Darcy and Lizzy have had their first kiss! How are they coping with that?
After leaving Anne’s, Elizabeth went straight home. To distract herself, she changed her clothes and washed her face — but she could not remove the feeling of Darcy’s lips tenderly moving over hers. It happened so fast, and then it was over in an instant. Yet, she felt like her world would never be the same. Only, it had to be. She could not have another complication in her life just now.
Quietly, she entered Jane’s room. This had not changed. Jane still suffered silently, clinging to life for some unknown reason. What would her brother-in-law do when Elizabeth’s sister died? Would he throw her out of the house? He would likely threaten to do so if she did not marry where he wished. The man overestimated how much worldly comfort meant to Elizabeth.
Taking Jane’s hand in hers, she felt a gentle squeeze. No tears threatened to fall from Elizabeth’s eyes. Over the years, she had learned to manage her feelings in her sister’s sick room. She would be strong for the woman who had held together her entire world when their parents died. Still, she silently prayed that if Jane could not miraculously recover, that she peacefully and quickly pass from this life.
Elizabeth made excuses to not visit Anne for the next week. She could not see Darcy without dying of mortification. It seemed that Anne’s suitor had not proposed, but she remained hopeful. Thankfully, Collins had left London, giving Elizabeth some peace of mind. Unfortunately, he was spending time with various potential judges regarding the remainder he wished to apply to Pemberley. Elizabeth was certain Collins was bribing them somehow.
Nine days, three hours, and eleven minutes — not that she had been counting— after Darcy had kissed Elizabeth, the mail arrived with a missive from her brother-in-law. Her hand shook as she took it from the silver plate proffered by the butler.
“Get on with it,” she murmured to herself. It was better to know what he commanded, so she knew what she must do.
He had called her that when they first met and she was a young child. Her father had found it amusing, and, for a time, Elizabeth felt it was an endearment from her father’s heir and the one destined to be her brother-in-law. The truth about Collins’s character came out later. Now, he still called her that denigration.
My meetings regarding Pemberley are going exactly as I hoped. Let us keep to our bargain. After your sister’s demise, you will marry Wickham, and he will inherit the estate.
I will return to London in a day or two. I suspect that it will not be long enough for you to come up with any alternative plans. When I return, I do not want to hear any more on this subject. No attempts at begging or coaxing, or it will be the last you will see of your sister. Of any of your sisters.
Elizabeth’s hand flexed around the paper, crumpling it mercilessly. Sucking in a breath, she balled it up and threw it into the fire grate. She would never reread it, so there was no use in preserving it. Indeed, Collins had found his mark for every word was already imprinted on her mind.
Once, she had considered telling the world about his abuse. He regularly sent such hateful messages. She could show them as proof. However, the problem was finding anyone who would care or dare to hold Collins accountable. She had hinted that she would tell her uncle, Lord Fitzwilliam. Collins retaliated, reminding her that he was Elizabeth’s legal guardian, and then ingratiated himself with the earl. Now, Elizabeth knew it was useless. There would be no swift rescue from the tyrant that was her brother-in-law.
She still had a year before she came of age, and he could refuse any other suitor who came forward. Additionally, she had done her best to discourage every gentleman lest her brother-in-law tear her away from Jane for an enviable match. Now, it seemed the only one that would have Elizabeth was Collins’s favourite cousin. What a shame that she had become a wallflower by choice.
Elizabeth sat lost in her musings for some time until the butler returned.
“My lady,” he said. “There is trouble with the usual delivery to the Warehouse.”
“What sort of trouble?” Elizabeth asked.
“The maid who usually goes is ill, and no one else can be spared.”
“They will not allow a man inside.”
“Aye, my lady. Shall I make arrangements for the items to go another day?”
“Will the food keep?”
“Some of it might.”
Elizabeth chewed her bottom lip. She could not be sure when her brother-in-law would return. It was better to not risk a delivery to the Poor Souls Ladies’ Warehouse on the day he arrived. He would wonder at the activity. “I will take them. Jones can drive me. I have no use for the carriage.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said with a bow and left.
It had been a few weeks since Elizabeth had last made her way to the Ladies Warehouse. Part hospital, part hostel, it was a place dear to Elizabeth’s heart. Many of the ladies there were afflicted with the same disease Jane had. Some of them had worked the streets, but others had been married. All of them were now too sick to work. The Warehouse relied entirely on donations of clothing and food.
A half an hour later, Elizabeth was in the back of a wagon, packed full of goods for the needy residents. She helped unload and take the items inside. The place was run by a pair of elderly spinster sisters. Some of the healthier residents did general maid work, but they lacked young and healthy people. Elizabeth often wondered how they managed, and yet the building was not as dilapidated as she would have expected.
