Georgiana vibrated with nervous energy across from Darcy as the carriage rolled over the cobbled and crowded streets of London. Darcy found himself having to remember to breathe. For Elizabeth’s sake, he would be careful to betray nothing. Mr. Gardiner had already learned of Darcy’s failed courtship, and Darcy supposed his wife knew as well. However, Elizabeth did not need anyone believing Darcy had any hopes or intentions of pursuing her. He was aware that she would receive pressure to accept him. He often wondered if his mother had felt pushed to take her husband’s hand in marriage even when their temperaments did not match.
Georgiana waved eagerly out the window as the coach approached the shop. Mrs. Gardiner and her nieces were gathered outside looking at the window display. Thankfully, the Bennet ladies would return to Hertfordshire soon. Georgiana could continue her friendship via letters. If he continued to squire her around to each meeting with them, gossip would follow.
Darcy hung back as Georgiana walked around the music shop with her new friends. He could see her confidence growing with each kind word from the Bennet sisters and their aunt. Timidity had never been more than a mask on Georgiana and not who she truly was. Darcy smiled as he considered the freedom his sister must feel now.
He wandered around the store. A memory flickered through his mind. He was only seven years old and in the small Scottish cottage with his mother. She had been reading the London newspapers and had received a letter from a friend about a concert she attended. His mother wept over not being able to attend the hailed genius of Joseph Haydn. She was told The Surprise was sublime and ordered sheet music. There was no pianoforte in the cottage, but the rector had one. Lady Anne diligently practiced so often Darcy could hum the tune. As a child, he had particularly enjoyed the sudden changes in volume. Seeing the others occupied, Darcy found a copy and ran his fingers over it.
He still did not know what to make up his vision of his mother but agreed with her commandment to leave her in the past, except when there were happy memories such as sitting at her feet with his toys while she played. Who was he to judge her? She had made mistakes which cost her much. So had he. She did love him. Perhaps it was not displayed in ways Darcy would have liked—and maybe not as pure as he would want—but he supposed she had her own emotional burdens. Lady Catherine and the Earl certainly appeared to have troubles.
“It has been a very long time since I have heard that one,” Elizabeth said at his side.
Darcy turned to look at her, surprised she had approached him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that the other ladies were looking at newer pieces. “It was one of my mother’s favourites.”
From the way Elizabeth sucked in a breath, Darcy knew she had read his letter. Elizabeth knew the truth of his birth. She had greeted Georgiana with openness and without censure. Some tension eased from his body.
“You ought to buy it for Miss Darcy, then,” Elizabeth said. “If you do not mind my recommendation.”
Elizabeth glanced away, and a light blush filled her cheeks. She seemed nearly as uncomfortable as he did.
“A fine suggestion. Thank you,” Darcy smiled at her.
“I hope you understand how much she adores you,” Elizabeth continued. “She has not ceased to praise you.”
Elizabeth appeared confused. Uncertain how to reply, he settled for keeping the focus on their sibling emotions. “I regret we have not had the closeness I would like, but there is nothing I would not do for her.”
“Yes…I understood as much.”
They descended into silence for a long moment, and Darcy held his breath, expecting a pointed barb from Elizabeth at any moment for his stupidity. He scrambled to think of something to say when she lightly cleared her throat.
“I feel like I owe you not only apologies but a secret of my own.”
“I believe the apology is all mine.”
“And so, you have already given yours, and I accept,” Elizabeth said, at last meeting his eyes with a teasing smile on her lips. “My secret is not equal to your own.”
“It is a true secret, however. Even Jane does not know.”
Darcy observed her as the smile disappeared and sadness filled her eyes. “After seeing the unhappiness of my parents’ marriage, I promised myself I would not marry unless I could have a union like my aunt and uncle. I cannot share that with Jane for she will attempt to dissuade me from my understanding of our parents. I could not share my feelings with Charlotte, and it is just as well. She married my ridiculous cousin.”
The corners of Darcy’s lips tugged up. “Yes, it appears she would not understand your views.”
“That was really background to my secret,” she grinned cheekily. “The real secret is that in my case, I would say fifty miles is not near far enough from some family. I begin to dread returning to Longbourn.”
“Ah,” Darcy nodded. “And this you also cannot share with your sister?”
“No, she feels very differently.” Elizabeth looked fondly at Jane. “Thank you for speaking to Mr. Bingley.”
Before Darcy could assure her that he never thought otherwise, the others announced they were ready to continue the excursion. For the remainder of the day, Darcy did not have any more moments to speak with Elizabeth. When he returned home, he discovered a letter from an old friend. Alexander Marshall arrived in Town yesterday after a few years in the country. Eager to see his friend, and preferring a buffer between him and closeness with the Bennets, Darcy invited the gentleman to dinner.
