Happy New Year! Let’s ring in 2016 with a new chapter!
It’s time for Darcy and Elizabeth’s walk! They’re supposed to talk about Wickham, right? I wonder if that goes as planned. If you dislike angst, you may want to sit out the next several chapters at least.
In his chamber that evening, Darcy awaited his valet to help him undress. The man entered with a strange look on his face.
“What is the matter, Briggs?”
He smiled. “We have heard of Mr. Bingley’s happy news below stairs.”
“Indeed! How did you learn of it so quickly?”
“Daniel, the coachman, heard it at the dinner.”
“Ah,” Darcy said as Briggs set to work on his cravat. A thought crossed his mind. “Do you hear anything else from the neighbourhood?”
“Well, we were expecting such news,” Briggs evaded the question.
“Anything unrelated to Bingley?”
The servant stilled. “Something was said tonight and I have been uncertain how to inform you of the matter. I did tell the housekeeper and butler that you hated to be the subject of gossip.”
“Tell me,” Darcy said, attempting to keep the annoyance out of his voice. It was not Briggs’ fault.
“One of the maids said she had heard you were courting Miss Elizabeth Bennet, who was one of the ladies who stayed here a few weeks ago and is sister to the future mistress of Netherfield.”
“Did she say how she came by this information?”
“She did not.”
Darcy nodded his head. “I would like to speak with her in the morning. You were correct to tell the others I will not tolerate such gossip. Thank you.”
He soon went to bed, but slept restlessly. Lady Lucas’s words during the meal annoyed him. The feeling grew when Sir William inferred their marriage during the dance. His patience dissipated entirely when Mr. Collins approached him and had the gall to suggest that, although Elizabeth may now be more convenient than ever for a liaison, he trusted Darcy was a man of honour and would not dally with his best friend’s sister. Hearing that the Netherfield servants were gossiping as well made the matter even more important to deal with promptly.
Since returning to Netherfield, although claiming he only wanted to gauge Elizabeth’s suitability and interest, he increasingly acknowledged to himself that he would be offering her marriage eventually. Advancing his plans by a few weeks made little difference. What he loathed, however, was the gossip. He was not truthfully honour-bound to her yet, and hence why he wanted to propose before the well-meaning townspeople made it seem he had no choice. As a man whose own relatives continually promoted his marriage to one lady or another—including his only female cousin—he had long resolved for his wife to be of his own choosing entirely. He and Elizabeth would know the truth, but his pride rankled at the world at large misunderstanding.
The next morning, Darcy awoke with a groggy head. Briggs brought him headache powders, but it dulled his senses all the more. He impatiently met with the maid his valet mentioned the night before.
“Who did you hear this rumour that I was courting Miss Elizabeth Bennet from?”
“My family farms on Longbourn land. I have known Mrs. Harrison for years. Is it true how you helped her boy?”
Darcy seriously doubted that lady would gossip. He narrowed his eyes at the impertinent maid, who shrank back at his dark look.
“Mr. Harrison was at the tavern the other night and he told how you and Miss Lizzy helped his children. My brother heard the story.”
“And Mr. Harrison reported that I was courting Miss Elizabeth?”
She was quiet in thought for a minute. “Danny mentioned another man was there and said he knew you well. Waxham or something like that.”
Wickham. “And he suggested it?”
“He said he was surprised you would pay such attention to a local lady, but knew you to be honourable.”
Had courtship even been mentioned or did the town just run away with this report, eager to match-make? If so, Wickham knew exactly what words to say and how to plant the idea. But then, he always had.
“Mr. Harrison said he couldn’t imagine a better husband for Miss Lizzy.”
Ah, so it was as Darcy feared. The problem with Wickham is that he always skirted but did not cross the line of actual wrong-doing.
Having settled the matter of how much Wickham did or did not say, he left for his meeting with Elizabeth. He knew she had questions regarding Wickham, and perhaps he should have told her all earlier, but he did not want her to think less of Georgiana…or himself. Feeling assured of her affections, though, he felt ready to explain it all before asking for her hand.
