“I am not wearing that,” Darcy said, disgust and embarrassment nearly clogging his voice in this throat as he stared at the costume laid out by his valet.
“You asked for a costume like Edward the Fourth,” his long-suffering valet held no sympathy in his voice. “I am sorry if you did not understand the customs of their day.”
“Brantley, it is obscene.” Darcy looked again at the long hose which was meant to be the only covering of his lower half. His legs and backside, not to mention his unmentionables would be on display for everyone to see.
“These are not historical hose,” Brantley reassured him and held them up. “These are the pantaloons some of those dandies wear.”
“I’m no dandy,” Darcy grunted.
“No, nor a fop but this is the costume you have ordered.”
Firm and rapid knocks sounded through his dressing room door. “William, please hurry! We are meant to leave soon!”
Darcy could picture Georgiana bouncing on her toes and wringing her hands while her face flushed with excitement and her eyes darted nervously to the clock. “A few more moments,” he called back. “Wait in the drawing room I have a gift for you.”
Georgiana squealed, actually squealed. Mere weeks ago, she never would have displayed so much emotion. “As if allowing me to attend my first ball was not enough! I can never thank you enough!”
Darcy grinned and shook his head. He would have to make the most of this costume somehow. He would not disappoint his sister. “Go.”
He heard another squeal and rapid footsteps as she scampered off. Darcy turned to his valet again. “I do not understand. What about those stuffed short breeches I have seen?”
“Those were hose stuffed with horsehair and not worn until nearly a hundred years after your Edward.”
Darcy pinched the bridge of his nose. “And Henry the Eighth? He wore a long pleated tunic.”
“Fifty years later, sir.”
Darcy took in a deep breath. Debating history, or in this case being educated on it, would do little right now. There was no time for a new costume. He had spent the past week avoiding thinking of it and avoiding seeing Elizabeth. Marshall intended to propose to Elizabeth this night, Darcy was quite sure. I am happy for her, he repeated in his mind. It was true, he would never want to deny Elizabeth’s happiness but how he had wished she would have found it with him. Tomorrow, he would leave with her uncle to look at several properties near Pemberley. He supposed the blessing to Elizabeth’s marriage to Marshall would be that she would not visit the Gardiners at their estate near as often as she could if she remained single. Darcy had said nothing to Mr. Gardiner, but he had no intentions of returning to London.
“Sir,” Brantley interrupted Darcy’s thoughts, “there is a long cloak-like garment to be worn with it. Surely that would provide some…modesty.”
Darcy grunted in agreement. However, there could be no dancing in this attire. He could hold his arms in such a way to conceal his body, but dancing required too much movement. Once more, Elizabeth would have a reason to think poorly of him.
Georgiana radiated joy, and for a moment, Darcy stood in the doorway of the drawing room watching her as she primped in a mirror. In a gown of white, she looked so much like their mother. At last, she noticed him and beamed up at him.
“Let me see,” she said and made a great show of circling around him to critique his costume. “Hmm…one of Shakespeare’s plays? Henry…well, one of the Henries.”
Darcy chuckled as Georgiana shrugged her shoulders. History and literature were not her strong suits. “Close, I was a character in Henry the Sixth. I am Edward the Fourth.”
“I see,” Georgiana said still eyeing his costume. “Well, let me see the rest. What is under the cloak?”
“I fear that is impossible.”
“There was a…misunderstanding about my requirements for this evening. I did not know they wore such…indiscreet attire. I had only seen portraits of Edward from the waist up.”
Darcy had chosen Edward IV because he had married for love and to a woman named Elizabeth Woodville. She was severely below him regarding rank and fortune. Her family had supported his rival and the former King Henry VI. There had been rumours about his bastardry which came out again when he risked everything with marrying who he pleased and rewarding her family. He suffered from the plots of two brothers and an uncle to take his throne. He was victorious in battle but also capable of diplomacy. The only things Darcy could not admire about the man were his infidelities and leaving his family so unprepared in the wake of his death. It cost his wife and children dearly. He had refused to see the truth of his family’s schemes. Instead of his heir being crowned, his brother had the two princes imprisoned for their safety. Soon, they disappeared from history, and Richard III sat on the throne instead.
