The Secrets of Pemberley- Chapter Nine

secrets of pemberley maskPrevious Chapters: One / Two / Three / Four / Five / Six / Seven / Eight

Chapter Nine

 

Darcy’s hopes for productive engagement period collapsed once he reached Longbourn. Mrs. Bennet behaved as he had guessed she would. First, she could not contain her confusion at their arrival and questioned the absence of Bingley. Darcy sought an audience with Mr. Bennet, who refused to believe anything of the scenario Darcy laid out without consulting Elizabeth. Darcy did not know what father and daughter discussed for above half an hour, but both clearly saw the marriage as a last resort.

Despite Mrs. Bennet’s shrieking effusions and the rude comments from the younger daughters upon the announcement, Darcy sighed in relief. Could the ends justify the means? He and Elizabeth would wed. They would share a lifetime to come closer.

Mrs. Bennet demanded a special license and began squiring Elizabeth around the area, not caring a whit for any of the gossip which followed. Thankfully, Mr. Collins soon returned to his parish when Lady Catherine discovered the source of the rumours in Hunsford to be none other than Lady Montague-Churchill. Lady Catherine arranged for Collins to be present at her friend’s next visit and for the topic to be hellfire and brimstone for gossipmongers. Still, the damage was done. Perhaps it might have been concealed if Darcy had not acted so promptly and arrived at Longbourn. Once again, his attempts at managing Society and acting honourably ruined things.

Mr. Bennet refused to even speak to Darcy. Distinctly unwelcome at Longbourn, he spent most of the engagement in London arranging Elizabeth’s settlement. Regardless of the source of their union, he would begrudge her nothing. Mrs. Darcy deserved the very best.

On one of his brief visits to the area, Elizabeth broached a topic he had not expected from her.

“Several officers dined here last night,” Elizabeth began. “The Militia leaves today, and it was the final opportunity to speak with our friends.”

Darcy tensed as they walked in Longbourn’s garden, fearing a particular name would be mentioned. He did not know if she ever read his letter.

“Mr. Wickham approached me, and we had a strange conversation.”

Darcy said nothing.

“He confessed he was shocked to hear of our engagement. He had believed you would wed your cousin.”

“I was never engaged to Anne,” Darcy rushed to say.

Elizabeth nodded. “I had wondered but guessed if you were then you would not have proposed to me.”

The fact that she allowed a possibility of it being the opposite spoke volumes as to her estimation of his honour.

“He was surprised to hear that I had often been in your company and asked if you had come alone.”

Wickham must have been fishing for information regarding Georgiana. Darcy remained silent.

“When I mentioned the Colonel, Wickham observed the differences in your manners and disposition. He…he hinted at there being some reason for that. I do not know why he found it so fascinating,” Elizabeth said while glancing at Darcy. “The son of an earl and an officer in the army would surely have different education and experiences than a gentleman’s son.”

A gentleman’s son, Darcy thought. Except he was not. Additionally, he noted she did not call him a gentleman. Belatedly, he realized Elizabeth stared at him expectantly. “What do you wish to say?”

“Will you do nothing for him?” She asked and walked ahead to put distance between them. “You once used to be close friends.”

“Elizabeth,” Darcy commanded, and she turned to face him. “You will never ask about this again. You will never speak his name again.”

“But—”

She ceased speaking and fear flooded her eyes as he stepped forward and met her in two long strides. His heart pounded, and he could feel the heat on his face. His voice sounded rough and savage. “I mean it. I will not tolerate discussion in this quarter. He leaves today, and I pray we will never hear of him again. He is no friend to you.”

Elizabeth said nothing and tears gathered in her eyes.

“Do you understand?” he asked. He did not yell but recognised his tone as one spoken by a displeased George Darcy. The tone that always struck terror in his heart. He cared not. The matter was too important. If she had not read his letter, she never would. He was too angry to explain it all to her, all he wanted was her promise. “Do I have your agreement?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

Darcy nodded and stormed off, not trusting himself to say or do anything else. He longed to take Elizabeth in his arms and erase the stricken look on her face. Words failed him. She had not read his letter and deserved to know, but he could not speak more. An embrace or tenderness from him would be the last thing she desired.

He left that afternoon for London and did not return until the day of the wedding. Bingley arrived with him and offered use of Netherfield. Darcy knew Elizabeth had wondered if he would confess all to his friend. He had put it off, expecting Bingley’s anger. Instead, the man could not believe his good fortune.

“Miss Bennet may not still care for you,” Darcy cautioned.

“If she loved me once, I can earn it back,” Bingley said with a grin.

Despite Darcy’s tale, his friend seemed euphoric.

“I can never repay you for your loyalty and kindness,” Bingley had said.

Darcy shook his head. He could not say if Jane still loved Bingley, but he saw the signs of heartbreak. At times, the distant look in her eyes was reminiscent of his own. He had been far too officious in imagining he saved Bingley from anything. He would have done much better by paying closer attention to Elizabeth’s reaction around him rather than assuming she felt as he did. What a tangled mess of it he made.

Still, when Elizabeth approached him at the altar in Longbourn’s church on May Day, Darcy could not prevent the feeling of utter rightness settling into his heart. She vowed to love him, and whether or not she meant it at the time, he promised himself to never give up and to cherish her always.

As the carriage rolled away, Darcy caught the worried looks from Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth’s London relatives—a couple Darcy had enjoyed meeting and believed an acquaintance he would keep—and the tears trickling down Elizabeth’s face. This would be an uphill battle but a lifetime would be enough. No one would ever love another the way he loved Elizabeth and when he had, at last, earned the position he coveted in her heart, he would speak it all. Until then, he would wait and watch and love her without words every day.

 

*****

 

Towards the end of July, Elizabeth readied Pemberley for Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner to visit. The newlyweds had spent several weeks in London after the wedding and remained until the end of June when Bingley and Jane married. Elizabeth spent most mornings with her aunt, while Darcy spent time at his club. They joined in the afternoon for dinner, sometimes with his small circle of friends and avoided the general circuit of London as the Season waned. Additionally, Darcy had sensed Elizabeth unready to travel all the way to Derbyshire, and he invited her aunt and uncle to dine with them as often as possible to make her feel at ease. He genuinely liked them and asked them to visit over the summer.

Arriving at Pemberley during the height of summer, Elizabeth immediately loved the grounds. She spent as much time as she could out of doors, walking and examining the gardens. It had seemed a lifetime ago that they discussed the manicured gardens of Rosings, but Elizabeth praised him for leaving Pemberley in its more natural state.

While their first few months of marriage had remained strained, with most of their time spent apart, Pemberley breathed fresh air into them. They fell into a routine of separate mornings, then an afternoon walk and tea together before dinner when Georgiana would join them for the evening.

Slowly but surely, Elizabeth’s anger had faded. She talked with Darcy more and asked to sit with him in the library sometimes. Darcy dare not ask her about the change in her feelings lest he scare them away.

The night before Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner’s arrival, Darcy thought they turned a corner. Perhaps it was the extra glass of wine he drank at dinner, but he believed he saw Elizabeth look at him fondly during the meal. When Georgiana declared herself tired and asked for a supper tray to be sent to her room, instead of doting on the girl she had taken underwing as a sister, Elizabeth requested Darcy to sit and turn pages for her.

Her sweet voice always pulled on his heart and more than once their hands grazed when he reached to turn a page for her. They had other times of this gradual touching, but he had always erred on the side of caution since his compromising kiss. This night, however, he felt intoxicated by the feeling of her at his side, in their home, and desiring his company. At the end of the song, Darcy raised her hand to his lips.

“Pemberley has never looked more beautiful, my darling,” he said as she blushed. “Do you enjoy your refreshed rooms?”

“Yes, very much,” she murmured as she stared at her hand still in his.

That she did not seek to remove it made Darcy want to shout in victory. “Then I am pleased. Your happiness is paramount to me.” He rubbed his thumb over her soft skin and heard a soft gasp.

“You are so good to me,” Elizabeth said and ducked her head away.

Darcy could see her cheeks burning crimson and the vice grip he had felt around his heart for months eased. She saw something good in him. The clock chimed the time, and Darcy did not want to relinquish the closeness they had found this night.

“Would you care for a short stroll in the garden? I do not think you have seen it at night time.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Elizabeth said in a breathy tone.

Darcy escorted her through the garden as she leaned on his arm. He covered her hand with his free one, stroking the smooth skin and feeling shivers run through Elizabeth’s frame from time to time. Coming under an arbour with roses climbing over it, their heavy fragrance filling the air, he pulled her to his chest, and she lowered her head against his heart. His arms tightened around her, and they sighed at the same time, drawing a slow smile from his lips.

“I think of you out here often, Lizzy,” he whispered into her hair. “More beautiful than the stars, with your eyes shining like diamonds. You are as fresh and unspoilt as these roses.” He nuzzled against the softness atop her head. “I do not deserve you.”

Darcy waited for Elizabeth to tense or push him away. He waited for her to remind him of his sins and what brought them together was not mutual love but his penchant for destruction. Instead, she tilted her head up and smiled at him as she caressed his face with a hand. He leaned into it and shut his eyes. The gentle touch did more to heal the wounds of his heart than any words ever could. Hearing a rustle of fabric, he opened his eyes just as Elizabeth brushed her lips against his.

He staggered back as every part of him felt aflame.

“Did…did I do something wrong?” Elizabeth asked and chewed her bottom lip. “Did you not like it?” She turned her face from him.

In one long step, Darcy was in front of her, so close their chests touched giving him the most exquisite torture. “I have wanted your kiss from almost the first moment I met you. Nothing could feel better—”

His words were extinguished when Elizabeth placed both hands on his face and pulled his mouth to hers. Asking no more questions, Darcy wrapped his arms around her waist and worshipped his goddess with unwavering devotion.

