Mr. Darcy’s Bluestocking Bride–Chapters 21-26

MDBBDearest C—

You cannot know how it pains me to see that you still reprimand yourself for not only your experiences but your lingering feelings. You have asked me what I thought of Armide and while I did not see Herr Gluck’s version, I know the story. Of course, I believe women have as much capacity as men to hate. That you seem incapable of hating your seducer does not define you as weak and neither is Armide for loving her enemy.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Twenty-One

 

Darcy returned to his Mayfair home with elation and trepidation warring in his breast. Elizabeth accepting his courtship filled him with triumph and pride. Being welcomed at the Gardiner house rather than turned out on his ear should have removed all fears. However, Darcy could not shake the feeling that his battle had just begun. The groves of Rosings had allowed them a reprieve from the demands of the world.

Upon entry, he was informed Georgiana was already in her chamber. Determining to allow her to sleep, Darcy made plans for the morrow. During breakfast, he hoped to gain a clearer understanding of the situation with Richard and Bingley. While he trusted both to consider his sister’s best interests, neither had done so at the expense of their own enjoyment before. Richard had every reason to focus his attention on stopping Wickham, and Bingley had never heard a thing about Georgiana’s intended elopement. He would have no reason to believe her in need of more chaperonage than a paid companion would provide.

Once he had spoken with Georgiana, he would write letters to both men. Richard was in Sussex, but Darcy hoped to see Bingley before the day was through. Next, he would call upon his aunt, Lady Darcy. Lastly, he would dine with Elizabeth. Once Lydia arrived, all should be well, and he could begin truly courting Elizabeth.

Despite his structured plans, nightmares tormented him while he slumbered. Titans captured Elizabeth and would not release her. Mocking that he could not slay them, they beat him then bound him in chains. He could do nothing to secure her release. His name, wealth, and strength were no help to his circumstances. In the distance, he could hear Elizabeth weeping. In the dream, years elapsed and he was no closer to securing his release or rescuing Elizabeth. He awoke with a pained head and a sick feeling that, regardless of the obstacles they overcame, he would never be united with Elizabeth.

“Fitzwilliam!” Georgiana exclaimed when she and Mrs. Annesley entered the breakfast room.

She dashed to his side and greeted him with a kiss on the cheek. For a moment, Darcy was reminded of the always cheerful and cherubic child she had been, rather than the nearly grown young lady she now was. He greeted her companion before turning his attention to his sister.

“Fitzwilliam, why have you returned? I thought you did not intend to leave Rosings for several weeks.” Before he could answer, she gasped and slapped her hands to her face. “Has something happened? Our aunt? Anne? Elizabeth?

“Calm yourself,” he said. “Everyone is well. I cannot divulge the reasons for my early departure, but you will be pleased to know that Miss Bennet is also in London. I have an invitation to dine at her aunt and uncle’s this evening. Perhaps tomorrow you may come with me when I call.”

“Does this mean you are courting her?” Georgiana clapped joyfully. “Oh, I am so happy! So will the Baroness be!”

“How does our aunt fare?” Darcy latched onto his aunt’s health rather than speak on his fledgling courtship.

“I hardly know.”

The suddenly light tone, as well as his sister’s busy movements at the sideboard, told him that she was more anxious than she had let on now, or in her letters. Darcy’s eyes met Mrs. Annesley. Her frown helped illuminate matters as well. Georgiana claimed a seat.

“I have not been able to call on Lady Darcy very often. Others never leave me alone. The few times I manage to exit the house to make calls, she has not been in. She writes that she is in good health, however.”

For now, Darcy would keep his suspicions to himself. Georgiana did not cope well with deaths. Their mother had died at her birth. Their father had died five years ago. Lady Anne had only been two and forty when she passed. Mr. Darcy had not seen sixty. The Baroness was nearly eighty. However, what worried Georgiana more than the old lady dying was her own mortality. Of their Darcy cousins, the males had all entered the military and perished. All but one female cousin had died in childbirth or from illness. Such misfortune did not fall on the other branches of the family, but it had made its impression upon the girl and influenced her recklessness in her ill-fated tryst with George Wickham. For a time, Georgiana had been convinced she would not live past thirty and, therefore, should marry as early as possible to experience as much of life as she could.

“I understand Richard has frequently visited,” Darcy said before lifting his coffee to his mouth.

“Yes,” Georgiana huffed. “I do not know why. I am no longer a child! And yet he does not tease me like he did before.”

“What does he do?” Darcy watched Mrs. Annesley as Georgiana answered. He trusted the lady. However, experience had taught him to not take a companion’s loyalty for granted. Additionally, what Georgiana might conceal, the older woman would reveal. Richard was a relation, but he was a man nonetheless.

“Mostly, he listens to me play. He says it soothes him. Why did he return early from Rosings? Richard will tell me nothing.”

“Not all things are for you to know,” he said as he tossed aside his newspaper. “I have letters to write but I think, as your brother, I have just as much a right to hear what Richard has heard.”

Georgiana laughed and followed her brother’s lead to the drawing room. As she began to play, he spoke with Mrs. Annesley.

“You were very wise to write of Mr. Bingley,” she said. “He has visited almost every day. It is evident his sister prefers a match between them.”

“And Georgiana?”

“I think she sees the value in not being too keen to see an attachment. I have counselled her that admiration need not lead to love, and love need not lead to matrimony.”

“Good,” Darcy said, too aware that he had uttered those same words months ago regarding ladies’ attitudes.

“However,” the companion said as Darcy was rising from his seat. “Mr. Bingley seems rather persistent in his attention, and the Colonel scarcely less so.”

“Richard?”

Georgiana glanced at them when she heard the name.

“May I speak frankly, sir?”

“Please do.” Darcy could not conceive why Bingley and Richard would pay such attentions to Georgiana.

“Miss Darcy is a beautiful girl.”

That he knew. She was very much like their mother.

“And it is no secret she will have quite a fortune. You have already seen her fall prey to one man.”

“Yes, but I would trust Richard and Bingley with my life.”

Mrs. Annesley sighed. “Want of money and security has a way of changing people. You will soon inherit a barony, a desirable connection; moreover, the title could pass to her if you have no heir. Marriage to your sister means more now than it would otherwise, and it may be more temptation than they can withstand.”

Darcy nodded and armed with such knowledge composed letters to his cousin and friend requesting their presence as soon as possible. As Georgiana played, Darcy considered the possibility that Bingley no longer wished to pursue Jane Bennet. Was Elizabeth’s sister as heartbroken as Elizabeth had believed? Was he to blame for what might be a permanent separation? Would this extinguish Elizabeth’s new-found regard for him?

As it happened, Bingley never appeared and the time came for him to call on Lady Darcy. He was shown into her chambers. Expecting his aunt to appear near death, she looked surprisingly well. Darcy could not feel more relieved. She was dressed and sitting in a chair near the window perusing old letters.

