We ended the last chapter with Darcy and Arlington leaving Longbourn as soon as Wickham’s name was mentioned. Maybe they came up with a plan to deal with him?
That night, after supper, Bingley met with Darcy and Arlington. “I assume you left Longbourn to deal with Wickham?”
Arlington shook his head. “Maybe you can talk some sense into Darcy. He’s too stubborn for his own good!”
“Just because you are used to having no one question your statements based on your title, does not mean I will be afforded the same freedom. Nor can I say anything without casting suspicion on Georgiana.”
“Then let me handle it!”
“Wickham has done nothing criminal. As a magistrate, I take that matter seriously. I will not abuse my power even if it would ease my mind.”
Bingley looked from one man to the next. “Is Wickham truly so bad? He was raised with you.”
Darcy shook his head. “My thoughts exactly. He is a menace, but surely just to myself. I do not think he is behaving any worse than other junior officers. I met him after the ball and offered him money then. He did not accept it.”
“Then perhaps he has learnt his lesson!” Bingley thrilled at the idea.
“I hate to kill your joy,” Arlington said, “but people do not change. You have always thought he wanted money from you, but what if each encounter was a plan to wound your pride, to achieve some kind of justice for not being noticed more by your father?”
“He nearly eloped with Georgiana, there is nothing that would have hurt me more than to have her tied to him for life.”
“Is there not? He could woo Miss Elizabeth from you.”
Bingley shook his head. “You heard Jane, he does not go to Longbourn anymore.”
“They might meet elsewhere.”
“Elizabeth would be a fool to fall for Wickham when I have paid her such attention.”
“You are thinking with your pride. The woman has demonstrated she does not care for worldly security.”
“What do you suggest?” Bingley asked.
“Propose immediately. Stake your claim. Tell Mrs. Bennet of your offer if you must, or meet with her father who may insist upon it.”
“I would never take her freedom of choice away,” Darcy said quietly.
“Why would she not merely agree out of affection?” Bingley asked.
Arlington gave Darcy a sad smile. “I do think she is aware of your notice and has not taken the pain to discourage you, but she is not blindly lost to you, either. The lady requires more time to know her own heart.”
“Then how could Wickham capture it so quickly?”
Darcy sighed. “My temperament is to blame, and I spent weeks attempting to not pay her any attention at all. She is well aware of my first thoughts on an attachment between you and her sister.”
Arlington took a sip of his port. “Besides all this, ladies have a certain amount of vanity, they want to be flattered. Wickham is a charmer whereas Darcy is still making up for a poor first impression where, if the rumour is correct, he declared she was slighted by other men for not being handsome enough to warrant a dance.”
Darcy’s jaw dropped open. “She knows?”
“It’s the talk of the county,” Arlington replied. “I thought you knew.”
Darcy slumped in a chair. “It’s useless, then. I have not the slightest idea how to woo a lady, especially one as sensible as Elizabeth and when she has such justifiable reasons to not trust me.”
“You could speak to her directly,” Bingley suggested and was subsequently ignored.
The clock chimed midnight. “I still think you ought to arrange a meeting with Colonel Forster about Wickham,” Arlington said before standing. “I’ll leave you to it while I get some sleep.”
Having come to no satisfactory conclusion, Darcy and Bingley also left for bed.
Sleep did not come easily for Darcy. Once slumber did find him, he had dreams of a wedding breakfast for Elizabeth, only Wickham was the bridegroom. Awaking early, he called for a breakfast tray and for his horse to be readied. Riding over the country side did not clear his thoughts. Having found no answer but to put his faith and trust in Elizabeth’s good sense, her inquisitivenature and need for justice, he did not realize he had journeyed onto Longbourn’s land until he heard what sounded like a child weeping. He directed his horse towards the sound and saw a very small child. He slid off his horse.
“Hullo, there,” he gently called out. The child looked up but did not speak. “Are you lost?”
The boy nodded his head.
“My name is Mr. Darcy. If you tell me yours, perhaps I can help.”
“What are you doing all alone out here?”
“Nate and me went to get water, but he tripped and hurt his leg. He told me to go home for Mama, but I don’t remember a how to get there!” Tommy wailed and Darcy scooped him up.
“How old are you, Tommy?” He held up four fingers. “Does your Papa work on Mr. Bennet’s land?”
“Do you remember what you were near when Nate fell?”
“We were at the brook.”
“Would you like to ride on my horse? We will go and find Nate and then take you both home.”
Tommy’s eyes went wide. “It’s so big!”
“I will hold onto you. Do not fear, you will not fall. I taught my little sister to ride just the same way.”
