Rage coursed through Will’s body as the name fell from Elizabeth’s lips. He had been so careful to not mention him to her.
Elizabeth’s words drew him back to the present. Concern clouded her features. “Might we walk now?”
“Is there something you do not wish for my father to know?”
Will shook his head. “No, I will speak with him later. I know myself only too well on this subject. I can relay the facts coldly which I believe would wound you, or I might become overly-emotional. I do not know if it makes any sense to you.”
Elizabeth looked at him for a moment before nodding her head. “Sam and I once found a pup who had lost his mother. When we found him he was hurt but when we attempted to help him he gnashed his teeth. Sam bundled him up in his coat and carried him home. We thought to keep him in a pen so he would be safe but he only became more belligerent, attempting to bite anyone who came near him, even with food in hand. Finally, we believed he might do better on his own—his wound had healed. We opened the pen but he never left sight of us. That night, we left the door open and he willingly slept in there. The next morning, we visited again and instead of growls and angry barks, we were met with a wagging tail. He would follow Sam everywhere after that. We were both heartbroken when he went away to school.”
“I recall Sam talking of his pet. He does not still live does he?”
“No,” Elizabeth sighed sadly. “Jasper passed the autumn after Sam did.”
“I am sorry,” Will touched her hand. “It sounds as though he was a great comfort to you in the absence of your brother and then…”
“All is well,” Elizabeth answered. “I told the story to explain that I understand your feelings. Jasper was not a bad-natured animal. He only needed his freedom and space. Feeling caged heightened his anxieties.”
“That is it exactly,” he closed his eyes in relief at her perception and understanding. How had he ever been so fortunate as to meet her? “Shall we?”
Standing, Will asked for Mr. Bennet’s permission for the walk. Having received it, they set off.
“I have always regretted that you ever met Mr. Wickham,” Will began once they were some distance from the house. “He should never have been in a house full of ladies.”
“I know,” Elizabeth nodded and squeezed his arm.
“You know!” he repeated in amazement. “But how? Did he importune you? I ought to have killed him!”
“No, not me—” Elizabeth hastened to say and tugged on his arm to cease his movement. “Miss Graves told me she had explained it to you. I thought you knew.”
“She did indeed,” Will nodded, “but I did not know she had informed you as well.”
“It was…” Elizabeth sighed. “She found me distraught on the stairs and had assumed the worse.”
“Why were you upset?” Will cast his mind back to the week he had known Elizabeth. His memory was clouded by distance and through layers of regret, pain, and anger. He could barely recall any particulars but only knew that his heart could not deceive him. He had really loved Elizabeth.
“It was after we hid in the cupboard,” Elizabeth answered as she blushed.
Instantly, Will remembered the moment. She had sent him away after he kissed her senseless. He had believed at the time that she had believed he was ungentlemanly. She spent some time avoiding him, but when he came to her to apologise, she had nothing but sweet words and tempting looks for him. “Is she why you had calmed by the time I spoke with you next? What did she say?”
Elizabeth began walking again, nervous energy filling her. “I had built all sorts of ideas in my head. I had thought you only meant to use me—you said nothing about love or courtship, and at the theatre, you had said nothing could exist between us. She allowed me to see the differences between you and a vile abuser like Wickham.”
“I have always liked Miss Graves,” Will grinned for a moment. “She is Mrs. Annesley now—widowed to a footman we had at Darcy House. She has returned to her post as Georgiana’s governess.”
“Governess?” Elizabeth wondered. “Is she not getting quite old for that?”
“It was necessary,” Will bit out. “Come, let us sit here,” he motioned to a bench under a currently bare tree.
“Unbeknownst to me until only a few days ago, Wickham would often visit with Georgiana as a child. Even after my father died—no, I must explain matters first.”
Elizabeth listened patiently as Will paced before her and explained the situation of his father’s will. He had left a valuable living for Wickham but the young man refused all claim to it. He requested instead funds to study law—claiming that Will had given him the idea from one of their arguments—and Will had supposed that would be the end of his acquaintance with the man. Instead, like a bad cold, he came back again and again, abusing Will’s name far and wide whenever he denied him money.