“Fitzwilliam! You have returned from Rosings early.” She frowned.

“You summoned me, my lady.”

“Oh! I did not mean you to come early only that, once you were in London, to see me right away.” Darcy furrowed his brow in confusion as she continued. “I hope that I have not inconvenienced you.”

“No. I had important business in London.” Darcy scrutinised his aunt’s face.

“And how is the lovely Elizabeth Bennet? Will she become my niece?”

“Aunt!” Darcy gaped at her. “How did you—that is, what have you heard?”

“Oh, I have heard nothing. When you met Miss Bennet at the theatre, your feelings were plain for all to see. Georgiana and I have been sure for many weeks now that you meant to offer for her.”

“Perhaps,” he answered neutrally. “So, you are not very ill?”

“No!” She exclaimed. “What made you think so, my dear boy?”

“Georgiana reported you were ill and then your letter…”

“Just a cold, just a cold,” she reassured and dabbed at her nose with a handkerchief. “Come, I need your young eyes,” she said and passed a letter to him. “Can you read the signature?”

Darcy focused on the script. It seemed very familiar to him, but the letter was decades old. The only lady he corresponded with who could have penned it would have been Lady Darcy and yet it did not match her hand. “Your niece, Clara.”

“Oh, good. I did find the right ones!” She hastily stuffed them into a box. “These were your mother’s. I thought you might like them.”

“Thank you,” he murmured.

“They are mostly filled with nothings. Certainly, nothing that would interest a young man.”

“I will treasure them all the same,” he said.

Lady Darcy gave him a sad smile then gazed out the window for a long moment. “Fitzwilliam, will you promise me something?”

“Of course,” he answered.

“Should you choose to not marry Miss Bennet, you must not wed your cousin Anne under any circumstances.”

“I believe I may safely promise that,” he smirked. “But why do you care so deeply? Is this just due to your dislike of Lady Catherine?”

“No, you misunderstand. I do not dislike Lady Catherine. I have a very keen interest in her life which she has never appreciated.”

Darcy rolled his eyes. Did Lady Catherine learn her meddlesome ways from his great aunt? “If you will excuse me, I have a dinner invitation.”

“Certainly,” she said. “Perhaps you can call again tomorrow, and bring Miss Bennet with you?”

“My pleasure, Aunt.” He kissed her cheek and departed for Gracechurch Street.

 

*****

 

Breakfast in the Gardiner House was slightly unnerving. Everyone had questions, but there was an agreement to wait until Darcy and Mr. Gardiner were present to speak on the matter. Jane knew nothing of Wickham’s plot to hurt the family, but Mrs. Gardiner and Elizabeth found it difficult to conceal their anxiousness until the very moment Lydia walked in the door. She was insensible of any danger she was being saved from. She only knew of the amusement London offered and felt the compliment of being invited over Kitty. However, Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of her, feeling she had protected her family from Wickham’s treachery.

Lydia chose to rest after her journey until it was time to change for dinner. Darcy arrived shortly after Mr. Gardiner. Elizabeth could see he was nervous about his reception and likely dreading the conversation to follow, but she was pleased with his civility, especially when Lydia decided she could not keep quiet once left alone with Elizabeth and Darcy before the meal.

“How long am I supposed to be here? Mrs. Forster was going to invite me to go with her to Brighton. I just know it!”

“It does not follow that, had you been invited, you would be allowed to go. I hope our father would have more sense than that,” Elizabeth said as Lydia rolled her eyes.

“What would be the harm in me going to Brighton? You are just jealous because you had to visit Charlotte and her stuffy husband instead of getting to go anywhere fun.” Lydia stuck her tongue out at Elizabeth and then looked past her to Mr. Darcy. “Lizzy, how can you be so nice to Mr. Darcy when you know how terribly he has treated Mr. Wickham?”

Beside Elizabeth, Darcy stiffened. She hastened to silence her sister. “Lydia, you know nothing of what you speak. Mr. Darcy is a very honourable and generous gentleman.”

Lydia leant towards Elizabeth and attempted to whisper. “You mean to make Wickham jealous since he turned his affections from you to Miss King. Well, it shan’t happen because Wickham is attached to me!”

She smiled triumphantly, undoubtedly revelling in having gained the attention of the young man who she considered had been her elder sister’s favourite. Elizabeth could not think quickly enough to stop Lydia’s effusions.

“Bingley has abandoned Jane, and you can hardly be serious about liking Mr. Darcy. I daresay I will be the first to marry of us all!” Lydia giggled and clapped her hands.

“Lydia!” Elizabeth’s heart constricted. Aside from hearing the confirmation that Wickham had already begun his conquest, she hated for Darcy to hear such blatant insults and, more so, stemming from her own behaviour.

Fortunately, they were then called to dinner, and Darcy was seated near her uncle while Lydia was at the other end. They were too small of a party for much private conversation so Darcy could hear anything Lydia might say, but her attention was excitedly focused on the promise of London amusements. While giddy, Lydia said no more offensive things.

They did not separate after dinner, and all withdrew to the drawing room.  Elizabeth sat stiffly, and while more uncomfortable than she ever had been in her life, she had lost her pride. Lydia reclined irreverently and looked around the room. Jane nervously squeezed her hands while anxiously watching Lydia. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner glanced between Elizabeth and Darcy. Elizabeth found him difficult to read. He had avoided her eyes for most of the evening. She had not had a moment to ask him how his aunt was.

“Elizabeth, would you care to begin?” Mr. Gardiner asked.

Elizabeth cleared her throat and explained what she had heard Wickham say. She had only finished the first part when Jane and Mrs. Gardiner gasped followed by Lydia shouting in disbelief.

Mr. Gardiner had the sense to interrupt. “Mr. Darcy’s express alluded to some concern for the family, but I do not understand; if this happened before you left Longbourn why it is only now being dealt with?”

“I was a fool, a wretched, proud fool,” Elizabeth sighed. “I was certain all I heard was idle boasting. When I learned from Mr. Darcy that Wickham does have a cruel and manipulative side, I wrote a letter to my father expressing some distress over the behaviour of officers in the area. Mr. Darcy and I had planned to explain more when we arrived in London, having left at the initially agreed upon date. However, recently I received a letter from Mary detailing Lydia’s increased intimacy with Mrs. Forster and the seeming transfer of Wickham’s attentions from Miss King to Lydia.”

All eyes darted to Lydia, and she held her head high. “He loves me. He does not need to convince me of a thing to wish to elope with him. He said Papa would not approve of our marriage when he has so little money, because of Mr. Darcy, and would not permit that I marry before my sisters.”

Darcy spoke up then. “Miss Elizabeth tells me that Wickham spread lies about my denying him a living. I can show you the documents he signed giving up the living and receiving three thousand pounds in lieu. He claimed he was to study the law, but chose gambling and dissipation instead.”

