Elizabeth awoke to a dreary day. Combined with yesterday’s shower, it was impossible to walk out in the morning. She could only hope the sun would emerge later and dry enough to allow her freedom in the afternoon. She spent the morning sitting with Charlotte and Maria, hoping her anxiety did not show. Fortunately, the post arrived bearing a letter from Mrs. Gardiner. Fearful of the letter being read by Jane or one of the children, Elizabeth had written nothing of Wickham. Such indelicate words were not fit for letters to women as they frequently shared their news by reading them in company. As she was not in the habit of writing her uncle, she knew that would needlessly terrify them. She and Darcy had settled it between them that Lydia was safe at Longbourn for the moment. Instead of writing anything of substance regarding Wickham, Elizabeth had only expressed she wished to leave Hunsford early.
Friday, March 27, 1812
Gracechurch Street, London
My dear niece,
I read your latest letter with great concern. If you find the company in Kent distasteful, you are always welcome here. Jane is very melancholy, and I confess to being glad you are returning earlier than expected. The children are sick, however, so I do not think you should come for at least a fortnight.
I am thankful you have the assistance of Mr. Darcy; we must now assume he is everything trustworthy and the opposite of what Mr. Wickham would represent to us. I wonder why he would lie about the gentleman.
Elizabeth ought to have found joy in her aunt’s words. Instead, she had a strange feeling of lost potential as her time in Kent was coming to an abbreviated close.
“Is that a letter from Jane?” Charlotte asked when she looked up from her embroidery.
“No, it was from my aunt.”
“I hope all is well with the Gardiners,” Maria said. “They were ever so kind to me when we met them in London.”
Charlotte smiled kindly at her younger sister, and Elizabeth wondered what it must have been like to be reared in the Lucas household. Sir William was nearly as ridiculous as her mother, but with a knighthood bestowed by the King, one could hardly put them in the same category. Although he had once been in trade, he now firmly ranked in the gentry near Meryton. While the Lucases had a very large family and only a modest income between them, they evidently loved one another. When she married, would her father visit? Would her younger sisters miss her?
“The children are ill,” Elizabeth answered, at last. “I hope my aunt does not catch it.” It was not the most inventive deceit, but her cousins’ colds did serve as an explanation for her leaving when the time came. Mrs. Gardiner was expecting her fifth child in October and by then may wish for Elizabeth’s assistance.
“So, you have not heard from Jane?” Charlotte looked anxious. “Mama writes she is still in London.”
“Yes,” Elizabeth nodded and rather wished she had some employment. Perhaps then she could discuss threads rather than the contents of her letters. “I received Jane’s letter yesterday. Its contents contained only the usual,” she shrugged her shoulders as she lied through her teeth. “Weather reports and details of shopping excursions. With my aunt and the company the Gardiners keep, she has not even missed me at all!” Elizabeth hoped the light laugh she added convinced her friend.
“Maria, could you fetch Betsy. I believe she was in the garden gathering herbs.”
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows as Maria happily skipped off. Charlotte glanced at the closed door. “Betsy is in the village, so Maria is unlikely to return for some time. You are certain everyone is well?”
“Yes,” Elizabeth insisted.
“Good. I would not wish to distress you further with what I have to say.” Charlotte cast her embroidery aside and joined Elizabeth on the settee. “I know my husband’s anxieties, and moods, have been unfair to you, and Lady Catherine has been beyond impertinent.”
Elizabeth mutely nodded her head. It was a time when agreeing too much would be insulting.
“We will dine with Lady Catherine on the morrow. Colonel Fitzwilliam remains in London, and it has quite upset her ladyship.”
She searched Elizabeth’s face for a sign she knew of his departure or his reasons. Elizabeth steadfastly kept her face blank.
“My husband would be more upset with you being seen with Mr. Darcy yesterday if he were not confident that Darcy will marry Miss de Bourgh.”
Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders. “I surely do not know who he will marry, but I wish the lady the best of luck.”
“Eliza,” Charlotte reached for Elizabeth’s hand. “You know I think Mr. Darcy admires you. Beware, my friend. Great men often have no honourable use for ladies of our station.”
Elizabeth wrenched her hand away. “You think he would treat me so? I am surprised you do not believe Lady Catherine’s nephew above such things!”
“He is a man. They have their freedoms,” Charlotte shrugged.
“And do you think I would succumb to such an offer?”
Charlotte stood and smoothed her hands over her skirts before answering. “You can be quite passionate,” she said as she picked up her embroidery and resumed her task. “And you are sensible enough to know what he could do for your family.”
Elizabeth clenched her fists. How could Charlotte think such a thing of her! “You, perhaps better than anyone, have always known my feelings toward him. You know what reasons I have to hate him.”
“And yet, do they matter?” Charlotte said without looking up. “Jane has been in London for months, and I gather she has not seen Mr. Bingley. You cannot blame Darcy for all of that, especially while he has been here.”
Elizabeth bit her tongue to keep from disabusing her of her assumption. However, Jane would not appreciate Elizabeth sharing her feelings with the world.
Charlotte continued, “And Mr. Wickham is not here. Nor is he enamoured with you, Maria tells me.”
“Pray, tell, what else do you know? I did not know you had spies in London and Hertfordshire. Perhaps we should put you to use against Napoleon,” Elizabeth attempted to add a teasing quality to her voice but could not hide the acerbic meaning.
“There is no need to be so defensive,” Charlotte said coldly. “You may have your flirtation. I am not oblivious to the reason for your walks and your avoidance of Rosings, but know when to end it,” she added firmly.
Elizabeth’s mouth dropped open. “Charlotte — I — You misunderstand — ”
“Elizabeth Bennet at a loss for words? Oh no, I understand all too well.” She put aside her sewing again and stood. “If you will excuse me, I must discuss a matter with Cook.”
Charlotte curtsied and left. Elizabeth surged to her feet. Grabbing any bonnet and taking Maria’s gloves by accident, she quit the house. She knew her feet would carry her to the grove, but she would not avoid it out of fear of Charlotte’s false assumptions. Anyone could happen upon them, and while they might report she was a hoyden and argued with a man of such wealth and prestige, there was no evidence whatsoever that she was his doxy.
As if Darcy were even capable of such extreme passions! Elizabeth snorted at the thought. Mere days ago, Mr. Collins accused Elizabeth of entrancing Colonel Fitzwilliam. Now, his wife believed she had designs on Darcy! Charlotte may fancy herself cleverer than her husband, but she had been just as offensive — although she used none of the same reasoning or words.
Despite her cousins’ illness and Jane’s depression, Elizabeth rejoiced at her aunt’s letter. Soon, she would leave Kent and everyone in it behind.
When Darcy’s feet touched the floor in the morning, his mind was consumed and focused on one thing only: giving Elizabeth his letter and hoping they could begin again. Noticing the sky, he cursed the infernal rain that typically did not plague Kent but, by a cruel twist of Providence, did so during this most important of visits to the area. He had heard France was far more liberal in…well, everything, but especially morals including courtship. He could hardly help wondering if it were because it was far more conducive to meet with ladies in the sunshine and balmy weather rather than rain and chilling breezes.
In the breakfast parlour, Lady Catherine intoned about the evils of going out of doors in such weather. She insisted that Anne remain by the fire all day and ordered the butler that her daughter was not permitted to use the phaeton or ponies. Darcy blushed for his cousin’s sake at her mother’s treatment. Poor Anne was treated like a child rather than an adult. Next, her ladyship turned her commands upon Darcy.
“You will see to Anne, Darcy,” she said and snapped her fingers for a servant to refill her tea. The footman raced over.
“I will surely do my duty to her,” he said, and Anne winked at him.
“Good, good,” Lady Catherine said and slathered butter on bread. “It is well past time for you to wed. You are hardly growing younger.”
“If I am not mistaken, Mama,” Anne said, “you were even older when you wed.”
Her ladyship narrowed her eyes and then sniffed. “It was the way in my family. All that bluestocking nonsense. You,” she wagged the knife in Darcy’s direction, “ought to know better. Your mother also listened to that crazed woman, and you see what she got?”
Darcy took a sip of coffee before replying. “Marriage to a man she loved and children? She is hardly the only one to die in the child-bed.”
Lady Catherine frowned, and for a moment a hint of genuine remorse flickered in her eyes. “George Darcy had never deserved her.”
“I think if a family truly loves any of the ladies in its care, no one will seem worthy of her,” Darcy said. “I firmly believe as much for Georgiana. Do you not feel similarly about Anne?”
Lady Catherine paused with bread half way between her mouth and plate. Darcy inwardly sniggered as he could nearly see the wheels of thought working furiously in her mind.
“An exceptional gentleman deserves her hand in marriage,” she said and nodded as though that neatly explained everything and kept her from having to outright demand he marry Anne.
Lady Catherine’s gaze flicked from Darcy to Anne. They shared an amused look and a roll of the eyes as soon as the dragon looked away. Soon, Mr. Collins arrived and followed Lady Catherine from the room. Anne and Darcy retired to a small parlour.
“You will not spend all day with me,” Anne said as she settled herself.
Darcy rolled his eyes. She could not be more commanding than if she were his wife. “I had no intention,” he said.
“Good. The grove should be nearly dry. Now, about the visit to Knole Hall.”
“Mother has just heard the Duke will be in residence and she is reconsidering inviting the Collinses and their guests.”
“If they are good enough for the Duchess would they not be good enough for her son?”
“Mother worries Miss Bennet might entrance His Grace.”
Jealousy tore through Darcy’s heart as he envisioned the young duke, having just turned three and twenty, blessed with good looks, charm, and wealth casting his attention on Elizabeth. Dorset was not an utter coxcomb and there was family propensity for liking pretty ladies. Would Elizabeth’s admiration for the home transfer to admiration for its master?
“Conor!” Anne called, jolting Darcy from his miserable reverie.
“You have not called me that in a very long time,” he said as thousands of childhood memories flashed through his mind.
“I did call you Darcy, but you did not hear,” Anne said with a smirk.
“Forgive me for wool-gathering.”
“I do not think Mother’s concern has any merit at all,” Anne said, and Darcy raised a brow in question. “After all, it is you Miss Bennet cannot cease thinking about.”
Darcy refused to take his cousin’s bait. “You were saying? About the visit to Knole?”
“If I can establish a friendship with Miss Bennet then Mother will not think twice. As it is right now, she does not understand why the lady does not fawn all over me.”
Chortling, Darcy shook his head. “No, Lady Catherine would never understand that.” Sobering, he added, “I will do my best to suggest she be friendlier to you, but Elizabeth is unfailingly frank and honest.”
Anne chuckled, “And that is why Mother does not like her more, they are too alike!”
“Egads!” Darcy cried. “How can you compare the two?” The image of his witty and intelligent Elizabeth behaving the same as his repulsive aunt twisted his gut.
“Only on that,” Anne said. Her eyes trailed to the clock. “Now, the Mistress of Hearts suggests you be on your way.”
“Shall I ring for Mrs. Jenkinson? Or is there anything you require, a glass of wine?”
Darcy looked at the sideboard. It housed many medicinal bottles but only a decanter with a small amount of sherry. He had never noticed before, but now that he thought about it, his aunt had few spirits in the house. When he looked back at Anne, she too gazed at the sideboard. A look of hollow hunger transfixed her and startled Darcy. Then, she shook her head and dispelled whatever thoughts had been within.
“Mrs. Jenkinson will be here momentarily, and I do not require anything, thank you.” She approached the writing desk and busied herself.
“Are you certain?” The way she gazed at the sideboard made Darcy wonder if she were ill or in pain. With Anne’s shake of her head, he said a perfunctory goodbye and walked to the door. Mrs. Jenkinson was just around the corner and greeted him with a smile but walked on to her charge.
Darcy retrieved his letter and then, much too soon, was on his way to the place he usually met Elizabeth. He attempted to fix his mind on his letter from Richard, which he had received yesterday before his disastrous encounter with Elizabeth. Richard had no more luck on reassigning Wickham. His contact was away on holiday, so even if he had been able to journey to the General’s estate, he would not have been any nearer success. The difference, however, was that then Richard could have resumed his holiday at Rosings. Instead, as his commanding officer perceived his presence in London as a return to duty, he would now be unable to leave. Richard joked, but Darcy could tell his cousin harboured frustration and a small amount of resentment.
At least I am at liberty with the sorts of “ladies” I enjoy, Richard had written. I wish you good luck in acquiring Miss Bennet’s hand, Anne reports there may be complications. Do not worry, I have not told her anything about what I am really doing and why I left Rosings.
Darcy had breathed a sigh of relief when Richard confirmed he had kept a tight lid on matters relating to Wickham. As Richard knew of his affection for Elizabeth, Darcy did not mind that Anne shared the status of his courtship. It was not his first intention to tell Richard that Elizabeth was less than eager for his hand, and he hoped Anne would have the delicacy to not report Elizabeth’s outright refusal in her next letter. However, Anne did not know about Georgiana’s near elopement with Wickham. While he was re-establishing his friendship with her and would listen to some of her advice regarding Elizabeth, he saw no need to inform her of an event which was not only in the past but might hurt her opinion of Georgiana. And if Lady Catherine ever knew…
Darcy shook his head. No, enough people knew of the incident. If Wickham or Georgiana’s former companion, Mrs. Younge, ever chose to smear her name, her reputation would be in tatters before her come out. As it was, he lived half in dread of blackmail. Richard, of course, was in favour of silencing him through other means, but Darcy could never encourage violence toward the man he once called a friend.
Richard now sought a letter of introduction to Wickham’s commander, Colonel Forster. However, most of his contacts were still out of town, and even if he would choose the impertinence of riding to Meryton and informing Forster of Wickham’s perfidy, Richard could not leave London. For his own peace of mind, Darcy needed Wickham far gone from anyone connected to him. Their meeting at Meryton, while he had no doubt was entirely coincidental, proved how small England was.
Perhaps Elizabeth would have a suggestion. His heart seized at the thought that she might not walk this morning. She might actively avoid his presence. What if she refused his letter of apology? He would call on the parsonage but what if she claimed illness or refused to speak with him beyond civility? Was it conceivable that she could find a way to refuse to see him until his departure entirely? Would he never see her brilliant smile on such kissable lips again? He might never see those flecks of green dance with merriment in her brown eyes again. Why had he never told her these things? His stupid pride! He had felt so proud of his self-control yesterday. He did not lay his heart before her and have it trampled, but she deserved to know he felt far more than admiration. Did she not deserve to know that, flawed as he was, there was one man on this earth that loved her with his whole heart?
My congratulations to your friend, Jane, on the healthy delivery of a baby. I am sorry to hear she regrets not having a son. I have seen her sister Mary’s portrait. It would not surprise me if Tom outshined Reynolds. On the whole, between the Duchess and Mrs. Graham, I would wager the latter is happier. You may have old wounds open at the sight of friends entering marriage and having families of their own, but you may have that as well if you are but patient and hope. Already, rumours have subsided considerably.
Just after the parsonage was out of view, Elizabeth espied a familiar figure. Darcy did not hear her approach, and she took a minute to study him. He appeared no different than yesterday, and yet he did. Everything between them must be different now. She had believed he looked at her in disapproval, but he claimed he had admired her for quite some time. Had he ever truly disapproved of her? Were even his comments at the assembly on her looks his real opinion? All this time she thought she knew him, she thought she had understood him, but she had never really seen him at all.
He turned just then, his face quickly showing a variety of emotions which Elizabeth wisely chose not to presume to understand. He stood still and blinking. When he did not speak, she knew she must.
“Mr. Darcy,” she tentatively began. “I am pleased to see you this afternoon. I… I desired to discuss some things with you.” It seemed so similar to their encounter a few weeks ago and yet nothing was the same.
“I am at your leisure,” he said with perfect politeness, but all words escaped her.
They stared at each other, perhaps seeing one another in reality for the first time, and perhaps both forming a desperate resolution.
“I have brought you a letter.”
“Will you do me the honour of reading this letter?”
They spoke simultaneously, and their eyes were drawn to the forwarded envelopes. Elizabeth could only shake her head and laugh in amusement, and Darcy gave a small smile.
“How can we be so missish now? We have crossed words readily enough any other time, surely we can do so again.”
Darcy hesitantly agreed. Elizabeth motioned to the path, and they began walking. After ambling in silence for a few minutes, Darcy said smilingly, “I am afraid I must defer to you and allow you to begin as usual.”
“Why is that?” she blurted out. He looked startled. “I beg your pardon, forgive my impertinence.”
“No, no it is well. Have I not explained twice now how I feel when I must speak to others?”
“You explained it was so when you were only first getting to know a person, yet you believe you know me well enough to marry me but not converse with me?” She was only half teasing.
She expected him to be offended, but instead, he laughed. “How did I ever think you would accept me? You honestly do not know, do you?”
Elizabeth shook her head.
“Have you never been hesitant to speak to someone whose opinion you valued? Coveted, even?” Her blank expression must have been answer enough. “Of course not! You have never known such reluctance to speak your opinion in your life, have you?”
“Am I to take that as a compliment, Mr. Darcy? For you are very near to insulting me again,” she reprimanded.
“And yet when I do speak, I only make a muddle of it! I lose my wits around you, Elizabeth. That fear is part of my hesitancy!”
She blushed but felt it necessary to scold. “You must not take such liberties!”
He ceased walking and looked her directly in the eye. “I mean no offence, but I have called you such in my mind for a very long time now.” He paused and then seemed to make some kind of resolution. “I see now that my attempts at quelling my attraction to you from the beginning of our acquaintance have only served to make you believe I dislike you. I will no longer hide my admiration for you; I never want you to doubt it again.”
“You must not think so. Your foolish fancy will soon end, and you will learn to admire a worthier young lady.”
“There is no one worthier, and it is I that must learn to be worthy of you, Elizabeth.”
