I know people are anxious for them to leave the inn and begin traveling but this might end up being a pretty long novel and the author made them both injured so they could get to know one another a little better. But it can’t all be sunshine can it?
On Cuthbert’s recommendation, Darcy obtained a maid named Molly, who Elizabeth knew well, to assist her a few times during the day. She could not devote all of her time to it—for there was no future position he could offer her in the household. A tavern maid did not have the skills to be a lady’s maid or an upstairs maid. If she had a known history of occasional prostitution, he did not wish to offer her a place in the kitchen. That was the cook’s domain, and she had firm opinions about her help. Not only could she potentially earn more at the tavern, but it also would not do for Mrs. Darcy to be friendly with a scullery maid.
Returning with Molly in tow, he saw to his own ablutions in his valet’s room. “I apologise for intruding on your privacy, Stevens,” he said to the man.
“It is no intrusion, sir. Few men in my position would have their own room in any case.”
“True, but I feel as though you count on that time and space to yourself.”
“Truthfully, sir, I spend much of my free time below stairs.”
“Do you, indeed?”
“I do. I do not crave solitude the way in which you do.”
“Would you prefer to room with strangers?”
“Room with them, no,” Stevens made a face. “However, speaking with them, observing them, that is an enjoyable way to pass the time.”
“I believe you have that in common with the future Mrs. Darcy.”
“Indeed! My congratulations, sir.”
“You do not look surprised,” Darcy observed as the man continued to shave his face.
“You have never invited another woman to your room.”
“True but you could hardly expect me to propose to a tavern maid, I hope. I would rely on you to bring me back to my senses.”
Stevens laughed. “I could hardly imagine that ever being the case. As it happens, I recall Miss Elizabeth Bennet from our time in Hertfordshire. I had thought then you might have a tendre for her.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes, you alternately wore a grin or a deep frown after interactions with her when she visited her ill sister.”
“I did not know I was so transparent.”
“Perhaps only to the man who has made a study of your every expression lest I give you a scar for distinction.” He smirked.
Darcy laughed in response as Stevens’ hands hovered above his face. Returning to a neutral expression, Darcy said, “You said nothing.”
“You said you relied on me to talk you into your senses. You did not seem on the verge of any rash decision. At the time, I would have thought she inappropriate to be your bride, but that was before this winter.” His hands paused again, anticipating Darcy’s next expression.
A frown came forward without thought, and his brows contracted, bringing deep lines between them. “It was a rough winter, sir. I had thought you were heartsick when we left Hertfordshire—but then things seemed even worse until a few weeks ago until we arrived here. Now, I would not think to counsel you against marrying a lady who can restore your smile no matter what her current circumstances are or why she is a maid here instead of at the estate to which she was born.”
For the last few days, Darcy had managed to mostly put out of his mind the deep sorrow and rage he felt at Georgiana’s latest confession. Deciding it best to return the conversation to the subject he had intended to introduce, he said, “Very wise. I trust you will not explain our reunion to the others at Pemberley or Darcy House.”
“I must discuss matters with Elizabeth, but we will be altering our plans. We must still go to London—but will not stop at the house or spend the night, if we can help it. Then, our route must alter toward Scotland.”
“I will arrange it,” Stevens nodded.
“Perhaps some inns we do not stay at—smaller towns.”
He hoped to not meet with any acquaintances. If he were unknown at the inn, they could feign a marriage already existed between them. If he did meet with anyone he knew, he could claim she was a distant relation. The trick would be to conceal Elizabeth so she would not be recognizable later as his wife. Additionally, he would need to be sure the staff at the inn did not call him by the wrong name if a friend was in earshot and, of course, people kept their own hours and might show up at any time.
They could not avoid news of their elopement spreading. Oh, he could use his money and clout and fabricate a wedding. He could pay some clergyman to lie and say he performed a marriage and they married by special license. However, Darcy had better scruples than that and would not ask a rector to lie. The more significant problem was concealing Elizabeth working as a tavern maid. He did not care if they thought the marriage inappropriate and presumed he married too low, whether it be the daughter of a country squire or a lady in reduced circumstances. The problem was that many would assume her working in a tavern meant she also prostituted herself.
Satisfied with his looks, Darcy left and approached the room he shared with Elizabeth. Before knocking, he could hear the friendly tones of Elizabeth and Molly chatting. Yes, the faster they were separated, the better.