The next morning, as he opened his eyes fearing it had all been a dream, he was greeted by the sight of Elizabeth’s head resting on his heart and her arm draped across his chest.

 

*****

 

Darcy knew he should have asked after Elizabeth’s change of heart, but first, he was too afraid and then he had no time. Disaster struck, and it threatened to undo everything he had worked for. Once during their engagement, Elizabeth asked after his relationship with Wickham, and he had pushed her feelings aside. When her sister Lydia went to Brighton with the Regiment, no one thought to ask him or mention it to him. Indeed, while he had thought it unwise, he would not have considered her a target for Wickham.

A few days after Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner arrived at Pemberley, Elizabeth received two letters from Jane. Lydia had eloped with Wickham, but it was not believed they had continued to Scotland. They hid somewhere in London. The Gardiners immediately left to help. Elizabeth withdrew to her chamber. He whispered words of comfort to her, but she refused to speak. Determined to see her smile again, Darcy decided to leave for Town two days later. Georgiana would watch over Elizabeth.

Once in London, Darcy left no stone unturned until he located Georgiana’s former governess who had schemed with Wickham to cash in her dowry. For a few guineas, the woman ratted out her one-time lover and directed Darcy to his location. After finding the couple and unable to convince Lydia to leave the man, he persuaded her to return to Gracechurch street until the wedding. The following day, Darcy arrived at Wickham’s rooms with a magistrate and a stack of Wickham’s debts he now owned.

“What is this?” Wickham scowled. “You would not send me to debtor’s prison! What would your father say?”

Darcy said nothing and let Wickham continue with his usual line of defense.

“You have not forgotten, have you, how he favoured me?”

“I have not,” Darcy said through grit teeth. “You will sign these papers,” Darcy put down a second stack, “which commit you to marrying Miss Lydia and purchasing an ensigncy in the Regulars or you will pay the consequences of your misdeeds.”

After staring at Wickham without flinching for several long seconds, the other man picked up the pen and signed the papers. He paused at the last one. “What is this?”

“Read it for yourself,” Darcy said.

Wickham looked at the magistrate. “Is this legal? If I speak the truth—the truth mind you, not a lie—of Darcy or Miss Darcy’s birth, I will be deported to Australia without trial?”

The man shrugged. “A private agreement between two people can contain any number of things. You give up the right to speak openly by not going to Newgate now. At any rate, such talk would lean toward blackmail, and you certainly are not asking me if you should retain such a right. My, that could be construed as an admission of guilt or an intention of crime.”

Wickham held up his hand. “Very well.” He angrily signed the final missive.

Darcy remained in London until Wickham and Lydia married. They then visited at Longbourn. Darcy sent for Elizabeth so she could visit her family. He stayed in town, unable to be in company with Wickham.

After the unfortunate couple left, Darcy took up residence at Netherfield and Elizabeth joined him. Words could not describe the stirring in his heart as he had his wife to hold again. After their sweet reunion as she laid her head against his chest and drifted to sleep, he thought she whispered the three words he had waited his whole life to hear. The next day, however, she acted no different than before. Darcy observed her over the next few days and concluded she merely missed sharing her bed with him given how often she invited—even begged—for him to join her there.

They returned to Pemberley for Michaelmas, and as a year had lapsed since they first met, Darcy could hardly believe how much had happened in that time. He had once said she could not tempt him to dance. He had once claimed she had no beauty. Now, she could drive him mad with a glance. Now, she was the most beautiful woman in the world to him. Still, he increasingly wondered if he would ever gain her love.

 

*****

 

As their first Christmas together approached, Darcy wondered what to give Elizabeth. She had something up he sleeve if her blushing every time she looked at him was any indication. When he presented her with a new writing set, she beamed at him.

“I regret that we cannot see your family more,” he said.

“Yes, they are much further than fifty miles away,” she said saucily and winked.

Darcy grinned to see her tease him over a remark from months ago; before they had married and felt the peace they now did. Her eyes soon took on an affectionate quality, and he thought he might drown in them. Elizabeth blushed and reached for a package to her side then extended her arm to him.

Darcy reverently touched the paper. He had received so few gifts in his life. “Thank you, Elizabeth. Thank you for thinking of me.”

“Of course, I think of you! Open it, silly,” she laughed, and Georgiana joined in.

Flushing at his awkwardness, Darcy opened the paper and found a collection of handkerchiefs with roses and stars embroidered.

“My first efforts were not very proficient,” Elizabeth murmured shyly. “I am happy to say that I improved with practice.”

“I love them,” Darcy said and kissed her cheek, causing her and Georgiana to blush.

How many hours had she spent on these? And she thought of him the whole time. He feared his heart my burst from the joy of it all. That night, in her chambers, something even more significant occurred.

“I love you,” Elizabeth said as she cuddled to him before falling asleep.

Wrapping his arms around her, Darcy smiled so widely he felt facial muscles stretching he had never used before. He held Elizabeth tightly to his chest the rest of the night.

In the morning, she found him in his study. They were to hand out the Boxing Day gifts to the tenants, and the butler had just departed from collecting the bonuses for the household staff. Darcy welcomed her in, and she settled on his lap, placing her arms around his neck.

“Darling,” she said as he rested his head on hers. “I wanted to tell you now so you might decide when we should inform the rest of the estate.”

Darcy lifted his head as a feeling of anticipation filled him. “Yes?”

“There will be a Darcy heir in the Spring.” She grinned and kissed him.

“You are certain?”

Elizabeth nodded. “I have had suspicions for months and began feeling it move last week.”

“When will she come?” Darcy grinned thinking of a bright-eyed girl just like Elizabeth.

“It may be a he,” Elizabeth laughed. “Around our wedding anniversary.”

Unable to contain his joy he shot out of his chair and twirled his wife in his arms while laughing. When Darcy set her down, he kissed her deeply while feeling the clouds of his past disappear. They had love. They had happiness.

He had never before enjoyed visiting the tenants so much. Seeing their happy families only reminded him of his broken one, but today, he felt whole. At the last house, however, Elizabeth’s cheerfulness visibly dimmed. Although she insisted she only felt tired and needed a nap, Darcy could not resist worrying about her. His mother had never been well during her confinements. Thoughts of his mother only reminded him of the secrets he still kept from Elizabeth. He shoved the guilt aside. The information was of such little consequence, he would tell her at the right time. Why ruin their happiness?

As the weeks wore on, Darcy’s fears proved correct. Elizabeth suffered from bouts of insomnia and minor illnesses. Her typical energy disappeared. He also thought better of the timing of her declaration of love. She did not love him. She liked that he had given her a baby. Elizabeth never held back her feelings or words for anything else. If she truly loved him, she would say it often. Instead, she never uttered it again.

When her time for confinement came, Darcy paced about a downstairs room in dread of losing her forever. Mrs. Bennet arrived to assist with the birth, and Darcy found he, at last, had a use for the woman. She crowed in happiness at Elizabeth bearing a son. That night, as Darcy held the woman and son he loved beyond all reason, he vowed to himself he would say nothing to mar their paradise. He had no reason to open the wounds of his past.

More than twenty years later, he learned to repent that vow and all the things he left unsaid.

 

The Secrets of Pemberley- Chapter Eight

secrets of pemberley maskPrevious Chapters: One / Two / Three / Four / Five / Six / Seven

 

Chapter Eight

 

“Fitzwilliam Darcy!” Lady Catherine exclaimed as she crushed the note in one hand. “Have you so little respect for my daughter that you would subject her to rumours at her own home?”

“I do not understand you,” he said coldly.

“This,” she waved the offending paper around, “is a note from Mr. Collins! He has heard gossip all over the village this morning that you were seen kissing a young woman yesterday on park grounds. And not just any young woman, one clearly not of servant stature! The townspeople have had no trouble concluding it must be one of Mrs. Collins’ guests. Any idiot can see Miss Lucas is without guise and could never entrap you. It’s that Elizabeth Bennet. I insist you end this dalliance at once!”

“That is quite enough, madam!” Darcy stood and threw his napkin at the table. “I have no connection with Miss Bennet, and she has never behaved in any manner other than as a lady toward me. She has not entrapped me or used any mean art, unlike some,” he said with a pointed glare at his aunt. “Nor can I understand what my private affairs would mean to Anne.”

“It was designed for you to marry her!” Lady Catherine’s face turned red.

“It was nothing more than the wishes of two sisters. Nothing was arranged by contract or by the desire of the young people in question. Nor would that be common knowledge. Even you would not bandy about such an expectation to the neighbourhood.”

“Anne has waited for you for all these years! Heaven knows what has delayed you but what pleasures men always seek, but how dare you do it right in front of her?”

“Mother,” Anne said forcefully. “I do not desire to wed Fitzwilliam. We have both discussed that long ago.”

Lady Catherine turned a deeper shade of red and stood. Her mouth dropped open, and for a moment Darcy thought she would screech or command her daughter into the obedience of her wishes. Then, unexpectedly, after not finding the sufficient words, she clamped her jaw together and left the room.

“My dear cousin,” Anne said in a sad voice, “you are missing the salient point here. Miss Bennet’s reputation is being impugned and attached to your name. She is likely even now being upbraided by her cousin. Even if it is not true, you must do something.”

Darcy collapsed back in his chair as all residual anger left him in place of concern for Elizabeth’s feelings. What was there to do? He had already offered for her, and she refused him. She had even declared if he were the last man in the world, she would not have him. Once rumours began, things could turn nasty quickly. Already the gossip centred on his kiss. It would easily be construed as Elizabeth attempting to seduce a wealthy man. If she did not marry, others would question not only her intents but her virtue. It would make her undesirable as a wife and yet subject her to dishonourable intentions. He knew the outcome well. It was all the things he worried about should Georgiana’s near elopement ever become known.

Richard pulled him up by the arm and led him to the library. “Here,” Richard said while pushing a brandy into his hand.

Not caring it was still an early hour, he took a large gulp.

