The light eased, and Darcy’s eyes focused on a familiar figure he had not seen in nearly fifty years. “Mother?”
“Yes, my darling, Fitzwilliam.” She glowed in a gown of white and bathed in light.
“Where is Elizabeth?” He ought to panic at not knowing where she was; at yet another separation but he felt only calm. “Am I dead?”
His mother approached, as beautiful as he remembered and as if she had never aged. She placed a hand on her son’s cheek.
“Your heart is broken, my son.”
“Is this Heaven? Where is Elizabeth? Surely others…?” Darcy tried to peer around her, but his movements were slow.
Lady Anne shook her head. “It is not time for your life to end. I broke your heart all those years ago.”
“No, I do not blame you—”
“You have been afraid of love and being loved. And you have craved it more than anything else. My actions took those opportunities away from you.”
Darcy remained silent. In his youth, he had longed to hear these words from his mother. Now, they mattered little compared with reuniting with Elizabeth.
“Did you find what you sought? Did you find love and peace?”
“No,” Darcy shook his head. “No, one impulsive action destroyed an innocent woman’s life.”
“Elizabeth loved you,” Lady Anne insisted.
“I never knew…I never said it to her. We could have had so much more.” He needed to see Elizabeth again more than he needed air in his lungs.
“Then return, my son,” Lady Anne held her arm out and a doorway filled with light shined a few feet away.
“Can I? How is this possible?” More than anything he desired another chance with Elizabeth.
“Yes, only let go of me,” his mother said. “Let go of the past.”
Looking down, Darcy saw that he held his mother’s other hand. When had he taken it? He did not recall and judging by the sensation, he may have always held it. A part of her had resided in his heart since he was eight years old. He had clung to it, embracing the fear and hurt rather than the unknown of life at Pemberley. Now, he was ready to let go. He needed peace. He needed Elizabeth.
“Go to her,” Lady Anne encouraged.
Through the doorway, Darcy heard Elizabeth’s familiar laughter. He turned to kiss his mother on the cheek. “I love you, Mother but I must leave you behind.”
“I will be well,” she smiled. “You see? I am well.”
Darcy nodded as he accepted the truth of her words. His mother did not need him. Her happiness did not rest in him but Elizabeth… He had seen a world where Elizabeth did love him but lacked the mirth she should have known because of the barriers he erected. Darcy had also seen life for him without Elizabeth. He did not know if Elizabeth needed him in her life, but he knew he needed her.
Determination filled him, and he walked through the doorway without casting a backward glance.
Gasping for air, Darcy bolted upright in his bed. As his breath calmed and his heart slowed, he recognised his surroundings. Rosings. Stumbling from the bed, he checked his reflection in the looking glass in his dressing room. Gone were the grey curls and deep lines of an older gentleman. Inspecting the dark circles under his eyes, he recognised signs of a miserable night’s sleep.
It had only been a dream. A more vivid nightmare he had never had, but as he often relived moments of terror in his dreams, he did not find it impossible that he could conjure such possibilities. Returning to his chamber, he noticed his piles of crumpled paper and broken pens. His letter!
Tossing it all in the fire grate, Darcy began again. He no longer searched for four syllable words, as Bingley had teased him so long ago. He no longer carefully protected himself and put himself in the best light. Nor did he care about scratched out words or ink blots. He broke every rule of correct penmanship, but he did not care. The sun rose swiftly, and soon Elizabeth would be walking in the grove. He must share the truth with her. As he poured out his secrets, he was surprised to note that the burdens he had expected to feel heavier felt halved when shared. True, Elizabeth did not ask to shoulder his admissions, and she likely never would, but something about the honesty of it all freed Darcy.
When he had finished, he leaned back in his chair and reviewed his work.
Dear Miss Bennet,
Do not fear that I will renew my sentiments which have offended you. I would never wish to pain you in such a way again. Instead, allow me to offer my most humble apologies. My mode and tone of address were disgusting, and you would not be the worthy woman you are if you had accepted my address under such circumstances.
As to the weightier arguments you have against me, of my selfishness and pride, I confess it is true. Again, I seek your forgiveness. I see now I should perhaps make amends to the whole of the world, but I will begin with you. My thoughtless words and actions have made you feel inferior and hurt you. The entire time I thought I courted you and showed my admiration, you believed I mocked and criticised. Memories of our every interaction are now inexpressibly painful because I see now the wounds I gave. Hurting you was the last thing I had ever desired to do.
