The following morning, Darcy awaited Elizabeth in the rose garden, a bouquet in hand. This is how he should have courted her at Rosings. Months of agony could have been avoided if only he had been open about his feelings and intentions. He looked over the garden wondering if some Darcy ancestor created it for his wife. Walled gardens were a relic of centuries ago whereas the building of Pemberley was modern, rebuilt on the original foundation during his father’s childhood. Hearing footsteps behind him, he turned to find Elizabeth approaching with a smile on her face.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Good morning,” he bowed over her hand and kissed it before presenting the flowers. “You look lovely today.”
Elizabeth blushed. “Thank you. You look handsome as well.” Her cheeks turned redder with her words.
“Do you really think so?” He had never been vain, but hearing Elizabeth found him handsome gave him more pride than he knew he could have.
“You never knew you were handsome? Surely not all the ladies desire you for your wealth.”
“I would not know,” he squeezed her hand. “I did not pay attention to any of them. I never wanted them.” He had never really wanted a woman until Elizabeth. His parents’ marriage and mother’s affairs made him wary of attraction and entanglements.
Elizabeth turned to walk around the garden but did not relinquish his hand. Soon, he would have to know the feel of her skin. Now, they still observed the rules of propriety with gloves when out of doors.
“The rose garden is lovely, but I want to see more,” Elizabeth said. “I decided against walking with the other ladies. I would rather walk with you.”
Darcy grinned at her words and led her to some of the park. He knew the history of every field and glen. As they strolled, hand in hand, Darcy told Elizabeth about the estate. “My grandfather rebuilt the house, determined to make it a modern structure. Construction took five years, and during that time, the family stayed at the estate in Shropshire—when not in Town that is.”
“Modern and impressive!” Elizabeth glanced back at the house. “Everything is so well laid out with none of the awkwardness of adding wings or refurbishing a room’s purpose.”
“Thank you, but I can take no credit for any of it.”
“I never would have thought you could be so humble,” she said and avoided his eyes. “I was dreadfully wrong in my estimation of your character.”
“You are not to blame,” Darcy said and gently turned her face back to him. “I concealed my feelings and my nature from everyone, even myself. I thought I knew what was right but I followed it with little conviction. I quite needed your lesson and revelation.”
Elizabeth blushed at his words. “And I needed yours. Your letter…”
“I hope you do not hate me for writing it. I think you did not like reading its contents.”
She shook her head. “No, I did not happily learn how wrong I had been, but I was thankful to learn the truth. I was so blinded to believe Wickham the better man and to mock you at every turn. I do not know that I ever spoke to you without wishing to pain you.”
“I have always been a glutton for punishment,” he laughed. “I found it refreshing and irresistible.”
Elizabeth joined his laughter. “Dare not say such things, you will feed my vanity.”
“You deserve every kind word I could say,” Darcy smiled down at her. Then he noticed the sun climbing in the sky. “Come, we should return to the house.”
As they walked in companionable silence, Darcy drew his courage. “Would you join me tomorrow after breakfast for a substantial walk? There is a place I would like to show you. I think your uncle will allow it.”
Elizabeth smirked. “I have often walked alone with you.”
“At Rosings we met by accident and thus far here, we have not left the view of the house.”
“I see,” Elizabeth’s eyes sparkled. “I very much look forward to it.”
Arriving at the house, they parted in the hall. The morning mail had arrived, requiring Darcy to tend to it before breaking his fast. By the time he entered the room, his guests had left. Instead of being able to join them, the steward needed his time, followed by Mrs. Reynolds. After two hours of meetings, he found them on the lawn playing croquet. The Gardiner children had joined them, and Elizabeth held one on her lap as she cheered the others on. She was precisely the mistress Pemberley needed, and Darcy could wait no longer to secure her.
Mr. Gardiner had no qualms about allowing Darcy to escort Elizabeth around all Pemberley had to offer. He sent them off with a wink, but Darcy understood the gravity of earning the man’s trust. With basket and blanket one arm and Elizabeth on the other, Darcy could not contain his grin.
Elizabeth chattered and pointed at various groupings of trees, flowers, and birds as they walked. If she had any inkling of the serious intent behind Darcy’s request, she hid it well. As they winded past the river and went over a simple bridge, they continued through a narrow path toward a glen, now and then with clearings of a stream. Elizabeth grew silent, allowing the sounds of nature to hum around them. Birds chirped in trees and called their mates and rabbits hopped through brush. About a mile through the woods, Darcy turned them down a now mostly overgrown path.
