As the days passed while the Gardiners stayed at Pemberley until their home was entirely put together, Darcy and Elizabeth continued their private morning walks. Mr. Gardiner had been so delighted with the news of their betrothal, he agreed to allow them as much privacy during daytime hours as they desired. Sometimes they walked to the meadow, at other times they explored various parts of the estate. Darcy could see Elizabeth’s enchantment with her future home growing. Contentment and pride filling him in ways it never had before. He also explained his endeavours for assisting the poor and orphans of his community.
“You really are the best man I have ever known,” Elizabeth said one day.
Darcy flushed. He had longed to hear such words from Elizabeth, and as much as a part of him thought to push the compliment away, he knew she would not give him idle praise. Not when she had been so honest in every moment of their acquaintance. He still felt unworthy to carry on the Darcy legacy, but the sting lessened. He could visibly see and tangibly feel the good he now did; something that mattered more than perfectly balanced books.
“You make me want to be a better man,” Darcy confessed. “Before that night at Hunsford, I had merely gone through the motions of what I had been taught. A good master would do this and would do that. I did not apply myself.”
“Could my words have meant so much?” Elizabeth shook her head. “I have understood since reading your letter that you have depths of sensitivities and vulnerabilities I never realised, but I had never thought you would esteem me so much.” She met his eyes even as her cheeks flamed. “Seeing in London, how you went out of your way to talk with my friends—to be friendly with me—it made me feel the weight of your compliment. I accused you of pride, but I was puffed up as well. Seeing your behaviour humbled me. Who was I to take you to task?”
Darcy lifted Elizabeth’s knuckles to his lips. “You were and are everything to me. I confess if it had been anyone else I might not have listened.”
Elizabeth pulled one hand from his grasp and placed her palm on his cheek. “I see that now. I see behind your mask. Will you tell me all now?” She licked her lips. “About your dream?”
Darcy inhaled sharply. Instinct screamed to keep the hurt to himself, to not open the wounds again. Elizabeth’s eyes looked pleadingly at him, and he began to drown in the love and concern her brown depths contained. Recalling how he felt after he confessed the truth of his birth to Elizabeth, Darcy slowly nodded. Yes, sharing it with her would rid him of the pain. She was to be his partner in life, not a child for him to protect. He led her to a bench and wrapped his arms around her. With Elizabeth’s head over his heart, he told her all the dreadful details.
Elizabeth listened without interruption, and when he had finished, she tilted her head up to kiss him. Tears had come as he recounted his grief and as her lips found his, the salt of her own tears mingled with his.
“I am here, William,” Elizabeth said as she clung to his cravat and pressed herself against him. “I am here. Alive. Yours.”
Each press of her mouth against his, each word, each stroke of her hand on his body broke a chain around his restraint. Their kisses became frenzied and passionate. He pulled Elizabeth to his lap, where they could be even closer, the heat of their bodies mingling together. He thrust his hand into her hair, dislodging pins. The other trailed down the softness of her neck, then her arm. Breaking his lips from hers, they followed the path of his hand. Elizabeth gasped, and her head lolled back, giving him greater access. He sucked on her pulse point, feeling its rapid beat for him.
“Look at me,” he commanded and pulled back. Elizabeth obeyed, and his nostrils flared in appreciation. Through the years, many ladies had approached him with lust and desire in their eyes. Whether for his body or his wealth, he was never sure. What he saw in Elizabeth’s gaze aroused him more than any seductive look he had seen before. In those glittering brown orbs, he saw love and trust.
Pulling her to him once more, Darcy captured her lips and parried with her tongue. His arms tightened around her, and his hands itched to wander. One day, he told himself. They had the rest of their life to explore each other, to enjoy their passion. Instead, he focused all of his energy on discovering the texture of her mouth, and memorizing every breathy moan with each flick of his tongue. Drowning in it, he slowed their kiss. Finally, his lips left hers and climbed to her forehead. Elizabeth let out a shaky but content sigh. She settled her head on his chest once more, and one hand drew lazy circles down her back while the other stroked her hand.
When Elizabeth had recovered her breath, she asked in a small voice, “Will you tell me about what it was like when you came to Pemberley?”
“I…I did not know the truth for many years,” he stroked her hair, keeping his mind anchored in the present even as he told her of the night he last saw his mother.
“When did you find out about your parents?”
“Just before Eton. Father had thought they covered it all well. My mother needed the sea air for her health. Ayr was not the typical choice but they claimed they wanted a house near one of the family estates and Mother did not like large towns.” Darcy shook his head. “The opposite was true; she craved people and the energy of constant activity. At any rate, he told me in case there were rumours about my birth. We never knew if my true father told stories.”