Jane unexpectedly jumped from her seat. “But he has entered the militia now and is trying to do right. He must feel sorry for what he has done and be anxious to re-establish his character!”

Darcy glanced at Elizabeth, and she shook her head. Jane was desperately trying to make Wickham a good man and likely, in some way, to redeem Bingley’s faults as well. Elizabeth found she could not condemn her sister; it was only a bit more than the feeling she had once had towards the man. She had excused what she saw to be inconstant and improper in Wickham’s tales, and never once did she question his story against Darcy. Lydia seemed bored with the whole affair.

“You must excuse my niece, Mr. Darcy. They are all such gentle souls that they find it difficult to think such evil exists,” Mr. Gardiner explained.

“It does you credit to be so forgiving Miss Bennet, but I fear I cannot think so optimistically of the man. He returned when the living meant for him fell vacant, and when I would not give it to him, he abused me abominably. Worse than this, last summer he attempted to elope with my fifteen-year-old sister, left in my care these last five years. She is to inherit thirty thousand pounds.” Lydia gasped, but he continued. “I believe he desired revenge as well. It would have been quite complete.”

Elizabeth swallowed hard and fixed her eyes on Lydia’s now pale face. “Which explains Wickham’s motivations for the second part of his plan. He believed it possible for Mr. Darcy to marry me.”

She paused and squeezed her hands for strength, but her eyes did not leave Lydia. Wickham had already insinuated himself in Lydia’s heart. Elizabeth would not allow her pride to cost them anything more. “He…he told his friends that I hold him in such high regard I would take him as a lover and either fund him, or use my influence over Mr. Darcy to gain him the living after all.”

“No!” Lydia cried. “No! He loves me! Not you! He would never care for you!”

Jane tried to hush her and Elizabeth met the astonished faces of her aunt and uncle. “You can see why I was not inclined to worry about it. He sounded like a madman, but recent events and information have made me consider it as a possibility. He would elope with Lydia with no intention of marriage unless Darcy ransomed her. Then, what happiness could she have?”

Lydia was sobbing which was not the reaction Elizabeth had expected. “No. No, you must be wrong. We were to be married. We must be married!”

She could not have said any words more likely to horrify Elizabeth. She stood in alarm. “Lyddie, what have you done?” she cried.

“He said we were to be married,” Lydia sobbed repeatedly. “Marriage is my only choice!”

Jane let out a horrified gasp and covered her mouth.

Mrs. Gardiner approached her distraught youngest niece. “We must be clear on what you are saying. Do you mean that a marriage is necessary? You are certain?”

“As certain as I can be,” Lydia said between sobs. “I had considered us engaged since February.”

“The scoundrel dallied with her before Lizzy even heard a thing!” Mr. Gardiner growled from his seat.

“Does he know?” Mrs. Gardiner rubbed Lydia’s back and supplied her with a handkerchief.

Incapable of speech, Lydia shook her head. As if it would have made a difference. Wickham would have been more likely to disappear from the neighbourhood than to marry Lydia for the sake of a child.

Elizabeth slumped in her seat and was senseless of her surroundings. In time, she would recognise that Mrs. Gardiner and Jane must have seen Lydia upstairs and Mr. Gardiner must have taken Darcy to his study to discuss matters. Elizabeth did not doubt Darcy would continue to help settle the situation with Wickham. Indeed, his cousin was already attempting to transfer Wickham to another regiment. As much as she now believed Darcy to be the most generous of his sex, she had no hope he would desire her now with the proof of such a family weakness and when, under the best circumstances, he would be brother-in-law to Wickham! It was exactly calculated to make her feel all she had determinedly resisted the last fortnight. She truly loved Mr. Darcy, and from this day forward she would only have her memories.

 

 

Dearest C—

I enclose two novels for your consideration. I think you will enjoy Evelina. You will be as happy as I am that Fanny has published, at last. However, it is to be a secret for now. The other is from a Miss Reeve and was edited by Mr. Johnson’s daughter although previously published. As you know I do not care for the Gothic, you may wonder at my including it. Miss Reeve takes Mr. Walpole’s story and makes it far more constrained and realistic. Next, I will read The Sylph, which is written by a woman and I hear has great understanding of the vices of the aristocratic class.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

Darcy paced Mr. Gardiner’s study. His mind raced through options. Lydia could marry Wickham immediately, but the lady no longer seemed interested in having such a man as a husband. If he donated money to her dowry, perhaps they could find another gentleman for her. However, Elizabeth seemed entirely heartbroken. Would she ever forgive him for allowing Wickham into her life?

“Mr. Darcy, thank you for assisting our family. Do I understand you have a connection to us?” Mr. Gardiner interrupted Darcy’s thoughts.

Darcy cleared his throat. “It is the least I could do. I knew Wickham’s propensity for this kind of evil. I had never thought—”

“Do not trouble yourself. No one could expect a madman to act this way. I know Elizabeth will be blaming herself as well, but in the end, the damage was done before she knew a thing. No, if anyone could have prevented this it would have been Lydia’s parents, and only if they would have raised her better.”

“Do not blame them too harshly, sir. My own sister nearly eloped with Wickham last year. And my cousin also suffered from knowing the man.”

Mr. Gardiner looked at Darcy as though he had three heads. “I confess I am surprised to hear you defend my sister and her husband. However, do not think it passed my notice that you avoided my question.”

Darcy said nothing as he considered what to say to Elizabeth’s uncle. She had been hesitant enough to allow any attachment between them. She could hardly want him to air her feelings to others.

“I demand to know your intentions toward my niece.”

Mr. Gardiner said in low, even tones which sounded like a threat, the like of which Darcy had not expected the genteel man capable of issuing.

“One niece has been seduced, and another heartbroken after a gentleman toyed with her affections. You can understand why I ask.”

Mr. Gardiner did not say it, but Elizabeth’s accusations rang in his ear. Yes, both men were connected to him. What were they supposed to think? “May I speak frankly, sir?”

“Please do.”

“At the risk of offending Miss Elizabeth, I will tell you that I ardently love your niece and have asked for her hand. She refused me, and I have fought hard for her esteem and respect. My honour would demand that I attempt to alleviate the concerns you now face whatever may befall, but I admit to having a lively concern for Miss Elizabeth’s peace of mind.”

“And if you are successful, to mitigate any reproach to your own family name,” Mr. Gardiner said as he withdrew accounting books from his desk.

“No, I do not worry about my family. What is Society’s opinion compared to the genuine fear you now have for your youngest niece? We have money and prestige enough.”

“You would have Elizabeth even if it tarnished your family? What of your sister?”

“Although I would once have thought otherwise, I now believe that any man to be worthy of Georgiana’s hand would love her if she came from no family, and had not a farthing to her name.”

