For the remainder of the week, Georgiana dragged poor Mrs. Annesley to Gracechurch Street or over London for daily visits with Jane and Elizabeth. Darcy supposed Mrs. Gardiner enjoyed the company of the older lady. He distracted himself with new investments and business meetings. They took more time than he had anticipated and thus almost a week elapsed before he could return to the Foundling Hospital. Evans agreed to his request to speak with an influential lady of the female volunteers, seemingly resigned to humour him. Darcy grinned when he heard how Tom and Freddie asked about him, no doubt sparking a new rivalry.
Shown into one of the sitting rooms, Darcy’s eyes immediately fell upon a familiar looking young lady sitting regally in a chair while surrounded by girls. The woman’s blonde hair shined in the sunlight. Her expensive clothing and jewellery made her fairly glow with beauty. Her even features sat upon a perfectly graceful neck. Bingley had called Jane Bennet an angel and declared her the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, and Darcy could well understand why even as he soon preferred her sister’s earthy looks. This lady came a close second to Jane Bennet.
“Lady Aurora,” Evans called from the door.
As the woman came closer, Darcy recognised her as the Duke of Wiltshire’s eldest daughter. Rumour had it her parents could not contain their anger at her unwed stage given her two and twenty years. Over the years, the Duke had often hinted at Darcy at least dancing with her, but he always had some excuse. Darcy did not think he had ever even been introduced to her before but saw enough of her father in her face.
“Mr. Darcy has requested a few minutes of your time,” Evans said, finished the introduction and excused himself.
“Is that your beau?” a child asked, causing the others to giggle and Lady Aurora to blush.
“Sally, you know better. Proper manners only, please.” Lady Aurora shook her head. “Mr. Darcy and I have only just met, but he needs to speak to me about you all so excuse us a few minutes. All of you are to continue your stitching.”
Darcy raised his brows. “I applaud your firm but affectionate hand with them.” Darcy nodded in the direction the girls now sat with their heads bent over needlework. “I aim to do the same with the lads.”
Lady Aurora blushed again, adding to her beauty. “What did you wish to speak to me about?”
“I have noticed the girls do not participate in the sports with the boys.”
“You can hardly blame them,” she said. “Broken bones are a regular occurrence.”
“I endeavour to reduce those, but at any rate, I would not suggest they join leagues.” Darcy scanned the girls. Very few had a hint of frailness. They had come from strong stock before their abandonment. “Exercise is healthy for them, rules of organised sports enforce self-discipline which will assist them in their eventual employment and character for life.”
Lady Aurora cocked her head as she considered his words. “If you think only of their future then I wonder at their reason for enjoying sports. Grown men might continue, but women of any class are discouraged.”
“Indeed, that is a fair point, but as they age, they might adjust their activities to walking. Training their bodies to physical endurance may very well be the difference between life and death for many of them. You, as well as I, know too many of the upper classes who are pampered but weak.” Darcy paused as he could see his arguments made sense to the lady. “Additionally, there is the concern of their free time and encouraging it in the proper direction.”
Lady Aurora nodded and smiled. “How perfectly officious but sensible of you.”
Darcy smiled at her wit. “I readily admit my fault and take no umbrage because I can see you agree.”
“Oh, do I?” she placed her hands on her hips.
“Yes. You are no green miss. I can see by the girls’ behaviour you have been visiting for a long time, and you know this is as needed as I do.”
Letting out a long sigh, Lady Aurora lowered her hands. “I do, and you will permit me for being jealous that old Evans listened to you when he would not hear of it from me.” She lowered her voice. “I meant only to test your resolve, sir.”
Darcy had always admired a woman who would not back down from a debate. “Have I met with your approval?”
Quickly scanning her eyes over him, a small smile played on her lips. “Indeed.”
Darcy felt heat creep under his collar. He had not intended to allude to anything other than the topic at hand. Good Lord, had he managed to unintentionally flirt? After years of ineptness and months of actively attempting to do so with Elizabeth, he had said just enough to point this lady’s thoughts in another quarter.