Once all the items were put away in the appropriate cupboards, Elizabeth spent time in the various common rooms. She greeted the long-time residents whom she knew and talked with the newcomers. Usually, spending time here lifted her soul, and she could be thankful for what she had. Today, however, as she took in one worn and beaten down face after another, a terrible fear clawed at her from the inside. This could be you.
If she married Wickham Collins, it could be her. If she ran away from her brother-in-law’s home, it could be her as well. What could she do for employment? She had been trained to be a lady of a great house, but she did not have the skills of a maid or housekeeper. She might be accomplished in many things, but that did not make her capable of becoming a governess.
“Lady Elizabeth?” Miss Edith Gardiner, one of the sponsors, called her over. “Mrs. Cartwright is feeling ill and could use a dose of sherry. Will you please go to my office to retrieve it?” She handed over the key.
Elizabeth agreed and gave Mrs. Cartwright a comforting smile. Alcohol and spirits were kept locked in the office. The Gardiners did not often medicate with alcohol. It was only given when there was no hope of anything else. Elizabeth could not recall precisely what was wrong with Mrs. Cartwright. Whatever it was, there was no denying that she seemed even more emaciated now than she had when Elizabeth last saw her.
Opening the door, Elizabeth needed a moment to allow her eyes to adjust to the darkness. She searched for a lamp for a few minutes before quitting and hoping to find at least a candle. She made a mental note to add lighting supplies to her list for the next delivery. Giving up, she decided to do her best in the darkness. There was no window in the room, as it had once been a large storage closet. Fortunately, Elizabeth had sat in this office numerous times and knew where the wine was stored. Feeling her way in the darkness, she located the cupboard. All she needed to do now was read the labels, a difficult feat in the dark, when she heard a male voice, startling her.
“Edie, what are you doing in the dark?”
Elizabeth cried out in alarm, then heard the man step forward. She jostled into the cabinet behind her, attempting to put distance between them.
“I did not mean to startle you. Are you well?”
“Yes.” Elizabeth sighed as she recognised Darcy’s voice. Her heart still beat erratically.
“Elizabeth?” Darcy came closer.
“Yes,” she said again, blushing in the darkness at her stupidity.
“What the devil are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here, Mr. Darcy?”
“I thought we agreed that you would call me William.”
“Are you not going to answer my question?”
“No, because it was an accusation.”
Elizabeth huffed. He was impossible sometimes. “My understanding is that men are not allowed on the premises.”
“I am the only man allowed. Of course, I am. They’re my aunts, after all.”
“Edith and Margaret Gardiner are your aunts?”
“On my mother’s side.”
“Oh. So, you are here for a visit? At the moment, your Aunt Edith is in the blue room.”
“Actually, I came with a book delivery. Then, I usually see if anything needs repairing. What are you doing in here?”
“She sent me to find the sherry. Mrs. Cartwright needs it.”
“Poor woman,” Darcy said. “If you move aside, I think I can find it.”
Elizabeth allowed Darcy space to access the cupboard. She did not know if his eyes were better trained at reading in the dark or if from his years as a bookshop owner he could decipher small script easier, but he located the appropriate bottle. He handed it to her, and their fingers brushed. A shiver leapt up to her arm.
“Are you well, Elizabeth?”
“Why would I not be?”
“You have not come ‘round to Anne’s. You make excuses to miss our meetings.”
“I do not think I was very helpful, and it seems…” Not now, she told herself. She had held in her tears for days. She had managed to stay occupied the last several hours, so she could not process the devastation she felt at her brother-in-law’s letter.
“It seems what?” Darcy pressed.
“It seems impossible. We have lost, William. My brother-in-law is arranging things for me to marry his cousin as we speak.”
“It is not so easy. It is the only way I can see my sister.”
“Marry me,” he said in a whisper.
“What?” Elizabeth gaped, and her head swam. She must have misheard.
“Marry me,” he said in a louder voice. “If you are already married, then you cannot be forced to marry Wickham Collins. I will beat down the door if I must so you can see your sister. Or she can move in with us.” His voice rose with excitement. “We should do it now; before your brother-in-law returns.”
“We would need his approval. I am not of age.”
“We will go to Scotland!” Darcy cried. “It does not have to be Gretna Green. We can marry anywhere in the country — unless you only want a church wedding and fear the lack of status an elopement would have.”
“I do not care about that at all!” Elizabeth said. What on earth was he proposing? Actually, was he proposing?
“Then, why do you hesitate?”
