After Will left, Elizabeth remained in the cupboard alone for nearly an hour. Grateful for the solitude, Elizabeth attempted to push aside her intense attraction to Will in light of what she had seen last night.
Elizabeth had visited the nursery to say goodnight to Georgiana but found her asleep. The girl reminded Elizabeth of her younger siblings so very much, and she had not anticipated missing them. However, it was her first time away from home, and she had soon learned that while the girls could be bothersome, there was great comfort in their familiarity. Staying only for a few moments, Elizabeth had taken only a few steps from the nursery when she heard hushed voices on the steps. It did not take long for her to recognize the voices of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Miss Graves.
Hiding around a corner so she would not be seen, Elizabeth could not make out their words. Instead, she saw Miss Graves crying and Will leading her to her chamber. Elizabeth knew enough that no gentleman should be near a lady’s door. At the theatre, it was clear Sam, and possibly Will too, had some private liaison with the raven-haired beauty. Next, Elizabeth sees Will with his sister’s governess.
While they had not started their friendship on the best foot, Elizabeth had thought Will began to have a tendre for her. He declared as much. Now, it seemed he did nothing more than play with her while he paid his attentions on other women. Although sheltered in the ways of men, Elizabeth understood there were some ladies considered unmarriageable. She knew men often spent time with the ladies and received physical pleasure from them. The woman at the theatre indeed seemed like one, and the heir of Pemberley could never marry his sister’s governess.
Elizabeth’s heart sank as she reconsidered Will’s words from the theatre. She, too, was considered insufficient. Rather than avoid her, Will sought her out. Star-crossed lovers would be terrible enough, but the way he kissed her in the cupboard without a word regarding courtship must mean he had no respect for her.
Heat slapped Elizabeth’s cheeks, and blood rushed through her veins as her heart pounded. How foolish she had been! Why did she ever change her opinion of the young man? She had been charmed by his appearance and their common interests. Although she could find no fault with his behaviour as a brother, had she not witnessed proof of his father’s displeasure? Of Mr. Darcy, she had no reason to doubt. After all, her father trusted the man. As for general civility, Will immediately lacked the hospitality a host should offer his guests. If she needed further proof, she needed to look no further than he had earned the admiration of the Miss Bingleys.
For a moment, Elizabeth’s eyes welled with tears and shame threatened to strangle her heart. What a blow to her pride! She had not thought she would be so susceptible to such empty considerations with a suitor. His handsomeness and wealth had blinded her to the fact that he lacked the morality and character she needed for a husband.
When had she turned into a ninny that believed every gentleman she met was a prospective husband. When had she turned her thoughts to matrimony? She was only sixteen. However, one day, she would have to walk down the church’s aisle and face a man at the altar. She would vow to honor and obey. To herself, Elizabeth promised it would only be to a man she loved. Still, while she could not say all her examples of matrimony were ideal, in general, she had more examples of married ladies than spinsters, and of the two categories, the spinsters had always seemed the least happy and most pitiable.
Her step-mother’s words on putting Elizabeth out at the age of sixteen rushed through her memory. Suddenly, it felt as though a noose were tightening around Elizabeth’s neck. Her breath came fast, but still it seemed there was not enough air in her lungs. She had to escape this cupboard. She needed space!
No longer caring for the game and if anyone discovered her, she fled her hiding spot. There was a narrow staircase next to Mr. Darcy’s study, and Elizabeth raced up it until she nearly collided with Miss Graves.
“Miss Elizabeth!” the older lady caught Elizabeth by the elbows lest she fall down the stairs. “Good heavens!”
“Forgive me,” Elizabeth panted and moved to push past the governess.
“Pray, forgive the intrusion, but you seem unwell. You have been so kind to me, allow me to assist you.”
“It is nothing,” Elizabeth dissembled.
“What could make you run with such abandon and a wild look in your eye? Please, you may tell me. You are not alone in your troubles.”
“What do you mean?” Elizabeth asked. Did she care to hear how this woman also loved Will Darcy? At the weight of her thoughts, Elizabeth flushed then paled, and her legs buckled.
Miss Graves caught Elizabeth and brought her down to sit on the stairs. “I must insist now! Mr. Darcy would never forgive himself if he injured you as well.”
Elizabeth’s brow furrowed and for the first time, she noticed the bruise on Miss Graves’ cheek. Curls which usually framed her face were pushed behind her ear. “I am uninjured, but it appears you are not. Did he…” Tears streamed down Elizabeth’s face to consider the possibility that Will could abuse anyone. “Did he assault you? Did he force you?”