His eyes had turned a very dark shade of blue, and the earnestness in his expression made her breath hitch. She blushed again, but would not give way. “Still, you should not call me by my given name.”
Darcy took a step closer. “Why? Because it implies an understanding between us? An intimacy?”
Slowly, he reached for her hand. Her eyes fixed where they met. White kid leather rest against his black. It ought to have provided some protection against his searing touch, but it did not. Her pulse quickened as new sensations pricked up her arm.
“It signifies a close friendship at the very least. I want all this and more.”
Instantly, the spell was over, and she attempted to withdraw her digits. “It is not solely about your desires!”
He squeezed her hand to quell her anger. “No, but it displays them openly to you. I cannot give speeches or write poetry but perhaps with one word, simply your name, I may convey a portion of my regard to you. When I call you Elizabeth you will know what is in my heart: only you.”
It was fortunate he then placed her hand on his arm and resumed walking. She felt unaccountably light-headed.
“I am still open to your course of discussion, Elizabeth.”
Ignoring the speeding of her heart when he said her name, she boldly began her prepared speech. “I must apologise for my unjust accusations yesterday. My words were unforgivable, and I am heartily ashamed of myself.”
Darcy shook his head. “What did you say to me that I did not deserve? I have been selfish and thought only of my own comfort, of my own opinion. Even with matters between your sister and my friend, my interference was the worst kind of officiousness. I presumed to know what kind of marriage he desired and what would be best for him.”
“It rather seems you acted in Jane’s best interest.” The vehemence in her voice surprised Elizabeth.
“Bingley is not so bad, I cannot understand why he would act thusly, and I apologise profusely for his harming your sister. I can only think it must be due to me and my words, in deference to my opinion. Perhaps…”
“No, please do not make excuses for him. Unless you were decidedly forceful or cruelly kept him imprisoned in some way, then this only shows a weakness in his own character. He is so eager to please everyone he could not resolve to ask for her hand or even see her again and court her good opinion. There can be no love in this.”
“I wish I could disagree, but I have learned love must be selfless, Elizabeth.”
He slowly said her name. It was almost a caress, confusing her. Yesterday, he had admitted to only admiring her and finding her a worthy marriage partner. Today… She shut off that train of thought. Some things had not changed in one night.
Clearing her throat to break the spell and signalling they should turn, she asked, “What did your letter contain?”
“An apology of sorts.”
“An apology for my behaviour in Hertfordshire, even on the first night of our acquaintance. An apology for making you believe I disliked you. And an apology for stating my sentiments when you did not wish to hear them.”
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow, “You did not seem so penitent a moment ago when you insisted on telling me your feelings once again, and in using my Christian name.”
“I never said all of my apology was sincere,” he smirked. “I thought I wrote in the clearest of minds, but I see now I was incorrect. I do not regret declaring my feelings and wishes. I understand now what it must take to please such a worthy woman, and I see what work must be done in my own character.”
“Please, you must not change for my sake. And who am I? Just a silly, foolish girl! My head was turned by Wickham’s flattery and attention; I was blinded by Jane’s pain.”
“Elizabeth, I do not evaluate my failings to win your regard, but because your reproofs were just. Do you not think you are as capable of sound judgment as others?”
Elizabeth scoffed. “I had. I had thought my opinion was superior to most, but I see now my father was correct in calling all of his daughters silly, ignorant things.”
Darcy’s face turned stony. “He has said that of you?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “He enjoys teasing us, but I have indeed displayed there is some sense to it. I believe I am as intelligent as any woman, and yet I have been entirely confounded by the actions of nearly every gentleman of my acquaintance. Perhaps there is some merit in concluding my sex is prone to sensibility and lacking intelligence.” As she said it emptiness filled her.
Darcy ceased their movement, and she looked at him expectantly. He seemed to need a moment to gather his thoughts. Instead of his usual well-thought dialogue, he nearly blurted, “You cannot possibly mean that!”
“And why not? Is it not what your professors have taught you? Women are weak-willed and silly?” There was no use in attempting to convince him of all people that she was something more. He had seen her at her worse.
“And you presume I would believe such horrible nonsense?”
She began walking to avoid seeing his triumphant look. “I have never met a man who does not.”
His long legs quickly caught her up to him. He stopped in front of her, halting her progress. “Fitzwilliam Darcy, at your service.” He elegantly bowed.
Elizabeth shook her head and looked at him with incredulity. “Did you not agree with the most ridiculous list of accomplishments for a lady I have ever heard? Your standards were so fastidious that I could not imagine you knowing a single woman who met them!”
He held up his hands to stave off her angry retorts. “I only stated a woman should improve her mind by extensive reading. I firmly believe a lady can be educated the same as a man.”
“So, are you to learn embroidery then?” Elizabeth huffed.
“As you already know how,” folding his arms across his chest, he smirked, “I shall leave it to you, but you may teach our sons if you wish. My cousin tells me sewing is indispensable in the military.”
“Let us speak plainly. I believe any woman can learn as well as any man, but we see not every man chooses to learn, just as not every woman does.”
Uncomfortable with his words she turned them on him. “Everything is a matter of education, is it? I suppose you ought to take your aunt’s advice and practice conversation with strangers more!”
Apparently unfazed by her angry words after so many encounters, he remained stalwart without so much as blinking. “You mean to anger or embarrass me, but it only proves my point. You are as capable of intelligently reprimanding my behaviour as any schoolmaster. And a great deal prettier as well!”
“’Tis a comfort to know that I could take the role of a governess,” Elizabeth frowned.
Darcy released his hands to his side and took a step toward her. “I can see you are uncomfortable with this.”
Elizabeth hated that he knew her so well.
“I will desist, but I believe I have more experience with debating gentlemen than you do, and you already know I do not falsely praise. Please trust me; you are a worthy foe in a battle of words.”
She allowed his last words to pass without comment. Looking past him, she could see the parsonage in the distance. “I received a letter from my aunt. She says I am welcome in two weeks. She thanks you for your offer to be of service.”
“Does that date suit you? I had thought you wished to conclude this matter earlier.”
Elizabeth thought for a moment. “We should make my father see reason and settle any problems in Meryton as soon as possible, but you refuse to call on the Gardiners without my presence.”
She did not hide her displeasure in her voice, and Darcy looked at her for a long moment.
“You understand why, do you not?”
“Yes, you fear they will be like my mother and Aunt Philips, but I promise you, you are mistaken. They are very genteel.” She could have added that they behaved better than even his own aunt, but did not.
Darcy shook his head. “You think I desire your presence because I would need assistance dealing with inappropriate relations? You have met my aunt.”
He smiled, and Elizabeth repressed the urge to laugh.
“I wish to call on your family when you are there so it may not be construed that I paid a visit to your sister.”
Elizabeth was silent for a moment. “Does it follow then that you would want it said that you paid a call only once I was in residence?” She did not welcome his attachment so why did her heart thrill at the thought that he still desired a future with her?
“Yes,” he said emphatically. “I do not mean to accuse your relatives of gossip. I mostly associate with people who would not gossip, and yet much of the ton believes they know my every movement. If they must talk, let it be on my terms. I have made my choice. Our acquaintance from Hertfordshire and meeting again in Kent cannot be kept secret as Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst know it. I will escort you to London and call on your relatives once you are within.”
Elizabeth paled as her mind rapidly drew the conclusion that all of London would be linking her name with his. A match would be expected between them, and she could not consent to such a plan as it would damage her reputation when nothing resulted. She was only beginning to appreciate the gentleman, she did not wish to have her freedom of choice taken from her.
“Nay, you must arrive in London separately and when you visit bring your sister,” Elizabeth hoped to keep a tone of panic out of her voice. “Surely you must see I cannot agree to such a plan as yours.”
He looked at her, surprised and offended but remained silent. Finally resigned acceptance entered his eyes. “I do not mean to set your course or push your hand.”
“No, you just wish for all of London to talk about it!” Elizabeth dashed around him and surged forward again.
“Surely not.” Again, he quickly matched her pace. “I only do not wish my name to be linked with another or to make them not accept you later, should I be fortunate enough to win your hand.” He reached for her hand, and she glared at him. “Please, allow me to still ride alongside you, but the following day I will call on the Gardiners with my sister.”
Elizabeth slid her hand from his while shaking her head. “It truly is not necessary to escort me to London.”
“It is most likely foolish of me, but I will worry if you go with only a maid and manservant. Please, Elizabeth.”
She had intended to move around him, but the tone of his voice brought her up short. Looking into his eyes, which pleaded for her to allow him this, and she found she had no wish to deny him. He was not trying to force her into an understanding, nor did he seek to take away her independence. He only desired to care for her, something, so few people asked to do. Would she let him?
He motioned to the path, and he placed her hand on his strong arm. They remained silent as they walked. She knew he would allow her to decide the matter, but the choice was made harder by his presence and masculine scent. She made her decision only steps from the parsonage gate. “It seems a fair compromise, sir.”
Immediately, she felt the tension release from his form and heard a soft exhale. He squeezed her hand still on his arm and then bowed over it, nearly kissing it.
He spoke when he finished. “Thank you. Until tomorrow, Elizabeth.”
Her brow furrowed as he left and she thought over the course of the afternoon. Not the least on her mind was why she cared to ease his discomfort so much.
I was delighted with your description of Miss More and when it is convenient to you, I invite you both to Bath. Her writing sounds exemplary. I suppose London is leaving its period of mourning after the death of the King’s mother behind. I must wonder what she would think of this act regarding all royal marriages being determined by the King. That not only one brother but both married commoners and kept it a secret, I found shocking but refreshing. I should hope the King treats his sons and daughters better than he treated his brothers.
The following morning, Darcy awaited Elizabeth at their grove. Their grove. Darcy shook his head. She had made her feelings very clear numerous times. There was no them. However, he thought she might not be so indifferent to him as she once was.
As Darcy reconsidered their last few meetings, he began to think that Elizabeth might feel lonely despite her companions at the parsonage. He knew that she sought solitude away from the Collinses and had never accompanied her friend on her morning visits to Rosings. However, requiring isolation from unlikeable companions did not mean one did not feel alone and desire pleasant company. He knew that well from experience. During the dinners at Rosings, Elizabeth seldom spoke. Afterwards, she was often “invited” to perform on the pianoforte. Elizabeth was not the sort to be intimidated by his aunt’s commands or critique, but neither was she the kind that expected to be listened to in silence. At Lucas Lodge, she had laughed with her friend, now Mrs. Collins.
He sensed there was now a coolness in feeling between the two ladies. Mrs. Collins’ younger sister did not seem to provide Elizabeth with any company. What must it be like for Elizabeth, so used to the liveliness of Longbourn? He did not think he could understand fully what she felt, having lived in quiet for so long, but he could empathise. He would provide her company, if she allowed, and try not to irritate her. For once, he considered her needs while he waited for her arrival.
Casting his eyes down the path, he noted her silhouette against the rising sun. Each day, she came earlier and earlier. Was she so eager to leave the parsonage? Or was it a desire to see him that propelled her? His heart sped at the thought. Logic told him to cool his desires and expectations, but he could not. She approached with a smile on her face, and Darcy knew, no matter where he went in the world or what the future held, he would never feel at home again unless he was looking into her smiling face.
“Good day, Miss Elizabeth,” he said when he could make his mouth move.
“Good day,” she smiled back at him.
“May I walk with you?”
She took his extended arm, and a thrill shot up the limb. Some of her usual reserve seemed gone, adding to the heady sensation. Darcy forced his brain to focus on conversation and not the light pressure of her hand on his body.
“Did you bring your sketchbook?”
She held up her other hand and grinned. “You know me well, sir.”
“I am beginning to believe such a thing is impossible. However, I dearly enjoy learning about you and guessing what you might do next.”
Elizabeth laughed at the image he created, and Darcy realised he had never known the joy in giving someone else happiness.
“Well, I am waiting. What do you think I will do next?”
She gave him an impish grin, and the desire to feel it against his lips consumed him. A raw hungering burned in him. Men in his clubs boasted of bedding the most beautiful courtesans in England. Poets claimed love would drive you mad. And yet nothing he had read or heard in his life prepared him for this feeling, this need to consume and allow himself to be consumed, not with carnal pleasures, but with enjoying — in needing — another’s presence and to be the source of their bliss.
“I am that much of a conundrum, am I?” she teased when he remained silent but her smile slipped.
“Forgive me,” he rasped. Desire still coursed through him. “I do not dare guess what you will do next. Your path is unmappable by any but you. However, I would like to show you something, if you will follow.”
Elizabeth tilted her head; insatiable curiosity lit her eyes. The image of her looking up at him thusly from where she lay on his bed jolted to the front of his mind.
“This way,” he motioned to a narrow path off the main grove while cursing his dishonourable thoughts.
They walked in silence and Darcy mourned the loss of her hand on his arm as the lane was too narrow to allow them to walk side by side. After nearly a quarter of a mile, the route curved sharply and then opened to a grassy area filled with newly blooming meadows, a pond, and the foundation and one ivy-covered wall of an old church. Coming up next to him, Elizabeth gasped.
“How did you find this place?” she asked when she recovered.
“I spent many visits of my youth escaping Rosings’ stuffy drawing rooms. I still do,” he admitted.
“It is stunning,” she said reverently and walked forward to gain a better view.
“You may have guessed, Rosings was built during my uncle’s lifetime. His father was the first baronet and tore down a crumbling structure from Henry VIII’s time. The church your cousin now uses was built then as well. Records state this church is from even earlier, Edward III’s reign.”
“How sad,” Elizabeth muttered and approached the wall. “Did you know the Perpendicular Gothic came to prominence during his reign — after the Black Death ravaged the country?” She ran a hand lovingly over the stone.
“I did not,” Darcy answered. “Is that what appeals to you about the style?”
“Perhaps,” Elizabeth said as she began to move around the structure to examine it from all sides. “It denotes a certain amount of strength in humanity to achieve such vaunted heights. After so much death, they still cared about culture and beauty.”
Darcy trailed behind her, and she continued speaking. “It is not the fashion at all now. Instead, we’re told to favour buildings with the straight lines of ancient Greece. Stone upon stone must be secured. Every piece doing its part, never out of place.” She shook her head. “The Gothic embraces nature, rather than trying to conquer it.”
Elizabeth pointed at the empty Tudor arch which would have housed a window or door. “Do you see the shape? Curved and graceful?”
As she talked, Darcy believed she may have well described herself. Eyes lingering on her form, he reverently said, “Beautiful.”
“It is, is it, not?” She stood still and appreciated the view she now saw with the sun shining through the empty frame illuminating overgrown vegetation. With no regard for her gown, she sat and opened her sketchpad.
Darcy allowed her the quiet he believed such concentration required. Her hands moved swiftly and gracefully. She drew without the sort of labour that comes from self-consciousness or a desire to impress. She simply unleashed a passion she felt, and finely-honed skill. As much as she might deride her skills on the pianoforte, she apparently had put her time to greater use.
As she drew, Darcy imagined the lives the place had seen. The ones who built a place of worship after so much devastation. The family who provided the funds but eventually sold the estate. Their family name did not appear in the roster of current peers. Likely, they had no sons left to inherit and had kept the property away from their daughters. The next owners fared no better. The family sold it after two or three generations to Sir Lewis de Bourgh’s father to cover a debt. Through the passage of time, this area stood largely neglected and ignored, unnoticed by those who inhabited the space just outside it. However, Darcy could not mourn its neglect. The sheltered alcove he now sat in remained unspoilt by following generations attempting to conquer nature and shape it into formal gardens and hedges. Even more, it allowed him this morning of peace with Elizabeth.
When she finished, Elizabeth looked up and blushed. “Forgive me, I had not meant to ignore you,” she said and bit her lower lip.
“Think nothing of it. I enjoyed the companionable silence and watching you work. Your passion should never be hidden. May I see?”
Shyly, she handed the sketchbook to him. He could see from a distance Elizabeth had great skill. Upon closer viewing, it was clear that she saw through a true architect’s eye. There were no exaggerated and idealised views. She had imagined the church as it once might have looked, but it seemed far more real than any portrait he had seen. Acquainted as he was with blueprints for new structures, he saw her natural skill. She was not a gentlewoman dabbling in art or design. If she were a man, she would find sufficient income putting her talents to use.
“This is quite good,” he said in wonder, hating the insipidness of his words.
“Do you really think so?” Elizabeth asked with an insecurity he had never heard before. “I know it is nothing compared to what Mr. Dance could do, but I have so few opportunities—”
He silenced her with a finger to her lips, all the while hating his gloves. “You have great skill, Elizabeth.” He triumphed when she did not rebuke him. “Far greater than any person that I have seen.”
“Do not exaggerate,” she sounded offended and grabbed the notebook from his hands. “You must have studied architecture at school and University. You have seen far grander places than I ever have.”
“It is true,” he responded slowly, “that I had the occasion to view magnificent buildings. During the Peace of Amiens, Father and I journeyed to Vienna. At Cambridge, I sat and attempted to draw the Octagon Lantern in Ely Cathedral. But not one of my classmates had the sheer talent or passion you do.”
“Thank you,” she murmured.
“I am sorry my praise is inadequate to what you deserve. I do not know the correct terminology, despite my classes, but it is near brilliant.”
Elizabeth shook her head, unwilling to accept his compliments. She stood and shook out her skirt. “Can you tell me about Vienna?”
Darcy stood as well and smiled. “It is very different from England. There was a reverie, a joy for life. In London, the people only care about their appearance and politics. In Vienna, there was laughter. Art and music were everywhere.”
She sighed a little and hugged herself. “It sounds wonderful.”
“It was unforgettable. I would love to make the journey again. Georgiana would flourish there.”
He hummed the tune of a waltz he had heard long ago in a crowded ballroom. His father had teased him for not asking any of the ladies to dance, and at the time all he could think of was how uncomfortable he felt. What he did not know was that he was waiting to have the right partner; the one he would do far more than discomfort himself for.
