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Over the days since Darcy had last seen Elizabeth, he considered her words over and over again. What did she understand about these things? What did she know of the tricks George used to play on him or the empty promises?
Still, he could not forget her voice and expression when she spoke of love. For a moment, a glorious moment, he had thought it was directed at him. That she had a great capacity to love was clear to him from their earliest acquaintance. It must have only been his vanity which supposed she cared for him.
The evening of the intended Twelfth Night ball, Darcy gave his staff leave to attend. He said he would retire early. Instead of going to his chamber, he turned to his sister’s. It was left just as had been during Georgiana’s life. In one corner there was a trunk full of the baby items she had begun accruing.
She always promised that he would see the difference in Wickham. She vowed that once their child was born, I would see the gentleness she had always known. He admitted only to himself that for the sake of his niece or nephew, he would have tried. Had Georgiana lived, he would have tried to look for the best in Wickham. Now? Now, it was all too late.
Worse than earning Georgiana’s love, Wickham now had Elizabeth’s. Darcy had fought it. He had not wanted to admit it for every person he had ever loved had been taken from him. However, Darcy had to do Wickham the credit of saying he loved the very best. His father had been one of the best men. He was still talked of as the best landlord and master. Georgiana was the sweetest and tenderest person. He was not prejudiced; many people said so of her. Elizabeth had accepted all but the very worst in him and had pushed for him to be more. She was the sort of woman with whom a man could grow old.
Do you doubt love’s ability to change a person—or rather to reveal their truth?
What did who George loved say about him? Darcy had always thought that George had merely taken advantage of Mr. Darcy and Georgiana. However, Elizabeth had no long-standing relationship with him. The best people Darcy had every known respected and loved George. If nothing else, he must give George credit for loving the most deserving.
He always loved the very people Darcy loved. What was it that made them different? George seemed most willing to do anything to gain the love of those he sought. He had always assumed it was Georgiana who was unwilling to have George ask about the dowry. However, if that were the case then why did he still not ask for it after all these years? They were legally wed. He had a claim to the money.
A thought pricked his heart, but he tossed it aside. No. There were many reasons to not request Georgiana’s dowry, the likely fact that Darcy would refuse would be high among them. That could not be proof that George had loved his sister.
Love cannot be proven with words, Elizabeth’s voice echoed in his mind, mocking him. George’s actions might just prove that he had loved Georgiana.
Love cannot be proven. His mind fixated on that portion of Elizabeth’s argument. He had asked his sister again and again how she was certain that she really loved Wickham. Darcy had demanded proof that Wickham loved her in return. What proof was there that he had loved Georgiana? During her final weeks, he had argued with her over her marriage. What proof had he given Elizabeth that he loved her?
Next, he recalled his father’s words that forgiveness could never be earned. There was nothing in the world Wickham could do which would make Darcy forgive him for all he had done. There was nothing that would compel him to trust the man once more. However, he could freely grant the forgiveness.
Determined, Darcy set off to find his housekeeper. Pemberley would be a place of Christmas celebration once more. Georgiana was gone, Elizabeth would never be his, and Wickham might never change.
A sound in the hall startled him from his thoughts. “Mr. Darcy?” the familiar voice of Mr. Fisher called out.
Darcy left his sister’s chamber and found the aging magistrate climbing the stairs. “Pray, do not trouble yourself any further. I apologise that you had to seek me out. I gave the staff time to attend the ball.” The ball that used to be held at Pemberley, he added.
“Yes, I came to see you about that.” Mr. Fisher took Darcy’s offered arm as they returned down the stairs and to a nearby drawing room. Darcy waited for the older man to catch his breath in a chair before continuing. “Stevens came up with some ridiculous scheme of charging an admittance. He nearly caused a riot and wanted me to enforce the crowd to disperse. It is a good thing Lizzy suggested they celebrate outside or who knows what might have happened. The people have been denied their Christmas celebrations for too long.”
“Miss Bennet suggested they hold the ball outside?”
“There was no other place of suitable size,” Fisher said.