Miss Graves shook her head but would not speak.
“Please, I must know,” Elizabeth said as she laid a calming hand on the woman’s arm. “You had said I was not alone and offered assistance. Why do you not allow me to extend the same courtesy to you?”
A sob wrenched from Miss Graves’ mouth as a shudder wracked her body. “I will confide in you,” she muttered with a shaky breath.
Elizabeth wrapped her arms around the lady and rubbed her back soothingly, the same as she would for one of her sisters. After several minutes, Miss Graves gathered herself enough to speak.
“He did not force me, but he did not take no for an answer. He thought I would submit if injured. I do not know what might have happened to me if he had not heard the noise of an occupant in the nursery.”
Elizabeth flushed as she considered she must have been the cause for the interruption. “You must tell Mr. Darcy. Come, let us go to him at once.”
Miss Graves held back. “No, in my experience it is best to keep my head down. Master Will informs me that the men are to leave in a few days. He promised nothing, but he hopes to keep Wickham,” she spat the name, “from returning to the house.”
Elizabeth started at the information. Mr. Wickham assaulted the lady? What about Will outside of the governess’ chamber last night?
“I must only bear with the fear for a few more days. I have never been more afraid in my life but also never more hopeful. You must understand I have had to leave several positions due to the unseemly desires of men. They have never been violent before, but there was always the fear of a reoccurrence at the next situation.”
Miss Graves raised her shoulders and strength infused her frame. “I will soon be free of this concern, and I will fight to keep this position. I love Miss Darcy too much and have the greatest esteem for Mr. Darcy.”
“And Master Will?” The words escaped Elizabeth before she could help it.
“Master Will?” Miss Graves voice rose in pitch as her brow furrowed. “Well, I barely have said more than a few words to him. I do thank him for assisting me last night. He says he will help me, but I do not want to cause trouble between him and his father.”
“You told him what happened?”
Miss Graves nodded. “I was overwrought. When I came to my senses, I begged him to say nothing, but I do not know that he will.”
“Will Darcy will do whatever he pleases and deems best regardless of the desires of others,” Elizabeth observed wryly.
“I cannot condemn the gentleman for having a superior sense of honour and duty.”
Elizabeth slowly nodded. The woman had correctly summarized Will. His obstinacy could be annoying but came from the best of intentions. How unfairly she had accused and condemned* him!
“Forgive me,” Miss Graves said. “I fear I have made this entirely about me and it was you who needed assistance.”
“Do not apologise. I am entirely well, now. I only needed physical exertion and wanted to be away from all the finery of the public rooms.”
“You come from the country, do you not?”
Elizabeth nodded. “I live near a market town in Hertfordshire. I am used to long daily walks in solitude. I fear I do not thrive in proper drawing rooms and under the scrutiny of the most fashionable or rich.”
“You are young yet,” Miss Graves smiled at her. “You may find as you age that more of London and the fine life appeals to you.”
The sound of the door opening at the top of the stairs reminded them of their location. They cordially parted but as Elizabeth returned to her chamber, Miss Graves words of fear mixed with hope resounded in her ears. Such conflicting emotions could create great anxiety, and Elizabeth’s heart pounded in her ears as she acknowledged it must be the cause for her mental abuse of Will. She loved him and it both terrified and excited her.
After Will had left Elizabeth’s hiding place, he set out to find Wickham. The others would be disappointed he did not play the game with them, but it had never been his intention to do so. If his father would not see reason regarding his favourite, then perhaps Will could convince Wickham to leave Darcy House.
Will found him in the kitchen, trying to charm the cook into a sample of the evening’s meal. “George, I would speak with you.”
Will noticed the nearly imperceptible change in his long-ago friend’s countenance. Pure hatred emitted from his eyes and Will wondered what he had ever done to deserve such malice from the man he had once loved as a brother. The others saw no change in his demeanour, however, and Wickham kept up his usual charm. “Certainly.”
Will noted that Wickham avoided the issue of having to address him by name. As they were no longer boys or even friends, calling him by an informal name would be inappropriate given the difference in their stations. However, Wickham could never bear to say “sir” or “Master Fitzwilliam” as the servants, and his father did. Will could almost pity Wickham for the awkward situation. Mr. Darcy had thought he had done a kindness to his steward’s son by raising him with his heir, but all it did was raise Wickham’s expectations and taste for the fine things in life.