“Very well. Then let us discuss how much you think Wickham will want before marrying Lydia. He would be a fool to ask for less than ten thousand, likely more if her delicate state is true.”

“He may very well ask for thirty thousand since that is what he would have gained if he had married my sister.”

Mr. Gardiner blanched.

“However, he has debts in Lambton and London. Surely, he has them in Meryton, as well. I will buy them. Additionally, my cousin can arrange a commission for him in the Regulars. He will have an income. It is possible we can bring him to a more moderate demand.”

“We cannot allow you to take on all the expense,” Mr. Gardiner insisted.

“It is my fault. His feud is with me, and he targeted your family because of it.” Mr. Gardiner seemed disinclined to accept the terms but also realised the fruitlessness of arguing his point. Darcy brought his fist to his mouth in indecision before deciding to wade forward. “Forgive my impertinence, but I must speak my mind. In the interest of Miss Lydia’s happiness, another route should be considered.”

“How? Will not the world know?”

At this moment, the door burst open and Lydia stormed in. “I will not marry him! I will not!”

“Hush, child,” Mrs. Gardiner attempted to pull her niece outside. “Allow the men to discuss this.”

“No!” Lydia clutched at the door and violently shook her head. “Let me to stay.”

“Lydia,” Mr. Gardiner began sternly. “You have caused enough trouble for us.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner,” Darcy interrupted the scene. “I believe she should stay. It is her future of which we speak.” Three sets of eyes looked at him in disbelief. Darcy stood and offered his seat to Lydia. “Here.”

Lydia sniffed and darted to the open chair. Darcy passed a handkerchief to her. “Thank you,” she murmured.

“Will you not join us, Mrs. Gardiner?” Darcy asked. “I believe a lady who has had experience in the world would give us much-needed insight.”

Gardiner nodded, and his wife sat next to Lydia. Darcy stood by the window as Mr. Gardiner remained seated behind his desk.

“We were discussing the probability of how much we will have to pay Wickham to marry you when interrupted.” Mr. Gardiner glared at his youngest niece.

“No! Mr. Darcy had suggested that I should not marry him. No one had even asked me what I want!”

“So, you would be willing to give him up?” Mr. Darcy asked. It had taken considerably more effort to convince Georgiana of Wickham’s profligate ways.

“He never loved me. If he can do all this and out of nothing more than spite…no, I would not have him. Whatever befalls—” She visibly gulped and clutched her belly— “us, we will bear.”

“Would you have another?” Mr. Gardiner asked. “Perhaps we could find some man willing to overlook your indiscretion.”

He looked at Darcy, who nodded. Yes, it was conceivable they could find a man for her to marry with the right amount of coin.

“I—I—I do not know,” Lydia sobbed into Darcy’s handkerchief. “I had not considered anyone but him.”

The Gardiners both looked at Darcy for acceptance. At the moment, they could table the concern. While she might be willing to give up on marrying Wickham, it seemed she was not as ready to make room for another in her heart or her life.

“I apologise if this is indelicate,” Darcy said. “However, we must consider the future, and a child complicates matters. Miss Lydia, how certain are you?”

Mrs. Gardiner cleared her throat. “She would have another two months, at least, before it would quicken. Nothing can be sure until then. Many of the symptoms in the early stages of pregnancy are consistent with a woman’s cycle.”

“But I have never had these symptoms before!” Lydia cried and noisily blew into the handkerchief again as tears streamed anew. “I’ve had to let out my stays!”

“Hush, child,” Mrs. Gardiner soothed.

“If I do not find a husband, what will become of us?” Lydia exclaimed. “Perhaps you and uncle—”

“That is not possible,” Mrs. Gardiner said. “The timing would be impossible to conceal as our own arrival is expected in October.” She blushed a little at the announcement before a stranger such as Darcy.

Lydia, insensible to anyone but herself, burst into tears anew.

“Meg, will you take Lydia to rest, please?” Mr. Gardiner asked his wife, “We can decide nothing at present.”

Lydia clutched the arms of her chair and swung her eyes to Darcy who assured her. “I promise that we will discuss matters with you before any decisions are made. Allow yourself to rest after your shock.”

Lydia nodded and left on her aunt’s arm. After the door had closed, Gardiner turned his attention to Darcy. “Despite her wishes, I think we had better have a contingency for speaking to Wickham. And if I am not mistaken, that hinges on your asking Elizabeth to be your wife.”

“Sir!” Darcy exclaimed. He would not have her like this. “I will not extort her agreement to our marriage. She will accept me simply for the sake of her family.”

“Marriages have been made on worse stuff than admiration and gratitude.”

“I will lose her respect. She will come to loathe me. Indeed, she should for I could have prevented this entire disaster.”

“If she hates you as much as you suppose, then why is she sitting alone in my drawing room crying? Why is she not consoling her sister?”

Darcy had no answer and despised the hope that now burned in his heart.

“She is likely thinking of reasons she will no longer do for you. Go. Say your words. Tell her what is in your heart. Do not take no for an answer.”

Darcy frowned. “Do you honestly care about her happiness, or is this just to ensure your family’s reputation should Lydia’s marriage to Wickham be the only possibility?”

Gardiner pulled out paper and an ink blotter. “The way I see it, young man, protecting my family’s reputation is down to me, not you, but my niece’s happiness is for you to ensure. Now, I will write my brother Bennet about these matters. I will need his statement allowing me to act in his stead for all things. Do you understand me? You will not need to delay things by journeying to Longbourn.”

Darcy left the study, unsure he agreed with Mr. Gardiner’s assessment. For a lady to marry against her inclination must surely be the best recipe for an unhappy marriage, no matter the love the gentleman had for her. Indeed, he had no intention of uttering such words until he saw the sight of Elizabeth weeping into her hands.

As he opened the door further to enter, Elizabeth’s head lifted. “Oh, Mr. Darcy. Forgive me, I did not know you were still here.” She fumbled for a handkerchief and attempted to dry her eyes.

Darcy sat beside her on the settee. An hour ago, they had been in this position, and all seemed well between them. Now, his honour, and his heart, demanded he propose to help her family while his head told him it was the worst idea he had ever had.

“Do not worry about your sister,” he said. “She is not the first, nor the last, to make such a mistake. If you and your family can have patience and fortitude in the face of cruelty, which your uncle endeavours to mitigate, then there is much to be thankful for.” That she would not fill a bawdy hall was cause to be thankful indeed.

“She will have to marry him,” Elizabeth said. Her eyes pleaded for him to contradict her.

“Perhaps not. Wisely, she no longer wishes for it. Another choice may be found.”

“Another man, you mean. And at what cost? How can we be sure of his character? And Wickham might still spread rumours. We will be beholden to him forever, always susceptible to his blackmail. Oh, that I had told my father what I first heard!”

“The damage was done well before you suspected him, Elizabeth,” Darcy said and pushed a tendril from her face. “Do you trust me?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth answered without hesitation.

