Getting back on the horse and posting a new story! This has been through a beta and editing software but has not had final story or copy editing. I’ll be posting on Thursdays but you get 2 chapters today!
Blurb: We are all fools in love…
Some say a lady’s imagination is very rapid. Such is the case when Elizabeth Bennet overhears that Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy admires her eyes. She thinks nothing for herself, but immediately considers her dearest sister’s growing attachment to Mr. Darcy’s friend. If Elizabeth spurns such a wealthy- and proud- gentlemen, he might do everything in his power to separate his friend from her sister.
Raised in a world of expectations and pedigree, Darcy knows Elizabeth Bennet can offer him nothing of material value. As his attraction to her grows, he becomes increasingly convinced his feelings are nonsensical. Still, he might forsake it all if only he had the true encouragement. Misunderstandings lead to betrayals and the couple soon learns falling in love takes courage but staying in love requires forgiveness.
Escaping the rooms of Netherfield, Elizabeth Bennet hurried to a path out of sight from the house. She intended to pick some of the last of the flowers in the nearby garden for Jane. Mr. Bingley had provided plenty of hot-house flowers for her, but Elizabeth needed a reason to escape the other residents of the house. That all but Mr. Bingley wanted her away from them was very obvious.
Pushing all unpleasant thoughts from her mind, she happily cut the last blooms of mid-November in solitude until she heard the voices of Miss Bingley and Mr. Darcy. A sly smile crept across Elizabeth’s face. Were they out for a lover’s stroll?
“I hope you will give your mother-in-law a few hints, when this desirable event takes place, as to the advantage of holding her tongue.”
Elizabeth was surprised to overhear them discuss their marriage, nor did she know Mrs. Bingley lived. More importantly, she had not seen any sign of partiality on Darcy’s behalf, but then people often married for reasons other than affection.
Miss Bingley had continued speaking. “And cure the younger girls of running after officers.”
Elizabeth furrowed her brows in confusion. Miss Bingley was certainly not Mr. Darcy’s intended then, and it sounded like…
“Endeavour to check that little something that borders on conceit and impertinence in your lady.”
Who could they possibly be speaking of? Elizabeth was loathe to admit it, but she found eavesdropping on Mr. Darcy’s conversations most fascinating. She attempted to crouch behind a bush to hear more without detection.
“Have you anything else to propose for my domestic felicity?” he coolly inquired.
“Oh yes! Do let the portraits of your aunt and uncle Phillips sit next to your great-uncle the judge. They are in the same profession you know, only different lines. As for your Elizabeth’s likeness, you must not have it taken, for who could do justice to those remarkable eyes?”
Perhaps other ladies would blush or tremble at hearing Mr. Darcy admired them, Elizabeth saw it all as only a cruel joke. She almost missed Mr. Darcy’s reply.
“It would not be easy, indeed, to catch the expression but their colour and shape and the eyelashes, so remarkably fine, might be copied.”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened in disbelief. Mr. Darcy truly admired her? She was so uncomprehending she could hardly guess who was alarmed more at the unexpected, but inevitable, meeting. She nearly tumbled over. Throwing her arms out, she steadied herself and caught her breath.
“Miss Eliza! I had no idea you were out for a walk.”
Recovering quickly, Elizabeth replied, “Oh. I was only gathering a posy for Jane.”
“How does she do this morning,” Mr. Darcy politely inquired.
“She is improving quickly, thank you.”
“And have you no intention of walking then?” Darcy asked.
At the same moment Miss Bingley spoke, “Oh, I do hope she recovers soon.”
They both coloured and Elizabeth hid her smile.
Miss Bingley began again. “Louisa and I were planning to visit dear Jane after I returned indoors.”
Elizabeth smiled. “She would like that, thank you.”
Darcy turned to Miss Bingley, “Why not visit with her now? It would allow Miss Bennet a more ample excursion. She has scarcely left her sister’s side, and the exercise would do her well.”
“Oh, yes. Why of course. Do excuse us, Miss Elizabeth.” She began to turn but ceased when Darcy did not follow with her. “Mr. Darcy, I had thought you were returning as well.”
Elizabeth turned her face to avoid laughing at the suspicion of desperation in Miss Bingley’s voice.
“No, you know I always indulge in an hour’s exercise in the morning.”
Miss Bingley begrudgingly returned to the house, and Elizabeth hoped Darcy would return to his walk.
“Do you not feel a great inclination for a country walk?”
She lightly laughed at his request, his words mirrored the ones he spoke the night before when he asked her for a reel. She took his arm as they began to walk away from the house.
“My, my Mr. Darcy. Hertfordshire is rubbing off on you! First you want to dance a reel, and now a country walk instead of on the avenue of sculpted gardens?”