“William, may we go now?”
Georgiana tapped her foot impatiently and glanced at the clock. She had no interest in his costuming concerns or the reason for his choice. “In a moment,” Darcy chuckled at her impatience. “First, let me look at you.”
Georgiana posed, lifting her arms and a flute to one side of her mouth. “Ah, Euterpe, goddess of music,” Darcy smiled. It suited her perfectly. “I wanted to present you with a gift for your first ball.” Darcy opened the case and showed his sister. She gasped at the amethysts on a silver chain. “It was our mother’s.”
“Thank you,” Georgiana said with a tremor in her voice and shimmering eyes as he moved to slide it around her neck. She had to fix the clasp, as Darcy was too unpracticed in the skill of ladies’ maid. Suddenly, she met her brother’s eyes. “I will not be like her.”
“No,” Darcy smiled. “She was not happy, I think, for most of her life. She always did what others told her she must until she could not squash her own desires any longer. You have come into your own in recent weeks, and I am so proud of you, Georgiana.”
He held her eyes, and they silently communicated their shared hurt over the past and their commitment to a happier future.
“I want you to be happy too,” Georgiana squeezed his hand. “Maybe Lady Aurora—”
“I thought you wanted to leave?” Darcy led her to the entry where servants rushed forward with their outerwear. “If you want to talk matchmaker then we will never leave.”
Georgiana affected a pout then rolled her eyes. “Very well. But soon, dear brother. You cannot escape me and my feminine abilities forever.”
The siblings laughed as they entered the carriage. Soon, however, nerves overtook both of them, and they rode to Marshall’s London residence in companionable silence. They alighted from the carriage, and Darcy’s heart hammered in his chest. Georgiana’s grip on his arm was tighter than usual reminding him as stressful* as this evening would be for him, he must consider her first.
Marshall and his aunt and uncle greeted them at the door. Lucy Marshall served as tonight’s hostess and had been Marshall’s stand-in mistress of his house in town. The older couple dressed in vaguely Grecian garments and pronounced themselves Zeus and Hera. Marshall would not admit his identity, beholden to the concept of a game. However, Darcy could easily guess his friend had selected Julius Caesar. In fact, nearly everyone had adopted Greek or Roman fashions.
Hardly a Society crush, Darcy and Georgiana were able to meander through the rooms and greet friends. Jane and Bingley appeared to be Romeo and Juliet. They gazed lovingly into each other’s eyes too much for Darcy to remind them of the tragic ending to their tale. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner dressed as Orion and Artemis while Lady Aurora evoked the image of a nymph in a gown the colours of the sea.
Georgiana’s cry pulled Darcy’s eyes away from their friends. He had not located Elizabeth. Where was she? Then, Darcy saw her next to his cousin who wore a crown. If Darcy had guessed correctly, he imitated Richard the Lionheart. Next to him stood Elizabeth in a costume which could only make Darcy grin. Georgiana pulled him in their direction.
“Welcome to our little troop of English monarchs,” Richard laughed when he saw Darcy’s costume.
“We did not know you were invited,” Darcy replied after he and Georgiana formally greeted them.
“Marshall and I belong to the same club,” Richard shrugged. “I believe he thought I might make you and Georgie feel more comfortable. I was happy for the invitation. I was just telling Miss Bennet how my general has worked me near to death since returning from Rosings.”
“Yes, I had wondered when you would arrive at my table,” Darcy smirked.
“It has hardly been empty from what I understand!” Richard laughed. “You are suddenly overflowing with friends and engagements.”
“Come,” Georgiana said. “I will introduce you to our new friends. I had forgotten you already knew Lizzy, and I know you do love talking with pretty ladies, but Jane and Lady Aurora are equally lovely.”
