November 1, 1811
Three weeks after Reunited ends
Will arrived at Netherfield’s stables and tossed the reins of Apollo at the ready hands of a boy. Charles arrived just after him—he had lost another race. Both gentlemen had smiles on their faces from their visit at Longbourn, but Will had an extra bounce in his step that made him feel lighter than air as he walked to the house.
The last few weeks of his engagement to Elizabeth had never ceased to amaze him. He could not be bitter about the past and their separation if it created the sweetness they shared since their reunion. Elizabeth meant more to him now than she could have meant to him if he had never believed he lost her love and found her again. Now, after years of waiting, they were just over three weeks from their wedding day. Will’s heart could scarcely contain its joy.
“Ah, Mr. Darcy,” the butler said upon Will’s entry. “The mail has just arrived. These are for you.” He extended a handful of letters.
Will took them and thanked him and sequestered himself in the library. Georgiana and Mrs. Annesley would be arriving any day, escorted by Richard. Several of his Fitzwilliam relations hoped to come for the wedding as well. Lady Catherine had not been invited after Will learned she had schemed with her parson to end their engagement. Apparently, Will’s father had written to Lady Catherine about Will’s attachment to Elizabeth years ago. When Lady Catherine learned of her parson’s relationship to the Bennets of Longbourn and also learned of Will travelling to the area, she put two and two together. Mr. Collins needed a wife, all the better if it were one who would inherit Longbourn. However, once she perceived Elizabeth Bennet as a threat once more, she commanded Collins to marry her—compromise her if he must.
Will’s letter contained the usual news from his steward and housekeepers. Mrs. Annesley reported that Georgiana continued to be alternately withdrawn and angry. Richard confirmed he would escort the ladies. Lady Catherine spewed vitriol on the page. Her daughter wrote begging not to be painted with the same brush as her mother.
Weeks ago, when Elizabeth had first suggested that Will seek out proof from the post offices which might have been the source of the interference of his letters to her, he wrote to them all. He had heard from most of them by now, which all confirmed what the very first post office had indicated. Wickham paid an employee to hand over Will’s letters to Elizabeth. Why Wickham had wanted to disrupt those letters, Will had not yet determined.
He had also suspected Wickham of sabotaging his carriage. To find him, Will hired Bow Street Runners and had Richard ask around Wickham’s favourite haunts in London. Wickham had been in Lincolnshire during the time in question. It appeared the incident with the carriage was a genuine accident.
Now, Will held in his hand a letter from the last post office in Scotland. They had never journeyed further north than this office, as planned, for the fire put an end to all those plans. Even now, Will could smell the stench of burning fabric and flesh, the thick smoke which clogged his lungs and caused his eyes to burn. Merely reading the name of the town was enough to bring him back to that awful night.
Someone knocked on the door and, to distract himself, Will called for the person to enter. Charles invited himself in—after all, it was his library—and settled in a chair near Will.
“Another letter from a post office?”
“How did you know?”
“You have a certain look about you when they arrive. Is this the one, then?”
“And how did you know that?” Will was unused to Charles being so observant.
“For starters, I believe all the others are accounted for. Secondly, it’s the only one that you would avoid and put off, and I see that the seal is unopened. Lastly, your expression was the same as it always is when the fire is mentioned.” He paused and watched his friend. “Yes, that is the look exactly!”
Although Will did not have a looking glass to see what Charles referenced, he could feel the tightness of his muscles and the way his jaw clenched. It felt like turning to stone. “Very well,” Will admitted. “It is the last dreaded reply. I do not know why I bother reading them. They all say the same thing, and there is nothing I can much do about it.”
“You have always believed there was strength in knowledge. One day, you will meet Wickham again and will have your means to prove his deeds.” Charles hesitated. While looking out a window, rather than meeting Will’s eyes, he suggested, “Would you prefer me to read it?”