Marshall arrived first. Their friendship extended to school days and the man’s easy manners eased some of Darcy’s anxieties by the time the others arrived. Darcy greeted his guests and tried to hide his feelings of discomfort at Elizabeth in his home. She stole his breath, entering with a smile on her face and greeting Georgiana with an embrace and a kiss on the cheek. Georgiana said something which made her laugh, the sound pulling on his heart like always. Beside him, he felt his friend turn to be introduced. Darcy heard a quick intake of breath and glanced to see Marshall staring enraptured at the new arrivals.
Jane directed her eyes to Bingley, who stepped forward to kiss her hand. Marshall’s eyes remained fixed on Elizabeth. A black veil descended over Darcy’s eyes. Rage filled him and the desire to pummel his oldest friend coursed through his body.
Marshall elbowed him and whispered. “Introductions, man.”
Darcy blinked twice, forcing his emotions down. He had no claims on Elizabeth and never would. Marshall was ten times the man he had ever been: confident, articulate, and a devoted son. Marshall inherited and ran a profitable estate of about three thousand pounds per annum. Tenants and servants knew him to be generous and fair. If Elizabeth earned his admiration, she would be well-provided for her whole life. Knowing these things did little to silence the beast in Darcy growling to claim his mate and protect what is his. Mr. Gardiner cleared his throat and raised his eyebrows, returning Darcy’s mind to the task at hand. Introductions performed, Marshall ingratiated himself at Elizabeth’s side until they were called to the table.
Fortunately, between Bingley and his equally outgoing friend Marshall, Darcy had no awkward silences to fill. Marshall talked with Elizabeth as much as possible, so much that by the end of the meal, even Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner had noted it and frequently glanced between Darcy and the new suitor. Elizabeth conversed with her usual ease, and if she looked at Darcy more than when he made the almost insurmountable effort to talk, he did not see it.
“How long have you and Mr. Darcy been friends?” Elizabeth asked Marshall who sat across from her.
“We met our first year at Eton,” Marshall acknowledged.
“Marshall is my oldest friend,” Darcy said with an attempt at a smile.
Elizabeth raised her brows in surprise. “I had thought Mr. Bingley was your oldest friend.”
“No, we did not meet until after University,” Bingley answered.
“Oh?” Elizabeth smiled, encouraging him to continue with the story.
“We met at a ball,” Bingley chuckled. “It will not surprise you, Miss Elizabeth, that Darcy felt the need to hold a wall up.”
“Come, I was not so bad as that,” Darcy flushed a little at the tease.
“You stood more rigid than a Doric column and scowled as though you wore the weight of the entire roof on your shoulders.”
Darcy glanced down at his plate. It had been only six months after his father died. He had been propositioned by eager widows twice before the opening set. Around the room, people craned their heads and stood on tiptoes for a glimpse of him, fathers and mothers grasped their daughters by the hand and pushed them his way. The scowl, which he had been too late to adopt, was the only thing that prevented more intruders to his solitude.
“I was in ill-humour,” Darcy said neutrally.
“Why would Miss Elizabeth not be surprised by Darcy’s behaviour?” Marshall asked.
“They first met at a ball in Hertfordshire and Darcy refused to dance, saying exactly as he has just explained,” Bingley explained, “he was in ill-humour.”
“Do we not all need practice when in a new situation?” Elizabeth said. “It must say very much about the hosts of the other balls you have been to if after so many years you are still learning to manage discomfort. You must have felt at ease at the other occasions.”
Marshall nodded at Elizabeth’s words. “You are very insightful. Yes, Darcy regularly only attends when he knows the hosts and many of the guests well. He prefers quiet dinners instead.”
Elizabeth smiled. “I would not be surprised if Mr. Darcy behaved better at his next ball.”
“I certainly hope so!” Marshall grinned. “I come bearing an invitation. I am to mark my return to Society with exuberance. Before the Season’s end, I will host the greatest masquerade we have seen in many years.” He turned to Darcy. “There, you may hide behind a mask. No one will know it is you and you do not have to mingle.”
Darcy nodded in appreciation, but inwardly he cringed. If only Marshall understood he always wore a mask.
“How exciting,” Georgiana breathed.
“If your brother allows it, you are certainly invited,” Marshall said. “And of course, Bingley, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, and the Misses Bennet.”
“Thank you,” Elizabeth grinned. “We will be staying in London for several more weeks, and I look forward to some frivolity.”
Mrs. Gardiner laughed. “What Elizabeth means is that her uncle and I do not escort her to near enough outings for her own taste. We typically only go to the theatre once or twice during her visits.”
At first, Darcy was confused as to the change of plans regarding their return to Hertfordshire. Then, he saw the way Bingley’s eyes fell on Jane and her slight blush. Ah, Mrs. Bennet must have been alerted to their reconciliation. Darcy would have to speak with Bingley. He could not continue escorting Georgiana to outings with the other ladies. Gossip would ensue. At least, he told himself that was his reason for desiring another chaperone for his sister.
