The next morning, Darcy called on Longbourn. Elizabeth looked as though she did not sleep the night before. Dark shadows formed under her eyes, and he wished there was something in his power that would bring her peace. He could not stay for long, as he needed to leave for London, but he requested to walk in the garden with his betrothed.
“I am sorry you did not sleep last night,” he said as they walked around the fading greenery. Elizabeth had not taken his arm, but then he had not truly offered.
“How did you know?” she asked.
“Besides having experience in similar circumstances, I could see from your eyes that you had slept poorly.”
Elizabeth nodded. “There was much on my mind.”
“I wish I could say or do something that would bring immediate comfort. However, I cannot. Instead, I will tell you that I know your grief.”
“That is enough for now. Thank you. Yesterday, you told my father that you wished to marry me to prove yourself to your family. You had not explained such was your primary motive to me when you proposed.”
“And you agreed anyway. Do you think I was dishonest?”
Elizabeth blushed. “I do wonder at your more…ahem, passionate, words to me.”
Darcy stopped walking and looked Elizabeth in the eye. “If you are to doubt my admiration for you again, I shall have to prove it once more, despite the many pairs of eyes watching us.” He nodded over her shoulder to the window. Elizabeth turned to look as well, and immediately the curtain fluttered as several heads ducked out of view.
“They are incorrigible.”
“Curiosity is not always so awful.”
“That is true, but the lack of privacy in such a large family is irritating.”
“You would not like a big family, then? I had wondered if you might find it lonely away from Longbourn.”
Elizabeth blushed. “I had not considered the size of my future family very much. I do like children…” Her cheeks reddened further.
Darcy felt his own face flush. He had not meant to reference their hypothetical children. Thoughts of building a family with Elizabeth brought a warm sensation to his heart. Still, it was a dangerous line of thinking as it led to far more sensual imaginings. He cleared his throat. “I do, as well. Perhaps we could speak about that later. However, I meant in a more immediate sense. I have only one sister, and you have four, as well as parents. I fear I will be dull company.”
“I am not so sure about that,” she said, looking grateful for the change in topic.
“Really? I had thought you found me a bore.”
“Never that,” she chuckled. “No, I admit that I am a bit fascinated by you.”
Satisfaction filled him, followed by trepidation. “Why is that? You are not a silly flirt.”
“I should hope not!” Elizabeth feigned shock at his words. “Well, just when I think I have your character all figured out, you surprise me.”
“Indeed! In what ways?”
Elizabeth resumed walking, and Darcy followed her. “I had thought you a man of immense pride at our first meeting.”
Darcy clenched his jaw. It seemed his apprehension was warranted. Had he imagined that she returned any of his admiration? “Has that changed?”
“Not really.” She sighed. “You are proud. That is to be expected, given your situation in life. However, there are other facets to your character.” She paused, flicking a nervous glance at him, but Darcy remained silent. “You are intelligent and eloquent when you choose to speak. I have also seen aspects of good humour, civility, gallantry in the face of provocation, and most unexpectedly, kindness.”
“You can hardly suppose me of presuming a man of your stature would propose to a woman like me, let alone just as I needed a saviour. Even if you were inclined to consider me, a courtship would be the more reasonable route. We may not suit. We do not know one another well enough to be certain of that at all, and you are not in love with me. A proposal is an irreversible proposition and one you may regret. However, when you learned of my father’s illness and heard of Mr. Collins’ offer, you gave up a sensible plan and leaped to offering matrimony. You have mentioned the grief you felt upon your parents’ demise. I can only assume your heart was touched well beyond empathy. That is kindness itself, and far more than most would offer in such a situation. There is little for you to gain and much potential to lose in our arrangement.”
They had now walked some distance from the house. Looking back, he did not see signs that they continued to have an audience. “It sounds as though you are turning foolishness into a virtue.”
Elizabeth straightened her shoulders as though affronted. “I would not call marrying me foolish.”
“I must suppose then that you believe your marrying me is foolish.” He took a step forward.
She cast her eyes down. “I am saying we both made a decision in the height of emotion. You cannot be certain of our happiness as man and wife. You have offered me a reprieve from considerable anxiety, and I thank you for it. You know that I accepted out of fear for my family.”
“I do not make plans to test the waters. I make decisions with expected outcomes. I had determined to court you and yes, desired it to lead to marriage. I would not have offered the courtship if I was not certain I wanted to marry you.” Darcy lifted Elizabeth’s chin with his hand. “This is twice now that you have admitted you would have refused me. Does this go deeper than what you stated yesterday? You worry about more than my tiring of you and Society’s acceptance of you.”
For several breaths, Elizabeth held his eyes but did not speak. He searched for answers in them and found what she would not say. “You do not like me.”
He ought to release her from their betrothal. He should remove his hand from her face, but found he needed the liberty she afforded him. “You do not like me and fear you will be miserable tied to me.”
Elizabeth’s nostrils flared as she took a deep breath. Peering into her eyes, Darcy saw her fight for something to say—something to placate him. She licked her lips, and despite everything, he found himself yearning for another taste of them.
“I am determined to find a way to like you. I will make the most of my situation.”