Riding up to the clearing where he first kissed her, and seeing her wait for him, sapped all thought from his mind. She had her eyes closed and something pressed to her heart. When she heard the sounds of his approach, she opened her eyes and beamed at him. It was a smile worth coming home to, for that is what he felt at the moment. It was a smile he wanted to kiss every day for the rest of his life. When she dropped her hand from her chest and he saw she had been holding his mistletoe from last night, he decided to begin that practice immediately.
“Elizabeth,” he said as he dismounted.
“Will,” she said on an exhale. He drew close to her, causing her to tilt her head up to see his face. She smiled again and that was all the encouragement he needed before tasting her sweet lips.
One hand slid across her cheek to the back of her head. His other arm wrapped around her waist. She shivered in his arms and smiled against his lips, causing his heart to pound. He needed more.
Gently, he increased the pressure of his lips on hers and she moaned. Spurred on by her reaction, he pulled her a little closer. She wrapped her arms around his waist. His hand left her head and trailed down her back, she pressed into him further. Finally, he touched his tongue to the seam of her lips. Then he stopped and allowed her curious nature to take over. As she attempted to mimic his actions he parted his lips and touched his tongue with hers. She inhaled sharply and Darcy more insistently glided his tongue over hers. Simultaneously, they moaned in approval at the new sensation.
Elizabeth leaned in closer to him, her hands roaming up his chest to pull his coat lapel in. The sensations were intoxicating and her response was everything he could have wished for. Feeling himself lose control, he pulled back. Although out of breath, he blurted out the first thing on his mind. “Marry me?”
Will’s tender kisses left Elizabeth light-headed. At last his words registered but seemed to make no sense. They were meeting to talk about Wickham and she hoped before Bingley and Jane wed he might propose, but last night he seemed so reserved again. A proposal today was the last thing she imagined.
“What was that?”
“Marry me. We can make the announcement before the gossip spreads. It is a romantic time of year, your sister has just got engaged. There need not be a stench of it being forced at all.”
She pushed her hands against him and he released her. Gossip? Forced? “What are you talking about?”
“Netherfield’s servants have been talking of our courtship. Lady Lucas said it at dinner and you heard Sir William—”
“Sir William was talking about Jane and Mr. Bingley!”
He continued on as though he did not hear her. “Mr. Collins suggested that I was not honourable in my intentions! With your lower circumstances and the rumours that I would wed my cousin, the rest of Society could easily think it.”
She recoiled at his words. “Wed your cousin?”
“No, I never agreed to marry her. It is complicated.”
“Then tell me!” She took a step backwards.
“She was promised to Arlington. He refuses to honour the contract arranged by his parents when he was just a child. Lady Catherine has since given up hope on him and has now set me in her sights for her daughter. I have never given either Anne or her mother any encouragement. I have always maintained I would find a bride of my own choosing. My family will be surprised, of course. When I last saw them, I gave no indication that I would soon be taking a wife. Indeed, I was struggling with my intentions toward you.”
Elizabeth took another step backwards. He had gone to London to forget her. If he thought her too low, then surely he had thought Jane inappropriate for Bingley. He had nearly destroyed Jane’s happiness. In the last few weeks, she had thought her first impression of him false. Now, she saw that it was only her flattered vanity and play-acting that made her see what she wished to see.
What other intentions would he have had for her? He seemed eager enough to kiss or touch her at every opportunity. She recalled now, even their ungloved encounter outside of Netherfield. She took another step backwards. Her mind was moving too rapidly now. What had Georgiana told her? A recent acquaintance of hers was not what he seemed? Who would the sheltered girl have meant but her brother? Georgiana was always watching them. She had meant to warn her! She took another step backwards and stumbled over a tree root.
“Elizabeth!” Darcy yelled as she fell to the ground. He ran to her side and crouched low. “Are you hurt?”
More than he could ever know. “I am tolerable.” His first words about her had said it all. She never would be tempting enough to make him offer her marriage if it were not for the gossip he had heard.
She attempted to smooth her skirt. “It may be the established mode to express gratitude at offers such as yours, but I cannot. I have never desired your good opinion. Do not fear that you have wounded my vanity with your very begrudgingly bestowed offer.”
