“Very well,” Elizabeth said when they returned to one another. “I can agree to a compromise. There is no reason we cannot set a wedding date while we court. That is generally the way, is it not?”
She said it with a smile, but it did not reach her eyes. In them, Will saw she continued to guard herself. He did not expect immediate clemency and would probably think less of her if she did offer it, but nervousness rolled in his belly. There was an additional layer of reserve he had not seen in Elizabeth before.
“I would remind you, however, that you had said you would come yesterday and yet you did not.”
Will furrowed his brow. “I called at the usual hour and was informed none of you were at home.”
Elizabeth’s eyes flashed, turning green, and she sought out her mother. “I thought I heard a knock but why would Mama lie?”
“Do you mean you were home yesterday?”
“Yes,” Elizabeth nodded. “My sisters had wanted me to walk into town with them, but I refused.” She glanced away and chewed her bottom lip before continuing. “I waited for you.”
Will clenched his jaw. “I will speak with your Father about this. He made it perfectly plain that he desired me to openly show our attachment. It is not the first time I had thought your mother showed a dislike for me—why would she hate me?”
“I do not know,” Elizabeth shook her head. “You never met her before—she is much altered. When Sam was young, she fretted over him constantly. She would hint at marrying Jane and me young. Once the entail was broken, she no longer worried about suitors for us. However, she truly loved Sam as her own son. She mourned his death deeply. Her period of happiness was so short—I was only home to witness it for a fortnight, but I received many letters from her while at my Aunt and Uncle Gardiners and she seemed more carefree than I had ever seen her before.”
Turning the pieces of information Elizabeth had told him over in his mind, Will escorted her to Mr. Bennet.
“I am pleased to see you tonight,” Mr. Bennet smiled as Will bowed over Elizabeth’s hand.
“Thank you, sir. It seems I was not admitted when I attempted to call yesterday.”
“Pardon me?” Mr. Bennet’s smile slipped.
A young man approached Elizabeth and requested a dance. With an indulgent smile to Will, she returned to the dance floor.
“Let us find a quiet corner,” Mr. Bennet suggested.
Nodding his agreement, Will followed the older gentleman. Assured of some privacy, he spoke in hushed tones. “I called yesterday morning and was told the entire family was out of the house. Elizabeth says otherwise.”
Mr. Bennet exhaled, his shoulder slumping as he hung his head and slowly shook it back and forth. “Fanny. She means well. She truly does.”
“Do you know why she hates me, Sir?”
“A mother’s broken heart is to blame, I fear.”
“She faults me with Sam’s death. You know how I tried to save him—”
“Yes, I know, and I have informed her of it as well,” Mr. Bennet interjected with outstretched palms. “I think you might also know things about my son which do him no credit.”
“Harcourt,” Will frowned.
“Indeed,” Mr. Bennet nodded. “And I believe there was a matter with a young lady other than Miss Lucas.”
Will gulped. He had not known Sam’s parents knew a thing about either matter.
“She does not see it plainly because she would never wish to blame the young man she loved as her own blood.”
Meeting Mr. Bennet’s eyes, Will started. “She blames me for Sam’s choices? For falling in with Harcourt and his liaison with Lucy?”
“She has a bit of prejudice about the upper classes, but I am sure she will come to a right way of thinking when you have proven yourself as a doting suitor to her daughter.”
“That is why you wished for a courtship,” Will nodded in understanding.
“In part,” Mr. Bennet agreed.
“How does she even know?”
“Sam wrote to Miss Lucas and broke off the engagement. He had planned to marry Lucy after he returned from the holiday. Charlotte told Fanny.”
“I am sorry indeed that this has been a burden either you or your wife have faced. If knowing me—if any connection to me is to blame—”
“Calm yourself,” Mr. Bennet said. “I do not blame you. I was once a young man entranced by all the glittering things London had to offer as well. I regret that I had not done enough to raise him better. My own father had been so stern that when I came of age—well, I tried the opposite way as a parent. It seems I had no better luck.”
“Does Elizabeth know?” Will looked across the room. She smiled when she noticed him watching.
“No,” Bennet shook his head. “I could never bear to disappoint her regarding her brother. She would take it even worse than Mrs. Bennet. Miss Lucas has also kept it secret all these years.”
Will nodded. “I do not like keeping things from Elizabeth, but it is not my business to tell. I do not imagine the discussion will come up, at any rate.”
“Thank you.” Mr. Bennet paused while looking over the crowd, his eyes lingering upon his wife. “If my wife will take measures to bar you from my house, then I suppose I must come to you. I will visit tomorrow to discuss how a courtship might proceed with these…difficulties.”
Will nodded, thinking it odd the gentleman could not simply control his house and order his servants to admit him, but Elizabeth approached. Giving her all of his attention for the remainder of the evening, he chose to put aside the strangeness of the Bennet household.
The following morning, Mr. Bennet arrived at Netherfield before the usual calling hours.
