piece of him. She had dueled a mighty foe and came out triumphant. She had given him some joy when most of the world caused him only pain and worry.
“How I have missed you,” he encased Elizabeth’s hand in both of his.
“Did you not have Georgiana to keep you company?” Elizabeth said after clearing her throat. The warmth from his hand was spreading through her body. It was a tender, innocent, touch but affected her nearly as much as his most ardent kisses. More so, it made her heart swell in a way their passionate embraces had not. To be cared for by Will was something she craved even more than his amorous pursuits.
Instantly, Will’s happiness disappeared. He began to pull his hands away, but Elizabeth brought her other one atop of his to keep them in place. “Will you tell me what upsets you?”
He searched her eyes. “It is difficult to speak about.”
The grief in his eyes almost overwhelmed her. “If you cannot speak now, we might at another time. I do not wish to pain you but I am to be your help-meet. I insist you tell me all.”
Gripping her hands tightly, Will nodded. “Might we meet for a walk later?”
“Certainly,” Elizabeth glanced out the window. “I suspect the road will be dry by the morrow, however. What else did your letters contain? They seemed to concern you greatly.”
“My cousin, Richard, replied to my inquiry if he would discreetly ask the Earl if he knew anything about my letters. He found out nothing. I hope you do not mind my mentioning it to him.”
“Of course not,” she smiled. “I am pleased we have assistance in this matter. I spoke with Mama. She had discerned that I held you in high regard and mourned your absence, but knew nothing else. She is quite angry with you.”
“I deserve it,” Will said. “I have been chastised by your father and will bear your mother’s displeasure as well. I only wonder why you have not made me grovel or sent me away. You would have every right—”
Elizabeth silenced him by placing a finger on his lips. “Pray, cease. We both made mistakes.”
“No,” he shook his head. “You are blameless. What could you do?”
“I knew your itinerary from Sam’s report. I might have written to him. Or sent a letter to your house. If we were engaged then it would not be breaking propriety. I did not because—well, it all seemed too good to be true. I loved you, but I resisted letting go. I held back. Why would a man like you love Lizzy Bennet with only fifty pounds a year and no connections? Mr. Bingley’s sisters were quite right last night.”
“Elizabeth!” Will exclaimed and raised her hands to his lips. Lowering them just so she could meet his eyes, he explained, “You are worth millions more than any of them! Not one woman of my acquaintance compares to you. I hate to hear you devalue yourself. It is my fault—”
“No,” Elizabeth blinked away tears. “No, you are not to blame for my insecurities any more than I ought to blame myself for yours. Let us think of the past only as it gives us pleasure.”
“Then I only regret that there are so few memories,” Will said and pressed his forehead to Elizabeth’s hands.
“Now, about the letters,” Elizabeth licked her lips, and Will released her hands. “If you must find the answer and you have exhausted the list of suspects, then have you considered the locations? You said you wrote daily but did you post them each day?”
“No,” Will admitted. “I would wait until we were at a large enough town or inn so Matthews might slip away to the post office. He assures me that he had nothing to do with it and that my father had never suggested he interfere.”
“Do you recall how many locations and their names?”
“I am afraid that I cannot recall them all. Why would it matter?”
“I will read Sam’s letters again. I used to have the course and most of his words memorised,” she blushed. “It seems we must entertain the idea that they were disrupted once they reached the post office. It smacks of corruption but from every location? How could that be unless one of your party was involved.”
“They are either dead or have argued their innocence. I even interrogated Charles years ago.”
“Did you ever consider Mr. Wickham?”