“It seems while I was away from Pemberley, he would visit Georgiana. After Mrs. Annesley married, I decided to send her to a school in London. She has perceived this as me tearing her from her only friend—as she told me in today’s letter. Last summer, my cousin and I removed her from school and allowed her to travel to Ramsgate with a companion. It turns out this woman had a connection to Wickham, who arrived at Mrs. Younge’s invitation. There, he convinced Georgiana to an elopement, and it is only my unexpected arrival that put an end to the scheme.”
“An elopement!” Elizabeth cried. “And to such a man! Thank goodness you arrived in time to prevent it.”
“I saw the packed bags and confronted both her and Mrs. Younge, but the confession was most unwilling. I wrote to Wickham—he renounced all interest and intention in Georgiana, and so she blames me now for separating her from her lover.”
“How could she be so deceived in his character? How could she not believe you given your history?”
“I am afraid it is my fault,” Will said as anguish seized his heart. “I concealed the truth from her as I did not wish to wound her impression of our father. He was much to blame in permitting Wickham’s behavior. By now, you must suppose Mrs. Annesley was not the only Darcy servant to be importuned by him.” At Elizabeth’s nod, he continued, “I failed her.”
Shame gripped him. It ought to have been him to die in the fire. How many lives had he destroyed? Elizabeth’s, Georgiana’s, if he had been in his room, he might have saved Sam or his father. Mr. Bennet never would have been hurt. Instead, he selfishly drank himself near to oblivion at the tavern below.
“You did not.”
Elizabeth placed her hands on his cheeks, wiping away tears he did not realise had spilled from his eyes.
An anguished sob tore from his throat as he buried his face in her hair. “She was but fifteen—what did she know of the world? I was her only family—”
“I was only sixteen when we met and I never would have consented to an elopement. Do you remember? We discussed it.”
“I remember,” he gripped her tightly.
“And you never would have suggested it. Georgiana must face some responsibility for her choice, but most of it resides in the schemes of one man. How long have you blamed yourself for his every evil deed?”
Elizabeth’s words struck him. He had never realised before that was exactly what he had always done. “What would I do without you?”
“What did you do without me? You wrote in your letter—the one I was fortunate enough to receive—that you continued to write to me even after Sam died and all hope died. If you have kept them, I would like to read them.”
“It would do me no good in your view, I fear. I poured my anger out on the page.”
“Might I help heal those wounds? If I can understand the pain, I may better nurse them.”
“I burnt them all before coming to Hertfordshire. I had wanted to let go of the past. I never expected that you still loved me—I had convinced myself you never did. I wished only to prove that I no longer would be your fool.”
“I do not fully understand why you would believe that of me. If you recall, we did not talk very much a few days ago.”
“Oh, I remember,” he chuckled. “I would tell you of the sweetness of your lips,” he whispered in her ear, “but I do believe you said you would rather be shown love than told of it.”
Elizabeth whimpered and arched her neck as his lips inched down the column of her throat. “Yes, but I spoke of fidelity too.”
Will met her lips for one delicious moment, then pulled back. “And I will show you that as well.” He placed her hand on his arm, laughing as she returned from her daze. “I am capable of some restraint, although I do not think you can blame a man after desiring a woman for so many years and so sure he would never have her again to act as I did.”
Elizabeth agreed, and they meandered through the Netherfield gardens.
“I was a fool,” Will admitted. “Sam hinted a bit too strongly one evening about my being in love with you and Wickham heard. He taunted me for the entire trip. How would I know how to court a lady? I was too stupid to please one. She must only desire my money. I could only interest one as young and poor as you.” He shook his head. “I have little doubt that I appeared the epitome of an arrogant heir to you, but the truth was that I felt intensely insecure in my own value. I had often experienced friends who desired only to use me. Wickham is the primary example. He knew more than any other how a person could appear interested in me only to desire the Darcy name and wealth. He always knew how to make me feel most vulnerable. I do not know why I persisted in listening to him and believing him—I suppose I could not believe myself so worthy of deserving you. Can you ever forgive me for that?”