“How can I refuse?” He bowed to Elizabeth and held out his arm for Georgiana to take.
Darcy looked at Elizabeth, his eyes taking in her black gown with patterned collar and sleeves. Her headpiece and veil gave away her identity to him, instantly. Elizabeth Woodville, consort to Edward IV. She had desperately loved her husband.
“My queen,” Darcy bowed over her hand.
“You knew me?” She smiled, her eyes dancing in the candlelight. “No one else has thus far. I even gave a hint to Mr. Marshall that I was known as Queen Elizabeth. He could only think of Henry the Eighth’s daughter.”
“You do not favour her?” Darcy asked shifting slightly closer to her and turning his back to the crowd.
“I am sure there is much to admire,” Elizabeth said. “I am sure the ordeal of her family weighed on her. Imprisoned by her father and her sister! Still, while they might have tried to call her illegitimate no one questioned her status as the king’s daughter. I can hardly relate to that.”
“True, but she had also been educated as such, and so her accomplishments seem less sterling. She acted as she should have—something her father evidently forgot, but I see no need to think her the most amazing monarch of all time.”
“But Elizabeth Woodville is?”
“No, probably not her either.” Elizabeth glanced away nervously.
“Tell me, then, why you chose her?” Darcy smiled down at her. He loved speaking with her and understanding how her mind worked.
“She came from a simple background, a commoner. Her parents had a scandalous and imbalanced marriage. She met the King fearlessly one day and for that earned his love. Their love overcame so much: class and political lines. She lived amongst her enemies daily but had his respect and love. It gave her strength and bravery. I can only hope to experience the same one day.”
Darcy noticed the white rose in her hand. “You mean to be Elizabeth before she married?” He touched a petal.
“I have not yet met my king,” she dropped her voice but stared at the red rose pinned to his hat.
“You have not met him, or you have not secured him?” Darcy held his breath. How could they speak like this and yet her favour another man? He needed to hear her say it. Kill the hope within him.
“Are you asking for one of my secrets, sir?”
Darcy shook his head. He did not want to play their game. He searched Elizabeth’s eyes.
“Perhaps I will tell you if we dance,” she said before he could decide what to say.
“I am not dancing tonight.”
“You cannot claim to be unacquainted with the guests tonight,” she teased.
Darcy fought a flush to his cheeks. “I fear my valet is far too talented in finding accurate costuming. I require my cloak to be held in this position. Movement would be…catastrophic.”
Elizabeth looked him up and down, and he felt himself stand up straighter under her inspection. A blush overspread her face, and her voice seemed raspier than usual, but she addressed the problem at hand.
“Could you find a belt? Colonel Fitzwilliam does not need one over his tunic.”
“How will that help?”
“Find a servant and ask for scissors. Trim the cloak so there are three sections, and your arms have openings. Next, trim the hem to the desired length and cinch everything under the belt.”
“I think that might work,” Darcy shook his head in disbelief. “How is it you found a solution when my valet could not?”
“Pardon me for saying so, but it happens that I might be more familiar with garments of this length than your valet. I dare say he has never had to alter a gown.”
Darcy chuckled. “Indeed not. I should have gone to Georgiana’s maid!”
“Perhaps so,” Elizabeth smiled. “Will you ask for my secret again?”
“I will ask you to dance,” Darcy promised.
“I am waiting,” she teased.
Darcy grasped her hand with his free one, and the smile dropped from her lips as she lightly gasped. Her eyes flew to his. “My dear Miss Elizabeth, may I have the honour of a dance?”
Aeons ago he had asked for a set at another friend’s ball. He had approached her sure of her answer. Despite her teasing, nervousness filled him. The last time they danced, she had been surprised and seemed to answer reluctantly.
“I insist,” she beamed and held out her card.
