As Will escorted Elizabeth back to the box, he was approached by several gentlemen. Some were fathers thrusting their daughters before him. Others were brothers attempting to unburden themselves the task of chaperoning a proper lady, no doubt in the interest of spending more time with the merry widows and the courtesans who frequented the theatre. All looked at Elizabeth with disdain, and very few asked for any introduction at all. The expressions of displeasure from the gentlemen were nothing compared to the scorn from the ladies.
Surprisingly, Elizabeth held her own. She returned jealousy with kindness, finding something to say to each lady who deigned to speak with her. Just before they reached the box, Will whispered to her.
“That is a very interesting and provocative smirk you are wearing Miss Bennet.”
“Is it?” Elizabeth’s smirk grew to a grin.
“Will you tell me what amuses you? Is it how you met with all those people with such equanimity?”
“Why should I worry for their approval or disapproval? I am the lady on the arm of Fitzwilliam Darcy. Their spiteful acts of jealousy did all the work of proving me the greater lady without my having to put forward any effort at all. Yes, I am quite pleased with the trouble they saved me.”
Will smiled as well until he saw Sam and a familiar, unwelcome figure from the corner of his eye. Reaching the box, he urged Elizabeth forward. “I will just be a moment.”
After she entered behind the curtain, Will moved to where Sam stood in the shadows arguing with who was supposed to be his former mistress.
“Sam, Miss Johnson, I hope I am not interrupting anything.”
“Lucy was just leaving,” Sam said with raised brows.
“Yes, pardon me,” Miss Lucinda Johnson nodded. “I tire too easily these days to enjoy a performance at the theatre. Good evening, Mr. Darcy, it was a pleasure to see you again. Sam…” She trailed off and then her eyes filled with tears. Miss Johnson cleared her throat then left without a backward glance.
“I know, I know,” Sam cut off Will’s words. “It is not fair to Charlotte.”
“No, it is not. You entered a betrothal with Miss Lucas and swore to give up Lucy.”
“I did,” Sam agreed. “However, denying my heart is not fair either.”
“It is too late for that now. You ought to have thought better before you proposed. I know you would never sacrifice your honor in such a way.” Will frowned at his friend. What could Sam be thinking about entertaining his former mistress in the theatre for all to see? His sisters could easily make mention of the situation to his betrothed. The Sam Bennet he had always known would never tarnish his honour in such a way or wound a lady.
“You are correct.”
“You do care for her,” Will reminded him. For most of their friendship, Sam had seemed enamored with his neighbour. His letter upon her accepting his hand in matrimony contained more effusions than Will had thought possible for one man to write. Last summer, he met Lucinda Johnson, and suddenly everything changed.
“But I love Lucy,” Sam sighed.
Sam rounded on his friend. “You question my affections? What do you know of love and romance?”
“I do not claim to know anything,” Will conceded. “However, you have known Miss Lucas your entire life. You did not rush into any arrangement with her.”
“It is a different thing entirely.”
“Lucy is carrying my child. I can never just be done with her.”
“A child?” Will’s voice carried louder than he had intended.
Sam’s eyes widened, but he looked over Will’s shoulder. “Lizzy?”
“Papa wants you,” Elizabeth said and turned away quickly.
“Blast,” Sam shook his head.
“What will you tell her?”
“Nothing,” Sam answered. “She is too young to know of these things.”
Will frowned. He would not do the same to Georgiana. “She is not as young as you would think.”
Sam assessed his friend. “You say this from your own thoughts about her?”
“She is more mature than I had envisioned, but she has also received attention from many of our Society.”
Sam dropped his new carefree facade and straightened to his full height. He looked Will square in the eye when few others could. “You disappeared with her for quite some time yesterday. Can I trust you with my sister?”
Will’s jaw tightened, and he measured his words. He had intended to speak with Sam about Harcourt’s attention to Elizabeth and inquire why he was so friendly with the man. Additionally, many others did take note of Elizabeth. The women and their matchmaking male relatives disliked her, but there was an appreciation in their gaze. Men across the lobby outright stared in approval. Sam may not have noticed, and Will may have been hesitant to admit it, but Elizabeth was full grown. Now was not the time for this conversation.
“Can I trust you with my sister?”
From the tone of Sam’s voice and his earnest gaze, Will assumed his longtime friend mistook the meaning of his silence. Affronted, Will returned the look and tone. “Of course.” As of this moment, Elizabeth was far safer with him than her brother. Even if Will could not forget the sparkle in her eyes, the feel of her hand on his arm, and wonder about the taste of her ruby lips.