“I will protect Lydia as if she were my own sister. No one should be auctioned off to the highest bidder.”

“Your sister did not succumb to him,” Elizabeth said. “Why would you take this upon yourself?”

“Surely you must know,” Darcy said, his heart pounding in his chest.

Elizabeth slowly nodded. “I know you to be the most honourable gentleman of my acquaintance, but promise me you will not entangle yourself in this so much that your name becomes tarnished.” She sighed and tore her eyes from his, focusing on her hands. “I could not live with myself — that is you owe us nothing. We could never repay you, but accept my gratitude.”

“Elizabeth.” Darcy stroked her cheek. Her eyelashes fluttered at his touch. “I think only of your happiness. Thank me if you wish, but your family owes me nothing. I can only think of you.” He caught a stray tear with his thumb and wiped it away.

“I know you are too honest to accept me from gratitude, nor would you trifle with me. My feelings for you are unchanged, but perhaps I have never expressed them clearly.”

He kissed one cheek and then the other. “Do you not know? Have you not seen how precious you are to me?” He kissed her eyelids and tasted the salt of her tears.

She shook her head.

“Look at me, Elizabeth. I need to see your eyes.”

Shyly, Elizabeth met his eyes. He gathered her face in his hands.

“I love you,” he kissed her forehead. “I love you more than the life within me. There is nothing I would not do for you. Society be damned. I wanted you before this mess with Wickham, and I want you still. Nothing changes that. Be my wife and let me keep you safe always.”

Darcy pressed his forehead against hers, his chest heaving. His whole body tensed as he awaited her answer.

“I cannot,” Elizabeth whispered so quietly he barely caught the words. A sob racked her body, and she flung herself into his arms.

“Do you mean to tell me you feel nothing for me? After all we have shared?”

“No! No, I do care for you. I love you!”

Darcy clutched her closer at her confession.

“But we can never be together. Not now. Not after Lydia. I could never ask—”

Darcy silenced her with a long kiss. “We love each other; that is all we need.”

“No,” Elizabeth shook her head and tears streamed down her face. “No, it is not as simple as that.”

It is,” he said emphatically. “What is there to stand between us? Your sister’s folly? I say Wickham is the guilty one and I will not hesitate to say it near and far. With my family—”

“That is just it! Your family would never approve. It could hurt Georgiana, and I could never bear with the disapproval of the Baroness.”

“Lady Darcy already wishes for our union. She will not think less of you for the misfortune of your sister.”

“You cannot know that.”

“Come with me. We will visit her together tomorrow and listen to her counsel.”

Elizabeth shook her head again, but Darcy squeezed her hands. “I will not give you up, Elizabeth. Not now, not ever!”

“Elizabeth Belinda Bennet!” Jane exclaimed from the doorway. “You accept him, or I will never speak to you again!”

Darcy and Elizabeth turned in unison.

“If only I had heard a fraction of such love from Mr. Bingley, I would have accepted him in a second. Who cares for the disapproval of others when their opinion will fade? Do not allow true love to pass you by!”

“How can I be sure the trials we will face will not starve it away?” Elizabeth asked Darcy. “I could not bear for you to regret me.”

“I regretted leaving you in Hertfordshire. I hated that I only saw you for a day in London. Encountering you daily at Rosings brought me more joy than I had ever felt before.” Darcy squeezed her hands again. “Trials are halved when shared with the one you love.”

Jane sat on Elizabeth’s other side. “Refusing him only brings you both pain and does nothing to ensure our family’s respectability. There is no sense in your rejection if you love him as you claim.”

“I do,” Elizabeth met Darcy’s eyes; a new, resolved look filled hers. “Thank you. I accept your hand and your love.”

Jane beamed and after congratulating them, left the room. Darcy pulled Elizabeth back into his arms and kissed her as a starving man sought food. She would be his as soon as possible. Nothing could steal his joy now. After several minutes, Mr. Gardiner’s loud throat clearing made them tear apart, Darcy only smiled and decided with a blushing Elizabeth to call on his aunt on the morrow.

 

*****

 

The following day, Darcy arrived at Gracechurch Street to convey Elizabeth to his aunt’s home. Georgiana, to whom he had explained the whole of the situation, joined them. Additionally, Darcy had brought the box of his mother’s letters. He and Georgiana had leafed through them the night before and agreed they needed some answers from their aunt. Elizabeth and Georgiana made small talk about music, but the necessity of their visit was never far from their minds.

Upon arrival at the house, a very different scene greeted them than Darcy had witnessed the day before. They were shown to Lady Darcy’s chamber by a very sombre maid. If Darcy had to guess, the house had already entered mourning. The physician and housekeeper sat at the Baroness’ bedside. She lay very still and looked so pale. Darcy focused his eyes watching for a sign of breath. Beside him, Georgiana immediately stiffened.

“Doctor, her niece and nephew have arrived,” the housekeeper informed a middle-aged man with a concerned expression marring his face. He looked up from his patient.

“Not a moment too late, I believe.” The doctor motioned them over. “She had a heart seizure and is very weak. Do nothing to upset her. I have done all I can.”

The housekeeper offered her Ladyship a sip of broth, but the lady meekly refused.

“If she keeps refusing nourishment she has but days.”

The doctor and housekeeper allowed them privacy and left the room. Darcy allowed the ladies to be seated and knelt on the floor himself.

“Aunt,” Darcy said as he grasped her hand. “We are here. Why did you not send for us?”

“I knew you would come,” she rasped. “You always keep your promises.”

“Why do you not eat?”

Her Ladyship shook her head. “No, I cannot bear it.”

“Fitzwilliam, we ought to use our time wisely,” Georgiana said.

“I have brought Miss Bennet,” Darcy said, and the Baroness opened her eyes. “I ask for your blessing.”

“You do not need it. I trust you to do what is best,” she said. This was proof, more than anything else, to Darcy as to how weak she truly felt. The woman was born with an opinion on her lips.

“My lady,” Elizabeth leant forward. “There are complications to resolve, and I have told Mr. Darcy I do not wish to sully his good name.”

“What does she speak of?” Lady Darcy’s head lolled in Darcy’s direction. He recalled the doctor’s orders and dearly hoped his words would not disturb or infuriate her.

“I will tell her,” Elizabeth said and put a hand on Darcy’s arm. “Ma’am, I regret to inform you that my youngest sister has succumbed to a seduction. As of this moment, we do not know if they will marry. For not only does she vow she will not have him, but he has no honour to call upon his conscience to do the right thing. In seven months’ time, all the world will know of the Bennet shame.”

Elizabeth hung her head, and this time it was Darcy who lent her support.

Her Ladyship coughed, remarkably close to a stifled snort, but still refused water. “Scandal is nothing new to the Darcy or Fitzwilliam names,” she said. “You have read the letters?”