Marshall had planned for the final dance of the evening to be a waltz. His name was scrawled on the spot on Elizabeth’s card, but the dance just before was available. Darcy took it, knowing he would not be able to watch her in another man’s arms but he could fantasise about the night ending with their dance. Richard could deliver Georgiana home. Just after Darcy finished, the musicians began to play. Marshall arrived at Darcy’s side to collect Elizabeth for their first dance. As he took her to the dance floor, she glanced over her shoulder to look at Darcy. For a moment, Darcy thought he saw regret in her eyes.
While couples took to the dance floor, Darcy sought out his cousin. He found Richard dancing with Georgiana. Darcy waited for their set to finish and Lady Aurora approached him.
“You never told me about your cousin,” her eyes followed Richard.
“I had thought you knew him. You know Arlington.”
Lady Aurora huffed. “My father knows your uncle. I have been introduced to Lord Arlington, but it does not mean I know him.” Her gaze softened. “Colonel Fitzwilliam was not in attendance the few times I have conversed with his brother.”
“He is not often one for the London set. He attends but few events.”
“Is that by choice or necessity?”
“Both, I believe. He has been to the Continent twice and overworked when in the country. As such, he prefers to find enjoyment on his own terms.”
Lady Aurora’s brows rose to her hairline. “Meaning?”
Darcy choked on his breath as he realised how his words must sound to the lady. “Pardon me, that is not what I wished to convey. He is an outstanding gentleman and treats ladies justly—although given to flirtation.”
“Brilliant,” she breathed.
Darcy scrutinised her. He had not even finished his explanation, but she appeared fixated on Richard. Mere weeks ago, she seemed ready to jump at being the next Mrs. Darcy. If Darcy had ever valued Aurora’s romantic attachment, his pride might smart at losing her to his cousin. As it happened, he could only wish Richard luck. The lady had a way of getting what she wanted and cajoling people into things against their will. If Richard flirted too much with her, he would likely find himself at the altar.
Finally, Richard and Georgiana’s dance was over. Before Aurora could launch her claws* into Richard, Darcy pulled him aside. “I need to borrow your belt.”
“What?” Richard asked confused. “Why on earth do you need my belt?”
Darcy explained his predicament.
“It will ruin the effect of my costume but very well.”
Darcy and Richard moved to the gentleman’s retiring room. Seeing they were the only ones present, Richard pestered Darcy with talking on the subject he most wanted to avoid.
“I cannot believe you have sat back and allowed your rival to claim her.”
“I do not understand what you mean,” Darcy said frowning in the mirror as he tugged on the cloak. This idea had been ridiculous. Just another example of him missing the ways society functioned and sticking out like a sore thumb.*
“Elizabeth. The woman you love.” Richard said firmly. “Do not quit the field, fight for what you want!”
Darcy shook his head. “She made her choice. Even before meeting Marshall, I was not her choice.”
“Lady Aurora would make a fine wife for you,” Richard said while giving him a sideways glance. “From the right sort of family who could do wonders for you if you wished to enter politics—maybe a peerage. Her dowry is likely even more substantial than Georgie’s.”
“I have no requirements for those things,” Darcy tugged more. He hated everything about this. The costume, the crowds, the small talk, discussion of Elizabeth and courtship, being in Marshall’s home, seeing him dance with Elizabeth…
“Yes…well, some of us do,” Richard, thankfully, interrupted Darcy’s thoughts.
“If you are sniffing around to find if I have intentions toward her, I do not. I’ll not take Lady Aurora or anyone else as a wife.”
“You cannot mean that,” Richard stared dumbfounded.
“I do. I have a wife in my heart. It will have to be enough.”
“But—but—but the estate! The Darcy legacy!” Richard dropped his voice. “Everything you ever feared you were not qualified for might prove true. Would you really risk failing your duties?”
Darcy shrugged. “I have no duty to marry and have an heir. Georgiana’s descendants can carry on the estate. My responsibilities are only to keep the estate profitable during my lifetime.” A thought struck him. “In fact, I could adopt a child and name an heir of my choosing. Nothing in Father’s will said it had to stay in the bloodline.” Darcy and Richard’s eyes met both knowing the unsaid words. It had already been left to non-Darcy blood.