“I don’t suppose you could deny the rumour?” Richard asked.

Darcy shook his head. “You know how I abhor deceit.” He tossed his head back and squeezed his eyes shut. “She is going to hate me forever.”

“You could find another for her to marry,” Richard said.

The words propelled Darcy forward, and he met his cousin’s eyes. “Are you suggesting yourself?”

“Lord, no,” he said quickly—possibly too quickly—and took a swig.

Darcy clenched the arms of his chair, and his knuckles turned white. “You did seem to favour her.”

“Of course, I favoured her! She is pretty and agreeable.” Richard gulped and held up his hands. “However, we both know I need a lady with some fortune, and so I do have a care when I am about them to not fall in love with just anyone who is pretty and agreeable.”

Darcy narrowed his eyes. “You sound as though you believe she bewitched me and come rather close to insulting her.”

“Calm yourself and put away your murderous glare! I am certain there are any number of qualities which you admired and earned your love. Simply because I do not see them does not mean I am insulting your lady.”

Somewhat appeased, Darcy leaned back in the chair again and loosened his grip.

“You could supplement her dowry,” Richard suggested.

Darcy pinched the bridge of his nose. “That will look as though I am paying her off for an affair.”

“Oh, right. Well, I am more used to how my brother has to deal with his ladies.”

“Do not remind me,” Darcy groaned.

“Maybe she does not wish to wed at all.”

“She has four sisters whose reputations could be affected as well. Although, I suppose Bingley would marry her eldest sister without argument. He still seems rather attached to her.”

“Bingley!” Richard cried. “Bingley was attached to Miss Bennet’s sister?

“Yes.” Darcy took a gulp of the wine in his hand. “I was apparently quite mistaken in the level of Miss Jane Bennet’s regard for my friend.”

“Did Miss Bennet enlighten you last night?”

“Yes, quite soundly.”

Richard cursed. “I apologize, Darcy. I am to blame. Just yesterday, I told Miss Bennet that you had congratulated yourself on separating Bingley from an impudent marriage!”

Darcy finished his drink before replying. Devil take it, he was developing quite the headache this morning. “She must have suspected it in any case and had many other reasons against me. I should not have mentioned it to you, although I did not know she would be here, but she has never been far from my thoughts and admitting something close to her — in relation of her sister and Bingley — was as near as I could come to unburdening myself. If you agreed on the situation with my friend was imprudent, then I could tell myself I had chosen correctly by leaving Hertfordshire and not pursuing her.”

“How was I to counsel you on that if you did not provide the information that it was even Bingley you were talking about let alone the situation of the lady. Miss Bennet is genteel and everything proper. You made it sound as though he desired a scullery maid.”

“I can hardly be to blame if you were not more curious to ask impertinent questions and challenge my prejudice.”

Richard finished his drink and then stood. “Come,” he said and extended his hand.

Darcy looked at it sceptically. “Where are we going now?”

“I am going to distract Mr. and Mrs. Collins while you grovel to your future bride.”

“No, there must be another choice.”

“There is no other way to secure her reputation, and as you just pointed out, you need someone to challenge you. You will have to work out your personal differences, but a lifetime must surely be enough for that. She simply needs to marry you, not like you.”

Darcy pushed his hand out of the way and stood. “Thank you for the sweet words of inspiration and hope. You make it sound so easy.” Inside, Darcy knew a loveless marriage to Elizabeth would be a personal hell on Earth. And one he deserved entirely.

“She is too honourable to destroy the happiness of her entire family,” Richard said gently. “Nor is she unjust.”

Months ago, at Netherfield, Darcy and Elizabeth had debated their failings. He had admitted to implacable resentment, and she had rightfully said it was a dreadful fault. He prayed she could be so forgiving in such an instance. With a small kernel of hope building in his chest, Darcy continued to the Parsonage.

 

*****

 

“Mr. Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam” Mrs. Collins greeted them in with a tight smile.

Darcy had immediately noticed her husband’s absence. “Where is Mr. Collins?” Darcy asked.

Mrs. Collins frowned. “He has gone up to console Lady Catherine. Let us not misunderstand what this visit is about. Eliza is in the garden.”

Darcy began walking to the door, but Mrs. Collins called out, “She needs time.”

Darcy mutely nodded his head. Richard’s words about a lifetime being long enough to sort out how to live together resonated in his mind. It had not occurred to him before her rejection how little he really understood Elizabeth or knew her. Was she as stubborn as he? Did she loathe admitting when she was wrong? Would they ever move on from the opinions she had first formed of him?

He found her at the edge of the garden, facing the woods as far away from Rosings as one could manage. She heard his approach and startled. What an extraordinary mixture Elizabeth was! She had been as brave as a lioness last night and now seemed as timid as a frightened deer.

“Miss Bennet,” he said with all the gentleness he could put into the formal address.

She did not turn to face him or acknowledge his presence in any way. Uncertain how to proceed, he stood silently just behind her shoulder. With any luck, she would ease the conversation as she often did when he was awkward and brooding. He lightly drummed his fingers on his thigh to calm his nerves.

Just when he was about to give in and find something to say, Elizabeth turned and faced him. “Do you have anything to say, Mr. Darcy?”

“Would that I could say anything that would erase my actions or bring peace to your mind,” he twisted his hat in his hands. “I promise you will be well cared for—”

Elizabeth’s face crumpled. “My — my — sisters,” she whispered.

“As my wife,” Darcy continued.

Her immediate look of relief as he finished his declaration proved that she found it entirely possible to believe he would not offer his hand again. Did she think he was so dishonourable? Or had she imagined him too proud to humble himself twice in two days?

“Thank you, Mr. Darcy,” she said as she attempted to keep tears from falling.

Her red and swollen eyes had already proved he caused her to shed many others. He could never forgive himself for causing her such distress. What a selfish beast he had been! And she had the graciousness to thank him. As much as he hated himself, he fell even more in love with her at this moment. What other lady could meet this situation with such composure? He had no doubt she was furious at him from the way she held herself, but she seemed to know there was no use in dramatics.

“If it pleases you, I will drive to Longbourn tomorrow and meet with your father.” He offered it up as a peace offering.

Now, you ask what will please me?” She had turned away again but now spun to face him. “And you voluntarily wish to see my family? Oh, but it’s not voluntary, is it?” She cocked her head to one side and shot daggers at him from her eyes.

His nerves were too raw to let the intended insult pass. “I did offer to connect myself with them just last night. You have made no secret of your hatred of me. I did not think you could forget it already as you seemed to have delighted in recalling every other word and action you perceived as my faults.”

“I will not question how destroying my reputation is on equal terms with the faults I laid at your door last night.” Her chin quivered, but she maintained her sure-footed stance and boldly met his eyes.

If she had said it in anger, it would have been easier to bear. Instead, Darcy perceived she meant more than she said. “Are you under the impression that I intentionally orchestrated all of this?”

“I can think of no other explanation,” Elizabeth shook her head. “I refused your offer of marriage, and you have freely admitted to your resentment.”

“You think I would compromise you to destroy you or force your hand? I suppose you think I arranged for there to be witnesses as well?”

Elizabeth turned white and then red. “Someone saw?

“Why else would there be rumours?”

“Rumours seldom begin in truth,” she murmured and lowered her head.

“In this fantasy you have conjured, I commanded others to spread gossip? If it did not rely on someone viewing it, then why would I bother to kiss you?”

Elizabeth blushed and stammered. “I..I…I have been unable to make any sense of that at all.”

Darcy took a step closer to Elizabeth and did not miss the sudden and rapid rise and fall of her chest. He terrified her. He took a step back, and she calmed. “I cannot make you think better of me, but as you have agreed to marry me, I would say it may be best to put your suspicions and prejudices aside. Believe me when I say that kissing you was as unplanned as falling in love with you had been and has served to be just as destructive. Neither can be forgotten soon enough for our mutual happiness. When we say our vows we will each promise things we cannot keep, but I do mean this vow. I will never touch you again without your request nor will I mistreat you in public or private.”

Elizabeth met his eyes and seemed to scrutinise him to assess his sincerity. Hearing the door close and looking over his shoulder he saw Richard and Mrs. Collins walking towards them.

Darcy gave Elizabeth a formal bow. “I will take my leave now.”

“No, I am certain Darcy will insist that you all take his coach! It will very comfortably seat you ladies, and Mr. Collins can ride with Brooks,” Richard said as they drew near. “It will be no inconvenience for Darcy and me to rent horses.”

Darcy was not entirely sure what he overheard, but it seemed designed to vex him.

“Is everything well?” Mrs. Collins asked.

“I…I am well,” Elizabeth dissembled. “Did I hear correctly? You intend to return to Hertfordshire tomorrow?”

Mrs. Collins looked away from Elizabeth’s face. “Mr. Collins and I have discussed the matter, and we thought it best to return you and Maria ourselves. I am certain Lady Catherine will approve of the visit.”

Darcy instantly understood the pretence. Mrs. Collins wished to escape from Lady Catherine’s displeasure because Elizabeth agreed to marry him. “I would be pleased for you to take the coach,” he said.

“Thank you, Mr. Darcy,” she quickly said. After a pointed glare from Mrs. Collins, Elizabeth echoed it.

“Well, we must begin packing then, Eliza.” She returned to the house.

“Of course, do excuse us,” Richard said and bowed before leaving.

“I look forward to announcing our betrothal to your family,” Darcy said wishing Elizabeth offered her hand for him to bow over. As he met her eyes before leaving, his heart sank to see no hint of forgiveness in her eyes.

He tried to not be discouraged by the lack of improvement with Elizabeth. He would attempt to court her during their engagement and after their marriage. For now, he managed to avoid his aunt, who had not left her rooms since Anne’s declaration over breakfast. The journey to Longbourn on a rented horse and with Mr. Collins in tow would test his nerves, but Darcy knew he would need to retain his composure to meet with Mr. Bennet and the vulgarness of his wife and youngest daughters.