“Watch your step here,” he said, and Elizabeth gripped his arm tighter. She did not shirk from the task, however, and had worn sturdy walking boots. With practised aplomb, she managed to step over mangled roots and twigs. “I have not come here in many years.”
After a sharp turn, a beautiful clearing opened to them. Woods surrounded it, and butterflies flitted through the meadow. The stream gurgled nearby and hundreds of memories flooded Darcy’s mind of his childhood refuge. He had never shared it with another.
“What a haven,” Elizabeth smiled up at him.
“Come, there is a flat rock perfect for a picnic.”
He led Elizabeth to the destination and then spread the blanket down. Once they both settled on it, he removed his gloves and brought out the refreshments packed by the cook. Elizabeth freed her hands from their leather confines, and Darcy eyed them greedily.
“Thank you for bringing me here,” she smiled as she sipped the packed cider and removed her bonnet. The sun shone down on her hair, glistening in its rays.
“I have never shared this with another,” he admitted.
A slow smile crept across Elizabeth’s face, and she took in all of the scene. “It is a secret, then?”
“Yes,” Darcy smiled and leaned back so he could see Elizabeth’s face as his hand lay less than an inch from hers.
“Would you tell me a secret, Mr. Darcy?” Elizabeth asked.
“What would you like to know?” Darcy focused on where their hands nearly touched. Did she have any idea what she did to him? The light breeze sent her lavender and rose fragrance drifting to him. What he would give to have that scent surround him always.
Elizabeth lightly chuckled. “If I direct you to it then I fear it hardly counts as a secret.”
Lifting his eyes, he sought to put all his earnestness into his gaze as he focused on her. “I will tell you anything you wish to know.”
Elizabeth held his gaze for a moment. “Why do you always ask me to take care when I am out walking?”
Because I still love you, he wanted to answer. Because I know the pain of holding your dead body to my chest and wishing you back to life. Because I know I am nothing without you…
“Forgive me. I promised you the truth, but I fear it brings painful memories to me.”
Elizabeth furrowed her brow. “Do I seem so fragile?”
“No. It is nothing so rational, and you will think I am mad when I tell you.”
A look of surprise crossed Elizabeth’s face followed by a small smile. “You will tell me then? You will not put me off?”
“I keep my promises, Elizabeth,” he said lowly and thought he saw her shiver. “Are you chilled?”
“No,” she blushed. “Please, continue.”
“Do you recall the last time we saw one another in Kent?”
“Yes,” she said softly. “You looked very unwell.”
“I have often suffered from vivid dreams…usually of things past. The night before that day, however, I had a dream which will forever haunt me.”
“I am sorry,” Elizabeth whispered. “I have long regretted my behaviour that evening—”
“I do not tell you this so you may chastise yourself. I share far greater blame for our misunderstandings, and we have long moved past them, have we not?”
“Then let us forget the past.”
Elizabeth nodded. “Very well. About this dream?”
Darcy remained silent for a moment. As always, he struggled with expressing the facts without inserting his emotions. Losing the battle, he shook his head and closed his eyes, feeling the pain again.
“That night, I had an inexplicable dream in which, among many other things, you sought relief by walking after I had upset you. And you…died.”
Elizabeth gasped and paled, bringing her hand to her mouth.
“Words cannot convey the torment I felt and still feel when I recall it. Although a dream, it felt as though I lived it. My selfishness had brought your demise, and I will never forgive myself for it.”
“Well, that is ridiculous,” she laughed.
Darcy jolted at her reaction. He had not expected her to laugh at him.
“I do not find you ridiculous, but you cannot blame yourself for a dream. As you see, I am alive and well.”
Darcy shook his head. “You cannot understand. I can feel you in my arms, still. My throat can still ache from growing hoarse after spending the night in anguished sobs. The absolute desperation I had, knowing I drove the woman I loved to her death—”
Elizabeth’s hand on his cheek rendered him mute. He nuzzled into it, hardly believing she had touched him so affectionately.
“I am so sorry. I have tormented you.”
Darcy watched as her eyes welled with tears and she began to slip her hand away. He clasped his over it. “Stay.”
Elizabeth gave him a tremulous smile. “As you wish.” She dabbed at her eyes with the back of her free hand. “I suppose I owe you a secret now.”
Darcy stared into her eyes. If he moved now, even to nod his head, he would capture her in his arms, and he knew what calamity that impulse would bring.
“I call you William when I think of you,” Elizabeth did not look away.
“You think of me?”