“I suppose I should feel the compliment that no one had to talk you into accepting my proposal the way you needed for Mr. Collins.”
“Your offer was blatantly more sensible, and you are anything but ridiculous.”
“What am I then?” His head leaned a fraction of an inch closer to her. He could see her chest rapidly rise and fall and feel her pulse quicken. Did he intimidate her, or was she aware of the fire shooting in his veins and the crackling chemistry between?
Elizabeth remained mute.
“I am your husband. I will not free you. Instead, I shall endeavour to give you no reason to regret this.”
She raised her chin. “Then, I am your wife.”
Elizabeth’s shallow breaths matched his own. “Then I will kiss you like one.”
He could bear it no more. His lips crashed down on hers, claiming her mouth in a way that egged on the hunger he had for her. Pulling her close, his hands clutched her back as Elizabeth’s landed on his chest. Flicking his tongue over her lips, she allowed him entry. The first swipe of his tongue against hers made his eyes roll back in his head, and a groan came from his throat. Just one more second more, he told himself. Only one more taste of bliss.
Elizabeth’s hands crept up his chest and wrapped around his neck. Darcy pulled back, feeling her lips attempting to cling to his. Catching their breath, he leaned his forehead against hers. He struggled to find words to say; to find the strength to leave her.
“I do not understand why I can enjoy kissing you so much when I am not certain that I like you at all.” A gasp escaped her, and she slammed a hand over her mouth.
Darcy chuckled. He had kissed Elizabeth so senseless that she had said something she had not meant to voice aloud. “You are getting a taste of the exquisite torture I have felt since meeting you. I ought not to be so attracted to you, but after weeks of battle, I am far past fighting it.”
“Is that what this is? Attraction?”
Darcy nodded. “It is why I am so certain we shall find at least one way to be happy in our marriage.”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “Am I—am I wanton?”
“No,” Darcy insisted and gave her a reassuring kiss. “We are to be bound in holy matrimony in a matter of days. A husband and wife should desire each other this way. There will be times when we are displeased with one another, and this may be a uniting factor.”
“Is it not fleeting, though? You cannot build a marriage on lust.”
“For the foolish, that is true. However, we do not enter this marriage blindly. We shall take care to build upon what we now feel and protect the respect we have for one another.” He gave her a meaningful look as he finally realised the root of her concerns. “Our marriage shall not be like that of your parents.”
Rewarding him with a small smile, Elizabeth nodded.
“I must leave you, but only for a few days.” He finally released her, his arms feeling woefully empty. Offering his arm, they proceeded to turn back to the house. “When I return, I will have our license and the settlement in hand. I regret that I will not be present to help you bear the coming stress and shall conclude the necessary business as quickly as possible.”
“Perhaps while I am away, you can put some thought into where you wish for us to live. I have turned up a few potential locations for when your mother and sisters are ready to leave Longbourn. If you would like, we could reside there rather than Netherfield or Longbourn.” Darcy told her of the options.
“Pulvis Lodge and Stoke may do well for my family. Ashworth is too far away from Meryton, I believe. However, I confess I do not wish to be so distant from Papa.”
Darcy furrowed his brow as he considered other options. They approached the house. “Perhaps we might stay in a cottage on the estate. We can dine at Netherfield or Longbourn every day and have a maid come for general upkeep, but still have some privacy as newlyweds.”
Elizabeth glanced up at him. “This means very much to you, does it not?”
“I do not wish to keep you from your father or relations. However, I do not want to start my married life in Miss Bingley’s domain. I also believe you will need a respite from Longbourn. Tell me, how long have you sat in vigil at your father’s side? Have you allowed anyone else to do so?”
“Jane does sit with him from time to time. The others have not offered, and I do not think they would perform the office well. I cannot leave him alone.”
“We shall employ a maid or nurse that can see to his needs. If he desires company, perhaps a neighbour might do at times.”
“I am unsure,” Elizabeth admitted. “I feel so alone, attempting to make these decisions. Mama is of no use.”
“Hush,” Darcy whispered and kissed her forehead. “I do not mean to distress you. I shall consider these matters, and we can discuss them when I return from London.”
“I would be grateful.”
“I must go.” Darcy detached Elizabeth’s hand from his arm, then gathered hers in his. He raised them to his lips before admitting, “I do not want to leave you.”
Elizabeth sighed as his mouth grazed her knuckles. Then she started. “Oh! Before you leave, I have letters for my aunt and uncle in London. Would you deliver them?” She blushed. “You do not have to go to Cheapside yourself. I wondered if you could send a servant. Only, I think it would be faster than the post, but there is really no need to send them express.”
“I would be pleased to call on them and meet your relations. Do you think they will come for the wedding?”
“I had hoped they would. We will need assistance when Papa…” She trailed off.
“I will be sure they understand that they are needed.”
“Thank you,” Elizabeth whispered.
She left to retrieve her letters. After she had returned and handed them over, Darcy pressed a quick kiss to her cheek before mounting his horse. As he left the gates of Longbourn, he wondered at the mixture of feelings in his breast. Would attraction and gratitude really be enough for happiness in marriage?