Darcy allowed Elizabeth a half an hour to go through her nightly ablutions. He had requested the valet purchase some feminine soaps and lotions as he believed Elizabeth must have gone without such luxuries since leaving Longbourn. Not that she looked unclean or unkempt. Only that the sorts of products she would be accustomed to she could no longer afford.
Never again, he vowed. Never again would she go without. On the morrow, he would write to his solicitor to begin settlement matters. They would stop in London on their way to Scotland. There he would sign the documents and have all of that arranged before their marriage.
A part of him hated the idea of an elopement. Georgiana might feel it hypocritical, but they had no other choice. Her family did not deserve consideration even if the law afforded Mr. Bennet with rights until Elizabeth’s first and twentieth birthday which, regrettably, was many months away. He could put Elizabeth up in some hidden location in London where her family could not reach her but calling the banns would merely invite trouble. It would also promote questions in Hertfordshire. He could hardly imagine what story the Bennets had devised to make up Elizabeth’s sudden departure but an unexpected romance and an elopement they could more easily cover than weeks of courtship in London.
That the Bennets must have made up some story about Elizabeth to explain her absence, Darcy heartily believed. If her disappearance would only ruin her reputation, they likely would not trouble themselves. However, what Elizabeth did could reflect on the remaining sisters and whatever bits of good reputation they had. If they would not consider treatment for Jane’s illness out of fear of judgment, then Darcy doubted they would want more attention to the fact of yet another missing daughter.
After they were safely married, Darcy would consider how best to remove Jane and Mary from their wayward parents. Finding Wickham, and he hoped Lydia would be with him, would be the first goal.
On that subject, Darcy knew he would soon have to tell Elizabeth about his change in understanding of the ton and the shocking, appalling truth he had learned from Georgiana.
Knocking on the door to the room, Elizabeth called out that he might enter. Darcy knew from the volume of her voice that she must already be in bed as it was in the far corner but he could not keep his eyes from ascertaining the truth. She looked adorable bundled up in the bed with the coverlet up to her chin. Soon he would call her wife and have the right to lay beside her. Redirecting his thoughts, Darcy walked to the settee. A week’s “rest” on it would probably cause more injury to his back than traveling would do to his arm. A week in cramped quarters with the woman he loved and would marry—that most assuredly was more dangerous than anything that could happen traveling with a tender arm.
“Focus on something else,” Darcy mumbled under his breath.
“Pardon?” Elizabeth called from the bed.
Darcy squeezed his eyes shut and began to remove his coat. This was folly. He ought to have hired a maid for her and sent her on to another inn. What was he thinking tempting faith?
“I had asked if you require anything else.”
She sounded uncertain. “Are you sure?”
“No, I think I need rest more than anything else.” She stifled a yawn.
Darcy nodded and proceeded to remove his waistcoat. Shirtsleeves and breeches it would be. He could get no tolerable rest in his coats. His eyes scanned the room. He would need a quilt… Of course, the extra one would be on the bed. He slowly approached. Elizabeth had her eyes closed.
“Pardon me,” he said, and her eyes flew open then widened at his attire. “Might I have the extra coverlet?”
“Oh, certainly,” Elizabeth sat up a little, the blanket dropping from her chin but still entirely covering her body. “I ought to have considered that and put it over there. I am unused to sharing a bed—” Elizabeth silenced and turned red.
“Think nothing of it. I am a grown man and can see to my needs. I would not expect you to anticipate my desires.” At the moment, he most certainly did not want her to know the direction of his wants and wishes. “Sleep well, Elizabeth.”
“Sleep well.” Elizabeth gave him a nervous smile and returned her head to the pillow.
Uncomfortable on the settee and simultaneously worried about Elizabeth and overjoyed at her acceptance of his proposal, Darcy found it difficult to fall asleep. She, on the other hand, had quickly fallen asleep but talked and muttered to herself throughout it. Darcy was equal parts enchanted and annoyed by it.
Eventually, he nodded off. A floorboard creaked, awakening him. Who was in his room? Were they there to hurt Elizabeth? Another creak, the fiend was near the door. They must have just entered. Springing to life, Darcy rolled and lunged at the intruder, grabbed at their legs and yanked until they fell. Darcy scrambled atop the slender-framed man and pinned the arms down.
“Who are you? What do you want?”
Elizabeth’s voice was breathy and full of fear but not from the far corner of the room. Belatedly, Darcy realized the would-be attacker wore a skirt and was a woman.
“Elizabeth!” Darcy pulled back. His eyes adjusting to the dark, allowed him to make out her countenance. “Forgive me, I believed you were an intruder.”
“Someone intent on stealing from the great Mr. Darcy of Pemberley?” Elizabeth jested, but her voice still sounded fearful to Darcy.
“Yes, my most precious thing.” Darcy knelt at her side and assisted her in sitting.
“Oh? What would that be?”
He evaded answering. “Are you injured?”
“Just a bump.”
Darcy frowned. He had thought he had defended his domain better than that. He stood and offered a hand help Elizabeth. As she began to put weight on her foot, she yelped in pain.