He smiled. “I miss the wilds of Derbyshire.”
“You do not spend much time in Town?”
“My estate requires much of my attention, but I make trips to Town as often as I can. My sister resides mostly in London for the Masters, so it is natural I would wish to spend time with her.”
A single young man of rank and wealth enjoying London only to spend time with his sister? “The amusements of Town do not compel you?”
“I enjoy the diversions of the theatre and the like, particularly the access of the bookshops, but cannot care for all the people.”
Of course, he could not, for most of them were beneath his notice. “Cannot or will not?”
“You imply I do not converse easily with people out of choice.”
“Easily? I daresay you do not converse with anyone outside your own party.”
“I am speaking with you.”
He gave her a pointed look, and Elizabeth grew troubled as she considered again the words she heard earlier. “I suppose you have found some amusement in speaking with me because you have made it clear you dislike speaking with the others of the area.”
She glanced up at him, and indeed he did look amused.
“You think you have my character entirely sketched, then? And on only a few weeks acquaintance when, by your own testament, I barely speak?”
She had thought that exactly, that is until a moment ago. She could not admit such a thing, though.
“I mean no offence when I admit some characters are easier to sketch than others.”
He laughed lightly, and it was as though the sun broke through the clouds on his face. Why would such a handsome man wish to appear grim so often?
“You are uncommonly clever, Miss Bennet.”
She tried to contain her surprise. A compliment from Mr. Darcy?
She was silent too long, and his voice close to her ear startled her. “The correct response would be to thank me.”
She blushed. No, of course, he would not mean to praise her. It was only a means to criticize her again.
“I apologize. I was searching for the correct response to that particular kind of compliment.”
“I did not know compliments came in different forms.”
“Oh, but they do. If at a ball I say how nice one’s headdress looks and how delicate it is, and it would be a shame to see it suffer ill-effects, you may be sure I am not complimenting the lady on her ability to dance but rather suggesting she sit out.”
A small smile crept across his face. “And what kind of compliment was my praise?”
She looked down at her feet. “Perhaps you find that I am too clever, for a woman. Perhaps any intelligence from those of my sex takes you by surprise. Perhaps, from one with such decided opinions on what makes an accomplished woman, you were truly pointing out what you conceive as a failure of mine.”
Satisfied she had made perfect sense of his earlier praise, and that he could not be offended by her seeing through his facade, she left his side after exclaiming at the sight of wildflowers. When he approached her, she raised her eyebrows in expectation. Regardless of what he thought of her intelligence, she was sincerely beginning to doubt his.
“You claimed I conceived your intelligence a failure…”
She quickly interrupted him, “Yes, because I am certain the rest of the world does not have such ridiculous expectations.” Actually, she was not so certain at all. She knew Meryton did not.
“True, I do have high expectations. I am certain the rest of society, who enjoy the frivolousness of soirees and gambling, cannot possibly value a lady who is well read and entertains independent thoughts.”
Elizabeth was quick to reply. “I am certain no lady who has so much intelligence and sense would also kill herself to become accomplished in languages, art, dancing, conversation and everything else you and Miss Bingley believe are required of a woman. Any lady of sense would not go through all that simply for the label of accomplishment, and to be displayed on some man’s arm. A lady with so much talent and intelligence would pursue study out of enjoyment and self-gratification, and would have too much self-respect to marry only to be an ornament.”
“Then we are in agreement on what an accomplished lady is like.”
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows in disbelief. His words reminded her of something she overheard on the day of her arrival at Netherfield. “Do you also think being thus accomplished makes a woman a more attractive marital partner?”
He answered cautiously, “Many gentlemen certainly would pursue a lady with so much sense and ability.”
“Gentlemen of sense may think so. Alas, there has been a shortage of gentlemen of sense in my acquaintance. I often meet with men who believe an alliance should be based on connections and fortune.”
Darcy smiled a little. “Are you now to give me a list of what is required for a gentleman?”
“Perhaps you are not the only one with fastidious standards. To me, the perfect gentleman is amiable to all he meets and puts his feelings and desires last. He considers those in his care as his primary concern. Perhaps this gives him little time to read or write long letters. He takes care only to have friends of the greatest sense, and so he may rely upon their advice.”
Her companion frowned. “You return to our subject from last night. My friend is unaffectedly modest, and he does rely on my advice perhaps too greatly. I hope I meet with his demands of having good sense. But do you not make allowances for differences in temper and situation? Bingley is very obliging to everyone he meets, and he cannot imagine an offence against him. To assume that I am less gentlemanly than him, simply because I cannot forgive all the offences against me, would be as if I believed you less of a lady than those who do not walk three miles to nurse their sister, or those that defer to every opinion spoken by a gentleman. You give my sex no compliment by believing we must all have the same temperament.”
