Darcy’s back so it’s smooth sailing, right?
In the drawing room, conversation swirled around Elizabeth as though this was a regular visit from her aunt and uncle. Inquiries were made about news from town and the health of her cousins. It seemed no one wanted to address the reason for their journey.
At last, Elizabeth could bear it no more. “Shall I take you up to my mother now, Aunt?” Her voice had a sharp tone to it. “And Uncle, would you sit with Papa? He has much to discuss with you, but do not fatigue him.”
For a moment, everyone silenced and stared at her. Kitty and Lydia stilled, and even Jane looked mildly ashamed of herself. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, however, looked at Elizabeth with a mixture of sympathy and what she thought was censure. Raising her chin, she declared, “I make no apologies for breaking up this merry little party. My father lies very close to his death, and that is why our aunt and uncle have come. We ought not to pretend otherwise.”
“Of course,” Mrs. Gardiner stood and made her way to Elizabeth’s side. “You must be very fatigued after all you have borne. Pray, go and rest while your uncle and I see to matters.”
Elizabeth opened her mouth to disagree that she should rest when she heard Darcy’s voice over her shoulder. “I agree with Mrs. Gardiner. You ought to rest, Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth stood to face her betrothed. “No, thank you. I may rest later, but for now, I would rather stretch my legs. Do you still care to walk with me in the garden?”
Darcy’s jaw set in displeasure, and his face grew dark. If she were a servant or even perhaps his sister, Elizabeth might have been afraid of the look. As it was, everyone else in the drawing room eased out around them. Once alone, Darcy took a step toward her.
“Do you delight in arguing with me at every moment, even when it is in your best interest?”
“On the contrary, sir. I would much rather if you did not provoke me at all times. As it happens, I believe I am the best judge of what is best for me.”
“I provoke you! Surely not!”
“It is words like that which urge me to prove just how exasperating you can be. Do you find it so difficult to believe that you might ever be in ill-humour? Is it beyond belief that your manners and words might not suit all who come in contact with you?”
“Well, no.” Darcy folded his arms across his broad chest. “However, I would not say that I go around intentionally seeking to argue or disagree with others. That is far more your domain.”
“Ah. As you said at Netherfield, my flaw is to wilfully misunderstand everyone; to take life as a joke.” Elizabeth attempted to jest now but felt hot tears prick her eyes.
Rather than pulling her to him, offering a handkerchief, or awkwardly excusing himself in the face of her feminine weakness, Darcy tucked her hand around his arm. “Come, Elizabeth. You are correct. A walk is exactly what you need.”
Darcy pulled her outside, not even pausing to allow them time to put on their outerwear. Then, she struggled to keep up with his long legs as he led them some distance from the house to sit on a stone bench.
“Now,” he said once they were seated, “tell me everything that has happened since I have been away.”
“There is not much to tell.” Elizabeth shrugged. “My father continues to decline, and most of my family acts as if nothing has changed at all.” She was unsure why she had hesitated in telling him the truth when only a few moments before, she had anticipated their next meeting.
“I did not see Mr. Collins, and it seems unlike him to not play lord of the manor when there are guests.”
“Oh.” Elizabeth fidgeted with the sleeve of her gown. “He decided to stay at the inn.”
“Did he? And why was that?”
“The concern was raised that he was practically chaperone-less in a house of unwed ladies.”
“I see,” Darcy said through grit teeth. “And why was this necessary to point out? Did he take liberties with any of you?”
“Oh, goodness!” Elizabeth laughed at the thought. Turning her head to see Darcy, the laughter died on her lips. “No. I do not think he would ever do such a thing.” Why should he seem so disapproving at the thought? If Mr. Collins did compromise any of her sisters, then it would be one less unwed inlaw for Darcy to be concerned about.
“You are certain?” His eyes searched Elizabeth’s for truth and gathered her hand in his. “I know he had hoped to have you for himself. He did not take advantage of my absence, did he?”
“What would you do if he had?”
Darcy blew out a breath and squeezed Elizabeth’s hand a little tighter. “I would hope someone would talk some sense into me before I killed the man. The thought of any man touching you or harming you makes me—”
He had paled at the first mention of this hypothetical situation but grew increasingly red. Elizabeth saw the tension in his body rise. She laid a hand on his arm. “Be at peace. It was nothing of that sort at all which drove him away.”
Darcy nodded in understanding, but his breathing remained heavy. Elizabeth could hardly understand his reaction. She supposed he would have viewed her as damaged goods then, and all his plans would be for naught.
After a few minutes of silence, Darcy asked, “And your sisters are well?”
“Yes. I shall tell you now—with no more attempts at jesting—why Mr. Collins is no longer at Longbourn.”
Elizabeth told Darcy of Collins’ insulting ways and Mary’s sacrifice. It felt so good to air her feelings to someone, to put aside pretences of strength. She told him next of Miss Bingley’s reaction to the news of their engagement. As expected, Darcy laughed. However, Elizabeth could not have foreseen the light in his eyes as they met hers. She never would have guessed the way her heart skipped a beat to hear his unrestrained laughter or the lightness she felt at a shared sense of humour.
“I like laughing with you,” he said when he had finished.
Elizabeth smiled. “And I enjoy laughing with you.”
“I know that I can be dour and aloof. However, I was always drawn to your liveliness.”
“I thought you hated it.”
Darcy’s vehemence shocked her. “Then, I shall make it my primary occupation as Mrs. Darcy to find something in every day which will make you laugh.”
“I like that notion very much.”