“Yes,” Darcy wondered at the deviation in their conversation. “Georgiana could not understand the context. My mother speaks of a great scandal she has caused. For a time, depression consumed her, but eventually, she regained her spirits. Her final letters concluded with a renewed vigour for life. That must be when she became a bluestocking.”

“I do not know what Mother did, but her letters were an echo of my own heart,” Georgiana said. “After she returned from France, she was determined to put self-loathing behind her.”

Elizabeth gasped. “The letters,” she whispered. “The letters in my book.”

“What book?” Darcy asked.

Letters for the Improvement of the Mind,” she murmured. “Do you recall? We were uncertain who C and A.F. could be?”

“Miss Bennet has discovered the truth,” Lady Darcy said with a wan smile. “Can you guess it, Fitzwilliam? I do not believe you can. You are blinded by devotion.”

“What is it?” Georgiana asked, anxiety climbing in her voice.

Darcy stared at his aunt for a long moment. Suddenly, her eagerness to warn him away from Anne at their last meeting made sense. “Georgiana, while visiting Rosings, Miss Bennet learned, and I was reminded, that for much of her life our mother went by the name Clara. She had been named after an aunt named Anne who never married and to differentiate the two, our mother went by her second name. Similarly, Mother became close to our uncle’s wife, a bluestocking. Her married name was Anne Fitzwilliam.”

Georgiana blinked in confusion. “Elizabeth found letters which match ours?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth said. “The letters in the book I found at Rosings were from Anne Fitzwilliam, wife to the second Earl; before your grandfather inherited the title.”

“But what is the scandal?” Georgiana asked.

“Why do you think Lady Darcy insists I do not marry Anne?” Darcy asked his sister.

“Because you love Elizabeth,” Georgiana said as though that would explain everything.

Darcy continued to stare at her.

“Because Anne is unwell?”

“Marriage to Anne would defy God’s laws,” Darcy answered. “Not only because I love another but because of our relationship.”

“But cousins marry all the time,” Georgiana said.

Lady Darcy squeezed Darcy’s hand, and he interpreted it as her desiring to tell Georgiana the truth.

“Anne is his niece. Catherine de Bourgh is your sister,” the Baroness said in a weak voice.

Georgiana gasped. “No! No, that is impossible. How could it be? Mother would have only been—”

“Fifteen,” Lady Darcy answered. “The same age as you when you nearly eloped.”

“But — but why were we never told? How could Aunt Catherine keep it a secret from us?”

“She does not know herself,” her Ladyship answered with laboured breaths and pointed to a small box on a table near her bed. “All is explained in these letters.”

“Pardon me,” Elizabeth said. “I am confused as to how you are privy to all this information. Are you not the aunt of Lady Anne’s husband?”

“I was Clara’s cousin before she ever married George Darcy. It is one reason why he was selected for her.”

“They did not love each other?” Darcy asked, feeling betrayed by everything he had held dear.

“In time, my dear, in time,” her Ladyship answered. “She did not marry until she wished it, but arrangements were made when it was found she was with child. She refused to marry against her heart, or to do your father such a disservice as raising the child of his wife’s lover. In the meantime, she was welcomed into her aunt’s Bluestocking group.”

“But why did no one else tell us?” Georgiana persisted. “Does our uncle not know?”

“No, I am the last living soul, save yourselves now.”

“Who is the father?” Darcy growled out.

“It is no matter,” Lady Darcy said.

“Who?” He pressed.

“Clara had ambitions to be an artist. Hopes not supported by most of the family. When her father commissioned portraits to be done of the family, she fell in love with the artist. A son of George Dance.”

Elizabeth gasped. “The Younger? Or was it Nathaniel?”

Her Ladyship nodded at the latter. “I tire,” she said, and her eyes fluttered slowly. “There is more.” She paused, and tears glittered in her eyes. “It is of no importance other than it might alleviate Miss Bennet’s concerns. Here, child.”

Darcy stood to make way for Elizabeth to sit on the edge of the bed. She gathered his aunt’s hand in hers. “I am here, my lady.”

“I am proof that a girl might make mistakes, but the world does not end. My child was placed with a family but did not live long. Your sister will be well.” She wagged a finger at Darcy. “And you! Do not delay in wedding her. Do not wait for my sake.”

“Aunt, do not talk like that,” Georgiana sniffed.

“No, it is my time.” She squeezed her eyes shut. “I will see my darling child again soon. I have waited for so long.” Touching Georgiana’s hand, she slightly turned her head. “You see, not all of us die young. Be sure you leave a legacy. Now, go. Read your letters and write Amelia. I need to rest.”

Lady Darcy closed her eyes, but her breathing remained steady. They did not immediately leave, but soon the housekeeper and doctor returned, shooing them from the room. They returned to Gracechurch Street after visiting the Baroness, each sober with melancholy reflections.

Darcy spoke with Mr. Gardiner for several minutes, making plans for the theatre. They should continue as if nothing was distressing the family. Additionally, if he wished to marry Elizabeth in the dark days before his aunt’s imminent death, then they should act as though her death were unexpected. Upon leaving, he would go to Doctor’s Commons and begin proceedings for a special license. On the morrow, Elizabeth would visit with Georgiana, and in the evening, they would all attend the theatre.

After boarding the carriage to return to their home, Georgiana sighed. “Do you think they will call for us when it is her time?”

Darcy looked at his sister, surprised and proud of how she had borne the stress of seeing their aunt so ill in addition to the news of their mother. “I believe her ladyship has said her goodbyes to us.”

Georgiana shook her head. “It just seems wrong for her to die alone. As if she does not have a family that loves her.”

Darcy reached across the carriage and squeezed her hand. “She must be allowed her own choice.”

His sister mutely nodded and stared out the window for most of the drive through London’s crowded streets. Darcy did not remove his hand, sensing she needed his touch. Finally, as they drew closer to their home, she turned her head toward him. Squeezing his hand, she asked, “Will you sit with me when you read your letter? Our family may be small, but we should be together, do you not think?”

“Of course,” he said and squeezed her hand in return.

They arrived at the house, and after their outerwear had been divested and tea ordered, Darcy sent word to Mrs. Annesley that the siblings needed privacy. In his study, they sat next to each other on the settee and opened their letters from their long dead mother. A part of Darcy railed against his aunt keeping them secret for so long.

If he had hoped for profound or new insights from his mother, he was disappointed. She was as he had ever remembered: loving, graceful, and honest. She encouraged him to marry for love and act honourably toward women. She confessed her youthful mishap. She had imagined herself in love with the painter Nathaniel Dance. However, they would have had nothing to live on, and such a marriage would have ruined his career opportunities. Within months of their daughter’s birth, his father, the famed London architect and artist, died and Dance became a founding member of the Royal Academy. Additionally, his heart had belonged to another.