For a moment, Will was offended at the suggestion. Did Charles believe Will not strong enough to live with the reminder of the worst night of his life? Then, he considered how Elizabeth would react to the news. She was showing him what It meant to have unfailing support in his life. Charles had always attempted to be there, but Will would often push him out. He was working hard to overcome his flaw. It had caused enough heartache.
“I appreciate the offer,” Will answered, at last, “but I believe I can read it. Knowledge of its likely contents makes it easier.”
Swelling his courage, Will turned the paper over and tore open the seal.
Dear Mr. Darcy,
I could hardly contain my surprise at seeing a letter from you after all these years. You, undoubtedly, do not recall me, but I remember you and your traveling companions most vividly. However, I had expected a message from you many years ago.
You may ask how I can remember you so well. It is not often that our town loses its inn and its post office in one night.
Will furrowed his brows. He had forgotten in this particular town, the post office was a mere corner of the inn.
Even more so when it is a victim of arson.
Will’s grip on the paper tightened, and Charles glanced at him in concern at the crinkling noise. He could not answer his friend’s unspoken question. He had to read on.
As such, all letters would have been lost. During the investigation into the fire, we discovered an employee had been bribed into taking several letters of yours and giving them to a gentleman who he believed to be traveling with you. The employee has been cleared of starting the fire, and unfortunately, the culprit is still at large. Oil and tar were used in the fire and buckets of each were found in one of the stables. No other clues had been discovered. No motive was ever established.
The incident is still much talked about as the owner and a few others outside of your party perished. Eyewitness accounts have become a local legend and will soon fade into complete myth. It seems many believe the Greek god of fire is a lanky fellow with sandy blonde hair.
Years ago, I had expected you to be more curious about the nature of the fire or the fate of your letters, but I suppose the losses you sustained that evening and the subsequent burdens you faced were of primary concern.
I regret that I did not have pleasanter news.
All my respect,
Will’s mouth went dry as he read and reread the words. His father and Sam died in arson? Who would have cause to start the blaze? Although Will had not known any of the other guests, he supposed only one would have such a strong motive. George Darcy had just settled his will, and Wickham knew he would be amply rewarded in it. Although he had ultimately rejected the living at Kympton, he asked for a handsome sum in addition to the one thousand pound legacy left to him in Mr. Darcy’s will.
Wickham—a murderer? He had killed his own godfather, a man he counted as friend and mentor. He had murdered Sam, who once had been like a brother to him. He had been the means of separating Will from Elizabeth first by the letters and then from the effects of the fire. Dear God! Elizabeth!
The incident with the carriage—which so easily could have harmed or killed her—must have been his doing even if he were out of town.
“Will!” Charles said as he attempted to pull the paper from Will’s vice grip. “Let me see, man!”
Will let go of the paper and barely registered Charles’ tones of shock and violent anger. He too had considered it must have been Wickham.
“I never thought to ask about the source of the fire,” Charles said. “It was too painful to think about. I wanted only to leave it in the past and forget about it as best I could.”
Will silently nodded. “No investigators ever contacted me. No questions were ever asked.”
“Do you see this? A lanky fellow with sandy hair. Could it have been Wickham?”
Again, Will nodded. This time, he was walking to the door when it happened. He was just about to call for his horse when Charles pulled him back into the room.
“What are you doing? Where are you going?”
“To find him!”
“You cannot do that on your own! Think!” Charles pushed Will into a seat and thrust a drink into his hand. “If he really did this—if he was behind the carriage in some way—he is too dangerous to approach. It may even be what he wants. You have always had what he wants, and he has proved he will stop at nothing to try and attain it.”
Georgiana. Wickham’s intended elopement now meant something entirely different. He not only wanted her fortune but her claim on Pemberley.
“Contact your cousin and the Runners again. Tell them to shadow Wickham closely. Report his every movement. Tell them everything!”
“Yes,” Will said, his brain beginning to work properly again. “I shall hire guards as well. Until we have him in custody and are sure he does not have a proxy. A few here and some at Longbourn as well.”
