Thanks for all the feedback on the first chapter. As I said in the comments, this will not be a gender swap that is very close to Canon. I hope you enjoy it. Let me know!
Previous Chapters: Chapter One
“You may enter, Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth gulped as she opened the door to her brother-in-law’s study. She entered with lowered eyes.
“I did not hear the doorbell once this morning.”
Her brother-in-law, George Collins, did not look up from his papers on his desk. Elizabeth was not worth his attention. His tone announced displeasure even if she did not see it in his features.
“No, I have not had any callers today.”
“I grow tired of this. If you will not attract a husband, then I will arrange one for you.”
Elizabeth could hardly believe there was a time when she thought her brother-in-law was a ridiculous buffoon and easy to manage. It had all been a ploy until he married Jane. Then, his true nature came out.
“Please, sir, allow me to stay with my sister,” Elizabeth pleaded. She rushed to his side and threw herself on her knees before him. “She will be gone soon, and then I will do as you bid. Only let me care for her until then.”
“And do I not care for her?”
Collins’s grip on his pen tightened. Elizabeth thought quickly as it would not do to anger him. She wet her lips. “I did not mean to imply that you do not want the best for Jane. However, it would mean the world to me if I could stay by her side until the end. You would not wish to separate a loving sister from her.”
“I do not care what it means to you.” He shoved at her shoulders and jerked his head in the direction of a chair. She scrambled to it. “What is that to me? As for not separating the two of you, how many years will you give me that argument? I should have sent you to a school as I wished when we married like I did with the younger girls. Why could you not be obedient and docile like your elder sister?”
Elizabeth winced at his words. “I believe my sister wishes for me to stay.”
“Would not Jane rather wish to see you well-settled?”
“Perhaps she does not doubt my ability to find a comfortable situation after her demise.” In truth, her sister was blinded by love for Collins and believed he would treat Elizabeth well.
“You will be in no mood to find a husband after she dies,” Collins said. “You will have the required mourning, which will only allow you more time to find clever arguments.”
Elizabeth hung her head. Her brother-in-law had always made her feel like intelligence was a liability. “I will not be in your way. I could form a household with my inheritance.”
At this, Collins finally put down his pen. The sound pulled Elizabeth’s head up. He looked Elizabeth in the eye and laughed. “It would not do for my sister-in-law to live in such dismal circumstances. You are the daughter of an earl and related to two others!”
Elizabeth cringed and eyed her shoes. She knew better than to ask what had happened to the money put aside for her or to ask for him to supplement it. Nor could she abandon her reticent and bluestocking personality. It was true she had gone out of her way to discourage suitors, but only a handful showed any interest in her. The few that did pay court only wanted an alliance with her brother-in-law. Is that not what marriage was? Nothing but heartless business contracts. Elizabeth squeezed her eyes against the inevitable outcome. Her brother-in-law had orchestrated all this to his purpose. Her back was against a wall with no other choice but to agree with his demands.
Summoning her courage, she squared her shoulders and lifted her face to the domineering man. “If you will allow me this time to be with my sister, then I will marry a man of your choosing.”
“You make it sound as if you ever had another choice.” Collins returned to the papers on his desk and dismissed Elizabeth with a gesture of his hand.
She shuffled to the door. Just before touching the handle, she asked in a meek tone, “Have you already selected my husband, then?”
“I will espouse you to my favourite cousin. Wickham deserves an estate. I would give him Longbourn and the title, but I do mean to get an heir eventually.”
Elizabeth did not bother to ask how Collins would transfer her claim to Pemberley to an unrelated man. Collins was very powerful, and the courts favoured men.
As Elizabeth left Collins’s study and closed the door behind her, the hollow thud resounded in her ears as though the nail in a coffin. Struggling to breathe amidst the crushing thoughts, she dashed to her sister’s room.
Elizabeth tiptoed into the darkened chamber. Breathing a sigh of relief as Jane slept peacefully, she settled into the desk, which used to house her mother’s things. Elizabeth now acted as the mistress of the home. If she could spare a charitable thought toward her brother-in-law, she would wonder who would run the household after her marriage. As it happened, she did not care. He would probably remarry so his brother had no chance of inheriting.
The thought brought a pang to Elizabeth’s chest. She knew he had spread disease to her sister. Elizabeth would even offer to continue in her current role so long as Collins did not risk another woman’s life. Hot tears threatened to break free and slide down her cheeks. She willed them back.
How unfair it was that Jane would pay for the Collins’s sins! He was not ailing despite his disease from visiting courtesans. A well-bred lady should not know of such things, but Elizabeth had been forced to learn of them as the burden of caring for her sister fell on her shoulders. She had little hope that Collins’s cousin would act any differently. In a few years, it might be her on her deathbed from syphilis complications brought by an unfaithful husband.
Squashing the familiar feelings of hatred, she dabbed at her face with a handkerchief then redirected her thoughts. Gathering her research books, Elizabeth arranged everything she needed to begin her task for the day.
