Darcy has learned his rival for Pemberley is Elizabeth. How does this change things?
Darcy gaped at Elizabeth. “I do not understand…”
Elizabeth huffed. “I have heard that you are something of a historian, and yet you did not know that Pemberley is unentailed and may go to a female? When Henry Darcy died childless, he left the estate to his wife. She left it to her favourite sister — my mother. As her eldest daughter was betrothed to the heir of her husband’s estate, my mother then bequeathed Pemberley to her second daughter — me. I am no co-heiress in waiting.”
He had little use to know the ancestry of the noble families. Wetting his lips, Darcy replied. “My research focused on proving my claim to the estate.”
“And that is?”
“I found a marriage certificate for John Darcy. That man was my great-great-grandfather.”
“How could he have been married to two women at one time?” Anne asked.
“He was not,” Darcy answered. “He had a long-time mistress. A relationship that was not deterred by his marriage to an heiress and the birth of legitimate children. When his countess died, he married his mistress in Scotland.”
“That son was never recognized as the heir,” Elizabeth cried.
“Regardless of whatever arrangement had to be made to find peace within the family, the man had every right to the property.”
Anne furrowed her brow. “That seems unusual, does it not? I did not think illegitimate children could inherit.”
“It is allowable by law if the land is not entailed, and it is stated in the will — which I have also recovered the one signed just before his death,” Darcy shrugged. “My great-great-grandfather ought to have inherited Pemberley.”
“What proof do you have? Do you have anything beyond this marriage certificate and will?” Elizabeth asked. “A case could be made that it was forged either by the woman’s family — or more likely, by you or your parents.”
Darcy turned red at her words. How dare she accuse him!
“I am not saying that I believe that to be the case,” Elizabeth hastened to add. “I only mean that my brother-in-law would obtain lawyers that would argue such.”
“What does your brother-in-law have to do with it if the estate is through your mother?”
Elizabeth sighed. “He wants whoever I marry to obtain the right to the estate — and he has settled that I should marry his favourite cousin. My property will become my husband’s upon marriage. A remainder will be made which favours his relatives. Then they will create an entail and keep it from my family forever.”
The room grew quiet. Remainders and entails like Elizabeth described were reserved for signing over an estate to someone out of order in succession or to one who was not an heir of the body. In Elizabeth’s case, Collins would wish to arrange it so his cousin would acquire the property. It would be written so the cousin’s heirs would inherit, whether or not he ever had children with Elizabeth. It could go to the next male kin on his side who had no blood relation to Elizabeth at all.
Darcy had always known he had little chance against an earl, but, somehow, it seemed even slimmer now. Perhaps that was why the words which stole his breath involved imagining Elizabeth married to another man, and not the fact that he had no chance of asserting his claim to Pemberley.
A maid came, seemingly surprised at the lack of conversation. “Shall I send in more tea, ma’am?” she asked.
“Yes, please do,” Anne said. Once the maid had left, she laid her hand on Elizabeth’s. “I hate to you see you two like this. You are both my friends. If only there were some way to kill two birds with one stone!”
Elizabeth’s green eyes grew wide. “Anne, that’s it! Mr. Darcy, if we worked together, we might be able to prove that a remainder ought not to be made. If one were formed, then it could go to my husband’s descendants alone. However, your document may prove that there are other claimants that such a move would be disinheriting.”
“Would that work?” Anne asked.
Darcy slowly nodded. “It might. Generally, the courts only approve remainders when there can be proof that there is only one legitimate line left before they sign it over to a new family.” He cast a look at Elizabeth. “Of course, there would be no need to worry about this if you would simply refuse to marry the man.”
She paled. “I — I am prepared to do that, but only in the right circumstances. I would much prefer to convince my brother-in-law to abandon his plan entirely.”
“How would we go about that?” Darcy frowned.
“It seems impossible.” Elizabeth stared at her hands.
“Oh! I know!” Anne let out a giggle and clapped her hands. “We can find the perfect match for Elizabeth’s intended. Then, he will refuse to do his uncle’s bidding.”
A part of Darcy’s heart sank. Although he did not relish the idea of battling for his claim to Pemberley, he had been prepared to do so. Additionally, the notion that it would be his research and documentation that would assist not only himself but Elizabeth as well delighted him. He had always been too bookish and practical to be any lady’s hero. Still, for a moment, he had imagined himself as Elizabeth’s valiant knight.
“It is a wonderful thought, Anne,” Elizabeth said sadly. “However, it will never do. No lady should be saddled with Wickham Collins. He has no heart for us to match.”