“What do you hum? I do not recognise the rhythm.”
“It is called a waltz. It is very different from our English dances.”
“Show me,” Elizabeth said, curiosity once again lighting her features.
Darcy chuckled. “I am not sure I remember.”
“I will never know any better,” she laughed with him.
“Very well.” He held one arm to his side and the other at the height of her shoulder. “Now, you step forward. You place one hand in mine and the other on my shoulder.”
Elizabeth’s eyes went round. “Surely not!”
“Indeed,” he said with amusement. She remained still, and he could see the indecision warring in her eyes. “I had thought you unafraid of anything.”
With the raising of her chin, she stepped into his arms. Immediately, thought escaped him. This had been a bloody terrible idea! How had it escaped his notice that he would be practically embracing Elizabeth?
“Mr. Darcy?” She asked and lightly tapped his shoulder.
The pressure sent a thrill of pleasure coursing through his body, and he bit back a groan. “Yes?”
The dance? The dance. As if blood still circulated to his feet! He cleared his throat and began to hum again, awkwardly leading Elizabeth in the steps of a waltz. And somehow, in this grass covered ballroom with the shadows of an ancient church heightening Elizabeth’s features, he fell even more in love with her.
His song ended, and their movements ceased. Elizabeth’s chest rose and fell rapidly, and Darcy believed, in every fibre of his being, she was as affected as he. With his hands still on her, he leant forward, needing to taste her lips. A bird called in the tree above them, tearing Elizabeth’s gaze away from his.
“We should return,” she said nonchalantly, although her face burned red.
Offering his arm to her, they left their hidden glen of discoveries. As they walked toward the parsonage and all the rules of Society, Darcy talked about Knole Park and “his” belief that if she befriended Anne, an invitation would follow.
When he reached the gate, he bowed low over Elizabeth’s hand and brought it to his lips. It would have to do as he had been deprived of her mouth, and he had never hated leather more in his life. “Until tonight, Elizabeth.”
***** “Cousin Elizabeth, where have you been? How can you dress properly for dinner with Lady Catherine in such a short time?”
Elizabeth was just about to explain she could be no later than some of Lady Catherine’s own party as she had been walking with Mr. Darcy when she thought better of it.
“My dear, Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine prefers to have the distinction of rank preserved. Eliza will suit admirably.”
Elizabeth shot her friend a grateful glance and quickly saw to her toilette. The others were finished quite early and nervously fretted in the sitting room. She could hardly account for the Collinses’ behaviour as they had dined many times with her ladyship by now, but then she was not disposed to think well of the sense of either.
Gathering to leave, Charlotte looked over her friend. “Eliza, you look very well indeed. All these walks are giving you a very healthy bloom.”
Elizabeth nodded in acquiescence, but her friend continued speaking.
“I have heard her ladyship often say her nephews enjoy walking the park as well. Have you ever seen them?”
Elizabeth pursed her lips at her friend’s attempt at slyness. “I have seen Mr. Darcy a few times on the paths. You can imagine how awkward conversation is with such a man.” She hoped she did not give too much away in her countenance or tone.
Before Charlotte could say more Mr. Collins called her to his side and Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief.
Dinner was the usual affair with Lady Catherine. She held court and extolled her opinions on all things no matter how little she could understand of them. By her account, the War Office should consult her even on how to handle Napoleon, and she briefly bemoaned her worries for Colonel Fitzwilliam. Elizabeth had to contain her delight when she was asked to perform.
She was hopeful her efforts at entertainment would exclude her from having to converse with the entire party. She could not dislike Mr. Darcy as before, but neither were her thoughts at all settled over his declarations. Yet, under the guise of querying her on some musical matter for his sister, he found his way to her and offered to turn her pages.
“You play very well this evening,” he said.
This did not seem quite his usual fashion so Elizabeth arched her brow, preparing for whatever he might muster. “You flatter me, sir.” Something flashed in his eyes, and it confused her. “Well, you see I am taking your aunt’s advice and practising, and you seem to believe I am improving.”
“You mean to suggest there is merit in her argument?”
“I believe I said there was merit in her argument several days ago.”
“Am I not practising? Have I not been taking the trouble to converse over these last few days, Miss Elizabeth?”
She blushed at his use of her name although he dropped his voice as it was not strictly proper to call her such without her elder sister present. “I shall make you a bargain. While I improve my skills, you must improve yours. Now, you cannot become a victim of country society. Certainly, we are a small party, but I believe we are quite varied. Your skills will improve even more if you speak to the others as well.”
Darcy glanced to the adjoined room. “Who do you propose I speak with next?”
“I am shocked that you would consider allowing another to order anything about you.”
“You still believe I prefer my own way?”
“I speak as I find.”
“And how do you suppose I am able to order my life when others cannot?”
“You easily arrange things just as you please because you are so rich and others are poor.”
Growing serious he calmly replied, “I cannot order all things as I would like. There are many things my wealth cannot buy, Miss Elizabeth.”
She despised herself for it, but she shivered just the same.
“I have a firm opinion that the greatest things in life are not for sale and cannot be influenced by money,” he continued.
“You mean family name and prominence.”
“No, I mean affection and familial love. Your father’s estate is entailed, and supposing you had a brother, your family might be in a better position. Now, what if you must trade one of your sisters for that unknown brother?”
Elizabeth’s eyes misted. “I could never choose. Some of them might be quite silly and ridiculous, but I dearly love them all.”
“You would rather face the unknown when your father dies, with Mr. Collins inheriting, than sacrifice the love of your family?”
“I have already chosen to face the unknown when Mr. Collins inherits.” She gasped as she realised her admission. She glanced at him and saw his smirk. “That was very cruel of you, sir, getting me to confess such a thing.”
“It was not my intention at all, I assure you, but I am pleased to know my suppositions were correct.”
“That I rejected my cousin and selfishly chose my happiness over ensuring my family’s survival? What a foolish thing you must think me!”
“No, I thought you valued more than money in marital harmony. You desire respect and affection.”
“What made you so confident he had offered for me?”
“It, amongst other things, was quite the gossip at Bingley’s ball. His attentions to you were very marked and yet you visit his home as a friend to his wife and are not its mistress.”
“Not every man who pays attention to a lady means to offer matrimony, sir.” She was thinking of his friend.
“Do you think so little of the male sex?”
“I have seen little constancy from them. Even the best of them might be mistaken and confuse companionship and love with infatuation and attraction.”
“Earlier I meant that I might be able to order things as I like due to my wealth, but it is only because I am master of my own affairs. I assure you I would much rather have less freedom in my choices and less money at my disposal and be merely the heir than the master of all of England with all its burdens.”
He spoke passionately, and Elizabeth could feel the weight of his loss. For so young a man to be left with the responsibility of so much was a difficult thing for her to consider. More than that, she was pleased to see the emotion his words evoked in him. Her sketch of him may never be complete, but there was more than the stoniness she first believed in Hertfordshire.
Seeking to console him, she spoke. “I had not considered that, sir. How old were you when your father passed?”
For just a moment he looked vulnerable, as he recalled his misery, but soon he recovered. “Mother died first when I was eleven. She had not recovered from Georgiana’s birth. Father died suddenly when I was two and twenty.”
She had not realised he was an orphan, or that he had been the master for so long. Caring for a sister at such an age!
“I am sorry for your pain.”
He gave her a tight smile. “I thank you, but I am certain you had little to do to cause the demise of either.”
“Of course not, sir.”
He seemed on the verge of speaking something inexpressibly painful but thought better of it. They passed a few moments in silence before she sought to cheer him.
“You must hold up your share of the bargain, sir. Why not speak with your cousin, Miss de Bourgh? She seems very lonely.”
Darcy started. “She likely is. I confess I do not pay her much attention on my visits, lest my aunt make too much of it.”
“What is it she can do? She cannot ask or demand you marry her daughter. She cannot put words in your own mouth. Your cousin might not even desire the match, should you ask.”
Elizabeth glanced away as jealousy gnawed in her belly. Why should she care if Miss de Bourgh did wish to marry Darcy? And why should it bother her if he might now think it a prudent choice? “Would it not be better to know of her hopes? You may fear for nought. Or if she does have them you might explain your feelings.”
She grew silent as she recalled her sister being left hoping for Bingley’s proposal. “Imagine being left hoping for a man’s addresses all these years.”
Darcy’s thoughts might have turned similarly for he nodded his head in understanding.
“I believe you are correct.” He leaned his head closer to her, his breath tickling her ear. “Never fear. You shall not be rid of me to her clutches.”
Elizabeth fought the smile forming on her lips. “No?”
“We had a very frank conversation not too many days ago and it seems although I never would have asked, she will not have me either.” He let out a sigh of feigned despair. “It must be the sign of an intelligent woman.”
Elizabeth remained mute for she had not seen any signs that Miss de Bourgh had much of a brain.
“Did you have another suggestion for my conversation partner?”
Elizabeth welcomed the change in conversation. “Oh, you do trust me too far!” She said with false gaiety. “For what if I would select my cousin!”
Darcy chuckled, revealing a hint of dimples. “Do your worst, madam, for I am not afraid of you.”
Elizabeth thought for a moment. “I shall have mercy on you and propose that you do not practice on either your relations or mine, as there is an unequal number of them. Your task, therefore, is to practice on both Mrs. Jenkinson and Mrs. Collins.”
If she were not certain he truly felt distressed she would have laughed at his expression. “Come, sir. You have visited Rosings for many years now, you must know some matter to speak with Mrs. Jenkinson on, and you have met Mrs. Collins’ family. That is always an excellent place to begin. I wager she would happily talk about memories of Hertfordshire.”
Sighing deeply, Darcy agreed. “And now for your end of our bargain.”
“I do not recall making one.”
“Oh, but you called it one just now. I believe we were on the subject of improving one’s skill.”
Elizabeth knew not whether to feel trepidation at whatever scheme he had, or excitement at this informal, bantering side of him.
“You need no motivation to walk, although I very much hope you continue to improve yourself there.” He gave her a knowing look. “You must oblige my aunt and practice the pianoforte at Rosings, only I will ensure it not be in Mrs. Jenkinson’s room.”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “Sir! Do you fathom how difficult that will be for me to bear? Lady Catherine will forever be standing over me and reprimanding, worse than any music master I have had.”
Darcy had a bit of a wicked gleam in his eye, so she did not entirely believe him when he assured her that would not be the case. Before she could argue more her piece was finished, and he stood to make good on his offer. Lady Catherine commanded Elizabeth continue to play for the rest of the evening, and Elizabeth could only shake her head at the mingled feelings of pride and frustration she felt as Darcy talked more animatedly with the others than she had ever seen before. He would occasionally cast a look at her, daring her to withdraw but she would not be intimidated. When Lady Catherine once again recommended she practice at Rosings, Elizabeth agreed with sweetness.
I suppose you have heard the terrible news of the banks. I declared years ago that I did not like this Dr. Fordyce with his opinion on women and now we see how unscrupulous his brother is! I fear for your cousin as I understand his father is caught up in all of this.
The following day, Elizabeth practised on the pianoforte for two hours in a “small” parlour at Rosings and was surprised she was left uninterrupted. It allowed her mind to wander, as her walks had not been solitary lately, and it had rained again this morning. The shade of Darcy she now knew was surprisingly amiable, gentle even. It was a pleasant surprise, but this could not console her as she increasingly worried for her family. She told herself it was only because this was the longest she had been away from all of them, and dearest Jane seemed so shattered by Bingley’s treatment.
Elizabeth’s frustration was not limited to the most pressing matters, but it seemed all she could do in life was wait. She felt she had no choices of her own to exercise, except when she had refused Mr. Collins’ proposal. She had no means of protecting her family from danger, be it from scoundrels like Wickham, or from broken hearts. Then she recalled Darcy’s words on how he would gladly have his family instead of the ability to order his life. If Longbourn were not entailed, or more profitable and the people in it more sensible then, while they may all be entirely different, who was to say things would be better? She resolved to be more thankful for the life she did have.
Elizabeth had just decided to quit the room, and finally felt as though some portion of her thoughts were settled, when Miss de Bourgh entered the room.
“Miss Bennet, I hope I am not interrupting,” the other lady said after the requisite curtsies.
“Not at all, I just finished.”
Miss de Bourgh looked ill at ease but persevered. She took a step closer and grasped Elizabeth’s hand. “I must thank you for inspiring Conor to speak to me.”
“Oh! Darcy. We called him that when he was young. Second names are favoured in our family.”
“Forgive me; I did not recall Mr. Darcy’s Christian name.”
“He is named after his mother’s family, Fitzwilliam, but so are several other cousins and the earl’s eldest son is named William — a family tradition — so you see we had no choice but to call him by his middle name.” She paused and made a face of displeasure. “Well, a form of it. Conyers is exceedingly difficult for a young child to say.”
“You sound quite close with your cousins.”
“Although my Aunt Anne was older than my mother by many years, we cousins are closer in age. Richard, Conor, and I were once very close friends, and now perhaps we will be again.”
Somehow Elizabeth expected greater formality between them, and began to experience an unaccountable fear over what the small woman before her was to say next.
“I was so pleased when Conor asked for my feelings on the matter of my mother’s wishes.”
Elizabeth did not know what to say and instead took in her companion’s countenance. Anne’s usual sickly-looking face looked positively radiant as if she felt great joy. Elizabeth found herself envying the lady and quickly determined it must be because the woman was so vibrant with life. She refused to believe the jealousy she felt came from the small suspicion that Darcy had changed his affections and proposed to Miss de Bourgh.
Stomaching her tumultuous emotions, Elizabeth helped the conversation along. “I see you come bearing very happy news indeed!”
“I have lived in fear for years that Conor would marry me — and clearly only for my dowry as he does not love me in that way. I know my opinion would not have swayed his own, so I never brought it up. I do so much appreciate him coming to me with his decision and asking about my opinion.”
“You are not displeased?” For some reason, Elizabeth’s willingness had been tied to Anne’s expectations to accept Darcy’s attentions; perhaps because of Jane’s experiences.
“No! We never would have suited. He needs a wife who is spirited and witty, who will not back down from his debates. Please understand; I do admire him. He is among the best men I have ever known, but I am not sure if I could have stood up to both Mama and him. And how could we ever have been happy if he only wanted my money? I do genuinely appreciate his concern for my future, and his unexampled kindness in asking after my opinion and treating it with equal weight.”
Elizabeth attempted to understand all that Miss de Bourgh had declared. She believed the other lady painted a more complete picture of Darcy’s character than she ever got from the man himself. She was not left with her thoughts for long.
“Would you follow me to the library?”
Puzzled, Elizabeth agreed.
“I wanted to thank you properly for putting the notion in Conor’s head to clear the air between us, and he suggested allowing you to select a few volumes. You may take anything you like from in here. Mama and I have our favourites secluded elsewhere.”
The clock chimed. “Oh! I am to meet with Mrs. Jenkinson about something. Please inform a servant when you are ready to leave, and we will ensure your books are packaged correctly and send you in the carriage, so you do not have to carry them so far in this dreary and muddy weather.”
“It is no matter, truly.” Guilt gnawed at Elizabeth for her previous uncharitable thoughts about the woman before her.
“Please allow me this kindness. You can imagine I seldom get to meet new people. I would be very pleased if you visited me when you have a spare morning.”
Feeling as though she was the one rescuing a lady trapped in a tower, she agreed to accept Miss de Bourgh’s token of thanks and invitation to call.
“I also have the honour of extending an invitation to you and all of the parsonage to an afternoon at Knole House tomorrow. The Duchess of Dorset is good friends with Mother.”
“Thank you,” Elizabeth said and grinned. “Mr. Darcy had mentioned it, but I did not dare to hope.”
“I think we have much more in common than you would believe. Admit it,” Miss de Bourgh smiled, “you were predisposed to dislike me.”
Elizabeth returned the smile with a sheepish, guilty one of her own. “I concede. I had a false impression of your cousin and had heard gossip in Meryton which did you and your mother no favours. If you can forgive me, I would like to begin again.” A weight lifted from Elizabeth’s heart, and some of her usual lightness returned.
Suddenly, arms were thrown about her neck, and Miss de Bourgh gave her a meek kiss on the cheek. “God bless you, Miss Bennet!” Anne exclaimed, and then she scurried off leaving Elizabeth rather confounded.
She roamed about the library for some time and tried to limit herself to only three choices but failed. At last, she pulled the cord, and a servant arrived with a basket to convey her books in. He left to arrange her ride, and when the door opened again, she expected it to be a maid to accompany her to the parsonage. Instead, Mr. Darcy entered.
“Did you find anything interesting?”
“Oh! Several things. Your cousin need not have been so gracious, but I am too selfish to pass this opportunity by.”
He chuckled. “I thought you would be pleased.” He looked through her stack. “You included Letters on the Improvement of the Mind. Are you trying to improve your manners?”
Elizabeth raised a brow. “Do you think they need improvement?”
“No, of course not but you seem quite interested in the book.”
“I am. It reminds me somewhat of the letters I would receive from my own aunt, but I did not know conduct-book writers approved of so much learning and independent thought.”
“You did not learn from one?”
“You do think I need improvement.” She riposted. If it were not so ridiculous that he should think she needed lessons in manners, she would be offended.
“You misunderstand. I am surprised, as well-mannered and intelligent as you are, that you did not have one.”
“My mother superintended our education, as we had no governess, but we were encouraged to read from my father’s library. Mama did not believe we needed a book to tell us how to behave, that she could teach us everything we needed, but Papa had an old copy of Fordyce’s Sermons. Although all but Mary found it ridiculous, we have a rudimentary knowledge of it.”
Darcy grimaced when she mentioned the title. “I would have to agree with your estimation and have directed my sister to read other material.”
