Darcy finished his tea and set it aside. Dusk was slipping over Pemberley, and he could not resist the temptation to walk in the gardens. The roses were blooming, and he could think of Elizabeth. He had spent the last several weeks making changes at Pemberley.
George Darcy had left the estate rich in pounds but barren in love. He had doled out money every Boxing Day to his tenants, donated to the local church and school, but he did not mingle with those he believed beneath him. Mrs. Gardiner, for example, as a resident of the town and a shopkeeper’s daughter had never seen the older Mr. Darcy or been to Pemberley. However, he had a good reputation amongst the community and Darcy had attempted to copy that. For him, however, it had felt like a hollow shell when there was no real compassion or desire to help.
Fitzwilliam Darcy, always as generous with money as his adopted father, now focused on genuinely giving back to the area. He had contacted other local gentleman and raised funds for school improvements. The nearby workhouse would lose most of its children. Copying the Foundling Hospital’s system, they would be given a grammar education and then placed in apprenticeships. For now, Darcy oversaw the placements, but soon, someone trustworthy would be hired to manage the feat. In the future, Darcy wished to extend the possibilities to the adults in his district of Pemberley.
Darcy had expected more resistance from his solicitor, steward, and staff but they all eagerly followed his example. It seemed gentlemen in other counties had banded together to alleviate corn and bread scarcities—the unending war with Napoleon wreaking havoc on food supplies. All the while some farmers revolted against the new factories which took their winter employment. It was a double-edged sword. The factories meant cheaper goods, leaving more income left over to purchase food. However, it also meant many skilled artisans now without employment and low wages to the factory hands. Someone other than Darcy would have to sort it all out. He had directed his attention to different situations.
The sun had all but disappeared when Darcy returned to the house and looked through the evening mail. Georgiana wrote often and requested his return to London. He would wait until next year. Georgiana would be presented at court, and then he would be her chaperone until she married—which he had no intention of pressuring her into matrimony ever. She could reside with him forever. If she did, one day, marry then Darcy would have more time at Pemberley and would gladly leave the trappings of London behind.
Richard seldom wrote. Darcy attempted to read between the lines. His cousin was undoubtedly involved in a flirtation with Lady Aurora, but if it were a legitimate courtship with the intention to marry, he was less confident. Knowing Richard, neither was he. Bingley had not written at all—which was certainly not out of the ordinary. No one mentioned Elizabeth—even Georgiana, who he had explained nothing to—and so Darcy assumed she was to marry Marshall and they were kind to avoid mentioning it. Although he received the London papers, he refrained from perusing the notices and threw himself into work.
At the bottom of his mail stack was a letter Darcy had been dreading. It was in Mr. Gardiner’s hand. The time of his possession of the estate he chose was rapidly approaching. Undoubtedly, the note contained information regarding the transaction and determining dates. The Gardiners would be staying at Pemberley while the servants set up the house.
Frowning at his cowardice, Darcy picked up his letter opener and unfolded the paper. Yes, Mr. Gardiner confirmed the dates of his arrival. He asked if his niece and her betrothed would be welcome to come as well but did not name them. Darcy’s hand shook, and he struggled to continue reading. He had never expected to see Elizabeth at Pemberley. To see her married or courting another man and residing in his house. He rubbed at the ache in his chest.
“When will I put you behind me?” Darcy muttered aloud. He always knew he would love her forever. However, he did not expect to continue to feel such visceral pain. On the other hand, it took him twenty years to overcome separation from his mother. It had only been just over two months since he proposed to Elizabeth.
The candles had burned low in his study before Darcy pulled out writing supplies to reply to Mr. Gardiner. The servants had alerted him to dinner and had brought in a tray when he claimed to be too busy to leave. He had not touched it. While alone at Pemberley, he never bothered with a real supper. Tea and light repast in the study was enough for him. The clock struck ten and Darcy knew a maid would arrive soon. Mrs. Reynolds would cluck at him in the morning for wasting the poor cook’s time and talent.
Once he believed he could write in legible hand and with a semblance of a calm mind, he answered Gardiner’s questions and welcomed his niece and her betrothed to his home. Darcy had a request of his own. Georgiana’s birthday approached, and this year she requested to spend it at Pemberley. Richard could not leave Town and riding with the Gardiners would save Darcy a trip. Additionally, he could spend the coming weeks planning festivities for her. What could be better than her celebrating with her dearest friend, Elizabeth?
Darcy had never dreaded a fortnight more. He spent the time advancing his plans for the school and work placement. Freddie and Tom wrote to him from London. Richard had taken to visiting when he could, partially filling in the whole Darcy left. He missed the boys but knew he needed the distance from Town. If they expressed interest, he would be more than happy to finance their education and apprenticeship in Lambton. However, he thought they would miss the bustle of the large city.
Recalling what he said to Richard the night of Marshall’s ball, Darcy asked his solicitor to look into the legalities of adoption. He would not remove Georgiana’s stake in Pemberley yet. However, she had already been the victim of one fortune hunter. As heiress to an estate, she would be even more susceptible.
In the mornings, Darcy tended to the improvement of his charitable legacy and business letters. In the afternoons, he rode over the fields with his steward and talked with tenants. Working from sun up until sun down had proved an efficient way to almost avoid recalling Elizabeth would soon be under his roof but not his to claim. Almost, but not entirely. Never able to control his active imagination, she featured in his dreams. In the netherworld between reality and fiction, they lived and loved and Darcy had never hated the rise of each morning’s son more.
