Well, lots of questions from the last time! This chapter will illuminate a few things. Hang on to your bonnets!
Previous chapters: Chapter One
October 15, 1811
Elizabeth Bennet hugged her wrap closer to herself as she stood over the marker. It did not stand alone, but she always felt it impossible to mourn the mother and elder sister she never knew.
Her eyes drifted over the inscriptions and lingered on the most recent addition to the family cemetery. “Oh, Sam!” Elizabeth cried out and fell into a heap.
After Thomas Bennet’s first wife and eldest daughter died of an illness, he remarried. Instead of a gentlewoman, he chose the daughter of his solicitor. Although Fanny Bennet desperately wished to give her husband a spare heir, she brought only three more daughters into the world. All hope of breaking the entailment on Longbourn had rested on Sam.
Despite the occasional nervous flutters of Mrs. Bennet, Sam came of age without harm and broke the entail thus securing the fates of his five sisters. The same spring, he planned to tour Ireland and Scotland with several of his friends from university. The same spring he died in a fire at an inn which forever altered four families.
Five years had passed, and it sometimes felt to Elizabeth she was the only one to grieve the loss of her beloved brother. Even Sam’s betrothed, Charlotte Lucas, had found contentment with the situation. In fact, Elizabeth’s once-upon-a-time betrothed had apparently moved on as well.
Sam’s best friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy, had proposed to Elizabeth shortly after they first met. With little more than a promise to court her at Longbourn, he left for a holiday with Sam and others. For weeks, Elizabeth waited to receive a letter from Will. Sam had written several times but there was not even a line about Will passing his greetings to her.
Then, one morning a messenger came with news of the fire. News that her brother had died and her father gravely injured, Elizabeth desired the support of her betrothed. Will never arrived at Longbourn, and as their engagement had been a secret to all but Jane, Elizabeth had no choice but to conceal her emotions.
Elizabeth shook herself from memories of her foolish youth. Today would have been Sam’s six and twentieth birthday. He likely would have been a father to children of his own by now. Instead of mourning her brother, Elizabeth had been ordered to attend the local Assembly this evening. How could she enjoy dancing and gaiety when her brother was gone?
Elizabeth felt the familiar touch of her father’s hand on her shoulder.
“Here child.” Mr. Bennet placed another wrap around her. “It is growing late. Your mother will be upset to learn you have been out here crying so long. She expects you to enjoy this evening.” His voice took on a mildly amused tone. “I believe you will enjoy meeting the new arrivals to the area.”
Elizabeth finally looked up at her father. “The gentleman that leased Netherfield?”
“Yes, he will be there, and he brings family and friends.”
Elizabeth smiled through her tears. “It will be amusing to observe them. Can you imagine what Sam would say?”
“Yes, yes my dear. Now, dry your eyes.” He handed her a handkerchief.
“I am sorry Papa. Only sometimes it feels as though no one else cares. He was so young. It is so unfair!”
“I know you wish you could find some cause or meaning for the fire but we cannot understand the Lord’s ways.” Mr. Bennet squeezed Elizabeth’s shoulder. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. We should remember with pleasure the time we had with Sam, as I must think the same of your departed sister and mother. It will not do to dwell on what might have been.” Mr. Bennet winced as he stood from his crouched position.
“Does it still hurt, Father?”
Mr. Bennet looked up at the sky. “I believe it might get worse as I continue to age, and you know how the weather affects it. However, time heals all wounds though some take longer than others. Come along, dear.”
He held out his hand to help his daughter, but she managed on her own. Casting a last look at her brother’s marker, Elizabeth sighed and walked home on her father’s arm.
Inevitably, Charles was delayed in taking his house. His sisters could not miss a particular event in Town, and rather than arrive in Meryton on the proposed date, they were one day later. In fact, Charles’ sisters made such a fuss about going at all that they barely had time to refresh themselves before leaving for the local assembly to which Charles had promised to go.
The carriage ride from Netherfield to the Meryton Assembly hall was unusually tense. Will could not forget this day was his best friend’s birthday. Sam had been a God-send to him at Eton. Will was delayed a year in being sent to school by his mother’s death. He could have started in the second term of the usual year, but by then George Will had decided to send his godson, George Wickham, to school as well.
In addition to mourning the loss of his dear friend, with reminders of the loss of his father which occurred on the same day—losses he firmly believed he could have prevented—he was disturbed by the mixed feelings of fear, nervousness, and elation at seeing her again.
Miss Elizabeth Bennet had never seemed far from his thoughts in the last five years. In the time since they last met, Will became master of his ancestral home. He was too busy to make new friends or meet new ladies. Nor did he want to. In his heart, he still considered them betrothed, even if she never replied to any of his letters. Any time he considered courting another lady, it felt like a betrayal to the one he had vowed to love forever.
However, if Sam and his father had lived, Will believed he would not have become so unsocial and taciturn. He had little time to socialize until the last year or two, and no lady he met could compare to the interactions he had with Elizabeth Bennet.
Disgusted at himself for carrying a tendre for a slip of a girl he met a handful of times half a decade ago, Will shifted in his seat. His father and Sam had attempted to tell him. One week of acquaintance was too short for it to be love. Wickham had enlightened Will to the truth—even if he was a devious cad—and Elizabeth’s own actions proved her cold heart. However, Will’s heart beat wildly just the same, and he prayed his leg would allow him at least one set with her. He needed to prove, to both of them, that they could meet as indifferent acquaintances.
The Netherfield party arrived at the Assembly Hall, and Charles quickly introduced them to Sir William Lucas. That talkative gentleman happily brought them to his family and Charles secured the first dance with Miss Lucas, Sam’s former betrothed. Mr. Bennet soon reacquainted himself with the party and introduced them to his family. Will immediately noticed Elizabeth was not in attendance and again was frustrated at the ridiculous deflated feeling of his heart. Pull it together, man!