Hearing Elizabeth’s sad and defeated tone of voice sunk Darcy’s heart further still. He had been selfish to consider his feelings instead of Elizabeth’s genuine fear of her brother-in-law and his cousin.
“Is he really so bad?” Anne asked.
Darcy sighed. “Unfortunately, it is true. I have seen first-hand how he treats women. I have had to bar him from my shop. He is not fit to be any woman’s husband.”
They sat in silence once more for a moment. Suddenly, Elizabeth squared her shoulders and looked him straight in the eye, her brilliant green ones searching his blue ones. “Mr. Darcy, I am prepared to be your ally in this. We shall work together. However, we will need more proof than your documents, which, as I have already said, might be easily forged.”
“It took many years to find even this shred of evidence,” Darcy said.
“That is because you did not have the cooperation of the family in question. I would have access to family wills and Bibles — even letters —that never would have been shown to you.”
“Elizabeth,” Anne said as she gently laid her hand on her friend’s arm. “If you do this, you might prove that you cannot inherit Pemberley. Are you willing to give that up?”
Darcy studied the woman opposite him as she sucked in a breath and considered Anne’s words. When they had first met, he had assumed she was cold and unfeeling. He had thought she was priggish, rude, and looked down on people lower than herself. Recently, he had come to see a terrified and vulnerable young woman trying desperately to keep calm and affect a self-possessed and disinterested demeanour, all while her world crumbled around her. He wondered if the estate meant very much to her or if it was the security it represented that meant something to her.
Darcy questioned himself, too. Would he be able to take the property away from her? What did it mean that he was uncertain? Was he becoming like too many of the ton? A cold, unfeeling man who only cared about titles and rank? Or would his parents be ashamed of his lack of ambition and honour for the family legacy? What about the truth? He had dedicated his life to researching history and deciphering facts despite the lies some preferred to present. How could he entertain any notion of hiding documents for the sake of a woman he barely knew? And yet, as he continued to gaze at Lady Elizabeth Bennet, Darcy wondered if there was not a way to save her from being forced to marry an abusive man while allowing her to retain her property too.
The last thought jarred Darcy so much he nearly missed Elizabeth’s answer.
“Yes,” she whispered. Then, “Yes,” she asserted in a louder voice. “‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ Are you willing to accept my help in searching for more documents, even while I am not on your side of the matter, Mr. Darcy?”
Darcy nodded. “We shall allow history to be the victor. There is nothing personal in our quest — we simply want history to be represented.” He stuck out his hand to shake hers.
Elizabeth hesitated. “I do not know that I can say there has been no personal interest on my side. I am afraid I very much love Pemberley and should hate to lose it. Does that disgust you?” She lifted her chin in defiance and daring.
“On the contrary, I admire your forthrightness and honesty. I imagine that if I had been raised as an heiress to an estate, the idea of losing it would be frightening. In fact, I am unsure I would be as bold as you in your declaration of assistance to my endeavour. You are a brave woman, and no matter what we find at the end of our research, that will be true.”
She blushed at his praise and mumbled a thank you. Anne elbowed her. Belatedly, she reached for his hand. As her soft, delicate hand slid into Darcy’s large and rough one, his breath stole. A jolt of energy jumped through his veins, and it felt as though the place where they were connected vibrated. Darcy stared down at their hands in confusion. They were perfectly still until she began to stretch her fingers. Suddenly he recalled that he was meant to shake her hand, not stare at it. Clumsily, he pumped his arm up and down and then hastily let go of Elizabeth’s hand, the feel of her burning against his skin.
“Well,” he said while standing. “Thank you for the tea and treats, Miss de Bourgh. Lady Elizabeth, perhaps you can consider how we can meet for our research without alerting anyone’s notice. I can call on Anne again tomorrow or the next day and then I can be apprised of your decision. Good day.” He bowed so quickly that he gave himself a headache upon standing upright. Commanding his legs to turn and leave, he nearly tripped over the chair he had just exited as he attempted to race to the door.
Once safely in his carriage, he breathed a sigh of relief. What the devil was he thinking? There was no need to touch the lady. A verbal agreement was more than sufficient. He must have looked like even more of a low-class oaf to her after today. Again, the question of why her opinion mattered to him intruded on his thoughts.
Nearly a week after Elizabeth had last seen Mr. Darcy, they were to meet at Anne’s. Elizabeth had managed to gather some documents worth perusal. While watching over her sister, she had been able to pore over old scraps of paper and long-forgotten boxes in the attic. Thankfully, Collins had business in London. At the time, it had infuriated Elizabeth to hear that he would leave Jane so close to her imminent demise for several weeks. Now, she rejoiced that she could come and go as she pleased without having anyone to worry about the change in her routine.
