Some of you may recognize part of this first chapter from posting on my blog. I was trying to do micro stories of only 300 words at a time. However, this story demanded more. I thought I could add a few more posts about it. I did one more post but then decided to end the Thursday Three Hundred posts, and many others, on my blog. It just didn’t seem like I was getting enough results for the effort. The story continued to brew though. I dusted it off in early 2021 and have slowly worked on it.
The second half of this chapter and everything going forward is all new material.
Reminder: This story will be posting in entirety at Patreon.
Previous chapters: Prologue
November 19, 1811
Fitzwilliam Darcy held back a grimace as the carriage swayed. How in the devil had his friend Bingley talked him into this? Darcy had come to the country nearly two months ago to assist his friend in his first foray of estate management and for a respite after a troublesome summer. Instead of relaxing by the fire or shooting, they were on an excursion to nearby Ware to visit a fairy grotto with a neighbouring family of five unmarried ladies and Bingley’s annoying sisters in tow. Fairies of all things!
The plan had been proposed by the youngest of the female clan. While Bingley was always eager to please people, Darcy knew that his friend’s attraction to the eldest daughter influenced him as well. In fact, the two eldest Bennet daughters had just been in the same house with them for a week. Bingley ought to have his fill of Jane Bennet by now, and Darcy well knew he needed to avoid the beautiful and vivacious Elizabeth.
At first, she had seemed like nothing more than a country version of most ladies he had ever met: barely pretty and with an eager mama. However, within a fortnight of their acquaintance, Darcy learned that Miss Elizabeth always had something fascinating to say, cared nothing for his good opinion, could stand her own against arrogant bullies, and was fiercely loyal to her family. He could not explain it, but she seemed to grow more attractive at each meeting for no earthly reason. Then, a week ago, her sister fell ill while visiting Bingley’s sisters. Elizabeth came to care for her and arrived with windswept hair and a dirty hem. He had never seen a more dazzling sight. However, her family was all wrong for him. They had ties to trade, and he refused to be seen as a pocketbook or connection to the gentry by his in-laws. He believed equality in marriage was more necessary than emotions. After all, he had seen friendships sour and love fade.
Allegedly, the Bennet carriage did not have enough space to carry all five daughters and the matron comfortably. This prompted Bingley to offer space in Darcy’s and Hurst’s vehicles. Never mind the strangeness of a family having a vehicle that was too small for them. But, then again, Bingley had no carriage of his own.
Darcy then faced two equally loathsome options. He could either convey Mrs. Bennet or the unusual man visiting the Bennets. Mr. Collins was the estate’s heir. Just when Darcy was beginning to conclude it was better to have the devil you know than the devil you do not know, Mr. Collins told Elizabeth he hoped to spend time with her in the caverns. Before Darcy was fully aware of what he was doing, he had invited the man into his carriage. Miss Bennet, of course, was also asked. It was only natural since she was still recovering from her cold, as Mrs. Bennet had said when she all but threw her daughter into the coach. For a moment, Darcy wondered at the propriety of one maiden and three gentlemen in one compartment. It looked to be on the tip of Miss Bingley’s tongue when she began to argue as Mrs. Bennet climbed into the Hurst carriage. However, Darcy could not bear riding with either lady in addition to Collins. He rapped the ceiling of the coach to pull forward before the others were entirely loaded up.
Arriving at the grotto, it was as awkward an experience as he had expected. He was too tall for most of the rooms and had to continually duck his head. The light was dim, and the worst of the Bennet females shrilly oohed and ahhed over every shell decorated niche. The middle one pontificated that she felt a communion with God here.
Darcy had to get away. There were air vents, but with so many people cramped in small quarters, he felt trapped. His only relief was that Caroline hovered near the entrance, refusing to go any further than where the sunlight shone.
Following the walls, Darcy walked through the corridors until he could hear nothing. He liked natural grottoes and had visited a few near Pemberley as a child. He had seen man-made caves as well, usually at grand and formal estates. Darcy never would have guessed that Hertfordshire had such a thing but trust Lydia Bennet to insist upon a group outing for the Longbourn and Netherfield occupants.
Rounding a corner, Darcy found another opening. Brown’s grotto had one large chamber and then five smaller ones. Unfortunately, Darcy had not thought to bring a lamp with him further into the cave during his escape. He had assumed the hall, and each chamber would have light, but the lone lamp in this area dimly flickered. Hearing a giggle echo off the walls, Darcy inched back, hoping the darkness would shelter him from unwanted intrusion.
Expecting to feel the coolness of the stone wall, he bumped a person and a feminine yelp reverberated in his ears. He could feel the lady falling due to his accidental bump. Spinning around, he thrust his hands into the darkness to steady her. However, he did not feel the firmness of shoulders or elbows. Instead, the softness of a woman filled his hands.