“I can do what a girl can do!”
They reached the horse’s side and in a moment were on their way. He thought he recalled the location of the brook from his walk with Elizabeth.
Soon, they heard the sound of water running, and unexpectedly a female voice singing. Drawing closer, Darcy saw Elizabeth sitting on the ground rocking a child about a year older than Tommy.
“Nate!” the boy in front of him screamed. In a few more steps, Darcy dismounted and tied off the horse. He allowed Nate to approach his brother.
Elizabeth gave him a shaky smile. “Mr. Darcy, thank heavens you have come upon us. He is badly hurt.”
Darcy crouched low and examined the child’s leg. A lady’s handkerchief, clearly Elizabeth’s, covered a gash that was deeper than he would have liked. His breeches were soaked with blood. He spoke gently to the hurt boy. “Can you walk at all?”
The boy barely managed to shake his head.
“He is scarcely conscious,” Elizabeth said quietly.
“You know the way to their home?” He asked.
“Yes, it is not too far. I found him only a few minutes ago and was attempting to make him comfortable. I was just leaving to get help.”
“Can you help me keep him steady on the horse?”
Elizabeth nodded her head and Darcy lifted Nate from her arms. Once both boys settled on the horse, young Tommy helping to hold Nate steady,they walked the short distance to the tenant farm in silence. The boys’ mother greeted them in near hysterics. She was heavy with child and with a toddler on her hip. It was clear, although she had been worried at their long absence, she was in no position to search for them. The boys likely would have been at the mercy of the elements until their father came in for a meal.
“Miss Lizzy! Thank God for you, Miss Lizzy!” she cried over and over again into Elizabeth’s arms.
“Shh. Everything will be fine now. Let us get Nate cleaned and in bed while Mr. Darcy goes for the surgeon.”
The woman finally calmed and set to work. Elizabeth followed Darcy outside.
“I hope you do not mind me sending you on the errand.”
“No, of course not. I had determined to go when we found him.”
“His shop is three down from the book store, past the square. Thank you for your assistance. These boys are precious. It is fortunate that I was planning to call on Mrs. Harrison this morning anyway.”
Elizabeth’s lip trembled and Darcy realized she felt quite attached to this family. He squeezed her hand, noticing both of their gloves were stained with blood. “The boy is strong. I will return as quickly as possible.”
It took an hour to journey to Meryton and return with the surgeon. The sun was climbing high in the sky by the time he re-entered the small farm house. Mr. Harrison had been retrieved from work by Elizabeth. The surgeon set to work and it was advised that the apothecary visit on the morrow as a precaution against infection.
“He should be arriving any time,” Darcy said. “I took the liberty of sending a message to request his aid here this afternoon.”
Mr. and Mrs. Harrison quickly thanked him, but he was most gratified by Elizabeth’s look of approval. A knock on the door soon proved to be Mr. Jones, and Elizabeth and Darcy set about to occupy the other children who were growing restless. At last, Nate was reported to be doing better than could be expected. Mr. Jones believed he had not lost as much blood as had been feared. Instead, the child must have grown faint from the mere sight of it. Having no further usefulness, Darcy and Elizabeth left on foot, leading his horse behind them.
After walking in silence for several minutes, Elizabeth spoke. “Thank you again for your assistance,” she said. “Few gentlemen would have been as quick-thinking as you.”
He smiled at her praise. “You were the impressive one! Your father’s tenants are blessed to have you.”
She blushed, but murmured a thank you before stumbling and reaching for a tree for support.
“Elizabeth!” He reached her side in a step. She looked terribly pale. “Are you well?”
“I am sorry,” she said and attempted to smile. “I left before breakfast and fear the events of the day have exhausted me.”
“You have not eaten all day, no wonder you feel faint!” He took her gently by the arm and led her to a clearer spot with fewer leaves and sticks around for her to sit. “I have something in my saddle bag” He retrieved bread and a few apples from the sack on his horse and brought them over. In due time, the colour returned to her cheeks.
“Are you feeling better?” he asked as they sat next to each other.
“Yes, thank you.” She smiled at him. “Forgive my impertinence, but I was very proud to call you a friend today.” Her eyes met his for just a moment before she looked away.
He focused on where their hands nearly touched; they had removed their gloves to eat. He summoned all of his courage. “I would not have you call me friend.”
Her breath caught. “What would you have me call you?”
He looked at her face then. She also studied where their hands were, but her cheeks were bright red. His eyes never leaving her face, he stretched his little finger to gently caress over the length of her smooth hand. She took in a startled breath and then closed her eyes, clearly enjoying the sensation. He leaned his head closer to her ear and stroked her hand again, forming a heart.
