Previous Chapters: One / Two
On Christmas Day, Elizabeth awoke to silence. She had accepted her aunt and uncle’s offer for this journey so she could be rid of the memories in Hertfordshire which haunted her. Her mother had never recovered from Lydia’s death. She blamed her husband in a variety of ways. As such, there was even less peace than usual in the household. Mary droned on and on about the importance of virtue and hopes that Lydia sought divine forgiveness before her demise. Jane forced cheerfulness while Kitty alternated between wailing almost as hard as Mrs. Bennet and wishing she had gone to Brighton and got a husband. Whatever comforts Longbourn once posed for Elizabeth were long gone.
She stupidly had thought they could have an enjoyable Christmas holiday away from cares of the past. Yet, here they were in an area with an embargo on Christmas cheer and a man suffered much like she did. She looked for him at church, but soon understood he attended a parish closer to his home. Before returning to the inn, they walked past the Lambton graveyard and paused at the Fisher mausoleum to remember Mrs. Gardiner’s sister who died too young. Elizabeth keenly felt her inability to do such a thing for Lydia. Not only was she not at Longbourn, but her sister was also buried at some church in Newcastle—which her mother often bemoaned. At least Mr. Darcy could visit his sister’s graveside.
Despite her best efforts, Elizabeth spent the rest of the day in a morose frame of mind. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner allowed her as much privacy as they could although they dined with the Fishers once more. That evening, not even the puppies could lift her spirits.
Boxing Day dawned with sunny skies, and Elizabeth felt the call to walk in the crisp air. She had spent too much time indoors yesterday, that was the cause of her melancholy. Once more, she walked in the direction of Pemberley. She had not meant to walk so far but soon saw a tenant cottage. Mr. Darcy stood outside with his arms full of a basket and blankets. A family gathered at the door before inviting him into their home.
Curiosity compelled Elizabeth forward. Something about Mr. Darcy had drawn her notice since she first heard of him. Mr. Fisher and Aunt Gardiner greatly revered him while Mr. Wickham and others made him seem unbearable. The paradox intrigued her.
As she considered seeing him again, she could not forget their last encounter. He had been so kind and comforting and then so cold and aloof. Did he think she meant to entrap him? Was he embarrassed by her behaviour? Quelling her courage, she determined to speak with Mr. Darcy when he emerged.
As she passed the house to continue on the path, where undoubtedly he would need to walk and therefore their meeting could appear accidental, Elizabeth could hear the squealing delights of children at new toys. What kind of master was he? Her own father did not deliver the Boxing Day bundles, nor did her mother. Such tasks had long fallen to Elizabeth and her eldest sister. Perhaps Miss Darcy had handed out the baskets, and Mr. Darcy now went in her stead?
A moment or two later, she heard the cottage door open and close, the family calling out thanks and best wishes to their landlord. A few more feet down the path and Darcy must have observed her for he called her name.
Elizabeth turned and gave him a smile, encouraged when he returned it. When he approached, she curtsied. “I hope you will forgive me for walking on your property again. You can see that I have no shears with me this time.”
“I ought not to have accosted you that way. I apologise.” He motioned forward, and they proceeded to walk.
Elizabeth raised a brow. “Have you suddenly partaken of the Christmas spirit or are you apologizing only because I am kin to Mr. Fisher?”
Darcy paused. “If I thought I should have apologised only because your acquaintances are known to me, then I should have on Christmas Eve.”
At the mention of that evening, Elizabeth could not help the blush which spread upon her cheeks.
“I was in a foul mood. You see, my sister perished on Christmas Eve.”
“I am very sorry,” Elizabeth said and felt a stronger tug on her heart than she had felt even before. “I had hoped Christmas would not be so trying for you.”
“That is very kind of you,” Darcy acknowledged. “Kinder than perhaps most others when they first meet a new acquaintance and far kinder than I deserve after I treated you so horribly.”
“It is no more than I would do for anyone in such a situation,” Elizabeth said and met his eyes. She wanted him to know that she did not set her cap at him. “It is not as though I do not know the pain of losing a sister,” she added.
“And how was Christmas for you, then? Do your parents live? Do you have any other siblings whom you are not with on this holiday?”
Elizabeth nodded. “My parents do live, and I have three other living sisters. One is older than me, and the other two are younger. Lydia was the youngest.”
