A little after half past eight the following morning, Darcy walked the grove at Rosings, lashing himself with memories of the last week. He had thought he was courting Elizabeth well. He had believed she perceived his regard and returned it.
Instead of gratitude and embraces last night, he was met with a harsh refusal and unjust accusations. The pain of her rejection would come later. Instead, he used his anger to defend his character. Elizabeth assaulted his honour, and while he had no hopes of earning her love or hand, he would not allow her to think ill of him due to false understanding. She might hate him forever, but it should not be under pretences of Wickham’s lies!
Now, he waited for her to appear as she always had before.
An hour of wandering later, his anger cooled. He noticed the verdure of the park around him and touched a bloom.
Does Elizabeth’s skin feel as soft as this petal? Would he cheeks blush like the pink of this rose when I kissed her the first time?
He had often imagined it. At Netherfield, his attraction to her beauty, unexpected as it was, kept him awake many nights. It was one reason he resisted his feelings. He had believed he was losing his good sense over nothing more than a charming smile and fine eyes. In London, however, the memory of her looks faded and instead her words and expressions were his constant companion.
Dark thoughts flooded his mind, and the sound of crunching leaves filled his ears as a sharp pain stabbed at his hand. Releasing his clenched fist, the now demolished rose fell to the ground, and he lifted his hand to inspect a wound from a thorn. Blood trickled out. Would that his heart would heal as fast as his hand. Cleaning it with a handkerchief, he slid on his leather gloves and rearranged his hat. He looked the part of a perfect gentleman. He well knew his countenance gave little indication of the turmoil warring in his chest. He would never be the man to taste Elizabeth’s cherished lips, that honour would be bestowed on another. By God, though, it would not be George Wickham. She could not possibly favour him still after she read his letter.
Consulting his pocket watch, he realized another hour had passed. Elizabeth intentionally avoided this walk, he was sure of it. Considering he knew not where else to find her, he chose a path which led to the Parsonage. He had no idea how to pass his letter to her, but perhaps Mrs. Collins could be of assistance, or at the very least have an idea of where her friend walked this morning.
As Darcy’s feet carried him, however, he thought less and less of his letter and more of the piercing pain in his heart. The only time he had experienced unconditional love in his life, it had been ripped from him at a tender age. Elizabeth’s refusal struck at the very core of him. Had his actions with Bingley and Wickham’s lies meant anything at all? Or did she merely find him unworthy through and through? Could she sense he was a bastard and his claim to a high standing was mere pretension?
As he exited the grove and rounded a curve, his eyes made out an outline he knew by heart. No other lady walked with such energy and freedom of expression. Elizabeth walked for enjoyment, not for health. She paused at the gate and lingered. Had she seen him? Did she mean to atone for her outburst the night before? Darcy increased his pace, and his long strides carried him closer, closer to her.
His heart nearly fell from his chest when he saw Elizabeth tilt her head and then her body go stiff before she turned from the gate. It was nothing more than his vain wishes that Elizabeth desired to speak with him again, but he could not allow her to leave. His last memory of her could not be the angry looks of last night. He knew her enough that she would be civil to him this morning.
“Eliza—Miss Elizabeth!” he called out.
She turned to face him, and he called again. When she slowly walked back to the gate, his heart returned to beating.
“I have been walking in the grove for some time in the hope of meeting you,” he said and extended his letter. “Will you do me the honour of reading that letter?”
Elizabeth took it, seemingly by instinct, but then her eyes flashed in reproach. Fearing she would return the letter unread, Darcy panicked. He had no patience or calmness of mind left to resist his impulses. Grabbing Elizabeth’s hand over the gate, he pulled her forward and kissed her lips before she had time to reprimand him.
He wanted to stay and worship them forever, but he pulled back. Anger shined in her eyes. Instead of satiating his longing or fulfilling this devil-craze in him, the kiss tasted like ashes; the very death of him. With a formal bow, he turned his back and left her.
He was halfway back to the Manor house when he saw Richard.
“Did you return from the Parsonage?” Richard asked.
“No,” was Darcy’s only reply.
“I suppose you mean to call later then, but why not come with me now?”
Darcy cared not if it were the polite thing to do. Although uncertain if Elizabeth would return to the house to read, he had no desire to be in the same building as her again. Had he not humbled himself enough? Now he must perform to society’s niceties while the woman he loved looked upon him with disdain? And for what? His aunt’s ridiculous parson and merchant’s daughter of a wife?
“No. I don’t think I will.” He began to push past his cousin when a thought occurred to him. “I cannot explain the particulars of why but I have written to Miss Bennet the truth of George Wickham’s character. He is known to her, and she believes him a friend. Should she not believe me, I gave her leave to corroborate the information with you.”