“I speak as I find.”
“And do you still agree that you do not meet as many people with differing personalities in the country?”
“I suppose I must.”
“Then perhaps you have not met many gentlemen who can disprove your narrow constraints of gentlemanly behaviour.”
“Logic would follow that would be the case and yet you, in all your broad acquaintance, have not met more than half a dozen ladies who are truly accomplished.”
He was silenced, and Elizabeth smiled to herself. Now, no one could say she recommended herself to the other sex by undervaluing her own. She rather thought little of men.
“I ought to return to Jane. I have gathered enough flowers.”
She turned to leave and was rather amazed when he continued to follow. She had believed he was affronted at her words.
“I have been thinking,” he began, “on your words about the influence of friendship.”
“For all that I argued that one of an amiable temper might easily change his decision out of regard for the friend, you will not change my opinion, sir.”
He chuckled. “I would not dream of it.”
Elizabeth laughed in return. “How diplomatic of you! For, by your agreement, you either state we are not friends or that I do not have an amiable temper.”
“Perhaps, instead, I believe this to be too important a subject to try to turn your opinion.”
She was not sure how to reply.
“I was thinking that one could benefit from the affection of a good friend.”
She ought not to be surprised. She overheard him declare he admired her, but still the idea that he spoke of it stopped her in her tracks. She silently waited for him to continue.
“I have a sister who is more than ten years my junior. She was taken from school last spring. Her education was completed, but she has missed having friends.”
She blushed. How silly of her! Had she thought he would declare love for her in Mr. Bingley’s garden? “I had thought Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst quite friendly with her.”
“I believe she may value ones closer to her age and of a certain, shall we say more benevolent, disposition. Might I persuade you and your eldest sister to strike-up a correspondence with her?”
She began to argue, but he anticipated her reasons. “I am uncertain how long I will remain in the country and, if I would ever bring her here, it would be nice for her to have more acquaintances.”
They reached the house just before then, and Elizabeth dislodged her arm as she flushed. “Certainly, sir. Thank you for the escort.”
After a bow and a curtsy, she fled his side for Jane’s room. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst were sitting with Jane and stared daggers at her. Thankfully, they quickly made their excuses. Certainly they perceived Mr. Darcy had returned, and so Jane could be of little interest to them then.
Jane soon rested, and Elizabeth was left with her thoughts. She had seldom had an admirer before. She frowned as she considered that the ones she did have in the past did not seem to keep their attention on her long, if they noticed her at all instead of Jane. Not that she had wanted to encourage any of the gentlemen. Indeed, she had no wish to encourage Mr. Darcy for whatever distraction he provided.
Then she reconsidered. Mr. Darcy had argued even the night before how easily led Mr. Bingley was. Undoubtedly, Mr. Darcy had influence over his friend. If she spurned him, his pride would demand he leave Netherfield. Would he take his friend with him? Jane deserved every chance with Mr. Bingley!
Jane was not only Elizabeth’s closest sister; she was her closest confidante as well. She was quite certain Mr. Bingley held Jane’s heart. Believing highly in the connection and value of her family, Elizabeth usually accepted and overlooked flaws in her relations that she would not as readily for many others. Still, she knew how they appeared to the proud guests at Netherfield Park. Already she felt that the wildness of her youngest sisters, coupled with her mother’s ridiculousness and unabashed chastisement of Mr. Darcy, put a connection to her family in a poor light. How terrible it would be if Jane’s hopes were to be disappointed by the work of her nearest kin.
Elizabeth’s mind quickly flicked from her mother and sisters to herself. She had often delighted in sparring with Mr. Darcy in an attempt to put him down. Her own behaviour could just as easily cost Jane’s happiness as anyone else’s. If she could persuade him that a match between his friend and her sister was not an evil, then she would simply have to temper her own behaviour and swallow the discomfort. Obviously, Mr. Darcy could never mean anything serious by his admiration. Elizabeth had overheard her family and relations mocked by Mr. Darcy and Miss Bingley on more than one occasion before he admitted finding her pretty. Just now he did not act the part of a lover at all. Admiration did not a proposal make. Something all the more relevant about Jane and Bingley.
After the men had their port and cigars, Darcy arrived in the drawing room with a feeling of trepidation. Walking with Elizabeth this afternoon had been a treat but he gave her too much notice, and Miss Bingley was certainly aware. He could ill-afford to raise Elizabeth’s expectations. He would adhere to his book this evening and not fall for any of her enchanting conversation.