Embarrassed, he pulled his hands away. Before he could offer an apology, the lady gasped in shocked outrage.
“Mr. Darcy! How dare you!”
The loud cracking sound echoed off the walls of the cave at the exact moment his face registered pain from a slap. Good Lord, he might be bruised, and she likely sprained her wrist.
“It was an accident,” he ground out.
“I am sure it was,” Elizabeth hissed in an angry whisper, “for we all know I am not tempting enough for you.”
“What?” Had she hit him harder than he thought? She made no sense just now.
“At the assembly. You said that of me to Mr. Bingley. I plainly heard it, and so did anyone else sitting nearby.”
Darcy blinked in astonishment, his brain still feeling rattled. Had she struck him only out of his…ahem, mishap, or was there some long-standing anger for the duration of their acquaintance?
“A fool I might be, but blind I am not,” he said. “Had Mr. Bingley suggested I dance with you, then I would have been forced to acknowledge his good sense.”
Elizabeth huffed. “I already know what you think of Mr. Bingley’s sense. Do you delight in mocking everyone you know?”
“I never mock.” He ought to turn and leave. He had made his apology, but she always held him in thrall. “Are you well? You did not injure anything when I knocked into you?”
“My hand hurts,” she acknowledged.
Darcy’s eyes had adjusted to the light a little, and he could see she tilted her chin in what he presumed was defiance. She was proud of her defence, as she should be, he acknowledged. “May I see?”
She nodded, and Darcy lifted her hand, cradling it in his. “I will have to remove the glove.” He paused for assent before pulling back the soft leather. He focused his mind on ascertaining if she were hurt instead of the act of revealing her flesh.
“Who did you think Mr. Bingley was suggesting you dance with?”
Elizabeth’s voice was a welcome intrusion to his dangerous mindset. He had been holding his breath, his eyes eager to see more of her inch by inch. Finally, grateful that she had not discerned his interest, he answered after having to clear his throat. “Another lady sitting beyond you.”
Elizabeth furrowed her brow, and Darcy tested the movement of each digit before turning her hand back and forth and side to side. She did not seem in extreme pain. Next, he stroked his fingers over her palm, where he knew her skin would be most sensitive. Instead of a wince, he saw her shiver.
He had not suggested looking at her hand as a means of seduction. Still, she finally seemed aware of the energy that he had discerned between them early on. His restraint was beyond frayed after fighting his growing feelings for her the last week. At first, she had just been a local beauty. However, the more he talked with her, the more she tugged at his heart. If he were a gentleman with fewer family expectations, he would already be offering for her. No other lady had ever enchanted him so much.
“I cannot recall who sat near me.” Her breath came in quicker pants. “When I think about that evening, all I remember is you.”
Darcy exhaled. “Elizabeth,” he murmured in warning before pulling closer.
She came so willingly and felt so perfect in his arms. His head lowered, drawn to the irresistible pull of her lips. He should not kiss her. That would commit him to her forever — but he could not resist. She was made to be held by him.
Just before he reached heaven, there was a rumbling sound, and the ground shook. They drew back and looked to their rock ceiling as it began to tumble down. Elizabeth burrowed into his side, and Darcy enveloped his arms around her. When the dust settled, the entrance to their chamber was blocked by large boulders.
“Are you well?” Darcy asked Elizabeth, who still cowered in his arms.
“I am not hurt, but are we trapped, sir?”
Darcy tore his gaze from Elizabeth to re-evaluate the rubble before them. “It would seem that we are, for now.” He cast his eyes upward. “However, the air shaft remains clear.”
“Do you think the others are safe?” Elizabeth asked with a tremble in her voice.
“I pray they are.” There was nothing else he could say, and at the moment, nothing he could do. Suddenly, he realized that he still held Elizabeth. “Well…” He cleared his throat while lowering his arms and putting a few inches of distance between them.
“I suppose we are even now.”
Elizabeth’s words came in that teasing lilt in her voice that he enjoyed so much, drawing a slow smile despite their situation. “How so?”
“I grasped at you rather desperately just now.” A delightful blush overspread her features.
“As was your…ahem…attempt at steadying me. I am grateful you did not return my treatment to you.”
“I do not know a man who would complain about a beautiful young lady seeking shelter in his arms.”
He dared a glance at her. Elizabeth’s eyes were cast down and, if there were more light, he knew he would be fascinated with her dark lashes once more. Had she only ended up in his arms because she was frightened? There was a moment before when they were drawn to each other. He had seen curiosity and desire in her eyes and heard excitement in her breath. He had pulled her to him, and she came feely.
Then, their lips met and… Elizabeth acted entirely unaffected by the kiss. Perhaps he had only imagined it. Or maybe a rock had struck him on the head. Darcy ran a hand through his head to check for any tender spots.