“You are hurt!” Darcy sunk back on his haunches. “It is my fault!”
“No,” Elizabeth hastened to say. “It was mine.” She shivered.
“Let us get you back to the bed. Should I send for the apothecary?”
“No, it is not my first twisted ankle. Elevation and rest will sort it out. However, I do not think I can stand.”
“I shall carry you–”
“It is a short distance.” Darcy began to slide one arm under Elizabeth’s legs. “Wrap your arms around my neck.” Elizabeth’s nearness was making it hard for him to concentrate and distracted him from any pain he should feel from the effort. Elizabeth clung to him, most likely to spare more weight on his arm. “Relax, my love.”
Darcy slowly made his way across the room, barely able to see the next step before him. He ought to have found a candle before he played the hero. The excitement wore off, and his arm began to throb. Sweat beaded on his forehead as he prayed the bed would appear.
Suddenly his arm gave out and Elizabeth, who had loosened her grip too much, slipped from his hold. She landed with a flop on the bed and let out a moan as her ankle jostled. Darcy, who had been in mid-motion bumped against the bed and fell atop her, landing on his arm. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he began to pull back.
“We are a pair, are we not?” Elizabeth laughed.
“Indeed,” Darcy chuckled. After lighting a few candles, he found several cushions from the settee. As he had expected, she blushed as he placed them under her leg. Then, he sat next to her on the edge of the bed. “Why were you at the door? From where did you return?”
“I had not gone anywhere,” Elizabeth stared at her hands. “I was leaving.”
“Leaving?” Darcy’s tone implied his incredulous thoughts but could not convey his deeper feelings. “You would leave me?”
“I…I…” Elizabeth sobbed into her hands for a moment. As suddenly as the outburst began, she ended it. “No, no more of that. I will not resort to tears every time I am unhappy or uncomfortable.”
“I applaud the notion.” He waited for her to answer as honestly as she always had.
“I awoke and was startled by my surroundings again. However, I recalled where I was before I left the bed. I panicked for an entirely different reason. Marriage to me would bring you and your family name ruin. I could not bear to cause you such unhappiness.”
“And leaving me without a word or a note, having me fear for your safety and wonder where you were with no money and not even your meager belongings would have helped? After telling you of my love? After agreeing to be my wife?” Darcy frowned. He did love Elizabeth, but he would not encourage this sort of behaviour and mindset. “No. That is not why you left. It had nothing to do with me. You know why you tried to leave.”
Elizabeth swallowed and nodded. “I do.”
“I do not approve of your momentary lapse in judgment. However, my fear and anger do not diminish the love I have for you even in if you make foolhardy decisions.”
Seemingly emboldened by his words, Elizabeth raised her chin. “I intended to leave because I think I deserve nothing. I should live in squalor and be friendless. Your generosity and love are so foreign to me that I would rather go back to the struggle I know than accept what you offer. I do not know what I was thinking—it sounds so ridiculous now.”
“It is ridiculous but not without justness. You have been terribly wronged and betrayed by those dearest to you. Rather than blame them, you have turned on yourself, and I am too new to have earned your trust.” He glanced at her foot. “It seems we have an additional reason to stay now and become better acquainted.” Darcy stood. “I suppose I do not have to worry about any repeat attempts.”
“No, indeed,” Elizabeth said with a smirk.
“Good night again.” He bowed, wincing at the effort, and took one step away before Elizabeth said his name. “Yes?”
“I will not banish you to the settee after your efforts this evening. Would you…that is…you should…” Elizabeth threw her hands over her face but could not hide the redness from peeking through.
“What is it you are suggesting?”
“I can only say this if I do not look at you as well,” she said as her voice was muffled by her hands. “You should sleep in the bed.”
“No,” Darcy said and began to take another step.
“Would you? That is, would you for me? Twice now, I have awoken afraid of my surroundings.”
“Will not a man in your bed alarm you more?”
“Perhaps,” Elizabeth said as she continued to cover her face which turned even redder. “But if I wake you then you might speak and calm me before I do anything rash. Eventually, I will have to remember you and everything that has passed this day.”
Indecision warred in Darcy. Lying next to Elizabeth would be a dangerous decision. Not that he could not control his actions. He would never force himself on her or seduce her. His thoughts, however… Darcy had yet to learn to master them. Yet, she looked so fragile and in need of his care. He would put himself through hell for her.
Wordlessly, Darcy walked to the other side of the bed and climbed in. Mere inches from him, he felt Elizabeth’s body relax and heard her sigh.
“Good night, Elizabeth.”
“Good night, Fitzwilliam,” she replied.
Elizabeth nestled against the warmth at her side. She had never been warmer in a bed. Nor had it ever smelled so inviting—different than Jane’s rose water. The scent was earthy and manly. The thought awakened her other senses.
Someone held her close to them. Strong arms—a man’s arms. And yet, Elizabeth felt none of the fear that she had the night before upon awakening in a strange room. Slowly waking, her memory returned. Mr. Darcy—Fitzwilliam as he asked to be called—was the man holding her.
