“Fitzwilliam Darcy!” Lady Catherine exclaimed as she crushed the note in one hand. “Have you so little respect for my daughter that you would subject her to rumours at her own home?”
“I do not understand you,” he said coldly.
“This,” she waved the offending paper around, “is a note from Mr. Collins! He has heard gossip all over the village this morning that you were seen kissing a young woman yesterday on park grounds. And not just any young woman, one clearly not of servant stature! The townspeople have had no trouble concluding it must be one of Mrs. Collins’ guests. Any idiot can see Miss Lucas is without guise and could never entrap you. It’s that Elizabeth Bennet. I insist you end this dalliance at once!”
“That is quite enough, madam!” Darcy stood and threw his napkin at the table. “I have no connection with Miss Bennet, and she has never behaved in any manner other than as a lady toward me. She has not entrapped me or used any mean art, unlike some,” he said with a pointed glare at his aunt. “Nor can I understand what my private affairs would mean to Anne.”
“It was designed for you to marry her!” Lady Catherine’s face turned red.
“It was nothing more than the wishes of two sisters. Nothing was arranged by contract or by the desire of the young people in question. Nor would that be common knowledge. Even you would not bandy about such an expectation to the neighbourhood.”
“Anne has waited for you for all these years! Heaven knows what has delayed you but what pleasures men always seek, but how dare you do it right in front of her?”
“Mother,” Anne said forcefully. “I do not desire to wed Fitzwilliam. We have both discussed that long ago.”
Lady Catherine turned a deeper shade of red and stood. Her mouth dropped open, and for a moment Darcy thought she would screech or command her daughter into the obedience of her wishes. Then, unexpectedly, after not finding the sufficient words, she clamped her jaw together and left the room.
“My dear cousin,” Anne said in a sad voice, “you are missing the salient point here. Miss Bennet’s reputation is being impugned and attached to your name. She is likely even now being upbraided by her cousin. Even if it is not true, you must do something.”
Darcy collapsed back in his chair as all residual anger left him in place of concern for Elizabeth’s feelings. What was there to do? He had already offered for her, and she refused him. She had even declared if he were the last man in the world, she would not have him. Once rumours began, things could turn nasty quickly. Already the gossip centred on his kiss. It would easily be construed as Elizabeth attempting to seduce a wealthy man. If she did not marry, others would question not only her intents but her virtue. It would make her undesirable as a wife and yet subject her to dishonourable intentions. He knew the outcome well. It was all the things he worried about should Georgiana’s near elopement ever become known.
Richard pulled him up by the arm and led him to the library. “Here,” Richard said while pushing a brandy into his hand.
Not caring it was still an early hour, he took a large gulp.
“I don’t suppose you could deny the rumour?” Richard asked.
Darcy shook his head. “You know how I abhor deceit.” He tossed his head back and squeezed his eyes shut. “She is going to hate me forever.”
“You could find another for her to marry,” Richard said.
The words propelled Darcy forward, and he met his cousin’s eyes. “Are you suggesting yourself?”
“Lord, no,” he said quickly—possibly too quickly—and took a swig.
Darcy clenched the arms of his chair, and his knuckles turned white. “You did seem to favour her.”
“Of course, I favoured her! She is pretty and agreeable.” Richard gulped and held up his hands. “However, we both know I need a lady with some fortune, and so I do have a care when I am about them to not fall in love with just anyone who is pretty and agreeable.”
Darcy narrowed his eyes. “You sound as though you believe she bewitched me and come rather close to insulting her.”
“Calm yourself and put away your murderous glare! I am certain there are any number of qualities which you admired and earned your love. Simply because I do not see them does not mean I am insulting your lady.”
Somewhat appeased, Darcy leaned back in the chair again and loosened his grip.
“You could supplement her dowry,” Richard suggested.
Darcy pinched the bridge of his nose. “That will look as though I am paying her off for an affair.”
“Oh, right. Well, I am more used to how my brother has to deal with his ladies.”
“Do not remind me,” Darcy groaned.
“Maybe she does not wish to wed at all.”
“She has four sisters whose reputations could be affected as well. Although, I suppose Bingley would marry her eldest sister without argument. He still seems rather attached to her.”
“Bingley!” Richard cried. “Bingley was attached to Miss Bennet’s sister?”