“Do not forget it, then,” Sam said and pushed past Will to greet his father.
Will stood in silence for a moment. Years ago, he had lost a similarly gregarious friend. George Wickham had started displaying violent traits at Eton to fit in with the other boys. Sam seemed set for the same path. While his situation of gambling with Harcourt might be understandable in light of his impending fatherhood, Will believed Sam had begun a doomed course. Had Sam confided in his father? What would Will’s father do for a friend in such a scenario?
Laughter from the theatre galley* pulled Will’s mind to the present. Reluctantly, he returned to the box. Elizabeth turned her head upon hearing his entry and met his eyes then beamed. Feeling as though someone had punched him in the gut, Will attempted to breathe normally and shift his eyes from hers. She was such an unexpected mix of everything he had never known he wanted in life. Beside her, Sam whispered something in her ear. She immediately returned her attention to the stage, but Sam glared at Will. Pursuing Elizabeth would strain his friendship with Sam and countless others. He could hardly suppose his father would support the match. His noble relations, while they greeted the Bennets, always mentioned their high hopes for him. Lady Catherine would likely wage war on all of Meryton. Marrying anyone but her daughter would be an insult but marrying someone outside of the first tier of Society would send her prophesying doom for Pemberley and predicting his mother’s ardent disapproval had she lived.
Taking his seat, Will kept his eyes on the stage but hardly knew what passed upon it. The carriage ride home was no more comfortable as Bingley chatted happily and Sam moodily remained silent. Once home, the ladies went above stairs, and while the other men returned to the study for a nightcap, Will excused himself. Intending first to check on Georgiana, then to go to bed himself, he climbed the stairs to the appropriate floor and found Miss Graves weeping.
“Miss Graves, whatever is the matter?” he cried.
“Oh!” She turned her face from him but not before he saw a bruise forming on her cheek.
“Dear God! What has happened? Who struck you?”
“It is no matter. Forgive me for disturbing you.” She hastily stood but winced.
Will came to her side and offered his arm for her to lean on. “You have not disturbed me. Pray, allow me to call for Mrs. ___ or send for the physician. You are not well and should not be out of bed.”
“I ask that you do not fuss over me.”
“My father would—”
“And whatever you do please do not tell him a thing.”
“Madam, I could not count myself as a gentleman if I left a lady in your state.”
“I am only the governess. A servant. Forgettable and usually invisible.”
“You are a person and a Darcy employee. We do not allow mistreatment of our staff from ourselves let alone others. Tell me who has harmed you.”
Shaking her head, Miss Graves barely managed a whisper. “The master would never believe my word over his…”
Every muscle in Will’s body tensed. He immediately understood who she referenced. George Wickham was his father’s favorite and one so recently displayed before her.
“Fear not,” Will promised. “I will handle the entire thing. Allow me to assist you to your chamber.”
“You are too kind,” Miss Graves muttered but accepted his help.
“How was my sister today?” Will asked, hoping to fixate her thoughts on something pleasant.
“Miss Georgiana was in high spirits today, sir. She never gives me any trouble and is my most favourite charge that I have ever had.”
“Indeed? How many have you had?”
“Six. Each position has only lasted a few months. I had hoped this one would be a more suitable situation and came highly recommended to me from my last mistress.”
“I cannot imagine why a competent woman such as yourself is replaced so often.”
Miss Graves blushed. “It is not for me to say, sir.”
Will nearly missed a step on the stairs to understand she had been importuned so much. Were all men of his class so vile? “Do you wish for another position?”
“I do enjoy Miss Georgiana and have found Darcy House very comfortable until recently. If there were any way at all to remove certain recent additions to the household, then I would be most pleased to stay.”
“The gentlemen will be leaving for an extended holiday in a few days. During that time I hope to find a solution to your troubles. I trust the ladies have not been a source of anxiety.”
“No, indeed!” Miss Graves hastened to say. “The Miss Bennets always ask for permission before visiting Miss Darcy, and I can see their genuine affection for the girl.”
“The Miss Bennets visit my sister?”
“Yes, they have spent much of their mornings in the nursery. Miss Elizabeth, especially, is partial to Miss Darcy. I believe she misses her sisters.”
“Yes, she has several near Georgiana’s age.”
They arrived at the nursery chamber, and Will stopped outside. “I wish you would allow me to assist you further.”
“There is no need, but I am truly thankful,” Miss Graves answered. “Please accept my thanks and unending admiration.”
