Well, Darcy and Elizabeth are reluctant allies. How will this work for them?
When Darcy returned to his home, he resisted the urge to storm up to the attic and tear through his mother’s old belongings. She had died just when he came of age, and he had kept his parents’ things in an unused room at the shop while he lived there. Now that he had a townhouse proper, the old trunks and crates resided in the attic.
No, what Darcy needed to do now was to think of anything other than Elizabeth Bennet and her vivid green eyes, soft hands, and perfectly kissable lips. If he were a different sort of man, Darcy would be getting drunk and finding a woman for the night. However, even as a shop owner, he had never done such things. In fact, he despised the way some men could not hold their alcohol and allowed it to ruin them and their families. He did not allow prostitutes near his premises. He had taken care to keep The Nook a respectable bookstore and not gain a reputation for assignations or anything less than reputable. Even so, over the years, several men from the London underbelly had offered him large sums to buy his property or operate a side ring under his meticulously cultivated image.
As he was not the sort of man to lose himself in drink or a woman’s arms, Darcy busied himself with work. The Nook had a new overseer, but Darcy still double-checked the man’s work. His share in the mill enterprise with the Fitzwilliam and Bingley also required Darcy’s minute attention. When all that was finished, rather than relax with his usual research, he opened a newspaper and read all about the most recent battles on the Continent and the arguments of the peers in London.
The next day, however, he permitted himself to spend an hour sifting through his mother’s old things. Georgiana Darcy had been a proud woman who had run The Nook after her husband’s early demise and before Darcy was old enough to assist. Her son was fast learning that she also had a sentimental heart and had kept nearly every piece of drawing or writing he had ever given her through the years. Finally, inside her worn and old Bible, Darcy found that which he was looking for. Beside a copied version of My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose by Robbie Burns and a hastily written and awkward proposal from Darcy’s father lay a small velvet pouch. The letter explained, amongst Mr. Darcy’s admiration for Georgiana, that the ring came to his family from the second master of Pemberley, given to the love of his life, a woman named Penelope Fraser. Opening the pouch, out spilled an antique ring with an enormous amethyst stone. Darcy recognized it at once as the one his grandmother had shown him, but his mother never wore it. It would have been too great a temptation for thieves to resist. It must have been worth more than the income the bookstore could provide in a lifetime. The fact that no one had sold it off attested to its extreme sentimental value.
Darcy sighed as he peered at it. There was no letter of authenticity. Nothing stating that it had been given in place of the earl’s eldest son inheriting the title. His best hope was that Elizabeth could find a painting showing whatever the stone had come from and still had the remaining pieces. Darcy did not doubt that it was from another piece of jewelry, as his grandmother had indicated it could prove their relationship to the Pemberley estate.
On the appointed day and at the appointed time, Darcy arrived at Anne’s house. She greeted him with a smile, but he could see it did not meet her eyes.
“What is wrong?” he asked once he entered the back parlour. “Is something wrong with Elizabeth? Her sister?”
Anne’s smile widened a fraction. “You are most civil to worry about Elizabeth. She is well, as far as I know, and should be here soon. Only, I have a guest that will arrive at any moment, and my mother will not allow me to send him off.”
“I did not think it was your usual calling day.”
“It is not. Sir Henry Edincott was most adamant that I see him today.” Anne blushed.
“Ah,” Darcy said. The gentleman must be putting in an offer. As Anne was not promising to send him away instantly, Darcy supposed she must mean to accept him. “It is no matter. Elizabeth and I can continue our study without you.”
“Are you certain?”
“I do not mean to be rude, but you did sleep for much of the last session.” He grinned at her.
Anne laughed. “Indeed, I did! I regret to say that I am not concerned about my lack of assistance. The problem is that I cannot be a chaperone and will not be able to spare a maid either.”
“Surely you do not think Elizabeth is in danger from me!”
“Of course not,” Anne hastened to say. “No. Only, I do not know what she shall say about it and did not wish you to be offended if she refused. You seem to believe that she thinks lowly of you due to your birth—”
“Oh, I think William and I understand one another better than that now. Do we not?” Elizabeth said from the doorway and then swept in the room.
She had a dashed habit of listening at the door before entering it. Thankfully, he had not said anything which might anger her this time. She walked past him, and the rosewater she wore filled his nostrils. He admired her enticing figure before she sat on the settee and began pulling out documents. Finally, her beautiful eyes met Darcy’s, and the familiar feeling of drowning in them overtook him.
“We will be just fine without you, Anne. Go, enjoy your visit. I want to hear all about it when it is over.”
“I cannot leave the door open, or he might hear voices and wonder who is here and why. Then, he will guess you might be unaccompanied…”
“It is perfectly, well. No one will know of our presence, so my reputation cannot be harmed.”
Anne’s brow finally unfurrowed, and she relaxed. “Oh, I had not thought of that.” They heard a knock on the door from down the hall. “I must go.”
She quickly left and shut the door behind her. For a moment, Darcy remained standing. The fact that he had been left alone with a beautiful and single woman went contrary to everything he was coming to learn about the aristocratic class.
“I know you have promised that I am in no danger from you, William, but I do think you can be trusted to sit beside me.” Elizabeth glanced at the seat next to her. “You do not have to stay rooted in place several feet away.”
“Of course,” he said lamely.
He went to her side the way a pup would go to its mistress, and Darcy recognized the description was nearly apt. She enthralled him, and he was helpless to ignore her. When they had first met, he hated that she had power over him. He had seen it as a weakness of himself. Now, he could only wonder that she was not surrounded by dozens of devoted suitors. How was it the only prospective husband she had was a villain like Wickham Collins?
“Well,” she said. “I think I have a lead on several possible pieces that may have been given to your great-great-great-grandmother.”