Except for Pemberley, Darcy added. It would be impossible to host them all now, but if he had thought ahead, it would have gone as splendidly as it always had. “I am pleased it all worked out well. I am surprised to hear they are holding it out of doors. What has been done regarding heating and refreshments?”
“We convinced a few shopkeepers to empty their front rooms to serve as warming places. Refreshments consist of day-old bread and leftover soups and like. Few people made a meal for they had counted on the ball. However, we all worked together, and I think we have near enough. What is food and drink or a chill in the air compared to the comfort of friends?”
Darcy mulled over Mr. Fisher’s words. He ought to be disgruntled that people were so determined to make merry at a time which brought inexpressible pain to him. He had spent the last few years hating the holiday and any memory of his loss. Not just the loss of Georgiana but of anything good and beautiful in his life, of having any reason for happiness. He had hated that others had cause to celebrate or could despite their losses when he had felt entirely unequipped to continue living most days. Instead, it occurred to him that their reasons to celebrate might have nothing to do with the seeming perfection or simplicity of their lives. They rejoiced despite the difficulties. They had learned the value of contentment.
A new understanding filled him. It seemed clouds parted, and the sun shone around him, warmth filled his heart. He nearly felt Georgiana with him once more. It was for all those reasons she celebrated Christmas and gave to their community. Immediately, he knew what he must do.
“I have no staff present to assist us,” he said to Mr. Fisher, “but if you are up for it, we can see what the kitchens have and pack warm blankets as well. By the time we arrive, it will be late, but it may benefit some.”
Fisher agreed and they proceeded down the stairs. As they walked, Darcy talked. “Miss Bennet must be enjoying the dancing.”
He had heard her often say she enjoyed the activity. He had never liked it much, but he would have treasured dancing with Elizabeth. He would add that to the series of regrets he had about what no one else would have called a courtship. Instead of himself leading Elizabeth on the dance floor—or the streets, as it happened—it must be Wickham. Throughout everything that had passed over the last several days, that was the thought which hurt the most. He had proved unworthy compared to Wickham.
Fisher shook his head. “When I left, she was crying in a corner.”
Surely Wickham did not mistreat her. Darcy had doubted his old enemy much, but he had proved himself worthy of Elizabeth’s love, and he did not doubt the man would treat her well. It was the one balm he had. “Why?”
“I am sure I cannot say why a beautiful young lady would be crying at a ball practically given in her honour and with the praise of the host and every attendee; indeed all the area residents save one.”
Did Elizabeth cry because he was not present? Did her heart mourn their separation as his did? If there was even a chance she might love him…
The possibilities now swirling in Darcy’s mind made him work faster than ever. Just as his father had him train in stables, he had done menial tasks in the kitchen. He could not cook, but he could slice bread and slather it with butter and jam. The thought of Elizabeth cold, hungry, and needing comfort propelled him. He had cared for the well-being of others but to give ease to her situation motivated him further. After loading up the wagon, Fisher had wisely borrowed, Darcy impatiently drove the team to Lambton.
Pulling into the main street, they were greeted with cheers. The townspeople came to assist with the unloading and people low and high genuinely seemed happy to see him. However, Darcy had eyes for only one. He could not see her but was aware of murmurings in the crowd telling of his arrival. Hushed whispers now and then reached his ears. It had been his first time partaking of Christmas revelry since Georgiana died. For the first time, he did not resent their talk about the matter.
Suddenly, a movement caught his eye. Elizabeth cautiously emerged from a shop. She seemed uncertain it was he at first, and he moved in her direction. His heart hammered in his chest—everyone watched. They would all see his love for her. They would know if she rejected him. He no longer cared. Love was not love if it was hidden and concealed. The only opinion that mattered now was hers. Could she forgive him?
He could never say who began running first, but they met in the middle of the square. Elizabeth threw her arms around his neck, and he held her tight against him.
“I dared not hope you would come,” Elizabeth said even as her face was buried in his lapel. “I thought I would never see you again.”