Will had chatted with Mr. Bennet for a few minutes before his wife, who glared at Will, pulled him away. As Will did not know anyone else in the room, he circled about. A few times, he was spoken to, and he answered in the barest civility. His mind refused to concentrate on anything but seeking the room for a pair of particularly fine eyes.
During the second dance, between sets, Charles approached Will. If he were in a better frame of mind, Will would have noticed Charles’ sincere concern for his friend as he left Miss Bennet’s side.
“Come, Will,” said Charles, “I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance.”
“I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this, it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is only one other woman whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.” It was the closest Will had come to admitting his continued admiration of Elizabeth Bennet to his friend. By unspoken agreement, they had never again mentioned their attachment to the Bennet sisters since the day of the fire; until Charles sent a letter stating he leased a house not three miles from their estate, that is.
“But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you.”
Fearing that the young lady had heard Charles, Will drew in closer. “I am in no humour at present to give consequence to any lady save her. She appears to not be in attendance. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles for you are wasting your time with me.”
Mr. Charles followed his advice. Will walked off, as did the lady Charles mentioned. Will watched her go, fearful she had overheard the whole thing and was upset. It really was bad form of Charles to act so. Will caught his breath when the line parted and allowed him to see who the lady was speaking with. Elizabeth!
She looked at him, and he could see her eyes turn the vibrant shade of green he recalled from five years before. No other lady had ever captivated him the way she had. Elizabeth returned her focus to the younger lady. A third woman, who Will recognized as Sam’s former betrothed, talked with them. The ladies passionately discussed something. Finally, Elizabeth straightened her back and met his eyes again. Then she walked toward him like a goddess on the warpath. Will did not care at all that he had earned her ire. He was old friends with it and could not say that he did not appreciate the view as her eyes snapped with fire and her anger added a flush to her cheeks. Once, he had, briefly, felt that loyalty directed toward him. What he would give to feel it again.
“Mr. Darcy,” she boldly said when she came near enough. Then she descended into a very proper curtsy.
“Miss Elizabeth,” he replied and bowed. “I regret I did not see you earlier.”
“And you might have minded your manners better?” she scoffed. “I see five years have not done you much good.”
Will smirked. “Thankfully, I cannot say the same to you.” He lowered his voice. “Five years have done you a great deal of good, Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth recoiled, and derision flashed in her eyes. Her reaction drew the notice of others. She raised her hand, but Will caught it. Tugging her toward the dance floor, he said loud enough for others to hear. “I am delighted to dance with an old friend.”
For half a moment, Will felt Elizabeth plant her feet firmly on the floor. Sweat beaded on the back of his neck. He had pushed his luck, and while most ladies would demur to his intention to cover the situation, he had never known how to read Elizabeth. She might just as well call him a cad to the general public as she might follow him to the dance floor. As much as he had fondly recalled their encounters and, admittedly, idealized them, he remembered that much about her. His heart stood still for several beats until she took another step forward.
“Oh, so it is old friends you wish to dance with?”
“I never was good at making new acquaintances.”
“I suppose it is much harder on you now,” Elizabeth said as they found their positions in the set.
“I will not say I do not feel my losses acutely, but I am sure it is nothing to your pain.”
Elizabeth, who had avoided his eyes, snapped her attention to him. She gazed at him for a long minute, and Will wondered if she attempted to ascertain the truth of his words. It seemed as though she peered into his soul.
“Thank you,” she finally said and nodded.
“I have not forgotten what today is,” he said before the dance separated them.
Elizabeth’s hand had a slight tremor to it when they returned, and her voice wavered as she said, “And yet it seemed as though you did forget about him as well as the rest of us entirely for the last five years.”
“Why would I send yet another letter after a fortnight of writing daily and having no answer?”
Elizabeth paled and nearly tripped.
“Forgive me,” Will said and squeezed her hand tightly. He did not wish to wound her. He had told himself he wanted to understand why she chose to toy with his heart when he did not believe her naturally cruel. After seeing Elizabeth again, it no longer mattered. He would forgive her of anything and only wished to win her affection in truth this time.
Elizabeth had remained quiet for a few moments but finally recovered, she observed, “I suppose the distance from London to Longbourn is so inconvenient one can only make it every five years. We were foolish to ever expect you.”
“I did not judge as I ought to have.” Will lowered his voice, “I could think only of my own pain.” Abiding the physical pain from his injuries in the fire to attend Sam’s funeral would have been a torment he gladly would have borne if he had not also known Elizabeth did not care for him. Seeing her weeping at her brother’s death and having no right to comfort her—knowing she never welcomed his attention—was more than he could bear at the time.
Elizabeth’s expression softened. “I suppose it is understandable if you are not in the most cordial mood today.”
“Thank you,” he murmured before they parted again. When rejoined, he ventured, “Perhaps this evening has displayed us both to least advantage and we ought to begin again.”
Elizabeth raised a brow. “What have I done that might damage anyone’s perception of me?”
Will matched her raised brow. “You have, once again, jumped to the least flattering conclusion about me. One might think you have not learned from the lessons of the past. One might believe you lacked character growth and maturity since our last meeting.”
Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed, but they were once more separated by the dance. “One might believe these things, or you believe them?”
“I speak only in generalities,” Will rushed to say. However, he could see his words did not appease the lady.
She stood across from him silently for several moments before pursing her lips. “Very well. I might have leapt to conclusions. I give you leave to exonerate yourself. Why would you not dance with my sister, Mary?”
The final steps of the dance brought them close. Tilting his head down, Will murmured, “Because I wished only to dance with you, Elizabeth.”
Well, what did you think of that?