Arising after a night of fitful sleep, Darcy looked out his window at a cloudless sky and cursed. It was beautiful riding weather, and he usually would not hesitate to enjoy the rush of wind as man and beast raced over land and hill. However, he wished to avoid Elizabeth and given her penchant for walking, she could be at any spot of Rosings’ many acres. Months ago, while in Hertfordshire, Darcy had never been more enchanted than when Elizabeth arrived at Netherfield windblown and flushed. Her eyes danced with liveliness, her features heightened by the exertion. She looked ready for a tumble, and Darcy had to tamp down on the arousal he felt in his friend’s breakfast room.
Get a grip, he told himself. Lusting after Elizabeth was no better than longing for her. He needed to forget her entirely.
Begrudgingly, he called for his valet and began preparations for the day. Although first in the breakfast room, his solitude was soon interrupted by the arrival of the others. Lady Catherine allowed them moments of silence at breakfast, blessedly, and Darcy was struck with the coldness of it. What would it be like to have lively conversations at the table? Elizabeth’s dancing eyes came to mind, and he pushed them away again.
Putting down his coffee cup with a clatter, he drew the notice of the room. “I will see your books now, Aunt Catherine.”
“Very well,” she said. “Send for Lincoln if you need any assistance,” she waved him off and resumed studying her tea.
Darcy poured over the books, without finding a single error, for about an hour before Richard opened the door. “You must come,” he chuckled.
“Must I and where?” Darcy affected annoyance but welcomed the interruption.
“To the drawing room to see that toadying little man she has a rector.”
Richard illustrated Mr. Collins’ behaviour. He bowed low to Darcy, waving his hand in what some considered an elegant fashion, full of rolls, and bent low. It honestly surprised Darcy his cousin was so limber or could give so excellent an impression of the ridiculous man his aunt employed.
“If you recall, I have already experienced the delights of Mr. Collins,” Darcy said and returned his attention to the ledgers.
“But have you seen him with Aunt Catherine?”
The thought did hold amusement, and he would welcome the respite. “Very well,” Darcy said as he threw down his pen and shrugged his coat on.
As they neared the drawing room, they could hear Mr. Collins’ over-excited speech, frequently interrupted by their aunt.
“I was elated to hear the report of safe travels for your nephews, your ladyship,” Mr. Collins said.
“Of course, they arrived safely, their driver is the best. Mr. Darcy would never employ anyone inferior.”
“No, of course not,” Mr. Collins rapidly agreed. “I would agree merely by his connection to you but, as you know, I had the great joy of meeting him in Hertfordshire—before I had married Mrs. Collins. I cannot thank you enough for sending me there to find a wife. I am certain she fulfils me in every way. We are of one mind—”
Lady Catherine interrupted him there and thank goodness because Darcy thought he might gag upon Collins’ insincere flattery whether of himself or the man’s wife. Richard laughed at Darcy’s expression and pushed him through the door.
“Mr. Darcy,” Collins ran over. “I am so pleased to see you again,” he bowed low and his nose nearly scraped Darcy’s boots. “I saw you and your fine cousin arrive yesterday. I shared the news of your arrival with my wife and guests. They could not have been happier.”
Elizabeth was happy to know he was at Rosings? Involuntarily, Darcy’s heart raced, and his palms began to sweat.
“We spent much of the day talking about the Parsonage residents,” Richard said once they had all sat.
“Indeed?” Mr. Collins preened and undoubtedly imagined it was all complimentary. “Knowing the magnanimous nature of Lady Catherine, it does not surprise me that it extends to her nephews.”
Darcy looked at his hands to avoid rolling his eyes.
Richard smirked before speaking. “My aunt and cousin described your wife’s beauty and the quaintness of your home and land. Darcy and I have spoken of wishing to call on you.”
“You have?” Collins said in wonder.
At the same time, Darcy said with incredulity, “We have?”
“That would be a compliment above anything,” Collins said in wonder.
Mr. Collins trembled in excitement, reminding Darcy of a small dog. The sort that would make a mess on one’s carpet when greeting its master. Darcy slid his eyes to his aunt who preened at the scene. Or rather, mistress’ rug. Definitely the sort of dog owned by a woman.
“Well, why do we not go now?” Richard said, standing.
“Now?” Mr. Collins jumped to his feet. “My dear Charlotte will have an apoplexy. Not that you are to worry. The house is always in a state that guests of any magnitude could be welcomed but good sir! The condescension!”