She chewed the bottom of her lip before breaking into a mischievous grin. “That would be another secret, and it is your turn now, William.”
Her voice saying his name brought a shiver of pleasure up his spine and made him dizzy. “I have often dreamt of you in this clearing and everywhere else at Pemberley.”
Elizabeth sucked in a breath and blushed. “I have barely stopped thinking of you since the moment we met—although it has certainly taken many different turns. I blush to think of what I called you then but now…” Elizabeth shrugged.
“Perhaps hearing Georgiana say my name so often has affected you.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “It is your turn, again.”
Releasing her hand from his cheek and bringing it to his lips, he confessed, “I never want you to leave.” This was a dangerous game, and Darcy had never been much of a gambler. Now, he was laying all his cards on the proverbial table.
“I hoped you would say that,” Elizabeth said breathlessly.
Still holding her hand, Darcy rubbed his thumb over it and found himself leaning forward a little, struggling to keep his eyes on hers and not her tempting mouth. He only held one more secret, and he could keep it no more. He would rather face her rejection daily than to keep the words to himself. He knew that route only brought suffering. “I still love you.”
When she did not yank her hand away or rebuke him, he leant his forehead against hers, content to merely be so close to her. “My wishes and affections are unchanged but one word from you—”
“I love you,” Elizabeth said.
Darcy could hear the smile in her voice, and he lifted his head. Her brown eyes shone with passion and tenderness. The loving gaze he had seen a hundred times on so many others and now, finally, him. Remnants of ice broke from his heart as her love finally warmed him through.
“I never want to be parted from you again,” he said realising he had one more secret after all. “Will you marry me and be my wife?”
“Yes,” Elizabeth breathed. “My secret is I have wanted you to ask me for months. Shortly after I arrived in London.”
“For so long? I am stupid!”
Elizabeth shook her head. “No, it is hardly a secret if one does not hide it. I have four sisters. I am very adept at hiding my secrets.”
“I want to know them all,” Darcy grinned. He could wait no more. “I wish to kiss you,” he cupped her cheeks with both hands.
She dropped her gaze. “That is perhaps not such a secret.”
Elizabeth lifted her eyes and smiled. Darcy leaned forward to taste the beginning of her laugh on his lips. It tasted sweet and loving. Although he craved more, he pulled back lest he frighten her.
Elizabeth’s lashes fluttered, and she sighed happily. “If I tell you I wish for you to do that again, you will keep it a secret, won’t you?”
Darcy threw his head back and laughed, feeling lighter than he ever had before. She would bring such joy to his life.
“It is very safe with me,” he said as he wrapped his arms around her and leaned in so close their chests touched.
This time, when their lips met, Darcy took his time. He started with one corner of her mouth and kissed across to the other. With each touch, the pressure increased and Elizabeth sighed against him. Bringing one hand up to cup her cheek, he held her face in place as he sealed their love with all the things he struggled to say. Pulling back, he saw the dazed look on Elizabeth’s face, the satisfied smile, and her dark lashes against her pale skin as she had her eyes closed in surrender.
“My Elizabeth,” he kissed her again. “Mine, at last.”
Elizabeth nodded and leaned forward, wanting and expecting more. Darcy smiled to himself before meeting her tantalising lips once more. Running his tongue along the seam, Elizabeth gasped. Darcy touched his tongue to Elizabeth’s for the briefest second. He wanted her to get used to the idea. She pulled back, and her eyes flew to his. Then, she threw her arms around Darcy, nearly tackling him to the ground. He could not resist her offer, and soon their tongues were tangling against each other as they held each other tight. The feeling of her in his arms stirred him more than any dream or fantasy. This was really, truly Elizabeth giving herself to him, loving him, and asking to be loved in return.
It was almost too much for his honour to bear. Feeling his excitement rise and Elizabeth leaving her inhibitions behind, his courage rose to the front. He slowed their frenzied kissing and loosened his hold on Elizabeth. She looked half-ravaged. Her hair in disarray and cheeks flushed.
“My Lizzy,” he said and stroked her cheek.
“Yes, I am yours,” she sighed against him. “Do not ever forget it.”
“I could never. You are imprinted on my heart.”
Darcy encouraged her to turn and sit between his legs with her back against his chest. Wrapping his arms around her, he rested his chin on her shoulder as their hearts calmed and breathing returned to normal.
“Your sister said you were ill while at Longbourn,” Darcy observed. He would not press her for details, but he had wondered about that, combined with her appearance at her first arrival. Elizabeth’s hands idly ran over his, sending shivers down his spine.
