Elizabeth listened with annoyance as Mr. Collins rambled on about his prestigious situation in life as a clergyman to a woman of a large estate in Kent. When he asked to walk in the garden, Elizabeth agreed only because she thought she could be more easily distracted outside.
“You can be at no loss to understand, Cousin Elizabeth, why I journeyed from Kent to meet you.”
Elizabeth, who walked next to him but had refused to take his hand, looked at him in confusion. “I could not decipher your reason from the letter you sent my father, sir. Additionally, I had thought you desired to meet all of the family. At the very least, I recall you mentioning a wish to know Jane as well.”
“Ah, but that was before I spoke with Lady Catherine.”
“I am afraid I do not follow.” He wanted a courtship, she presumed. He would not be the first to hear of her potential inheritance and desire one. She could even have a bit of sympathy for him as the estate might have been his if circumstances were different.
“It is true that I also considered Cousin Jane as the companion of my future life, but now, Lady Catherine and I are agreed it is best for you to marry me.”
“Pardon?” Elizabeth turned to walk toward the house. She would not be talked to in this way, and if he persisted, she would seek out her father.
“I have gotten ahead of myself, I see.”
He grabbed her hand and fell on one knee. Defiling her hand with a slobbery kiss, she yanked it away.
“Do not touch me!”
“Forgive me the liberty as a near-betrothed.”
“Sir! You have not asked, and I would never consent.”
“Make me the happiest of men, Miss Elizabeth?”
He reached for her hand once more and Elizabeth locked them behind her back. A blistering retort was on the tip of her tongue when he stood.
“You can expect no other offer, of course. You are already nearly one and twenty, and the area gentlemen must know, as I do, that you might one day inherit Longbourn. If they would not seek your hand, then you can have no reason to refuse me.”
“I do, indeed! I will not be bought by any fortune hunter. That Longbourn might have been yours is, perhaps, more pitiable but has no claims of duty on me. You must find your way in life as you already have.”
“May I remind you that if you hope that your sister’s husband would allow you to reside with them, it is by no means certain she will ever marry or that if she should that he would approve of your living at Longbourn.”
“You have been at Longbourn not even one day, and you have proposed to me—in a most offensive manner—as well as insulting the remainder of my family. My sister would never marry a gentleman who would not consider her wishes and the welfare of her family. Nor would my father consent to our betrothal if not for the obvious reasons of our lack of mutual temperaments than because of the shortness of our acquaintance.”
“Yes, I have heard that you enjoy a debate. Rail away, my dear, you will not bend my opinion.”
“This is not a debate! I cannot accept you. I must refuse!” Elizabeth stepped forward, and he blocked her path.
“I do not see why he would refuse me. We might have a long courtship—there is no rush for our union. In time, you will learn to love me.” He slipped a hand behind her back.
Elizabeth pushed him away and had to keep bile from rising in her throat. “I am promised to another and am not free to marry you or anyone save Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley now or ever!”
Tears sprang to Elizabeth’s eyes. She had never declared their engagement in such a way. When she had told Jane, it was after believing she had been abandoned.
Mr. Collins laughed. “Yes, Lady Catherine thought you might claim that. My dear, Elizabeth, it has been many years since he first promised to marry you and if you think he will now, you are much mistaken. I have it on the best authority that he has a pre-existing contract with Miss de Bourgh and of even longer standing than yours.” Seeing the tears streaming down her cheek, he came closer. “Come, now do not cry. A woman as mercenary as you can hardly have any tender feelings attached to him. He is very rich and very powerful. He must have a lady in every town he visits but it is Miss de Bourgh who will see him at the altar.”
Without conscious thought, Elizabeth shook her head although she remained speechless. If any sort of contract existed with Miss de Bourgh than Will would break it. She began to laugh as she considered Charlotte might be correct. Sam might have been influenced by Will when it came to breaking engagements after all. If it were formed before Will had ever met Elizabeth, then he could not have been of age. She would feel no guilt over being the woman that came between Will and a union forced upon him as a child by his parents.
“You are mistaken,” she said in a shaky voice due to the vehemence of her feelings. “I will thank you not to slander Mr. Darcy or, by extension, me with your false report. If you have any further questions regarding my betrothal, I will direct you to my father who knows it all.”
“Miss Elizabeth,” Collins reached for her hand once more.
Rather than be touched by him, Elizabeth raised her hand and slapped him in a resounding crack.
“You will regret that!” He cried, and turning red, pulled her by the shoulders close to his face.
Elizabeth struggled, but his grip tightened. She could feel bruises forming. Understanding his intent, she thrashed her head from side to side. Collins wrapped one arm tightly around her waist and used his free hand to wrench her face toward him. He gripped her cheeks and thrust her jaw forward.
“Unhand her!” Will boomed behind Collins’ shoulder.
In the next moment, Collins let go of Elizabeth as he was pulled by Will. Elizabeth fell backward then scrambled to sit up. Will had turned Collins to face him and punched him square in the jaw and then the gut.
“I should kill you for daring to touch my betrothed!”
“But you are engaged to Miss de Bourgh!” Collins sputtered through the blood oozing from his mouth. He stared up at Will through squinting and already bruising eyes.
“You lie!” Will punched again.
“Will!” Elizabeth pushed to her feet and rushed to his side, tugging at him to let go of the weaker man. “Will, I am unharmed.”
“Elizabeth,” he pulled her into a tight embrace and dropped his head to her shoulder. “I saw him touching you, and I went mad. It was too much—everything from today—from the past—I would not lose you again—what if you were considered compromised?”
Elizabeth laughed and sobbed at the same time, drenching his coat with her tears. “I would never marry him. Never. A very long time ago, I promised to marry only you. I would be ruined and perhaps sent away, but I would never give up on us.”