“I despise gloves.”
Her lips turned up at the corners and she finally met his eye. “You did not answer my question.” She raised an eyebrow in half-tease, half-challenge.
He stared at her for a long moment. They were at a precipice and she was asking if he would jump first. He would lay down his life for this woman; of course, he was willing to jump. “You should call me,” he said slowly and watched as her eyes dropped to his mouth, “William.”
His body replied to her silent request by instinct. At last, he tasted her sweet lips. Holding on firmly to the last vestiges of control he had, he pulled back to examine her reaction. She slowly opened her eyes and touched her fingers to her lips, then beamed.
Lust slammed into him and a part of him desired to lay her down in the forest and show her his passion until she cried out his name in ecstasy for the world to hear. A greater part of him cautioned to protect her from himself, recalled she had just felt faint and they were still very near a road. Rejectingg his previous thoughts, he stood and held out his hand. When she put her hand in his, he was tempted to pull her into his arms. Instead, he spoke.
“It is growing late. Allow me to escort you home and then I will speak with your father about today.”
She snatched her hand away. “Speak with him?”
“I would hardly consider myself a gentleman if I did not talk to him about my actions with his tenants.”
Elizabeth sighed in clear relief. “Oh. Do not worry about that. And we shall settle everything with Mr. Jones and Mr. Hobson. Georgie will worry about you being gone so long without word. Return to Netherfield. Longbourn is only a quarter of a mile from here,” she pointed and he could see the house in the distance.
“If you are certain you are well?”
“I am very well,” she said as she began to walk at a brisk pace. “Pass my greetings onto everyone for me.”
Darcy stood rooted in place. He had just kissed her, feeling as though his heart burst on fire, and now she was leaving his side without saying a thing at all about it?
“Tomorrow!” He called out and she stopped. She turned and looked at him. “Tomorrow, I would like to call on you.”
“You call almost every day,” she said softly.
He walked to her and took one hand in his. “Would you allow me to call on you?”
She bit her lip and then grinned as she nodded her head. “I would like that.”
“As would I,” he bowed over her hand and kissed it before meeting her eyes. They stared at each other for a moment before she collected her senses, curtsied and turned towards her home.
Darcy walked back to his horse, thankful that he finally had an answer about what to do about Wickham. Nothing. He need not do a thing. Elizabeth’s smile and sweet kiss were all the encouragement he needed to believe she would soon be his. He would even let her call him Will. He rather liked that no one else had ever called him that. It was an informal name, but with her it was fitting; he was just a man in love.
Elizabeth awoke the next day and hummed a happy tune. The maid, Sarah, was surprised when she asked for assistance with her hair. Darcy, or William as he had asked her to call him, had not asked for a courtship, but she had every hope he would. He was still enigmatic, but he had shown he was a truly caring person, and she thought better of him now than she ever had before. She realized now that he was a complex character. She laughed at her folly. How could she have imagined it perfectly sketched before their first introduction?
As she sat in the sitting room, awaiting calling hours, she smiled at Mr. Bingley and Jane in a corner. Their courtship was blossoming quickly and Elizabeth expected an announcement of their engagement by Christmas.
She was thankful Bingley had returned, and she more than suspected William had a hand in that. She frowned as she considered how the Netherfield party quickly followed after him. If she were truly honest with herself, Caroline’s interference with Jane’s happiness wounded her pride. The Bennets were gently born and, no matter her mother’s relations, she was of superior consequence to the Bingleys. She had little doubt that Caroline did her best to avoid dwelling on such a thought, but Darcy was too rational to avoid it. Had he thought Jane too low for Bingley? And if so, how fragile was his willingness to explore their friendship?
Her thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of Charlotte Lucas. Fortunately, Mrs. Bennet was not in the room and Elizabeth could speak with her friend without the backhanded compliments and glares of her mother. Their friendship had taken a blow when Charlotte accepted Mr. Collins’ proposal, but loyalty out of what once was made Elizabeth greet Charlotte with affection.
Mr. Collins had arrived at Longbourn two days previously. They had barely seen him, as he had spent all of his time at Lucas Lodge thus far, but it seemed today Charlotte was to visit with him here. The circumstances were not ideal for William’s call. As it was another mild day, Elizabeth decided a walk to Meryton would serve everyone best. Currently, Mr. Collins was in the library and it was clear Charlotte was not eager to send for him.
“I saw your look of disappointment when I was announced, Eliza,” Charlotte said as she sat next to her. “Are you still so very displeased with me?”
Elizabeth grasped Charlotte’s hand. “Please forgive me for my first reaction to your news. You are my friend and I owe you my support. I merely expected someone else.”
