“You see!” Stephen tapped the documents spread out on Darcy’s desk. Bingley and Gardiner had joined him, as well as his great-uncle Reginald, a judge.
“Uncle,” Darcy turned to the elderly man. “Father’s will is clear, as is the law. Even if there is a question of my paternity, the union between Lady Anne Fitzwilliam and George Darcy was legal and binding. Any children she bore would be considered his.”
Reginald Darcy took out a pair of spectacles from his breast pocket and perused the papers. Copies of the deed willing it to only heirs of the body of Arthur D’Arcy in the Twelfth Century, a signed affidavit from a footman named Nick Huggins declaring himself as the father of a bastard born to Lady Anne Darcy, and of Stephen’s official petition to the courts.
“Why would you do this?” Darcy asked his cousin. “What inspired you to look into these things?”
Stephen snickered. “There were plenty of rumours when you arrived at Pemberley at eight years old. Lady Anne had been sent away. Everyone knew.”
“Then why wait so long?” Darcy persevered. “There is no reason for secrecy now.”
“Father left a letter to me. He confessed to an affair with your mother. Georgiana is his. He did not want me to marry my sister.”
Darcy listened in awestruck silence as his chest hammered. His father’s brother passed away while Georgiana was at Ramsgate. Never very close to his Darcy relations, he left the area directly after the funeral. He had thought Stephen glared at him with more than the usual animosity at the time and now he understood why. While George Darcy’s will left his brother and that family the use of the dower house and an allowance, they should have been the heirs of Pemberley.
“My boy,” Uncle Reginald turned to Darcy, “I am sorry, but these look authentic. You will have to appear before a court and listen to their findings.”
“No!” Bingley shouted. “Darcy has been a fair master for years. George Darcy intended it, even named him as heir.”
Reginald shook his head. “The contract on the deed might preclude any legalities my nephew had for his wife’s children or his will. If they can prove before a jury that Fitzwilliam is not George’s son…”
“Why now?” Darcy asked softly. “Why now? You could have brought this for anytime since you filed.”
Stephen sneered. “Is it not obvious? I only wanted to press my rights before the jury ruled once you started wasting all of Pemberley’s coffers!” He pulled another paper from his other breast pocket and laid it on the table.
Darcy stared unblinkingly at the papers. A notice of eviction. He and Georgiana had to quit Pemberley until after the case came to court. He no longer had control of Pemberley funds. Nor did he have access to any of the monies he had invested. All he had rights to now was the thirty thousand pounds from Lady Anne Fitzwilliam which had been set aside for daughters and lesser sons.
Darcy fell back in his chair, the next many minutes a blur to him. The others offered words of comfort and condolences. They haggled with Stephen who would allow them only three days’ time to vacate the premises. Finally, they made him leave. Darcy said nothing as Bingley and Gardiner offered him their homes.
“Elizabeth,” he mumbled. He needed to see her. This changed everything.
Bingley and Gardiner exchanged looks and then left. A short while later, there was a quiet knock on his door. The first he had moved in nearly an hour was to open his library door to find Elizabeth looking worried. One glance at him and she launched herself into his arms. Darcy squeezed her to him tightly and shut the door.
“I cannot believe that awful man. Why would he say such things, so publicly, before your neighbours?”
Darcy said nothing, only pressed kisses in her hair. He had deserved this, for years of pretending. Now the world would know, and if he thought the loss of reputation would be the most significant repercussion of Society knowing the truth about him, it was nothing compared with losing the gift of Elizabeth in his arms.
“You are trembling,” she said and pulled him to the sofa. She pushed him down onto it and climbed into his lap. Pressing kisses to his face, she repeated words of love.
“Elizabeth,” Darcy grasped her hands and disentangled them from his neck. “You know what must happen, do you not?”
“No,” Elizabeth whispered and shook her head.
“I am losing Pemberley.”
Elizabeth shook her head again, “No.” The word was more forceful this time.
“My uncle looked over the documents. Everything is there. I never should have inherited.”
“No!” Elizabeth nearly shouted and burst into tears.
He was about to explain again, but he came up short. Elizabeth was intelligent, she understood what he had said. She was not overwrought at the prospect of him losing Pemberley—although he believed she had come to love it—she perceived what he intended to say next.
“No,” she said and broke her hands free to wrap around his neck again. “I will not let you push me aside. I will marry you with no money to your name.”
She tightened her hold on him and nuzzled his neck, pressing kisses to his jaw line. “You are mine, and I am yours, and that is enough.”
Whatever stupid, foolish, noble thoughts he had vanished. Elizabeth was his life and his home. Riches might come and go, but the love of this woman was worth far more than a king’s ransom.
“Shh,” he said as he stroked her back. “We will be together. Nothing will separate us now.”
“Promise me,” Elizabeth demanded.