Will began to refuse her thanks when he thought he heard a noise on the steps. However, looking over his shoulder, he saw nothing. “Sleep well, madam and please alert my valet should you require anything during the night.”
Bowing to her, he left for his chambers. Georgiana would already be asleep, and Miss Graves needed privacy to tend to her injuries. Despite the melancholy event, Will smiled as he considered Elizabeth’s obvious affection for his sister. What higher quality could he look for? While she might not meet his father’s preference for fortune or rank, he could not overlook her care for his most favourite child. Meditating on such a possibility, Will steadfastly pushed worries about Sam and George Wickham aside for the night.
The following morning, Will arose and met his father in his study. For as long as Will could remember, George Darcy began work before breaking his fast. He dedicated two or three hours to business before greeting friends or family. Although in his early fifties, he had the energy of men half his age.
Will knocked on the door and was bade to enter. His father did not look up. “Father, may I speak with you on a most disturbing subject?”
Mr. Darcy returned his pen to the ink pot and folded his hands on his desk, giving his son all of his attention. “There must be some urgency behind this topic.”
“Indeed, there is. Last night, I found Miss Graves sobbing on the stairs outside the nursery. A bruise was forming on her cheek, and I believe she had been accosted and assaulted by George.”
The older man clenched his jaw and gave his son a sharp look. “Do you have proof of this? Did she accuse him?”
“No. She did not want me meddling and did not wish to name her attacker.”
“Then perhaps you had better listen to her.”
“Sir! How can you say that when you have a daughter? At this very moment, you have a house full of ladies that might be his next target.”
“You have no proof Wickham was behind the incident. Think about it son. Do you think a young man who has been raised nearly as a brother to yourself, who comes from such good stock and reared with all the bounty Pemberley can offer is capable of such a thing? What would make him strike Miss Graves last night when he has never done such a thing before?” Mr. Darcy turned red and pounded his fists on his desk. “I have tolerated your dislike of him long enough.”
“You are mistaken, sir, if you believe there have been no similar incidents. Why else have you had so many governesses for Georgiana?”
Will’s father scoffed. “Mrs. ___ always claimed they had found another position they enjoyed better. More pay, time in London, holidays with the families. Not everyone is suited to our lifestyle. Additionally, they all left months after George had last been in their company and I never saw a sign of injury upon them.”
“I think it likely that Miss Graves is the first to refuse his attempts at seduction.”
“Come, Will, that is beneath you. George is a handsome lad with charm and money enough that he would not need to resort to seducing my staff for his sport. Besides, he has too much honour. Every gentleman knows never to touch a servant.” He picked up his quill and returned his attention to his letter once more. “Just as they know a friend’s sister is off limits. Therefore I have no reason to worry about either you or George.”
Will took a step back, feeling as though he had been punched in the gut. His father knew of his attraction to Elizabeth? Evidently, he also disapproved and hoped to remind him of the code of honour among gentlemen.
“Now, if you do not have proof or anything else to say, leave me to my work. This holiday is planned for you and your friends—even old ones you no longer find pleasing—and I must finish before we can leave.”
“Yes, sir,” Will said and bowed.
Throughout the morning, he went through the motions. He read for a short while in the library until he heard others on the steps and joined them for breakfast. Elizabeth refused to meet his eyes and Sam seemed less jovial than usual. By the time the young people adjourned to the drawing room, a headache burned behind Will’s eyes.
“How terribly droll this morning is,” Caroline observed. “Louisa and I were just saying how bored we are.”
“Oh, yes,” Louisa agreed and nodded. “We were.”
Will internally rolled his eyes. How was it the elder sister did nothing but parrot the younger?
“A game of billiards would be enjoyable,” Bingley suggested.
Caroline threw a hand to her throat. “Billiards? Oh, we ladies could not possibly play!”
Out of the corner of his eye, Will saw Elizabeth smirk.
“I am sure we could all do nearly anything gentlemen do, although not with the same degree of accomplishment. However, the same is true even amongst our own sex.”
Caroline narrowed her eyes. “Yes, you are correct, Eliza. Some ladies are far more accomplished than others.”
Not this again. “I propose a game of Sardines.”
Each head swung in Will’s direction.
“You want to play Sardines,” Richard slowly said.
Will was unsure why he suggested it except it would require the others to be quiet and if he were lucky, he could be the first to hide and therefore have solitude. He hated the powerless feeling he had as he had attempted to help Miss Graves. Additionally, Sam seemed to be in no mood to cheer him up, and Elizabeth seemed to have taken a sudden dislike of him. He needed privacy to sort out his thoughts. “I will hide first.”