The dreaded day arrived. Eerily like his nightmare, the sun rose as if there was no threat of Darcy’s heart shattering on this day. The only signs of darkness were his own attitude as he almost barked at every staff member he came across. His restless legs carried him to the rose garden.
Life-like memories of his memory circled him. Elizabeth in his arms for their first real kiss under the arbour. The weight of her in them as he carried her dead body down the lane. The cold and imposing stone above her grave.
“Let go,” he said to himself.
He had held on too long to his mother, and it nearly ruined his life. Not her actions, not his father’s indifference, not Wickham’s cruelty but his own actions. Realizing his culpability gave him enormous freedom and allowed him to feel lighter than he ever had before.
“Elizabeth chose another.”
Truthfully, it had been no contest. He never attempted to separate Marshall from Elizabeth. He never tried to put himself in a better light. He respected her opinion and wanted her happiness.
A gentle breeze lifted the scent of roses to him, and a smile crept across his lips. He could not change the past. He could not shape the future. His only choice was to accept the present and learn to take the good and the bad.
He had tender memories of his mother, not just of being separated. Georgiana deserved to know more of Lady Anne. Telling her the truth of her birth after she nearly eloped with Wickham had devastated the girl. Darcy had not said more on the subject as he had tried to put the world into compartments of black and white. Now, he saw things differently, and his sister should know of the good of Lady Anne Darcy.
Likewise, Darcy had positive remembrances of time with Elizabeth. The way her face glowed walking in Rosings, their conversations and teasing in London. If she were to come to his home, then he would merely enjoy her for as long as he could. She deserved to see all that Pemberley had to offer. His failed ideas of romance should inhibit nothing. If she would not stay with him for always, he could at least see her eyes sparkle as she inspected the grounds. That would be a memory he could cherish for ever.
With a renewed spirit and resolve to extend friendship to Elizabeth, Darcy returned to the house just in time for a runner to tell him the carriages had passed the lodge. Reminding himself to breathe and forcing his legs to lock in place rather than wear the carpet thin, Darcy waited in his study until he heard the crunch of wheels on the drive. Then he removed to the front portico*. Three carriages rolled to a stop and coachmen scurried to open doors. From the first, Bingley climbed out, followed by Miss Bennet and Georgiana. She jumped up and down and waved her arms. Saying something to the others, she turned to climb the steps.
While Georgiana advanced to him, Darcy’s eyes watched the other carriages. A governess and children spilt out of one while Mr. Gardiner exited another. Holding out his hand, Mrs. Gardiner stepped down. Where was Marshall? He ought to have exited before the ladies. Instead of a gentleman’s boot, a dainty slipper extended to the ground. Pulling his eyes up from the lady’s feet, Darcy hungrily scanned the gown and form. Heart hammering in his chest and blood rushing so forcefully his head began to ache, he blinked his eyes once, twice, a third time.
Alone. Without Marshall. A hundred questions flitted through his brain one second, and then it went utterly blank. She smiled up at him, and Darcy thought he might pass out and roll down the steps. Cloth filled his mouth, he could not speak, even as Georgiana greeted him and attempted to redirect his focus. He could not control his mouth, but his legs propelled forward on their own. Leaving his sister behind, Darcy lumbered down the steps. Ignoring the call of Bingley and not even sparing the Gardiners a glance, he stopped right before the only one who could make his life complete.
“You came,” he said, his eyes gazing into hers.
Elizabeth said nothing but blushed and glanced down.
“Elizabeth,” he whispered like the most fervent prayer he had ever uttered.
Her eyes flew to his, and her breath caught, but she did not look away.
“Am I dreaming? Are you real?”
Her words confused him, and he took a moment to fully take her in. She appeared thinner, dark circles were under her eyes, and uncertainty filled her gaze.
“What has he done? Did he abandon you?”
“He? Who?” Confusion etched every line of her face.
“Marshall,” Darcy growled out. “I understood you were to arrive with your be—” Darcy’s eyes slipped to Bingley and Jane. The gathered with the others on the steps. Mrs. Reynolds had come outside and now talked with everyone as Darcy shirked his duties as host. They were the engaged couple.
“We have had another one our misunderstandings, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth said, drawing his eyes back to her.
“We have,” he agreed. Was her worn expression because Marshall tired of her or because Darcy had abandoned her? If the latter, he would never forgive himself but he could scarcely hope it.
“I owe you a secret,” Elizabeth whispered. She looked down at her feet and took a deep inhale before returning her eyes to his. “I was desperate to come to Pemberley.”
“Were you?” Darcy could not keep the astonishment from his voice. “Perhaps Longbourn had become unbearable?”
“I will not deny it added to my feelings, but I wished to see my friend…that is friends…again.”
Darcy scrutinised her expression. She had coloured while speaking and seemed to waver between boldness and shyness. Her eyes bounced between sadness and fear. They pleaded with him to know something, to accept something from her. What did she wish to say but felt she could not? Darcy could not allow himself to hope.
“Your guests are waiting, sir,” Elizabeth said, blushing all the more as she looked up at the others who attempted to not watch their conversation.
Darcy did not care. Let the whole world know. He loved this woman and if putting her at ease made others feel uncomfortable then they would have to wait and be thankful for his attention.
“Come, then,” he stretched out an arm. “Welcome to Pemberley, Elizabeth.”