“I wanted to come,” he murmured into her hair. “Every day, every moment away from you shredded my heart. And yet, I could not bring myself. There was too much pain, and I was so afraid.” He could hardly believe she was in his arms. She was not sending him away. She did not try to escape his embrace. With so many witnesses she must surely know only one thing could be possible and yet he wanted her to know she was his choice. She would always be his choice.
“Do not be afraid for my sake,” she said.
Darcy could be silent no longer. “I love you, Elizabeth. Our acquaintance has been very brief and fraught with struggle, but I know my heart shall ever beat for you. You taught me what it was to live again, how to love again. There is nothing I do not owe you. If you can ever forgive me, I would be most humbled if you would be my wife.”
Elizabeth’s hands tightened around his neck, and he felt her nod. Moving his hands up her back, he gently pulled her back by the shoulders. She looked to the ground, and he tilted her chin up with his thumb. “Is that a yes? You will marry me?”
“Yes,” she murmured as tears filled her eyes. “I love you so much—your pain has been my own. If you let me, I will always be your comfort.”
“Elizabeth,” Darcy breathed just before brushing his lips against hers.
“Ahem,” Darcy heard from behind his shoulder, and he knew it was Mr. Gardiner interrupting them.
“She has just consented to be my wife,” Darcy said without breaking his gaze with Elizabeth. “You cannot force me to do what I want most in the world.”
Gardiner chuckled. “Very well, sir, but keep your liberties private. Her mother would have a fainting fit if she heard of this. A very loud fit.”
Elizabeth giggled. “Oh, dear you have not met my mother!”
“Is that so dreadful?”
“I think it was infinitely clever of me to ensnare you here far away from my family,” Elizabeth teased.
“Did she say yes?” someone called from the crowd.
Darcy and Elizabeth blushed then laughed. Finally turning to face the townspeople, even as he kept an arm around Elizabeth, Darcy smiled. “Good people and neighbours,” he began. “It has been my privilege to know you all my life. My fondest memories are of the gatherings my family would host at Christmastide. Let me now say that next year we will do so again with a new mistress. Will you wish me joy?”
If Darcy lived to be a hundred, he would not forget the noise of a town full of people cheering him. For years, he had felt alone and forgotten. He never was—they only did not know how to care for him. He supposed he had been waiting for Elizabeth. Only she could thaw his heart.
He smiled down at her. “You do not mind, do you, love? The housekeeper and everyone else shall help. You see how easily pleased the people are. You need not plan anything elaborate.”
Elizabeth beamed in return. “I anticipate it more than anything.”
“Anything?” He raised a brow.
“Almost anything,” Elizabeth blushed.
The musicians had struck up once more. “May I have the honour of a set?” Darcy asked.
After their two sets, which had been interrupted many times for words of congratulations and well wishes, Darcy and Elizabeth entered a shop for refreshment. He thanked the milliner for his hospitality. The man, in turn, informed them of a large shipment he expected in the spring. Darcy and Elizabeth shared a look. The new Mrs. Darcy would be placing a large order, of course, Darcy promised. He supposed the milliner glowed in pride, but Darcy could not look away from his betrothed.
The door of the shop opened, and it seemed conversation ceased, but Darcy did not look up until he heard Wickham’s voice.
“May I speak with you, Mr. Darcy?”
Elizabeth squeezed Darcy’s arm where her hand lay. He took it to be a sign of encouragement. “Certainly.”
Wickham invited him to his home. He supposed if he were angry about not gaining Elizabeth’s affections he would have expressed so before her or would be unable to contain his anger. He could not fathom what the man intended to say. Once alone, besides old Mr. Wickham, the two sat.
“My congratulations,” Wickham said sincerely.
“I am surprised to hear you mean it so easily. I had thought you enamored with Elizabeth.” Pride welled in his heart at the right he had to call her by her Christian name.
“Oh, I admire her greatly. If she were to stay local, I would have wanted to become great friends, but only friends. I think you must understand now. A heart that has loved as strongly as ours cannot move on so easily. It was so for our fathers as well.”
“You really loved her?” Darcy asked.