 

The Secrets of Pemberley- Chapter Seven

secrets of pemberley maskPrevious Chapters: One / Two / Three / Four / Five / Six 

Chapter Seven

 

A little after half past eight the following morning, Darcy walked the grove at Rosings, lashing himself with memories of the last week. He had thought he was courting Elizabeth well. He had believed she perceived his regard and returned it.

Instead of gratitude and embraces last night, he was met with a harsh refusal and unjust accusations. The pain of her rejection would come later. Instead, he used his anger to defend his character. Elizabeth assaulted his honour, and while he had no hopes of earning her love or hand, he would not allow her to think ill of him due to false understanding. She might hate him forever, but it should not be under pretences of Wickham’s lies!

Now, he waited for her to appear as she always had before.

An hour of wandering later, his anger cooled. He noticed the verdure of the park around him and touched a bloom.

Does Elizabeth’s skin feel as soft as this petal? Would he cheeks blush like the pink of this rose when I kissed her the first time?

He had often imagined it. At Netherfield, his attraction to her beauty, unexpected as it was, kept him awake many nights. It was one reason he resisted his feelings. He had believed he was losing his good sense over nothing more than a charming smile and fine eyes. In London, however, the memory of her looks faded and instead her words and expressions were his constant companion.

Dark thoughts flooded his mind, and the sound of crunching leaves filled his ears as a sharp pain stabbed at his hand. Releasing his clenched fist, the now demolished rose fell to the ground, and he lifted his hand to inspect a wound from a thorn. Blood trickled out. Would that his heart would heal as fast as his hand. Cleaning it with a handkerchief, he slid on his leather gloves and rearranged his hat. He looked the part of a perfect gentleman. He well knew his countenance gave little indication of the turmoil warring in his chest. He would never be the man to taste Elizabeth’s cherished lips, that honour would be bestowed on another. By God, though, it would not be George Wickham. She could not possibly favour him still after she read his letter.

Consulting his pocket watch, he realized another hour had passed. Elizabeth intentionally avoided this walk, he was sure of it. Considering he knew not where else to find her, he chose a path which led to the Parsonage. He had no idea how to pass his letter to her, but perhaps Mrs. Collins could be of assistance, or at the very least have an idea of where her friend walked this morning.

As Darcy’s feet carried him, however, he thought less and less of his letter and more of the piercing pain in his heart. The only time he had experienced unconditional love in his life, it had been ripped from him at a tender age. Elizabeth’s refusal struck at the very core of him. Had his actions with Bingley and Wickham’s lies meant anything at all? Or did she merely find him unworthy through and through? Could she sense he was a bastard and his claim to a high standing was mere pretension?

As he exited the grove and rounded a curve, his eyes made out an outline he knew by heart. No other lady walked with such energy and freedom of expression. Elizabeth walked for enjoyment, not for health. She paused at the gate and lingered. Had she seen him? Did she mean to atone for her outburst the night before? Darcy increased his pace, and his long strides carried him closer, closer to her.

His heart nearly fell from his chest when he saw Elizabeth tilt her head and then her body go stiff before she turned from the gate. It was nothing more than his vain wishes that Elizabeth desired to speak with him again, but he could not allow her to leave. His last memory of her could not be the angry looks of last night. He knew her enough that she would be civil to him this morning.

“Eliza—Miss Elizabeth!” he called out.

She turned to face him, and he called again. When she slowly walked back to the gate, his heart returned to beating.

“I have been walking in the grove for some time in the hope of meeting you,” he said and extended his letter. “Will you do me the honour of reading that letter?”

Elizabeth took it, seemingly by instinct, but then her eyes flashed in reproach. Fearing she would return the letter unread, Darcy panicked. He had no patience or calmness of mind left to resist his impulses. Grabbing Elizabeth’s hand over the gate, he pulled her forward and kissed her lips before she had time to reprimand him.

He wanted to stay and worship them forever, but he pulled back. Anger shined in her eyes. Instead of satiating his longing or fulfilling this devil-craze in him, the kiss tasted like ashes; the very death of him. With a formal bow, he turned his back and left her.

He was halfway back to the Manor house when he saw Richard.

“Did you return from the Parsonage?” Richard asked.

“No,” was Darcy’s only reply.

“I suppose you mean to call later then, but why not come with me now?”

Darcy cared not if it were the polite thing to do. Although uncertain if Elizabeth would return to the house to read, he had no desire to be in the same building as her again. Had he not humbled himself enough? Now he must perform to society’s niceties while the woman he loved looked upon him with disdain? And for what? His aunt’s ridiculous parson and merchant’s daughter of a wife?

“No. I don’t think I will.” He began to push past his cousin when a thought occurred to him. “I cannot explain the particulars of why but I have written to Miss Bennet the truth of George Wickham’s character. He is known to her, and she believes him a friend. Should she not believe me, I gave her leave to corroborate the information with you.”

Richard’s eyes widened during Darcy’s speech. “What on Earth are you thinking?”

“I believe she will not spread the information. You have sung her praises,” Darcy scowled at Richard’s questioning look, “Do you disagree?”

“No,” Richard shook his head. “I believe her trustworthy.”

“Then oblige me in this. I cannot—” Darcy slammed his jaw together. He would not, could not tell of his rejection to Richard. Or anyone else. Ever. He had coveted Elizabeth’s good opinion and acceptance like he had never craved anything in his life. Feeling too vulnerable with Richard’s penetrating stare, Darcy moved forward.

“Come, Darcy,” Richard said, grabbing him by the shoulder. “Nothing but our aunt pressuring you to marry Anne awaits you there, and I do not think you need to spend more time there. At least make yourself agreeable to her friends one last time.”

Richard’s words made Darcy turn around to meet his eyes. “What do you know?”

“I know that the only person who could not tell you were smitten with Miss Bennet was the lady herself. I also know you do not pay that sort of attention to a lady for no reason. Nor would you tell me that should Miss Bennet question me about Wickham or Georgiana to answer truthfully if she was inclined to believe you. And I know you would never tell that to a woman you did not esteem greatly and would trust with your sister’s reputation and life. The only lady who could meet all that criteria would be a woman you loved deeply. You were missing for some time last night and are morose today. So, it all rather stacks up.”

Darcy hung his head and exhaled before turning to follow his cousin down the lane. Others in the world saw him as untouchable and charmed. He was the only son of one of the wealthiest men in the kingdom, related to a powerful and prosperous lord, inherited his estate at a young age, blessed with health, good sense, and good looks. He was in no danger of losing his wealth and could have nearly any wife of London stock that he wished. Men wanted to be him. Nay, even more, most men deferred to him. If they knew he had proposed to a country lady with no family or fortune to her name and not only had been soundly refused but felt like a whimpering small boy on the inside from her tongue lashing, they would have more than a hearty laugh at his expense.

Thankfully, Richard did not offer pity but instead provided a battle plan. Yes, he would go to the Parsonage and say goodbye to Mr. and Mrs. Collins and Miss Lucas. He would show Elizabeth her reproofs there were entirely unjust.

“You do not need to stay long. I will make myself available should Miss Bennet have any questions,” Richard said as they neared the house.

Darcy mutely nodded his head. Elizabeth was not present, and he could scarcely sit still for wondering if her delayed appearance was because she was reading his letter and reproaching herself. He said just enough to be considered civil in Mrs. Collins drawing room and excused himself early, citing the need to write his steward. Richard stayed behind, good man that he was.

As Darcy finally returned to Rosings, he saw Lady Montague-Churchill’s carriage outside. She was Lady Catherine’s closest friend and nearest neighbour that was a peer. Today was not her usual day for calling, but hopefully, that meant his aunt would be too distracted to drop such large hints that he was expected to marry Anne. Upon entering the house, he was informed by the butler that his aunt requested he see her in the drawing room upon his return. With resignation, he complied.

“Ah, here is Darcy,” she said at his entrance. “I do not think you have seen him in the last few years. He always seems to be out when you visit. You recall he is the same age as your son Matthew.”

“No, I have not seen him since his father died, I believe. Well, he was always a handsome young man,” she said while retrieving spectacles from her reticule. After putting them on her face, she gasped.

“Matilda, what is it? You look as though you have seen a ghost!”

“Oh, nothing is the matter at all,” she said. “If you will beg my pardon, I really cannot stay any longer. You know it is not my usual day for calling anyway,” the lady said and hastily stood.

“Of course, dear. I will give your regards to Anne.”

Lady Montague-Churchill thanked her friend. As she left the room, she peered up at Darcy with reproach in her eyes. Unfortunately, he was too distracted by the strange encounter to think of a reason to return to his chambers and instead had to listen to his aunt extoll for an hour about the expectations of his name. This ranged from being friendlier with her acquaintances to demands of duty in marriage. At last, Richard was heard entering the house and gave Darcy a reprieve.

In the privacy of Darcy’s rooms, Richard declared he waited as long as he could and still Elizabeth had not returned to the Parsonage. Darcy tried to content himself with the fact that he would never see or hear of her again. That night when sleep did not come, he was left with memories of his stolen kiss. He had instantly regretted it, and the memory merged with the strange reaction of Lady Montague-Churchill upon seeing him. For the first, he could only say it was yet another thing Elizabeth could hold against his character and for the second he had no ready explanation other than the strangeness of his aunt’s friends.

A note his aunt received at the breakfast table the next morning changed all of his expectations of never seeing Elizabeth again.

 

The Secrets of Pemberley- Chapter Six

secrets of pemberley maskPrevious Chapters: One / Two / Three / Four / Five

 

Chapter Six

 

Darcy’s tongue continued to plague him in the following week. Something Richard noted as he teased him about his recent trips to the Parsonage and frequent walks around Rosings. As Darcy could not find the courage to speak his heart to Elizabeth, he had to delay his return to London more than once.