“I had not even considered Longbourn!” Colour drained from Charles’ face.
Will noted with shock. Was his friend thinking of Miss Bennet the way Will thought of Elizabeth? Now was not the time to worry about that but it would bear further consideration later.
“Can I have my sister come? It may not be safe for her.”
“She would be safer with you than away. He could more easily have access to her then.”
“Indeed,” Will said before swallowing the rest of his drink. Charles’ words were far too true.
Will attempted to distract himself with other matters for the remainder of the day. All the while, he longed to return to Longbourn and sweep Elizabeth into his arms. He knew it was not true, but when he held her, he felt as though he could protect her from anything and battle any foe. As it was, his enemy was nigh on invisible.
Even if the Runners could be retained again and locate Wickham once more, it may not help. They had no real proof he had caused the fire all those years ago, and they had nothing but Will’s gut pointing the destruction of his carriage axle to the man. Wickham had an alibi, and there was little use in trying to question him. He had someone else do his bidding, and while wondering how Wickham would have been able to afford to bribe someone, it was pointless to question how he came into the funds. He always did. He was worse than a cat with nine lives.
The possibility that everyone connected with Will would be a target ran through his mind without relent. If they could not find Wickham and make him confess, Elizabeth would never be safe. For that matter, if his end goal was Pemberley, neither was Georgiana. If the fiend had been willing to kill his godfather and friend, then there was nothing he would not do. Charles, Richard, the Bennets—none of them were safe and all because they knew Will.
He pushed his chair from the desk and began pacing around the room. If he put everyone in danger, then he should leave. He should call for his horse now and return to London. His valet could bring the trunks tomorrow. Only…
He had promised Elizabeth he would not leave again. Which was the greater risk? If he left, even with promises to return once all was resolved, it would break her heart. He had vowed to never be the source of her tears again. No catastrophe would draw him away otherwise. Should the worst happen at Pemberley he would direct his steward and demand a hasty marriage from Mr. Bennet or that she accompany him. He would not leave her behind again. However, if being near him put her at risk then it would be selfish to remain.
Mentally exhausted and worried he would wear a hole in Charles’ carpet, Will threw himself in a chair. Elizabeth’s visage came to his mind as he considered how he would tell her of the development. She would cry, and each tear would sting like a dagger to his heart. Would she rant and rave? No, he thought not. She would not demand he stay when she believed his honour and affection for her should do the work for her. No, she would accept his words and a piece of her love for him would die.
He had already known what it was to lose her trust and how difficult it was to earn back. Could he do that again? Could he intentionally put them through that pain once more to apprehend Wickham?
Could he risk losing her affection and love forever, any hope of a future—to keep her alive? It would be a hollow victory indeed for Elizabeth to live but never marry him.
Will had sent an express to Richard as soon as he finished speaking with Charles earlier in the day. Before he went to bed that night, Will received a reply from his cousin. Richard was leaving that very instant—as soon his missive finished—to journey to come early and escort Mrs. Annesley and Georgiana to London. He agreed that having Georgiana near Will presented a problem. However, so did leaving her unattended and Richard could not forsake his duties for long. Richard contacted the Runners once more and set about inquiries for footmen. He also asked if they should tell the Earl.
Will was of two minds on the matter. The Earl had been a very great friend to his father and had never been too intrusive in Will’s own affairs once he became master. Lord Fitzwilliam was aging, and most of his duties were now executed by his eldest son, the Viscount. Will had no quarrel with his older cousin. However, he desired to limit something so personal as his ongoing dispute with Wickham to as few people as possible. The rest of the Fitzwilliam family did not know about Georgiana’s attempted elopement with Wickham. Even Richard did not know about her continued affection for the scoundrel.
When uncertain on who to trust, Will had always kept to his own counsel. He had thought in the future Elizabeth would support him through such times. Now, there was every possibility that there was no future for them. He could not ask her to wait on him once more.