He cleared his throat. “I suppose you do not have much experience in sports.”
Lady Aurora chuckled. “I ride, and I’m a fine archer.” Leaning forward, she lowered her voice again. “My brothers taught me billiards.” Then she returned to her normal range of speech but remained close. “But I’ve never played cricket or football.”
“My friends and I can surely instruct, but it would help to have a feminine influence. You are not adverse to learning new things?”
“I greatly enjoy new experiences,” Lady Aurora said then cast her eyes down. “I am surprised you do not ask your wife or sweetheart to help you, though.”
“I have no wife,” Darcy answered. Had she moved slightly closer?
“And no sweetheart?”
In another life, yes, he should have. If he had met Elizabeth and had learned to be more open, then she would perfectly fit in a role like this. Lady Aurora might be game for the novelty, but any husband of hers would never allow her to continue volunteering here let alone run over fields. If Darcy read her cues correctly, she would not mind a closer relationship than co-mentors, but truthfully, she was too high-born for him. Had he thought Elizabeth’s family too lowly?
Avoiding the question, Darcy looked past her beautiful and silently pleading face. “We may begin practice tomorrow. I would like games to start next week.”
“Certainly.” Lady Aurora stuck out her hand. “I look forward to working with you. I believe we will make a wonderful team.”
When Darcy’s fingers touched hers, there was no thrill or excitement. Keeping his eyes on Lady Aurora’s she did not gasp or blush in awareness, there was no tremble or sigh. Here was an entirely intelligent, kind, witty, beautiful, responsive lady of rank and wealth and yet Darcy remained unmoved. She could never take the place of Elizabeth. As she re-joined the assembled children and cast a smile on her face, Darcy felt his heart revolt. His duty to his name and estate mocked his vow to remain single and yet, he could not resign himself to a loveless marriage. He and Lady Aurora—or a dozen other ladies—might have pleasant evenings of shared interests, and get along perfectly with hardly a quarrel between them but there would be no passion and no intensity. He had lived his entire life in such a way and was through settling for less. His parents had attempted a marriage without love, and it ended disastrously.
Elizabeth might never be by his side as his wife, and yet after visiting the boys, Darcy directed his coach to Gracechurch Street.
A week of practices later, Darcy and his friends determined the teams ready for matches. Lady Aurora had asked why they had to even keep score, but the children clearly wanted something in exchange for all their hard work. Bragging rights could mean the world at their age.
“I can hardly wait for Jane to arrive,” Bingley bounced on his toes as the children warmed up their muscles in various activities. Darcy had been correct on needing a lady for the girls. She was able to show them how to do jumping jacks* and stretches modestly.
“When are you going to make it official?” Marshall asked.
“Why rush?” Bingley shrugged. “We knew each other but six weeks before I left Hertfordshire. Then we were separated for four months. Surely time is on my side.”
“I would hate to injure a lady’s feelings with her younger sister showing her up.”
Marshall’s words stung Darcy like a dagger in a festering wound as they always did when he alluded to his plans for Elizabeth. Perhaps if she did marry another, the injury might have a chance to heal. Lady Aurora smiled over at Darcy from across the field, and his heart seized again. Was he raising her expectations?
Perhaps it was natural to return to the state one once knew. Marshall sought to find a new mistress for his estate after the death of his mother and saw Elizabeth as the ideal candidate. Darcy sought no one because loneliness was not a new thing to him. He told himself this and yet, realising Elizabeth would never be the mistress of Pemberley and walk in its gardens made him wince in pain.
“Here they are,” Bingley grinned.
He and Marshall walked off to meet the others.
“I feel like a real gentleman with an audience watching us,” Tom said at Darcy’s side.
“Don’t let them worry you. Keep your focus.”
“Yessir,” Tom grinned up at him. “Me and Fred’s an unstoppable force.”
Tom ran off for target practice with Freddie protecting the goal. Darcy smiled to see them getting along. Putting them on the same team and making them indispensable to each other had been the key.