Thus, the feeling of panic when he saw Miss Bennet down from her room betrayed his true feelings. If she were well enough to leave her room soon, she would be well enough to leave for Longbourn and then… No. It mattered not.
Elizabeth was at work, and he quelled the urge to watch her nimble fingers. Instead, applying himself to his book. Miss Bingley selected the second volume of the very book he read and attempted to ask all manner of questions, but he returned to his book after every inquiry. Eventually, thankfully, she tossed her book aside and instead asked Elizabeth to walk about the room with her.
He blinked back his surprise at the request. His eyes refused his commands to ignore her as he studied Elizabeth at Miss Bingley’s side. He had always found Elizabeth pretty and was captivated by her eyes, especially within a few meetings, but this evening she looked truly lovely. He knew she ought to look tired but he believed their walk this morning did her well. There was something unexpectedly becoming about her gown or hair arrangement. As a man, he paid little attention to such things, but he felt this was not the same lady who cared so little for their good opinion that she arrived with dirty petticoats and unkempt hair.
“Will you not join us, Mr. Darcy?” Miss Bingley asked.
Suddenly aware that he had closed his book and could not use it as an excuse, he blurted out the first thing he could think of: something about them only having two motives for walking about the room in such a way. Truthfully, he barely knew half of what flew out of his mouth when Elizabeth was near, and others were scrutinizing him in the room.
Miss Bingley was insistent on understanding his meaning and he, fortunately, had recovered his wits. Elizabeth accused him of meaning to be severe on them, so naturally he must argue the opposite.
“I have not the smallest objection to explaining them,” said he, as soon as she allowed him to speak. “You either choose this method of passing the evening because you are in each other’s confidence and have secret affairs to discuss, or because you are conscious that your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking; if the first, I would be completely in your way, and if the second, I can admire you much better as I sit by the fire.”
He tried not to betray his thoughts that he very much wished they would walk by the fire; the light might catch more of the outline of Elizabeth’s superb figure. She blushed at his words, but Miss Bingley clearly believed such a compliment was due the entire time. Would he ever be free of that woman?
Miss Bingley said Darcy deserved punishment and Elizabeth suggested they all laugh at each other. Did she truly believe him incapable of finding amusement in things? He had smiled and laughed unguardedly with her this morning.
When Miss Bingley declared Mr Darcy could never be laughed at, Elizabeth demurred: “Mr. Darcy is not to be laughed at! That is an uncommon advantage, and uncommon I hope it will continue, for it would be a great loss to me to have many such acquaintances. I dearly love a laugh.”
“Miss Bingley,” said he, “has given me more credit than can be. The wisest and the best of men—nay, the wisest and best of their actions—may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke.” This was not what he wanted to say at all! He enjoyed Elizabeth’s laughter. Why must he unconsciously reach for defence in her presence?
“Certainly,” replied Elizabeth, “there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wise and good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, they do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can. But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without.”
“Perhaps that is not possible for anyone. But it has been the study of my life to avoid those weaknesses that often expose a strong understanding to ridicule.”
If his eyes would not obey his intentions, then neither would his mouth. He wished he could flirt or converse easily as he had often seen Bingley do. As Bingley did do in the corner with Jane Bennet. Instead, he resigned himself for Elizabeth’s counter to skewer him with her sharp wit. He certainly set himself up for it. What would she find in him to ridicule? And why did he welcome her criticism? Perhaps it was only the excitement of having a pretty and new acquaintance’s attention to himself.
She cocked her head as she thought. “You dislike dancing; I assume, as you did not stand up with anyone outside your party at the Assembly last month. Nor did you eagerly attend to the dance floor at Lucas Lodge. Yet, when prompted by the correct person, you are amenable to dancing. Indeed, with certain tunes it seems you can even desire a set on your own. I begin to think it is perfectly fitting for dancing to be your moment of folly and whim.”
Was she flirting with him? “Perhaps the inducement is only the correct partner,” he whispered lowly, even to his ears.
Miss Bingley and Elizabeth both gasped quietly. He had been far too direct.
Miss Bingley hastily said, “Speaking of dancing, I should very much like to hear you play something, Miss Elizabeth. I recall your performance at Lucas Lodge; what a lovely piece you played.”
Darcy understood her motivation. The piece would be conducive to dancing, and Miss Bingley sought to trap him with a set.
“Thank you but I would hate to perform the same piece to the same audience, and you have such a lovely selection. Could you show me some of the Italian ones?”
Miss Bingley coldly agreed and retreated. As Elizabeth walked behind, she cast a look over her shoulder at Darcy.
“Allow me to turn the pages for you,” he heard himself say as he followed her.
“Oh, that is really not necessary. Read your book and I will turn for Miss Eliza,” Miss Bingley bit out.