“You must be close to each other. There were more than ten years between Georgiana and me. I fear she found me old and boring. She would have much preferred a sister.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “Do not presume you know a woman’s mind, sir. I would have much rather had a brother. Sisters are fare too prone to steal your best and favorite things.”
A ghost of a smile played on Mr. Darcy’s lips. “I suppose she was not in much danger of me stealing her things. However, perhaps everyone always wants what they have not experienced.”
Elizabeth cocked her head. “Does that mean you had wished for a younger brother?”
“For many years, yes,” Darcy laughed. “I desired a playmate.”
“Were there no other boys near your age? I did not think it would be so unusual to play with the children of servants, even.” Elizabeth watched his reaction to her words. She had begun to wonder about George Wickham’s report. Mr. Darcy seemed contradictory but could he be so cruel as to fire Mr. Wickham for no reason and not give George the living?
“There was one boy with whom I was friendly,” Darcy acknowledged. “He was the son of my father’s steward, and for a time we were the best of friends.”
“Nothing exceptional,” Darcy shrugged. “Children of different circumstances often cannot remain friends forever. I was the heir, and he was the steward’s son.”
Elizabeth frowned at his words. Mr. Darcy had been too proud to play with George!
“I did not expect to offend you,” Darcy said. “What has upset you?”
“I am neither offended nor upset,” Elizabeth hastened to say. It would not do for him to think that she had some personal feelings about the matter, although she was certainly disappointed in him. “I was only surprised to hear that your father would make it a point to end your friendship given what you said last night about having to learn every part of running an estate.”
“It was not Father that ended our friendship,” Darcy said. “Nothing would have made my father happier as he greatly depended upon Mr. Wickham. No, the younger Wickham showed a vicious propensity but concealed it from our fathers. I could not in good conscience continue the friendship.”
“How could that be? How could it be so concealed?”
“My father sent him to Eton with me. It was there that these traits came forward, but Wickham was always charming enough, so nothing was ever sent home.”
Elizabeth nodded. She did not doubt that George might have chosen the wrong path as a boy—after all, many do. However, the man she had met was very gentlemanly. She remained silent for a moment as she decided if she would rather know more about the younger or older Wickham. She knew if she pushed too hard, he would tell her nothing.
“I believe Mr. Fisher has spoken of the older Mr. Wickham with great respect,” she observed.
“Indeed. He was a faithful steward to my father and a talented solicitor before they met. I regret that he chose to resign upon my father’s death. I could have greatly benefited from his skill.”
Elizabeth fought to retain a neutral expression upon her face. George had told Elizabeth that his father was fired. Who was it was lying? Or perhaps there had been some misunderstanding? If George had not been there, then he would only hear it from his father’s mouth, but why would Mr. Wickham lie to his son?
“Mr. Wickham must have been very frugal to send his son to University. The younger Mr. Wickham must know how fortunate he was.”
“I am afraid not,” Darcy said. “His wife was a spendthrift, and their son has inherited her ways. I do not say this to boast, but my father paid for George’s schooling.”
“I suppose he had wanted the younger Mr. Wickham to follow in his father’s stead? First a solicitor and then his steward?”
Darcy shook his head. “No, George was intended for the church. Upon my father’s death, he resigned any such claim. I had long believed him ill-suited to the office.”
“Then how came he to be a solicitor?” Elizabeth turned her face to see Darcy’s, but he studiously avoided looking at her.
“He inherited some funds…and an interested patron assisted his quest to enter law.”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. Mr. Darcy was obviously the interested patron. “I am surprised he settled only for becoming a solicitor. If he had such a benevolent patron, he might have become a barrister. His fortune as a London lawyer would be far greater than a country attorney.”
“Indeed. I believe he had a greater interest in remaining near Lambton.”
“His father’s failing health?” Darcy visibly tensed. “I believe it is now my turn to apologise. I have been inquiring too deeply. You may even think me a gossip.”
Darcy cased walking and turned to her. “I do not think you are a gossip.”
“Indeed? I am happy to hear it, but you seemed quite unhappy with me last night.”
“You make me nervous,” he explained. “You unsettle me. You are too perceptive, too clever. I am nothing but an open book bleeding my heart and soul as ink to your beautiful eyes.”