Sarah Fitzwilliam, the first Fitzwilliam mistress of Pemberley, had fascinated Elizabeth since her youth. She had a closer relationship with Pemberley’s most recent mistress, Anne Fitzwilliam Darcy, her maternal aunt. Still, Elizabeth had an insatiable curiosity about Sarah Fitzwilliam, reported mistress of Charles II. Male historians had researched her over the years. Elizabeth wondered if the so-called facts would differ through female eyes.
After about thirty minutes of work, Jane began to stir. Elizabeth knelt by the side of the bed, offering water while lifting her sister’s head and bringing the glass to her lips. Her sister moaned as she turned her head. She could no longer see or hear. Seeking Elizabeth’s hand, she gripped it tightly. Elizabeth fumbled at the table with her free hand to find the laudanum tonic, which would ease her sister’s pain.
At last, Jane fell asleep again, and tears formed in Elizabeth’s eyes. She did not even know if her sister knew her anymore. She spoke less and less. Her once intelligent mind seemed distorted. Now that her hearing and eyesight had diminished, she seemed easily confused. However, it was difficult to know for sure or provide reassurance. The physicians had told Elizabeth that her sister would soon die. The infection spread, they believed, to her brain and heart.
A step in the hall brought Elizabeth’s head up from where she had laid it on her sister’s lap. Dr. Daniels entered with a grim expression.
“How does she do this morning?”
“The same as yesterday,” Elizabeth answered, slipping her hand from her Jane’s. Elizabeth busied herself at the table, tidying up. “There has been no change that I can see.”
Dr. Daniels let out a sigh. “I am sorry for it. I do not often wish for the hastening of my patients’ demise, but I wish for her to be at peace.”
Elizabeth glanced at Jane. “I know she is to go soon, and it is selfish of me to wish it, but even a few more days would mean everything to me.”
“She continues to eat and drink?”
“Yes. She was always a fighter.” It was true. Jane had not become a wilting flower when their parents died in a carriage accident, and she had several younger sisters to care for. She had maintained her beauty and charm. She made the most of her arranged marriage to Collins. For a time, Elizabeth had believed they would be a happy family. She even supported Collins when he first sent their younger sisters to school.
The memory turned sour as Elizabeth recalled five years before and Jane’s first touch of the illness, which was now claiming her life. Elizabeth had lingered outside Jane’s chamber. She had watched as her sister sobbed quietly into her hands, and Collins sat on the bed next to her, pleading forgiveness for his unfaithfulness. Somehow, her sister had forgiven her wayward husband. Elizabeth never had.
“Go now. I will keep watch and send a servant if I have any news for you.” Elizabeth hesitated, and the physician reassured her again. “Go and visit a friend. It is not well for a lady of your age to spend all her time in a sick room. There is nothing you can do for her.”
She vaguely nodded and gave Dr. Daniels the address of her destination. She would call on her cousin and only friend, Anne de Bourgh.
Arriving at Anne’s, Elizabeth was astonished to see two gentlemen leaving and another in the sitting room. Anne blushed but spoke animatedly with the gentleman. Elizabeth recalled he was the first one to dance with her friend the night before. As the butler announced her entrance to the room, she noticed Mr. Darcy’s eyes turn from pale blue to stormy grey like the sea.
“Oh, Elizabeth!” Anne cried as she hastened to her side and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “I was hoping you would come today. If you would just excuse me a moment, I must see that these are put in water.”
Anne pointed to a cluster of arrangements causing Elizabeth to smile for her friend’s sake. She had never had callers before. While Elizabeth did not inspire any suitors, she recalled from Jane’s experience that this thrilled most ladies. “Of course.”
“If you would be so kind as to keep Mr. Darcy company until my return.” Anne gave Elizabeth a pleading look. Ah, Mr. Darcy meant more to her than the other gentlemen. How intriguing!
“I would be delighted to,” she said and sat near the gentleman.
Anne left, leaving Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy alone except for the maid who sat in a corner sewing.
“I apologise we did not have much opportunity to speak last night,” Mr. Darcy said, stormy eyes upon her. All evidence of his previous pleasure in talking with Anne was gone.
Elizabeth sucked in a breath. Did he mean to chastise her for refusing to dance with him? What could she say? She could remind him that she was the daughter of an earl, sister-in-law to an earl, and niece to one of the wealthiest men in the country, who also happened to be an earl. As such, no one would care if she had broken propriety by not dancing with him, an insignificant newcomer with lofty ambitions. Such coldness worked well with other gentlemen, but Elizabeth tired of the act. She cared nothing for her rank and hated the façade her brother-in-law made her play. If others only knew… if Mr. Darcy in particular only knew…
“Yes, it seems as though I missed out on quite the partner, judging from the attention you received from other ladies for the remainder of the night.”
Mr. Darcy blushed a little. “I am unused to dancing and uncomfortable with balls. However, I wished to show my support to Fitzwilliam.”
“How are you acquainted with the Richard?” If Darcy were anything like her cousin, then he had met Richard in some gambling hell.