“Yes.” Darcy took a gulp of the wine in his hand. “I was apparently quite mistaken in the level of Miss Jane Bennet’s regard for my friend.”
“Did Miss Bennet enlighten you last night?”
“Yes, quite soundly.”
Richard cursed. “I apologize, Darcy. I am to blame. Just yesterday, I told Miss Bennet that you had congratulated yourself on separating Bingley from an impudent marriage!”
Darcy finished his drink before replying. Devil take it, he was developing quite the headache this morning. “She must have suspected it in any case and had many other reasons against me. I should not have mentioned it to you, although I did not know she would be here, but she has never been far from my thoughts and admitting something close to her — in relation of her sister and Bingley — was as near as I could come to unburdening myself. If you agreed on the situation with my friend was imprudent, then I could tell myself I had chosen correctly by leaving Hertfordshire and not pursuing her.”
“How was I to counsel you on that if you did not provide the information that it was even Bingley you were talking about let alone the situation of the lady. Miss Bennet is genteel and everything proper. You made it sound as though he desired a scullery maid.”
“I can hardly be to blame if you were not more curious to ask impertinent questions and challenge my prejudice.”
Richard finished his drink and then stood. “Come,” he said and extended his hand.
Darcy looked at it sceptically. “Where are we going now?”
“I am going to distract Mr. and Mrs. Collins while you grovel to your future bride.”
“No, there must be another choice.”
“There is no other way to secure her reputation, and as you just pointed out, you need someone to challenge you. You will have to work out your personal differences, but a lifetime must surely be enough for that. She simply needs to marry you, not like you.”
Darcy pushed his hand out of the way and stood. “Thank you for the sweet words of inspiration and hope. You make it sound so easy.” Inside, Darcy knew a loveless marriage to Elizabeth would be a personal hell on Earth. And one he deserved entirely.
“She is too honourable to destroy the happiness of her entire family,” Richard said gently. “Nor is she unjust.”
Months ago, at Netherfield, Darcy and Elizabeth had debated their failings. He had admitted to implacable resentment, and she had rightfully said it was a dreadful fault. He prayed she could be so forgiving in such an instance. With a small kernel of hope building in his chest, Darcy continued to the Parsonage.
“Mr. Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam” Mrs. Collins greeted them in with a tight smile.
Darcy had immediately noticed her husband’s absence. “Where is Mr. Collins?” Darcy asked.
Mrs. Collins frowned. “He has gone up to console Lady Catherine. Let us not misunderstand what this visit is about. Eliza is in the garden.”
Darcy began walking to the door, but Mrs. Collins called out, “She needs time.”
Darcy mutely nodded his head. Richard’s words about a lifetime being long enough to sort out how to live together resonated in his mind. It had not occurred to him before her rejection how little he really understood Elizabeth or knew her. Was she as stubborn as he? Did she loathe admitting when she was wrong? Would they ever move on from the opinions she had first formed of him?
He found her at the edge of the garden, facing the woods as far away from Rosings as one could manage. She heard his approach and startled. What an extraordinary mixture Elizabeth was! She had been as brave as a lioness last night and now seemed as timid as a frightened deer.
“Miss Bennet,” he said with all the gentleness he could put into the formal address.
She did not turn to face him or acknowledge his presence in any way. Uncertain how to proceed, he stood silently just behind her shoulder. With any luck, she would ease the conversation as she often did when he was awkward and brooding. He lightly drummed his fingers on his thigh to calm his nerves.
Just when he was about to give in and find something to say, Elizabeth turned and faced him. “Do you have anything to say, Mr. Darcy?”
“Would that I could say anything that would erase my actions or bring peace to your mind,” he twisted his hat in his hands. “I promise you will be well cared for—”
Elizabeth’s face crumpled. “My — my — sisters,” she whispered.
“As my wife,” Darcy continued.
Her immediate look of relief as he finished his declaration proved that she found it entirely possible to believe he would not offer his hand again. Did she think he was so dishonourable? Or had she imagined him too proud to humble himself twice in two days?
“Thank you, Mr. Darcy,” she said as she attempted to keep tears from falling.