“You assign your sister reading material?”
“Sometimes, it helps us to have a matter to debate and discuss. Georgiana will soon be out and in the presence of gentlemen; who better to test her discourse on than her brother? I also believe it wise to take an active role in her education.”
His words made sense. However, Elizabeth found it difficult to believe he read anything so feminine. “Have you read these books for females?”
“I have,” he stepped closer and smiled down at her. Leaning in to whisper, he said, “I know all your secrets now.”
“Oh, I doubt that, sir.” She chuckled until her eyes met his. Suddenly, it no longer felt like a laughing matter and indeed, that he was searching her soul to know every detail.
Finally, his eyes fell to her lips. “Do you?”
Forcing herself to step away, she cleared her throat. “Can you actually encourage independent thought if you are the one to assign your sister the books?”
“Let us test it. I will select material for you, and we can discuss it on our next walk.”
“Very well, I will meet your challenge.” Elizabeth handed Darcy her stack of books to look at again.
“Let’s see, Donne, Wordsworth and Madame d’Arblay, the former Miss Burney. An interesting selection.” He raised his brow at her.
“Father dislikes Donne’s Holy Sonnets and thinks Wordsworth too silly, comparing himself to a cloud. I enjoyed Evelina and thought I would try Belinda. No that is not right. Selina…or Camilla!”
“I fear it must not bode well if you recall not the title.”
“And I suppose she writes the type of book you do not allow Miss Darcy to read.”
“No, I have heard no harm of her; if anything, I have a good opinion of her as she enjoyed the patronage of several very educated ladies. No, but I dislike Georgiana reading the Gothic novels by Mrs. Radcliffe and the like.”
“Oh, yes very different things entirely,” Elizabeth said with a shudder as she recalled attempting The Mysteries of Udolpho which was praised by so many of her friends.
“I believe I know just what to debate with you, Miss Bennet.” Darcy left her side and after a moment brought back a book. “We shall discuss The Tempest.”
Elizabeth’s face tightened in distaste. “I have, of course, read the complete works of Shakespeare and can already tell you my opinion on this matter.”
“You do not believe in giving things a second perusal?”
She was about agree when she remembered that she had been wrong in her first assessment of him. “I shall try, but I am certain I will test your opinions on the matter.”
“I would not have it any other way,” he said with a smile. “What is the nature of your dislike?”
“Miranda and Ferdinand’s love is too instant for my tastes.” She did not add that it was Jane’s favourite work.
“You would rather hate a gentleman first?”
Elizabeth looked up sharply and was uncertain of Darcy’s expression. It might be hopeful, or perhaps only teasing.
“I would rather know a gentleman’s character. No matter the love or attraction felt, there must be substance behind it.”
There were footsteps in the hall. Undoubtedly, this time it would be the maid for her escort. Darcy seemed frustrated at the interruption but hastily spoke before the steps reached the door.
“I will enjoy discussing this with you further. Thank you for an enjoyable afternoon.” He quickly raised her hand to his lips. “Until tomorrow, Elizabeth.”
The maid appeared, and after the requisite curtsy and bow, Elizabeth left in Lady Catherine’s carriage.
The following afternoon, Darcy handed his aunt and cousin into the carriage destined for Knole Park. Lady Catherine had sent another for the guests at the parsonage. He did not know what the day would hold, and usually he would hate to be among so many strangers. Today, his concern was fixed on Elizabeth. He had only a passing acquaintance with Jenkinson. His aunt would be disappointed if Mrs. Jenkinson did not join the Bluestocking Club, but Darcy was more interested in Elizabeth getting to tour the Hall and speaking with noted architect George Dance. He was not entirely sure how to introduce her to such a man when he needed a family tree diagram to understand his relationship with the Duke.
“Make haste, Darcy. We cannot keep the Duke waiting,” Lady Catherine commanded from within. The conveyance rocked to the side as she situated herself on its plush seats.
“Conor!” Anne called and Darcy at last folded his tall frame into his chaise. Sitting next to his cousin, as his aunt and Anne’s companion took the other row, he dwarfed her small figure.
“I have not heard anyone call you that in a very long time,” Lady Catherine said. She looked peculiarly at him as they lurched forward and drove down the lane.
“After Mother died, I think Anne was the last one to call me such.”
“And then you went to Eton and came back demanding to be called Darcy,” Anne pouted.
“Did I?” he chuckled when Anne emphatically nodded.
“She always did favour middle names,” his aunt whispered while looking out the window.
“I did?” Anne asked sounding confused.
“No, your aunt,” Lady Catherine answered. “She did not go by Lady Anne until her marriage to your father,” she nodded at Darcy. “Of course, we were not born the daughters of an earl at any rate,” she added.
“I always forget that your uncle died without a male heir so your father inherited,” Anne said. “So, it seems not everyone ‘did their duty to the Fitzwilliam line,’ after all.” Anne raised a brow at her mother.
“That was quite some time ago!” Her ladyship gave her daughter a stern look. Anne turned her face toward the window, no doubt to hide her rolling eyes.
Darcy said nothing but considered his aunt for a moment. She was still a handsome woman. She was born when his mother was fifteen and had Lady Anne not married so late in life, he would be even closer in age to her ladyship than their gap of sixteen years. He wondered, briefly, what she had been like when she was young. His memories of his mother were of a woman vastly different than her younger sister. And yet, he also knew the affection between the two was very real. It seemed they were always together whether at Pemberley or Rosings.
After some moments of silence, Anne sighed. “Without Richard, I wonder if they will have enough for a cricket team.”
“Never mind the cricket. We shall picnic outside at the very least,” Lady Catherine said. “But it would not do to arrive at the Duchess’ home in an open carriage.”
Anne sighed but said nothing, and Darcy also cast his eyes out the window. It was a beautiful day for their visit, but it seemed Anne would not be content to merely sit out of doors. An idea struck. “Perhaps, you might request Mr. Dance to give a drawing lesson. Surely it is something all the young ladies would enjoy.”
“Brilliant!” Anne grinned and clapped her hands, displaying more liveliness than he had seen in her in years.
The distance to Knole Hall was scarcely four miles, and soon they had arrived. The Hunsford party was just behind them. Darcy bounded from the carriage and impatiently handed down his relatives. He wanted to run to the other coach and watch Elizabeth’s reaction when she saw the house up close, but he knew he could not pay her too much attention.
Luck had it that Mr. Collins was so eager to praise Lady Catherine for securing his invitation that he dashed away before assisting the ladies in his care. Darcy happily took his position. Elizabeth was the last to emerge, and when she placed her hand in his, he could feel the tremble. A slight gasp escaped her lips, and she looked in wonder at the magnificent edifice.
“Marvellous,” she said.
The butler led them inside. Miss Lucas grasped her sister’s arm for support. A look of awe and triumph settled on Mrs. Collins’ face. Darcy did not wonder at the expression. For the spinster daughter of a tradesman turned knight and wife to a country clergyman, invitation to a duke’s house would be a conquest indeed. Her husband’s eyes nearly bulged out of his head, and Darcy could see him estimating the cost of tapestries and window glazing to report to others in all his usual superciliousness. Lastly, Elizabeth’s intelligent eyes took in the structuring of the hall, and the pillared arches leading to the grand staircase with the intricately carved wooden “Sackville leopards” holding shields mimicking the family’s coat of arms and forming the finials of the balusters. They were shown to an ornate saloon on the main floor. The walls were covered in crimson caffoy but Darcy noticed Elizabeth’s eyes first went to the coffered ceiling.
Standing before the seated Dowager Duchess of Dorset and her controlling mother, the Dowager Countess Liverpool, Lady Catherine performed introductions. Of course, his aunt had left out the family skeletons. The Duchess’ great-great-grandmother had been the mistress of James II and her step-brother, the current Earl of Liverpool, had a great-grandmother who was a Portuguese-Indian Creole. Darcy wondered; if the Earl had to own that relationship to the world, would he still be a supporter of slavery? Of course, that was his policy decades ago, before the slave trade was abolished. Now, the Earl served as the Secretary of War, and Darcy believed the chance to meet with him was the sole reason for Richard’s visits to Rosings the last several years.
Unease nibbled at Darcy as he considered why Richard was away on duty when he ought to have been on holiday. To Elizabeth and the people in Meryton, he was the most powerful man they might ever meet. Even more so once he inherited the barony. The truth was, despite his wealth, there were richer men — even tradesmen — and far more powerful and ambitious nobles. He understood his position in the world. If not for his cousin’s favours with colleagues in the War Department, he would have no hope of ridding Meryton of Wickham. Men like Lord Liverpool and even the young Duke had far greater concerns than familial disputes. Men such as Darcy could not hope to control their world unless they enjoyed the friendship of a prince and, given the behaviour of the current princes of the United Kingdom, Darcy had no intention of being on such terms with any of them.
“Darcy,” the ageing, hoarse voice of Lady Liverpool intoned after they had all sat and tea was served. “Your sister did not accompany you on this visit?”
“I am afraid not, your ladyship,” Darcy said in cold formality. “She was ill this last autumn. She preferred to stay in London and to spend more time with her studies.”
“Such a pity,” the lady remarked. “Dorset was hoping to see her again. She will be presented at Court this season?”
Darcy bit back a growl. Dorset seemed a decent young man, but he would not sell his sister to merely the highest bidder who had not engaged her heart, or without her input and at such a young age. Furthermore, he despised the grasping and matchmaking mamas, or in this case grandmamas. “She will not be of age for two years and might prefer to delay it even longer.”
The countess seemed baffled by such a thought, but Darcy knew his sister. Georgiana would hate being a duchess. She already loathed the idea of her court presentation and all the pomp. It was no wonder she had been attracted to the steward’s son.
“Ah, I had forgotten your mother was such a bluestocking. I rather suppose she got that from her aunt,” the Duchess weighed in and shook her head.
“The Baroness?” Elizabeth asked, and the ladies started at the unexpected voice.
Darcy examined her face. Her colour was heightened, but he could not tell if it was from embarrassment or some other emotion.
“Forgive me, I had the pleasure of meeting her recently but never knew Lady Anne. Lady Darcy seemed everything ladylike, to me, and I quite admired her intelligence.”
“Who did you say this one was and where was she from?” the Countess asked, looking at Lady Catherine.
“Her name is Elizabeth Bennet and father has an estate in Hertfordshire,” Lady Catherine replied. “I have told her before she gives her opinions shockingly freely for one so young.”
Inwardly, Darcy cringed at the way they talked about Elizabeth as though she were not present or capable of speaking for herself. He opened his mouth to defend her, but the expression on her face showed she was more amused than offended. Their eyes met, and silently she communicated that he need say nothing.
“Miss Bennet,” the Countess gave Elizabeth a haughty look. “It is forgivable you do not know much of superior society. I do not mean Lady Darcy. I am speaking of Lady Anne Fitzwilliam, wife to the second Earl and Clara and Amelia’s aunt.”
“I am sorry, aunt to who?” Elizabeth asked.
The duchess set down her teacup. “There are far too many Catherines and Annes about. The ones you call Lady Anne and Lady Catherine, we as close friends of the family,” she nodded at Lady Catherine and then Darcy,” know as Clara and Amelia, their second names.”
“Forgive me, I had not realised,” Elizabeth said and looked nervously at her tea cup.
“I cannot speak for my aunt,” Darcy said, “but my mother was known to nearly all as Clara. Their father did not inherit the earldom until just after Lady Catherine’s birth, and there were several Annes in the family already. Mother might have been known as Lady Anne in formal situations, but she grew up as Clara Fitzwilliam, daughter to a barrister who never expected to inherit.”
“At any rate,” the Countess continued in a bored tone, “Lady Anne Fitzwilliam, the Countess, was a leader in that Bluestocking Club. It was she who involved Lady Darcy and later Clara in it. We were all just scandalised when she married the Earl. His first wife had been the daughter of a marquess and died after their first child, a son and his heir, was born. He lived decades without remarrying. We all believed he loved his wife too much.”
“What happened?” Anne asked, appearing fascinated with the talk of long dead relatives she had never known.
“The young man died,” the Countess said.
“In a riding accident, if you can believe it,” the Duchess inserted. “I always tell my son to take care riding, but then with his superior breeding he has the most magnificent seat I have ever seen.”
She eyed Darcy, and he held back another scowl.
“So, the Earl remarried, and just how he settled on a bluestocking we have never quite ascertained,” the Countess added.
“I am surprised to hear you demean a relation of your own,” Lady Catherine said, glaring at the Countess. “My aunt was the granddaughter of Viscount Falmouth, as you well know. What a joy it is for us to share a great-grandmother and claim such close kinship to James the Second.” The Countess sucked in a breath and paled, but Lady Catherine continued. “I know how the relationship pleases you since you named your daughter Arabella.”
When his aunt had finished, there was an awkward silence in the room, but he had eyes only for Elizabeth. Mirth swam in them, and he knew the same was reflected in his own. Finally, the door opened and several others bounded inside.
“Ah, Dorset,” the Duchess greeted her son and gave introductions.
“Enough formality,” the young Duke said when she had finished, reminding Darcy of Bingley. “We have come to gather men for cricket. Darcy, I see your cousin is absent this year. I do not know that we will have enough, unless any of you ladies play?”
Darcy did scowl when Dorset’s appreciative gaze landed on Elizabeth.
“Eliza is an excellent player,” Mrs. Collins said, and became the newest recipient of Darcy’s glare.
“Is that right, Miss Bennet?” the Duke, who was very near to being punched, grinned at the woman Darcy loved.
“Well, I do not know how I compare to others, and it has been a great many years since I played.” The slight squeezing of her hands signified her distress to Darcy, but none of her other friends appeared to notice.
“You shall be on my team, then,” the Duke laughed.
“I hate to contradict,” Lady Catherine said, “but it really is unkind to make the poor dear play with strangers. It would be much better for her to play on Darcy’s team. Do not you agree, Arabella and Cathy?”
The female relations of Dorset emphatically agreed, and he relented. Darcy breathed a sigh of relief. However… “Forgive me, but we did not ascertain if Miss Bennet wished to play.” He looked at her. “Would you rather watch from the side-lines or do you prefer to take your chances on me? Full disclosure, the Sackville and Jenkinson men are known for their prowess.”
There was a slight twitch of Elizabeth’s lips, but she answered without laughter. “If what you say is true, then I should infinitely prefer to play for a team that makes it only a game and is willing to laugh at themselves. We shall have quite the better time of it, I am sure.”
“Oh, the lady challenges us not who wins, but as to merriment!” the Duke called out and his faithful companions laughed with him.
“Are you certain you wish to remain on Darcy’s team then, madam?” Liverpool asked. “I have never seen him without that scowl upon his face.”
Darcy’s scowl deepened, and he mentally thought to add his boot to the man’s backside in a more just word. Alas, one could not pummel Secretaries of War and brothers to their hostess.
“I shall take my chances,” Elizabeth answered smilingly.
Jenkinson tsked. “Just as well, if you are the sort that enjoys such a dangerous wager.” He ended in a grin which gave way to more laughter.
“Come along, then,” Dorset commanded, and all but the Countess filed out of doors. She would watch from a window, the stairs being too much for her arthritic knees.
The latest gossip in Bath reports that the eldest Miss Linley is now officially Mrs. Sheridan. All the papers are enamoured with their love story. How they had to elope so she would not be forced to wed a terrible man. Then Mr. Sheridan defended her honour in two duels. However, I do not think anyone has explained why it took them an entire year after eloping to marry. Dearest Fanny bemoans the marriage, as it is rumoured Mr. Sheridan will not allow his wife to perform no matter their poverty. Understand, and rejoice, my love. Fame and riches make all things possible.
Elizabeth followed the others outside, feeling the disapproving glares of Lady Catherine, the Duchess, and the Countess. It did not alter their dislike of her or the interest the Duke paid her. To her right, he chatted amiably of cricket, reminding her of Mr. Bingley. To her left, Mr. Darcy glowered. Did he think her unworthy of the Duke as well?
Despite Elizabeth’s dislike for Darcy’s present expression, she could barely spare him a thought. She was too consumed with her anger at Charlotte. How had Elizabeth not known her dearest friend was such a deceitful creature? She had practically fed Elizabeth to the wolves, whilst it was Darcy who attempted to mitigate problems. Her head wondered if it was due to pride — belief that she was of inferior consequence, or from his rejected proposal — but her heart began to whisper that he only wished to put her at ease.
They arrived at the large lawn on which they would play and broke into teams. The Duke captained his family’s team, consisting of titled relatives and, as special guests, the sons of Lord George Cavendish, a younger son of the Duke of Devonshire. They had recently re-entered society after the death of the eldest son and heir. Darcy captained the other team made up of people who were clearly guests of less distinction and rank, although in some instances they were of closer relation. Among them, the three sons of George Dance the Younger.
“How is your father, Tom?” Darcy asked as they gathered around.
“Quite well for his age. He sits under the shade tree with Aunt Harriet,” the man nodded toward an elderly gentleman. “Although, he does feel down now and then since Uncle Nate’s death last autumn.”
“Indeed, I was sorry to hear of his passing. A loss to all of England but surely felt most acutely by your family.”
Elizabeth saw in Darcy’s expression genuine remorse, and Thomas Dance nodded in acceptance of Darcy’s words.
“Well, now,” Mr. Dance said and cast his eyes at the opposite end of the field. “We are down Richard but Liverpool is another year older, yet I think quite out of shape with his office work.”
Darcy chuckled. “You are scarcely a few years younger than he!”
“Yes, but I hardly look it,” he said and winked at Elizabeth.
“Nor do you act it!” Another gentleman came bounding over. His similar features proved meant he must be a Dance relation. A third young man tagged behind. The introduction that followed proved Elizabeth’s assumption correct, he was the youngest brother. Their other teammates, including Mr. Collins, gathered near.