In the instant before Darcy’s lips touched hers, Elizabeth realised how much she had desired his kiss. She had attempted to provoke him earlier. It was part of her response to him. Energy had always surged between them, and she had never known what to do with it until now. She sighed into the kiss, yearning for more. Abruptly, Darcy pulled away.
“Forgive me. I do not want you to think that I am a beast and will paw at you morning and night.”
Although dazed, Elizabeth could not help but laugh at the image Darcy’s words provoked. “I am no shrinking violet. I shall tell you when I tire of your attentions. Could you not tell that I enjoyed your kiss?”
Darcy smirked. “I suppose most men assume their kisses are welcome. I believe you might call me conceited if I said I was confident you enjoyed mine.”
Elizabeth shook her head and laughed at his playfulness. She truly enjoyed this side of Mr. Darcy. It calmed her more than she could explain to know that they had humour in common, and there would be laughter in their lives.
Resting her head against Darcy’s shoulder, he wrapped his arm around her and pulled her to his side. “Now, I have told you all my news while you have been in London,” she said. “I demand the same from you. Have you told your relations of your plans to wed? Have any of them died of fright yet?”
Elizabeth listened as Darcy spoke in his clear, deep voice. He told her of his sister’s delight at the news of their engagement. She would not attend the wedding but would live with them when they returned to London. Elizabeth looked forward to meeting the girl who would become her newest sister. Darcy also told of a visit from his uncle, the earl, although she believed he hedged on the man’s reaction for her sake. By the time Darcy got to the particulars of applying for a license and drafting up the settlement, she was more than half asleep. Attempting to keep her eyes open and failing, Elizabeth, at last, welcomed sleep cocooned in Darcy’s warm embrace.
Darcy eased out of his coat, careful not to jostle the sleeping Elizabeth, and draped it over around her shoulders. She fit against his side and in his arms so perfectly! He knew she still doubted their potential happiness and wondered at his professions of not caring about her status in life. How could he fit into words that as he held her, he felt whole in a way he never had before? He had gone through the last seven and twenty years of life without knowing he was missing some essential part of him. Now, he found it in the small woman which he tenderly held.
It struck him, too, that Elizabeth afforded him with the great honour of seeking her rest in him. He could see as soon as he had arrived at Longbourn that she had scarcely slept since he had been away. Upon sitting with Mr. Bennet, Darcy understood all the more why a doting daughter would be more concerned about her father’s health than her own. Upon hearing her words to her family, though, it became clear that Elizabeth was reaching a breaking point. She would never forgive herself if she collapsed from fatigue and was unable to assist her father or family during this time. However, her mind and body needed a reprieve. Despite the urging of others, she did not relax until in his company. It was a small thing, something that defied words, but he hoped that one day he would be as dear to her as she was to him.
Earlier, when he had feared Collins had assaulted her, he had been filled with driven rage. It was not the usual fit of temper when angry. Neither was it jealousy. He would have Elizabeth even if her virtue were gone. No, it was a primal instinct of hurting the one who had wounded a person he cared about. Only when his sister had nearly eloped with a rake had he felt similarly. The relief which washed over him when she laid his worst fears to rest had left him nerves frayed. When he had kissed her, he sought reassurance she was well and was his. In a matter of hours, she would be his until death do them part.
Elizabeth began to rouse, and his attention was drawn again to her. Dark lashes against a pale face, a pert nose, and delectable pink lips all called for him to kiss. Instead, he placed his mouth098 against her forehead and watched as her eyes fluttered open. At first, she smiled up at him, then embarrassment set in.
“Forgive me. I had not meant to fall asleep.” She blushed.
“It was an honour.” Darcy pressed another kiss to her forehead. “You needed the rest, and I was happy to be your pillow.”
“Thank you.” Her cheeks reddened further. Clearing her throat and sitting up straight, she added, “We ought to return to the house.”
Gracefully, she pulled off Darcy’s coat and returned it to him, averting her eyes after looking him once over. Darcy let out a small chuckle.
“Are you laughing at me?” There was humour in her voice.
“Only a little. It is only fair when you so often have the upper hand on me.”
“That is true.” She smiled as he placed her hand around his arm.
“Did I offend your maidenly sensibilities?”
“I have seen a gentleman in his shirtsleeves before.”
Elizabeth nodded. “And my Uncle Gardiner.”
“I like him very much.” She turned to look at him, surprise evident on her face. “Truly, the Gardiners are most genteel, and I will be honoured to have them as family. Once we are settled in London, we must have them dine with us.”
Elizabeth briefly grinned before it vanished, and her face grew pensive. Sensing her thoughts, Darcy added, “You will be a fine mistress.”
“Thank you.” Her voice was small and distant—unusual for her lively self. As her father neared his death, the woman Darcy had known was disappearing. It was a normal part of the grieving process, he told himself.
Nearing the house, Darcy returned to the drawing room to take his leave of the assembled family. Next, he desired to bid Mr. Bennet farewell. Elizabeth accompanied him. Upon entering the room, Mr. Gardiner stood and allowed Elizabeth to sit in the chair beside Bennet’s makeshift bed.
“Be sure to tell her, Darcy,” Bennet unexpectedly said.
Elizabeth’s eyes flashed to his. He had no idea at all what her father meant. Mr. Bennet struggled to say more, and Elizabeth soothed his coughing fit. Once settled, he attempted to speak again.
“You have my word,” Darcy told the man rather than see him suffer once again. “Rest now, sir.” Then, with a bow to the gentlemen and a kiss to Elizabeth’s hand, he departed for Netherfield.