Due to my actions, you believe that I have separated two young people who loved each other for nothing but selfish motivations and material gain. In my conceit, I did not see Miss Bennet’s affection for my friend. I believed his feelings ran deeper than hers. In suggesting he terminate the relationship, I never dreamed that I became the source of anguish. I had thought her heart not likely to be touched. The irony is, I can now see how it would be for her despite her serene demeanour. I have spent a lifetime hiding behind an aloof mask, veiling many deep and troubled emotions. The very woman I loved believed I hated her. Who am I to judge? If you care to give a suggestion if I should pass the information I have learned regarding your sister onto my friend you may speak to me or Colonel Fitzwilliam if the thought of conversing with me is too uncomfortable.
I must now address a subject infinitely more painful to me. You have believed Mr. Wickham’s lies and accused me of ruining all his chances for material comfort in this life. Such actions go beyond the tragedy of lost love but speak to an inexpressible and deliberate evil in a man’s heart. To explain Wickham’s relationship with my family, I must start at the beginning.
I am a bastard.
George Darcy never exposed the truth of my birth. My mother was not happy with her marriage, and after she bore an heir, she wandered. Caught in the act, she was sent away and bore me in Scotland. There I was raised until I was eight years old. One night, the man I called Father showed up at our cottage. His son had died, and he needed a new heir for Pemberley. His wife’s son would do as he deemed divorce impossible. With little more than an embrace and a farewell kiss, I was ripped from everything I ever knew or loved.
At the time, I did not understand why Father treated me so indifferently. He was never mean or cruel. He mourned the child he raised and loved and had to look at the proof of his wife’s adultery daily. Still, he wanted me to bear the Darcy legacy. In time, I learned the truth of my birth and understood what it must have cost him to be so committed to duty and honour. He may not be my father by blood, but I have attempted to emulate him.
George Wickham is the son of a very good man. His father was a steward to mine. Before I arrived at Pemberley, he was a source of joy to my father. When I moved there, not only could I not fill the void Father felt at the loss of his son, I could not compete with Wickham’s manners. I had not been raised in a large household or with the best of everything in addition to being naturally shy. As we aged, however, I noted duplicity in the younger Wickham. He would preen before the adults but coerce and trick behind their backs.
My father supported him in school and at Cambridge — something that would have been impossible from his own father. In those years, I lost all respect for the boy I once called a friend. His deeds are unfit for a maiden’s eyes. Forgive me if I pain you writing this of a man you called a friend. However, I would not have you unawares, and he take advantage of your kindness.
I never exposed him to my father, and upon his death, Wickham was bequeathed one thousand pounds. He was also meant to have a valuable living the family held. However, Wickham renounced any interest in the position and asked for a cash settlement instead. I did not fight him as I believed him ill-suited to the office. Wickham mentioned he might study law. For the next three years, I know not how he lived.
Imagine my surprise when the living fell open, and Wickham approached me for it. He claimed his situation very bad, and I had no trouble believing it. However, I did what I felt right in the interests of others. Angry, he abused me to my face and no doubt abroad. Can you think on what subject he found most pleasing to discuss as it would cause me the most pain? Hearing the occasional rumour about my birth — which thus far no one had any proof beyond hearsay on — was nothing in comparison to our next encounter.
You have heard of my sister discussed in affectionate terms by Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst. They do not present the truth. They have only met Georgiana a handful of times. Extreme shyness afflicts her. I wish I could say after I came to Pemberley my parents reconciled, but they never did. Georgiana, too, is a bastard. Mother died upon her birth. She was raised in Lambton with a wet nurse and occasionally visited Pemberley. Father packed her off to schools when she was too old for her nurse. I had seen Georgiana only a handful of times before Father passed and I became her guardian. Since then, I have attempted to create a friendship between us, but I kept her at school, as I believed best for our situation. It is the source of my most significant regret that she did not rely on me more or feel confident in our relationship.
Around a year ago, Colonel Fitzwilliam and I removed Georgiana from the school she attended and put her in the care of a woman whose character I was gravely misinformed. Mrs. Younge suggested a holiday in Ramsgate for her charge, and we consented. Once there, Wickham also arrived and after courting Georgiana for weeks had convinced my sister to consent to an elopement. Mrs. Younge, we later learned, had a previous connection to Wickham and encouraged the situation. I arrived, by merest chance, a day before their intended departure. Once there, Georgiana felt she could not grieve the man she looked up to almost as a father.