“Lud! Look at yourself. Fit as a princess!” Molly laughed.
“It is not like that,” Elizabeth insisted. “Mr. Darcy wants to marry me.”
“Oh, that is what they all say, dearest.”
Darcy frowned at the maid’s insinuation.
“He is an honourable gentleman. I know he means it.”
Elizabeth always could stand up for herself. What a pleasure it was to hear her stand up for him.
“How can you know that? The minute he saw ya, he bought ya.”
“No,” Elizabeth said firmly. “We knew each other before–”
“Before I came here.”
“So you were a fancy work then? Came on hard times?”
“How many times do I have to tell you that I was never in that line of work?”
“Perhaps if you would tell me more about what you did do before I wouldn’t have to fill in the blanks myself.”
Darcy did not like the direction of the conversation. The maid was too impertinent by half. Elizabeth might not recognise it, but there were all the signs that the maid was more interested in information she could use to blackmail them than she was in friendship. Darcy knocked on the door, interrupting their conversation.
Elizabeth called for him to enter. A sense of relief washed over him. He had not realised it before, but he had been anxious while separated from her. She was still here, in his room, safe and well.
“Thank you for your help, Molly,” Elizabeth said with a friendly wave.
“Thank you for your services,” Darcy said and dropped a coin into her waiting hand. “We will consider you again in the future.”
“But I thought–”
“That will be all.” Darcy opened the door, and after a glance at displeased looking Elizabeth, the maid left.
“What did you do that for?” Elizabeth twisted in her seat to glare at him.
“Be careful what you say to her and others.”
“I am careful.” Elizabeth harrumphed and folded her arms across her chest. “She does not know my real name. I have never told anyone about my past.”
“She seemed most curious about it.”
“She was just being friendly.”
“It seemed like more than that to me,” Darcy said as he settled into the chair next to the settee where Elizabeth rested with her leg propped up. “I do not know her as you do so it is natural for me to be more cautious.”
Elizabeth raised her brows. “But you have the right to overrule me and be rude whenever you choose? Some marriage this will be.”
“I am looking out for your interests,” Darcy insisted.
“What harm could come from her knowing about my past? If she blackmails us, refuse her. The most she can do is whisper rumours to whoever passes through this place–which, you may have noticed, does not typically include anyone from the Ton. What about all your talk about not caring about what Society had to say about me?”
“Forgive me,” Darcy dropped his head. “You are correct. I have said that and I mean it. I have learned to be on edge and worry about blackmail more than the usual person, and it has prejudiced me against others.”
“And?” Elizabeth raised her brows.
“And…and I will hope to do better in the future. Nor do I mean to overrule you. There are times, however, when we must discuss matters, and I might disagree with you.”
“There’s a shock,” Elizabeth said with a grin.
“That we might disagree?”
“Oh, that is a given.” She laughed. “No, that you apologised and spoke to the heart of the matter.”
“I am incapable of doing anything else,” Darcy said while relaxing in the chair. “I cannot make small talk or talk around things. I prefer a direct approach.”
“And what of your ability to apologise?”
His lips twitched. “Of that, the ladies in my life are seeing to my education.”
“Ladies?” Elizabeth’s brow furrowed. “Oh, your sister. Well, I have never had a brother, but I know there are many things which might annoy any sister and would expect a brother to be not very different from another sister about that.”
It went far more than a mere annoyance, but he did not wish to shatter Elizabeth’s quaint image of the Darcy siblings just yet. “What would you like to do today?”
“Well, with your sore arm and my twisted ankle, I think we ought to attempt flying to the moon. Once there, I will hike all over it.”
Darcy could not contain his laughter. Elizabeth joined in for a moment and then sobered.
“Will you tell me why you think so meanly of London Society now?”
Pain seared Darcy’s heart. He knew he must speak with her about it, but not yet. “Would you mind if we wait until this evening? Perhaps I may read aloud until then.”
“You do not have to entertain me,” Elizabeth smiled. “Surely you have other things to do. I recall a lady once observing that you must have a great many letters of business to write.”
Darcy’s lips lifted in a slight smile. “I had thought you were paying more attention to that conversation than to your book.”
“I suppose that must mean Mr. Bingley’s library needs improvement. Your library at Pemberley, according to Miss Bingley, is vastly superior. But then you tell me she is often incorrect.”
