Elizabeth attempted to conceal her terror as she walked back to meet her sisters and friend. Fortunately, Charlotte needed to return to her home, and there was no need to hide from her perceptive glances. Once at Longbourn, Mary went directly to her pianoforte—in an effort to impress Miss Darcy with her improvement she was becoming quite a slave to the instrument. Elizabeth knew she could not put Jane off for long, but pleaded a headache and hid in their chamber.
Once there, her head did begin to pound. She had not wavered in her intention. She must break the engagement to save Will from Harcourt—or at least delay it. Her lips turned up in a sly smile. The disgusting lord had not said that she could not share information with Will. The smile slipped from her face once she considered Will’s reaction. He was not likely to take Harcourt’s threat seriously. Nor would he consent to delay the wedding when only his life was at stake. Stupid man!
As Elizabeth wondered how she could possibly defer her wedding, a missive from Will arrived. Guilt pricked at Elizabeth’s conscience. Had she not been angry at Will when he had suggested the same? Her hand trembled as she opened his letter, feeling unworthy of the words of love she knew she would find.
I fear I do not have the joyful news we had anticipated. Bradley could not identify Wickham as the man who had paid him for his deed. The scoundrel himself refused to speak. I was unable to make him confess. I have failed you, my love.
However, it is only a temporary setback. Even now, I have agents searching the area for a man who matches the description given by Bradley.
I came home only to learn that Georgiana had left Netherfield after I had forbidden it. I recall our conversation on the matter and have told her this is the very last chance before she is sent away. Mrs. Annesley is now to be with her day and night.
I ask for additional forgiveness. It is selfish of me to ask, but I cannot conceive facing these trials without you. Years ago, I let you go when I needed you most. I will not make the mistake again. Will you, my dearest love, marry me just as we have planned? I have little but my heart to offer you and that you may not have long, but I vow no man will treasure any woman as I will treasure you.
All my love,
Elizabeth could hardly breathe when she had finished. Will’s love was all she had ever wanted in life. He offered her a choice with his request. She could ask for a longer engagement period. It would crush Will, though. He needed her at his side during all of this. She could not decide this on her own!
As though she felt her sister’s distress, Jane knocked on the door and entered the chamber. “Mama wondered how you were,” Jane said as she sat next to Elizabeth on the bed.
“I hardly know,” Elizabeth said tonelessly as she handed Will’s note to her sister.
Jane read and then turned her eyes on Elizabeth. “I am sorry that you do not have the answer about Wickham as we all had hoped. Is that all which makes you cry? Surely you will grant his request—you have told me many times that you would marry him regardless of danger.”
Jane’s words felt like a knife to Elizabeth’s heart. She exhaled sharply. “I would marry Will regardless of danger to myself.”
“The danger to him is as it ever has been. What would cause you to reconsider now?”
Elizabeth remained silent as tears slid down her cheeks. She dared not even tell Jane about Harcourt’s threat. Still, her words had been of use. “There is no time to explain it all just now,” Elizabeth said as she turned to hug her sister. “Thank you for coming to me. All shall be revealed in time. Now, I must reply to his letter.”
“Shall I ask the servant to continue to wait?”
“Thank you, no. You may tell him that Mr. Darcy will have his answer when he calls on the morrow.”
Jane gave Elizabeth a curious look but nodded before leaving the room. Elizabeth remained in her chamber the rest of the day and hardly slept at all that night. When Will called the following morning, she refused to come down and would only entrust her letter to Jane.
As she heard the galloping of horse hooves a minute or two later, Elizabeth prayed he would read her words and forgive her. Even more than that, she prayed he could act the part.
Will forced one foot in front of the other as he walked from the stables to Netherfield. Elizabeth had refused to see him! The inexplicable pain from her first rejection, which he had thought healed, now emerged with more force than ever.
Without bringing Wickham to justice, he could never deserve Elizabeth. What man dared to ask a woman to marry him when he could only bring about her ruin? Wickham would either kill her or make her a widow. What could he do? Travel endlessly and never settle anywhere? Be subjected to Wickham’s blackmail forever? Drain his coffers on bodyguards? Arrange for the unthinkable?
No! Will’s conscience revolted. He would not stoop to what Wickham did. However, each possibility seemed more desperate than the last. Was this the course his life had been destined on since his father’s death? Nay—even before. When was it that he had earned Wickham’s hatred? What moment in time created the devil he now was?