Will pulled back. “Do you believe me? He has lied! I am not engaged to anyone but you—I never was and never could be.”
“I know,” Elizabeth said and nestled against his chest. “I was hesitant, but I do trust you.”
“Will, Lizzy,” Mr. Bennet said, and they turned to face him. “Ahem, you are very intimately arranged for friends, and there seems to be a pummeled relation on my lawn.”
“Please, sir,” Will begged. “Announce the engagement. Your cousin,” he spat the word, “just importuned your daughter and attempted to spread a very damaging lie that I was already engaged.”
“Lizzy?” Mr. Bennet focused upon her.
“He wanted to marry me—I was more angry than scared. I finally told him I was not free to marry and he would not believe me.”
“Well, it seems that the engagement will be known,” Mr. Bennet said, as he observed the gathering crowd of his family and servants.
“Tell me why I should not call the magistrate on you,” he crouched down to peer at the bloodied Collins. “Just like your father—you believe you can take whatever you want!”
“Please, sir!” he pleaded. “I meant no offense.”
“The lady said no, repeatedly!” Will held Elizabeth tighter to him. “In the future, you should know that means she does not welcome you touching her.”
“It sounds like you were not thinking, at all,” Mr. Bennet said. “Pack your things. You are never welcome on my property again.”
Turning to face his daughter and her betrothed, he watched them for a moment. “I will direct the others inside and allow you a few minutes—but only for a few minutes.”
“Yes, Papa,” Elizabeth said even though she could not look away from the look in Will’s eyes.
“Are you certain you are well?” Will asked once they were alone. He pressed a kiss to her forehead.
“My shoulders are a little sore, but I will recover.”
“I am sorry that you heard such a thing,” he led her to a bench. “It is not true. Lady Catherine has wanted me to marry her daughter, but even my father was against the match. I am curious what precisely she said to Mr. Collins, and you can be sure I will find out before he leaves. I suspect maybe my father wrote to her about you before he died. But why did you not believe him?”
Elizabeth shrugged. “I cannot explain it. I had no proof other than your words. I chose to have faith in you rather than believe the worst. In truth, I had to come to that conclusion earlier today. Charlotte came and attempted to convince me that you meant to keep mistresses after our marriage. At first, I was devastated by her suggestion.”
Will looked at her closely. “I can see by the look in your eye it was a difficult choice for you. You have asked me about the past, and we have always been interrupted, or I have put you off. I do not know precisely what you have imagined, but I think I must put matters to rest now. Your father will have to forgive me.”
“My father?” Elizabeth furrowed her brow.
“You have read reports of my meeting questionable ladies. I have hinted they are not to believe, but I avoided outright denying them. There is some truth—”
Elizabeth had thought she prepared herself for the pain and disappointment. Even still, her heart sunk at his confession.
“I have met them, but only to talk. I have touched no woman but you.”
Elizabeth could not help beaming at his words and impulsively rewarded him with a kiss. Laughing she sat back and asked him to continue. Although requiring a moment to focus, Will resumed his story.
“My acquaintance with these ladies was for the sake of a friend. Before Sam died, he was involved with a woman. Your father did not wish you to know.”
“The lady at the theatre?”
“You remember her? I had thought you saw her and perceived the situation irregular, but Sam said he did not need to explain a thing to you.”
“I think—I think he tried to tell me that night. I found him too foxed to even open the door to his chamber. He did not make much sense to me, but said something about not being honourable and would not let me talk about Charlotte.”
“I do not know precisely what his plans were,” Will sighed. “However, I know he intended to provide for her and their child. After his death, I searched for her but never found her. It surprises me because he said he wanted to break things off with Miss Lucas to marry Lucy although I had counseled him against it.”
“He did,” Elizabeth said sadly. “He wrote to Charlotte before the fire. She showed it to me this morning as she attempted to convince me that I should not trust you. He told her that he intended to elope with the woman.”
Will started and blinked several times. “That must be how your parents knew of the situation. What you say certainly shocks me. I had thought I knew my friend better than that.”
Elizabeth rested her head on his shoulder. “I do not like his decisions, but perhaps it is a little understandable? He reminded Charlotte that their parents were the ones who wanted the union. What would you have done if you were bound to Miss de Bourgh but had then met me?”
Every muscle in Will’s body tensed and, for a moment, Elizabeth thought he held his breath.
“I do not know,” he confessed. “I am more thankful than you can know that I did not have to make a choice between my honour and my love.” He squeezed her tightly. “I love you so very much, and I do not wish for anything else to come between us. Let us not imagine what might have been.”
“I love you as well.” She pulled back and gave him a sly smile. “I like you saying it, you know.”
“No! You will call me endearments. In your letter, you mentioned continued love, and in the miniature, it is engraved, but you are excessively stingy in saying the words.”
“Allow me to rectify that,” Will murmured before whispering words of love in her ear punctuated with well-placed kisses.
After several minutes, they stilled. Will told Elizabeth about Wickham stealing the letters and his efforts in locating the man. Eventually, Elizabeth reminded him that they should return to the house.
“I have given it great thought,” she teased as they walked. “I must now uphold my end of our compromise and have selected the twenty-sixth of November for our wedding date.”
Will stopped their movement and scooped her into his arms before spinning about several times. His carefree and joyful laugh was music to her ears.
“We will begin our life, at last, as husband and wife,” he said before sealing his declaration with a passionate kiss thatdrove all thoughts of brothers, letters, carriages, and horrid relations from her mind.
Nothing could steal Elizabeth’s joy at this moment. That which first blossomed when they were too young to give it the required care had bloomed again. Having believed they had lost each other once, made them all the more precious to each other now. No matter what the future held, they were united in a love that would last a lifetime.
To be continued…