Previous Chapters: One
Fitzwilliam Darcy stomped through his woods toward the great house on the hill. It sat empty now; more like a tomb than a home. He should not have allowed the beautiful termagant to get under his skin, but he was in a foul mood this day. He could not forget that on this day three years ago, his sister died bringing a Wickham child into the world. However, the man that defiled her and brought about her death likely even now did not mourn her. He was probably too busy slaking his lust with the tavern maids to remember his departed wife.
Darcy clenched and unclenched his fists. He had been invited to Mr. Fisher’s for the evening, and he needed to calm himself. The year of Georgiana’s death, most of the area mourned with him. The following year, most people continued to remember her and did not invite him to festivities out of deference. Last year, invitations began again. This year, it was clear the rest of the world had moved on.
He knew the area depended upon him to lead in the Christmas spirit. His parents had hosted lavish balls for the gentry and gatherings for the townspeople, even the tenants. His sister had inherited their mother’s compassionate and lively character. For years she would plan each activity, insisted upon finding the yule log themselves, and showed the housemaids the best way to tie bows.
Perhaps if Darcy did not blame himself, he could more readily join the others. However, it was all his fault. He had failed her at some point, or she would not have eloped with the steward’s son. She returned to Pemberley a few weeks later, her new husband said he did not have the means to support her. Would she not allow them to live there?
Darcy had doubted the legality of the marriage. He journeyed to Gretna Green to find proof that they had actually reached the town and wed. It was a stupid custom, in his opinion, to allow anyone to marry over an anvil. However, his most significant concern was that they had never reached Scotland and George only used her for his pleasure.
He should have known better. Why would George miss an opportunity to attach himself to Darcy money, and thirty thousand pounds at that? The fact that George never asked for her money confused Darcy even more. Before anything was decided legally, she perished from pregnancy complications.
Pushing aside the memories, Darcy approached his dressing room. His valet awaited him with a bath and shaving supplies. These simple things had kept him going during the darkest days of his grief. Wearing the luxurious fabrics his wealth afforded him, the deferential murmurs and gazes of servants, having everything designed precisely to his liking all soothed him and reminded him that Pemberley, at least, he could control.
As it was, he both hated any mention of Georgiana and resented it when she was not brought up. What made him accept Mr. Fisher’s invitation, he was not sure. He had rejected offers from all the local gentry. Perhaps it was because Mr. Fisher knew his grief. His oldest daughter died at Georgiana’s age and the other married about ten years ago. As such, Mr. Fisher always knew exactly what to say—never too much and never too little.
At the appropriate time, Darcy arrived at Mr. Fisher’s house. He was shown into the drawing room and was surprised to see several faces he did not know. Mr. Fisher soon performed introductions and Darcy met his younger daughter, who had married a gentleman named Gardiner. With them was Mr. Gardiner’s niece, Elizabeth Bennet. The young lady was facing away from Darcy when he entered, but something about the way she held herself seemed familiar to him. When she finished her conversation with another guest, and Mr. Fisher went to introduce Elizabeth to Darcy, she turned to look at him.
They each visibly started, and Darcy was aware of the curious gazes of others. Why Miss Bennet was confused to see was him, Darcy did not know. Did she not believe him when he had introduced himself in the woods? For that matter, why should he be surprised to see her? She did say she was a relation to Mr. Fisher. Elizabeth’s lips turned up into an enchanting smile, and Darcy felt his pulse quicken. He had thought her exceedingly pretty in the forest with her rosy cheeks and eyes brightened by exercise and their conversation. However, he was even more annoyed by her trespassing, especially to collect holly berries.
“It is a pleasure to meet to, you Mr. Darcy,” she said and curtsied. “I have heard much about you.”
“Indeed?” What had been said about him? By now, he should know that all visitors to the area had heard of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Pemberley. Due to the situation of his birth, Darcy would never have the privacy other gentlemen experienced. This was nothing new, and yet he felt jealous that anyone else had spoken of him to Miss Bennet. Then again, he probably did not leave her with a very good impression of himself given their encounter in the woods.
“My Aunt and Mrs. Fisher have told me many stories of Pemberley and its Christmas celebrations. I confess I am sorry to miss them.”
What a clever minx she was! She did not tell him she had heard anything bad of him. She only acknowledged that she heard of Pemberley’s festivities and now they were gone. That she disapproved of the change was left unsaid. Darcy hardly cared whether she condoned his choices or not. What could she know of his trials?
Before he could reply, dinner was called. Mrs. Fisher had ordered a delicious meal and Darcy noted there were not too many decorations. There was one, however, the that struck him. Mrs. Fisher saw him looking at it.
“Miss Darcy embroidered that screen,” she pointed to where he was staring. “She gave it to me mere days before we heard the sad news of her demise. She had said she knew I would appreciate always having dear Harriet with us.” Mrs. Fisher wiped a tear from her eye. “She was such a sweet, loving child. I greatly miss her.”
“I am sure you do, ma’am,” was all Darcy could say lest he be given to tears as well.