“Who was he?” Elizabeth squeezed his hand which still stroked hers.
“I never asked,” Darcy shrugged. “He had no legal rights over me. Mother never made it sound like he desired contact with me.”
“There were never any male visitors?” Elizabeth pressed. “Georgiana…”
“I found out when I was older that Father would visit Mother. I was never there when they met—kept home and occupied by the maid. They had to pretend to be a happy couple, but I do not think they ever…” Darcy was unsure how to say such things to maiden ears. “That is, he seemed certain Georgiana could not be his.”
“She does have a certain Darcy look about her.”
Darcy shrugged. “I had never thought about it, but I suppose you are correct.” Darcy furrowed his brow. “When I first met George Darcy, he seemed cold and imposing. He had just lost his heir, had to face his adulterous wife, and take on her bastard as his own. I was so shy, so uncertain—he had no idea what to do with me. But he was never cruel. Even with Mother, he did not divorce her. Our cottage was not lavish, but all our needs were met. I do not think he would treat Georgiana as he did if she were his.”
“When did she find out the truth?”
“What makes you think she knows?” Darcy tensed.
“When she thinks no one is watching, she has a hint of your uncertainty. It is not mere shyness, and it is more pronounced here than in Town.”
“I did not know,” Darcy planted a kiss on Elizabeth’s temple. “I knew you would be perfect for her.” He sighed. “I told her after Ramsgate and she had nearly eloped with Wickham.”
“That must have been a very hard conversation,” Elizabeth stroked his cheek.
“Not nearly as bad as you would imagine.” Sighing, Darcy explained, “She had long felt something strange about our family composition. The worst was, she seemed to think she was fated to make the same choices as our mother. That she agreed to elope with Wickham due to something bad in her blood.”
Darcy dropped his voice to a whisper. “I know that feeling intimately.”
“Do you still feel that way?”
Darcy could tell by her voice her tears had returned. A desire to protect her even from his own feelings rose up. He could lie and tell her he no longer felt inadequate or unworthy. He could put on his armour and try to be invincible. Or, he could let her in. All she had ever wanted was to see the real him. Such a simple request for any other man, but she had asked it of him. Elizabeth said nothing more. She did not push or pry. Her patience told Darcy that she understood how difficult it was for him. He loved her even more for that. “Sometimes, but I am learning to see the blessings of it. I think I am making Pemberley stronger for the future in ways another man with different experiences would never dream doing.”
Elizabeth squeezed her arms around his waist. “I think that is exactly right.” She sighed. “Did you ever find out what happened between your parents? What caused her to stray?”
“I…I do not think it was just one thing. Nothing so simple. Did Father have mistresses? Probably; I think so. Was he unfaithful first? Maybe. But did she love him enough to be jealous of that? I do not think so. I think their temperaments never suited. She loved the Ton and Father despised it.”
Nodding, Elizabeth said, “I think I understand what you mean. My father and mother are such extreme opposites with so little respect between them.”
Darcy agreed. “It made me over-anxious about my own mate.”
“You thought we would not suit?” Elizabeth asked.
“At first. Your liveliness attracted me, but I am aware that I am dour and stand-offish. In time, I saw your seriousness. I saw your sensitivities and insecurities.”
“You saw me so much easier than I saw you,” she confessed. “I do not think another person understands me in that way.”
“I love you,” he said and pressed another kiss to her temple.
“I love you, my William.”
A smile came to Darcy’s lips. “I have waited my whole life to have love.”
“Many others love you,” Elizabeth said. “Georgiana, Bingley, Colonel Fitzwilliam. Mrs. Reynolds adores you,” she added saucily. “Your mother must have loved you.”
“After I left her, I resented her. Even when Father was taking me away, she said nothing about doing whatever was necessary to come along. She seemed to have no desire to see him or return to Pemberley. If she loved me—if she really loved me—then why did she allow me to go? In all the years that followed, why did she not earn back my Father’s trust?”
Darcy squeezed his eyes shut against the pain that threatened to well up. He had learned to think about it logically. “In time, I learned to think about it differently. I know she loved me, but it does not mean she could show it so unselfishly. Whatever drove her to her affairs might have infected all her relationships. Lord knows her brother and sister have issues displaying their affection and love in their families.”
Elizabeth nodded as though she understood. Given her family, she likely had similar experiences: parents that loved her, but with conditions as they battled their own fears.