“You mean Lord Arlington,” Kitty said in a teasing voice.
Lydia laughed. “Mr. Darcy is the one trying to woo her!”
“You only say that because you think Lord Arlington fancies you!”
The younger two bickered back and forth, first over Lord Arlington and then pieces of ribbon. Charlotte and Elizabeth tuned them out. “Is this true?” Charlotte asked Elizabeth.
“Lord Arlington is a very amiable gentleman.” She hoped evasiveness would work, but it did not.
“I mean Mr. Darcy!”
Elizabeth blushed and looked at her hands. “He asked yesterday if he could call on me.”
“Elizabeth Bennet, tell me you said yes!”
She met Charlotte’s eye. “I did.”
“I knew you would think him more amiable if you saw he admired you! Now, how shall you secure him?”
“Secure him! My dear Charlotte, my opinion of Mr. Darcy has been slowly transforming since my stay at Netherfield. He has many good qualities—”
“He has ten thousand good qualities,” Charlotte interrupted, causing Elizabeth to frown.
“I could not care less about his income or his estate. He is a man of honour and character and I would never receive a call from a gentleman for anything less than esteem.” Heat rushed to her cheeks as she scolded her friend. How had Charlotte been so mercenary and she had never seen it?
Charlotte dropped her gaze to her hands and spoke quietly. “Do not think so badly of me, Eliza. Consider how Jane nearly lost her chance with Mr. Bingley. Young people in love are so fickle. I know from personal experience it is best to encourage it before the embers cool.”
Elizabeth gasped at the confession. “I never knew. I apologize.”
“It is of little consequence now, it happened a very long time ago. My story is not unique. Young ladies are beholden to many things gentlemen are free from.”
“But what happened?”
“It was really a chance acquaintance. I visited a relation while he was in the same area, but we were both very young. The time came for us both to part and his admiration did not outlive the separation. I returned the next year with hopes of seeing him once more, as he had vowed, but he did not come. Two years later I learned he had married.” She shrugged her shoulders. “I have tried to hate him, but cannot. He was a good gentleman and had not chance separated us, we could have been happy together, but I cannot blame him for his passion for me waning when I was not present.”
“Then, I wish you very happy with Mr. Collins,” Elizabeth said while squeezing her friend’s hands. She genuinely meant it.
“Thank you,” she returned the squeeze. “I only hope you will learn from my story with Mr. Darcy. He can hardly remain at Netherfield forever, especially if Mr. Bingley and Jane marry.”
They were interrupted then by the arrival of Mr. Darcy and the others. Elizabeth quickly suggested a walk into Meryton and Mr. Collins was retrieved, at last, from the library. Their large party set out. Elizabeth on the arm of Mr. Darcy, Jane with Bingley and Lord Arlington escorting Caroline and Georgiana. Kitty and Lydia, failing to gain the attention of Lord Arlington, ran ahead. Charlotte, who could not entirely slow Mr. Collins enough from his attempts of interjecting himself next to Darcy, was quickly joined by Mary asking a doctrinal question.
They were reaching the outskirts of Meryton before they were afforded a private moment. “I hope you do not mind the walk, Mr. Darcy, but I thought you would appreciate not being trapped in a drawing room with my cousin.”
“Indeed. But, I thought you agreed to call me Will,” he squeezed the hand that covered hers.
“I thought you asked to be called William…” she trailed off as she remembered she only uttered the first half of his name before he kissed her. Blushing she whispered, “You are very wicked, sir.”
He grinned. “Is formal address to be my punishment or is it seeing your blush?”
Her blush deepened, but she managed to reply. “If you keep it up then I shall call you Will, even if a man of your stature must find it undignified.”
He pulled her closer to his side. “I like it coming from you.”
Her heart skipped a beat. How did she have such a man in her power? “You may call me Lizzy,” she said, but he shook his head.
“No, I want a name only I may call you. Your family calls you Lizzy, do they not?”
“Yes, and others such as the Lucas family call me Eliza.”
“Does anyone call you Elizabeth?”
Before she was able to answer, she felt Will tighten his hold on her arm. His expression became shuttered.
“Miss Elizabeth,” she heard Mr. Wickham say, finally drawing her notice away from Will.
“Good morning, Mr. Wickham,” she looked between the two men. All along she had felt as though their friendship was not what either of them pretended.
“Wickham,” Will said with a cordial nod.
“I can see that you are pleasantly occupied. I will leave you to your day,” he bowed and made to leave when Lydia and Kitty reached his side.