Finally, a day came when he really could not wait any longer. Georgiana wondered about him in letters and Richard must return to duty. Besides, staying longer fuelled Lady Catherine’s hopes. During his daily walk, Darcy rehearsed his intended proposal. Settling on discussing his feelings as the source of his discomfort, he decided to spend as little time as possible on the regard he felt for Elizabeth but could not put into words.

Two days before Darcy and Richard intended to leave, Mr. Collins and his group dined at Rosings. Darcy conceived it possible to settle matters that evening. He had not seen Elizabeth out walking that morning and had run out of time. Pacing the drawing-room awaiting her arrival drew the curious looks from Anne and Lady Catherine. Having few ideas of how exactly he would speak with Elizabeth alone, Darcy could not have been more shocked when the guests arrived, and Elizabeth not numbered among them.

“Pray,” Mrs. Collins curtsied to Lady Catherine, “excuse Eliza for not coming. She returned from her walk feeling very ill. She has remained in bed with a headache all afternoon.”

As her ladyship suggested various remedies for an ill head, Mrs. Collins darted worried eyes in Darcy’s direction. Was Elizabeth truly ill? Was it worse than a headache? Did she have need of a physician?

Having a moment to speak with the woman after her husband began conversing with Lady Catherine, Darcy confessed his concern. “I am terribly sorry to hear Miss Bennet is ill. Do you think she has caught a cold? Or should we send for a physician?”

Darcy recalled how tenderly Elizabeth nursed her ill sister while at Netherfield in the autumn. Who would see to her now? If it were Mrs. Collins in bed, he doubted Elizabeth would come no matter if Lady Catherine would feel slighted. She nurtured those she loved. However, Mrs. Collins evidently felt a greater loyalty to Lady Catherine than her friend.

Mrs. Collins gave Darcy an indulgent smile. “Thank you for your concern, sir. However, Eliza complained only of a headache. I am certain all she needs is rest.”

Frowning, Darcy asked, “What do you think brought on this condition?”

“Some ladies often have headaches.”

“But not Miss Bennet,” he said without thinking. He had never heard her complain of one before whereas Anne often had them, as did Miss Bingley.

“True, I have not known Eliza to suffer from the ailment before, but there may be a first for everything. She has been reading letters from her sister, and I believe returning to Longbourn weighs on her mind.” Mrs. Collins met his eyes directly. “I hope the weather stays fine for your own journey. We will certainly feel your absence, sir.”

Her attention was soon called away by Lady Catherine, leaving Darcy to consider the lady’s words. Had Elizabeth despaired of him paying his addresses? It would fit with the other moments of strange or cold behaviour he had recognised. She must believe he had merely been toying with her affections. Elizabeth did not aspire to things she was not, like her mother. Her sister had failed with Bingley, and they certainly had more of a visible courtship with a match-making mama pushing them together. Of course, Elizabeth would not immediately assume Darcy had honourable intentions but suffered from insecurity.

Not that it was Elizabeth’s fault. He often felt calmer and more in control in her presence than he did anywhere else. Even when she exposed his weaknesses and flaws. She accepted them and did not ask him to change or wonder why he was the way he was. She never seemed to think he was deficient because he did not act according to her plans and wishes. In fact, she was one of the very few people that did not seek anything from him. No, the insecurity was a relic of his past; a shadow never to be removed but perhaps with her light in his life it might fade.

The dinner bell sounded, and as the others moved to the dining-room, Darcy requested his horse readied. His plans had altered, he would take the time to explain some of his hesitancy, but he would also be afforded greater privacy. You and me, Elizabeth, and damn the rest of the world.

From the entry, he could hear Lady Catherine loudly wonder where he had gone, but Darcy paid it no heed. He had enough of duty and expectations. Enough with pangs of disappointment and feeling like a hollow shell. He wanted to live.

 

*****

 

Arriving at the Parsonage, the maid showed Darcy to the Parlour where Elizabeth sat surrounded by papers.

“You are out of bed,” Darcy blurted as he approached. “You are feeling better?” He cleared his throat as her eyes went round as saucers. “That is, I heard you were unwell and called to check on your welfare.”

“I am as you see,” Elizabeth said with a slight raising of her chin as she waved her hand out to offer a seat.

Darcy gazed at her for a long moment. Her eyes looked tired and her shoulders tense. Did she guard herself against disappointment from him or did the letters she had been studying contain cause for her distress? Elizabeth gathered the paper into a neat pile and pushed it aside. She sat, waiting for him to speak.

Emotion boiling over in his heart, Darcy impulsively left his chair and paced the room. His heart pounding in his ears and palms sweating, he walked by her five times while attempting to force his jaw open to say the words of his heart. He came to bare his soul, and now every facet of him threatened to explode. His body longed to gather Elizabeth into his arms and kiss her until she moaned his name and surrendered to his manly persuasions with no words needed at all. The tenderest part of his heart that had always been moved by her agreed with the base instinct but desired no more than to hold her close. She would hear his heart beat for her and then exchange the favour. However, his brain insisted words were necessary. It reminded him of his plan; that he had concluded Elizabeth’s feelings wounded due to his absence and silence.

At this moment, he came near her again, and wise enough to be out of touching range, words rushed out. “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

Darcy’s chest heaved as he scrutinised Elizabeth’s reaction. She blushed and looked away but showed no sign of asking him to cease.

“I love you, darling Elizabeth,” he let out a deep exhale. Those treasured words did not fall lightly from his lips. Terrified of laying his heart out more, he turned to the far safer subject of logic. “I have not come to ask for your hand on a whim, and I apologise for any torment you may have felt while I considered the viability of our relationship.”

He paused, hoping to see Elizabeth’s eyes but she stared at her clenched hands. He must leave her in doubt no longer. If she only understood what he overcame for her, she would not doubt his affection and sincerity.

“The arguments against our union, which I regularly rehearsed in my mind, held many sound points. The difference in our stations, while not extreme, are so imbalanced as to be imprudent. My world of splendour—and yes, pomp—is far removed from your country origins. The difference is more keenly our immediate families. You must admit they would never meet in ordinary circumstances. You have an uncle in trade while mine is a peer of the realm. I can hear his voice railing against me now and yet, I do not care about the degradation. I do not care about your inferior position.”

Staring at her a moment, wishing she would look at him, he paused to gather his thoughts. “I have been tormented since leaving Hertfordshire and find myself unable to leave your side again. Such steadfastness and courage, I hope, will find its reward with your hand in marriage.”

As instantly as he finished, he turned away. His body carried him some five or six steps to the fireplace, and he leant against the mantle. Although he had no doubt that Elizabeth would accept him, the ingrained need for defence arose. Had he not seen consistent evidence that she cared for him?

At last, Elizabeth looked up with an unreadable expression in her eyes. “In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned.”

Her voice sounded icy to Darcy, and nervousness filled his belly.

“It is natural that obligation should be felt,” Elizabeth continued, “and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot—”

Had she punched him in the gut, it could not hurt worse. Nausea rolled in his stomach, threatening to come up.

“I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly.”

If Darcy trusted his mouth to not spit out his insides, his jaw would have dropped to the floor at that statement.

“I am sorry to have occasioned pain to anyone. It has been most unconsciously done, however, and I hope will be of short duration.”

Out of this entire interview, this was the only part Darcy could congratulate himself on correctly understanding Elizabeth.

“The feelings which, you tell me, have long prevented the acknowledgment of your regard, can have little difficulty in overcoming it after this explanation.”

Elizabeth’s words settled in and blood drained from Darcy’s face as his heart slowed its beat. He remained upright by sheer force of will and due to leaning against the mantle. Even so, the floor swung up to him and he fought the urge to sway. How could she turn his generosity on him? He did not have to tell her what delayed his approaching her. He could have flattered and made it sound like his admiration was newly created. Anger surged in him, and he welcomed it so he would not faint.

“And this is all the reply which I am to have the honour of expecting! I might, perhaps, wish to be informed why, with so little endeavour at civility, I am thus rejected. But it is of small importance.”

He had seen Elizabeth in a wide variety of social dynamics. Her patience and kindness—which he had the utmost reliance upon—strained by the treatment of Miss Bingley and even her own mother. Darcy had never seen Elizabeth speak or act with such intent to wound.

“I might as well inquire,” replied she, “why with so evident a desire of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character? Was not this some excuse for incivility, if I was uncivil? But I have other provocations.”

Darcy remained silent. He could think nothing that would deserve such treatment. For a fraction of a second, a sudden fear that she knew the truth of his birth danced through his mind. But no, Elizabeth would have no way of knowing and he had previously felt sure she would not care. Of course, that was before he found out how much he had misunderstood her.

“You know I have. Had not my feelings decided against you— had they been indifferent, or had they even been favourable, do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?”

Relief filled Darcy as he caught Elizabeth’s words. Her grievance came from his actions to separate her sister from Bingley. He wondered how she could know but then she had always been clever, and he had not been secretive. Now that she was not to be his wife, he was most anxious to keep it concealed from her.

For the next ten or fifteen minutes—Darcy had lost all track of time—their argument continued. He learned how vastly he had misjudged her. All these months he had thought of her with tenderness and love, she had hated his very existence. She blamed him for Bingley not marrying her sister. Elizabeth had listened to Wickham’s lies. Considering what else the man might have told her, filled Darcy with dread. He might have probed or told her the truth of that man’s character had she given him an opportunity.

To illustrate that no change in his approach, no well-rehearsed speech would have earned her hand, Elizabeth filleted him with her sharp tongue. “I had not known you a month before I felt you were the last man in the world I could be prevailed upon to marry.”

“You have said,” he began to shout before she had even finished, “quite enough, madam.”

Elizabeth silenced but stared at him defiantly.

“I perfectly comprehend your feelings, and have now only to be ashamed of what my own have been.” He had never said truer words.