Storming up the stairs and past the others in the drawing room, Will threw himself in a chair by the fire. He tossed Elizabeth’s letter on a nearby table. It was all there if he chose to read it. All the ways in which he had failed her; all the reasons she had for breaking the engagement. He doubted not that he deserved every censorious remark. He had put her through more than any woman could endure.
Her smooth, feminine script bearing his name on the envelope mocked him. How many times had he wished to see a letter from her? Now, one of the few notes he had from her could not contain the words of love he had so come to cherish.
He glanced at the fire. Why should he keep this note which could only bring pain? He would watch it burn and shrivel just as his heart did.
A pounding on his door interrupted his plans. “Will! Let me in!” Charles yelled.
“It is unlocked,” Will called back.
“What the devil are you doing in here?” Charles approached after opening the door. “You refused to greet your sister and Mrs. Annesley. I have never seen you so uncivil. What happened at Longbourn? We did not expect you back so early.”
“I am afraid you will have to go on your calls alone from now on.”
“I will not be going back.”
“What do you mean? You are speaking nonsense.”
“It is all right there,” Will pointed at the letter. “She has sent me away. She can no longer deal with the uncertainty regarding Wickham and the difficulties with Georgiana.”
“She said that?” Charles inched closer. “Will! The letter is unopened.”
“What else could she say? Yesterday all was well between us. Then, I reached another dead end with Wickham, and suddenly I am unwelcomed by her.”
“Should you not at least read what she says? Did you forget how Elizabeth came up with an idea for subduing Wickham? Perhaps she has a new scheme.”
Will paused. He wanted to tell Charles to bugger off, but the man had a point. “Very well,” Will snatched the letter. “I shall read it.”
Tearing open the letter, he willed his heart to withstand the pain.
When you read this, it is essential that you conceal your emotions if not alone. No one can know what I have written. Your very life may depend upon it.
Forgive me for turning you away so cruelly. My love for you has never waned and never will. I still desire to be your bride. I only ask that we delay it awhile.
Yesterday, Lord Harcourt approached me on the street. He confessed to being the man who set fire to the inn all those years ago. He promised to kill you if I did not break our engagement. He would say very little but said that he wished you to suffer more than even death could give.
Courage and honour does not exist only amongst men. I promised that I would, of course. While we plan otherwise, we must pretend that our plans are ruined. Once Harcourt feels victorious, he will surely leave for London. Then, we may marry in secret. He may then act rashly and expose himself or boast and give rise to witness testimony against him.
Can you act the heartbroken and rejected lover? Let no one know the truth. I want no chance of careless words to ruin this. Burn my letter when you are finished reading. Feel your heartbeat and know that every beat of my own lives for you alone. We need only be brave for a little while longer.
All my love,
Will crumpled the paper in his fist before saying through his teeth, “Are you satisfied now?”
“Will—I—I apologise. I thought surely you must have misunderstood.”
“Do you wish to read it?” Will held up his hand.
“No—no.” Will tossed the paper into the fire and Charles hovered for another moment. “I will leave you.”
Once Charles left the chamber, Will sighed in relief. His lips moved an imperceptible inch. He applauded her plan but could think of one improvement. She had suggested on delaying their wedding and then marrying in secret. Will rather liked the second half more than the first. They would marry in secret, only earlier than planned.
Will already had the license, and the marriage articles were now with his solicitor. He was sure he could arrange a private ceremony with Mr. Bennet. Perhaps Jane and Charles could be their witnesses.
Over the next few days, Will played the part of rejected suitor well. It did not take much effort. All he had to do was remember the days when he had thought Elizabeth did reject him. He must have performed well for Charles frequently glanced at him with an anxious expression. Even Georgiana seemed to notice.
Two or three days after he had announced that Elizabeth called off the wedding, and pointedly explained it was because of Wickham but Georgiana’s behaviour did not help, his sister came to him.
“Will,” she said with downcast eyes. “Did Lizzy really cancel the wedding because of me?”
“I thought you had decided you were not close enough friends to call her so informally,” Will said with raised brows.
Georgiana blushed. “I have spoken foolishly on many things.” She squeezed her eyes shut and clasped her hands tightly in her lap. “Please, I must know. Have I ruined things for you?”
Will sighed. “I do not wish to hurt you.” He placed one of his large hands over hers. “She is greatly put out with the difficulties we have faced. Knowing that even if Wickham is ever apprehended, she will have a sister who hates her and shows respect for no one added to her anxieties.”
“I never thought my actions would lead to such.” A tear slipped from an eye.