“Mr. Wickham! We have not seen you in ages! You simply must call on us soon!” Kitty exclaimed, but he did not look away from Elizabeth.
Lydia added, “I asked Mama specifically to invite you to dinner tomorrow. Mr. Denny was to give you the invitation.”
“I am delighted. Of course, I will be there,” Wickham said.
Elizabeth began to feel the need to blush under his gaze. It was not the pleasant feeling she had with Will’s attention.
“Kitty, Lydia! We are going in the..” Georgiana called as she walked back toward them and then stopped dead in her tracks, her expression frozen.
Elizabeth watched Lord Arlington, who followed behind and who met Will’s eyes before turning a charming smile on her sisters. “Ladies, I believe I saw the perfect ribbons that will compliment your complexions perfectly.” He held out an arm and Lydia immediately went to his side and Kitty to the other.
He began to walk off with Georgiana following close beside them when he looked over his shoulder. “Good to see you, Wickham.”
Wickham nodded to his lordship and then bowed to Will and Elizabeth and quickly walked away.
“So strange,” Elizabeth murmured but Will did not seem to hear.
He led them to the others. Once inside the shop, Elizabeth browsed but watched Will out of the corner of her eye. Lord Arlington approached him and she could not hear their words. They seemed to be having a disagreement with his lordship finally casting his hands up in the air while shaking his head before returning to the ladies. Will hung back. He glanced around the store and his eyes fell to Georgiana for a moment. Lydia and Kitty were attempting to persuade her to buy a pair of ribbons. A small smile formed on his lips and then his eyes scanned the room again, landing on her. The quiet content she saw in his blue eyes as he watched his sister with hers transformed to pain. Her heart went out to him, and within a second her feet followed suit.
“Was that about Mr. Wickham?”
She had hoped he would have been more forthcoming. “You and I are more than friends, are we not? Will you not confide in me?”
He looked around the crowded store. “We had not planned on calling tomorrow and Friday is Sir William Lucas’s dinner. Walk with me on Saturday?”
She smiled brightly. “Of course! Speaking of Sir William’s I need new ribbons.”
Will feigned a groan.
“Oh, come. You have a younger sister, surely you understand a gentleman must assist ladies on shopping trips.” She walked over to the table of ribbons and smiled as he followed. “Red or green?” She held them up to her hair and was pleased when he selected the red ones.
It had been over a fortnight since Wickham had last entered Longbourn’s environs. However, Denny frequently visited with Carter and Saunderson, and things were going just as he hoped. Meeting Darcy and Eliza the day before on the street by chance proved that Darcy’s intentions toward Eliza were progressing as well. Curiously enough, Darcy did not seem threatened by his presence. He patently disliked seeing him, but Darcy showed no signs of insecurity of the lady’s regard. Even more curious, he was no longer hiding his affection for the woman. It appeared Darcy’s brief return to London had illuminated his mind to the treasure Eliza truly was. If he were honest with himself, the distance from her had increased his own attraction as well.
“My congratulations,” he said to her, once he was afforded a moment of privacy.
She nervously looked around the room. “What do you mean, sir?”
“Your Aunt Phillips has regaled the area with news of Mr. Bingley’s courtship with your eldest sister.”
She smiled and he was drawn to the shape of her mouth. Had Darcy tasted those smooth lips yet? “Thank you! I am quite happy for her! But you had best give them to her rather than me.”
“You are the one who did the hard work in cultivating a friendship with Darcy. You clearly reversed his opinion of the acceptability of a match with your family.”
Eliza shook her head. “You make it sound as though I have purchased Jane’s security by drawing Mr. Darcy in.”
“I would never accuse you of such an art,” he said with a wink which she did not see.
“I am glad you accepted my mother’s invitation tonight. I had hoped to ask you if you knew Lord Arlington at all.”
“You are quite the astute observer, Miss Eliza.” He took a sip of wine to allow time to form a credible lie in his mind. “I gather you do not know much about Darcy’s family, although you have clearly met his sister.”
“I have also met Lord Arlington on a number of occasions now. He seems a very amiable gentleman.”
“That does not surprise me. He can please where he wants. The Darcy family, as I have said before, are everything generous and kind. The fact is, Darcy’s aristocratic relatives never forgave his mother, Lady Anne, for marrying an untitled man. I know it weighed on his father’s mind, and that is one reason why Darcy’s other cousin was named co-guardian of Miss Darcy.”
“Not the viscount?”
Wickham shook his head. “I am afraid by that point the viscount had a very bad reputation. The elder Mr. Darcy has always demanded propriety be strictly observed by his family, a standard adopted by his son. However, his titled relations are very influential in Society. If he has thought he may need additional clout in the future, it would make sense for Darcy to reach out to Lord Arlington despite having previously shunned him.”