Despite his anger, Darcy loved her still. That combining with his growing shame at his utter misunderstanding of Elizabeth’s estimation of him and the piercing pain of her rejection pulled him in so many different directions, he did not know whether to yell or bolt. One glance at Elizabeth, however, sealed his actions. Tears shimmered in her eyes. The night had not only affected him. His poor Elizabeth had not desired his attention, and he came barging in and flinging insults mixed with words of love. This on top of her not knowing his real character, because I have hidden my true self, he acknowledged, must be more than even she could bear.

Darcy took a step forward, and Elizabeth’s eyes widened followed by firming her frame. Drawn up to her full height her head could still nestle against his chest. Darcy dropped his voice, “Forgive me for having taken up so much of your time, and accept my best wishes for your health and happiness.”

Leaving the parlour and returning to Rosings passed in a daze. Ignoring the calls of his aunt and the others who had noted his entrance, Darcy swiftly sought his chambers. He rang the bell immediately and rifled through his escritoire while he awaited his valet.

“I shall require a supper tray and more writing supplies,” Darcy said when the man appeared.

Although he hardly touched the food, he wrote long into the night making alterations and corrections to his letter. When he had finished, he laid it aside to write a fresh copy in the morning. Stumbling to his bed, he collapsed on it and prayed for no nightmares while knowing he could have no pleasant dreams. Any he had ever had were crushed forever.

 

The Secrets of Pemberley- Chapter Five

secrets of pemberley maskPrevious Chapters: One / Two / Three / Four

Chapter Five

 

Darcy arrived at the Hunsford Parsonage at the earliest hour for town calls. Well, a few minutes past as he had headed down the lane and then turned his horse around twice before firming his resolve. His heart pounded loudly, and he worried the maid answering the door could hear it.

In his fantasies the night before, he had met with Elizabeth alone during this premeditated visit. She welcomed him to sit on the settee while she served tea and they took turns inching closer to one another. Somehow, she would start them on one of their deep conversations. This led quickly to him confessing how she put him at ease and understood him more than any person in the world. Then, when her cheeks were rosy from his compliments and while sufficiently awed at his admiration but with a witty retort on her lips, he would consume that brightness. Pulling Elizabeth into his arms, he would kiss her breathless, pouring his heart into every meeting of their mouths. With as few words as possible, he would ask for her hand in marriage, and she would accept, preferably showing just how much she loved and desired him as well.

Calm down, he told himself. Whatever his fantasies were, they would not occur. Elizabeth would not be alone. Mrs. Collins and Miss Lucas would be present. Thankful for the small mercy that Mr. Collins would be out, Darcy did not hope for anything more. The air left his lungs in a whoosh, and all thought fled his mind when the maid opened the parlour door and revealed Elizabeth alone sitting by the window with the sun beaming down on her.

“Mr. Darcy!” she exclaimed in surprise before hastily curtseying.

His mind, so lately very agreeably engaged in improper thoughts, temporarily rendered him mute. His mouth had run dry as he craved the touch of her skin and even more, of her acceptance of him in a way no one had ever accepted him before.

“I apologise,” Darcy made a hasty bow. “I had thought all the ladies at home today.”

Elizabeth gracefully assured him all was well and bade him sit. “I trust that your aunt and cousins are well.”

“Indeed, thank you,” he said.

She peered over his shoulder. “I am glad to hear the Colonel is well. As we have seen him every morning all week and yet he is not with you, I had worried he took ill.”

Darcy frowned. Blasted Richard. “He was perfectly healthy when I left Rosings. He simply had other matters to attend to, I assure you.”

Elizabeth shrugged and nodded her head. “Of course.”

Silence ensued, and each tick-tock of the clock reverberated in his head. If he had been truly George Darcy’s son, he would know perfect drawing room talk and could rattle off charming platitudes. Instead, he was likely the son of a footman or stable hand. He did not know. He did not care to know. The decision he made upon learning of his mother’s affair was mostly out of deference for Mr. Darcy. However, a part of it was certainly out of cowardice. Such a trait became evident again as he sat in silence, too fearful to confess his feelings.

After several moments of awkwardness, Elizabeth cocked her head to one side. “How very suddenly you all quitted Netherfield last November, Mr. Darcy!”

Did she recall their dance? Was she angry for his hasty retreat from Hertfordshire? If she was, her indifferent questioning about Bingley and his sisters gave no indication. Having no desire to discuss them, Darcy only assured Elizabeth that they also were well. She must be as nervous as he about their private tete-e-tete.

Again, she asked after Bingley and if he would return to Netherfield. Did she ask for her own sake? No, Bingley could not return to Netherfield and see Jane Bennet again. Therefore, Darcy had no other chance to woo Elizabeth than here, under his aunt’s nose. He certainly could not call on her in Cheapside. At any rate, other than a few days in London, she had plans to return to Longbourn. Unsure how to put her mind at ease without declaring his sentiments, Darcy could offer little in the way of information regarding his friend. Although looking displeased, Elizabeth dropped the topic.

Finally, his mind began to thaw, and he considered a subject of conversation. “This seems a very comfortable house.”

Lady Catherine had done quite a bit of work to fix the place up when Mr. Collins accepted the position. However, anything that seemed explicitly of his aunt’s taste was considerably subdued. Undoubtedly, the handiwork of Mrs. Collins.

“Mr. Collins appears to be very fortunate in his choice of wife.” Of course, his wife had married an utter fool. Most would say it was a good match for her, but Darcy often wondered how the woman respected herself.

Elizabeth’s lips twitched. “…I am not sure I consider her marrying Mr. Collins to be the wisest thing she ever did.”

Something about her tone of voice when calling it a good match displayed, distinctly, to Darcy that she did not agree. Since they were speaking on marriages…

“It must be very agreeable for her to be settled within so easy a distance of her own family and friends.”

Darcy’s heart stopped when Elizabeth seemed aghast at his words. Did she consider fifty miles of good road too far from her family? Would she ever agree to leave them? He released a breath when she clarified a woman could live too near her family. Unable to stop himself, he scooted his chair closer to her.

“You cannot have a right to such very strong local attachment. You cannot have been always at Longbourn,” he said his voice rasping in passion.

Something he had done or said or maybe the warbled, throaty tone of his voice had shocked her. Elizabeth’s eyes widened, and she blinked. For a moment, he imagined she wore an expression which said she had never thoroughly looked at him before. The thought startled him. He pulled his chair back and grabbed a newspaper, needing the moment to affix his armour and mask in place.

Elizabeth was not yet ready to tell him about her feelings on leaving Longbourn. Darcy had come sure of instant success. Now, he saw he would have to woo Elizabeth. She had far too much integrity to jump into his waiting arms after months of abandonment. She certainly could not know about his months of torment and anguish. For all she could know, he was as flighty as Richard—merely looking for an amusing and pretty distraction.

Plan in place, Darcy finally put the newspaper away. Awkwardness filled the air, but for once he did not mind. He would trouble himself for this. To allow Elizabeth to see his admiration. He brought up her travels, and they compared Kent and Hertfordshire for several minutes. Just when he had judged it the appropriate time to ask if she would like a tour of the gardens, Mrs. Collins and her sister walked in.

Darcy had tried to explain the misunderstanding which involved his calling on Elizabeth while the others were out, but he could not escape Mrs. Collins’ keen attention.

“I am surprised you did not go for a walk while we were gone, Eliza,” Charlotte said.

“I have,” Elizabeth laughed. “I had letters to reply to, and so I could not indulge myself as much as I would like.” She looked out the window and gave a wistful sigh. “I hope the grove blooms before I leave. It must be beautiful in its height!”

Elizabeth favoured the grove? Quickly, Darcy’s mind considered that he could meet with her there. There, in the privacy they could not have in Mrs. Collins drawing room or at Rosings, he could woo her. He could find her on the path one morning. His imagination rapidly creating scenarios, he abruptly stood and made his excuses to leave, aware of the confused stares at his back as he exited.

 

*****

 

The following morning, Darcy awoke early and walked down the whole of the grove, expecting to see Elizabeth. Once at the end, he tore off his hat and beat it in his hand. Had he come too early? Or too late? Perhaps he walked too fast? It seemed so simple in his head yesterday! Turning back, he lingered where the path forked with the one returning to Rosings. This kind of courtship was for the dogs.

“Know when to quit and when to seek assistance, boy,” George Darcy’s voice echoed in Darcy’s head.

He had been a nervous child and prone to wishing to quit. His guardian, although seemingly disappointed at his natural reticence, took the time to teach him the appearance of confidence. He taught Darcy wisdom and when a task or object of his desire was worth the investment. Elizabeth was worth this. He only needed help.

Arriving at Rosings, he was surprised to find Richard in the drawing room.

“You are not calling on the Parsonage?” he asked.

“No, they are at breakfast still,” Richard shook out a newspaper.

“How do you know?”

Richard half-lowered the paper and looked at his cousin strangely. “At the first visit, I asked when it would be convenient to call. I did not want to assume what sort of hours they kept.”

Darcy felt a slight heat creeping up his collar. How simple that would have been! Elizabeth must walk after their meal. Unfortunately, that fell during the time Lady Catherine ordered breakfast. Intent on avoiding thoughts of Elizabeth last week, Darcy had eaten his meal as quickly as possible then removed to the library. He did not know when Richard left for the morning.

“I suppose you will go today, then,” Darcy said.

Richard shrugged. “I do not know. I have been thinking about what you said about raising expectations. Aunt thought I had paid too much attention to Miss Bennet the other night and I would not want the lady to have any hopes.” Richard let out a sigh. “Alex gets to stay in London with all its entertainment, and he’s supposed to be the country gentleman! Here I am every Easter rusticating with our aunt.”

“I could go with you,” Darcy said while fiddling with a cufflink and attempting to sound nonchalant.

“Very well,” Richard said with indifference. “No one can construe it as a sign of courtship if I arrive with another, especially one as dour as you.” He stood and laughed at his own joke.