Her red and swollen eyes had already proved he caused her to shed many others. He could never forgive himself for causing her such distress. What a selfish beast he had been! And she had the graciousness to thank him. As much as he hated himself, he fell even more in love with her at this moment. What other lady could meet this situation with such composure? He had no doubt she was furious at him from the way she held herself, but she seemed to know there was no use in dramatics.
“If it pleases you, I will drive to Longbourn tomorrow and meet with your father.” He offered it up as a peace offering.
“Now, you ask what will please me?” She had turned away again but now spun to face him. “And you voluntarily wish to see my family? Oh, but it’s not voluntary, is it?” She cocked her head to one side and shot daggers at him from her eyes.
His nerves were too raw to let the intended insult pass. “I did offer to connect myself with them just last night. You have made no secret of your hatred of me. I did not think you could forget it already as you seemed to have delighted in recalling every other word and action you perceived as my faults.”
“I will not question how destroying my reputation is on equal terms with the faults I laid at your door last night.” Her chin quivered, but she maintained her sure-footed stance and boldly met his eyes.
If she had said it in anger, it would have been easier to bear. Instead, Darcy perceived she meant more than she said. “Are you under the impression that I intentionally orchestrated all of this?”
“I can think of no other explanation,” Elizabeth shook her head. “I refused your offer of marriage, and you have freely admitted to your resentment.”
“You think I would compromise you to destroy you or force your hand? I suppose you think I arranged for there to be witnesses as well?”
Elizabeth turned white and then red. “Someone saw?”
“Why else would there be rumours?”
“Rumours seldom begin in truth,” she murmured and lowered her head.
“In this fantasy you have conjured, I commanded others to spread gossip? If it did not rely on someone viewing it, then why would I bother to kiss you?”
Elizabeth blushed and stammered. “I..I…I have been unable to make any sense of that at all.”
Darcy took a step closer to Elizabeth and did not miss the sudden and rapid rise and fall of her chest. He terrified her. He took a step back, and she calmed. “I cannot make you think better of me, but as you have agreed to marry me, I would say it may be best to put your suspicions and prejudices aside. Believe me when I say that kissing you was as unplanned as falling in love with you had been and has served to be just as destructive. Neither can be forgotten soon enough for our mutual happiness. When we say our vows we will each promise things we cannot keep, but I do mean this vow. I will never touch you again without your request nor will I mistreat you in public or private.”
Elizabeth met his eyes and seemed to scrutinise him to assess his sincerity. Hearing the door close and looking over his shoulder he saw Richard and Mrs. Collins walking towards them.
Darcy gave Elizabeth a formal bow. “I will take my leave now.”
“No, I am certain Darcy will insist that you all take his coach! It will very comfortably seat you ladies, and Mr. Collins can ride with Brooks,” Richard said as they drew near. “It will be no inconvenience for Darcy and me to rent horses.”
Darcy was not entirely sure what he overheard, but it seemed designed to vex him.
“Is everything well?” Mrs. Collins asked.
“I…I am well,” Elizabeth dissembled. “Did I hear correctly? You intend to return to Hertfordshire tomorrow?”
Mrs. Collins looked away from Elizabeth’s face. “Mr. Collins and I have discussed the matter, and we thought it best to return you and Maria ourselves. I am certain Lady Catherine will approve of the visit.”
Darcy instantly understood the pretence. Mrs. Collins wished to escape from Lady Catherine’s displeasure because Elizabeth agreed to marry him. “I would be pleased for you to take the coach,” he said.
“Thank you, Mr. Darcy,” she quickly said. After a pointed glare from Mrs. Collins, Elizabeth echoed it.
“Well, we must begin packing then, Eliza.” She returned to the house.
“Of course, do excuse us,” Richard said and bowed before leaving.
“I look forward to announcing our betrothal to your family,” Darcy said wishing Elizabeth offered her hand for him to bow over. As he met her eyes before leaving, his heart sank to see no hint of forgiveness in her eyes.
He tried to not be discouraged by the lack of improvement with Elizabeth. He would attempt to court her during their engagement and after their marriage. For now, he managed to avoid his aunt, who had not left her rooms since Anne’s declaration over breakfast. The journey to Longbourn on a rented horse and with Mr. Collins in tow would test his nerves, but Darcy knew he would need to retain his composure to meet with Mr. Bennet and the vulgarness of his wife and youngest daughters.