All her life, she had thought such intimacy with a man before marriage was unpardonable. Indeed, she could hardly imagine being this close to a man after marriage and merely had to take it on good authority that loving her husband would create the desire. She had guarded her virginity in the last weeks when giving it up would have been far easier and given her some luxury. Now, within a matter of days, she would be offering it to Mr. Darcy, and she did not tremble in fear at the thought.
When Elizabeth considered all the other gentlemen of her acquaintance who might have found her and offered their hand in marriage to rescue her, she had to concede Mr. Darcy was the only one with whom she would feel this—whatever this was.
“Are you awake?” he whispered against her forehead.
“Mmmm,” she said and took a deep inhale from where her head rested above his heart. A steady beat resounded in her ear. Slowly she lifted her head to meet Darcy’s eyes. The affection in them astounded her.
“You are so beautiful,” he said and tenderly caressed one cheek.
“I must be a mess,” Elizabeth said and self-consciously touched her hair.
Darcy caught her hand and kissed it. “You are stunning. I have envisioned this so often…I never thought it would be possible…and yet you are lovelier than any of my visions.”
“You have thought of me—of this?” Elizabeth blushed.
Darcy chuckled. “Very often…countless times a day.” He squeezed her gently. “The dream pales in comparison to reality. I really have you here in my arms!”
Elizabeth returned his smile, as uncomfortable as she was with such unabashed enthusiasm.
One of Darcy’s hands slid up to her cheek. Cupping it, he met her eyes and earnestly asked, “May I kiss you?”
Elizabeth’s breath hitched, and her lashes fluttered, but she awkwardly nodded her consent. Slowly, Darcy leaned his head forward until their lips just brushed. His were soft and smooth. It was more exquisite than Elizabeth had ever dared imagine. She sighed against his mouth before pulling back.
Darcy groaned, in what Elizabeth believed was appreciation, and pulled her closer, fusing their lips to one another. For a moment, she felt his body tense, his grip around her tighten. Elizabeth raised her free arm and returned the gentle pressure she felt around her waist. Suddenly, Darcy rolled away, breathing hard and flinging an arm over his eyes.
“Did I–did I do something wrong?” Elizabeth asked. “Are you displeased?”
Darcy rolled to face her. “The only thing which displeases me about our kiss is that my desires are at odds with my honour.”
Elizabeth furrowed her brow. So new as she was to the ways of carnal temptations, she did not fully comprehend what he meant.
Smoothing the deep lines on her forehead, Darcy chuckled. “Do you know what usually happens when a man and woman share a bed?”
Blushing profusely, Elizabeth nodded. “The girls I roomed with sometimes brought men back with them. I would leave the room, but one time I came in unannounced…”
Oh…he wanted to do that? Elizabeth admitted the man seemed well-pleased, if pained, her friend appeared less so, but she certainly brought men back too often to hate the experience.
“Ah…” He glanced away uncomfortably. “What you saw and were exposed to was something no gentlewoman should ever see and most never know.”
“I know giving your virtue to a man other than your husband is wrong—but would they not experience the act itself? I confess I never thought Molly and Susie so wicked and yet…”
“I sometimes forget how sheltered ladies are.” Something like regret emitted from his eyes. “A married lady enjoys her husbands…ah…affections from marital duty, a desire for children, and I hope genuine care and devotion. As such the physical experience would be different than someone who does it as an exchange of money.”
“Yes, my dear.” He nodded. “It is not so unusual for women of little means to offer such services, especially at an inn. Nor is it out of the ordinary for men to take advantage of releasing their desires with any comely and willing woman.”
Elizabeth frowned. Did she have the courage to ask the question that burned on her tongue? The thought of which brought an ache to her heart and made her eyes sting with unshed tears. Yet, why should it? She did not love him and had no right to feel possessive.
“What concerns you?” He asked patiently.
Elizabeth sucked in a deep breath. She could not explain all of it to him. Would she ever meet his past lovers? Were they indeed in the past or would he continue such things? The chance for embarrassment would be very high. She had heard whisperings of kept women before. Did he have a favourite—one who would compete with her to be first in his affections? Or were they meetings with strangers? Out of the hundreds of questions she had, she focused on the one that mattered the most. “Have you?”
“No.” He grinned when she sighed in relief. “I never liked the hypocrisy that a man might do what he will while women would be condemned to act the same way. Besides, there are diseases from such acts.”
“And you will never?”
“No, I will never take to another woman’s bed—even if you never welcome me.”
Elizabeth had not thought such a conversation—awkward as it had been—would make her admiration for Darcy grow but his frank and honest way of talking, his vow of fidelity even without relief for his feelings, affected her deeply.
She focused her eyes on the man she would marry.
“You should know, however, if we do ever join it will be very different than what you had seen. Pleasure is not one-sided and is a hundred-fold when both are in love.”
Before Elizabeth could fully understand what he meant, he sat up.
“Let us begin our day. How is your ankle? I have been thinking, and perhaps one of the maids here might assist you in your toilette.”
Elizabeth gave her consent, and he left to speak with Cuthbert, leaving her alone with muddled thoughts and an aching coldness as his heat dissipated from the bed.