“I will always love you,” Elizabeth said, pulling his head down to hers and meeting his eyes. “And I will never leave you or allow us to be parted.”
As Darcy worshipped her lips once more, he acknowledged his heart feeling complete. Elizabeth would fight for him. She would never leave him. Everything he had ever wanted was now within his grasp.
Finally, the day of Georgiana’s birthday ball had arrived. Darcy grinned to himself; they had actually managed to keep it a surprise. She had asked after the plans for the day at breakfast, and could not contain her astonishment when he explained the masquerade in the evening.
“Oh! But what will I wear?” she exclaimed after a few moments of profuse thanks to her brother.
“You may thank Mrs. Gardiner and the Miss Bennets,” Darcy laughed. “They have made all arrangements with your maid, and I think you will be most pleased.”
“May I go now to see it? Oh! And the ballroom. When was the last time it was used, do you think?”
Darcy chuckled at her excitement. “Some thirty years or more. I am not sure, none of our current staff was around then. However, yes, you may go now.”
“Come, Lizzy, Jane!” Georgiana jumped from her seat and tugged Elizabeth by the hand.
Darcy watched them go with a smile. Jane and Mrs. Gardiner excused themselves and followed at a more sedate pace. Left to their own devices, the gentlemen adjourned to the library. Servants rushed up and down the halls to make arrangements, and they were best kept out of the way.
“I will drop a suggestion to Jane to not extoll too much about the grandeur of Pemberley and its ballroom, for your sake, Darcy,” Bingley said with a cheeky grin.
“For my sake?”
“Yes, or Mrs. Bennet will forever be visiting!”
“Mrs. Bennet visit me? I cannot imagine why she would,” Darcy contained a smile.
“Come, I am not so blind that I do not see something between you and Lizzy. Is it all settled at last?” Bingley leaned forward in expectation.
Darcy’s lips twitched, and he could conceal his joy no longer. “I have finally been accepted, but have yet to write Mr. Bennet.”
Bingley whooped in happiness, and Mr. Gardiner laughed. “It is all Meg and I can do to keep it from the others.”
“You knew?” Bingley asked Gardiner, who nodded. “Well, I suppose that is only right.”
“We are delighted,” the understatement of his life, “however, we have not told Georgiana yet. I would appreciate you if keep it a secret, for now.”
Bingley solemnly agreed, but Darcy had planned to tell her the news that evening before the ball. At dinner, she had her head together with Elizabeth, and they giggled through much of the meal. After the meal, the ladies excused themselves to rest and prepare for the festivities.
About a half an hour before guests were expected to arrive, Darcy knocked on Georgiana’s door. She bade him enter but sounded more melancholy than he had expected. Opening the door, he could not believe his eyes.
“Look at you,” he murmured as he entered the doorway. “A grown woman before my eyes.” Georgiana turned to look at him and twisted her hands. “You look lovely, my dear.”
“Thank you,” she smiled, but it did not reach her eyes.
“What is it?”
Georgiana let out a shaky breath. “Last year when I…when I planned to elope with Mr. Wickham, I thought that I was making a very adult decision. Now, I understand how much I have left to learn about life. I do not think I am ready for tonight.”
“Come,” Darcy took her hand and led her to a set of chairs in the room. Seating her, he poured her a glass of water before taking the chair next to her. “Tonight is only a ball. All that is expected is for you to enjoy yourself. Dance, talk, laugh.”
“I suppose I was allowing my thoughts to get ahead of themselves.” She smiled, at last. “I do not need to find a husband tonight.”
“You need not ever find one if you do not like,” Darcy said.
“One day you will marry, and your wife might not like me forever living with you,” Georgiana said sheepishly.
“Is that what you worry about?”
“One of the things,” she admitted.
“Then allow me to ease your mind.” Darcy smiled and gathered her hands in his. “First, I would never marry a woman who would not accept my sister. Nor would she sway my feelings. Secondly, it is with great joy I tell you that Miss Elizabeth Bennet has accepted my hand in marriage.”
Instantly, Georgiana cried in delight. She leapt from her chair to embrace him tightly about the neck, earning laughter from him.
“Do you think you shall enjoy having your friend as a sister?”
“I shall love it!” She gave him a kiss on the cheek. “I never had any idea. You both have been so sly! She never even mentioned you to me!”
“We have both been private in our feelings, and I have not been the most adept at courtship.”
“William, this is the best present you could ever give me.”
“Even better than a masquerade?”