Darcy repressed a sigh at the sacrifice to be paid, but it would be worth it. “But if you do then you will not have time to select your piece. Miss Bennet did not get to hear your superior performance last night.”
Seemingly pleased with the compliments, she agreed and left him and Elizabeth in peace. As Miss Bingley selected her song, her eyes frequently fell upon them. Elizabeth sang sweetly and, as he leaned in with each page, he could not help but to inhale her scent.
He noticed the rosiness of Elizabeth’s smooth cheeks. Wondering if his presence affected her, he allowed himself just barely to brush her side on one occasion. He would have felt like a cad but for the sound of her breath catching.
Alas much too soon her piece was finished, and he resigned himself to his penance of turning pages for Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst. More than once, however, he was reprimanded for his straying attention. He sought Elizabeth’s eyes across the room. She sat talking with her sister and Bingley; her eyes brightened with amusement.
Upon reaching his room that evening he realized he would have to make some resolve about Elizabeth. He was paying her too much attention for a mere acquaintance. His mind told him of his danger, but a bigger part of him was too excited to care. It was…thrilling to be in her presence, and he had never felt such a wonderful feeling before.
During breakfast, the following morning came the news that the Bennet sisters were to leave for Longbourn. Bingley had asked them to stay an additional day, and indeed the request was on the tip of Darcy’s tongue. Miss Bennet was insistent, however, in leaving on the next day. Darcy told himself to be careful; no admiration for Elizabeth would escape him on this day but, when she came upon him alone in the library, his resolve disintegrated.
“Good day,” she said in her sweet voice.
“Good day,” he returned.
She selected a volume to read and sat in a chair near his own.
“I am surprised Mr. Bingley has this edition of Wordsworth.”
He smiled. “He does not. Knowing the state of my friend’s library, I brought several of my own. I hope you enjoy it.” He returned to his book but soon realized he needed to speak with her on the matter of his sister’s letter. “I understand from Miss Bingley that her letter to Georgiana will be completed this afternoon. If you have your letter ready, they could go out together before you leave tomorrow, that is.”
“Certainly. I thought you might wish to read it.”
“No, ladies must have their secret affairs.” He tried to give a flirtatious smile, hoping to remind her of last night.
“Perhaps some do, but I hope you know by now I am not of a devious bent.” She blushed, and he could not keep back a genuine smile.
“You do not find poetry to be the food of love, yet you enjoy it readily enough.” He nodded at the book and then sat back, waiting for her to fascinate him anew.
“I am sure you believed I was jesting, but I suppose I think of love differently than most.”
“And that is?”
“Love is like a flower. There is a seedling: the beginning of the acquaintance. Given the right encouragement, as a seed given any soil and the most basic form of sunlight and water, it will begin to sprout. But some loves are hardy to begin with while some are fragile and need more nurturing. Indeed, some may never reach their full potential. Some may grow tangles and tares to protect themselves from predators. But I do not think love requires food such as an animal or a human does. That requires too many choices in taste, too much potential for indigestion at one meal but not the next. Two people may eat the same foods but grow very differently.”
“You believe falling in love has no personal variance.”
“I am certain it does, but not as you imagine. Some may fall in love at first sight. Some may need their acquaintance to grow longer first. Each plant has a different point of full maturity. However, society considers humans reach the point of perceived maturity at a universal age.”
“So you do not believe it is foolish to declare yourself in love too early in acquaintance?” He held his breath for her answer though he knew not why.
“For some, certainly. But if one is of a steady temperament then that is vastly different than one who is flighty.”
His heart began to beat ferociously, and she paused.
“You are overlooking the most salient point. Love is like a flower, for it is well worth the toil to cultivate it.” She shrugged her shoulders, “Love is beautiful.”
“Beautiful,” he echoed but thought only of her.
She blushed and hastily stood. “I should return to Jane.”
She promptly curtsied and left the room. Darcy did not speak with her the remainder of the day. He hardly knew if it was his resolve or the matter of Miss Bingley adhering to his side. He acknowledged to himself by nightfall Elizabeth looked exceptionally weary.
“Miss Elizabeth, what are you doing?”
The unexpected intrusion of Caroline Bingley into what was, for the next several moments still, Elizabeth’s private room at Netherfield startled her. She jerked her hand and knocked over the inkwell, soiling the lone pair of gloves she had brought. It had been unseasonably warm, and her maid had not sent any mitts in the trunk she packed for her unexpected stay. Now she would have to travel all the way to Longbourn with bare hands. She would rather break propriety for a few miles than suffer to ask to borrow a pair from Mr. Bingley’s sisters. She would much rather see their look of censure, indeed she was quite familiar with it from everyone but Mr. Bingley, than have them cringe at the idea of allowing her to touch a pair of their gloves. Fortunately, the gloves caught all of the ink, and none of the Bingleys’ rented, but fine, furniture or carpet were ruined.