“Now, wait a moment,” Bingley said. “You will know all the best places to hide. “That’s not fair.”
Sam nodded. “All of us men will know. Let one of the ladies go first.”
“I should like to try,” Elizabeth said with a twinkle in her eyes.
“You would,” Caroline muttered not nearly quiet enough.
Elizabeth continued as though she had not heard. “I am exceptionally good at hiding. It is one of my many accomplishments.”
Caroline glared at Elizabeth, but the others agreed to let her hide first. While Elizabeth wandered off, Will wondered how he could manage to look without being caught with the Miss Bingleys following his every move.
“I think we should say every person is to search without help.”
“That is not the traditional way to play,” Richard observed.
“We are no longer children,” Will shrugged.
“Some of us are,” Caroline chirped.
“Would you rather visit Georgiana in the Nursery?” Will asked.
Caroline’s grin vanished, and she paled.
Sam held out his watch. The others made small talk while they waited for the time to search for Elizabeth. Will considered unfairly breaking the rules. Yes, he did know the hiding areas in the house. Rather than search for Elizabeth, he would hide.
At the appointed time, the group dispersed and went in different directions. Will entered the library and shut the door behind himself. He walked directly to the wall between the library and his father’s dressing room. Near the entrance to the next chamber, there was a hidden latch which opened the end of the ornate bookcase. It would be just deep enough for one or two people…or had been when he was a child. Now, it would be considerably cramped, but he would bear it to have a few minutes away from Caroline and Louisa Bingley.
He opened it up and heard a feminine gasp. At the same time, there was a sound near the library door. Small hands gripped him by the lapel and pulled him inside the cupboard. The door clicked shut just as the other opened. As Will’s eyes adjusted to the dark, he could see Elizabeth’s shocked face. Not that he needed to see her to know it was her. One, she was supposed to be hiding. Two, her scent filled the place. Her lavender fragrance relaxed him and soothed his aching head.
“What are you doing here?” she whispered.
“Hiding,” he answered.
“I did not expect you to locate this place. It is hardly large enough for the game.” Each additional person who found Elizabeth would need to enter the cupboard. As it was, their backs were pressed against the walls, and only the merest distance stood between their bodies. Elizabeth must have been as uncomfortable as Will because she could not stop fidgeting.
“I did not expect to be found. However, you were supposed to be searching. Confess it. You were cheating at the game to avoid the others.”
Will arched a brow as perspiration began to roll down his back. The little cupboard trapped the summer heat and the heat of their bodies only added to it. “It is my home. I may go where I choose.”
“And slight your guests?”
Will avoided her question. “Why did you choose this place to hide? Why did you offer yourself as the first to play if you did not want to avoid the others?”
“You suggested the game first. You—”
“Quiet,” Will hissed. He heard footsteps approach. Elizabeth fidgeted and knocked her elbow into him. “Be still!”
“I can’t help it,” she sighed. “You’re so large! So tall and so broad!” Elizabeth’s breath quickened. “It’s so hot.”
Unable to raise his hand to cover her mouth, Will silenced her the only way he could. He leaned down and placed his lips on hers.
Instantly, arousal shot through his body. He had never known the primal urge now coursing in his body. Elizabeth melted against him, her mouth meeting his even as he began to demand hot kisses. Pressing his tongue against her lips, he slid into the cavern of her mouth. His eyes rolled in the back of his head at the sweet taste of her. Chocolate from her breakfast. It was good he could not move, he could not take her in his arms. He could not press her against the wall and have his hand run over her flesh or lift up her skirt.
Will’s lips left hers, desperate for the taste of her skin. Elizabeth moaned, bringing some of his mind back to the present. Still, he trailed down her neck, pressing kisses on the sensitive flesh until he found her pulse point and could feel her heart’s rapid beats for him. Elizabeth shuddered against him, and he dropped his head to her shoulder.
“Elizabeth,” Will rasped as both of their chests rose and fell in quick spurts. “You drive me out of my mind.”
Elizabeth stiffened. “Get out.”
Will brought his head up and tried to meet her eyes but she turned her head. He could see the scarlet red of one flushed cheek.
“Forgive me,” he whispered. “A terrible lapse of judgement…I should never have…”
“Get out,” she said, but her voice wavered.
Dear God, he had made her cry. His first real kiss with a woman reduced her to tears. Peeking out the cupboard door, he exited without a backward glance.