“What shall we do now?” Elizabeth said, interrupting his thoughts.
“I am unsure. We can attempt to remove some of the rocks, but there is the danger of causing more of the ceiling to fall. It may be smarter to wait for the owner or an engineer consulted. They will need to brace the opening on the other side.”
“There must be many layers. Perhaps we can move some of them to make it easier when we do have assistance.”
Darcy looked at the pile in hopes of assessing where to begin. He considered himself an intellectual man. However, he had to concede he had no knowledge of natural engineering. Larger boulders formed the bottom with smaller rocks on top. Surely, they should start there. He turned his head to tell Elizabeth his assessment, but she was already on her way to the pile.
She turned her head back to look at him. “If you help me, I think I can climb to the top.”
His brows rose, but he admired her bravery and initiative. The width of her skirt restricted her ability to reach the top of the bottom-most layer, which was about even with Darcy’s hip. He formed a step for her by interlocking his hands and crouching, allowing her to place one foot on him as he braced her weight. He had noted her slim and pleasing form before; indeed, she was feather-light in his hands.
Elizabeth braced herself on his shoulders, distracting him further until he felt her tap her fingers, and she cleared her throat. Then, discerning that she was ready, he raised her up several inches. One foot now met the top of the first boulder while her other leg reached for the next row. Her hands gripped at grooves in the rock formation. For a moment, she held in place.
“It has been many years since I’ve climbed up a mountain, Mr. Darcy,” she said, astonishing him. “I will need you to keep watch in case any of these come loose, and I begin to tumble.”
“I will let no harm come to you,” he vowed.
Elizabeth merely nodded her head and reached her right arm up while her right foot found a new platform. “It’s a pity this happened here. So many of the other rooms have much lower ceilings.”
Darcy had thought the same thing. However, despite the high ceiling, he would have to crouch strangely to remove the rocks at the top. So it was better to allow Elizabeth, who had a more petite build, to do so, and he could remove the heavier stones in the middle of the pile.
Elizabeth stretched again, allowing Darcy to admire her lithe strength. He could only imagine how other ladies would be reacting in such a scenario. They would probably be a whimpering, sobbing mess, but not his Elizabeth. He shook his head to dispel the thought. Despite the madness that seized him moments before the rocks fell, locking them in together, she was not his and never could be.
“You are silently condemning me,” Elizabeth called out, drawing Darcy’s notice to her once more.
“What makes you think so?”
“I can hardly think that any ladies of your acquaintance are experienced in climbing a mountain or would admit it if they were.”
“Actually,” he answered after a moment, “I was admiring your strength, both physically and of spirit. I count myself fortunate that you are my companion in this circumstance.”
Elizabeth laughed. “Oh, yes. Could you imagine Miss Bingley or Mrs. Hurst in this scenario?”
“Or your mother?”
Elizabeth’s laughter immediately ceased, and Darcy winced. Why had he said such a thing?
“I thank you for considering my mother as fashionable as Miss Bingley. I will be sure to tell them so when we are free.” She glanced over her shoulder.
Darcy held up his hands. “I did not mean to offend you. However, I quite deserve punishment for that comment, and if you like when you climb back down, you may slap my other cheek. Only, please, I beg of you, do not tell Miss Bingley that.”
Elizabeth arched a brow. “Perhaps I will only tell my mother then.”
“It might very well improve her opinion of me,” Darcy answered. “However, I would rather neither one know that I made any remark at all.”
“I thought you hated deceit,” Elizabeth said while stretching for another place for her hand. She was nearing the top now.
“Is the omission of a private conversation deceit?”
“I suppose not,” Elizabeth agreed. “There, I think I can begin tossing these small rocks down, now.”
Silence lapsed between them for several minutes while Elizabeth began her work, leaving Darcy to feel unuseful and unchivalrous. Perhaps the least he could do would be to make conversation with her. However, it would behoove him to remember that she held weapons and might very well use them if he unintentionally insulted her or a family member again.
“When have you climbed a mountain?” Darcy asked.
“My mother’s brother and his wife live in London. However, my aunt is not from there. Several years ago, they toured her home county, and I was privileged to go with them. We explored many mountainous areas. Not all of them had footpaths, but one, in particular, called to me and promised a stellar view. I was determined to find a way to the top, so I climbed it just as I do now. My uncle went with me. In hindsight, it was not as tall as I had believed, or else my uncle never would have agreed to allow me such a thing. However, I will never forget how proud I was to reach the peak and often remind myself of it during difficult times.”
“How fascinating. Where is your aunt from?”
“Oh,” Elizabeth frowned at the rock in her hand before tossing it down. She took a moment or two before answering, focusing on her task instead. “She was from a small town called Lambton.”
Darcy’s jaw dropped. “That is not five miles from Pemberley.”
“I know,” Elizabeth smirked.