Darcy’s heart sank as he followed Richard to the breakfast room. No, accompanying his cousin would not signal courtship but perhaps he could learn more about Elizabeth’s habits. Bearing with Richard’s teasing and Mr. Collins’ company—for if he were home, he would be certain to visit with Lady Catherine’s nephews—would be worth it to know how to meet Elizabeth alone.

Upon finishing their quick meal, Richard and Darcy walked to the Parsonage. Darcy said little but observed much. Although continually reminding himself to not stare at Elizabeth and actually listen to the conversation around him—there being time to strategize later—he left feeling confident. She had often looked his away, despite Richard directing much of his discussion to her.

The following morning, Darcy left after breakfast. He thought about gathering some of the early blooms in a bouquet for her—that is what suitors did, was it not?—but he resisted. He had not said he desired to meet her and she had not hinted at it. An “accidental” encounter would be best.

Besides, he should begin as he meant to go on. He would not be like his “father” and court Elizabeth so she expected poetry and flowers and then discover she had married a reserved and taciturn man. George Darcy had been everything charming and amiable, but he had led his wife to believe he was a city man when in truth he desired a country life. Darcy shook his head as he continued on the path.

Such thoughts of the man always made Darcy consider Bingley. They were very much alike. Despite believing Jane Bennet had not been in love with his friend and that her situation in life would harm him, Darcy conceded that she was everything else that Bingley needed and desired in a wife. Although Bingley’s sisters relished London Society, their brother did not. He did not spend most of his time in London. Instead, he went from house party to house party as he had an abundance of friends and invitations. Even now he was at one in Cheshire. If he married a wife he loved, he might find the means to put down real roots and purchase an estate as he often talked about doing.

Darcy felt a little needle in his conscience that he could not advocate that he found Jane Bennet insufficient for Bingley but Elizabeth met all his requirements. He pushed it aside. Elizabeth does not meet all the requirements I had for a wife. Those are the facts. I am overlooking the deficiencies because I cannot live without her. Bingley is not broken-hearted about Jane. His head and heart had been through this too many times. Now, even his head conceded he never saw happiness come from a marriage built on meeting requirements while denying the heart.

Hearing a noise, Darcy turned and saw Elizabeth approach. The sun shone on her face and she tilted her head up to it with arms stretched wide. In a gown of daffodil yellow trimmed with green and green ribbon on her bonnets, Darcy could imagine her a flower. Wordsworth had written of coming across a field of daffodils, and it moved him to pen verses. He was among a set of poets who created a new movement in poetry, stirring up many intellectual debates. What Darcy witnessed went beyond a mental stimulation. It warmed his heart and touched his soul. Elizabeth lowered her face, but the smile remained. She shined brighter than any sun, and Darcy found himself pulled to her as if by magnetism.

Opening her eyes, the smile altered but she waved and greeted him.

“Good day, Miss Bennet,” Darcy said as he came nearer. “Do you often favour this grove?” He turned to walk next to her.

“Indeed,” she glanced around and smiled. “It is my favourite path.”

“Have you not seen the gardens?”

Elizabeth shrugged. “I have seen them from afar—when we walk to Rosings— but I confess the neat and orderly hold no interest to me. They all copy one another, do they not?”

Darcy agreed and marvelled at hearing her true opinions. All other ladies he had talked with assumed Pemberley was like those other estates with manicured lawns and sculptures. If they had dared utter such a view, it would be immediately taken back to prevent offense.

“Perhaps you think me too unused to fine society to appreciate their ways,” she said in a wry voice.

“I would not do you the dishonour,” Darcy said. “Everyone is entitled to their own taste. I would not desire anyone to impose their opinion on me.”

“No, you are far too independent for that,” Elizabeth chuckled.

The way she understood him tugged on his heart. “As are you,” he smiled down at her.

She made no reply for several minutes while Darcy attempted to find the courage to discuss courtship.

Courtship? You desire marriage. Do not be a coward! Darcy hardly knew if it was his internal voice or his father’s in his head.

“I suppose Kent is vastly different than Derbyshire?” Elizabeth asked.

Darcy nodded. That she asked about his home county must be a good sign. She must be attempting to help him along. Perhaps by the time he had finished, he would have regained his nerve. They approached the fork to Rosings.

“I planned on continuing to the village,” Elizabeth said at the first opening she had.

Darcy tensed but spoke civilly, “Please, allow me to escort you there.”

“Oh no,” Elizabeth shook her head. “I would not wish to deprive Lady Catherine of her favourite nephew for the whole of the morning. Imagine the inquisition I would have and how shocked she would hear about the liberties you took.” She winked at him and laughed.

“Pardon?” Darcy’s mind froze. Did she want him to take liberties?

Elizabeth sighed. “I see you are no better at taking a tease than you were in Hertfordshire. Our conversation does not merit her investigation or is worth the repeating. She knows all about her gardens and undoubtedly Pemberley’s as well.” She shrugged. “Explaining our conversation would simply require her to scold for no reason while extolling herself.”

Darcy smiled at how correct she was. “Ah, and that might be more than you could bear?”

Elizabeth raised her brows and smiled. “I did not say that, sir,” she said in a sweet tone before pursing her lips to keep from laughing.

“I will leave you to your wandering then,” Darcy said. “I would not ask you to bear my aunt’s scrutiny for my sake.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth curtsied and turned.

“Miss Bennet,” Darcy called, and she glanced back. “Take care walking alone.”

“I am perfectly safe,” she laughed. “I walked these parts for weeks before stumbling upon you.”

Darcy longed to tell her she was too precious to be taken from his sight and how even if all was well he wanted to march her up and down every village and town in the Kingdom to show the world the treasure he had found.

Fitzwilliam, some people need their space. There’s no need to coddle everyone, George Darcy’s voice echoed in Darcy’s mind. Until he could kiss Elizabeth senseless and make her not want to leave him, he settled for a weak smile and a wave before turning up the path to Rosings. Next time, he would be prepared. He would have a clear plan for conversation. Affections and wishes would be stated.

A peace filled Darcy as he returned to his aunt’s house. Soon, he would have his greatest heart’s desire. No more loneliness, no more being unloved. And what a sweet love it would be. Well worth his years of pain. While getting to the point caused him no little trouble, he supposed it was a sight better than some face. Bingley was blocked from his desires by fortune and the lady’s indifference. Darcy saw far more in one look from Elizabeth than her sister ever gave his friend. And while he did not like to boast of his wealth, his income made her comparative poverty no evil. Indeed, he was blessed that the only trouble on his path to happiness was his cursed tied tongue.

The Secrets of Pemberley- Chapter Four

secrets of pemberley maskPrevious Chapters: One / Two / Three

*Apologies for a typo in the last post. Darcy does not know Jane is STILL in London. As such, he did not know about Jane’s visit to Miss Bingley.

Chapter Four

For the next week, time stood frozen at Rosings. Each morning, Darcy would awake after a night of dreams filled with restless longing for Elizabeth. Dark shadows filled under his eyes. His valet greeted him with concern, and even Lady Catherine remarked on his state. After four nights of little to no sleep, he resorted to requesting a sleeping draught, but it had no effect.

During the day, Darcy would linger over Lady Catherine’s accounts. They did not require the scrutiny, but he could claim his exhaustion as a source for the slowness of his task. When his body cried for movement, he resorted to vigorous target practice and fencing. Richard saw no reason to stay away from the entertainment of the Parsonage. After each visit, Darcy questioned him, eventually earning strange looks from his cousin.

Darcy had planned to visit Rosings for a fortnight. He would not change his plans because of Elizabeth’s presence. He had run from her once when he left Hertfordshire, he would not do it again and leave early.

Unfortunately, all the arguments he had made against the match were proven false. Her insupportable family was of no consequence when they were miles away. Lady Catherine liked her. Undoubtedly, she would not like Darcy marrying Elizabeth, but she had no complaints about the acquaintance or her situation in life. Richard was delighted with her wit and grace. Astonishingly, Elizabeth functioned well in the circle of Darcy’s peers and family. She would make the leap to his station without fault. Her comparative poverty meant nothing to him with all the Darcy wealth.

The only remaining doubt in his mind relied on memories of his mother and the man who raised him. They had married unequally, but Mother had a very different sort of disposition than Elizabeth. Darcy suspected she would prefer the country life, which he also enjoyed. However, she had been to London. And more than a few times for a brief visit, he was sure. Cheapside was not Mayfair, but the crowd and noise of London were the same everywhere.

Darcy had tossed aside his pen and stood by a window in the library. Half a mile down the lane, he could make out the church steeple. Next to it, was the parsonage and Elizabeth. So close…

He put a hand against the glass and braced himself as he rested his forehead on a pane. His solitude was broken by the entry of Richard. Darcy whirled to face his cousin. It would not do for the other man to believe Darcy having a fit of the doldrums. “Another visit to the Parsonage?”

Richard nodded and relaxed in a chair.

“Why do you go so often?”

“You mean aside from the exciting company here?” Richard’s wry tone belied his sarcasm. “Not everyone is like you, Darcy. Not everyone is content to sit in silence the whole day.”

“I apologise,” Darcy said. “I had not meant to neglect you.”

Richard shook his head. “Not me. I welcome some peace and quiet after cannon blasts and drilling young scapegraces. Miss Lucas and Miss Bennet are not on holiday at some resort. There is no shopping. There is little to occupy a young lady here, especially with Lady Catherine now ignoring them.” Richard sighed and hooked a boot over his knee. “Even so, Miss Lucas must be used to living with Mrs. Collins, who probably has her home set up very much like her mother’s.”

Darcy stared at his cousin. “Do I understand you mean that you visit to cheer Miss Bennet?” A festering bit of jealousy rose in his throat. “I thought you said you would not flirt.”

“I am not!” Richard insisted. “I am being a friend.”

