As Darcy finally greeted his guests and guided them through Pemberley after brief refreshments, he could not stop grinning. Elizabeth belonged here. She belonged at his side. He knew it more than he knew anything in the world. Now and then their eyes would meet, and she would blush. Hope swelled in Darcy’s heart. Perhaps, finally, she understood that as well.
They needed to talk and clear their most recent misunderstanding. Had Marshall ever proposed? Did he break it off or her? Either way, her reputation could be damaged, but Darcy did not care. Once, he might have worried that Georgiana’s reputation could be tarnished by who he chose as a wife and he was willing to sacrifice his desires for her sake. Now, he cared nothing for the opinion of strangers. Anyone that knew Elizabeth could see her qualities.
After the tour, his guests chose to retire to their chambers to rest. Darcy inquired with Mrs. Reynolds about all the arrangements. Elizabeth was an unexpected addition, and Bingley’s preferred room was unprepared as Darcy had expected Marshall to arrive. He also spoke with her about the ball planned for Georgiana in a week’s time. He had invited several Darcy family members as well as a few neighbouring gentlemen and their families. Apparently, his cousin Stephen disagreed with Darcy’s latest ventures and spewed vitriol all over his reply. However, he would come, never one to miss an opportunity to enjoy all Pemberley had to offer. Darcy rolled his eyes and put the missive aside. He had no patience for such antics right now.
How many times had Elizabeth seemingly slipped through his fingers? He could hardly credit her change of opinion about him when she seemed indifferent in London, but he would do nothing to risk it now. For the first time in his life, Darcy felt he was on the cusp of obtaining greatness.
A noise in the hall brought his head up from other letters and duties. He had left his door open in case someone—hopefully Elizabeth—would need to speak with him. Leaning to one side, he could see her figure through the doorway. She peered up at an old tapestry hung by some Darcy long ago. Happily putting aside his work, he silently approached.
“Splendid, is it not?” He asked, and Elizabeth started.
“Heavens! Forgive me for not hearing you,” she laughed.
“There is nothing to forgive. I should apologise for startling you. I had not intended it.”
“Tell the truth,” she arched a brow and smiled. “Were you spying on me?”
“Hoping for the opportunity to speak with you, yes.” Darcy stared down into her face. Some of the signs of anxiety and sadness had eased. “Did you rest well? I am sorry you are not in a more spacious apartment.”
“It is beautiful,” she breathed. “Yes, I did rest well and feel quite renewed. I suppose you did not know I was coming. I apologise if it was impertinent—”
“Your arrival was unexpected, but that is not to say unpleasant.”
“High praise, indeed.”
“I did not mean…” Darcy took in Elizabeth’s smiling face. “You are teasing me.”
“A terrible habit, I am afraid.”
“I find it refreshing,” he smiled. Dinner time approached, and he did not want to continue wasting time in frivolous discussion. “The grounds are magnificent, and I think you would enjoy them immensely. Would you allow me to escort you on a walk in the morning?”
Elizabeth beamed. “I hoped you would.”
“Perfect,” he said. “Utterly perfect.” Staring into her eyes, Darcy hoped she understood that he meant her not their plans.
“Here you are, Lizzy,” Jane said from down the corridor, Bingley at her side. “We expected you to sleep longer after your illness.”
“You were ill?” Darcy asked.
“Jane worries too much. I was never ill.” She sent her sister a look of unspoken words.
The others arrived before any more could be said and they adjourned to the drawing room until called for dinner. The meal passed with more enjoyment on Darcy’s side than he had ever experienced in the house. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner had none of the stiff formality that his family did, and their nieces were equally unaffected. Bingley could be nothing but gregarious and finding amusement in all things. Skipping the separation of the sexes in favour of retiring early, they all joined in drawing room Darcy had refurbished for Georgiana, complete with a new pianoforte. She and Elizabeth took turns playing. Too soon for Darcy’s liking, Mrs. Gardiner asked to retire, and the other ladies followed her lead. He could understand the days of travel wearing on her in her situation. Bingley and Gardiner stayed up for billiards and brandies but soon took to their rooms. Darcy could hardly sleep for the anticipation of the following day.
Darcy paced the hall below the central staircase early the next morning. He did not clarify a time with Elizabeth. How stupid of him! He recalled from Rosings that she walked after breakfast. He had hoped she would arrive before the meal so they could be assured privacy. Otherwise, they would likely end up with other persons accompanying them. Perhaps that is what she wished, though.
He heard footsteps and glanced up. Elizabeth smiled down from the top of the staircase in a walking dress of yellow with green trim. He had seen the same attire before, and while ladies of the first circles of Society would be embarrassed to wear the same thing so often, Darcy thought the outfit beautiful and perfectly reflecting the character of the wearer. She blushed under his gaze, but his eyes followed her the entire way down.
“You came,” he breathed as he bowed over her hand.
Elizabeth’s lashes fluttered, but she smiled. “And you are waiting.”