To consider a man, who he had seen yearly at his visits to Rosings, not acknowledge his daughter — the only child he ever had as his marriage was late in life and had produced no issue — and to know the man had treated his mother so callously, enraged Darcy. However, a more logical part of him recognised that in the spirit of the letter he now held, his mother had no bitterness or regret. Her daughter had been raised well and married a baronet. Darcy’s mother had found love and satisfaction in her marriage to George Darcy.

Anne Clara Darcy’s letter to her youngest daughter was more to the point. There were tear streaks on the parchment as she wrote that if this letter had not been burned, then it must mean she had already perished. She wondered what her daughter would be like and counselled her that youthful folly was not the end of her life, but a new beginning. She encouraged her daughter to look for true love in unexpected places but to trust her guardians and never celebrate her joy in secret. Darcy smiled as Georgiana pressed the letter to her chest and tears streamed down her face. Having never known their mother, reading such timely words written specifically for her had touched her heart more than anything he or Mrs. Annesley might say.

“What do we do now, Fitzwilliam?” Georgiana asked after he had hugged her to his side for a brotherly embrace.

“We live on,” he said in a determined voice.

Having understood his past, he now felt he was clear to make plans for the future. As he readied for bed for the evening, he thought of Elizabeth, and all that was now in his heart. Soon, there would be no more separation, and she would be with him always. There might still be foes to defeat before their happiness was assured, but he now felt confident that they could forge a new path from their love and with the support of their families.

 

 

 

Dearest C

Words cannot convey how anxious I was to read your last letter. How awful that you were caught in London when the riots began. I will ever be thankful for your survival and good health. God bless G for coming to your aid! When you visit us next you should bring A. My girls would dote on her. Dottie quite misses her friend.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

The following day at Gracechurch Street, Elizabeth sat with her aunt and sisters. Mr. Gardiner had returned to his warehouse, and even Mr. Darcy had business to see to earlier in the day. It did not escape Elizabeth’s notice that the ladies had nothing to do but fret and worry while the men had other matters to occupy their time.

“Do you really love Mr. Darcy?” Lydia asked from where they had gathered in her guest chamber.

Elizabeth blushed. “I would never marry without love.”

“But he is so…so boring. I thought you liked Wickham. It is one reason why I took such triumph in gaining his notice.” Lydia said, and fresh tears sprang from her swollen eyes. She had spent most of the last two days wretchedly crying.

“I was wrong to be charmed by his demeanour,” Elizabeth said. Pain pierced her heart. Blame rested on her for encouraging their friendship with a man they knew so little about.

“Yes, the charming ones are a problem,” Jane said and jabbed a needle through her embroidery.

Elizabeth glanced at her aunt, and they shared a troubled look. Neither had ever seen Jane cross for more than a moment. “You are certain you are pleased for me?” After all, Jane had been the one who encouraged her to accept Darcy’s hand.

“Of course,” Jane lifted her eyes from the fabric. In the face of familial concern, she instantly returned to her usual self. “I am disappointed, but it will soon be over. From what you say of Darcy’s aunt, a lady may be a spinster and spend her days happily.”

Left unsaid is that great wealth and a title afforded her such luxury. Although, Jane did not have the independent streak that Lady Darcy had, perhaps living on the charity of others would not trouble her the way it would some. On the other hand, Darcy’s mother did not wed until she was thirty. Surely Jane had plenty of time to love again and marry.

“Let us think of other things,” Mrs. Gardiner said. “Lydia, you have always wanted to visit the theatre.”

“Yes! It is the one thing keeping me from despair,” she sighed dramatically.

Thinking of the letters Darcy’s mother received from her aunt, Elizabeth fixed an eye on Lydia. “You may wallow in self-pity if you wish, but the time will come when no more will be tolerated. Others care very deeply for you.”

Jane gaped at Elizabeth’s words. “Should she not mourn the loss of her future? She had hoped to marry him!”

“For how long?” Elizabeth directed her words at her elder sister. “How long had she fixed such thoughts on him?”

“True love will last a lifetime,” Jane whispered.

Lydia remained mute, understanding that the current conversation was not about her.

“Yes, but it does not mean one must be miserable for the rest of one’s life.” Elizabeth shook her head. “No, I refuse to let my sisters live as though they have no control of their own happiness. How much of our thought and talk is consumed with marriage and men?”

“That is very easy for you to say, Lizzy,” Lydia said. “You have a husband.”

“No,” she insisted. “Lydia, you have been thinking of officers since your come out.” She did not need to say that it had been at too early of an age. “Jane, Mama selected Bingley for you upon first sight. I do not mean to say either of your feelings are not genuine, but it sprang from a fanciful imagination.”

Seeing Jane and Lydia simultaneously open their mouths to refute her statements, Elizabeth hastily added, “So it was with Wickham and me as well. I was eager to believe him in love with me and just as convinced Darcy could never care for me. It compounded our misunderstandings.”

A knock on the door alerted them to the time. “Tonight, we begin again. Promise me, you will try to find happiness.”

Neither Jane nor Lydia had a chance before the servant announced that the Darcy carriage was ready for her. Elizabeth bid them farewell until the evening. She would spend the remainder of the day with Georgiana and dine at their house. Once outside, she laughed to see Darcy standing beside Anne’s phaeton. “I had wondered what the servant meant when they said your carriage had arrived. I had thought perhaps Colonel Fitzwilliam had returned.”

Darcy shook his head. “No; although, I need to speak with him as soon as possible.”

From the wrinkle in his brow, Elizabeth perceived matters were not well between the two. “What is wrong?” she asked when he sat beside her and flicked his wrist for the horses to trot forward.

“Can I not court my betrothed before we worry about our family trials?”

“Do you have poetry to recite me, Ben?” She looked around the small carriage. “I see no bouquet.”

“Peace, I will stop your mouth!” Darcy said.

Elizabeth raised a brow and smirked at the Shakespearian quote. “You can hardly be serious, and thus I am perfectly safe to tease you away.”

He leant toward her ear. “I will collect later.”

His breath fanning her skin caused her pulse to race, and she blushed. Still, she would not retreat. “Is that supposed to frighten me? I will hold you to your words.”

Darcy took one hand from her lap and raised it to his lips. “See that you do, madam.”

Catching the amorous look in his eye, Elizabeth’s breath caught. If Darcy’s attention was not required for their safe journey to his house, they might be in danger indeed.

He turned his attention back to the road and cleared his throat. “Georgiana is finishing her lesson with her new pianoforte master. I had thought we could ride through Hyde Park, although it is not the fashionable hour.”

“I would love that,” Elizabeth said and tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow.

After they had turned into the park, she felt Darcy tense beneath her hand. While not the most popular time for a ride in the park, many people were strolling and he attracted curious looks. Now and then he stopped and introduced her to an acquaintance. Elizabeth recognised that he felt ill at ease under the observation of so many. A part of her wanted to point out that she had not asked for this, but another part was touched by his thoughtfulness. He did this for her. He wanted his world to begin to know her. If only he understood that all she needed in the world was him.