She began to arrange papers in various stacks. She was organized and methodological in her research, a quality which Darcy appreciated even if he lacked it himself. Her words finally turned his own mind to the real reason for their meeting.
“I found my grandmother’s ring.” He pulled the pouch out of his pocket. “There was only my father’s letter that was with it. There is his account of the family legend, but nothing more to substantiate it.” He handed her the letter.
Darcy’s heart constricted as he saw tears fill her eyes. He had not thought his father anything close to a poet, yet Elizabeth seemed thoroughly touched by his words. “Your parents died long ago,” she asked.
“My father died when I was a boy. Mother lived until I came of age.”
“Did she still love him all those years later? Or did she forget about him and remarry?”
“She loved him until the very end,” Darcy said. “I would sometimes find her alone in her room, looking over this letter. Some days, when she especially missed my father, she would hum this tune.” The memories were bittersweet for Darcy. He was unsure he would ever experience such a steadfast love.
“My mother used to sing it for my father,” Elizabeth whispered. “When my sister met Collins, she sang it to him. She thought Collins hung the moon and stars. She still refuses to see him for the awful man he is.”
“We cannot always understand our loved ones or know their hearts.” He thought about the fact that his ancestor allowed his birthright to be taken from him for a small trinket. “It does not mean she did not love your brother-in-law or found happiness with him just because we find him deficient. Tell me, does she still sing the song?”
“No,” Elizabeth admitted. “No, she stopped singing the song years ago. Now, she does not sing at all. Neither does she hear or see — all due to him. And his cousin is just the same.” She shuddered. “I would throw myself into the sea before marrying him, but I may have no choice.”
“What does he hold over you?” Darcy demanded to know, seizing her hand.
“Only that which means everything to me.” She looked into Darcy’s eyes, her own glittering with unshed tears. “My sister. She is dying, infected because of him. He can bar me from seeing her, from being with her in her final hours. I would not be willing to marry Wickham Collins for my own sake or for the estate. However, I cannot allow her to die alone.”
“Elizabeth,” he muttered. “What a brave woman you are.”
Finally, the tears she had been holding in spilled out. Pushing aside the meticulously organized papers, Darcy did the thing which came most natural to him; propriety and class mattered not. What did the upper class know about decency? If he understood correctly, Elizabeth’s sister laid on her death bed due to complications from the pox brought to her by Collins as he walked free and infecting others. Elizabeth may very well face the same future. The desire to slay all of Elizabeth’s dragons filled Darcy, but he remained powerless. The only weapon he had now was to assure her she was not alone as he wrapped his arms around her, and she cried on his shoulder.
“Elizabeth, Elizabeth,” he shushed her and stroked his hand over her back. If dueling were legal or if he had any confidence in his ability, he would call Collins out for causing this beautiful, proud woman to descend into tears.
Eventually, her tears slowed, and although her arms were still around his neck, she pulled her head back from his shoulder. “I am sorry. I have cried all over your coat.”
“Nevermind the coat,” he said lowly.
A solitary tear streaked down her cheek, and he caught it with his thumb before allowing his hand to caress her cheek. She leaned into it while staring into his eyes. Darcy was sinking again, falling into the abyss of her eyes now darker than any green he had ever seen and filled with unfathomable sadness. He would do anything to lift the misery he knew she felt. He would give anything to make her smile just a fraction.
He tried to find his tongue to say something, but he could make no sense of speech. Darcy’s eyes dropped to her mouth. His thumb brushed over her full lips. He darted his gaze back to her eyes. Some of the sadness had left. Instead, they looked questioning and curious. His thumb grazed over her mouth again, and her pupils dilated before she closed her eyes and let out an exhale. It was so silent he could hear the intense beating of her heart as her chest pressed against his. Giving her time to pull away and praying she would not, he lowered his head a fraction of an inch. When she ever so slightly raised her chin, Darcy finally gave in to the sea which had threatened to take him from the moment he met her.
Their lips met, and his hold around her waist tightened. Something about the feel of her in his arms made his whole world feel right. They were everything wrong for one another, but this moment filled a piece of him that he did not know was empty. Their mouths clung together until there was a sound in the hallway. Elizabeth moved first, jumping a little and freeing her arms from around him. She pulled her head back. Although Darcy knew they must separate and that when reality hit her, she would hate him forever, he could not resist one more touch of her lips. A second later, Elizabeth sprang from his arms just as the door flew open. Anne nearly floated in a serene smile on her face.
“Oh, Elizabeth! I have so much to tell—” Her words died as she took in her cousin’s face and the state of the room. “What happened?” She looked questioningly at Darcy.
He was attempting to find his tongue to answer when Elizabeth leaped from her seat and dashed out of the room. Anne and Darcy stared at each other in silence for a moment before either moved. Anne turned to race after her friend only a second before Darcy stood up and called after Elizabeth. He heard the slamming of the front door and ran his hands through his hair, cursing under his breath. What the dashed was he thinking? Kissing her! She had just been crying over the impending death of her sister and the threat of having to marry an abusive man. She needed comfort and friendship — not a kiss! And her? Of all people! He may as well have kissed the Princess of Wales herself!
He knelt to pick up the papers Elizabeth left behind, still scolding himself. Silently, Anne joined him. When the task was finished, they looked at one another, having an unspoken conversation. Anne could easily guess what had upset her friend. As she did not reprove him, Darcy hoped that meant it had not been obvious that he had kissed Elizabeth. Leaving the papers on a table in the room, Darcy bowed and left without a word. They had not even discussed their findings. Once alone in his house that afternoon and free to relive the joy and guilt of Elizabeth’s lips against his, Darcy found Pemberley was the last thing on his mind.