A few days later, Darcy arrived in Meryton. Merely being in the same town that Elizabeth grew up in built anticipation in his heart. He knew she remained in Kent, however, his eyes greedily sought her around every shop corner. In addition to asking after Wickham’s debts, he would seek out the man himself. As Darcy had suspected, Wickham’s spendthrift ways carried through to the Militia. The bulk of his obligations at the milliners. No doubt, small fripperies bought for ladies to impress them with his charm.
Settling the accounts, Darcy then approached where the Regiment stayed on the outskirts of the town. Staying in the officer’s common room, Wickham was fetched and brought in.
“Well, Darcy,” Wickham drawled. “You seem to ever catch me surprised. What brought this visit?”
“I must speak to you in privacy. Can you send the others away?”
“I am sure they will oblige for a free pint or two.”
“Very well,” Darcy tossed a few coins at Wickham to hand around so the other men might leave. He rolled his eyes when Wickham kept a few for himself.
“What can I do for you, old boy?” Wickham winked as he sprawled on a settee.
“I have heard you enjoy spreading tales of woe and slandering my name.
“That’s nothing new,” Wickham shrugged. “It is not my fault some are eager to find justification for thinking ill of you.”
“And in the past, I have not taken the trouble to correct it,” Darcy said in a warning tone.
“Never say you find yourself actually caring about little Meryton’s opinion of you.” Wickham scrutinised Darcy for a long moment. “Not the whole town, rather just one person, eh? A lady. Well, I don’t see how my lies would keep her from your bed—”
“Shut your mouth,” Darcy growled. “Don’t you dare say another thing in that direction.”
“Oooh,” Wickham rubbed his hands together. “Even better! You don’t just want to bed her! You must love her! Well, who is it?”
“As usual, you have jumped ahead of yourself. I did not come so you might amend your lies. What care I if you lie when I have the means to prove you wrong?”
Wickham furrowed his brow. “Ah, so we come to the real thorn in your side?” He smirked. “Can you not trust me? Gentleman to gentleman, I will not expose you—or dear Georgiana either.”
“She is Miss Darcy to you,” Darcy glared. “And you know all trust and respect I had for you evaporated long ago.”
“Not to mention neither of us are gentlemen,” Wickham laughed.
Darcy chose to not take Wickham’s bait. “Here,” he handed a packet of papers. “I have your debts. Signed by my solicitor in Town and Mr. Philips here. Sign the agreement to never even hint of anything irregular about mine or my sister’s birth, and you need not fear the Fleet.”
Wickham’s mouth jawed. “You really did this?” He perused the papers. “What would Mr. Darcy say? Holding my life in your hands in such a way! He wanted me independent of you!”
“Do not twist the blame for your indiscretions on me,” Darcy said. “You could have had that independence. Sign the paper and keep your vow and I will not use this against you.”
Wickham shook his head. “I need more.”
“You admit that you meant to keep this as an option to use one day!” Darcy had never been a violent man, but now his blood rushed through his veins and the urge to throttle Wickham built in him.
“Only to blackmail,” Wickham rushed to say. “I don’t have a Pemberley to fall back on.”
“And what if I called your bluff?”
“Would you though? For Miss Darcy’s sake…”
Darcy thought for a moment. Will you do nothing for him? He heard in Elizabeth’s voice from that terrible dream. “If I do something for you now, you must prove your seriousness in it.” He dipped a quill in ink and wrote an addendum to a passage. “Return to the law. You are not suited to the church, and I take it you do not wish for the Regulars.”
“Indeed,” Wickham said.
“Meet me tomorrow at Mr. Philips’ office. We will sell your commission and arrange matters for you at Grey’s Inn. You will agree to specific behaviour and monetary constraints. However, I will do all I can to advance your career.”
“You would do this?” Wickham asked in a different tone than he had used moments before. “After everything I have done? I told you two years ago my circumstances were very dire—and they were. I would not have attempted the matter with Georgiana—I never thought it would go so far. I thought all along she would write to you and you would arrive, and then I could argue some blunt from you—”
Darcy held up his hands, not wanting to hear anything else. “This really is the last time, George.” He held out his hand, and Wickham took it. “Tomorrow at Philips’ at one o’clock sharp.”
“Thank you, Darcy,” Wickham said. Darcy walked to the door, and Wickham called after. “I never would have exposed you. Out of regard for Mr. Darcy and because my father was one of the best men in the world and he begat me: a wastrel. Whatever your parentage, you are a good man.”
Although shocked, Darcy merely bowed his head and made his way to the Inn. The following morning, he called upon Sir William Lucas, Mr. Bennet, and Mrs. Long before arriving at the solicitor’s office. Every person he had met with expressed surprise to see him which humbled him anew.
Despite his embarrassment, he took the time to listen to each person’s news. Sir William blathered about the joy of meeting Lady Catherine and finding his daughter well set up. Darcy reckoned if he were a father, he might be thankful for a woman like her ladyship in his daughter’s life. Mrs. Long talked at length about how inconvenient she would find it to keep a carriage when she so seldom leaves the house, and her young nieces can walk to town. Darcy entirely agreed with her, and it seemed to put her at ease.