Wickham approached. Once out of the hearing of others, he raised his brows and spoke in a derisive tone. “Well?”
Will came in close to the other man. Towering over him by several inches, Wickham had to tilt his head back to meet his eyes. “I know what you have done,” Will said through clenched teeth. “You will not get away with it this time.”
“What is it that you think I have done? Do you have any proof?”
“You have assaulted Miss Graves. You have, at last, met a lady who will not succumb to your charm and abandon her reputation.”
“Oh, I see. You suppose I have harmed her.” Wickham smirked. “I am sorry to hear she has been injured. She is a pretty lass. However, did she name me? Were there witnesses?”
“Those are charming words and I daresay would better suit a man intended for court than the cloth.”
Wickham stroked his jaw. “It would certainly be more profitable, but I would hate to disappoint your dear father. I notice you did not answer my questions.”
Sick of Wickham’s games, Will grabbed him by the lapel, rejoicing when Wickham flinched. “Leave this house. I will provide a handsome sum for you to find your amusements this summer elsewhere. When I return from holiday, I will contact you with arrangements so you never need step foot in a Darcy residence again.”
Wickham pulled back and smoothed out his coat, seemingly unaffected by Will’s display. “I see you are feeling powerful and with deep pockets. Coming of age has given you freedom of money, it appears. However, we both know your father will not support you in any attempt of ousting me while he lives.”
Incensed, Will glowered. “Mind your words, George. One day I will be master of Pemberley, and I will have no charity for you.”
“What a sad day, indeed, that will be. I notice you seem to rejoice at the idea of your father’s demise. I would expect nothing less from an arrogant and pampered but disloyal cur such as you.”
“How dare you put words in my mouth? How dare you—”
“No! How dare you! Will, perhaps you might need to force ladies, but I have never needed to resort to such.” Wickham raised a brow. “On second thought, they would easily open their legs for your pocketbook. No, perhaps you ought to consider one of your friends residing here. I have heard rumours of Young Bennet running with a rough crowd in recent months.”
Momentarily silenced by the shred of truth in Wickham’s words, Will had no ready retort. A servant rounded the corner and hovered behind Wickham.
“Pardon me, the master desires Mr. Wickham for a game of billiards,” the servant said.
“Very good,” Wickham said and nodded at the servant. Without another word, he left Will in the hall.
Controlling the impulse to stalk after them and pull Wickham into his father’s study by the collar, Will clenched and unclenched his fists. When his breathing had returned to normal, he returned to the drawing room intending to ask the gentlemen to join him for a ride in the park. Upon his arrival, he was told Elizabeth felt ill and had taken to her chamber. Was she avoiding him?
Convinced that Elizabeth was upset after their encounter, Will bided his time until the others left to dress for dinner. What could he say to her? Never in his life had he given into his base impulses before. He had never hinted at his growing attraction to her. She was only sixteen. Most likely, Will had terrified her. He never said anything of courtship or marriage, and she must presume that he had no honorable intentions. The thought that he could in any way be similar to George Wickham disgusted him.
As Will dress for the evening. He considered his choices for the future. When he had spoken to his father. Earlier about Wickham, Mr. Darcy had noted that he had seen Wills admiration for Elizabeth. While Mr. Darcy did not support his son marrying his cousin, the older gentleman did have expectations for Will’s eventual bride. The average age of a gentleman marrying was closer to thirty. However, Will did not have that luxury. He was the only son of an old family and a large estate. He was expected to marry young and begin producing the next generation of Darcys to look after Pemberly. There was no entail on the state and therefore Georgianna could always inherit. However, Will know his father hoped for his son to inherit and sire another line for succession. Although Mr. Darcy was friends with Mr. Bennet, it appeared he did not approve of Elizabeth as a match for his son.
Duty and expectation were not unknown to Will. He had always striven to live up to his father’s expectations. Most would call him an ever-dutiful son. In recent months, however, Will, and his father’s relationship became strained due to George Wickham. It was evident to Will, that his father did not trust him regarding Wickham. The fact that his employees might be injured or harmed to a gun frustrated Will to the core. For many years now. He had seen vicious propensities and Wickham. At school, Will had been entirely powerless to protect others from Wickham. As for ladies, they always seem to be willing. When the time came for their eventual disenchantment with the cad, Will instructed the housekeeper to provide for them. As far as Will new, Miss Graves was the only one who refused Wickham what he wanted. Will would not be able to convince his father without her confession.