Richard’s eyes widened during Darcy’s speech. “What on Earth are you thinking?”
“I believe she will not spread the information. You have sung her praises,” Darcy scowled at Richard’s questioning look, “Do you disagree?”
“No,” Richard shook his head. “I believe her trustworthy.”
“Then oblige me in this. I cannot—” Darcy slammed his jaw together. He would not, could not tell of his rejection to Richard. Or anyone else. Ever. He had coveted Elizabeth’s good opinion and acceptance like he had never craved anything in his life. Feeling too vulnerable with Richard’s penetrating stare, Darcy moved forward.
“Come, Darcy,” Richard said, grabbing him by the shoulder. “Nothing but our aunt pressuring you to marry Anne awaits you there, and I do not think you need to spend more time there. At least make yourself agreeable to her friends one last time.”
Richard’s words made Darcy turn around to meet his eyes. “What do you know?”
“I know that the only person who could not tell you were smitten with Miss Bennet was the lady herself. I also know you do not pay that sort of attention to a lady for no reason. Nor would you tell me that should Miss Bennet question me about Wickham or Georgiana to answer truthfully if she was inclined to believe you. And I know you would never tell that to a woman you did not esteem greatly and would trust with your sister’s reputation and life. The only lady who could meet all that criteria would be a woman you loved deeply. You were missing for some time last night and are morose today. So, it all rather stacks up.”
Darcy hung his head and exhaled before turning to follow his cousin down the lane. Others in the world saw him as untouchable and charmed. He was the only son of one of the wealthiest men in the kingdom, related to a powerful and prosperous lord, inherited his estate at a young age, blessed with health, good sense, and good looks. He was in no danger of losing his wealth and could have nearly any wife of London stock that he wished. Men wanted to be him. Nay, even more, most men deferred to him. If they knew he had proposed to a country lady with no family or fortune to her name and not only had been soundly refused but felt like a whimpering small boy on the inside from her tongue lashing, they would have more than a hearty laugh at his expense.
Thankfully, Richard did not offer pity but instead provided a battle plan. Yes, he would go to the Parsonage and say goodbye to Mr. and Mrs. Collins and Miss Lucas. He would show Elizabeth her reproofs there were entirely unjust.
“You do not need to stay long. I will make myself available should Miss Bennet have any questions,” Richard said as they neared the house.
Darcy mutely nodded his head. Elizabeth was not present, and he could scarcely sit still for wondering if her delayed appearance was because she was reading his letter and reproaching herself. He said just enough to be considered civil in Mrs. Collins drawing room and excused himself early, citing the need to write his steward. Richard stayed behind, good man that he was.
As Darcy finally returned to Rosings, he saw Lady Montague-Churchill’s carriage outside. She was Lady Catherine’s closest friend and nearest neighbour that was a peer. Today was not her usual day for calling, but hopefully, that meant his aunt would be too distracted to drop such large hints that he was expected to marry Anne. Upon entering the house, he was informed by the butler that his aunt requested he see her in the drawing room upon his return. With resignation, he complied.
“Ah, here is Darcy,” she said at his entrance. “I do not think you have seen him in the last few years. He always seems to be out when you visit. You recall he is the same age as your son Matthew.”
“No, I have not seen him since his father died, I believe. Well, he was always a handsome young man,” she said while retrieving spectacles from her reticule. After putting them on her face, she gasped.
“Matilda, what is it? You look as though you have seen a ghost!”
“Oh, nothing is the matter at all,” she said. “If you will beg my pardon, I really cannot stay any longer. You know it is not my usual day for calling anyway,” the lady said and hastily stood.
“Of course, dear. I will give your regards to Anne.”
Lady Montague-Churchill thanked her friend. As she left the room, she peered up at Darcy with reproach in her eyes. Unfortunately, he was too distracted by the strange encounter to think of a reason to return to his chambers and instead had to listen to his aunt extoll for an hour about the expectations of his name. This ranged from being friendlier with her acquaintances to demands of duty in marriage. At last, Richard was heard entering the house and gave Darcy a reprieve.
In the privacy of Darcy’s rooms, Richard declared he waited as long as he could and still Elizabeth had not returned to the Parsonage. Darcy tried to content himself with the fact that he would never see or hear of her again. That night when sleep did not come, he was left with memories of his stolen kiss. He had instantly regretted it, and the memory merged with the strange reaction of Lady Montague-Churchill upon seeing him. For the first, he could only say it was yet another thing Elizabeth could hold against his character and for the second he had no ready explanation other than the strangeness of his aunt’s friends.
A note his aunt received at the breakfast table the next morning changed all of his expectations of never seeing Elizabeth again.