“I — I do not know you!” Elizabeth blurted out. “I cannot just marry any man off the street, so I am saved from a fate worse than death.”
“Sure, you can,” Darcy said. “I am offering a solution to your problem.”
“And what do you get out of it?”
He reached for her hand. “Not everyone is so mercenary, Elizabeth. You are a friend, and you are suffering. Why should not I offer this?”
“Do not you want to marry a woman who has some affection for you? Feels something for you? I do not even know if I like you!”
He chuckled. “You like me.”
“How can you be so sure?”
He said nothing, and in the darkness, Elizabeth thought she saw him move closer. He dipped his head toward hers, and she tilted her face to him.
“That is why,” he whispered before meeting her lips.
He was right. She did like him. She liked him more than she had ever wanted to admit because he was nothing like what she expected for herself. Could this really be happening? It was not love…but she did not need that. She needed an escape, and here it was.
“Will you marry me?” Darcy asked when he pulled away.
“Yes,” she agreed.
Darcy pulled the wine bottle from her hand and placed it on Edith’s desk. Then, he kissed her until they heard footsteps in the hall.
“Elizabeth?” Edith’s voice called out. “Gracious!” she exclaimed upon entering. “Oh, I must have left the lamp in the other room. No wonder it is taking you so long. I cannot see a thing. Are you still here?”
“She is,” Darcy answered.
Edith jumped and then laughed. “You ought to be ashamed frightening a lady at my age! What are you two doing in the dark?”
The old maiden asked it with innocence, but Elizabeth’s cheeks flamed. She was thankful no one could see.
“Lady Elizabeth needed assistance in finding the sherry. I only just arrived a few moments ago.”
“Ah, well. If I may have the sherry, I can take it back to Mrs. Cartwright. William, were you not saying that you needed an assistant to help you with a few items around here? Lady Elizabeth, would you mind?” she asked brightly and, taking the wine from Darcy, left before there was an answer. She seemed to have a skip in her step.
Elizabeth shook her head. Perhaps Edith was not as innocent as Elizabeth had first guessed. She spent the next two hours with Darcy, helping as he made light repairs. She held nails for him, and he even taught her how to use a hammer. She had missed and hit her thumb one time; he swiftly brought it to his mouth and kissed it until she felt tingly all over. As they worked, they talked. His aunts developed the Warehouse after one of their cousins succumbed to venereal disease. Darcy had grown up assisting. He had never known that the Lady E his aunts raved about for the last five years was a young lady, let alone her.
“You did not find it odd that I suggested we use the Warehouse as a meeting place if Anne’s did not suit?”
He shrugged. “I had thought you knew of my connection and assumed that no one would know you in this part of town.”
Elizabeth nodded. The latter had occurred to her. She watched him repair a chair as she sat on a stool next to him. He had taken off his coat and rolled his shirtsleeves up. She could see the muscles in his arms flex. How had she dismissed him as an odd mixture of too low and too studious when she first met him? “How did you learn to be so good at all these things?”
Darcy grinned. “My father started teaching me when I was very young. He may have died before I came of age, but at the time, I believed I was every inch a man.”
Elizabeth laughed. “How old were you?”
“I was thirteen. I had to leave school, but I did not regret it too much as I was eager to fulfil my duty to my mother.”
His words filled Elizabeth’s mind with thoughts of her own family. Had he really offered to house Jane? Could he even afford to take care of her? Then again, they would not need a house full of maids. Elizabeth was willing to do all the work.
“It is time to go, Elizabeth,” he said sometime later, bringing her mind to the present. “It is getting late.”
“Oh,” Elizabeth stood, resisting the urge to stretch and rub her tender bottom. She brushed a tendril of hair off her forehead. Darcy looked up, and a soft expression came over his face.
Wordlessly, he stood. Placing his hands on either side of her face, he tilted her head up. Elizabeth’s heart skipped a beat. His kisses stole her breath, and she was quite ready for another. Instead of meeting her lips, he caressed her forehead. Mortified, Elizabeth realized he was removing a smudge of dirt. She tried to pull away. His hand dropped from her face and wrapped around her waist.
“You are always trying to run away from me,” he growled before kissing her until her knees went weak. His lips trailed over her face, ending on her forehead. “I will pick you up at ten o’clock tomorrow. I shall arrange everything. Will you be ready for me? Are you certain about this?”
For once, words failed Elizabeth. She nodded even as his lips were still pressed to her head. For a brief moment, Elizabeth allowed herself to feel without guilt or worry over her sister or fear for herself. A part of her was eager to marry Darcy, and that was perhaps the most terrifying thing she had ever faced.