“Did you not? Was that not your goal?” He had not removed his hand, but his voice was not as gentle.
“It is what I said I wanted…what I thought would make me happy…but I had no hope I would succeed.”
“You did not consider the consequences to your actions?”
Georgiana shook her head as the tears began to fall in earnest.
“Why did you behave so? Even before I returned to Hertfordshire to court Elizabeth, you were hateful to me. Ever since Ramsgate—”
“Do you not see?” Georgiana cried. “I was miserable and unhappy. I could only think of making others as miserable as me.” Her lips trembled, and her breath came in shuddery gasps. “I suppose I managed that quite well.”
“And do you feel better for it?”
“No!” Georgiana sobbed. “You have been such a good brother to me, and I do not deserve any of your kindness. Even now you are not scolding me or casting me away when I have destroyed your happiness.”
Will watched as she buried her face in her hands. Her shoulders shook with the effort of her tears. At first, he was uncertain if she were genuine. Perhaps this was an added effort to gain information and pass it to Wickham. Will still believed Wickham was involved in some way.
“Have you been in contact with Wickham?”
Georgiana paled. “Yes,” she whispered.
“For how long?”
“I never stopped corresponding with him after Ramsgate. I have not seen him here, though. I did not know he was here! He would sometimes reply to my notes but not for the last week.”
“And it is this defection which has opened your eyes?”
Georgiana soberly nodded. “He used me just as you always said he did.”
“Did you tell him anything about Elizabeth or me?”
“No. You told me nothing. Sure enough, he lost interest when he realised he could discover nothing through me.”
“Why were you so miserable if he pretended to be the constant lover?”
Georgiana shrugged. “I knew nothing about our relationship was right. I knew I was hiding the truth from myself. I was so hurt and lost after Father died. And you…you were even more lost than me. I know now it was because of Elizabeth.”
Will squeezed her hands. “But at the time, you thought I was rejecting you.”
“You sent me to school.”
“As was always Father’s plan.”
“But things had changed! Father had died—surely the plan needed to be reconsidered. Did you know I was afraid of inns for years?”
Will exhaled and squeezed his eyes shut.
“For years it would take days of travel from Pemberley to go to London. Night after night at an inn and I had thought that if only you had let me stay at home…”
“I am sorry. I never knew.”
“And there were times I refused to have a fire in my room at school. Did they ever tell you that?”
“No. How did you not freeze?”
“I would frequently wear every petticoat and pair of stockings I owned to bed.” Georgiana chuckled at the memory. “The other girls found me peculiar, and I had no friends. Except for…”
“Except for when Wickham would visit you?”
Georgiana nodded, tears filling in her eyes once more. “I thought he was the only one who understood me.”
“Now, I know he has only played the charming lover. I do not even know myself.”
Will pulled his sister into an embrace. “We all lose our way sometimes. What matters is that we get back up, determined to right our wrongs, and do better.”
Georgiana nodded against his shoulder. “I would acknowledge it was as you did with Elizabeth, but then I ruined that for you!”
“Do not fear for Elizabeth or me,” Will patted his sister’s back. “We do not know what the future holds. Years ago, I thought I had lost my only chance at her and happiness in life. Who says I will only have one second chance?”
Suddenly, Georgiana pulled back. Her face looked stony and determined, but her eyes held the old affection for her brother which he had not seen in months. “You must stop him, brother. Do not rest until you do.”
A ghost of a smile appeared on Will’s face. “I thought you did not believe he was capable of hurting anyone?”
“I also thought I knew everything about him and everyone else. I am learning that I am not as wise as I thought. If you say there is proof of his misdeeds, I believe you.”
Happy at her words but conscious of what Elizabeth had cautioned about anyone knowing of their plans, he was careful with his words. “Wickham will be stopped at all costs.”
Georgiana smiled slightly and nodded. “I do hope you can forgive me. I was a selfish beast and never meant to cost you Elizabeth’s devotion.”
“You are my sister,” Will said. “I determined to forgive you long ago.”
The siblings embraced again before Georgiana left the chamber. Assured of his privacy, he wrote a missive to Mr. Bennet, stating his request. If Harcourt had a spy in one of the households or someone watching one of the houses, it should pass suspicion that Will needed to communicate with the man who was once to be his father-in-law. There were legal matters to resolve.
After sending the letter via Evans, Will sat back in his chair. Soon, he and Elizabeth would be married. Elizabeth’s notion of drawing Harcourt out was as good as any. Will allowed himself to hope that someday all their troubles would be at an end.