Wickham left immediately, and I had not seen or heard from him again until we encountered one another on the streets of Meryton. What he has specifically accused me of, I cannot know. However, I do know that he has means for blackmail at his disposal, or at the very least to ruin both of our reputations. If I seem to hate the man, it is because I have been taunted much of my life. I shudder to think what cruelty he is capable of if he will misuse a fifteen-year-old girl’s tender heart and would not wish to see you or your family hurt.
If you cannot trust my words on these matters, then you may apply to Colonel Fitzwilliam who was an executor of my father’s estate and as fellow-guardian to Georgiana knows of all her particulars. Having divulged my secrets to you, I have no doubt that you will keep them.
I will only add that although it might disgust you, I will love you until my last breath on this Earth. God bless you,
It was now nearing half past eight. Darcy sealed his letter and called for his valet. Then, like his disastrous nightmare the night before, he walked the grove awaiting Elizabeth. Just like before, she attempted to turn away from him, but he called after her.
Elizabeth approached with a wary look in her eye. When she came close enough for him to hand the letter over, she gasped. “Forgive me, sir, but you look as though you have been to the devil!”
Struggling to not return to his usual aloof expression, Darcy nodded in agreement. “I did not sleep well.”
Elizabeth blushed and looked away.
“Will you do me the honour of reading this letter?” He held out the envelope, but she hesitated. “It is neither a renewal of my addresses nor a defence, madam.”
Elizabeth looked at him curiously but took the envelope. “Pardon me, then.” She gave him a tight smile. “I will continue my walk.” She began to stalk off at a fast pace.
“Eliza—” Darcy winced when she whirled to face him, hands on hips and glared. “Miss Bennet, take care whilst you exercise. The rocks may be hidden. I would not wish for you to injure yourself.”
She furrowed her brow. “Thank you for the concern, but I am not afraid of a sprained ankle nor is it much cause for concern on such a path.”
Unable to explain the feelings of fear and panic which still lingered in his heart, he merely nodded and allowed her to continue. Feeling as though his heart was walking ever further away, he watched until she went around a bend. Then, he called on Mr. and Mrs. Collins. On his return to Rosings, Darcy saw Richard and informed him of his letter to Elizabeth.
“What have you done?” Richard cried.
“I could not live with myself if she were hurt by him,” Darcy said.
“But why tell her everything? Why tell her the full truth?”
“I will live with secrets no more.”
Richard stared dumbfounded at him, and Darcy extended his arm to squeeze his cousin’s shoulder.
“What is more, I am through keeping words in my heart. You are like a brother to me, Richard. I love you.”
Surprise lit his cousin’s eyes, and he laughed then pulled Darcy in for a great embrace, beating on his back. “It’s about time! So your bark is worse than your bite? I love you too.”
Released from Richard’s grip, Darcy’s neck heated. Expressing himself in this way was still new, but he could admit to enjoying the freedom. Perhaps if he had said it to Georgiana things would have been vastly different. Talk with her would have to wait for him to confess his errors to Bingley.
“Go on to the Parsonage,” Darcy said. “I will make the final arrangements for us to leave on the morrow.”
“You are certain?”
“I will not force my company on her.”
“No, but perhaps stay and show her who you really are? A lady wishes to be wooed.”
“I cannot go, in one night, from inept and arrogant to a charming lover, no matter how great the revelation.”
“Revelation?” Richard cocked his head to one side.
“Maybe I will tell you some other time.” Darcy expelled a breath. “I need to return to London. There are affairs I must look after and Georgiana deserves to have her brother.”
“Is there is nothing I can say to convince you otherwise?”
“No. Allow a man to quit the field of defeat with some dignity.” Darcy shook his head. “You go on.”
Richard nodded and proceeded down the path, allowing Darcy to return to Rosings. A memory of Anne’s reaction in his dream to the news that Darcy must marry Elizabeth ran through his mind. When he had arrived at Rosings, he feared Anne had forgotten their agreement and wished to marry him. He had not planned on discussing it with her and hoped to avoid the conversation. Now, understanding that he needed to consider the feelings of others more, he sought her out and found her in her private sitting room.