Elizabeth could feel Darcy’s stare as the Dance brothers trained identical brown eyes on her. “How skilled are you at cricket, Miss Bennet?” the eldest asked.
“That is a rather subjective question. I played better than most of the boys in my town. However, that was several years ago, and they were not grown men.” She did not wish to disclose that it was a mere three years ago and not the dozen they likely presumed.
“Do not worry about that,” one of the younger brothers said. “They will be too awed by a female playing at all. These fancy types aren’t used to ladies doing more than sitting. Their chivalry will demand they bowl easy.”
The last brother looked at Elizabeth’s long skirts. “Do you bat well? I dare say it must be impossible to run in that get-up.”
“Run!” Mr. Collins gasped. “Miss Elizabeth surely you do not mean to do something so unladylike as run! Why Lady Catherine would never—”
“Miss Bennet is a capable player,” Darcy cut in. “She is healthy and young, full of energy. Do not underestimate her. That is their job, as Tom pointed out.”
“Thank you,” Elizabeth said. Tiring of others speaking for her, she stepped toward the equipment. “We ought to use this time to practice. As Mr. Darcy is our captain, I trust he is formulating a plan.”
“We shall play to our strengths.” Darcy counted the group off into nearly equal numbers and sent half to practice batting and half to work on sprints. When he had a moment, he spoke quietly to Elizabeth.
“I hope I do not upset you, but I feel that since you are burdened with less sporting attire, we would benefit the most from having you run with a partner most likely to hit far.”
“And who is that?” she asked, noting it did not seem like Darcy considered her own ability at bat. Knowing the eyes of the entire house were on her, she did not show her true skill during practice. She would rather surprise their opponents.
Darcy rubbed the back of his neck and looked away sheepishly. “In the past, it has been me.”
Elizabeth’s eyes scanned his tall, broad build, for the first time noting how more masculine his physique was than other gentlemen. How was he so strong? Did not rich men spend all their time indoors?
“Then, we shall be partners,” Elizabeth said and smiled.
The smile Darcy gave her in return stole her breath. He looked more youthful and carefree, vigorous and virile among men of an academic bent. As much as she admired George Dance and the legacy of his relations, wheedling away hours at a drafting table did not lend itself to the sorts of powerful muscles which rippled under Darcy’s coat and breeches. Her mouth growing dry, she suddenly wished she had taken greater note of their waltz.
“Excuse me,” Elizabeth said shaking her head. “I would like a drink of water before we begin.”
She ran over to the refreshment table, where Charlotte and several other ladies were gathered. “Good luck, Eliza,” Charlotte whispered.
Shoving concerns over her friend’s behaviour aside, Elizabeth thanked her and scurried back to the team, just as the Duke announced the game ready to commence.
“To not fatigue Miss Bennet,” the Duke began.
Elizabeth quelled the urge to roll her eyes at the Duke’s unnecessary condescension.
“Or our audience,” he continued, “we will play only one inning each. The limit is one over per bowler. Liverpool has the coin toss. I call heads.”
The Earl flipped the coin in the air and Elizabeth waited in trepidation for the resulting answer.
“Heads it is!”
Elizabeth and her teammates took to the field. Tom Dance took position as the first bowler. The Duke served as the on-strike batsman and the Earl at the bowling end. Tom bowled well, but the Duke struck the ball toward Mr. Collins who seemed too alarmed, whether by a hard object hurtling toward him or by the thought of catching the Duke out, that he jumped out of the way. The fielders near him scrambled to grab the ball, and the Duke and Earl managed four runs. Darcy rearranged the fielders and sent Collins to long-stop at the back after that, a decision Elizabeth wondered he did not start with.
The next several balls went better. Tom either bowled them out, or the fielders managed to limit the number of runs. However, Tom’s turn was over, and a new bowler was chosen. Elizabeth soon realised not all her teammates desired to win against such illustrious personages. As a fielder, no one hit a ball toward her. Anything that came remotely near was snatched by a gentleman who might harm his health with how hard he ran, all to keep Elizabeth from exerting herself in any way. However, one time, a ball came directly toward her, and she caught it, dismissing the batsman, to the surprise of nearly every participant.
“Miss Bennet,” Darcy called, “it is your turn to bowl.” He gave her a tight smile and Elizabeth could not make out if he disliked her playing or her treatment. As it was, he had saved her for next to last. She walked to the beginning of the approach.
“You may come forward,” the Duke called from where the opposing team gathered.
Elizabeth gave him a false smile and complied. When she had last played she did not need the modification, but she would not allow her pride to get the best of her. She took a few paces forward.
“And you may bowl underhand,” Liverpool added.
Elizabeth took a deep breath but before she could begin her run-up, Darcy made a motion, and the umpire called a break. Elizabeth narrowed her eyes at yet another modification due to her sex. Her would-be champion approached.
“Never mind them,” Darcy said. “Are you certain you wish to bowl? Dorset sounds like he would make allowances for you, but do not be fooled. He might just as soon hit directly at you. You can claim you are fatigued by the sun.” Darcy looked in the direction of the trees providing shade for the other guests. Charlotte talked with a very pregnant Mrs. Julia Jenkinson.
“I will not perish from one game of Cricket, sir.” Elizabeth glanced backwards. “However, my cousin seems quite weary so let us talk no more. The sooner I do my part, you may do yours, and then we might stand under the shade.”
“If you are certain,” Darcy scrutinised her resolve.
“I am,” Elizabeth said with an annoyed edge to her voice.
Darcy merely nodded and returned to his position as wicket-keeper. Elizabeth took a deep breath then ran a few paces past the crease and threw underhand. The striking batsman was evidently surprised for he missed his chance to strike the ball and instead resorted to protecting the wicket with his arm. Declared out leg before wicket by the umpire, the batsman left the field. The Dance brothers cheered Elizabeth, while Dorset and Liverpool consulted one another.
“On second thought, Miss Bennet is welcome to bowl as the others,” the Duke’s younger uncle, Mr. Jenkinson, said while laughing.
Elizabeth smiled, as well, and complied. Remaining behind the crease line and throwing overhand certainly was more difficult, but achievable. Again, the batsman was surprised. His delay caused him to edge the ball and be caught out by a fielder. Having learned to not underestimate her, Elizabeth’s next three balls resulted in several runs. By her last ball, her shoulder did ache from the unusual movements. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, one batsman had reached his century and retired after his one-hundredth run. The Duke of Dorset became the striking batsman and Darcy’s words resonated in her ears. However, she had thought the Duke had been quite good-natured. And while she disliked being coddled, she knew he acted with honour. He would never aim directly at her.
Elizabeth ran toward the crease line and let the ball fly from her right hand, rejoicing when she saw it line up well with the wickets. The world seemed to slow, however, when she heard a loud cracking sound and saw the ball hurtling directly for her. She heard the gasps from the crowd and out of the corner of her eye saw the silly point and the short leg race from their positions near Dorset to her. Despite hearing the pounding of feet from the slips behind her, she had no choice. She would not duck or jump out of the way. Taking a step backwards, so the ball did not strike her face, she caught the hard sphere in her hands at chest height. It punched into her with such force that she fell and knocked her head.
“Miss Bennet!” her teammates called to her. She attempted to sit up and soon regretted it.
“Rest a moment,” Tom Dance insisted. “I believe you hit your head when you fell.”
Elizabeth peered beyond him, first to the ladies rushing to her side, and then to where she heard angry words being yelled from the receiving wicket. Darcy looked ready to resort to fisticuffs with the Duke.
“That was in poor spirit of the game!” Darcy yelled, and many others seemed in agreement.
The umpire shook his head. “The Duke is caught and bowled. If Miss Bennet is not injured, we must resume the game.” The assembled crowd returned to their posts under the trees or to their position on the field.
“Can you stand?” Tom asked her.
“Of course. I am quite well,” Elizabeth insisted and took his hand when offered. Her head ached, but it would not stop her from playing.
Darcy approached. “Miss Bennet,” he said frowning. “I wish you would rest and allow someone else to take your place.”
“There is no one else,” she said and lifted her chin. “I wish to stay.”
“Let her be, Darcy,” Tom said. “Take it out on Dorset when it is your turn to bat.”
Darcy glared at the Duke but seemed to accept the other man’s suggestion. He ordered Elizabeth to the farthest fielding position and therefore least likely to be needed. Although Elizabeth was some distance from him, she could see he bowled well. His over was completed quickly with the Duke’s team gaining only two runs. While the teams exchanged positions on the field, Darcy took Elizabeth by the elbow and led her to Charlotte and Mrs. Jenkinson.
“If you ladies cannot talk sense into Miss Bennet to quit the game, perhaps you may insist she rest,” he said gruffly as though she had done something wrong.
He stalked off, and Elizabeth stared daggers at the back of his head. He had returned to his high and mighty Hertfordshire ways, and she despised it.
“Here is some lemonade,” Charlotte said and offered her fan. Elizabeth took both, but only to appear agreeable.
Mrs. Jenkinson shook her head. “I am surprised at Dorset. He never did such a thing to me.”
“Do you play?” Elizabeth asked. She was surprised the sister-in-law to an earl and aunt to a duke would participate in the sport.
“I think it might have been what Charles first noticed about me,” she laughed. “My father had been invited for some reason I can no longer remember and at fifteen, I was headstrong enough to volunteer for the task of completing a team, not realising how seriously the Liverpool men take the game.”
Elizabeth chuckled. “I admit I would not have expected such renowned men to play so passionately.”
“Indeed!” the lady agreed. “I was too young to court then, and Charles had just returned from Austria, but our families remained on good terms. We were always invited to the Easter gathering. I was around your age when Charles finally seemed to notice me for anything beyond cricket.” Her eyes took on a soft quality. “I sprained my wrist batting, and he was so tender. Oh, forgive me. I get so weepy when I am with child!” She pulled a handkerchief out from her reticule.
“You obviously love him very much,” Elizabeth said smilingly.
“Yes. His mother was not pleased when he wished to marry a penniless daughter of an Irish astronomer. I have undoubtedly polluted the family blood line.”
By the turn of her lips, Elizabeth could tell the lady found it more ridiculous than offensive. Inwardly, she smiled as well. Hearing that the Dowager Countess was related to Lady Catherine seemed fitting. It was exactly how she imagined her ladyship would react to Elizabeth marrying Darcy. Marrying Darcy! Where had such a thought come from?
“I think mothers often just wish for their children to do well. I do not know that my own ever went to sleep at night not worried about my future until I wed,” Charlotte said.
Elizabeth glanced at her in surprise and saw her friend’s eyes glittering.
“Surely the love between a mother and child is more than most will ever have.”
“Oh, now I have you crying too!” Mrs. Jenkinson pulled another handkerchief out and handed it to Charlotte. “Calm yourself, it is not good in your condition. You are entirely correct; happiness in marriage does not always follow a love match. There are many things love cannot change. If Charles had nothing and we married, I do not think we could have ever felt content.”
Elizabeth did not entirely agree, but was saved the trouble of having to reply by being called for her turn. As she left, Charlotte daintily wiped at her eyes and Elizabeth belatedly put the lady’s words together. Was Charlotte with child? Was that the source of her odd moods? Mrs. Jenkinson seemed to imply as much, and Elizabeth recalled that when her aunt had been expecting she also had emotional outbursts.
Shaking her head to clear the family concerns of others, she focused on her position. With any luck, she would be caught out and not expected to stay on the pitch as a non-striking batsman. Her head did ache, but she also had little enthusiasm for the game. She much preferred to stroll the grounds.
When she was receiving, she was a victim of discrimination again; the bowler bowled the ball far too easily. She hit the ball and managed two runs, but the former non-striking batsman retired. Finally, it was Darcy’s turn, and soon the infernal game would be over. It was now the Duke’s turn to bowl, and Darcy eyed him with steely determination. After two balls that were wide, Darcy seemed more infuriated. Elizabeth recalled him claiming great skill with the bat, and if the Duke would not bowl correctly, then it would prevent Darcy from hitting over the boundary and scoring six runs. Looking over her shoulder, Elizabeth saw that the fielders had backed up closer to the boundary.
Elizabeth watched as Dorset bowled again. From her position, it looked as though the ball would hit Darcy in the shoulder. At the last possible moment, it veered to her left. Darcy swung hard, his form worthy of being sculpted by the great artists. The ball sailed through the air past the boundary. She could not help cheering with her teammates, although she was entirely unsure what the score was. The teams gathered around their captains and waited for the umpires to call the game.
“Team Darcy wins! One hundred twenty-two runs to the Duke’s one hundred twenty. Darcy’s team wins by two!”
The cry from her teammates filled Elizabeth with pride. She cared nothing for the game. It had been a pleasant enough past-time from her youth, but she enjoyed more their pride and teamwork as they beat their hosts, something Elizabeth thought seldom occurred, and not merely out of deference. To her surprise, she was specially thanked and praised.
“It was your two runs, Miss Bennet!” One of the younger Dance brothers proclaimed.
“Aye, it was!” Tom agreed.
“Three cheers for Miss Bennet!” more called out.
Elizabeth laughed at the gaiety and absurdity. She could only think they gave her such credit because it would wound the pride of the Dorset clan more to have been beaten by a woman. “And what of our captain? He scored the final runs!”
Darcy flushed with her praise and the resulting cheers but as his eyes met hers he gave her a genuine smile, which she returned. Whatever his foul mood was from earlier, she was pleased to see him return to informality and friendship.
The remainder of the day was spent eating a casual luncheon, polite conversation with the ladies including Miss de Bourgh, and a tour of the grounds and the house. Despite Elizabeth enjoying the Tudor arches, Knole’s brown gallery, a collection of Raphael cartoons, and many paintings by Joshua Reynolds, including Wang-y-tong the Sackville Chinese page boy, the height of her enjoyment was the original medieval walled garden inside a larger walled garden. The additional highlight of a group drawing lesson from George Dance was only eclipsed by then speaking with him about the need for more neo-Medieval architecture. His agreeing that Elizabeth had many knowledgeable points nearly outshone the bizarre jealousy she felt when she observed Darcy talking for an extended period with Julia Jenkinson.
Overall, Elizabeth was excessively pleased with her visit to Knole. Mr. Collins did not let her forget how much she owed Lady Catherine and, although she rather thought it was all due to another, she profusely thanked the lady before leaving. Fortunately for Elizabeth’s still slightly throbbing head, the distance to Hunsford was easy, and soon she was away from her cousin’s commands of gratitude and unheard compliments to his patroness.
I have had the pleasure of seeing Angelika’s portrait of the Earl of Spencer’s children. The eldest daughter is soon to marry her young Duke. I confess, I worry for Lady Georgiana. At not yet seventeen, she is still a child and I fear the Duke was not raised as I would have hoped a grandson of Lady Burlington would have been raised. Dearest, when you wed find something between an impoverished gentleman and a Duke, if you please. On a more pleasant subject, I have never enjoyed a piece of poetry so much as I loved Miss Scott’s Female Advocate.
The following morning, Elizabeth slept later than usual. Mr. Collins was already in the garden while Charlotte and Maria were in the sitting room, having finished breakfast. Before entering, she heard some of their conversation.
“Like this?” Maria asked.
Elizabeth presumed the young girl was being shown an embroidery stitch.
“Yes, that is excellent!” Charlotte praised her younger sister.
A sad smile came to Elizabeth’s lips. She recalled sitting with Jane in such a way. Her elder sister had much more patience than their mother did. But who sat with the younger ones? Jane sometimes would try, but Elizabeth had cast off Lydia and Kitty as far too simple-minded for her. Their parents did little better. In the end, it was small wonder the girls had felt no one was worth listening to.
“Shall we not ask Lizzy to join us?” Maria asked.
“I think we had better let her rest. She must be overtired from her performance yesterday.”
“Performance? You mean Cricket?”
Charlotte sighed. “Maria, dear, you must see by now that Eliza is the type of woman who must always have as much attention as possible. It is not to be wondered at since you know her mother. She was not raised to be retiring or modest. I suppose Jane tries, but with such beauty, she will never be overlooked.”
Elizabeth covered her mouth lest an offended gasp alert them to her presence. Must she always be hearing ungenerous things about herself?
“Do not look at me so,” Charlotte scolded. “Eliza is my dearest friend, but our months of separation have allowed me to see our differences. I had thought age would demure her, but I am convinced it is not so. She will never change. Thank heavens she had the sense to know how ill-matched she would be with my dear Collins.”
“I had not thought of it that way,” Maria said.
“Be thankful you have an older sister, for I had to learn for myself and you see it took me twenty-seven years. Forget notions of love or romance. Men of sense desire wives who are calm and level-headed. They want women who will run their household well and be a credit to their names. Look for a gentleman who matches your desires in life. For example, I would not be pleased with a man who wished to live in London.”
“Surely love exists for some no matter how ill-matched they are?”
Elizabeth could hear the anxiety in Maria’s voice.
“Mr. Darcy seems to love Lizzy. They have little in common, but it would be—”
Unwilling to allow them to gossip about her, Elizabeth called out as though she were some distance away. “Charlotte?”
There was a slight pause. “We are in the drawing room.”
Rolling her eyes as she stamped her feet on the ground to pretend walking down the hall, she counted the minutes until she could leave. She intended to visit Miss de Bourgh this morning. Finally, she entered the chamber.
“Eliza, you look unwell.”
Genuine concern etched across Charlotte’s face, confusing Elizabeth. “A lingering headache. I think a walk will cure me.”
“But you have not eaten. Stay and take some tea, at least,” Charlotte insisted.
Feeling as though she could not avoid the invitation, Elizabeth complied. While they drank, the mail came. Elizabeth had a missive from Mary and Charlotte opened a letter with eagerness.
“Ladies, Mrs. Julia Jenkinson invites us to call on her in two days’ time for an informal tea at Knole House.”