He looked at her in surprise. “I had thought you knew.”
“I am not much for gossip.”
Mr. Darcy sat silently for a moment, as though attempting to decide if he should disclose the truth. Shaking his head, he shrugged his shoulders and leaned forward. “Fitzwilliam frequents my bookshop.”
Elizabeth’s mouth fell open. She had not been far from the truth. “He invited a shop keeper to his parents’ ball?” She threw a hand to her heart. “Does Anne know? She does not get many suitors, and I know she is desperate, but…”
“She is desperate, but she is too good for me, is that it?” There was no sting in his voice, only resignation.
“I do not mean to offend. However, you must know how the world operates.”
“I do know how the world operates, my lady. As such, I am suddenly welcome into high society now that I have quite a bit of money to my name thanks to investments with Fitzwilliam and Mr. Charles Bingley. My friendship with Fitzwilliam goes back years, long before I knew he was the son of an earl.” He finished his speech with a sneer.
“You think so lowly of us nobles,” she said hotly, happy to put him in his place rather than dwell on her mother’s demise. “I am surprised you came to the ball or care about your potential inheritance.”
Darcy furrowed his brow. “I did not mention my possible inheritance.”
“Elizabeth?” Anne called from the hall. “Mr. Darcy?” She entered with a look of trepidation on her face. “I thought I heard raised voices.”
Elizabeth stuttered, attempting to find an excuse, while Mr. Darcy stood. “Pardon me. I was being ungentlemanly and arguing with your guest. I had said I should leave, and she had insisted I stay.”
“You wanted to leave?” Anne asked and troubled her lower lip.
“I am afraid my visiting time is at an end. It is not courteous for me to remain any longer.”
“Oh, of course.” Anne twisted her hands. “I enjoyed your visit and hope you call again.”
“Certainly, madam.” He bowed over Anne’s hand. When he raised, he turned his eyes, which were now as stony as ice to Elizabeth. “Lady Elizabeth.”
He spun on his heel and left, leaving Elizabeth stupefied and Anne with a look of adoration. The front door closed, and Anne flew to the window to watch him walk off. When he was out of eyesight, she flopped on a sofa and fanned herself.
“Whatever am I going to do? Mr. Darcy is the most handsome man who has ever spoken to me. What can he mean paying me attention?”
“You think he is handsome?”
“Do you not? Are your eyes failing?”
“No,” Elizabeth said with a huff. “I suppose he is pleasant to look at.” The truth was, Mr. Darcy was probably the most handsome man she had ever seen.
“Pleasant to look at! Why he is five times more handsome than any other lord I have seen. I do not care what his birth was. That man is a prime article.” Anne waggled her eyes.
“A prime article?” Elizabeth laughed until tears streamed down her face.
“That is much more like it,” Anne said when Elizabeth had finally ceased giggling. “You needed to replace that frown with a smile.”
“Were you teasing me?” Anne nodded and laughed again. Elizabeth tossed a pillow at her friend.
“Come, tell me what has you so upset this morning. Is it Jane?”
Elizabeth sobered, all bits of lightness vanishing. Anne did not know the truth of Jane’s illness; no one could know, of course. Elizabeth merely nodded in reply to her cousin’s question.
“Did the physician have anything new to say?”
“No.” She shook her head.
“I am sorry.” Anne hugged Elizabeth. “I am pleased I was able to make you smile even for a little bit.”
“So you do not really think Mr. Darcy is the most handsome man you have ever seen?”
“Oh, I do not know,” Anne shrugged. “I did not think about it too much. He is certainly handsome, but I doubt my mother would approve of a match. However, I am vastly pleased his interest made other men notice me.”
“Your mother would not approve due to his birth?”
“I suppose. It is not as though she has sat me down and said as much. Mother was too happy to see me dance last night and to have callers this morning. However, I was delayed in returning to you just now by her cautioning me to pick prudently and not lap up the attention of just anyone.” She shrugged again. “In truth, I do not think Mr. Darcy cared for me that much.”
“You seemed to have much to say during your dance.”
“He was very civil, but I do not think there was much attraction from either of us. He was happy to hear I read but seemed more interested in discussing history than in learning about me. His visit today was much of the same.”
“How curious.” Darcy would be a fool to not court Anne. She was no great beauty, but she was pretty enough, intelligent, and well-dowered with excellent connections. If he could not inherit Pemberley, Rosings was an attractive alternative.
“Now, let me tell you about my favourite. Lord Hawthorne said my eyes reminded him of the stars. I nearly swooned right in this parlour!”
For another half hour, Elizabeth smiled as her cousin detailed her exciting morning of gentlemen callers. The ladies dissected each word and look that Anne could recall and attempted to rank them as potential suitors. As Elizabeth left Anne’s house to return to her own, she admitted that it felt good to get out of her home and pretend to be a normal lady of marriageable age. It had been an enjoyable visit, except for her conversation with Mr. Darcy. Why had she allowed him to get under her skin so much? She owed him nothing. Yet, she felt threatened as though he could see past her mask and know the real her.