“I could not sleep,” he answered bashfully.
“Nor I,” she said.
A servant arrived with their outerwear and Darcy extended his arm to take her about the garden paths. The entire walk was a longer distance than they had time for this morning, but they could attempt it another time.
“Come, we must have some conversation,” Elizabeth teased and squeezed his arm lightly.
Darcy’s heart convulsed. Did she have any idea what she did to him? “As always, I will say whatever you wish.”
“Then allow me to observe that your gardens are the most beautiful I have ever seen. They were left so natural and not artificially restrained in the Greek manner.”
Darcy nodded. “I do not think my father had any stylistic impressions. Mother favoured the fashionable gardens like Lady Catherine, but after she was sent away, I think he allowed things to grow wild.”
“I am sorry,” Elizabeth glanced at her feet. “I did not mean to bring up a painful subject.”
“It does not distress me,” he gently squeezed her hand with his free one before allowing it to drop again by his side.
Elizabeth let go of his arm and examined some flowers out of his reach. He felt the loss acutely.
“What is down there?” She pointed near a copse of trees following the stream to the walled rose garden.
“Roses,” his voice was thick with longing.
Elizabeth smiled and then started off running at a slow speed. “Catch me up,” she called over her shoulder.
After recovering from his shock, Darcy followed after her. His longer legs reached her in seconds. Then they ran neck and neck through gardens, replacing talk of unfaithful spouses with laughter. Once inside the walled garden, she came to an immediate stop. She spun in a circle and grinned. Seeing the arbour in the corner, she ran off again. “Chase me!”
More prepared this time, Darcy reached her almost immediately and grabbed her hand, pulling her to the arbour with roses climbing over it. It was reckless and ridiculous. He a grown man running around the garden in a way he had never had the freedom to do as a child. Chasing after a woman whose bonnet began to slip off her head and curls tumbled free. And he could not stop laughing or smiling. Elizabeth, only Elizabeth, gave him this precious gift of feeling free in his own skin.
At last, they were under the arbour and skittered to a stop. Keeping her hand in his, Darcy used his free one to pull the bonnet from her hair and remove the remaining pins. Her hair looked wild, and her cheeks flushed brighter than the day she had arrived at Netherfield with her skirts knee deep in mud. He pushed a tendril from her face and rested his hand on her cheek, hating the leather barrier of his glove. Elizabeth’s face turned up to him, inviting what he most wanted to do.
“I will never stop chasing you, Elizabeth,” he said, resisting the impulse to claim her lips, still panting for breath by the barest thread of control.
Elizabeth’s cheeks flamed brighter, but her eyes never left his. “Tell me another secret.”
“Roses remind me of you. Their scent, their beauty, their vibrancy.” Darcy let his hand fall from her cheek, expecting a rebuke.
“I never loved Mr. Marshall. I never encouraged him. He was not the king for me.”
As she referenced Marshall’s ball when they had dressed as lovers, and she wished to tell him about the man she desired, but he could not bear to hear it, she placed her hand back in his.
“I thought you wanted him. I tried to be happy for you—to not be in the way.” Darcy could resist no longer and raised it to his lips. If he could not claim hers, then he must kiss her somewhere. “I never thought you would allow me that.”
Elizabeth took in a shaky breath. “That is the first time I have allowed a gentleman to kiss my hand.”
“Good,” Darcy smirked then retrieved her bonnet from the ground. He held out hairpins while she hastily rearranged her hair. When she finished restoring herself, he kissed her hand again before placing it on his arm. “We should return for breakfast.”
Elizabeth nodded in agreement and allowed him to lead her to his home. It all felt surreal. It was too much. More happiness than he had ever dared to hope to have. Plans for the future bounced in his mind. He would woo Elizabeth while she stayed here. Once settled at her uncle’s, he would propose again then seek her father’s blessing. Unfortunately, she would likely return to Hertfordshire before they could marry but he could not contain the sincerest wishes of his heart that she would remain at Pemberley forever.
Arriving at the house, they were separated by their friends. Darcy could pay no attention to anything said around him until he heard a scheme for the ladies to go walking on their own later. Just before Elizabeth entered the dining-room, Darcy stole to her side.
“I wish you to be careful when out walking without me.”
Elizabeth looked up at him, confusion and perhaps defiance in her eyes. “Why?”
Darcy shook his head. “You are unfamiliar with the paths there might be roots or rocks…” He could not bear to think of his nightmare at this moment. “Will you promise me?”
Elizabeth paused for a moment and cocked her head to one side. Then, she met his eyes, “I promise.”
Relief washed through Darcy. He could see from Elizabeth’s expression that she apprehended the importance of his request and saw his relief. She would inevitably ask him about it later. For now, they had a breakfast to enjoy and a day’s worth of entertainment. The activities of the day provided them with little privacy for conversation. He settled for whispering to meet him in the garden on the morrow as he observed her embroidery.