Darcy and Elizabeth would be meeting at Anne’s twice a week. Should more frequent meetings be required, they could meet at the warehouse she sent excess household supplies to as they helped needy women.
“Good afternoon,” she greeted Mr. Darcy when he was shown into Anne’s drawing room.
“Good day, Lady Elizabeth and Miss de Bourgh. Are you certain this will cause no trouble with your suitors?” He asked Anne, anxiety shown on his features.
“All is well, sir,” Anne answered. “They know I am meeting you in the company of Lady Elizabeth and believe it is about a charity organization of mutual interest.”
Mr. Darcy nodded. Anne had told him of all this last week. Elizabeth thought it very gentlemanly of him to be concerned for Anne’s reputation. He could hardly hope for a better lady to marry. Many other gentlemen would be more than happy to be forced to the altar for her dowry, which was not meagre. It had not generally been known before, but now that she had captured the attention of a few gentlemen, thanks to Mr. Darcy, word had got out. Now, Anne had to sift through modest fortune hunters in addition to the rakes and scoundrels every lady had to fear. Elizabeth had no worries for her friend, however. Anne had a sharp mind and was not given to flights of fancy.
“Shall we begin?” Elizabeth asked after the tea-things had been brought in, and general small talk had died down.
They split Elizabeth’s stack of papers into thirds, each taking approximately an equal share. In all her years of historical research, Elizabeth had never investigated her family beyond Sarah Fitzwilliam. A part of her vehemently opposed the idea that Darcy would have a genuine claim to Pemberley — not because she disliked him or thought he was of low birth. No, she hated the idea that her family would be linked to something so underhanded as cheating a man out of his inheritance. On the other hand, Elizabeth was tempted to believe that sort of evilness lurked nearly everywhere. Did she not know that from personal experience via her sister’s marriage?
After about an hour, Elizabeth glanced up from reading her grandmother’s tight scrawl and noticed that Anne had fallen asleep. She laughed to herself. Research was not for everyone; many found it far too tedious. Anne could sit and read a book until her eyes dried out, but that was very different from attempting to make sense of the documents before them.
Glancing at Mr. Darcy, their eyes met. He shifted his to Anne for a moment and smirked before looking at Elizabeth again. She smiled back and nodded her head in Anne’s direction. Their smiles broadened, and then with a shrug of their shoulders, they bent their heads and returned to their work. There was something enjoyable about sharing an activity of mutual interest in silence. It had been many years since Elizabeth had last had that sort of companionship. Back then, it had only been with her mother as they sat embroidering in the drawing room or reading. Never had she had a person with which to share her interest in history.
Another hour passed, and Elizabeth had finished her stack of papers. Anne was still asleep, her head lolled to one side and laid against the arm of the sofa. So far, Elizabeth had no success, and she was telling herself not to be disappointed when she lifted her teacup to her lips. As she tasted the drink, she frowned when the chilled liquid touched her mouth. She despised cold tea. Reaching for the teapot without looking for it, she startled when she felt her fingers graze skin. She wrenched her hand away, and her eyes flew up to see Darcy looking at her with intensity. She cradled her hand in her lap, the digits afire from where they had met his.
“My apologies,” Darcy whispered. “I did not look before I reached for the pot. My mind was engrossed in thoughts of our predicament.”
“Mine as well,” Elizabeth said. “Forgive me, for I did not bother to look either.” Had he forgotten she was there? She had never been unaware of him.
“It seems we are both to blame. Please, allow me,” he said and lifted the pot.
Elizabeth gaped at him.
Darcy raised a brow. “I take it you are unused to a man serving. How do you think single gentlemen make do?”
“I — I had supposed their housekeepers would serve.”
“And do you think they would ring for the housekeeper every time they wanted to refill their cup? What about the men who have no housekeeper or maids?”
“You have no servants?” Elizabeth’s eyes widened. She had known the very poor lived without them, but she had never met someone from that class. Additionally, she had only heard of families doing such, meaning there was a wife to do all the household work. How could a single gentleman do it?
“I do have servants since I bought my townhouse. However, when I lived above the shop, I did not. I had a cook who came once a week to supply meals that I could not prepare myself. I did pay a washwoman. However, the other cleaning, I managed. I was perhaps more fortunate than others as I could make my own hours and had employees. A farmer would have a harder time of making do without assistance, I should think.”
Elizabeth said nothing in reply, and Darcy’s smile slipped. He lifted up the teapot once more before frowning at it. Opening the lid, he peered inside. “We shall have to ring for more water, I’m afraid. Should we wake Miss de Bourgh?”
“I can ring for the water. I used to be here so often that I am almost a second daughter to Lady Catherine.” Elizabeth rushed to the bell cord before Darcy could ask why she no longer visited Anne as frequently.