Elizabeth leaned her head against Will’s arm, and they walked in silence for a few moments. He dared not look at her face. The fact that she had not pushed him away was more than he had dared to hope for.
“I do not like that you were so easily deceived, but I do forgive you, and I can understand it. I had only my inner voice saying the same sorts of things about you.”
“Have you put those feelings to rest?” he asked as they arrived near the stable.
“I hope so,” Elizabeth answered honestly and sighed. “I suppose I will be going home soon.”
Just then, the coachman emerged. Wearing a stern face, he stomped in anger toward the house. Will called out to him.
“What is the matter?”
“Yesterday, we had supposed the carriage was stuck in the mud. I apologise, miss,” he glanced at Elizabeth, “for the dirty walk you faced in the rain.”
“As you see, I am no worse for the excursion.”
“You sound as though the problem was not the mud?” Will asked.
“The axle is broken. A nearly clean break.”
Dread knotted in Will’s stomach. “Do you suspect someone tampered with it?”
“One of our saws is missing,” he said. “I believe it must have been cut down so it might appear intact but very weak once in motion. If we had not been going so slow due to the rain, it would have been dangerous—perhaps deadly—when it broke.”
Will turned to Elizabeth, her face appearing as snow and her hands feeling like ice even through the thickness of his coat and her gloves.
“Who would do such a thing?” she asked in a trembling voice.
A terrified shudder wracked Elizabeth’s body while Will and his coachman stared at one another. An unspoken conversation occurred, and although Elizabeth could not say she shared in it, in the pit of her stomach, she knew the logical culprit.
“Come, dearest,” Will led her to a stool in the stable and withdrew a flask, pressing it into her hands.
Elizabeth murmured her thanks and took a few small sips until she felt warmth and vitality rush through her. No one could have known ahead of time that it would be Elizabeth who rode in Will’s carriage next. No, he was the target. She had little difficulty believing Wickham hated Will and was capable of evil—but to attempt murder? Even worse—did this mean he was here? Near Netherfield? Near Meryton? Her eyes scanned the trees as though she would see his menacing visage. How had she ever found him handsome? In her memory, now, he was akin to a monster.
“Let us walk back, we have much to discuss with your father,” Will said and assisted her in standing.
“What will you do?” Elizabeth asked Will as they approached the house.
“I will speak with your father and also Charles. I do not believe he or any of his family is a target, but they should be careful at any rate.” He pressed a kiss to her temple. “Fear not. You will be returned home safely.”
“It is not me that I worry for!” Elizabeth cried, bringing them to a stop. She threw herself into Will’s arms, clutching him tightly. “Why when we have just found one another again must this happen?”
Will whispered soothing words of love in her ear and rubbed her back until the spell of emotion passed. “We do not know that anything intentional happened. I know your intelligent mind. I know you can perceive what Davis and I did not say—but if he is to blame, then you can be sure he will not be showing his face again any time soon. He thrives on lulling me into a sense of security and is too clever to push his luck and be caught. I would hazard a guess even if we found proof that he had been here he is now far away.”
Elizabeth wiped her tears with the handkerchief Will offered and nodded. London was a very convenient distance, and he easily could hide there.
“I will write to my cousin and inquire about Wickham’s whereabouts, but if I know Wickham, he would much rather have me alive than dead. You cannot blackmail a dead man.”
Elizabeth was not at all proud of the fact that for a fleeting moment, amidst the gut-wrenching pain of imagining Will dead, she considered that his heir must be his sister. Would Georgiana want him dead so she might marry Wickham? Or would he put a plan into action without her knowledge to remove her guardian? Biting her tongue, Elizabeth chose not to voice her concerns. Will knew both far better than she did and if he did not entertain the possibility of them then more than likely she would only pain him with such wild possibilities.
Had she learned nothing in recent days? She should put her most fevered ideas behind her and not give into her imagination. There were no clues to lead to her recent thoughts. Good heavens! Was she turning into her step-mother?