The others had returned to their conversations, but he caught some of Elizabeth’s words to Marshall.
“You mentioned this ball would be your return to Society?”
“Yes, I have been away from Town for three years. My mother had a long illness and desired me at her side.”
“That must have been quite the sacrifice,” Elizabeth’s eyes shone in admiration. “What a devoted son you were!”
“It was the least I could do for such a mother,” Marshall answered. “As for the true sacrifice of spending little time in Town, I cannot say it was much of a loss. I have no seat in Parliament, and my income is not as substantial as Darcy or Bingley’s.” He shrugged. “I get few invitations and therefore only miss the shops and museums.”
“I can sympathize,” Elizabeth agreed. “But you now mean to entertain and re-join Society?”
“Not so much Society at large as much as friends and acquaintances I have neglected for the last few years.”
“And after that?”
“I will return to Briarwood Manor and enjoy the summer.”
“What a lovely name. In which county is your estate?”
“Buckinghamshire,” a wistful smile crossed Marshall’s face. “I am some ten miles from Bedford near a town too small for you to know by name.”
“Oh, I entirely understand small towns,” Elizabeth grinned. “Longbourn is in Hertfordshire near a town called Meryton. I have it on good authority that some visitors found us exceedingly primitive compared with the grandeur of London.”
Marshall threw his head back to laugh. “Indeed! I am sure they might, but I do know Meryton. A charming town and surely larger than Clophill.”
Elizabeth beamed at Marshall’s reply, and Darcy’s grip on his wine glass tightened. Marshall complimented her home while Darcy had offended everyone and gave insult without speaking a word. Belatedly, he realised the power of first impressions.
Georgiana announced it was time for the ladies to separate so no more could be said, but Marshall’s eyes followed Elizabeth out the door. Darcy assessed his friend. Darcy had always been drawn to others who were lively and more fun-loving than himself. Marshall seemed to have no direction in life. Darcy did not think poorly of him for it, he had been just as lost following the death of his father. While Marshall might have been the master of the estate for several years now, he was not at real liberty until now.
“You met that delightful creature months ago and did not scoop her up?” Marshall whispered to Darcy as Mr. Gardiner and Bingley conversed.
Darcy stiffened. “I would hardly scoop up anyone.”
“I imagine you found fault with her somehow,” Marshall shook his head.
“I had no desire for a wife,” he answered neutrally.
“Well, I do. The house is deuced quiet without Mother. And I had no siblings. I want a houseful of children.”
Despite Marshall’s more open temperament, the two men had many qualities in common which bonded them at a young age and persisted into adulthood. Darcy could well sympathize with his friend. “I would imagine Miss Elizabeth—or any woman—would rather be chosen for her qualities than her ability to be a broodmare and fill your house.”
“Oh, there are many qualities I admire,” Marshall said with a grin. “You allow her to be friends with your sister. Surely you must esteem her.”
“I do,” Darcy answered carefully. “However, I would caution you to not choose too quickly. You have just met the lady, you do not know her family—”
“Aha! That is it,” Marshall murmured to not draw the notice of the others. “You have complaints about her family. I have no lofty relations and do not need to please an earl. There can be no issue for me.”
“I do not need to please the earl,” Darcy frowned. “I am my own man.”
“But the family? You found them wanting.”
“They are livelier than I am accustomed to.”
“Miss Elizabeth said she has three younger sisters and they are all out. They must be very young.”
“Younger, I believe, than Georgiana.”
“My, my. A household of lively young women, without age or maturity and added rivalry for attention? I am sure that did not put them in the best light.”
Blast Marshall for being so insightful. “You are welcome to stay for billiards and supper,” Darcy attempted to change the subject. “Bingley plans to remain, and Georgiana prefers solitude in the evening.”
Marshall looked at Darcy for a long moment. “I see your design, but you will not put me off my intentions.” He held up his hands as Darcy began to open his mouth. “I am not so foolish to plan to propose just now, but I will pursue Miss Elizabeth. I see qualities which will make an outstanding wife and I will not lose her to another.”
Marshall gave Darcy another long look, meeting his gaze squarely. Did he perceive Darcy’s admiration for Elizabeth? Was he calling Darcy to the field of battle over her? What would Marshall say if he knew Darcy had already made his offer and was rejected. There was nothing more Darcy could do but watch his friend pursue the woman he loved.
The remainder of the evening continued as most do. The gentlemen discussed politics and sport then re-joined the ladies. Darcy invited Elizabeth to play and sing, and he saw Marshall fall even deeper under her spell. After Jane and Mrs. Gardiner sang a duet, Georgiana braved the requests and performed as well. Closing his eyes, Darcy allowed the stress of the evening to fall away and familial pride to fill him. Just before they left, plans were made to join the Gardiners and their nieces at the theatre in a few days’ time. Marshall expressed joy at the notion and promised to attend as well. As he readied for bed that evening, Darcy mused that he really did hate London.