While she waited for a footman to appear, Elizabeth paced around the room. Movement felt good after sitting for so long with her head craned over old papers. Once the hot water was ordered, Darcy stood as well.
“Would you care to join me in a walk around the room? I find that I need to stretch my legs.”
“Thank you, I will.” She approached his side, hesitating as she was uncertain if she should place her hand on his arm or not. If they were walking outside, she would, of course. Finally, deciding that the entire point was to imagine this was outdoor exercise, she did so. Although not the same as when she had touched his ungloved hand, a jolt raced up her arm just the same.
Darcy stood in place for a moment, and Elizabeth wondered if she had shocked or upset him. Perhaps he had not escorted a lady about before and did not know this was common practice? What else had he expected when he had asked if she would join him?
Soon, though, he began to lead them on a circuit about the room. “Have you found anything that might be useful in the letters?” he asked Elizabeth.
“I am afraid not. Perhaps I will search for letters from my great-grandmother next. However, it might be that they simply never mentioned this mistress and offspring. It must have been a painful subject.” Elizabeth’s sister acted as though she had no idea her husband had been unfaithful. “What luck are you having with the ledgers?”
Darcy did not immediately reply. “Forgive me. I am unused to company,” he said. “I am often slow to reply to questions as I choose to take my time in thinking before I answer.”
“That is to be applauded.”
He chuckled softly. “I am glad you think so. It seems a very great liability when one is new in society.”
“If you are friends to the son of Lord Fitzwilliam and Mr. Bingley, I do not know how long you can continue to use that as an excuse, Mr. Darcy.”
Something sparked in Darcy’s eye. “Do you consider us friends?”
“Well, I suppose so. It would be unusual to meet so often and not be friends.”
“Then, may I request you merely call me Darcy or even William? I am unused to all this mister business.”
Elizabeth eyed him with sympathy. He might attempt to play the role, but would he ever feel at home in a sphere so far above the one in which he was born? “Very well, but you must call me Elizabeth then. No, no,” she said when he began to argue. “It is only friends. Friends are equals. I have heard you call Anne by her name. Why not use mine as well?”
He turned to look at her. Her hand still rested on his arm, but their eyes met. “There seems to be a very great difference between a Miss and a Lady.”
“Tosh. I am not a princess or a queen, and you are not my subject. We are merely a man and a woman.” Suddenly, she became acutely aware of the fact that she was a woman, and he was a most handsome man, and they were all but unchaperoned. Her heart began beating quickly. “What do you think of this weather?” she asked as she tugged a little on his arm so they might continue their circuit.
Darcy stiffened under her arm a little, but he moved with her and continued with her course of conversation. What on earth had possessed her to push so adamantly that they were equals? She had never thought of herself as priggish, but she had always recognized her position above others before. She had many friends and acquaintances that were not peers, but she had never mingled with someone from the trading class before. Desperate times, she thought, meant drastic measures.
However, Darcy defied all stereotypes of his class. He was not rough and brutish but considerate and intellectual. He could be determined but was not grasping. He knew his worth but was not conceited. He could even laugh at himself and his quirks. Was this not the ideal behaviour from everyone?
“I have just realised,” she said when they returned to their seats, “that you did not answer my questions regarding the ledgers.”
“Oh.” He frowned. “I have found no sign that there were payments made to my great-grandfather’s family. However, that would coincide with what my family has always said. I do remember a story, though, about a jewel or something that would prove their relationship.” Darcy paused and closed his eyes as though intent on recalling a long-ago memory. “My grandmother showed me a purple gemstone and said it would one day be my mother’s and then mine if I had no sisters.”
He opened his eyes and stared straight at Elizabeth, startling her with the intensity in the grey orbs. “I shall have to look through my mother’s things.” Worry lines emerged between his brows. “I have never done so. It may take some time.”
“This is helpful information. I can look for documents regarding this jewel. If it is to clearly prove a link between our two families, then it must be of great importance and well documented. If it came to your family in the time of your great-great-grandfather, then it would have been during the reign of the Stuarts, and we have a great chance of the records having been kept safe.”
“Indeed.” Darcy stood. “Well, I think that will do it for today. I will leave you and Anne to finish going through her pile of letters,” he glanced at the still asleep lady. “Until we meet again.”
He bowed over Elizabeth’s hand, her fingers nearly trembling with awareness as their ungloved skin touched again. “Good day, William.” She gave him a smile before returning her attention to the letters and pretending he had not affected her so. It was not until she heard the front door close at his exit that she took a much-needed gulp of air and felt as though she could breathe again.