“I promise to marry you, Elizabeth Bennet, if you will still have me with nought but a few hundred a year and no house.”
“I will have you for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or health, to love and to cherish until death us do part.”
Darcy inhaled sharply to hear Elizabeth repeat part of their marriage vows already. “Did you forget obey?” He smiled down at her.
“Did I?” Elizabeth laughed.
Darcy joined her in laughter, the release of tension what he needed. When they had caught their breath, he lowered his forehead to lean against hers. “Lizzy. I do not deserve you.”
“Yes, you do. You deserve someone to love you no matter what life brings. Let me love you.”
For long moments, Darcy allowed Elizabeth to hold him in her embrace. His plans for the future had vanished. Even if he somehow regained Pemberley, nothing would be the same again. His reputation would never be the same. Georgiana would be all but ruined. Despite her hefty dowry, she would attract few suitors. Should he refuse to touch her funds? Darcy supposed he could take orders. Lady Catherine might have a living to grant him. He had the skills of a steward and might earn more but finding a rich enough gentleman to hire him could prove difficult. Darcy determined he need not find an answer tonight. The more significant concern would be to speak with his neighbours and hope they continued his charity plans even in his absence. He had borne much of the expense, but perhaps the others could divide the cost between them.
“What will you do next?” Elizabeth broke the silence, eventually.
“I am uncertain, and for once, I have determined that it is enough to survive.”
“We will do more than survive, William. We will live, and we will be happy.”
“We will,” Darcy promised and claimed her lips.
The next three months passed in degrees of headaches for Darcy. Fortunately, the Gardiner home was ready the day following the ball, and so they all removed at once. After a few weeks, Mr. Gardiner had to return to London and took Jane and Elizabeth with him. Bingley and Darcy followed, escorting the ladies to Longbourn. News of Darcy’s birth had spread even to Meryton, but for the most part, no one treated him differently in Hertfordshire. Mrs. Bennet seemed unsure if she should give him precedence over Bingley. Mrs. Phillips crassly told him her husband claimed to have never heard of a case such of his cousin’s being upheld and therefore they believed he would soon regain control of his estate. The next words out of her mouth had been to ask if he needed a new solicitor. Darcy managed a civil reply before Elizabeth rescued him from her aunt.
A relief to Darcy was that Georgiana had found friends who did not care about her status. She and Mrs. Annesley elected to stay with the Gardiners for a time before coming to Netherfield. Additionally, the educational and relief society committee Darcy had established for the poor and orphans of Derbyshire promised to continue their work. Many of the gentlemen went so far as to declare their anger at the injustice of effectively disinheriting Darcy and vowed to support him in any way in the future.
In London, Darcy found the news made little difference. The Foundlings, of course, never read the papers and did not care. At his club, most of the men continued to greet him. They no longer pandered to his interest or dropped hints of wishing him to marry their daughters, but he was approached by more than one man with sound investment opportunities.
About a month before the intended court date, his uncle, the Earl, summoned him to his London house. Darcy seldom had any contact with the man, preferring Richard’s company. When Darcy arrived, Lady Catherine was present as well.
“My boy, we have followed the gossip surrounding you,” the old earl said.
Darcy fought to roll his eyes. Yes, gossip is all his uncle would care about. “I hope it has not tarnished your name at all.”
“No,” the earl shook his head and tapped his cigar in a tray. “However, my sister has news which might be beneficial to you.”
Darcy turned his attention to his aunt.
“You could still marry Anne,” she opened with.
Darcy stood from his chair. “If this is all this meeting is about, then you will excuse me. I have made my choice. Neither Anne nor I have any desire to wed one another.”
“Catherine,” the earl glared at his sister. “Tell him. Sit, Fitzwilliam.”
Darcy waited for a nod from Lady Catherine that she indeed had something of importance to convey before retaking his seat.
“It should come as no surprise to you that I was your mother’s confidant.”
“I had supposed that is why Father did not allow me contact with her side of the family.”
“Yes,” her ladyship picked at lint on her gown. “And it happened at a house party at Rosings. Your father quite blamed me.”
“He did not go with her?”
The earl answered. “He was busy with the spring planting. Anne had missed the last Season with the birth of James. She was desperate to enjoy some of Town and accompanied my wife. She met him at our home, and they arranged to consummate their affair at Rosings over Easter.”
Darcy fought a wave of nausea and balled his fists. “Who?”
“The Earl of Stanhope,” Lady Catherine murmured.
“Your best friend,” Darcy asked the earl. Their friendship began at Eton. “Had she loved him all along? Why did she marry George Darcy?”
Lord Fitzwilliam looked to Lady Catherine. “No, they were never lovers before. There were as many years between them as there are between you and Georgiana. George courted her. One of many. But he charmed her, and she chose him. It was never love, but they were fond of each other. In the beginning,” she shrugged, “I think they thought it was enough to make them happy but soon their differences drove them apart.”