“I see the father is as impertinent as the daughter,” Caroline remarked before his entry as they sat at the breakfast table.
“You will behave yourself around Mr. Bennet,” Charles glared at his sister.
Will mentally applauded his friend but turned his attention to Mr. Bennet. He limped in.
“Forgive me for arriving so early and unannounced,” he said between pants as he leaned against the door frame.
“You are unwell!” Charles said and jumped from his seat.
“I am very well,” Mr. Bennet answered. “It is my old injury acting up. The weather sets it off.”
Everyone’s eyes went to the windows. Clouds were present, but Will had not thought there was an impending storm. His injuries did not throb as they usually did. However, Mr. Bennet was much older than him.
“Caroline,” Charles said as he shifted one of Bennet’s arms around his shoulders, “call for a room to be set up. Will, your assistance, please.”
Before Charles had finished uttering the words, Will had begun his approach. Although Mr. Bennet verbally resisted, the two young men assisted him up the stairs.
“I do not wish to be a burden.”
“Nonsense,” Charles said. “You are most welcome to go lame at my house any time you choose.”
Bennet tipped his head back and roared with laughter. “I was out riding, and your house was nearer mine. Truly, a carriage would suffice.”
“To the father of Miss Bennet—I mean, Sam—I would never think of it. Besides, you said yourself, it will soon rain.” Charles frowned. “I wonder if we can send a note now if the apothecary can arrive before it begins.”
Mr. Bennet waved off the suggestion. “Mr. Jones is unnecessary. I have all the required potions and wraps at home, and Lizzy knows how to apply them. Meryton is closer, but we do not know if he will be in his office. If you must send for someone, send for Lizzy.”
“Of course, sir,” Charles said.
Will watched it all with growing curiosity. Now and then, when Charles’ head was turned away, Will thought he saw a smirk playing on Mr. Bennet’s lips. He had seen that expression a thousand times whenever Elizabeth attempted to hide her amusement at a situation. Did Mr. Bennet find Charles’ care entertaining or was there more at work? The gentleman had told Will he would call today and they would discuss how he might court Elizabeth with Mrs. Bennet’s disapproval.
“I will assist Mr. Bennet if you wish to send for Miss Elizabeth,” Will said to Charles once they reached the landing. “Use my carriage,” Will offered. “I had asked for it to be readied, so I might call at Longbourn.”
“An excellent thought,” Charles agreed and released the gentleman as Will braced for the increased weight.
Lumbering along, they, at last, arrived the chamber which had been hastily prepared. Dismissing the maid, who had just finished building a fire, Will settled Mr. Bennet into the bed.
“A handsome valet you make,” Mr. Bennet laughed as Will tugged on his boots.
“Forgive my stupidity in the profession,” Will chuckled. “Do you have a confession for me, sir?”
“What do you suspect me of doing?”
“My father once told me of the crafty young man he knew at school named Thomas Bennet. Is this part of a scheme or are you truly injured?”
“Where is Papa?” Elizabeth asked her mother and sisters in the drawing room.
“He is in his book room, of course,” Mrs. Bennet answered.
“I have just been in it was empty.” Elizabeth eyed her stepmother with suspicion. After discovering from Will last night that Mrs. Bennet had been keeping him from calling on her, Elizabeth had intended to speak with her father. The two gentlemen had talked last night, and she supposed they had come up with a solution. Nervousness gnawed at the pit of her stomach. She wanted Will to court her. She only wished for him to prove his worthiness. Despite her mother’s actions, Elizabeth did not think her mother had been the means that separated them years ago. For that matter, could she really separate them now? Her father ought to be the one to rule the house.
“Hill,” Mrs. Bennet cried the housekeeper entered. “Have you seen Mr. Bennet today?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Mrs. Hill nodded. “He left very early this morning and had called for his horse.”
“His horse!” Mrs. Bennet leaped from her chair and stared out the window, clutching at her throat. “Oh! That man! He will be caught in the rain and catch his death of a cold. And then what will become of us?”
“Mama,” Jane came to Mrs. Bennet’s side and embraced her. Leading her back to her chair, Jane spoke in soothing tones. “There is nothing to fear. Papa is healthy, and a bit of rain will do him no harm.”
“Oh, Hill!” Mrs. Bennet withdrew a handkerchief and sobbed into. “My salts! I need my salts!”
Elizabeth sighed as she watched her stepmother’s nerves and anxieties overtake her once more. The entail on the estate was long broken, and she may no longer need fear the hedgerows. However, Elizabeth supposed it only did a wife justice to fear the death of her husband. If anything happened Will…
Elizabeth shook her head to keep from pondering further calamity. Whatever was said between Will and her father would keep until they could discuss the matter. They had waited five years. What was a few more days? The next several hours were spent in soothing Mrs. Bennet and reassuring her that Longbourn would be in good hands if anything happened to Mr. Bennet. Mrs. Bennet did not understand everything in the will or what would happen to an estate with no heir.