This time, he determined to listen without preconceptions. Wickham attested that he had loved Georgiana, that she had brought out a side of him he had long forgotten. The angry young man who felt slighted by the world had ceased to rage. Finally, Darcy could see the sense of it all.
When asked, Wickham explained his reason for not requesting Georgiana’s dowry. He expressed a sincere desire for earning Darcy’s trust and sincere remorse for his actions of years ago. Darcy, in turn, had to ask forgiveness for his prejudice.
“I had assumed you resumed your reckless living. I knew how you favored Stevens’ tavern maids.”
“Barring my guests from entry is hardly how you reward a loyal client, I would think.” Darcy nodded in agreement. “I have not thought of another woman since seeing Georgiana on the beach at Ramsgate. However, I think I loved her even before. She always occupied a tender spot in my heart.”
Darcy listened in rapt attention as Wickham described some of his fondest memories of Georgiana. Why had he denied himself the comfort of reliving happy memories with the one person living who could share in them?
“If I had only taken the living, this entire feud might have been avoided,” Wickham said. “I was too angry with you after my father’s employment had been terminated, however, to do you any kind of justice.”
“Pardon me? I certainly never fired your father. I greatly depended upon him, even more than my father before me did. I was sincerely grieved upon his resignation, and it took several attempts before finding a trustworthy replacement.”
“I do not understand,” Wickham said while glancing at his father. “He told me in no uncertain terms that he was asked not to return and given a pension.”
“Of course, I gave him a pension after he left but it was not by my request,” Darcy said. “Please believe me.”
“Why would he lie?”
“I hesitate to call a man I respect so much a liar, and I am very sorry if there was some misunderstanding which led him to believe he was fired. I will gladly speak to you both about it later.”
Wickham shook his head. “This should end tonight. It has gone on long enough.” He gently woke his father.
“Father,” Wickham began after he had settled the aging man and retrieved tea and biscuits for him. “Darcy tells me he never fired you. Why did you tell me differently?”
Jacob Wickham flushed. “I never intended for you to know. I did not think it would be grounds for such a disagreement between you two.” He sighed. “The master spoiled you, George. You had never had to earn anything on your own. That living might have given you ease and wealth but what would it mean for your character to have had so much in life given to you out of connections?”
“Is that not how most high society works?” Darcy asked.
“I do not care about high society,” the older gentleman replied. “My departed wife spent too freely. She expected the very best and without thought of what it cost. George had already much of her ways in him. I only wanted to nudge him the direction of an independent path.” He hung his head. “Have you been unhappy in the office? Have I disappointed you greatly?”
“I am shocked,” Wickham answered. “However, you could never disappoint me. I am humbled to hear that you had found my character needing of improvement and thankful for the effort. I have not become some great man worth thousands or gaining the note of many, but I know I became the sort of man that would make you proud.”
“Always, my son,” Mr. Wickham said.
It was a tender scene that Darcy would have wished occurred with more frequency between him and his father before he died.
“Forgive me for lying to George,” Jacob directed at Darcy. “I did not mean to malign you.”
“Of course, sir,” Darcy nodded. “If you will excuse me, though, it grows late. I shall need to return to Pemberley soon.”
“I hope now that we have cleared this misunderstanding you will visit,” Jacob said.
“I would enjoy that,” Darcy agreed and entirely meant it.
“I will see you out.” George stood and walked with Darcy. “We once were as close as brothers and for a brief time truly were. Can we not mend our friendship? I do not deserve it—”
“Elizabeth has taught me that forgiveness cannot be earned. I am not blameless either. Let us put the past to rest.”
That night, Darcy fell asleep with peace and love in his heart. He had lost much but what did he lose that he had not gained? His sister was gone, but he had a brother should he let George be one. His father and mother had perished years ago, but through Elizabeth, he would gain parents. Would he not go through worse—even walk through hell itself—for Elizabeth? Perhaps it was life’s way of shaping his character as Mr. Wickham had attempted to do for George. He determined to awake the next day and to live life with real happiness. It did not mean there would be no bad days. However, just as surely as the sun always rose in the morning, bad days or seasons of life would end. Joy came in the morning.