Elizabeth’s breath caught after his impassioned speech. “You sent me away. I did not mean—I would never intend—for such things to happen,” Elizabeth blushed. “The emotion clouded my judgment.”
Darcy tilted his head. “Do you believe that I disapproved of you last evening? I was honoured to bring you comfort in your distress—I believe you do not generally give into it.”
Elizabeth licked her lips. Was she brave enough to address their near-kiss? He had felt something too, had he not? Was it all just because of his pain? That he had shared it with her? Or was there something more? She had never felt this with any other gentleman.
“I was angry with myself,” he explained, as he stepped closer.
“I do not believe in taking advantage of maidens. I had accidentally intruded upon your privacy and had hoped to provide a balm during your grief. My reaction to such was disgusting.” He stepped even closer, and his eyes searched hers.
Elizabeth furrowed her brow. “I intruded upon your privacy this morning, and I am not grieving at the moment.” She hoped he understood although she could hardly explain it herself. She welcomed his attentions and trusted him.
“Elizabeth,” he said in a ragged breath and reached forward to stroke her cheek.
Elizabeth shivered and leaned into the contact. He pulled his hand back, and she mourned the loss of his touch. Unexpectedly, he tore his gloves off and shoved them in his coat pocket before returning his hands to her face.
“You are like ice!” he murmured as he stroked her rosy flesh.
Elizabeth mutely nodded as she watched the cloudy puffs of breath he created with each word. “I do not mind.”
She licked her lips to say more, but he groaned at her action. Before her brain could form another thought, he had pressed his lips to hers. She sighed at the contact, then he wrapped his arms around her. Her own wrapped around his waist. Fire replaced the cold she felt.
Suddenly, he jerked back. “Forgive me,” he whispered between deep exhales.
“There is nothing to forgive,” Elizabeth said shyly. She would not repent his kiss.
“Even still, I had meant to ask first.”
She smiled. “Doing first and asking forgiveness later has always been my preferred method.” Darcy chuckled, and Elizabeth rejoiced that she could bring him happiness, if even for a moment.
“May I kiss you again?”
Elizabeth nodded and smiled her consent. Then, Mr. Darcy’s soft lips met hers again and again. She had never kissed a man before. A stolen kiss from a neighbor boy when twelve hardly counted. Darcy’s kiss was warm and assured—not sloppy like that long ago experience.
He angled his head and continued to drink of her lips, experimenting with pressure and duration. Soon, he touched his tongue to her mouth. The tickling sensation made her laugh, and the tip of her tongue touched his. It sent a ripple of excitement through her body, and she gripped his waist harder, aware that his arms had tightened around her as well.
Curious and insatiable, she allowed him to tangle his tongue with hers, gliding and stroking until she thought she would melt or explode. Each touch was more pleasurable than the last, and still, she felt as though she were on a quest for some higher sensation. Their meeting became frantic, and Darcy walked her backward. Her back thumped gently against a tree, and he lifted her up, strong arms under her legs. The kisses were even more incredible from this position—he did not have to bend his head as much, and she was not on tiptoe. She wrapped her arms around his neck for balance.
Finally, Darcy slowed their kisses and brought her feet to the ground. The stood facing another one with grins on their faces as they caught their breath.
“Well, I’m not cold any longer,” Elizabeth laughed.
Darcy joined her, but the desire in his eyes had not lessened. It was as heady as the best wine.
“I am glad I could be of service.” He touched his forehead to hers. “I do not understand what you do to me, Elizabeth.”
She nodded for she did not understand it either, only she never wanted it to stop. For her, it was not merely an attraction or his intoxicating kisses. Since hearing about his sister, she could not help feeling that there was a connection between them. They understood something deep about one another. This time, it was Elizabeth who acknowledged she should return to her family.
“May I call on you at the inn?” Darcy asked.
“I would be distraught if you did not.”
“Yes,” Elizabeth said. “You did say you felt it your duty to ease my feelings in times of distress. I hope you will not add to it.”
“Never,” he vowed before sealing it with a kiss.
As Elizabeth returned to Lambton, she realised that she believed him. Aware that she was letting go of her usual cautiousness, she consciously chose to not look for reasons to doubt his honour and not to question the future they could have.