Elizabeth suppressed the urge to scream, for the twentieth time since the Netherfield Party returned from church, at yet another interruption. She only desired to finish this note and check the rooms once more before blissfully returning home. It had been an exceptionally long and trying five days, made all the more difficult by her resolve to check her tongue around Mr. Darcy.
They had managed to talk in the library yesterday without argument, but Elizabeth still did not believe he thought well of her opinion. Likely only Mr. Bingley regretted their impending departure. She certainly knew Miss Bingley’s actual statement meant, “The carriage is nearly ready, you must not remain an instant longer!” Elizabeth wondered if Caroline would be surprised to learn the feeling was mutual.
Instead of snapping at Miss Bingley, Elizabeth turned and gave a small smile. “I only wished to write a note of thanks to Mrs. Parker and her staff for taking such good care of Jane while she has been ill.”
Caroline sneered. “Of course, she took good care of dear Jane. It is her duty, and I would never employ a servant who could not complete her tasks competently and diligently.”
Elizabeth bristled at Caroline’s attitude. Mrs. Parker had been married to one of the tenant farmers on her father’s estate, and Elizabeth had known the lady her entire life. After Mrs. Parker’s husband had passed, and her children were grown, she decided to go back into service. And any good mistress knew the difference between a servant merely completing her duty and one serving with pride and affection. Mrs. Parker was always a very good housekeeper, but she treated Jane with a fondness only Mrs. Bennet and Elizabeth would have been able to rival.
Again, instead of caving-in to her impulses, she civilly replied. “Then I must compliment you on hiring such a capable housekeeper. She followed your orders perfectly to soothe Jane during her illness.”
Elizabeth struggled not to roll her eyes at her words when she heard what sounded like a strangled coughing noise and looked up again to see the outline of Mr. Darcy walk past her open door. The noise drew Caroline’s notice as well, and she nearly ran after the wealthy gentleman.
The entire visit had been perfectly ridiculous. Caroline never missed a way to put down Elizabeth and her connections or abilities. Yet Elizabeth was the one with an ancestry of landed gentry. She was the one who was taught, since birth, how to be mistress of an estate, which included a good deal more than demanding hot baths. She was the one who knew how to inspire esteem and affection in tenants, to keep them loyal and treat them with respect. Elizabeth did have to allow that Miss Bingley undoubtedly had the dubious advantage of knowing more about London society, and she found she anticipated, and more than for merely curiosity’s sake, Mr. Bingley’s upcoming ball.
With a sigh, Elizabeth rang the bell for a maid, tossed her ink-sodden gloves into the fire and dunked her stained hands into the water basin. She was pleased most of the ink came off and had just finished drying them when the maid quietly entered. “Yes, ma’am?”
Elizabeth turned and faced the young lady and gave a little smile. “Please give this note to Mrs. Parker, Susie.”
Elizabeth cast her eye over the room one more time. She had not found the tatted bookmark she made the other night. It was hardly a loss; she could easily make another. Satisfied, she allowed the maid to call for a footman to bring her trunk down to the carriage before she left to check Jane’s room.
A very few minutes later found Elizabeth and Jane outside of Netherfield and about to board Mr. Bingley’s carriage. Their mother had refused to send their own because she desired her daughters to stay longer at Netherfield. Or rather, she desired Jane to stay longer. As the only other bachelor of the house, Mr. Darcy, had pronounced Elizabeth merely tolerable and not tempting enough for a dance, even Mrs. Bennet had no delusions of hope for a match between those two. Elizabeth was grateful only Miss Bingley seemed to know Darcy had come to find Elizabeth pretty. She would die of embarrassment if her mother tried to make the most of the situation.
Elizabeth blushed as the subject of her thoughts drew near the awaiting carriage.
“Good day Mr. Darcy,” Jane spoke with her usual serenity.
Jane then turned her attention to Mr. Bingley, who was looking rather peculiar and seemed unwilling for Jane to leave. He engaged her in conversation while Jane’s cheeks turned slightly pink at the attention. Elizabeth knew her duty. After thanking Caroline, again, for her hospitality, she spoke to Mr. Darcy.
“Good day Mr. Darcy.”
“Good day Miss Elizabeth.” Elizabeth was confused when she discerned the similarities of expression between the two gentlemen. She had convinced herself he felt no real affection for her.
After a few more awkward and disjointed, but adorable, remarks between Jane and Bingley, he handed her in. Elizabeth stepped forward and was surprised to feel the warmth of a hand take hers. She nearly gasped when she realized the gentleman was not wearing gloves.