“La! Will we see the Duchess again?” Maria asked with her eyes rounding in mingled fear and excitement.
“I do not think we will. She would have much more important things to do than wait on us.”
As Charlotte said it, Elizabeth imagined the cogs in her head turning in thought. A friendship with Mrs. Jenkinson could very well lead to greater intimacy with the Duchess. The Sackvilles would have considerably more patronage in the church. Fortunately, Jane’s voice scolded her. Elizabeth needed to clear the air with her friend, but she should be careful to not presume her motives. Instead, Elizabeth expressed her happiness with the invitation. When their tea was finished, she excused herself to walk and read Mary’s letter.
Mary had little of interest to say. The militia would soon decamp to Brighton, giving Elizabeth ease for if they could not remove Wickham earlier then he would be leaving anyway. However, a few lines later, Mary reported Lydia’s growing intimacy with the Colonel of the Regiment’s wife and that she was frequently in the company of several of the officers, including Wickham.
If only she could leave Kent earlier! She needed to speak with her Uncle or Father. They must be made to understand the danger Wickham posed. Increasingly, Elizabeth wondered if she should reveal to Darcy all that Wickham had said. Weeks ago, it had seemed immaterial, but now with Darcy’s declarations and professions of admiration, it seemed possible that Wickham had considered Darcy might wish to marry her all along. How humbling to think that so many others were less astonished by Darcy’s interest than she was. Two things kept her from anxiety as she walked swiftly to Rosings. The first being that Darcy would be intelligent enough to think of some excuse for an earlier arrival in London, even if it meant she could not stay with the Gardiners. Secondly, that while Wickham may understand Darcy enough to see his attachment, he most assuredly did not know her. He had supposed she and Charlotte would concoct a plan to ensnare Darcy. In actuality, Charlotte did not approve of the match, and Elizabeth would rather live in disgrace the rest of her life than to bring a shred of it to the Darcy name.
That thought slowed her pace. She could no longer vow that she did not harbour the slightest desire to marry Darcy. It was far too early to know if she would welcome his renewed declarations but she also admitted there was an increasing possibility that she might when weeks ago he would have been the last man she would have considered. However, it was not just Darcy of whom she must think. Scandal attached to her could ruin Georgiana or Anne. And while she had only met the Baroness once, she felt they were kindred spirits. Lady Catherine would undoubtedly not approve of the match at any rate, but the thought of losing the good opinion of Darcy’s other aunt troubled her.
Darcy’s voice called out, startling her. She missed noticing a raised tree root and tripped. Feeling her ankle twist and not wanting to risk further injury, Elizabeth crumpled to the ground.
“Elizabeth!” Darcy exclaimed and ran to her side. “Are you injured? Is it your head?”
Elizabeth blinked up at him. Her head? She had landed on her bottom and remained upright. Why should he worry about her head?
“No, my head is quite well, thank you. I twisted my ankle on this root.” She pointed at the source and experimented with flexing her foot. “I think I can walk but should probably rest the remainder of the day. I will regret missing my visit with Miss de Bourgh.”
“You are far closer to Rosings than you are to the parsonage. I will assist you to the house. Then, we will let the housekeeper fuss over you and you may keep your visit with Anne.”
Elizabeth smiled a little. Had she thought him arrogant and intruding before? Now, she admired the way he could manage a situation. “Very well. Could we rest a bit first? And perhaps out of the lane?”
“Certainly.” Darcy looped one arm under Elizabeth’s knees and clasped another around her waist, lifting her with ease as she shrieked and clutched his lapels.
“I can walk!”
“Ah, but then I could not play the hero,” he said with a smile he did not attempt to hide.
Elizabeth laughed and shook her head. Would she ever know what to expect from this man? He gently placed her on the ground under a tree, several paces from the lane and joined her.
“Other than your ankle, are you well? You have had no lingering effects from yesterday?”
“Only a slight headache.”
Darcy cursed under his breath. “That dolt should be whipped. He was threatened by you and sought to harm you!”
Elizabeth laughed. “I am sure it is no more than he would do to any opponent.”
“That may be, but you are… you are…”
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows in expectation. “I am?”
Darcy clamped his mouth shut.
“A woman? Something delicate?”
Darcy shook his head. “No, that is not the source of my agitation.”
He seemed unwilling to say more, and it occurred to Elizabeth they had sat like this not too many days before and yet her feelings were entirely different. Now, she did not blame him for every misfortune in her life or feel the need to fill their moments of silence. She found them companionable. She fiddled with the grass and leaves around her, then brushed a fly from her cheek.
“You mean very much to me,” Darcy said. The words were the words of a lover, and yet the tone sounded angry. “I care for you and wish for you to be safe.”
“Is that why you kept asking me to quit the game?” Elizabeth asked. It was probably the sweetest, most infuriating thing a person had ever done for her and she bit back a smile.
“You know I am not gifted with words. I apologise if I angered you. I know I am muddling this up.”
“Why do you say that?” Elizabeth thought he did quite well. He could be very articulate when he wished.
“There are no words to explain my admiration. I will not renew addresses which disgusted you but neither can I remove those sentiments.”
For some reason, Elizabeth’s heart sank. His proposal had only mentioned that he found her a suitable candidate as a wife. There was nothing about tender feelings or passion. When had she begun to wish to have such things with him? Did he only see her as a bluestocking? An intelligent woman who could further his social circle and run his household?
Glancing at him, she saw his intense stare on her face. “What is it?”
He withdrew a handkerchief and tenderly passed it over one cheek while he held her chin in his other hand. She must have wiped dirt on her face. She lowered her eyes in shame while he remained holding her face.
“Elizabeth,” Darcy rasped. “If you do not wish for me to kiss you, wrench your face away this instant. I can bear it no more.”
Instead, Elizabeth tilted her chin up as her lashes fluttered. As his flesh met hers, pure bliss ripped through her body.
He should not be doing this. He absolutely should not be doing this. Elizabeth’s sweet kiss held a grip on him, though, and all the logic in the world stood no chance. It mattered not that they were paces from the lane to Rosings where anyone might see them. Nor did it matter that the woman had soundly refused his marriage proposal and thus any sane man would say matrimony was not in their future. Alas, he was sick of logic and claims of duty.
When he had savoured her lips for as long as he dared, he touched his forehead to hers. Elizabeth’s breath came quickly, and he could feel the heat of her blush. The vestiges of control he had began to slip. Never before had he understood how men could mislay their honour and seduce maidens and yet he was very aware that life would be incomplete without joining with this particular one.
“Do you know,” Elizabeth said with humour in her voice when she had caught her breath, “that I believe you can read minds.”
The statement was ludicrous but flattering and caused him to chuckle. “A dangerous talent, then. Perhaps it is best that I have never used it before.” They shared a laugh before he asked with keen interest, “What makes you think so?”
“Moments ago, I was wondering if you saw me as anything more than a bluestocking to be collected for your club.”
Darcy started. He had been careful to not mention the Club to avoid her coming to such a conclusion. Additionally, he was uncertain if his aunt would approve of her lower position in the world when her ladyship had asked for titled and wealthy members.
“The papers report many things,” she said with a knowing look. “I had not looked before, but after you had mentioned the likely gossip that would attend your arriving at the Gardiner residence, I took an interest. You are recreating the Bluestocking Club. It seems all of London is invested in the oddity of your celebrating your future inheritance with surrounding yourself with intellectual women.”
Darcy shook his head. “It is Lady Darcy’s request which I am bound to honour. If the papers imagine I would be the head of such a club, they could not be more wrong. While the ladies decades ago sometimes invited gentlemen to partake of their meetings, I am convinced a gentleman hosting so many ladies could be anything but proper.”
Elizabeth’s smile dipped a little. “So, you would be looking for a proper hostess.”
“Not necessarily,” he hedged lest he scare her away. “Georgiana is nearly of age, and there is no reason to conclude a lady related to me must be their leader or that they would even need one. They might decide upon a more democratic approach.”
“Democracy in the social spheres of England? How scandalous!” Elizabeth exclaimed in mock outrage. “Why your other aunt would never approve!”
They laughed before Elizabeth glanced toward the mansion. “Speaking of her ladyship, I would like to continue my journey now. I would not wish for Miss de Bourgh to think I would skip our meeting or to worry about me.”
“Very well,” Darcy offered his arm although he longed to scoop her up again. She leant heavier than usual on it but not near as heavily as he would have guessed from a twist. While they walked, Darcy explained his aunt’s vision for her club and the ladies he had already gathered, Julia Jenkinson being the most recent addition. He included a brief history of its predecessor as well.
“Angelica Kauffman…” Elizabeth furrowed her brow. “I have seen that name before.” After a moment of silence, she exclaimed. “Oh! In the copy of The Tempest, you found for me, there was a sketch of Ferdinand and Miranda. It said it was copied from a portrait by Angelica Kauffman.”
“How interesting! When next we meet I would enjoy seeing it.”
“Certainly,” Elizabeth said. “Will you not now scold me for avoiding our conversation of the work?”
“I would, if I thought it might do any good,” Darcy smiled.
Elizabeth laughed. “I promise we may talk about it soon. You must forgive me for not having read more than a few pages. Last night, I was overtired from the outing and the evening before I was over excited from anticipation.”
“Then perhaps tonight you may read it, for the evening will be very dull indeed. At least it will be so for me. Lady Catherine’s dinner table is always tedious, made bearable the last several weeks by your presence. What are meals like at your cousin’s?”
Elizabeth groaned. “Dull would be my word of choice as well! Each passing day feels more and more like a rusted knife attempting to rip out my heart, in the process doing as much damage as it can. I never thought I would miss the high spirits of Lydia and Kitty or the anxieties of my mother.”
She peeked at him, and Darcy wondered if it were to see what he thought of her family now. “You must miss them greatly.”
Nodding in agreement, they reached the steps of Rosings, where, without caring who might see, Darcy swept Elizabeth into his arms again. When the butler greeted them, he could not contain his shock but informed them in which drawing room they could find Anne. She gasped at Darcy and his precious cargo, immediately ordering a cold compress and refreshments as well as wraps and liniment. Soon, Elizabeth was coddled and relaxed in a chair with her foot elevated, and while she flushed with each kindness, Darcy did not know when he had ever felt more concerned, excepting when he saw Elizabeth fall backwards yesterday and knock her head.
The three young people took turns reading poetry and making a card table. Eventually, it was time for Elizabeth to return and as she refused to stay at Rosings, the carriage was ordered for her. As Darcy handed Elizabeth in, he was pleased to see her ankle mostly healed.
Returning to Anne’s sitting room, he met her smiling face. She clapped her hands. “That went splendidly! I believe Miss Bennet is seeing the honourable gentleman you have been hiding behind a facade of indifference and annoyance.”
“Usually, that would fluff my pride. Today, I know better. If she does think of me, I am sure it has only been with hate.” At least until recently, he held back a grin at the thought.
“No, it is me that she hated,” Anne shook her head.
“You! She hardly knows you!”
“And yet she has heard I am destined to be your wife. She found me insipid and arrogant.”
Darcy frowned. It was a wonder Elizabeth did not accuse him of either toying with her or of dishonourably abandoning Anne. “Considering she says I am also arrogant, she must think we deserve each other.”
“Perhaps,” Anne shrugged, “but she came to that conclusion before ever meeting me. Elizabeth confessed while she was in Hertfordshire, she had been told I was conceited and insolent. I wonder who she could have as common acquaintances, but I did not have a moment to ask her or Mrs. Collins.”
Biting back a curse, Darcy’s frown deepened. “Undoubtedly, more of Wickham’s lies.”
“Mr. Wickham?” Anne turned whiter than linen, and her voice wavered. “Your old steward’s son?”
“Technically, he was never my steward. His father served mine,” and therefore I owe him nothing, Darcy thought to himself. He scrutinised his cousin. “Anne, you are unwell. I will call Mrs. Jenkinson. Allow me to fetch you some wine.”
He quickly poured her a glass. Upon returning to her side, he was pleased to see some of her colour had returned. Still, she eagerly took his offered drink and did not admonish him when he pulled the bell cord. After the servant had left to seek Mrs. Jenkinson, Darcy returned to her side.
“Thank you for looking after me,” she said with a wry twist of her lips.
“It is nothing,” he said.
“I am so ashamed,” Anne blushed red and then covered her face. “If he knew — if he only knew! Oh, how he would delight in finding me weak once again.”
“I do not understand what you mean. Are your senses addled?” Darcy sat beside her and felt her forehead.
Anne swatted his hand away. “I am not ill. Please, before Mrs. Jenkinson arrives, you must answer me.” She took a deep breath, and her pleading eyes held Darcy’s gaze. “Do you mean to say that Miss Bennet is acquainted with Mr. Wickham?”
“Yes, he had joined a militia regiment quartered in Hertfordshire. I understand he has not hesitated to speak against me and use the area’s prejudice to his advantage.”
“Specifically, Miss Bennet?”
Darcy frowned. “Yes, and it contributed to some of her opinions of me.”
“Now, I might be ill—” A
knock at the door interrupted her words. Darcy opened it, and Mrs. Jenkinson strolled in.
“Oh, my dear girl!” She exclaimed and cast accusing eyes at Darcy. He had often observed that the woman was motherlier than the woman who birthed her. “What has happened?”
“I will soon recover, Nan.” Darcy began to retreat, feeling that he was unwelcome and intruding on a scene which required privacy. “No, stay, Conor.”
Darcy’s feet ceased their movement at that still unfamiliar but nostalgic endearment. “I am at your service. How can I assist you?”
“Quit being such a bloody knight in shining armour. This ordeal would be much easier if you were not so perfect,” she glowered darkly at him.
Darcy looked at Mrs. Jenkinson, a question on his lips.
“What Anne means to say is to be seated,” she interpreted.
Darcy shifted his eyes between the two as an unspoken discussion passed between them. He sat feeling like a recalcitrant schoolboy called to the head master’s office. Only, as Anne had said, he had been too “perfect” to have experienced such a humiliation.
“I will wait in my chamber,” Mrs. Jenkinson said and glanced at a clock. “I will return in half an hour,” she said firmly.
Anne nodded and met her companion’s gaze. There was a steely set to Anne’s eyes which Darcy had never seen before. If he had to name it, he would call it the Fitzwilliam stubbornness.
Mrs. Jenkinson left, and the only sound in the room was the slow ticking of the clock. After several minutes, Darcy cleared his throat. “Anne?”
His cousin squeezed her eyes shut. “I have imagined this conversation dozens — hundreds — of times. I would practice it and imagine how you might storm and rage. I imagined you would rail at me and tell me of the shame I brought to our family and how you could not abide my failure. Never once had I imagined it would be in such a context.”
Darcy furrowed his brow. “I apologise for any offence, even if imaginary. You will have to enlighten me, however, on what context you reference and why you fear I would behave in such a fashion.”
“I am referencing the fact that I hold information which will aid your courtship with another lady and will, hopefully, preserve the happiness of her family and the innocence of a maiden. If I had to guess his motives now, I would think he would target one of her sisters.”
Darcy’s pulse slowed, and ice filled his veins. When he was told his mother would not survive after Georgiana’s birth, the same terror had seized him. Although he could only guess at Anne’s meaning, he knew whatever next came out of her mouth would likely change his life forever.
“George Wickham seduced me.”
I refuse to waste any more paper considering the mad Americans. It is all the chatter at my usual salons. If ever there was a need for a salon where politics was not discussed ‘tis now. Instead, I will tell you that I saw Sheridan’s newest play and enjoyed it immensely. I have surely known far too many ladies like Mrs. Malaprop who think they are being clever and yet only display their lack of intelligence by continually misusing words.
A loud buzzing noise filled Darcy’s ears. He must have misheard Anne. “Pardon?” His voice sounded raw even to his faulty senses.
“George Wickham seduced me,” Anne squeezed her hands together tightly. “I was but sixteen.”
“The last time you visited Pemberley,” Darcy murmured as he considered the occasion. Anne had withdrawn from him and appeared ill. She pleaded with her parents to leave, but they refused. Upon her return to Kent, she was unwell for nearly a year. Terror seized him. “Your illness?”
“I was so ashamed…” She trailed off.
“Were there consequences?” He asked with raised eyebrows. Was there a babe hid away somewhere? Did her mother know?
A hollow and throaty laugh emerged from Anne. “Consequences?”
She asked mockingly, but Darcy took no offence.
“There was no child if that is what you are asking, but there were surely more consequences. Far more than I think men consider when they make light of women and their position in the world.”
Her eyes drifted to the sideboard and his followed. In most rooms of the gentry, it was filled with decanters of various spirits. Anne’s held tea and what he presumed were various medicinal items. There was one small decanter of sherry. He had not considered it before, but it was far smaller than any other he had seen before.
“I had feared I would lose my mind with love for him. How could I give up my family? And yet, I was prepared to do so. I knew there would be no other way. We were to elope.”
A knife twisted in Darcy’s heart.
“He insisted I demonstrate my devotion first.” A shudder wracked Anne’s body. “After…” she paused, and her breath grew laboured for several minutes.
Darcy had little doubt she was reliving it all.
“After it had become apparent he meant none of it, I hated myself.”
“You left Pemberley very ill,” Darcy said.
Anne snorted. “Yes, well, when you shun food for nearly a week and pilfer every liquor cabinet in a vast house, that will happen.”
Only years of good breeding kept Darcy’s jaw from dropping to the floor.
“Do you recall how good I was at finding hiding places when we were young?”
The sudden change in conversation puzzled Darcy, but he nodded.
“They could not hide the bottles from me. There was always some servant I could bribe and then…then I would find a way to fill my thirst.”
“Anne, I do not know what to say…” He had spent years avoiding her and any mention of their alleged betrothal, yet all the while she went through a hell he could not imagine.
“Mother saved me, you know,” she whispered.