Also on Will’s mind was Wickham’s charge against Sam. While Will struggled with the new dynamics of his relationship with his father, Sam had been growing increasingly distant and finding new friends of a different crowd. Sam’s association with Lord Harcourt proved to Will, that his friend was in over his head. As much as Will was powerless against Wickham, so he was against Sam’s choices. The most he could do was attempt to explain the Sam the dangerous path he was now on.
Although Sam would not welcome Will’s, desire for courtship with his sister it would perhaps put them on some level ground. Will could not condone the notion of Sam breaking his engagement to his betrothed. However, Will, at last, understood the pull of one’s heart. He had been defenseless against his own heart. He had been taught to resist the seduction of ladies who desired his money and name. Elizabeth seemed entirely unaffected by both. If she esteemed and respected him, it was for his character and because they had become friends. The fire that sparked between them resided squarely on Wills shoulders. While Elizabeth did not pull back, she did not instigate their intimacy. Now that he had a taste of passion and happiness and could see it within his grasp, he could not let it go. Sam would fight Will on desiring his sister, however, in the end, Will hoped Sam could understand why he must follow his heart. To that end, Will knew he needed to support Sam in following his.
Determined to seek out his friend and let him know his growing attachment to Elizabeth, Will felt control of the situation again. Leaving his chamber, he hoped he would see Elizabeth before dinner. As he walked down the guest waiting, he saw her light figure.
“Elizabeth,” Will whispered.
Elizabeth paused and turned to see who called her name. Will reached for her hand and pulled her around the corner so they might have privacy. “Have you been avoiding me?”
“Do you think I have a reason to avoid you?”
“I had wanted to apologize for my behavior,” Will said. “I believe I scared you.”
“What was it that you believe frightened me?”
“If you do not wish to speak on it further, I will abide by your wishes. However, I wish you to know that I have come to feel very strongly for you.”
“As your friend’s sister?”
Will shook his head. “You mean more, so much more to me than that.” Will searched Elizabeth’s eyes. “I told you already that I lose my wits around you. The truth is I never want that to stop. You enrapture me. With you, I see the world in ways I have never seen before. You bring a lightness to my heart.”
A flush had crept up Elizabeth’s face during Wills impassioned speech. He could not resist the urge to stroke her cheek and touch her soft flesh. “I am falling in love with you Elizabeth Bennet. And I ought to have considered that you deserved better for your first kiss. “
Elizabeth’s flush deepened making Will grin as his deposition seemed correct. He had been the first man to ever kiss her. He vowed to himself, he would be her last.
Despite her embarrassment, Elizabeth met Wills eyes smiled. “How would you kiss me then?”
Will grinned. He came in closer to Elizabeth. Her back was to the wall and he placed one hand to the side of her head and leaned against the wall. His other hand still held her cheek. Wills with chest rapidly rose and fell, and her eyelashes fluttered in anticipation. “Like this! “
Softly, Will kissed her cheek and turned her head and kissed the other. He kissed her eyelids and felt her luscious flutter beneath his lips. He kissed her for head. The lowered his arm that had been against the wall and trailed it down her arm until it circled her waist. Pulling Elizabeth closer, he peered down at her. The image of her waiting, ready, desiring his kissed would imprint on his mind forever. When Will judge her impatient enough, he softly placed his lips over hers. The quiet sigh and feel of her smile against him in response, answered every question he had.
Elizabeth pressed her lips against Will’s in return. Together, they explored each other’s mouths for many minutes until, with a groan, Will trailed kisses down Elizabeth’s neck. Elizabeth’s head rolled backward, giving him greater access. Again, he could feel her rapid pulse and hear her breaths. What began as sweet exploration turned passionate. He now wrapped both arms around Elizabeth as she clung to his neck. Their bodies lined up with between them. His hands rubbed up and down her back, measuring her term waist and lingering on her hips. By instinct, he pulled them to his. Elizabeth gasped and Will stifled it with a deep kiss, his tongue sweeping into her hot mouth.
He was losing control in a hallway near her bedroom. An instinct he would rather not admit he had reminded him of all the beds nearby. The greater and more honorable part of Will recalled she was his best friend’s sister. A step sounded on the hallway and Will spring apart from Elizabeth.
Will turn to see the angry visage of his friend.