He raced to the door, as though he intended to beat them to the house and warn the inmates. Richard chuckled as Darcy’s mind unsuccessfully raced to find a reason to cry off.
“Would you hurry your step?” Richard elbowed Darcy when they were halfway to the Parsonage and Mr. Collins nearly to the house. “My entire motive in coming was to see him behave more outrageously. I do not want to miss the best part of the show!”
“What do you mean?” Darcy’s brain could comprehend nothing. Frozen half in fear, half in excitement, the only coherent thought it could make out about this situation was that he would soon see Elizabeth.
A hundred memories flitted by. They ranged from reasons for anger and ire to affection and gentleness. Many, he had kept locked away, only to be examined in the privacy of his chambers. There, he could meditate on her beautiful eyes and the pleasure he could find in them. In his fantasies, there were no rules, no requirements, no expectations of him. He could gaze into her sparkling, brown eyes and drown in them. Only her kiss could bring him air.
A memory emerged which he held even dearer than Elizabeth arriving at Netherfield. Even more precious than dancing with her and the shared rise and fall of their chests. She had been complimenting Bingley on his open disposition, and her mother publicly corrected her. The slight widening of Elizabeth’s eyes followed instantly by the look of resignation forever connected Darcy’s heart to her. He well knew the shame of such treatment before peers. He knew the pain of continually coming up short before a parent. Bingley saw it too—it was how they first bonded as well—and continued on in the conversation. To support her, Darcy waged in as well. Doing so gained Mrs. Bennet’s ire. As if anything she could say would trouble him or change him. Then, surprising him entirely, Elizabeth defended him.
Oh, it was not obvious. She merely disagreed with her Mama and redirected the woman’s anger. To Darcy, however, Elizabeth’s shielding seemed sweeter than any decadent dessert. Her fierceness and protective nature bewitched him more than any other action could. In her, Darcy could have found the one spouse that might stand as an equal beside him. She might have brought him the peace and security he unknowingly needed and fill the void in his heart.
The slamming of the gate behind him brought Darcy’s mind back to the present. Richard had raced ahead and called out to Collins, preventing the man from entering first.
“Here we go,” Richard laughed and clapped Darcy on the shoulder. He led the way.
Entering the small house, Darcy held his breath. At another time, he might look around and mentally critique the place. He might find himself uncomfortable in his richness. Now, he felt as though he had been punched in the gut. Elizabeth, more beautiful than he recalled, stood only an arm’s length away.
Their eyes met and… nothing. She curtseyed in acknowledgment of him. No smile, no hint of a thrill of being in his company again, no relief as her despair had ended, no regret. She appeared entirely indifferent to him.
No, Darcy told himself. She had never acted indifferent to him. How often had she found him staring at her? How often did she provoke him into an argument just to command his attention?
Elizabeth offered his cousin a smile, and a jealous beast roared in Darcy’s heart. “This is a very pleasant house,” Darcy said to Mr. and Mrs. Collins.
“Thank you,” Collins beamed. “Lady Catherine remodelled it shortly before I moved here. I can never repay her generosity of so much attention to detail. New furnishings! Closets in every room and with shelves, too!”
Mrs. Collins laid a hand on her husband’s arm, and Darcy watched it with envy. Would that he could silence the buffoon as easily Mrs. Collins.
“Lady Catherine’s kindness can be no surprise to him, dear.”
Darcy smiled. “Your wife is quite right. Despite what my aunt has done, I am sure Mrs. Collins is the one who has made it a comfortable home. My congratulations, of course.”
Mrs. Collins nodded at his words while blushing. She seemed to look at him with suspicion. Had she not expected him to compliment a new bride? Not wanting to allow her husband time to speak again, Darcy cast about for another topic. “I believe the last rector had an extensive garden. Do you have any plans this Season?”
Darcy could talk about farming for hours. He would simply modify the scale and scope when discussing it with Collins. The man smiled so widely, Darcy thought his face might crack. His eyes filled with adoration like a puppy bonding with his master. The only thing he needed less than a bumbling, awkward parson attached to his side was one related to Elizabeth Bennet and hosting her for several weeks. Fortunately, Richard asked Mr. Collins something about the house, and he bounded over to the colonel’s side.