Darcy shook his head. “I did not.”
“She recognised some serious matter had thrown me into depression. She told me I was not the first, nor would I be the last, to make such a mistake.”
“She was right,” Darcy emphatically agreed.
“She told me if I wanted to kill myself to get on with it, but drawing it out accomplished nothing and she would not help me hurt myself any longer.”
Hardly able to fathom his aunt had said such a thing, he leant forward, enthralled with Anne’s story.
“I thought about it,” she shrugged. “Food was one thing I could control in my life and spirits the one thing that could dull the pain. After a particularly bad episode, I realised I did wish to live. I regret Father did not see me overcome my selfishness.”
“You were ill,” Darcy reassured and touched her hand. “He would have been very proud.”
Anne gave him a sad smile and then drew her shoulders back. “I vowed that you would never hear it from me, unless under the most extreme circumstances. I would torture myself with thoughts as to why I would divulge my shame. I thought perhaps it would be if Mother or Nan died. If loneliness in this huge house threatened to consume me and tempt me again, I would tell you the truth and throw myself on your mercy. Or if anything happened to Georgiana. I had thought perhaps you would leave the begetting of heirs to her. Or mayhap, when you inherited your title.”
She shook her head. “Really, I came up with many far-fetched scenarios of you believing you had no choice but to marry me, and my explaining why I never could.”
“Do you think I would not have you because of a youthful transgression?” He hated that she thought it of him. He hated that his arrogance had been a source of self-torture.
“No, it is not that,” she said with heightened colour. “I did not imagine you happy over the information. But I know Wickham’s designs. He foolishly said as much to me.”
“What do you mean?” The fear returned and gripped his heart even tighter.
“He bedded me simply so he could enjoy having me before you. He had always intended it as a victory over you.” She twisted her hands and spoke with increasing rapidity. “Don’t you see? He targeted Miss Bennet for a reason. He must have seen your attraction to her.”
“But she is here,” Darcy shook his head. “You were correct. Elizabeth tells me she overheard him boasting of being able to seduce one of her sisters. While Lydia Bennet is a shameless flirt, there is no reason to presume that to defile her would pain me.”
“Would you marry Elizabeth even if her family were ruined?” Anne raised a brow.
“Of course,” Darcy replied without hesitation. He had known for weeks that if Wickham truly did have such a scheme and attempted to put it in motion, he might succeed. It seemed doubtful, however, that Wickham would attempt such folly. The Bennets could offer him little. He had not considered that Wickham had made a connection between him and Elizabeth. Still, after Georgiana nearly eloped with the scoundrel, he could hardly object if Elizabeth’s sister did the same.
“And would you have her if Wickham were her brother?”
Darcy’s jaw clenched at the thought. He would try every other means rather than see anyone marry the man. Lydia Bennet, however, might be silly enough to believe herself in love with him. “He would never be welcome at Pemberley,” Darcy growled.
Anne raised her eyebrows, but there was no time to explain about Georgiana. Anne fiddled her thumbs. “Perhaps you are correct, and there is nothing to it. I hope I did not distress you for no reason.”
“Think nothing of my discomfort,” he said. “You are far braver and stronger than I ever gave you credit for,” he said with genuine feeling.
“Thank you,” Anne said. “The damage is done, though. I grow yellower by the day. My frequent drives in the sun help the jaundice, but nothing can help the liver.”
“I am sorry I was not there for you,” he said.
“I did not wish you to be!” Anne’s eyes swam with unshed tears. “You were staid and dull. George was exciting and vivacious. I hated Mother’s insinuations that we should wed. I dreamt of romance and adventure.”
“Still I ought to have been a better friend to you since then,” Darcy hung his head.
“Your father died soon after the incident and naturally you had other concerns. I will not listen to your self-pity. Do not allow it to break you like mine nearly did to me,” Anne insisted. “My mistakes are my own. One day you will learn and accept that, rather than taking on everyone else’s concerns for yourself.”
Footsteps sounded in the hall.
“Now, be off with you. Nan will come and fuss over me.”
Darcy paused at the door.
“Before you ask, yes you may tell Miss Bennet.” Anne shooed him away with her hands and turned her attention to a book.
“Thank you,” Darcy said and awkwardly left.
He would have spoken with Elizabeth the following morning. On the way to his chambers, he was alerted by a servant that he had letters in his room. He had been neglecting his business and personal correspondence for the sake of his courtship with Elizabeth. After spending the afternoon answering letters from his steward, he turned his attention to letters from family.
Richard had been given leave to attend General Middleton’s house party in Sussex and would speak with him on transferring Wickham. However, it would take days to journey there and back. In the meantime, he now seemed annoyed at having to deal with it at all. He counselled Darcy that Wickham was no menace to Elizabeth’s family. That the man was prone to exaggeration and would gain nothing from seducing a squire’s daughter. He spent most of the letter ranting about Darcy needing to protect Georgiana from untrustworthy suitors, and that he thought Bingley visited too often.
Miffed at his cousin’s letter, Darcy put it aside and turned to Georgiana’s. She pleaded with him to leave Rosings. She went on and on about the near constant visits from Richard or Bingley, sometimes overlapping and yet their aunt had not visited or returned her letters. Able to read between the lines with his sister easier than Richard, Darcy could discern Georgiana grew anxious over Lady Darcy’s health and tired of visits from the gentlemen. If Darcy returned then he would be protection enough, and the others could go about their lives rather than chaperone her.
By the time he finished replying to the earlier correspondence, the clock had begun to chime the hour to dress for dinner, and Darcy laid his last letter aside. He would read Lady Darcy’s missive in the morning.
In the morning, Elizabeth tiptoed down the parsonage stairs. The day and night of rest healed her ankle entirely. It sounded like only the servants were awake and Elizabeth desired to avoid her hosts. She had forgotten to speak with Darcy about leaving Kent earlier than planned. There were now five days remaining before she could join the Gardiners. It was not only the matter of her discomfort with the Collinses and worries for her sisters which drove her decision. Darcy had proved more than trustworthy. Her heart raced at the thought of telling him everything she had heard Wickham say, no matter how embarrassing. However, she trusted him. While she had resisted telling her father — or any other soul — what she heard, she believed she would never lose Darcy’s friendship.
Rehearsing her words, all thought escaped her when she rounded a turn in the grove and found Darcy waiting for her. He turned at the sound of her steps on the path.
“Elizabeth,” he hastened to her side.
“Good morning, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth smiled, feeling some of her nerves ease.
“I hope you slept well.”
“I did, thank you.” They shared a tense smile. They had never been very good at bland, polite conversation. “I must speak with you.”
“We must talk,” Darcy said at the same time. “Pardon me! Please, proceed.”
Elizabeth stuttered and attempted to give him the opportunity to speak first. However, he insisted she say her piece. At last, she nodded but did not know where to begin. Darcy ceased walking and caught her by the hand when she tried to continue. He pulled her closer to him.
“You can tell me anything, Elizabeth,” he said and raised her gloved hand to his lips.
“I know,” she said and squeezed his hand in return. Looking into his eyes, she found a courage she did not know she had. “I have kept something from you.”
“There are more faults in my character you see?”
“I have been wrong, so wrong!” Elizabeth exclaimed.
“Please, I meant to jest.” Darcy placed her hand on his arm. He kept his hand on hers, imbuing her with strength.
“Do you recall when I told you Wickham planned to elope with Lydia?” Darcy’s arm tensed underneath her hand, and he nodded. “I told you I had overheard him speaking of it with other men. However…” she trailed off, and Darcy squeezed her hand. “I did not tell you everything I heard.”
“I assume it was not pressing,” he said. “How can I assist?”
“At the time, it seemed ridiculous and…and embarrassing.” As Elizabeth spoke, her cheeks turned red. “Yesterday, I received a letter from Mary. She reported Lydia’s increasing intimacy with Colonel Forster’s wife. Lydia hopes she might be invited to go with them when the Regiment decamps to Brighton in a few weeks.”
“That would be the ideal time for him to elope with her.”
“Indeed. You also, evidently, recall how I misunderstood your character. We have had many conversations about my false impressions and insecurities, have we not?”
“Yes,” Darcy said and squeezed her hand. “I would not trade those discussions for the world, no matter the pain and anger I felt at first.”
“We will not argue about who shares the greater blame.” Darcy again squeezed her hand and Elizabeth took a deep breath before the words rushed out. “Wickham, he…he…he presumed an attachment between us…that is that you admired me and I would ensnare you. His goal was to elope with Lydia after a betrothal between us was announced.”
Elizabeth glanced up at Darcy, who had turned his head. She could see by his profile that his jaw was clenched, and a vein near his eye pulsed.
“Is this all you heard?”
“No…” Elizabeth trailed off and began to remove her hand from Darcy’s arm, but he would not allow it. He raised her hand to his lips again. Elizabeth sighed and closed her eyes to escape seeing the anger or disappointment in them when she said the next part. “He thought that after our marriage, he could…s.. s…”
Why was this so hard? She began again. “He thought he might seduce me. It seemed like that was his final triumph. Your money he would like, but there was something more…something vengeful.”
Elizabeth’s words ended on a whisper, and a shudder wracked her body. She had spent weeks telling herself a man who had dined in her home could not be so evil, but she could no longer deny it. Glancing at Darcy, his face had turned white.
“I will kill him,” Darcy vowed. His grip on her hand was almost painful. “If he ever laid a hand on you, I would kill him.”
Elizabeth attempted to pull her hand free, and Darcy finally released his hold. “Forgive me. Forgive me,” he muttered.
He took several steps away from Elizabeth. She could see anger evident on every feature. Now that she knew him so well, she no longer feared it was directed at her. She watched him pace for several minutes before it occurred to her that he should not bear alone whatever burden now tortured him. Elizabeth approached and grabbed his hand, bringing him to the present.
“What troubles you?” She asked before raising his hand to her lips. “You can tell me anything.”
Darcy’s features softened with her words and gesture. Elizabeth’s heart fluttered at her effect on him.
Darcy took her by the hand, and led her to the fallen tree they had sat at days ago. Once he settled his coat on the tree and saw that she was sitting, he took her hands in his. “I have many things to explain, but I do not have much time. Please believe me that while I may have been foolish, blind, too reserved, and even arrogant, I was never malicious. I never would have wished for anyone to be hurt by Wickham, the least of all your family.”
“I know,” she squeezed his hands in return.
“When I had explained there was a young lady that Wickham attempted to elope with last summer, you did not press for details, and I did not divulge them. I had also said that Wickham was capable of plotting. The truth is…the lady he selected had a very close relationship with me. It was…” He paused, and Elizabeth saw his throat work. “It was my sister.”
“Georgiana!” Elizabeth could not contain her shock. In her few interactions with the girl, she was very shy and scarcely older than Lydia.
“Please do not think less of her—”
“No, I would never!”
“He preyed on her childhood friendship with him while she was on holiday at Ramsgate. However, I always believed he desired revenge even more than her thirty thousand pounds. Now, I know for certain.”
“How can you know that?”
“Yesterday, after you returned to the parsonage, Anne said she believed you disliked her. I assured her that you must have only been prejudiced due to Wickham. Then…she made the most shocking confession.”
Elizabeth listened in silence. While Darcy spoke, she could feel his love and compassion for his relations. How many others would have cast off a foolish sister? Additionally, that a sheltered young lady like Anne de Bourgh could have something to say even more shocking than nearly eloping with a steward’s son, stunned Elizabeth.
“I fear this may not be fit for a lady’s ears.”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Spare me the chivalry. I heard worse from Wickham, I am sure.”
“You are correct,” Darcy nodded. “Wickham seduced Anne when she was sixteen.” He said matter of factly.
“No!” Elizabeth gasped.
“Yes, and there is far more about that situation which I could explain later, but she said that Wickham had told her he meant to have her before we wed.”
“Where did he seduce Anne? Georgiana’s involvement happened at Ramsgate. I assume you did not accompany her?”
“No, no. She went with her companion, who I later learnt had a connection to Wickham. However, he seduced Anne at Pemberley. He must be adept at avoiding chaperones.”
“Exactly! And so, Lydia may be unsafe even at Longbourn.” Elizabeth glanced around. “Consider how often we have met unaccompanied. We must leave for London and send for Lydia as soon as possible.”
“I agree, and on that subject, my aunt has requested my presence.”
“Yes, I must depart this morning. She has been quite unwell.”
“I hope it is nothing serious,” Elizabeth said knowing that at her age illnesses often were.
Darcy dipped his head. “I fear it might be.” He squeezed her hands again. “Let us not worry about such things. Will you accompany me to London?”
“Thank you. I—”
“I know you have not been keen on the idea before, but we have very few choices now. A maid has not been arranged yet, and Richard has my carriage. Lady Catherine’s coach broke an axle slipping in mud after returning you to the parsonage yesterday. Anne has offered her phaeton. The open carriage should lend propriety. If you refuse, however, you could go by post, and I will follow on horse.”
“No, that will not be necessary. Miss de Bourgh is very generous to offer the phaeton.”
“I will send an express ahead to my house in London. Should you like to write the Gardiners?”
Elizabeth agreed, and they then separated. While Darcy made arrangements at Rosings, Elizabeth explained to Charlotte that she had received an important letter from her relations. Mr. Collins disliked the idea of her driving with Darcy but neither could he gainsay Lady Catherine’s nephew. Charlotte frowned at her the entire time she assisted in packing her trunk.
“I am sorry you have to leave early, Eliza,” Charlotte said. “I hope you had an enjoyable visit. It has been a pleasure to have my own home and expose my old friends to superior company. You must return, perhaps at a different time when there are fewer guests at Rosings?” Charlotte raised her eyebrows.
Elizabeth replied neutrally and gave her friend a perfectly cordial adieu, but her heart was not in it. Perhaps it was Charlotte’s marrying Collins, but something between them had altered forever. Darcy arrived punctually and handed Elizabeth into the carriage, despite Mr. and Mrs. Collins’ concerns over rain. Soon, they were bound for London.
Have you read Mr. Gibbon’s volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? How interesting that he publishes it now.
I have heard many of our friends are featured in an engraving by an artist named Richard Samuel in which he names them the “Nine Living Muses of Great Britain.” We are all in an uproar for nobody sat for this drawing and many say they cannot recognise a soul.
Give dearest A kisses from my girls and me.
For the first fifteen miles, Darcy and Elizabeth had easy conversation. Elizabeth praised Darcy for his fast thinking in sending an express to the Gardiners and requesting Lydia be brought to Town. Additionally, Elizabeth conceded she enjoyed The Tempest better on her more recent read-through. Naturally, she remained critical of Miranda’s lack of independence and complete submission to Prospero.
“Although,” her lips twisted in a wry smile, “perhaps if I had been more like Miranda, I would have told my father everything I heard Wickham say. Then Lydia might have been safe from him weeks ago.”
“She may yet be safe. Others have suggested that Wickham has no motive to wound me. Further, he would need proof that we — that is his…investment in Lydia’s feelings was secured.”
Darcy chanced a look at her face to see that she understood his meaning. She twisted her hands in her lap and furrowed her brow.
He attempted to soften the blow. “There is no reason to think that she would even be susceptible to his charms.”
Elizabeth mutely nodded, and melancholy descended between them. They stopped at a coaching inn for new horses and refreshments before continuing their journey. Darcy had remained silent, considering various strategies. If his aunt’s health was as poor as her letter made it seem, then he would not be journeying to Longbourn. Nor did he know how much time he could dedicate to assisting Bingley with making amends to Jane Bennet. A letter would have to suffice for both situations and yet did not seem adequate.
A raindrop landed on his nose, interrupting his reverie. He squinted up at the sky. The second half of their journey might be delayed by rain. He scowled at the clouds. Beside him, Elizabeth laughed.
“So serious,” Elizabeth teased. “The serious Mr. Darcy,” she said in a horrible impression of him. “Or should that be Lord Darcy?”
“Do you think you are the only one who can make light of another person?”
She raised her eyebrows. “Do your worse, sir. I am not afraid of you.”
“I am Elizabeth Bennet,” he said in an obnoxiously high voice that sounded nothing like hers. “I am pert, sarcastic, and clever. Far cleverer than you.” Then he raised an eyebrow and smiled knowingly to copy her signature expression.
“Oh, I do not sound like that!” Elizabeth playfully slapped his arm, which was being increasingly pelted with rain.
“No, I am pleased to say you do not,” he chuckled. “Do I really sound so dour?”
“I used to think so,” Elizabeth confessed. She tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow. “Now, I know that you are merely quiet, reserved, and serious. There is no fault in that any more than there is a fault in my liveliness.” She laughed for a moment. “Well, I suppose that depends on who you ask. Lady Catherine would have nothing kind to say.”
“Let us speak of pleasanter things,” Darcy shouted over the pounding rain. “Do you agree with some of the critics that Shakespeare was examining Plato’s theory of the soul with Prospero?”
“Pardon me?” Elizabeth cried out.
Darcy looked over at her. Her ringlets were now plastered to the side of her face, and droplets trickled down her chin. The hat she wore had no brim. Her clothes were growing increasingly sodden. Even worse, the condition of the road was deteriorating, and the horses were slowing. Then the phaeton lurched to a stop.
“What is it?”
“The wheel must be stuck!”
Darcy tossed the reins to Elizabeth and jumped down, his boots splashing in the mud. He stomped around to the back of the carriage and found one of the wheels trapped in a rut. He pushed on it with his shoulder, hoping to free it. However, despite feeling the horse take a step forward, the wheel did not budge. Again, he shoved on the carriage, his boots slipping. As he fell to his knees, he heard a sloshing sound beside him.
“Allow me to help.”
“Who will guide the horse?”
Elizabeth shrugged. “I didn’t need to guide it at all. It wants out of this storm as much as we do.” Elizabeth said and took a position.