Looking down, she saw a bare, strong, masculine hand hold her own ungloved one. The owner’s thumb lightly stroked across the top of her hand and gave a gentle squeeze. She glanced up in bewilderment and saw the very proper Mr. Darcy attached to the hand that still held her own, and his pale blue eyes seemed to pierce her.
He immediately released her hand, quickly turned and walked away. He did not even glance at the carriage as it drove away. Elizabeth hated to admit how much his gallantry affected her sensibilities. She had never had a suitor before, no man to bow over her bare hand in her home before. If it were not for the ink spilling on her only pair of gloves, her hands would have been covered. What must he think of her for breaking propriety so much? And why was her heart thumping so wildly in her breast. And what was that look Mr. Darcy gave her?
Darcy stood in his bedchamber and heard the tell-tale sounds of Caroline Bingley walking the hallway. Today was to be a trying day. Elizabeth had been at Netherfield for nearly a week and was finally to leave.
When he first met the lady he scarcely allowed her to be pretty but before too many subsequent meetings took place, he grew enchanted by her playful manners and teasing wit. Soon, he saw the sparkle in her eye and he undoubtedly noticed her light and pleasing figure. Surprised as he was to admire a lady from Hertfordshire, or at this point any lady, he believed he was master of himself enough to be in no danger of deeper attachment. Surely admiration need not lead to love. At one time, he even admired Miss Bingley’s wit. Now he provoked her comments more to laugh at her than with her.
During the last week, he was alarmed at the direction of his thoughts. He was sure no lady bewitched him more than when Elizabeth Bennet appeared in Netherfield’s dining room with her eyes bright and cheeks rosy from her walk. Her petticoats were caked in mud, and Bingley’s sisters obviously held her in contempt for it, but he had to admire that she cared much more for her sister than fashion. At first he had doubted Miss Bennet was ill enough to warrant Elizabeth’s visit, but he saw her true concern and acknowledged he would do no less for his own sister.
As their encounters, conversations and debates continued during the last week, he became increasingly aware of his attraction to the country miss. On her first night at Netherfield, he acknowledged to himself that if it were not for her inferior connections he would be in some danger. Alarmingly, the very next evening he realized he would overcome that obstacle if only he had sufficient encouragement.
Still, Darcy knew his duty. He was to make a brilliant match of wealth and connections to continue his family legacy. It was certainly on his father’s mind when he married the daughter of an earl. Elizabeth Bennet had connections in trade, she would never meet with his family’s expectations.
His reason understood at least, but his heart and body seemed to disagree acutely. For it stopped outside of her open door when his eyes espied Miss Bingley within. He saw Elizabeth startle and overturn her inkwell, ruining her gloves that sat on the desk, and he overheard the entirety of Elizabeth’s conversation with Miss Bingley.
Yet another score for Miss Elizabeth.
He tried to suppress the chuckle that escaped him with a cough and knew that he must have drawn the ladies’ notice, so he walked on, prepared to see the Bennet ladies outside. When he reached the main door, he felt the unseasonable heat for mid-November and was very glad he was not required to don his gloves and hat just for the task of seeing the carriage depart.
Darcy had to agree with Elizabeth’s subtle point. A London debutante who spent little or no time in the country or running an estate would have no idea of the tasks associated with maintaining happiness and harmony amongst the servants and tenants. They did exist for more than one’s selfish pleasures and to forget that would be to welcome rebellion, a point Miss Bingley patently was oblivious to. Darcy sometimes wondered how the country had avoided the insanity France now faced considering so many men and women of his class treated their inferiors with unfeeling callousness. And as much as Darcy knew he was to marry a woman of wealth and connection, he also desired one who could run his estate well, who could be a true companion.
Standing outside of Netherfield, he let out an exasperated sigh. Miss Bingley was hard on his heels and attempted to garner his notice. Is this all his life was now? Evading clinging women who wanted nothing to do with him and everything to do with his wealth? They all knew he was running against a wall. He could not remain a bachelor forever. His sister needed female companionship, his estate needed a mistress and an heir.
One of them would wear him down, eventually. Unless the marriage turned unexpectedly sour by ton standards, he could not even claim a marriage to any of the harpies he so assiduously avoided would affect his life very much. It would be the same: attending societal events with people he disliked for their morality and those that disliked him for his wealth and running the estate. The only difference would be the required occasional visit to his wife’s chambers until an heir was produced. As Pemberley was not entailed, he would not require a son. And surely after that he would be in the same situation as most men his rank—unwelcome in his wife’s bed. Unlike them, he would never seek comfort outside of his marriage vows, and so aside from time spent with his child, his life would seem very much the same as now.