“Those are the two that hated each other?”
Elizabeth’s voice caused Darcy to jump. “Yes,” he shrugged. “Boys can be friends one minute and rivals the next.” His gaze drifted to Marshall who chatted with Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner.
“Or vice versa, as the situation went.”
Darcy could hear the tease in Elizabeth’s voice. Yes, he got that backwards. Did she understand his slip of the tongue?
“It is not so different with girls.”
“Jane had been assured by Miss Bingley that Mr. Bingley desired to marry Georgiana. Jane is too kind to see any lady as a rival or hate her, but I never would have guessed they could become friends.”
Darcy nodded. “She loved him too much.”
“She still does,” Elizabeth said with a happy sigh.
Suddenly, Darcy could see Elizabeth stiffen and straighten beside him.
“Oh. You did not say she was so beautiful?”
“Lady Aurora,” Elizabeth said in a small voice. “She is exquisite. Frolicking in such a gown?” She cast her eyes down.
She felt inadequate, Darcy realised. But for what reason? Because of her gown? Or because Darcy had developed a friendship with another lady of higher rank and what Elizabeth felt was greater beauty? “I am sure your attire is the better for frolicking.”
His words brought Elizabeth’s head up, and he kicked himself. That was not what he really meant to say, nothing like what he wanted to convey but at least it was something. Elizabeth’s eyes shined with mirth and appreciation. Darcy released the breath he did not realise he had been holding. He had finally said something right.
“My secret is,” Elizabeth dropped her voice, and Darcy leaned lower to hear it, “that I intend on always frolicking. Such a gown would be an utter waste on me.”
Darcy opened his mouth to speak. His hand reached for hers. He needed to press a kiss against her smooth skin.
Lady Aurora called, ruining all of Darcy’s plans. Instead of confessing to Elizabeth that he wanted to play games with her his entire life and that he would have her no other way, he stood with his mouth half open and his hand stiffly in front of him. Elizabeth had turned in the direction of the voice. The lady in question approached rapidly, silk skirts swishing in the light breeze as she held her hat on her head with a hand.
“Do introduce me to your friends,” Lady Aurora said as she came closer.
“Certainly,” Darcy agreed and called the others over.
Aurora met the Gardiners cordially, but Darcy thought he saw a slight stiffening when his profession in Town was mentioned. She greeted Georgiana warmly and talked with Jane and Elizabeth as though they were the greatest mysteries of the universe. She garnered as much information from them as Lady Catherine might have but in a way that did not feel intrusive. She indeed was a talented conversationalist.
Soon, the teams were ready to play. The girls would play first. For this purpose, Aurora instructed one team and Darcy the other. Bingley and Marshall would be the judges. Before going to her side of the field, Aurora looked at Darcy intently.
“What is it?”
“Nothing,” she shook her head. “Nothing of importance to you but I finally understand.”
“That your heart is taken.” She glanced at Elizabeth. “You will ask her, won’t you? Do not allow prejudice for her station to stand in the way.”
“Madam,” Darcy said through clenched teeth. He would not have these things said in public or bandy about. Her father was a duke!
“Oh, do not growl at me,” Aurora laughed. “Your secret is safe with me.” She turned and scampered away.
Darcy’s heart fell as Marshall called time to play. He did not wish to impose his sentiments on Elizabeth or ruin her reputation but keeping his love for her, a secret had done nothing. Besides, there was only one person he trusted with his secrets, and she was the last one who could ever know why.
During the break between games, Lady Aurora chatted with Elizabeth and Jane. Whatever she said caused Elizabeth to look discomposed and avoid his eyes for the remainder of the day. All was not lost, however. His team beat Bingley’s, but in the end, all the children won as Darcy treated the players and audience alike to ices. The children’s’ eyes grew large at the unprecedented treat. If Darcy could, he would spoil them all. Already, he talked with his solicitor and steward about finding places for them. Evans had acknowledged the facts to him. More than half the women who left their infants in the care of the foundling hospital had been employed in personal service. Darcy found it hard to believe that many women chose to risk their livelihoods and position with unwise affairs of an equal nature. Be it via intimidation or outright force, undoubtedly, many of the infants were fathered by the master of the house. The hospital needed a better referral system.