“No! No, you could hurt yourself,” he said.
“And I suppose sitting in the rain for hours would have been better?” Elizabeth said.
Darcy laughed. He knew better than to attempt to change Elizabeth’s mind. “Ready?” he called, and they pushed against the carriage. It rocked forward, and they groaned with exertion. Then the phaeton rolled backwards with such momentum that they fell, landing on their rears. Mud splattered around them.
Elizabeth erupted in laughter. After a moment of shock, Darcy joined in. After several minutes spent in laughter, Elizabeth had tears streaming down her face. She wiped them away with her mud-soaked gloves.
“Can you imagine what Lady Catherine would say if she saw us now?” Elizabeth said between chuckles. “Falling in the mud is strictly for the lower classes,” she said while tilting her nose in the air.
“Cease that, woman,” Darcy growled and pulled her to him. Yesterday, he had hesitated and allowed her to turn away if she desired. Today, he had no restraint. As his lips touched Elizabeth’s, her arms wrapped around his neck and she clung to him. Releasing her mouth and trailing kisses down her throat, he spoke into her silky soft skin. “Come, we must get out of the road.”
Elizabeth blushed and allowed him to lead her off the road. He had no fear of being observed. No one else would drive in such a deluge. But he worried about her health, or at least her comfort. He led her to a thick copse of trees hoping the branches would provide some refuge. As they ran through the woods, a large structure became visible.
“There!” Darcy pointed. “We’ll ask for shelter there.”
As they darted through the path, hand in hand, Elizabeth’s laughter increased. “I think I know this place!”
“How far are we from Bromley?”
“I think we may be about five miles. We should be near—”
“Eltham Palace! The Great Hall was built by Edward IV. Later, Henry VIII grew up here. After the Civil War, a baronet leased it. As the previous tenant let it fall into disrepair, they built a new manor house. They use the Great Hall as a barn and prefer their estate in Yardling.”
They reached the building and opened the doors. “Oh!” Elizabeth exclaimed. “Oh, the hammer beam roof is more beautiful than I could imagine!”
Darcy looked around and saw dust and clutter everywhere, but once again Elizabeth saw the architecture of their surroundings. She could see the potential in buildings…and people. It was why she gave him a second chance and why she saw the good in Wickham. The wind whipped through the cracks in the windows and Elizabeth shivered beside him.
“Come here,” Darcy said and pulled her into his arms. Her head nestled right over his heart. A heart which beat only for her.
“Thank you,” she murmured into his coat.
As he rubbed his arms up and down her back to warm her, he wished they could avoid what would follow. Soon, this storm would end, and they would resume their journey to London. With it, they would learn the consequences of their secrets. And soon, far sooner than he would like, Darcy would have to take on the responsibilities of a barony. Even if all those matters were settled to the best possible arrangement, it would still mean an interruption of the peace he found at this moment. He could offer Elizabeth houses, carriages, fine clothing, and jewellery, but all she desired was a man of good character and sense who valued her for who she was. In the months since leaving Hertfordshire, he had recounted their conversations, the glances they shared, the feel of her hand in his during his long-fought-for dance. He could hardly say when he fell in love with this woman. Was it in Hertfordshire or was it after leaving her, after he understood how rare she was and the effect she had on his life?
It mattered not, for what he had also learned was that his love for her grew daily. First, merely because he embraced the love instead of fighting it. Then, because of the honesty they expressed when he had first arrived in Kent. Lastly, as their encounters brought them together daily, he could see more of her character. Each day revealed a new facet of Elizabeth and each day, Darcy found something more to love about her. Soon, when they had settled affairs with their families, he would be sure she knew how much he loved her.
“What were you asking me earlier?” She asked, her voice still muffled against the fabric of his coat. “Something about Prospero?”
Darcy welcomed the conversation. Holding her in his arms was a great temptation and some distraction was warranted. “Do you know of Plato’s theory regarding the human soul?”
“That it is three parts? A soul can only be at peace when its temperament embraces logic and shuns passions?”
“Yes. Did you find Prospero a manifestation of Plato’s theory? Once he gave up his magic and anger, he was welcomed back to Milan.”
Elizabeth thought for a moment. “I rather think I reject the philosophy in general. Natural urges should be under proper regulation, of course, but they need not be suppressed as evil.”
“Some believe it was only when Prospero accepted his baser instincts and abilities that his soul aligned and he could join his peers.”
“I believe that is more likely. We must accept all of ourselves. The sensible and logical as well as high spirits and…” She trailed off when their eyes met. Her breath grew shallow and raised her chin in a clear invitation.
“Carnal desires?” He finished her thoughts.
Gently, he pushed a wet tendril behind her ear and let his hand caress the soft skin of her cheek and throat. Then, holding her beautiful face in his hands, he made love to her lips. Elizabeth enthusiastically returned his kisses. She stroked her tongue over his, causing his eyes to roll in his head and a groan to emanate from his lips.
It took all of Darcy’s honour to pull away from her delicious mouth. He pulled away lest they yielded to those desires that would lead to their ruin. Elizabeth laid her head over his heart again, and he rested his chin atop her bonnet. This time as he wrapped his arms around her, he was pleased to note she was not as damp and nowhere near as chilled.
After several minutes of silence, Elizabeth spoke. “Do you hear? I believe the rain has ceased, Mr. Darcy.”
“Will you not call me by my given name?”
Elizabeth gave him a weak smile. “I confess I felt jealous when Miss de Bourgh called you Conor. Yes, I know all about that pet name and how you got it.”
He smiled in return. “When I went away to school, I came back refusing to answer to the name. I would not ask that you call me Conor.”
“I am afraid Fitzwilliam reminds me too much of your cousin and the image of stuffy old earls.”
Darcy shook his head. “I agree; I am not fond of it myself.”
Elizabeth sighed. “It is too bad parents must name their children. I feel as though all your names have been given to you to remind you of your position in life.”
“They were,” he murmured against her hair. “I have another one though. Legend tells it that he was invited to a salon but declined for he had no formal black, silk stockings. The hostess told him to come wearing his blue stockings.” His smile grew with the retelling. “They did not want me to forget my Bluestocking roots and named me after Benjamin Stillingfleet.”
“Really?” Elizabeth exclaimed, and drew back her face to look at him. “I do not think I have heard anyone else call you by that name before.”
“Perfect. Then it shall be for your use alone. What would you have me call you?”
“You already call me Elizabeth,” she said with a bit of a smirk.
“As do many others,” he answered. He could consider certain endearments such as “my love” but he did not believe she would welcome them.
Elizabeth cocked her head. “That means very much to you?”
“I know it is probably selfish of me but in moments when we are alone — like this —.” The look of surprise on her face ceased his words. She did not expect — or perhaps even want — them to have more moments like this.
“Belinda,” she whispered. “My second name is Belinda.”
“Perfect,” Darcy grinned. “Absolutely perfect. Beautiful Belinda,” Darcy cupped Elizabeth’s face for another kiss. “Lizzy Bel.”
They returned to the carriage, unsurprised to see a large puddle and much debris of twigs and leaves. Elizabeth suggested using nearby fallen branch as a lever to free the wheel, and soon they were on the road again. For the last few miles, until they reached Gracechurch Street, Elizabeth spoke of the books she had borrowed from Anne. Tucked within Letters for the Improvement of the Mind were, shockingly, personal letters.
The authoress of the book, Hester Chapone, had first written it as letters regarding conduct to her niece. Likewise, the letters within the volume were between an aunt and niece. However, it was not entirely clear who was involved. The writer signed her name A.F. which made Elizabeth consider, at first, it must be Darcy’s mother, Anne Fitzwilliam. Yet, the niece had created some kind of scandal and had to go to France to recover. Lady Anne had died before Anne de Bourgh would have been of an age to cause such trouble, and journeys to France had been impossible for nearly twenty years. Darcy was uncertain to whom the letters belonged. There was a shocking number of Anne Fitzwilliams in his family.
Night had fallen when they finally reached the Gardiner residence. Darcy walked around to Elizabeth’s side with trepidation. Would this be the last time he saw her? Her family would have every right to be angry with him and demand that he leave them forever. Feeling like a man about to be hung, Darcy assisted Elizabeth from the carriage and walked toward his fate.
Elizabeth took a deep breath as Darcy pulled the borrowed phaeton to a stop outside the Gardiner residence near Cheapside. He gave her a small smile and offered his hand for her to exit the carriage. It was getting dark and still raining, and her wet and muddied gown caught under her foot, lurching her forward. Before she could even cry out Darcy’s hands were on her waist, catching her before any harm was done.
He only nodded, and they walked up the stairs one behind the other. Both felt too much and were conscious of the seriousness of the reasons for their journey. They were soon shown in the front hall, thankful they had dried just enough to not leave puddles on the floor.
“Lizzy!” Mrs. Gardiner quickly greeted them. “Mr. Darcy, thank you for bringing Elizabeth to us.”
“It was my honour. Forgive the impropriety of my visiting without an invitation.” Darcy spoke with perfect civility.
Mrs. Gardiner looked at Elizabeth in surprise, but the latter was not astonished at his politeness at all. She had come to know him well over the last few weeks.
“We expected you hours ago, but I can see you must have been caught in a downpour. Please, come to the drawing room and enjoy the fire. The children are abed, and we can speak freely in there.”
“Forgive me,” Darcy said, “but as you mentioned it is quite late, and I am quite wet and muddy. I would hate to ruin anything. Nothing may be accomplished tonight and my news can wait a few hours. Would it be possible for me to call on the morrow?”
He caught Elizabeth’s eye and, perceiving what he was about, she shook her head negatively. He returned to looking at Mrs. Gardiner.
“Miss Elizabeth expressed a desire to visit with my sister. Would it inconvenience you if she came?”
“Mr. Darcy…” Elizabeth began to interject, but her aunt stepped forward and squeezed her hand, muting Elizabeth.
“You are both very welcome, sir. Mr. Gardiner will be home for dinner. We eat at six o’clock.”
“Does this meet with your approval, Miss Elizabeth?”
“You need not bring Miss Darcy on the morrow, sir.”
He gave her a look, and she let out an exasperated sigh.
“It would not do if you are unable to speak with my uncle until after dinner. Would your sister feel comfortable with strangers for so many hours? Nor is it sensible to bring her in the morning, return her to your home, and then come back for dinner.”
He stepped closer to her and a small smile played about his lips. Her aunt was entirely forgotten.
“Are you giving me leave to arrive at your uncle’s home without the pretence of my sister?”
Elizabeth beamed back at him. “Yes, I am giving you leave to call on me.”
His smile broadened, and Elizabeth could not keep the lightness in her heart escaping through laughter. Fortunately, Darcy recalled himself.
“Thank you for your kind offer, Mrs. Gardiner, but it seems unnecessary. I look forward to dining here tomorrow and speaking with your husband. Have a good evening.” He turned again to Elizabeth and bowed over her hand, stealing her breath. “Until tomorrow, Miss Elizabeth.”
She watched him leave and then turned to face her aunt, who only smiled and shook her head at her. Further down the hallway Elizabeth saw Jane and ran to her side. Embracing her, they laughed when she transferred some mud to Jane’s gown. “Oh, dearest! How are you? Truly, tell me all!”
Jane replied, “I am tolerable but, how are you? My aunt only told me this afternoon that Lydia is to come tomorrow and you were expected today, arriving with Mr. Darcy! You have been very sly, Lizzy! Never until this day would I have imagined seeing such an affinity between you two.”
Elizabeth laughed. “I dare say until today I could not imagine it possible myself.”
Elizabeth loved Jane dearly and did wish to make her acquainted with everything that had passed in the last fortnight, but desired to reflect on things first. She was grateful when her aunt intervened.
“Jane, Lizzy is very wet and must be exhausted. She needs her rest lest she catch cold. There will be time tomorrow to talk.”
Elizabeth recognised it for the warning that it was. Although utterly grateful to have each other’s company again, after changing and drying her hair she and Jane obediently went straight to sleep.
The next morning dawned with sunshine and Elizabeth was happy to see it. Lydia would be travelling from Longbourn this day and should arrive at noon. Jane began to awaken beside her.
“Lizzy, how did you sleep?”
“Very soundly. I suppose I was exhausted from my journey. At one point, Mr. Darcy and I had to get out of the carriage and push when it got stuck in a rut.”
“I am surprised you rode with him — and in a phaeton no less! The storm was, no doubt, unexpected but the dust from the road would have been enough to deter me.”
Elizabeth laughed. “Where is your sense of adventure? Mr. Darcy had little choice if I was to arrive yesterday. His cousin is using his own carriage, and one of Lady Catherine’s was damaged the other day and not repaired yet. She was disinclined to offer her large barouche box for the journey. Lady Catherine’s daughter suggested the use of her phaeton. Mr. Darcy could drive it instead of needing a coachman and then returning him to Rosings. Additionally, Darcy only keeps one carriage in town— the one his cousin is using— so he can use the phaeton until Colonel Fitzwilliam returns.”
“And hiring a hack being inconvenient,” Jane suppled and raised her eyebrows. “Darcy, is it?”
Elizabeth blushed and stared at her hands. “If it were anyone but you they would be regaling me with “I told you so’s.” You are far too kind.”
She squeezed her hands. Her feelings for Darcy were beyond her own comprehension, and she had not yet found adequate words for them. When she did speak of him, it was in halting and short sentences. “He is amiable. I like him very much. I was quite wrong about him.”
“Please, tell me all!” Jane grasped Elizabeth’s hands, and Elizabeth could have cried at the affection of her sister after experiencing the strangeness of her supposed friend the last few weeks.
“I will in time but for now I would like a bath, and we must get dressed and join our aunt and uncle for breakfast. Lydia arrives in a few hours, and it would be helpful to have some idea on how to handle her.”
Jane furrowed her brow. She brought a shaking hand to her chest. “Why has she been sent away from Longbourn?”
“Do not imagine anything too evil. She is not being brought here as punishment. We were hoping to separate her from some influences in the Meryton area. More will be explained after dinner.”
Jane’s nervous expression did not change, but she pressed for no more information. Elizabeth took a moment to scrutinise her sister. She seemed paler and thinner. Dark circles were under Jane’s eyes. When Elizabeth had last seen her in March, she had been unhappy, but she did not seem despondent. Elizabeth was more worried about her sister’s health now than she had been directly after Bingley left.
“Jane, will you tell me how you truly are? I can only imagine how grieved you are by Bingley’s actions. Darcy was quite upset when I told him.”
“You told him!” Jane blushed.
“He came upon me after I read your letter.” Elizabeth tried to hide her wistful smile for although the memory held sad ones, it also kept a happy one as well. “I was outraged and perceived him to be the source of it all.”
“What did Mr. Darcy say?” Jane asked very quietly.
Elizabeth’s heart broke for her sister’s pain. She still hoped to find some good in Bingley.
“Darcy did encourage his friend to stay away from Netherfield. He thought you indifferent. His other concerns were about our family’s behaviour. He learned you were in town as Miss Bingley informed him, but she did not mention you had visited; that could have only been a sign in your favour. He never encouraged Bingley toward Miss Darcy.” Her face darkened as she thought of how unjustly Bingley treated her dearest sister.
Elizabeth looked at her sister for a long moment. “Is that all that happened? Did you really not speak with Bingley at all?”
“I did,” Jane whispered very quietly.
Tears streaked Jane’s beautiful face as she released her heart. “He was shown into the parlour while I was there so I could not refuse to see him. My aunt was called away by one of the children and then—” Jane covered her face and sobbed into her hands for a moment. Elizabeth rubbed her back.
When Jane had regained some composure, her face was mottled and red. She did not meet Elizabeth’s eyes. “He asked that I forgive him for his behaviour. He declared he loved me and wished to wed me. It was so dreadful!”
Elizabeth had never felt so much confusion in her life. “But my dear why would that distress you?”
“How can he claim to love me but treat me so badly?”
There was no doubt from Jane’s reaction that she very much loved him. What had Darcy said? Love must be selfless. “I do not know, dearest. So, you refused him?”
“How could I do otherwise? He had offered no explanations, and although he apologised, he did not seek to make amends. It was as though he felt he had only one moment to trust his courage and ask for my hand rather than court me properly.”
Elizabeth could say nothing against her sister’s supposition. It was her opinion as well. “And are you absolutely decided against him? Could he not win your heart back?”
Jane, who had searched for a handkerchief, sniffed. “My heart is broken and will never love or trust again.”
Elizabeth had a growing suspicion her decision had less to do with Bingley’s treatment and more to do with Jane doubting her own sense. That was something she could keenly sympathise with. “Perhaps.”
She would keep her thoughts to herself on the matter, for now, but Darcy must be told of this development. She would never desire Jane to marry Bingley without proper amends being made, but perhaps Bingley’s dependence upon his friend for advice may be of some use.
After a pause, Elizabeth asked the question which had been weighing on her for some time. “Do you mind at all that I arrived with Darcy?”
“No! Why should I?” Jane dabbed at her eyes but could do nothing for the puffiness from her tears.
“I only worried that you would dislike the reminder of Mr. Bingley or the chance of seeing him again.”
Jane slowly brought down the handkerchief and searched Elizabeth’s face. “Lizzy, do you have an understanding with Mr. Darcy?”
Elizabeth was silent for a moment. “He has asked for several things, and nothing has been accepted or decided. I worry for the family’s acceptance of him and wish to slowly show my change in feeling first. I have told him I cannot promise to accept his suit but…”
“It is very frustrating!” Elizabeth’s hands gripped the counterpane. “I do like him very much. I am flattered by his admiration, but you can certainly understand I worry for his constancy as well as my own. Not too many days ago I believed we equally despised each other.”
Jane shot her a look, and Elizabeth knew that she was likely the only person with sense who thought Darcy disliked her. So blind had she been! “Time will sort it out, it always does.”