“Our library at Pemberley is astounding.” The hint of a smile turned into a full grin. “I cannot wait to show it to you. Yes, Miss Bingley often exaggerates or invents matters, but I do not think it is possible to overstate how many books it contains, lest you compare it to some academic place like the Bodleian.”
“I should like to see that someday as well!”
“Your wish is my command. I will take you there and anywhere else your heart desires–except the moon. I fear I do not have the capacity to take you there unless it is in your dreams.” How he wished she would dream of him the way he imagined of her. Waking to her in his arms had been exquisite torture.
Elizabeth blushed and fell silent until a smirk came to her lips. “I must correct you, sir. The evening of your letter writing at Netherfield I did not read a book. I was sewing and ignoring that for any conversation, I will own to proudly.”
“Ah, but you were with a book one night.”
“I believe that was the evening Miss Bingley chose to list what skills an accomplished lady needed to acquire. Fortunately for me, it did not include too much about needlework.” A strange look passed Elizabeth’s face. “I did not think then that any of this would be possible. I was as certain of Bingley’s regard for my sister as I was of my feelings of superiority of mind to his two sisters and even to you. I had thought you the most arrogant man in the world with your long list of ridiculous requirements for a lady. Now, I am to be your wife.”
Darcy reached for Elizabeth’s hand and raised it to his lips. “If you examine those memories again, you will see that I only said a lady must be an extensive reader and that was because you were holding a book.”
Elizabeth thought for a moment before shaking her head and laughing. “You said that for me?”
“How could I not? I did not want to embarrass Miss Bingley or offend her brother by announcing that I would prefer you ten thousand times over her.”
“I had thought you were mocking me. I had closed the book!” Mischievousness lit her eyes. “Ah, but you also once sat with a book.”
“I did,” Darcy agreed. “My sole intention was to ignore you. My eyes were often drawn to you, and I knew you had noticed. I did not want you to think you had power over me.”
“Indeed, I did not.”
“I understand that now but at the time my arrogance and prejudice only allowed me to see the danger I was in.”
“And did you succeed?”
“You know I did not!” Darcy laughed. “You must recall how I closed the book the moment Miss Bingley began conversing with you and bringing you to my notice. I could not resist.”
“I do remember,” Elizabeth said. “I remember so much from my time at Netherfield,” she whispered in a voice of astonishment.
Darcy’s heart rate accelerated. If she could remember so well then maybe she was not unaffected by it. “I hope you think of it with as much pleasure as I do.” He squeezed the hand he still held.
Elizabeth shook her head and sighed sadly. “I do not think that I do. I was confused… Your behaviour, even then, seemed inconsistent. One moment you were speaking with everyone, then focused on me. The longer we conversed, the more it seemed you only criticised or argued–yet why should you exasperate yourself so much? My mind was exhausted from forming half explanations. A request to dance was not a sign of admiration–it was a desire to mock me. Your singling me out for conversation annoyed but then so did your ignoring me on our final day.”
“I wish I would have behaved differently,” Darcy acknowledged. “I was confused myself. I was drawn to you more than I had ever experienced before. It frightened me which is not something I think I had felt since a small lad. I told myself at the time that I did not wish to raise your expectations. In truth, I was a coward. Pray, forgive me.”
“Two apologies in one day! I do feel like quite the special lady!” Elizabeth grinned. “It has long been my policy to think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure. I had not thought upon those days very often for it brought little pleasure–especially since the changes in my life. However, now that I know they were your attempts at concealing admiration–and how very like you I might add–I may consider them happily. No, I will not forgive you. I rather like my memories.”
Darcy’s throat tightened with emotion. The acceptance of all his quirks and facets was something he had longed for all his life. Leaving his char, he knelt at her side. He raised both her hands to his lips and then caressed her cheek. “I wish I could explain to you how much I love you.”
Elizabeth’s lashes fluttered, but she spoke, “Can you not?”
“Words would fail me. Even if I were blessed with oratory skills, they would not be enough. The greatest poets of all time cannot describe the feelings that beat in my breast or dictate my every thought.” He had long been attracted to Elizabeth, but this was far more than infatuation or mental distraction. His soul felt a communion with hers.
“Then show me, Fitzwilliam,” Elizabeth gave a breathy command.
As his lips met hers over and over again, he did just that.