Eliza furrowed her brows. “But it seemed his lordship knew you particularly, and that Mr. Darcy was not pleased with his reaction to you.”
He took another sip of wine. He had hoped, providing he was vague enough, she would lead him down her line of thought, a far safer device for creating a plausible deception. “I am only the son of a steward. Arlington is a liberal man, but there are limits to it. Knowing he is in the neighbourhood, I am unsurprised Darcy has chosen to have no interaction with me.”
“Do you not think that is a mark against his character? That he can be so fickle in his friendships? That he would have to hide them to gain the approval of others?”
“It is the way of the world, Miss Eliza.”
“Not in my world,” she muttered.
At that moment Mrs. Bennet called Eliza over and she excused herself. He was content to watch her graceful movements as she played hostess to her mother’s guests. Denny circled around the room before sidling up to him.
“Bennet is getting ready to retire to the library for cards. Are you coming?”
“How much does he have now?”
“He has won four thousand pounds and certainly thinks he is the cleverest of us all. Carter likes to talk about his ample allowance from his father. He likes to pretend he is equal with Bennet or Bingley.”
“And Bennet keeps increasing the stakes?” Denny nodded his head. “Let him continue to hang himself. He and Darcy both are fools enough to deserve what is coming to them. I shall bide my time for now. However, if I get to work on the next phase, it will only be a few days before everything comes together.”
“Of course,” Denny agreed and dutifully went on his way.
Wickham went around the room before departing, saving Eliza for last. “Miss Eliza, I hope it is not another fortnight before I see you again.”
“You are not coming to Sir William’s tomorrow evening?”
“Knowing how Lord Arlington feels about me, I would not wish to cause any uneasiness for Darcy.”
“You are a true friend to him!”
“I believe you are as well.”
She blushed and Wickham’s confidence grew. She would be hurt for a time, but it would not last long for a lady as shrewd and scheming as she, and he would be there to console her. As he left Longbourn for the local tavern, intent on gossiping about suspicions of Darcy courting Eliza. He felt no envy of Darcy for the first time in years. They would finally both have exactly what they deserved.
Darcy arrived with the others at Sir William Lucas’s dinner gathering. It was a large event for the area, eagerly looked forward to every year by many. It occurred to Darcy that he had not felt out of place in Meryton since his return. Several at the party smiled and nodded at him as they walked past. It was hard to believe these were the same people who he had felt examined him as though he were some circus freak on his first night in the area, nearly three months ago.
Had it truly been less than twelve weeks since he met Elizabeth Bennet? He felt like a new man in many ways. Before Michaelmas, he would not have credited that his sister could be drawn out of her shell and making friends, with young ladies her own age, by Christmas. He would not have thought Bingley would be on the verge of matrimony—and with his approval—or that he would be courting a lady from the country. Perhaps the biggest change of all was that he had not thought he would reconcile with his cousin, or that he would feel so complacent when in the same vicinity as Wickham. Fear had no power over him any longer.
How could it when he had the admiration of the most delightful woman he had ever met? A treasure he would cherish. He smiled to himself as he recalled his conversation with Lady Belinda only weeks ago. He very well knew the worth of Elizabeth Bennet and, regardless of the possible consequences to his position in Society, he intended to make her his bride. After the holiday, he would send to his solicitor to begin matters and surely, by then, Elizabeth would be ready to admit her love.
First, though, it seemed he needed to disclose information about his history with Wickham. Besides lacking privacy the other day, he had needed time to consider how to present the information to her. His pride revolted at the idea of seeming like a fool or weak to her. There was much more pain involved in the trespasses of a childhood friend and favourite of his father than even Arlington would imagine. Tonight, however, he would not dwell on such things. Wickham likely would not show and he expected to spend the evening with Elizabeth. Rumour had it the locals referred to this evening as the Mistletoe Ball, and he intended to collect.
At last, the Bennet family arrived. It was the first time he had seen Mr. Bennet in weeks, and the man appeared thinner and more haggard than he recalled, but his attention was soon drawn to Elizabeth. She wore the ribbons he picked out for her at the shop the other day, and the twinkle in her eye beckoned him over. Bingley was not far behind him, similarly drawn to Jane. They did not have much time to speak before dinner was served, but he secured two dances with Elizabeth.
He would have rather sat near Elizabeth, but was surprised to find himself seated next to Lady Lucas. Arlington sat on her other side.
Arlington met Darcy’s eyes and nodded his head toward their hostess, clearly suggesting that he compliment her on her arrangements. “The meal is exquisite, Lady Lucas,” Darcy said.