Georgiana cocked her head to one side as though thinking seriously. “Just slightly better than a masquerade,” she laughed.
Her maid entered, and Darcy withdrew his watch. “I should go. Guests will arrive soon. I will see you downstairs.” He kissed her on the cheek. “Oh, on your vanity you should find another piece of jewellery to go with your gown.”
Georgiana gasped and hastened to the stool in front of the mirrored table full of bottles of lotions. Her maid came behind her to arrange her hair. Darcy watched for a minute. He could do nothing about the years of distance between them but seeing her now hovering between girl and woman, filled his heart. With Elizabeth by his side, they would be a real family.
Guests began to arrive, and the ball started as most do. Georgiana was the guest of honour and so a hush fell over the crowd when she arrived at the top of the stairs. Darcy smiled and hastened to her side, escorting her down. A small flock of ladies her age from neighbouring estates came to admire her gown of white silk with a light blue overlay which made the blue of her eyes shining through her mask burn brighter. Too soon, gentlemen came to claim numbers on her card. Begrudgingly, Darcy allowed it. They were all neighbours or Darcy cousins and men he had known most of his life. He opened the first set with his sister, who talked about how much she was enjoying the evening.
After performing his duty, and while his great uncle, a retired judge, who had refused to wear a mask saying he was too old for one, danced with Georgiana, Darcy allowed his eyes to wander over the sea of guests. He had previously arranged his sets with Elizabeth, but it did not mean he could not look for her now.
“I know you,” Elizabeth’s voice said to his side.
Darcy smiled and spun to see her, his breath catching in his throat. She wore a white slip gown with red gauze overlay and a dark red corset-front bodice. Her puffed sleeves were slashed. Around the sleeves, neck, and hemline were small red roses, matching the ones on her pink dancing slippers. Her bright eyes sparkled from the cut-outs in her mask, with her curls artfully arranged around them.
“My goddess,” he raised her knuckles to his lips. “Your beauty is unsurpassed, Elizabeth.”
She blushed but shook her head. “Jane looks positively divine, and Georgiana is lovely. You are blind, my love.”
Darcy looked over his shoulder at a few gentlemen attempting to inch closer to her and nodded at her full dance card as well. “Blind I was when I did not see all your beauty and all your worth. Now, my eyes have been opened, and I see what I almost missed.”
“Pretty words,” Elizabeth laughed. “How are you this evening?”
Darcy understood the unsaid inquiry in her seemingly innocuous question. This was his first ball as host and a year ago, thoughts of how he was nothing but an imposter would have crippled him this evening. Now, he felt confident in his role. “Far better than I expected,” he acknowledged. “It helps to have you at my side.”
Elizabeth smiled and met his eyes, the expression of love unmistakable. Too soon, a partner came to claim a dance and Darcy had to return to his role as host. The night passed in joyful reverie until sometime after supper. Darcy recognised the figure of his cousin, Stephen, arrive. All the Darcys were tall, but his head rose above them. His black hair gleamed in the candlelight and his broad shoulders cut a path through the crowd.
“A masquerade,” he sneered at Darcy and then ripped off his mask. “How fitting.”
“What do you mean?” Darcy glanced around, looking to signal a footman. He and Stephen had never got along, but now it seemed he might have to physically remove him from his sister’s ball.
“I know the truth,” Stephen hissed. “I know the truth!” He continued and shouted.
All music stopped and dancing ceased. In unison, the entire room turned their heads to Stephen and Darcy. Stephen let out a hollow laugh.
“Always getting the best Pemberley has to offer, but no more.” He reached in his coat and pulled out a packet of papers. “This will see an end to it. This is a signed letter of contention over the inheritance of George Darcy. His legal heir was my father—you are nothing but an ill-gotten bastard from his filthy wife.”
Gasps rang through the room. One woman swooned at the crass language.
“Stephen,” Darcy’s great-uncle stepped forward, but one glare from the younger man held him in place.
“You knew, old man. You knew and allowed this imposter to sit and spend our legacy. Not one drop of Darcy blood in him and if this paper didn’t prove it, then his spending money on the product of whores would!”
“That is enough!” Darcy cried. “We shall speak about this in privacy. To my library, if you please.” Darcy stormed out of the ballroom but not before he saw the shattered looks on the faces of Georgiana and Elizabeth.
In the hallway, he signalled to the butler to end the ball. He would never forgive Stephen for doing this in front of others and at an event to celebrate Georgiana of all things. Was he drunk or simply mad? Or worst of all, emboldened by fact?