Upon reaching the house, Mr. Bennet greeted them. “I am feeling much recovered, and your mother has sent a missive begging our return on the morrow. My cousin arrives the following day and she says the master of the house is required to be in residence.”
“Your cousin?” Will asked.
“He is the son of the man who was heir before Sam was born. We have never met Mr. Collins before, but he seems quite ridiculous.”
“Indeed,” her father laughed. “His letter contained more compliments to his patroness—a Lady Catherine de Bourgh, he mentioned as though I should know her name—than it did to my wife or daughters—of which there were many although he has never seen them.”
Will started at Mr. Bennet’s words. “Pardon me, did you say Lady Catherine de Bourgh?” Upon confirmation, Will looked between father and daughter, and said in an amazed one, “She is my mother’s sister. How came he to know her?”
“He did not say,” Mr. Bennet answered. “I had thought you might return with certain news you wished to share?” He glanced between Will and Elizabeth. “Will told me you would soon be selecting a wedding date?”
“Oh,” Elizabeth answered and looked at her feet. Yes, she had told Will she would compromise and settle a date but must she decide just now? Her stepmother must have opinions about such things and still as far as the rest of the world knew they had never spent much time together. They could not announce it right away.
“Unfortunately, we did not have a moment to discuss the date,” Will hastily intervened. “On that subject, I do request an audience with you but not on the topic of the wedding.”
“Certainly,” Mr. Bennet agreed and followed Will to the library.
Sighing, Elizabeth determined to join the others in the drawing room. Her mind could not focus on any of the conversations at hand. Caroline must have delighted in seeing what looked like evidence of her stupidity. Elizabeth’s mind worked again and again. Why would Wickham wish to kill Will? Was Wickham as harmless as Will believed?
Elizabeth and Will had no more opportunity to talk and the afternoon and evening were filled with Caroline’s insistence upon music and cards, gently scolding Will for writing letters when he had requested the music. Elizabeth stole glances at him during her time at the pianoforte. He rarely looked up from his page, but often his pen did not move as though he were lost in the music. A few times their eyes locked and Elizabeth almost believed then that love was a tangible thing. She could feel his caress with his eyes. His arms were around her once more and the safe, secure feeling she always felt in his presence filled her.
The following morning, Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth returned to Longbourn. After describing the house to her sisters and her mother, Elizabeth retreated to her room for solitude. A half hour later, she was not surprised when there was a knock at her door, and Jane entered.
“Are you very jealous of me for getting to spend time at Netherfield?” Elizabeth teased.
“I am very thankful that Papa recovered so quickly and you were there to help. Was it an agreeable visit?”
“Very agreeable,” Elizabeth beamed. “Will and I managed to have many conversations, and I think we understand one another much more now.”
“Do you trust him now? Do you have peace about the past?”
“I think I do,” Elizabeth nodded. “Now, I will tell you that Mr. Bingley asked about you several times a day and always seemed to work you into the conversation.”
“He did not,” Jane blushed. “Do not tease me so.”
“I am telling the utter truth!” Elizabeth grinned and hugged her sister. “Perhaps when I next visit the house you will be its mistress.” She could not contain a set of giggles as she used her best Fanny Bennet impression.
“Lizzy!” Jane pretended to scold but smiled at Elizabeth’s words.
Suddenly, Elizabeth sobered and squeezed her sister again. “Thank you for always being so selfless. I am sure you listened to me cry over Will far more than you ever wished.”
“I would say so! I would never wish for your heart to be broken.”
“I did not mean it in that way. I am certain if the positions were reversed, I would have lost patience with you in a matter of weeks.”
“No,” Jane shook her head. “You are my dearest friend and can be excessively protective. If the situations were reversed, you would have girded your loins and marched to London to demand explanation and retribution. I am weak compared to you.”
“Never say such a thing!” Elizabeth exclaimed. “Your strength is, perhaps, different than mine. It is quieter, but I see it and so must all who call you friend.”
Jane smiled, and the sisters sat in companionable solitude for a few moments until there was shouting from the hallway. “Lizzy! Jane!” Lydia yelled. “Mama says to come downstairs!”
Sharing a smile, they left their chamber and rejoined the family below.