Additionally, his words to Lady Aurora about the health of women who do not regularly exercise were not merely about once they had married and left service, choosing to start a family. For many servants, babies came and destroyed their plans. An unexpected or unwanted pregnancy could be recovered from. The infant could be placed with family or a childless couple, and the mother returns to work. Death, however, gave the child little choice, typically, than to start in destitution.
Darcy and Georgiana could have easily been one of those children. Fortuna’s wheel dealt him luck. A few short months ago, he never would have described his life as fortunate. He would have railed against all the injustices he had faced. Now, he saw an opportunity to extend his blessings to others. Would George Darcy approve of him spending so much time at the Foundling Hospital? No, he probably would not. Was Darcy disgracing his supposed forefathers and letting down the Darcy legacy? He no longer cared.
Having performed his duties as head coach*, Darcy sought out the company of his friends. Lady Aurora spoke with Jane and Elizabeth again, the latter’s composure returned. Marshall hovered at her side, likely the cause of sereness.
“Darcy,” Marshall grinned. “Spectacular events. We should do these every week!”
Darcy chuckled. “I believe neither me nor the children have the energy for that.”
“True and I would much rather you save your strength for my ball.”
“Have you chosen a date, then?”
“Yes, and Lady Aurora convinced me to choose fancy dress. Now, everyone is to choose a costume, and we will play a game guessing who is who.”
The others gasped in surprise and applauded Marshall’s choice. Darcy hung back. He did not like balls, he did not like crowds, and he detested subterfuge. However, he wore a disguise every day. He was endeavouring to show others his feelings. Still, he supposed he could bear the annoyance for one night. Elizabeth’s eyes danced with glee and Darcy knew he would do anything but miss her joy.
“Darcy,” Mr. Gardiner said quietly, “I must speak with you privately.”
Finding a secluded corner, Gardiner explained he desired Darcy’s assistance in viewing two homes near Pemberley. “I had hoped to leave next week, but I suppose you would like to stay for the ball,” Gardiner said.
Darcy kept his eyes trained on Elizabeth. “I do not often enjoy balls, and yet I would not miss this one for anything in the world.”
“I…” Gardiner trailed off.
Typically, able to converse regardless of the time, crowd, or service, his reticence drew Darcy’s notice. “What do you wish to say? I assure you I will not be offended.”
Gardiner sighed and shook his head. “No, I would not guess you to be offended, but I wish to put you on your guard.”
Darcy tensed, supposing he knew the route of this conversation.
“He calls on her every day, he courts her for all the world to see. It’s enough for her to see it and while I love my niece, she is not always the most observant when she would rather ignore a thing. Apparently, Mr. Collins had dropped repeated hints that he wished to marry her but she claims she was utterly surprised.”
“Thank you for your concern,” Darcy silenced the older gentleman. “I assure you it is unnecessary. I mean no trouble for her happiness.”
Gardiner looked at Darcy for a long moment. “You really do love her.”
It was no question, and it saved Darcy the heartache of having to answer. He did love Elizabeth and always would. He wanted her happiness even more than he desired his own. He would attend Marshall’s ball, watch Elizabeth, and then leave with Gardiner. By the time Gardiner returned to Derbyshire in the summer, Elizabeth would likely be engaged. Perhaps by then the thought would hurt less but, all things considered, nothing could wound Darcy more than Elizabeth not living in the world. He could bear any pain but that—even seeing her marry his oldest friend.
Marshall whispered to Elizabeth, pulling a smile and a laugh from her lips. For the millionth time, Darcy wished he had the ease and gregariousness of his friends. Instead of returning to them, Darcy called for the carriages and made arrangements for everyone to return to their homes.