Richard shook his head in disbelief, and then his eyes alighted on the clock in the room. “We should re-join the dance and get you some refreshment. I fear the late hour and lack of food have addled your senses.”
Darcy happily followed his cousin out where there could be no more discussions on marriage and heirs. Georgiana approached him for a dance, and he smiled in thinking she was not too embarrassed to dance with her brother again. Again, more would-be suitors seemed to circle around her. Darcy noted when she was not with her or Richard, Elizabeth joined her. The other ladies often spoke with her, but Elizabeth practically stood sentry. Darcy had to squash the urge to bark at all the gentlemen around his sister and keep her a child forever. However, he needed to prove to them both that he could trust her, that she could behave well and earn the freedoms other young ladies her age enjoyed. Still, he was thankful for Elizabeth and her caring nature. He had no doubt that she would have always been an excellent friend to Georgiana but seeing more proof that she had read his letter and took his sister’s wounded heart under her wing, filled him with pride. She had every reason to burn his message, to rebuke him at every turn, to even announce the truth of his birth. Instead, she forgave him for his proposal—not just his mode but the fact that he approached her without regard to her feelings. She went out of her way to establish a friendship with him, exerting herself at the beginning when things had been awkward. What other lady could be so forgiving and generous? Richard might hint or lecture that Darcy ought to aim higher, but he had lived at Pemberley without a woman’s touch for twenty years. Darcy understood what both he and his estate needed, and it had nought to do with pounds in a bank.
Throughout the rest of the evening, Darcy watched as Elizabeth danced with other men. He was also acutely aware he was not the only one observing her. Marshall had claimed her, returning to her side frequently between sets, always searching for her over the sea of guests. One final dance, Darcy told himself.
“It is time for our set, Miss Elizabeth,” Darcy smiled as he held out his arm to lead her away from Marshall.
Elizabeth’s smile met her eyes as she placed her hand on his arm. Instantly, everything in the world seemed to slip into place. If Elizabeth never married him, he would still wish to know her, to be her friend, to have this dance. He had hoped for a future for them, but the future could change. And while it was not what would make him happiest, it would be enough.
“Come, Mr. Darcy, we must have some conversation,” Elizabeth said and arched a brow, reminding Darcy of their dance at Netherfield.
“As always, I will say anything that you wish.” He winked, acknowledging that he understood her game and as the dance separated them, he could hear Elizabeth’s laughter.
“As it would look odd for us to be silent for half an hour,” Darcy said when they rejoined, “I will ask if you still find private balls more entertaining than public ones.”
“Indeed, this has been my favourite private ball thus far.” She stifled a giggle as she looked at Darcy’s garment.
“I must thank you for your suggestion on my attire,” heat crept up his neck, but he persisted.
“It was nothing,” Elizabeth blushed. “I know how much you wished to be present for Georgiana.”
“Indeed,” Darcy nodded, and the dance separated them again.
“You leave for Derbyshire with my uncle tomorrow, do you not?” Elizabeth asked, an unrecognisable look in her eye when they returned to each other for the final time.
“Yes. If all goes well, your aunt and cousins will be settled by Midsummer Day.”
“I do not know if I will be able to arrive with them. I may be needed at Longbourn.”
“I will do everything in my power to see that they are well-adjusted* and pleased with their home.” Darcy would do it in any case but easing the lines of worry on Elizabeth’s face became a chief concern.
“You are so good to them,” Elizabeth cast her eyes down. “To me as well. You have been an unexpected and true friend.”
The final chords played. As Darcy escorted Elizabeth back to Marshall’s side, he whispered in her ear. “Take care when walking and God bless you, Elizabeth.”
He turned from her side, made his excuses to Georgiana and Richard, and left without a backward glance. Before him was a new future. What kind of master did he wish to be knowing he would not have the usual legacy of begotten heirs? Time spent in Derbyshire and Pemberley would allow him to decide.