“I do not cry for Harriet,” she said. “I do still miss her and always will, but a distance of twenty years eases the pain. No, I meant Miss Darcy. It seems as though she had just come back to us after her years at school only for them to be cut short. I like to think that Harriet is watching over Georgiana and teaching her the ways of Heaven.”
When she had done every eye at the table was misty and looked at Darcy with pity. Every eye, except for Elizabeth Bennet’s. Oh, he saw sympathy in them. However, he also saw curiosity. Darcy internally groaned. He had thought when they first met she would be too uncivil to mind her own business. She said she had heard of him, which he took to mean she had asked after him. Yet she did not seem to know about Georgiana’s existence let alone of her death. What was it the others had said about him? To him, Georgiana’s death made his entire world. It was his duty to protect his baby sister, and he had failed. There could be no going back from that.
Mr. Fisher quickly turned the conversation to other things and Darcy mentally think him. After the meal, the ladies went to the drawing room, but Darcy excused himself from remaining with the men under the guise of needing to check on his horse. He needed a moment to collect himself. As he slowly approached the stable, he heard the voices of young children and laughter. He was in no mood for such mirth, and thought to leave, but stepped on a twig which made a loud snapping sound. There was sudden silence then a flurry of whispering from inside the stable.
“Who goes there?” A young boy called out.
“I am Mr. Darcy,” Darcy said.
“Mr. Darcy!” Elizabeth’s voice said.
“You may enter,” the voice of the first child said. “But keep your hands where I can see them. Or else we will make you walk the plank.”
Intrigued and enjoying the idea of the distraction the children would give, Darcy chuckled and entered the stable with his hands high in the air. “I come unarmed. I mean you no harm.”
“That is for us to decide,” another boy said. “Lizzy you pat him down and see if he has weapons.”
Immediately, Darcy and Elizabeth both blushed red. She would not dare obey, would she? If she did, it would only prove what he had expected of her. She was mercenary and hoping to entrap him. Darcy had met many greedy ladies in his life. However, for some reason his heart sank at the idea of the young lady who would argue with him and had sat across from him at dinner all night without simpering and seeking his good opinion would be as shallow as nearly every other woman he had ever met.
“That will be quite unnecessary, Joshua,” Elizabeth said as she blushed and averted her eyes.
“That’s Captain!” the boy cried.
“Yes, of course.”
“Ye can stay if ye swab the deck,” Captain Joshua said and pointed to a shovel and a stable needing cleaning.
Elizabeth watched Darcy as he obediently took the shovel in hand and expertly began scooping out the stable. He could nearly feel Elizabeth’s eyes grow wide in wonder. The boys voiced their amazement.
“Who knew a stuffed shirt could shovel so well!”
“Caleb!” Elizabeth scolded.
“What?” the boy asked in a confused voice.
“It is disrespectful to call Mr. Darcy—or anyone—a stuffed shirt.”
“But he is.”
Elizabeth sighed. “If you want a position in the house when you get older like your father, then you will have to mind your manners.”
Darcy set aside the shovel for a moment and turned to watch the scene. Elizabeth stood before the boys with hands on her hips and a severe expression. The younger boy had his arms folded on his chest, and his face displayed an impressive stubbornness.
“Now, you should apologise to Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth said.
“I ain’t,” Caleb said and raised his chin in defiance.
“Then, I shall tell your father.”
“Come on,” Joshua said and placed a hand on his brother. “Let’s just finish our work. Get on with it, so Papa isn’t told.”
“Fine,” Caleb stomped his foot and turned to Darcy. “I’m sorry for calling you a stuffed shirt since it looks like you’re not.”
Darcy would have chuckled, but Elizabeth continued to look displeased.
“I’m sorry for calling you a stuffed shirt.” Caleb bowed.
“You are forgiven,” Darcy said. “A lot of gentlemen do stuff their shirts after all.”
Elizabeth gasped and covered her mouth to muffle a giggle while the boys outright laughed.
“No wonder Papa likes you,” Joshua said.
Strangely, Darcy wondered if he had ever heard higher praise. He knew his own servants respected him, but to be liked by another’s staff was more remarkable. After all, he did not pay them. “Tell your father that I appreciate his good opinion. Jessop is one of the best butlers I have encountered.”
Again, Elizabeth gasped, and Darcy wondered why she seemed so astonished to hear him praise a servant.
“How did you get so good at shoveling manure?” Caleb asked and came closer. All his earlier defiance and anger was long gone.
“My father gave me such tasks when I was about your age,” he answered. “He thought I needed to know every facet of running an estate.”
Caleb scooted even closer. “Didn’t you hate it? It smells something awful.”
Darcy chuckled. “One becomes accustomed to it, as they do with everything.” Well, nearly everything. He had not entirely become accustomed to losing Georgiana. “Come, show me. I would wager a pence you cannot clean all this area in five minutes.”
“I sure can!” Caleb said.
In his haste to take the shovel from Darcy, the boy knocked over a pail. The noise startled a litter of puppies.
“Oh, the pups! They are why I came to the stables in the first place,” Elizabeth said. “Will you show me them now, boys?”