Darcy nodded. He had always suspected as much.
“That winter, she had been very depressed, and Stanhope offered her amusement. She had her heir…and well, I cannot think of a leading lady of the Ton who does not have a lover.”
“They must have been discreet,” Darcy said.
“Too discreet to prove for a divorce,” Lord Fitzwilliam agreed. “Not that George wanted one. I think…I think he always hoped they might work past their differences, find each other again. He would visit her and plead for her return. He thought when he took you in she might beg to return…but she disliked Pemberley too much. She was too stubborn for her own good.”
Darcy nodded. His mother had asked only one time to return and George Darcy must have wanted her to grovel. “And Georgiana’s father?”
Lady Catherine nodded. “Bernard and George looked enough alike that if any townspeople saw them, they would think she was with her husband. Although, she cared so little for anything after you left.”
“Did he seek her out? Seduce her?”
“He had gone at George’s urging to check the estate and visit with her. George could not bear to see her and be refused again.”
Lord Fitzwilliam leaned forward and looked Darcy earnestly in the eye. “Stanhope never married. He has no legal children. You could not have the earldom, without a special remainder, but you could have his estate and income. It rivals Pemberley.”
Darcy started. “Despite not having children, there must be some relative as the heir. I would not steal yet another man’s inheritance.”
“I told him you would say as much,” his lordship sighed. “He vowed to use his influence to help the case, then. He has offered his attorney.”
Darcy’s head pounded. A man who never took any interest in his life, who used his mother and disregarded any harm to her reputation, suddenly offered him a solution to his problems. He would try to be a father to him. Darcy stood so suddenly, his chair skidded backwards and fell over. “That will not be necessary. My apologies, I have another appointment.”
Fleeing his uncle’s house, Darcy rode hard back to Netherfield. George Darcy might never have been his father by blood. He might never have been terribly affectionate, but he had been there. He had taught Darcy how to manage Pemberley and how to balance books. He taught him how to ride a horse and helped him memorise the feel of every hill and dale of its estates. He modelled how to treat servants and tenants. George Darcy was not perfect, but Fitzwilliam Darcy would not be half the man he currently was without him, and now some other man wanted to mar his memory.
Arriving at Bingley’s house, the butler informed Darcy he had mail. Collecting his letters and retiring to his bedchamber to refresh himself, he flipped through the correspondence. His eyes landed on one he had not expected to see and held his breath.
September 25, 1812
Lincoln Inn, London
I am sure you never expected to see a letter from me. Before you ask, I promise I said nothing to your cousin. He did approach me, knowing some of your dislike for me, but I had nothing to offer him. I have a good position as a clerk and am diligently applying myself to the law, this time.
As a student of law, I wondered what burden of proof there could be verifying this former footman of Pemberley told the truth besides his own paper. It occurred to me that I still had my father’s papers from time as the steward. Nick Huggins was not employed at Pemberley until 1786, years after your birth. Before that, he was apprenticed at Mr. Chester Grant of Wolverhampton’s house. There was no previous acquaintance between the couples; your father found Huggins through an employment agency. I have enclosed the original documents of his hire and termination date as well as the letter from the employment agency.
I hope this might be enough to exonerate the accusations against your birth and restore you to Pemberley.
Darcy stared at the papers in his hand. Here it was and from Wickham of all people! Unable to contain his relief, Darcy sought out his family and friends. Elizabeth and Jane spent most days at Netherfield with Georgiana, and Darcy was lucky enough to find them in the drawing room with Bingley.
“You are back earlier than I expected,” Elizabeth said at his entrance with lines furrowing between her brows.
“I will explain it all to you later, but my arrival is quite timely.” He held out his papers and read the explanation.
“Is it true?” Georgiana asked. “Do you think it will be enough?”
“I do not know,” Darcy answered, “but it is enough to try.”
Bingley ordered a round of punch to celebrate the news. Elizabeth came to Darcy’s side and slipped her hand in his.
“I will love you no matter what,” she declared and leaned her head against his shoulder.
“I know,” Darcy squeezed her hand. “The same as I love you.”
The group played games and told stories to complete the festive atmosphere until Jane and Elizabeth had to return to Longbourn. Twenty years before, his mother had said he would never have love again but she had been entirely wrong. Once Darcy opened himself up to it, he could see all people who had come to mean something in his life, ranging from Mrs. Bennet with her prattle about lace and pin money to Bingley and his confidence in Darcy’s words of advice, to Elizabeth, the love of his life. There was no one way to love or be loved and protecting himself from the prospect of pain should that love ever be severed brought nothing but misery. Darcy went to bed that night, his future as uncertain as ever, and yet he rested easy with secure dreams knowing he could face anything with those he loved at his side.