“Elizabeth,” he said in a tone bordering on angry.
“I will thank you not to be so informal,” she snapped. She had been far too lenient with his varying moods and dubious actions. “Whatever intentions you thought you had toward me are over. I do not need your proposal for my reputation. The whispers of the most ridiculous kind Meryton has to offer do not concern me. The world at large has too much sense to listen to it. As it happens, at most they would react no differently than they did when you intended to separate my sister from your friend.”
Her words seemed to knock him backward. He turned red then white before standing. “Is this all the answer that I can expect?”
“Do you deny it? Do you think anything would tempt me to accept the man who had hoped to ruin, perhaps forever, my sister’s happiness?”
“No. I cannot deny that I made arguments against Bingley marrying your sister. It is not how you suppose—”
“Then there is the matter of your treatment of Mr. Wickham.”
He looked as though she struck him. “How can you be concerned about him?”
“Who that knows him is not concerned about him? He told me of his inheritance, of how he was raised to expect so much from the Darcy patronage.”
“Wickham is exactly what we were supposed to be speaking about this morning,” he bit out angrily.
She waved her hand. “It is too late for that now. I will listen to you no longer. You are no gentleman and I will not spend more time with you!” She attempted to stand. Pain shot through her ankle and leg and she sat back down on a whimper.
“You are hurt,” he said gently and came back to her side. She was angry, but she could also see the tenderness in his words and actions. How had it come to this? Why could he have not been more honourable?
He left her side and untied his horse. “I will escort you home.”
She turned her face away. How had she ignored the authoritative sound in his voice in moments like these? He did not ask, he insisted.
“Put your arms around my neck and I will lift you,” he said. His breath tickled her ear and she hated that she still loved the riot of sensations his nearness could do to her body. Barely trusting herself, but realizing it would be better to comply than him doing it for her, she obeyed. Holding her breath as he wrapped his large hands around her waist, she relaxed once upon the animal.
He did not meet her eye and instead led the horse over the crest of the hill along the path to Longbourn. They walked in silence, all camaraderie gone and, if she had to guess, both were likely filled with bittersweet memories of their last excursion on the same road.
People began to pile out of the house as they recognized Elizabeth on Darcy’s horse.
“We will speak again, Elizabeth,” he said under his breath as he helped her dismount.
She pretended to not hear as Jane and Mrs. Bennet rushed to them.
“It is only a sprain, Mama. I must have been overtired from last night,” she lied.
“Mr. Hill!” Mrs. Bennet called for the butler to bring a footman for Elizabeth to lean on while going into the house.
“Thank you, Mr. Darcy!” she heard her mother cry out. He mumbled something in reply, but she refused to look backwards and he rode away.
As her mother fluttered around the drawing room to settle her, half anxious and half scolding, Elizabeth noted to herself that she could never think of country walks the same again. At last Mrs. Bennet sat.
“Well, that settles it then.”
“What?” Kitty asked.
“I was uncertain who Lizzy should marry. Mr. Darcy has given her so much attention, but Lord Arlington is a peer, of course. But between what my sister has gossiped about Mr. Darcy courting Lizzy and seeing him just now, I have no question. He may be unpleasant at times, my dear,” she said glancing at Elizabeth, “but think of what money and jewels you will have as the wife of Mr. Darcy!”
She felt no greater fear than before that the wishes of some would create any real expectations, but the fact that more people had noticed Darcy’s admiration of her in the last several weeks, and even this morning, troubled her. She groaned in feigned exasperation when she would have rather cried. She began to wonder if she could have terribly misunderstood him and yet knew his pride would never allow him to ask her again.
“You will have even more than Jane!” Mrs. Bennet continued her effusions.
“Please, Mama. I need to rest,” she pleaded then squeezed her eyes shut. However, she could no more shut out the look of anguish in Mr. Darcy’s face at her refusal than she could the throbbing in her ankle, or the exultant voice of her mother.
So, don’t hate me but I have to leave you there for a few days. I’ve got a lot of writing to do this weekend but will be back on Monday.