Mr. Bennet teased him in his sly way, reminding Darcy of Elizabeth. He had asked if Bingley came as well and appeared disappointed until Darcy confirmed that he had often seen him at Gracechurch street in the company of Jane. Then, the older man’s lips twitched as though to conceal laughter. When he spoke of keeping it a secret from his wife, his eyes twinkled. As much as Darcy had judged the patriarch as indolent and selfish but perhaps he merely enjoyed a joke more than Darcy did and found it hard to navigate waters needing weightier actions. George Darcy had been similar.
All in all, it was a productive trip to Meryton and one full of startling revelations. Convinced he would never see the place again, Darcy felt wistful as he left. It really had been a charming town and the place he imagined many a lad and lass met their heart’s love to begin their happy lives. If only such had been part of his tale. Sighing, he pressed his horse onward to London.
A few days after Darcy returned from Meryton, he took Georgiana shopping. Making an effort to join in her activities, he confessed he had not considered before how confined ladies’ lives were. Georgiana had lessons with various art and music masters and spent a portion of each day reading. At her pleading, Darcy allowed her to drop sessions of French language study. For most of his life, Britain had been at war with France, and while the day might come when it would be safe to travel again, he hardly supposed she would need to be as conversant as a native. To fill the moments of boredom and dullness, Darcy discovered Georgiana—and judging by the crowds of women on the street most other ladies as well—shopped. It did not matter that she had bought ribbons for a new bonnet yesterday. Today specific thread was needed.
“I truly appreciate you coming with me,” Georgiana smiled up at him as she walked on his arm.
“It is my pleasure,” he returned the smile. “Would you care for any new music? The shop you favour is just around the corner.”
“If I could, I would buy every speck of music I could find and then I would have no money left for all these fripperies,” she laughed.
Darcy joined her as the image of their London house being filled from corner to corner with sheet music filled his head. At least he could discuss music. He had little of use to say regarding ribbons and lace.
“Is that not Mr. Bingley?” Georgiana interrupted Darcy’s musings.
Looking around, Darcy found his friend in the company of Mrs. Gardiner and Jane.
“Who are the ladies he speaks to?” she asked. “They look so elegant but do not have the superior look I often meet with.”
“Would you like to meet them?”
Georgiana shyly nodded, and Darcy lead her to his friend. “Bingley,” he called.
“Darcy,” Bingley turned and grinned. “A pleasure to see you about. Miss Darcy, you are looking well,” he bowed.
“Thank you,” Georgiana curtsied and then turned anxious eyes on Darcy.
“Georgiana, allow me to introduce Mrs. Gardiner and Miss Jane Bennet. Miss Bennet is one of Bingley’s neighbours in Hertfordshire and Mrs. Gardiner is her aunt. Ladies, may I present my sister Miss Darcy.”
After the requisite curtsies, Georgiana smiled at Miss Bennet. “How did you find Rosings?”
“I am afraid that was my sister. Lizzy arrives tomorrow, but from her letters, she…she found much to observe.”
Darcy thought that strange wording, but then he supposed Miss Bennet attempted to soften Elizabeth’s pointed wit.
“Now, I recall,” Georgiana said. “Fitzwilliam wrote to me from Hertfordshire. You have many sisters, do you not?”
“I am the eldest of five,” Jane smiled.
“How I wish I had a sister!”
Darcy chuckled. “I regret that I am not a female.”
“Oh, that is not how I meant it!” Georgiana blushed. “I would never wish you away, but the companionship of a sister would be nice. Perhaps if you ever marry.”
“We must continue our shopping,” Mrs. Gardiner said, “but we would be most pleased to see you again, Miss Darcy. You must come the next time your brother calls.”
Georgiana grinned. “I would love that!”
“Sir, I am surprised we have not seen you in the last week,” Mrs. Gardiner scolded.
“Forgive me, I have had many affairs to tend to. I should not want to call when Miss Elizabeth has just arrived. We will call after that.”
“And then you must all dine with us,” Georgiana offered without hesitation.
“In that case, you had better come tomorrow. The girls are returning to Hertfordshire by Saturday.”
“I would hate to intrude on any family plans,” Darcy said. He nervously glanced at Bingley, hoping his friend could extract him from the awkwardness, but Bingley was speaking with Jane.
“We have no fixed plans,” Mrs. Gardiner smiled. “Except more shopping, that is. Miss Darcy, would you care to join us?”
“Could I, Brother?” she asked with pleading blue eyes.
“Certainly.” It tore at his heart to consider Georgiana becoming Elizabeth’s friend. He had imagined a closer relationship between them.
“It is quite settled then. We will see you at Gracechurch street tomorrow and then the next day will be shopping and dinner at Darcy House.”
“Splendid!” Georgiana bounced on her toes and even clapped her hands.