“I had thought I starved your love away. I mourned your loss. I saw Lady Aurora and realised how extreme the compliment of your hand was. You could have had a lady like her—far above me in beauty, rank, and fortune. Who am I compared to all the world had to offer you? I spitefully and wrongly refused you.”
“Did you think so little of me that I would carelessly offer my heart and then hand it to another within weeks of your rejection? Or did you discredit the depth of my regard?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “When you proposed—it shocked me. I had not expected it or ever guessed. Charlotte did think you loved me, but I question her understanding of the notion. She saw near as much love from Colonel Fitzwilliam. I had not thought you capable of such deep, intense emotion. Before reading your letter, I attempted to explain it as merely an idle fancy from boredom in Lady Catherine’s home.”
“I do not know the hour or the spot that set my course. I had started to love you before I knew it had begun. Sometime in Hertfordshire sealed it for me, although I did not recognise it for a very long time.”
“That is as I had imagined it.”
Darcy could hear the smile in her voice. “And after you read my letter?”
“I instantly understood how you were capable of such deep feeling but also able to conceal it so well. I saw the truth of your account with Wickham, and in time, began to accept what you said of Jane and Bingley. By the time I returned to London and was told how you called on my aunt and uncle and clearly restored Bingley to Jane, I saw you in a new light. You had always fascinated me. Now, it seemed the harder I looked, the more I saw good in you.”
“I did not bring Bingley to Jane. I confessed to concealing her presence in Town, but he decided to call on her on his own. For a time, I thought it would ruin our friendship, but after seeing evidence of her continued affection, he heartily forgave me.”
“So do I,” Elizabeth said. “It is little different than I tried to do when Charlotte told me she was to marry Mr. Collins. I hope you can forgive my hypocrisy.”
“I cannot because I do not accept it was a double-standard. In each case, you had a lively interest, and the lady is always in the least advantage in these situations. You know Miss Bennet best, and she is blessed to have your loyalty. But what happened with Marshall after I left Town?”
“Oh,” Elizabeth said and paused. “After our dance, he hinted very strongly he had something of importance to say to me. I may be slow to catch on but the third time’s the charm with gentlemen, I suppose. I apprehended his meaning and feigned a hurt ankle so I could not dance.”
Darcy smiled at her cleverness and squeezed her waist for a moment. Elizabeth laughed, the sound going straight to his heart.
“Over the next few days, I made up excuses to miss his calls or did not give him my full attention. He took the hint and came around less and less. Eventually, it was time for me and Jane to return to Longbourn. Mama believed Bingley would propose at the prospect of losing Jane again. She was right. We went home, Bingley followed, but then my uncle needed assistance in the move. Where Bingley went, Jane was allowed to follow. It was I who had to beg and plead to come along.” Elizabeth paused for a moment. “My aunt and uncle intervened, but I had not thought they suspected anything. Can you imagine why?”
Darcy chuckled. “The first time I met your uncle he had figured out I fancied you. Rather than putting him off, I decided to confess that I loved you but knew I had no chance for you. He suggested to me multiple times—as did Bingley and Richard—that I attempt to win your hand, but I would not listen. It seems we were each blind regarding the other. They saw what we were too afraid to believe.”
“Never again, though,” Elizabeth vowed. “I hope I do not appear inconstant for having changed, so extremely, my opinions from only a few months ago. I was blinded by my judgment and misunderstood your character. Now, I know the truth, and nothing can ever break my heart from yours.”
Darcy said nothing and only squeezed her tighter. After years of loneliness and isolation, hearing that this woman loved him and would not give him up, filled his heart to bursting. He had never known such love and contentment could exist in the world. A feeling as though every trial he ever went through had led to this moment, making it all the sweeter, filled him.
“I do not doubt you, Lizzy, if you do not doubt me. I left you three times.”
“They hardly count as that,” she scoffed. “The first you did not understand the strength of your attachment if I understand what you said earlier. The second time I refused you! Lastly, another man courted me, and to many, it looked as though I encouraged him. I was too preoccupied with thoughts of you, with attempting to show you my changed opinion and to earn a second chance from you, that I did not realise I spent so much time in his company seeming to listen to his words. I thought only of you.”
Darcy grinned so broadly, he believed his face might crack. “Come, let us return to the house. I must speak with your uncle.”
As they walked back to Pemberley, hand in hand, they made their plans for the future. Darcy felt, at last, the cold grip of the past had left him.