“I am so pleased you like it! And from somone who, I think I heard, has three French cooks,” the lady preened from his praise.
He smiled a little. “No, ma’am. One English cook, but I think he would very much like to see the recipe for this soup.” Truthfully he cared little for soup, and so it mattered not to him at all how the cook prepared it.
“Oooh! Sir William was correct! He knew how it would be. He said you had your eye on our Miss Eliza and that she would soothe your feathers. You are ever so much more approachable now than when you first came to Meryton. Surely, you will tell such close friends of the family when we can wish you joy.”
Choking on his wine, he met Arlington’s eyes. His cousin merely shrugged his shoulders. Good Lord! Were people expecting a match between him and Elizabeth? How long had this gossip been going on and where did it spring from? As much as he wanted her for a wife, he hated the idea that she would feel she had no choice but to consent to protect her reputation.
Still gasping for breath, at last his cousin intervened. “My cousin is a very private man. It would be best not to say anything further.”
“Oh, of course! It is only we understood that matters were quite settled.”
“May I ask how such rumours come about; who informed you?” Arlington asked.
Lady Lucas blushed and looked away. “I do not quite recall now.”
Darcy squeezed the bridge of his nose. Her prevarication was a sure sign that she must have heard it from a servant or shopkeeper and felt too embarrassed to be caught repeating their gossip. And that likely meant one source: Wickham. He could not conceive what his nemesis could be hoping to gain by spreading news of an engagement between him and Elizabeth. He could not think of a way it would lead to money for him. Attempting to put his annoyances behind him, and feeling chastised for Lady Lucas’s mentioning of his earlier unfriendly behaviour, he focused on the meal and the conversation at the table.
When the gentlemen separated, Arlington pulled him aside. “You have not managed to consider what Wickham gains from spreading such gossip, have you?”
“You also believe it is Wickham?”
“Who else?” Arlington shook his head as though Darcy were too kind-hearted. “I believe this confirms he hopes to wound you instead of gain money from you. He clearly does not know your true feelings for Miss Eliza, how could he? I would be surprised if she understood them. He hopes to wound your pride by entangling you with a country lady.”
“How is it you think you understand his thoughts so well?” Arlington had seldom been in Wickham’s company and that had been many, many years ago.
“Who better to know a charming rogue than another one?”
Darcy nodded his head. It made quite a bit of sense. “So, what do you suggest?”
“Besides making it clear to her as fast as possible that you are genuine in your attentions – Nothing. Once again, the game is on him. He has never held all the cards that he imagines he does.”
They could no longer avoid entering the room with the other men, so Darcy could make no further reply. While he sipped port and drew on Sir William’s fine cigars, he wondered if he should simply propose to Elizabeth this evening. And if not tonight, then on the morrow.
Elizabeth glanced around the room, surreptitiously locating the hanging pieces of mistletoe. It was her first year attending Sir William’s annual dinner with the possibility of receiving a kiss from a suitor. Her cheeks grew rosy just thinking about it. The blush deepened when she heard Will’s voice behind her.
“I believe I can guess the direction of your thoughts.”
“Can you?” she asked softly.
“Indeed. You think you will tease me on our old topic of dancing. I believe, when it was last discussed, you claimed I was fickle and capricious in my choice of partners.”
She smiled at the memory of those words. They had been spoken weeks ago when she was more pretending to think well of him than feeling it in earnest. When had such a change come over her? He was incorrect, however. “No, when last I mentioned it, I declared you a very accomplished dancer.”
As they spoke, the rug was rolled up and Mary directed toward the instrument.
“Hmm. And yet, I prefer to think about my words: that I do not care if it is a jig or Almack’s favourite tune, so long as I dance with you. Shall we?”
She put her gloved hand in his and a thrill coursed up her arm. Their hands were covered, but she could still recall the feel of his hand caressing hers. He noticed her reaction.
“Are you well?”
“Very.” He looked at her dubiously and so she dropped her voice. “I despise gloves.”
He drew in a sharp breath. “Minx.”
They went down their set in silence and although Elizabeth was aware of the attention of her neighbours, she could not find words to speak.
Just as Jane and Bingley were going down, the song abruptly stopped. Looking up, Elizabeth grinned to see them under the mistletoe. Mary beamed, clearly proud of her plotting. Jane immediately blushed but Bingley whispered something in her ear which set her head to quickly nodding and the widest smile Elizabeth had ever seen on her sister appeared. Bingley swiftly kissed her and the crowd cheered.
“Was that a yes?” Bingley said loudly over the noise.