The Gardiner party and Bingley left after settling on a time for tomorrow’s meeting. The two siblings finished their shopping and returned home in very different states of mind.
When Darcy and Georgiana arrived at the Gardiner house the following day, Darcy could barely breathe to contain his anxiety in seeing Elizabeth again. Had she read his letter? In his dream, she had not. The first letter he wrote, the one he later burned before giving her, he had thought it was most important for Elizabeth to know the truth about Wickham and by explaining his failures, it would tell about Darcy as well. He held some pride she might, at least, rue her refusal. After his dream, he wrote her the full truth and did not care in the least about defending himself or puffing himself up. He wrote not to preserve his pride, but to humble himself.
He also believed he would never see her again.
Would she meet him with censure in her eyes? Darcy did not believe she would gossip. Still, she was very close to her sisters and her aunt. Would she tell them? They had not treated him with anything but civility, but perhaps Elizabeth would wait to reveal it them in person. All thought ceased when he was shown to the Gardiner sitting room, and Elizabeth, lovelier than ever, was finally before him again and surrounded by children with enough familial features to tug at his heart.
“Lizzy,” Jane said, “This is Miss Darcy.”
“I am pleased to meet you,” Elizabeth said with a gentle smile for Darcy’s sister.
“And I you,” Georgiana returned the smile. “I recall from my brother’s letters you enjoy music, Miss Elizabeth.”
“I do,” Elizabeth answered. “Children, it is time for you to return upstairs and let us visit. Miss Darcy, you may sit next to me.”
“No!” A little Gardiner through chubby arms around Elizabeth’s neck. “My Lizbef.”
Elizabeth laughed, tossing shiny curls as she shook her head and Darcy’s breath caught. Her eyes twinkled, and the pain in his heart was so acute, he thought he might pass out.
“Come along,” Mrs. Gardiner said as she came to save her niece. “Elizabeth is correct. Pardon our manners, Mr. Darcy. Please seat yourself.”
Her words jolted life back into Darcy. Surely this encounter would be more natural if he were in a chair. The children were taken upstairs and everyone seated as tea was served. Darcy tried to not allow the usual awkward feeling settle in him. Bingley arrived and talked with Jane. Georgiana and Elizabeth conversed about music which left Darcy to speak with Mrs. Gardiner. Elizabeth cast curious looks at them.
“My steward has written to me of an estate which will soon become available that is only five miles from Lambton,” Darcy said to Mrs. Gardiner.
“But five miles!” The woman grinned and pressed a hand to her heart. “Oh, that would be ideal!”
Darcy smiled at her enthusiasm. “I do not know the condition of the estate. The house has been unoccupied for many years and only a steward in charge of the tenants and land.”
“I am not afraid of a bit of hard work and patience. Besides, it is family which makes a house a home.”
Darcy glanced at Elizabeth, surprised to see her eyes upon him again. Yes, with no family a house was a mere set of bricks. “There is a difficulty,” Darcy admitted. “They want everything settled by Midsummer day. I believe that is earlier than you and Mr. Gardiner had planned.”
Mrs. Gardiner pursed her lips and looked at Jane and Bingley for a moment before replying. “True, the timing is not perfect, but the location is.”
Her eyes shone, and Darcy believed he saw a smirk before she raised her cup to her lips. “I will be certain to pass the information on to my husband.”
“Perfect,” Darcy said. “He and I can discuss it more at dinner tomorrow.”
“Yes, you certainly will!” Mrs. Gardiner grinned, and Darcy felt his lips lifting in response.
“Fitzwilliam,” Georgiana said from the nearby settee, “Elizabeth has suggested a music shop I have not visited before. May we start there tomorrow?”
“Of course. Anything you prefer.”
Georgiana beamed then turned to Elizabeth. “He is the best brother.”
Darcy felt a flush creeping up his neck.
“I am sure it is effortless to be such a wonderful brother to a sister like you,” Elizabeth said and squeezed Georgiana’s hand.
Pain lanced Darcy’s heart again. He had neglected Georgiana so much. She was so vulnerable and fragile, so wanting love from anyone. Here Elizabeth was, offering her friendship as freely as he always knew she would. If he had ruined anything that might have been between him and Elizabeth, at the very least, he could be thankful for this moment. Realizing that Georgiana could find healing and friendship through this eased the pain in Darcy’s heart. Still, he was grateful when the clock struck a quarter after the hour.
“Thank you very much,” Darcy said to Mrs. Gardiner as he stood, “for your hospitality. Shall we gather at eleven tomorrow?”
“Certainly,” Mrs. Gardiner replied.
Georgiana rose with reluctance but also made her goodbyes. Darcy remained perfectly polite to Elizabeth and Jane, who betrayed nothing less than the usual civility to him. Once in the carriage returning to his home, Darcy sighed in relief. The first meeting was over. Perhaps now he could be comfortable in Elizabeth’s presence. They would shop together tomorrow as nothing more than indifferent acquaintances, and while his heart still longed for more, he told himself to adapt to it. It was all that would ever be between them.