Just before nuncheon and a servant from Netherfield arrived with a missive addressed Elizabeth. She did not recognize the writing. Indeed, it had blots and was nothing like Will’s neat script.
“Oh! Father has hurt himself, but it is nothing serious,” Elizabeth said while placing a hand on her stepmother’s arm. “They worry there is not enough time to send for Mr. Jones before it begins to rain. In any case, Papa refuses to allow for him to be sent for anyway. He has asked for me, and Mr. Bingley has sent a carriage.”
Immediately, Mrs. Bennet tensed and ceased her moaning. She sat up in her bed. “No, Miss Lizzy. I will not let you go to that—that place! Why your father would go there for help, I do not know.”
“Do you mean you have a problem with Netherfield or its residents?” Elizabeth asked.
She met Jane’s eyes and wordlessly asked her elder sister to shoo the other girls from the room. Fifteen-year-old Kitty and thirteen-year-old Lydia did not want to leave, but Elizabeth would not have them gossiping about Mr. Bingley or Will. Once they were alone, she pressed her step-mother again.
“Mr. Bingley seems nice enough. I never heard any harm from him. That Mr. Darcy though…”
“What do you mean?” Elizabeth’s eyes flashed in anger. Fanny Bennet had never met Will and had only heard of him through Sam, who could never say anything against his friend.
“He thinks he is so high and mighty. My sister Gardiner told me about the Darcys of Pemberley. She grew up near the estate and was so pleased to hear that Sam had befriended the young heir.” She shook her head. “You do not understand their world and the trappings of high society. All you could ever mean to him was a tryst.”
“You did not think I knew?” Mrs. Bennet peered at Elizabeth. “A mother knows when her daughter is heartbroken. Did he promise he would come for you? Did he promise to write to you?”
Elizabeth’s mouth went dry. She had thought she suffered alone and invisibly all these years.
“I will not allow him to hurt you again.” Mrs. Bennet raised a hand and lovingly cupped Elizabeth’s cheek. “I made a promise when I married your father that his children would be my own. I know I am not the sort of mother you wanted. I am not clever enough for you—I fret too much, but a mother does what she must.”
“What do you mean?” Elizabeth asked as tears streamed from her eyes. “What have you done?” Had she been the one to take Will’s letters?
“Only what I must. I will not permit him to even cast a shadow in my drawing room. I have told Hill to stop him at the door.”
Elizabeth exhaled a long breath and relief swept through her. “Is that all?”
Mrs. Bennet nodded. “It is all I can do. I cannot keep you in the house—I know I cannot even keep you from your father, but I beg you to not go. Do not trust him again.”
After several false starts, Elizabeth managed to speak in halting tones. “Mr. Darcy has apologised—that is you are correct, I did care—we are—he is not what you suppose.”
Ceasing and inhaling deeply, she forced herself to collect her thoughts. Briefly, she explained that she had admired Will when they first met and she had expected him to call after his holiday. Additionally, she explained there had been a misunderstanding, that Will, naturally, had many requirements of him after inheriting at such a young age. Elizabeth attempted to stress—and found she really felt it herself—that she forgave him and understood his reasons for not visiting. When she had finished, Mrs. Bennet patted her hand.
“My dear, I understand that you want, very much, to believe in this man but how can you? Must you be like Charlotte Lucas? I had thought you cleverer than that.”
“Charlotte?” Elizabeth raised her brows. “How would my attachment to Mr. Darcy be like Charlotte mourning Sam?”
Mrs. Bennet sighed and looked out the window once more. “Nothing I say will keep you here, will it?”
Elizabeth shook her head.
“Then be off with you before it rains. Tend to your father and your heart.”
Elizabeth pressed a kiss to her mother’s forehead before leaving her chamber. Conferring with Mrs. Hill, and saying goodbye to Jane, Elizabeth was in a carriage bound for Netherfield within a quarter of an hour.
She arrived an hour later, sopping wet from head to foot and oozing mud from her half-boots and petticoat. Caroline and Louisa gasped at her appearance while Mr. Bingley immediately called for a blanket.
“Good God!” cried Will. “What has happened?”
“The rain began, but we were so close to Netherfield that we pushed on. The carriage slipped in the mud.”
“Surely our coachman would have offered to ride ahead for assistance, and you could have stayed in the coach,” Caroline said before pulling her lips back in disgust.
“Come, this way,” Mr. Bingley said and motioned to the stairs. “We have your father settled, and you may have the room next to his. I do not think there is any chance you may return to Longbourn today.”
Will stepped forward and offered his arm.
Caroline gasped. “Surely you do not want her to touch you when she is so…so filthy!”
Elizabeth shivered, and Will placed her hand on his arm. “Step aside, Miss Bingley. Can you not see your guest is in need of a warm room and dry clothes?”
Leaving the woman and her gaping mouth behind, Will led through the halls. Dropping his voice, he asked her, “Are you well, Elizabeth?”
“I will be. Do not fear for me. How is my father?”