“Anne, may I sit with you?” he asked from the open doorway.
She put aside her book and looked up at him. “Certainly.” When he had sat, she observed, “I have not had any time to visit with you in the morning during your stay. You were always busy with Mother’s accounts or visiting the Parsonage.”
“I was,” he nodded, “and I am sorry if you felt slighted.”
She gave him a sad smile. “I did not feel slighted. I have accepted our situation.”
“And what is that?” he asked, surprising himself with how much he genuinely wanted to know her feelings.
“Well, Mother wishes you to marry me, and you do not want to. Naturally, you must avoid me to not give her false expectations.”
“What do you want, Anne?”
“Are you asking if I want to marry you?”
“Yes. I realise I have never asked what you thought on the matter.”
“What has changed? Why are you asking me now?” She looked at him warily.
“I have seen that I am selfish and arrogant. Years ago, when we spoke about your mother’s plans, I laid out that I had no intention to marry you. I never allowed you to speak.”
“Did she say that to you?” Anne asked softly and stared at her hands. “Miss Bennet is wrong, Fitzwilliam. You are not selfish or arrogant, but I will not be your consolation prize.”
Anne’s words surprised Darcy, and he looked at her as though he had never seen her before. “I would not demean you so but how did you know?”
“I know what longing and love looks like. I know the face of rejection.” A tear trickled down her cheek.
“Anne,” Darcy sighed. “I never meant to hurt you. Did I mistreat you? Did I raise your expectations?”
“No, do not blame yourself,” she said as she wiped away her tears with a handkerchief. “I knew you did not want me, you told me so, but it could not stop my heart from yearning.”
“Perhaps you only wish to be away from your mother. Perhaps if you were in more company…”
“I know my mind and my heart,” she snarled. “There is Richard. There is Mr. Montague-Churchill. There are other gentlemen I have met. It is you I loved.”
“I am sorry,” Darcy said quietly but meaning it with all of his heart. When he first made contact with the Fitzwilliams and de Bourghs, they filled a hole in his heart. “I never knew.”
“I did not wish for you to know,” she shrugged. “Mother told me I could gain your interest. However, I always saw we would not suit. I admired and loved you but would be an abominable wife to you, and you are not the sort of man that would make me happy.”
Darcy furrowed his brow. Thinking of being with Elizabeth made him happier than he had ever been. In his mind, that happiness equated love but what Anne talked about was dark and depressing. How could you love someone who could not complete you or be your equal? How was it love if it could only bring pain?
“You asked me what I wanted,” Anne interrupted his thoughts.
“I wish for your happiness. I hope Miss Bennet will see her error and if she does not, that your heart will be stirred by another.”
Darcy felt the lines between his brow deepen.
“You do not understand?” Anne asked and gently touched his hand. “I wish for that because I love you.”
That sentiment Darcy understood entirely. Of course, he desired for Elizabeth to love him but having no hope of that now, he wished for her happiness. No matter how painful it was to consider, she would find it with another man. “I understand. I would do nearly anything for you.” He covered her hand with his other one. “You are family.”
“Find someone to love and marry her. Do not return Rosings unwed.”
Darcy hung his head. “I do not know that I will find another.”
“Please,” Anne pleaded. “You do not know how my mother’s constant hints and nagging torment me.”
“I did not know, forgive me.”
“I will not,” Anne said and raised her chin. “You have no reason to reproach yourself.”
Darcy pulled his hand from hers and paced around the room. “I am a flawed man. I have wounded people—”
“Did you mean to?”
Darcy ceased walking and stared at her. “Pardon?”
“Did you mean to hurt anyone?”
“No, but my mere existence in this world has created pain.”
“It is not your fault,” she insisted. “Accidents may happen, over-sensitivities occur. But I will not forgive you for my silence and secrecy.”
Darcy remained rooted, hearing Anne’s words and the clemency she offered but wishing it was another woman before him. The things he wanted to share about himself, the deepest parts of his heart, he could not say to his cousin. Given her feelings for him, expressing them would only hurt her further. One thought stood out to him, however. She must feel similar to Jane Bennet. Loving a man from afar and with a mother who cannot keep silent about it. He castigated himself anew.
“I will leave you now,” Darcy said.
“I will not see you off tomorrow,” Anne said. “I meant what I said.”
Darcy nodded and bowed to her then made his way to his chamber.