Darcy’s brows furrowed as he considered his cousin’s words. Elizabeth felt unhappy here? Well, who could blame her with the company of Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine? “What does she say to you, friend?”

“Oh, we talk of nothing serious,” Richard waved his hand. “As well-practiced as she is in conversation, it would take more than a week old’s acquaintance for there to be things of substance.”

It did not sound like Elizabeth to be vapid. “Substance?”

“We talk about music and books. General drawing room talk,” Richard shrugged. “I gather we feel similarly on many things, but they are the sorts of things that anyone with more sense than Collins or our Aunt would feel.”

Elizabeth had talked about soul-baring things with him at Netherfield. Did she miss that stimulus as much as he did? Perhaps, if he considered that his motive was to ease her discomfort and not to indulge his attraction, he could give her the opportunity to experience something beyond Mrs. Collins’ parlour.

Richard and Darcy fell into conversation regarding other subjects until it was time for dinner.

“Aunt,” said Darcy as the soup was served, “did you intend to invite Mr. Collins and his guests to tea tomorrow evening?”

“Why should I do that?” Her ladyship’s soup spoon hovered above her bowl as though her nephew had sprouted another head. “Tomorrow is Easter.”

“You often invited Dr. Montague,” Darcy explained. “You would not wish to seem exclusive or unkind.”

“That was many years ago!” She put down the spoon. “He was in poor health the last four years, and I could not invite the curate he hired.”

“And now?”

“Now, I see no need to entertain my parson when my nephews are present.”

“Because he is not a doctor of divinity?” Richard asked.

“Dr. Montague was a cousin to Lady Montague-Churchill. They are of two very different sorts of backgrounds,” Lady Catherine explained.

“Lady Montagu-Churchill came from no great distinction,” Darcy said. “Her father had been a tradesman as much as Mrs. Collins’ father was.” The lady had married into an impoverished title. When she inherited Mr. Montagu’s funds, her husband added the surname to his own.

“And Miss Bennet is the daughter of a gentleman,” Richard pressed.

Darcy would have appreciated the help if he did not worry his cousin had ulterior reasons.

“Mother,” Anne rasped, her frailty more evident than ever, “I do miss the ladies.”

“Why should you need the ladies when Dar—your cousins are here?”

Richard covered a laugh at Lady Catherine’s slip of the tongue with a cough.

“Very well,” Lady Catherine conceded. “We shall invite them to tea in the evening. However, I will not have them for dinner.”

“An excellent and proper compromise,” Darcy smiled.

Somehow, the remainder of the meal, in which his aunt continued to suggest an attachment between him and Anne, seemed bearable. He would see Elizabeth’s face light up in amusement again. Her eyes would dance not just from the effect of candlelight but in joy. Her need for excellent company would be satisfied—surely he and Richard qualified as such. Something about picturing her in the drawing room at Rosings set his heart to racing. In his mind’s eye, she seemed to belong perfectly in the place. She belonged at his side.

 

*****

 

The following morning, Darcy waited impatiently for the others to gather in the entry. They would take Lady Catherine’s barouche box and arrive together. He had nearly made up his mind to walk to the church alone when the others arrived. How did they always arrive together? There was some sort of grace to knowing when others were leaving their chambers and Darcy had never known the secret. As much as George Darcy had grilled pedigree and estate management into his heir’s head, things like that seemed to occur naturally to the set born into them. No education could teach Fitzwilliam Darcy the social niceties he did not experience in his formative years.

The church service itself seemed to take forever. Mr. Collins’ text varied little from any other Easter sermon, but he delivered it poorly. If he had to earn his keep, the man would be a pauper. As it was, most of the congregants had fallen asleep as the rector’s voice droned on and on. From his position in Lady Catherine’s pew, Darcy could not see Elizabeth. His eyes felt starved for her. Merely knowing she was in the same building as he made his skin tingle.

When the sermon was over, Mr. Collins did his duty. That is to say, he preened over Lady Catherine and ignored the members of the parish. Darcy noted that Mrs. Collins, and by extension her sister and friend, did the office instead. At least they knew what was truly due.

Without hearing the words, Darcy knew when Lady Catherine had rendered her invitation. Mr. Collins’ jaw dropped in awe and then snapped up with such a force it reverberated through his head. Colour rising and eyes widening, he bowed to her ladyship and belatedly called out his thanks as she walked away. Then, Collins raced over to the women of his party. He talked such rapidity Darcy wondered how he could breathe. Mrs. Collins, although Darcy had always thought she was a sensible woman, displayed far more glee at the news than it deserved. Her sister followed her suit. Elizabeth, lovely Elizabeth with green trimming her gown and bonnet, merely smiled and nodded. Darcy knew the expression well. She was restraining herself; holding herself back from laughing outright and making a spectacle. Seeing her hover between laughter and demurral, she beamed like a lighthouse on a coast and he, Darcy, a frigate in danger of being lost. Her cheerful disposition warmed Darcy’s soul.

“Darcy, we are leaving!” Lady Catherine commanded as she walked past, ripping his gaze away from the vision of loveliness.

Interminable hours passed before the Hunsford party arrived at Rosings. Fortunately, Lady Catherine and Anne had spent the hours until dinner in their chambers. Then, Darcy only needed to survive the many-coursed event allowing his aunt’s words to flow in one ear and out the other, as usual. After the meal, he fidgeted in his seat, pulled on his waistcoat, and fiddled his cufflinks.

“Would you cease all that?” Richard exclaimed as he tapped ash from his cigar. Taking a long draw, he puffed the smoke out in circles.

My behaviour annoys you?” Darcy chuckled at the irony.

“And there is no reason to stare at the clock so often.” Another puff of smoke exhaled from his mouth. “They will be here soon enough.”

“They?” Darcy swirled his port and pretended to not know of whom Richard spoke.

“Do not worry,” Richard drawled. “I will not tattle on you and let them know your better nature.”

“I cannot conceive what you mean.” Why was it taking so long for an hour to pass?

“Darcy, only you would refuse to visit people and sit stiffly and silent when you are there but go out of your way to ease their feelings in a way that will likely cause far more discomfort to all.”

“What does that mean?” A conversation from Netherfield flitted through Darcy’s memory. What must his friends think of him if they can call him an arrogant ass to his face and think he will feel nothing?

“I mean you choose an extraordinarily inconvenient time and way to show general courtesy.” Richard drew several more puffs on his cigar before continuing. “When we visited the Parsonage, you barely spoke. You have not visited since although you question me frequently. I mention Miss Bennet’s apparent discomfort, and you manage to invite her to Rosings. You would have done better to visit her yourself than get her to come here when Lady Catherine had not wanted it.”

Darcy turned away, refusing to allow his cousin’s words their justice.

An hour or so later when the guests had arrived, Lady Catherine’s behaviour proved Richard correct. She barely greeted them and then spent as much time talking to Darcy as she could manage. Even worse, Richard did flirt with Elizabeth—who seemed to enjoy the attention. Lady Catherine began to insist on knowing their choices of conversation, which suited Darcy perfectly as it was on the tip of his tongue as well.

However, when the answer came of only speaking of music, it did not seem very likely to Darcy that they were forming an attachment. He released the breath he did not realize he had been holding. Richard was merely a friend, and Elizabeth had simply been lonely and welcomed the distraction. Had he not seen her in livelier spirits in Hertfordshire? There he did not suppose it meant she flirted with every man. Indeed, the only man whom she treated differently than the women of her company was himself.

“How does Georgiana get on, Darcy?” Lady Catherine asked regarding his sister’s skill on the pianoforte.

Being brought from the haze of his thoughts, his voice sounded abrupt to even his own ears. “Her masters praise her considerably. They are always talking about giving her more advanced work and wishing for peace on the Continent so she might study abroad.” A soft smile spread across Darcy’s face. “Her one delight is music and, as such, it cannot be far from my heart.”

Lady Catherine then began telling Darcy how much Georgiana should practice, how much she and Anne would have practiced had they ever learned, and scolding Elizabeth for not practicing enough. If his aunt could read minds, she would be angry to know all how he mentally asked her to shut her mouth. When she suggested Elizabeth practice in the room belonging to Anne’s companion, Darcy barely restrained himself from speaking them aloud.

Finally, coffee was over, and Richard asked Elizabeth to play on the instrument. Ignoring his aunt as much as possible, Darcy watched Elizabeth as she played with Richard by her side. How did she feel in this room? She had been critiqued by Lady Catherine but bore it well. She had made a friend of Richard. An image of her playing at Pemberley with Georgiana emerged before he could warn his mind away.

Drunk on the feeling the picture gave, Darcy approached. Like a cleansing rain, Elizabeth’s wit washed over him. She teased and scolded and begged him to bare some of the deepest recesses of his soul. Before he could think of doing differently, he had made his confession which he had never told another soul. The only secret he guarded more closely was that of his birth.

“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said Darcy, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”

He could not understand people so different from him. The ones who were born in their mansions with a loving family. The people who had no cause to suspect everyone and keep them all at arm’s length. Every statement said to him was scrutinised again and again. Had they been trying to use him? Did they think he was weak or vulnerable? Did they suspect he was not a Darcy?

Elizabeth had offered understanding and validation but not pity. As no governess or tutor had managed to explain before, she recommended practicing. Elizabeth boldly stated that her fingers were just as capable of playing anything on the pianoforte if only she applied herself to it. Had he not worked hard to learn about Pemberley and how to be the best master? It did not matter if he was not born to it.

“We neither of us perform to strangers,” he told her.

Then, he knew. Conviction pierced his heart even as his aunt tried to turn his attention to Anne. Suddenly, Darcy understood why he could not forget Elizabeth Bennet in all the months since he left Hertfordshire. He comprehended the reason for his concern for her welfare and happiness. At last, he perceived why he desired her like no other lady he had known. Why none of the arguments he made regarding her sister could apply to her.

He loved her, and he would have her for his own.