Out of the corner of his eye, Darcy saw Elizabeth watching her friend and cousin with a bit of concern marring her face. Disregarding the internal voice that told him to remain mute, he sought to relieve Elizabeth’s feelings. “I hope your family is well, Miss Bennet.”
She startled at his voice but turned her head to face him. “They are, thank you.”
Darcy had counted on Elizabeth’s liveliness to carry the conversation. Belatedly, he recalled her irritation at such an approach at the Netherfield ball.
“My eldest sister has been in town these three months. Have you never happened to see her there?”
How had he forgotten that when burdened with all the direction in a conversation she sought to punish him? She would do everything she could to unsettle a person—or at least him. When they last met, it was clear she had heard some lie of Wickham’s and wished to wound Darcy. Had he taken her warning to heart? How could she know if she was safe from the scoundrel?
His mind was occupied for too long, and Elizabeth cleared her throat to remind Darcy it was his turn to speak. “I regret I have not had the fortune of seeing her.”
Elizabeth said nothing else, and now Darcy’s mind was filled with wondering about her words, a welcome distraction from thoughts of his former friend. He could find no civil way to ask what he wished to know. Did her sister love his friend? If she was in London, why did she not call on Miss Bingley? If she had been at the Hurst townhouse, how had Bingley not known? Why did Elizabeth lift her chin now and then when she felt his gaze on her, as though she sought to prove her worth?
“Come along, Darcy,” Richard called from the doorway.
When had he got over there? Pulling his thoughtful gaze from Elizabeth, Darcy bowed to the room and left with his cousin.
“What a jolly good visit that was,” Richard laughed. “I do love a fool show, and Mr. Collins was the best I’ve seen in some time. His poor wife and cousin, though.”
“What about them?” Darcy asked as he focused on putting one foot in front of the other as they carried him further from Elizabeth and every muscle in his body quivered to return and take her into his arms.
“They can see what a fool he is,” Richard laughed. “Well, that’s why there are such fools on the earth. So the plain spinsters can find a husband.”
“Pardon? I would not call her plain or a spinster,” Darcy said in a hard edge.
“What has you so riled up?” Richard examined him. “I did not mean to be rude, but Mrs. Collins’ bloom is gone. I would have thought her an old married lady if Aunt had not told us they recently wed.”
Richard’s answer silenced the jealous beast in Darcy’s heart. Until…
“Miss Bennet is a bonnie lass, though,” Richard grinned. “I wouldn’t mind getting to know her better…much better,” he added a wink.
Without thinking, Darcy whacked the back of Richard’s head with an open hand. It gave a satisfying thwacking sound.
“What the devil?” Richard spun and faced him.
“I…” Darcy thought fast. What excuse could justify his reaction? “I know her father. She’s a gentlewoman. Treat her as such.”
“I was only jesting,” Richard said and rubbed the sore spot. “You have never seen fit to defend any other lady I mentioned in such a way.”
“Pardon me for being remiss in my duty of managing your tongue,” he said sardonically.
Richard continued to peer at him.
“I told you, I know her father. I respect him. They are not from the Ton. They do not know the game like others do. If you flirt with her…”
God help him if Richard engaged her affections. He would hang for murdering his cousin.
“Would it put you at ease if I promise to not flirt with Miss Bennet?”
Darcy nodded, unsure that such a vow would ease his jumbled thoughts, but it could hardly hurt.
“You have it then,” Richard said. “Perhaps when suitors come for Georgiana, I ought to meet them.”
“Why is that?” Richard’s words about his sister were perhaps the only ones that could draw Darcy’s thoughts away from Elizabeth.
“So you don’t call each out for pistols at dawn.”
The relief of Richard’s joke after the intensity of all he had been feeling for Elizabeth caused Darcy to roar with laughter. “That would end it too quickly. I’d much rather have the fun of swords.”
Richard grinned as they entered Rosings “Far more sportsmanlike.”
They separated in the hall. Richard to re-join Lady Catherine and Anne while Darcy returned to his ledgers. The scene with Richard held some merit. Darcy had come up with ways to occupy his time and give himself a physical outlet as well. Instead of a morning ride, he could engage in target or fencing practice.
Yes, if he could conquer his infatuation with Elizabeth once, he could do so again. Her proximity would not impede his goals: bring Georgiana into Society, see her well-married, find a suitable spouse, father a legitimate heir, show the world he was a Darcy. Step by step, they were his building blocks to acceptance, and he would not weaken the foundation and thereby compromise the entire structure.