“Yes!” Jane said breathlessly and the crowd began to hush. “Yes, I will marry you!”
Mrs. Bennet immediately screamed and ran to Jane’s side. “I knew it! I knew how it would be!”
Elizabeth and Will approached them to offer them sincere congratulations, as others gathered round as well. Sir William headed to the front of the room, clearly intent on calling the dance back to order, but stopped just long enough at Elizabeth’s and Will’s side.
“I am so happy to see you two dancing! I trust it will happen all the more in the future!”
Elizabeth smiled, believing he meant after Bingley and Jane’s wedding, but Will frowned.
“Are you unhappy for them?”
“No, I could not be happier for my friend.”
Elizabeth chewed her bottom lip with a dawning realisation. “But with a wedding, you will need to return to London,” She said softly as Will congratulated Bingley.
Pain seared her heart at the thought. She hardly knew what she had thought would happen. She would not take away Jane’s joy at having a proposal. She told herself she could meet with Will again in the future, but he had only asked to call and had never come close to declaring his attentions. She had supposed he could mean nothing serious with his admiration, but then that had been weeks ago – before she truly knew him. Would he really leave without securing her hand?
Sir William called the dance back to order. They went down their set again without speaking, but this time the feeling had changed completely. It was as though a veil was drawn over Will’s face and mind, and she could not determine what he thought.
He danced with Jane, Georgiana, Caroline and Kitty. She danced with Arlington, Bingley, a few local men and Mr. Denny. In times past, Will had always seemed to pay attention to her partners and her conversations, now he frequently seemed absent-mindedly watching the crowd in general and once she saw Mr. Collins speaking to him with no hint at replying. Charlotte came to her side.
“Jane certainly deserves her happiness,” she said.
“Indeed! What shall I do? You will be in Kent and although Jane will be settled at Netherfield, it will not be the same.”
“Especially once you are in Derbyshire,” she gave Elizabeth a knowing look.
“I cannot imagine what you mean!” She wished she could joke but that was the best she could muster when she felt her heart was breaking.
“My dear Charlotte,” Mr. Collins intruded on their conversation. “Your father wants you and your mother with him when he makes the announcement but I cannot find Lady Lucas.”
“Oh dear,” Charlotte said. “Do excuse me, Eliza.”
Mr. Collins awkwardly lingered. “I was happy to see Cousin Jane’s acceptance of Mr. Bingley’s proposal. It will surely raise the respectability of your family to have one married daughter. Even with the stain you seem intent on bringing the family.”
“Mr. Collins!” she chided. “You have no right to repine my refusal when you are so blessedly happy in a better engagement.”
He came closer to her his and his foul breath hit her square in the nose. “You misunderstand me. I meant your acceptance of Mr. Darcy’s attentions when he is engaged to Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s daughter.” He smiled a crooked grin and then nodded toward the front of the room. “I see Sir William motioning to me. Take heed, Cousin Elizabeth.”
He walked off, leaving Elizabeth fuming. She may have been uncertain of Will’s intentions but he would never encourage her if his honour were bound elsewhere. Nor would he dishonour her with an indecent proposal. She saw her father leaving the card room, scrubbing a hand over his face. He stank of port.
“Papa, are you well?”
“I have survived another one of these stupid dinners with our neighbours. I have conveyed your mother and sisters about. And I hear one even got offered and accepted,” he paused and raised his eyebrows at Elizabeth, “a proposal tonight. I daresay I have earned the right to appear exhausted.”
Elizabeth frowned at his words. “Can you not be happy for Jane? You would like Mr. Bingley if you spent more time with him instead of reserving it only for the officers.”
“Egads, Lizzy. You would have me watch a suitor simper and smirk? I would rather have Mr. Collins in my library for another week!
Elizabeth smiled. “Just the same, you have not been used to such exertion lately. Let us get you home.”
“Please yourself, but I leave you the burden of telling your mother,” he hailed a footman and Elizabeth left to inform her family they were leaving. She mused to herself that perhaps being the father of five marriageable daughters was a trying thing after all.
She found Jane and Bingley last. They talked near the fireplace, Will near them but he did not meet her eyes. Just as she was turning away to follow them, as Bingley insisted on escorting Jane to the carriage, she felt a tug on her hand.
Will pressed something into her hand. “Tomorrow,” he said before turning away.
She held it tight in her hand until she boarded the carriage. The others were so boisterous in their effusions of the night, and complaints about leaving, that she felt she had some privacy. Opening her palm, she saw a small twig of mistletoe. Her breath caught. It could only mean one thing.
Thanks for reading! I’ll try to post tomorrow!