Joshua looked between Darcy and Elizabeth. “If I scoop out the other stall will I also get a pence?”
“Let me see,” Darcy said. “It is only fair if yours is fuller.” Darcy looked at the stall in question and nodded to the boy. “Very well.”
Joshua turned to Elizabeth. “Maybe Mr. Darcy can show you the pups. We’ve got work to do!”
Darcy had not considered staying any longer but was not averse to the suggestion. He glanced at Elizabeth whose eyes danced in joy as she watched the boys. She turned her gaze to him, and wariness flickered across her face.
“I should return to the house. It will be dark soon, and I would not wish to trouble you.” She turned to leave.
Panic welled in Darcy. She should not leave so soon. He had been wrong in his first impression and now desired to know more of the contradictory lady before him with her smart retorts but cautious looks. “It is no trouble,” he said. “I know the way quite well, and I think I might need to clean off my boots.”
Elizabeth angled her head to glance at his boots. “Very well, sir.”
Darcy gave her a small smile, and the lines between her brows returned. He grabbed a bucket and brush before they walked out and to the other edge of the stable. The dog pen opened to the outside and the furry lumps fell over each other to reach Elizabeth. Darcy sat on a stool and got to work on his boots, watching Elizabeth snuggle each pup as though they were meant for lap dogs and not hunting. Georgiana had been the same. She had such a tender heart for any living creature.
“Would you care to hold one?” Elizabeth asked.
He should not. He was scraping manure off his boots like some common man, and now he would get puppy fur on his fine blue coat. A refusal was on the tip of his tongue but one look into Elizabeth’s eyes and his resolve melted. He wordlessly held out his hands, mourning the fact that their fingers would have touched if not for the leather of their gloves.
The small bundle had no care for Darcy’s masculine dignity and proceeded to lick his face while yapping happily. Despite himself, Darcy felt his lips turn up in a smile. Soon, he was laughing at the tickling sensation.
“I knew it,” Elizabeth smiled.
“It is impossible to be unhappy near a puppy.”
Her words made Darcy lower his handful, the puppy whined in protest. “You believed I was unhappy?”
Elizabeth gave him a shaky smile and tears shimmered in her eyes. “Anyone who has lost a sister would be.”
“Your aunt does not seem unhappy.”
“No, but as Mrs. Fisher said, it was many years ago. We lost Lydia just last year and…”
She trailed off and could not continue. Her shoulders shook. Darcy deposited his dog back in the pen and took Elizabeth’s from her hands. Leading her to the stool, she sat, and he crouched to wipe the tears from her face.
“Lydia was your sister?” Darcy asked.
Elizabeth somberly nodded. “The last time I ever saw her I called her silly and stupid. How the words haunt me!”
Darcy’s heart squeezed for the young lady before him. His last words to Georgiana were not unkind, but they had spent months arguing about George. “What happened?”
He had expected to hear of some awful accident. Instead, Elizabeth told him her sister eloped with an officer from the Militia that was encamped near her estate.
“She was too young,” Elizabeth sighed. “She had just turned sixteen, and the baby was too big, we were told.”
Elizabeth’s tears turned to sobs, and at the similarities in their pain, he was helpless against drawing her to his chest and wrapping his arms around her. She soon settled and pulled back, the perplexed look upon her face again. Darcy watched as a lone tear glittered in an eye filled with remorse and pain. She blinked, and the tear escaped, streaking down her cheek. Darcy caught it with his thumb as it brushed her lips. Lips which now captivated him. He angled his head down, not thinking or caring for anything but this moment with a beautiful woman in his arms who could share his pain. Elizabeth did not protest or move a muscle. Just before their mouths met, Darcy heard the pounding sound of running feet.
He jerked back, desire making it hard to breathe or focus. Elizabeth’s eyes grew wide with terror.
“Mr. Darcy, it’s been longer than five minutes, but we finished, sir!” Joshua called.
“I finished first!” Caleb yelled.
“Just a moment.” Darcy looked over his shoulder at the boys. “Go on back, I will be right there.”
From the angle Darcy sat at, Elizabeth was shielded from their view unless they came any closer. They obeyed, and Elizabeth let out a sigh. Darcy released Elizabeth from his hold, and she practically jumped from him.
“I—I—” she stammered then shook her head. “You are not what I first thought,” she said with wrinkled brow but growing more comfortable. “Thank you.” She approached and moved to place a hand on his arm.
“Return to the house, Miss Bennet,” Darcy said coldly.
What had just happened—nay, almost happened—could never be. He knew nothing about her but that her uncle was a merchant, her aunt the daughter of a shopkeeper and the magistrate, and she had a sister who eloped. Once, he would have scoffed at the sister’s morals and maybe questioned the entire Bennet family, but he could not cast the first stone. Whether of a good family or not, Darcy was not the sort of man who would steal a kiss from an innocent maiden. He would not be inconsiderate to her expectations and feelings. He would not be like his brother-in-law! Angry at himself and the bewitching spell she had cast over him, he infused all his frustration into his tone. Even still, Elizabeth hesitated.
“Now!” He said furiously as he turned to find the boys.