Darcy was unsure what the magical combination he wished to find was. Clearly money and connection were not enough, or he could have married many years ago, especially once he inherited Pemberley. He could not precisely name the quality he desired that he found lacking in every young lady he had known, but he wanted more than his parents’ marriage of indifferent acquaintance. He wanted to feel alive.
A faint scent of lavender alerted him to Elizabeth’s presence. He barely managed to bid her farewell. Suddenly his body was moving on its own. His mind still reprimanding itself for not speaking more to Elizabeth, it barely registered that she was about to enter the carriage. He stepped in front of Bingley and handed her in.
A thrill coursed through his body when their hands met. Her skin was so soft he could not resist the temptation to stroke it with his thumb. He gave her delicate hand a squeeze. If he were more aware his mind would have been filled with questions, not the least of which would have been, why she did not rip her hand from his. Instead, she lifted her face, and her beguiling eyes met his in wonder.
In a flash, he felt how much he truly desired the young lady before him. Slowly his mind registered that she was pulling her lean fingers from his hand. He released her hand and quickly walked back into the house wondering how so much of his life seemed to pass before him in just one instant. How could so much of his life now seem centered in the feeling of her hand in his? As innocent as it was, he ached to hold her hand again, to cradle it, to stroke every inch, to tenderly kiss each lovely finger. His hand reacted in response to his thoughts.
Once safely in the library, momentarily away from even Miss Bingley’s cloying remarks and Bingley’s sadness, he allowed himself to ponder what on earth had just happened.
Darcy paced. He had always been careful not to raise the hopes and expectations of any of the ladies of his acquaintance. Not that it stopped most from having hopes. But there had been occasions when he had been prompted by a forward lady or two, to touch a bare hand. Any doubts he may have had about his attraction to Elizabeth Bennet died even as his body came alive in a way he had never known.
His reason told him it was merely attraction, infatuation, perhaps lust and carnal desire—and nothing more—which caused his reaction. His will determined that it could withstand the temptation of Elizabeth Bennet for a few more days. He would soon return to Town—far, far away from her—and be lost in his worries once again.
There were beautiful ladies of the ton. There were witty, intelligent, kind, accomplished ladies by the dozen, or so he had been told. True, he was fastidious, and he refused to bend on that, but surely Elizabeth Bennet was not the only woman who could fit his definition of perfection.
Perfection? When had he determined she was the lady most suited to him?
No, that thought would not do. She could not be the only woman whose touch ignited his dormant passion.
Passion? When had he determined his feelings were so passionate?
He was never passionate, and yet it was difficult to ignore his body’s impulse to rush after her and take her in his arms. He would kiss her lips mercilessly until she could tease him no longer. And then he would…
He shook his head. Nothing but carnal desire, certainly. He would not be a slave to such feelings. Other suitable ladies existed, he reasoned. He was only too busy before to notice these other women, to make their acquaintance. There was no such thing as destiny. And if there were, he could not afford it.
Surely there must be ten ladies that may stand in even better light than Elizabeth Bennet!
Just to firm his resolve, and not at all because he was fleeing from the lady, his next thought was London. I must leave immediately for London.
His solitude was, welcomingly, broken by Bingley.
“Darcy, I wish to call on the Bennets tomorrow. Will you join me?”
Darcy let out an exasperated sigh. Would his friend always need his guidance? “Bingley, can you not go one full day without seeing her?”
The words reverberated in his ears as though he asked it more of himself. Of course, responded both his will and his reason but his body betrayed itself again.
Sheepishly, Bingley replied. “I wished to invite them to the ball. Caroline has arranged for it on the twenty sixth.”
Drat! The ball. “No, Bingley. I will not accompany you on your calls tomorrow.” Bingley made to argue, but Darcy interrupted. “I have been away from my affairs and Georgiana long enough…”
“Darcy, I will need your assistance planning this ball and knowing how to act as a host. It is important to establish myself correctly, is it not?”
Darcy chewed over this thought for a moment. How very like Bingley to find the only legitimate means of detaining me. His jaw tensed for a moment. “Very well, but let us go on Tuesday.”
His friend clapped him on the back and nearly skipped out of the room, as Bingley would never spend longer than necessary in a library. Darcy squeezed the bridge of his nose and shut his eyes against the frustration of it all. He only needed some sign to firm his resolve, that he could remain until Bingley’s ball and not succumb to Elizabeth Bennet’s siren call. He opened his eyes and from the angle of his head immediately espied her tatted bookmark kicked under a table. He had noticed her skilled work on it the other evening. Snatching it up, so he could return it to her, he left the room. A remnant of Elizabeth in his pocket was certainly not the sign for which he had been looking.