“Is there a less crowded path?” Elizabeth asked. “I have never ridden in the park before. I would hate to spend all of it on well-travelled avenues.”

“Certainly,” Darcy said and directed the horses away from the more populated area of the park.

Elizabeth felt Darcy’s arm relax. She steeled herself for his reserve to emerge at the theatre as well. “I think we had better discuss matters now.”

Darcy sighed and slowed the horses to a stop out of earshot of others. “If you wish.”

“Yes, and I will tell you that I never wanted to be one of those other prim couples. I would much rather be here, exploring the wilds with you.”

“Wilds, eh?” Darcy chuckled. “And does that describe this part of the Park or your companion?”

“Ben, I would never dare call you wild.”

“When we arrive at Pemberley, you will likely hear tale after tale of my reckless antics in childhood. I believe the housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, might very well have called me wild as a youth.”

Elizabeth smiled fondly at Darcy as a rare and mischievous twinkle lit his eyes. She could imagine him as a lad traipsing about the grounds of his home, part boy and part master in the making. One day, if she were fortunate, she would see it for herself in the image of their son. What a father he would make! Elizabeth gently placed a gloved hand on his cheek.

“Ben,” she sighed.

“What is it?” He looked warily at her, apparently expecting bad news.

“I love you.” She said with a smile.

The words escaped her. The day she confessed her love and accepted his proposal was full of tears and despair. Yesterday, they had spent the whole of their time together with Lady Darcy and Georgiana.

Darcy closed his eyes and relief flooded his features. He clasped his hand over hers before bringing it to his lips. “I will never tire of hearing it. Words cannot describe my love for you.”

“They are not required,” she shushed him. “I do not need words when I can hear your heart.”

He kissed her hand again. “Soon, I will be able to show you. When we are husband and wife…”

The passionate look that filled his eyes before appeared again. She delighted in seeing it. How had she once thought he only admired her mind? “Speaking of that,” she said as he lowered her hand. “Have you arrived at a date?”

“Yes, with your uncle’s permission, we can wed in three days. The archbishop was sympathetic to our situation with desiring to marry before my aunt passed.”

Elizabeth nodded. She had known it would be soon, but somehow it seemed impossibly near. She was not worried about who she married, but rather the foreignness of it all. She had not yet seen his London house. She had never seen Pemberley. How could she manage all of it? And his bluestocking club? What of Georgiana? Elizabeth had not had time to return to Longbourn, to pack her belongings or say goodbye to her friends. “Will we go to Longbourn after?”

“I had thought you might wish it,” he said. “I only wish I could tell you Bingley would return as well. Netherfield would afford us more comfortable apartments. However…”

“Yes, it seems matters between Jane and Bingley are entirely closed. It would be better for them to see as little as possible of one another.”

Darcy nodded. “I apologise again.”

“Shush. They have made their own decisions. Did you hear something of the Colonel? From the look on your face when I mentioned him earlier I had thought you had.”

“No, I have not heard from him since before we left Rosings,” Darcy frowned. “He and Bingley both have to account for themselves. It seems they both have been posturing as a suitor for Georgiana.”

“She is too young!” Elizabeth gasped.

“I entirely agree. Richard knows of her near elopement with Wickham. Bingley, of course, does not. I admit, there was a time when I had thought that, in the distant future, they would be well-matched but I never encouraged it.”

Elizabeth cast her eyes over the park. Darcy may not have, but Bingley’s sister had made it perfectly clear. The fact that Darcy tolerated it at all proved how good natured he really was, all the while she had believed him to be otherwise.

“Additionally, I cannot understand why Bingley would propose to Jane one day and then pay court to my sister the next.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “Can you not? My cousin did not take my refusal well and immediately soothed his ego with not just any lady, but my friend Charlotte.”

“You would compare Bingley with Collins?”

Elizabeth shrugged. “Pride infects us all.”

Darcy made no reply and squinted at the sun. He directed the horses back the way they came, and soon they were on cobbled streets again. The Mayfair district contained a variety of homes. Although on a larger grid than seen in the commercial district, they contained a similar footprint as all terrace houses. A few stood detached and large enough to take up one side of a square. Thankfully, Darcy’s house was not so grand.

Elizabeth was greeted cordially by the servants and Darcy proudly introduced her to all that came in their path. Leading her to the drawing room, they could hear Georgiana playing. When the door opened, Georgiana excitedly leapt from the bench at the instrument. “Elizabeth!”

“Good morning, Georgiana,” Elizabeth chuckled.

“You must see the music Fil—Signor Clementi has brought for me to practice.” She dragged Elizabeth to the pianoforte.

Darcy chuckled from the door. “I will allow you ladies to begin your visit. Mrs. Annesley, Clementi,” he nodded at the others.

“Look! Is not the legato sublime?”

Elizabeth looked over the sheet. The slurs between the notes would create a beautiful mixing of harmony. “Indeed.”

Before Georgiana retook the paper, Elizabeth thought she read at the top per Clara il mio amore. For Clara, my love?

The instructor had been watching their interaction. “Play for Miss Bennet,” he said in a slight Italian accent proving he had spent many years in England.

Elizabeth recognised the name. Signor Clementi had the reputation of one of the brightest new composers and a talented teacher. He watched Georgiana with fondness, but it could just be pride in her skill.

“Lovely,” Elizabeth said while her future sister played. “Is it yours?” she asked Clementi.

“Si,” he replied. “A new piece.”

Perhaps he was overly fond of his work? However, the events of the last few days had taught Elizabeth that ladies of Georgiana’s age and situation in life were very susceptible to the advances of talented men their superiors in years. She did not have any sort of proof of anything inappropriate. Even now, Georgiana’s companion sat with them. Still, she would warn Darcy of her suspicions.

“Bellissimo,” Clementi sighed next to Elizabeth. “A muse, no? She makes the music come to life.”

Elizabeth smiled in reply and applauded when Georgiana finished. The master said his farewell and the ladies began their visit. Elizabeth attempted to steer the conversation away from music, which Georgiana would naturally wish to talk about always, but was met with short answers. If her own sisters suffered from a lack of interest in anything beyond fripperies, Georgiana had the opposite problem. She needed to broaden her interests, for the sake of conversation if nothing else.

Their silence was interrupted when callers arrived. Caroline Bingley and Lady Charlotte Leveson-Gower, daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, sat stiffly in their chairs across from Elizabeth and Georgiana. For the first half of their visit, they had not paid Elizabeth any attention at all. Lady Charlotte seemed to follow her cues from Caroline. At last, Caroline seemed ready for attack. “How interesting to find you here, Miss Bennet.”

“How so?” Elizabeth calmly replied while stirring her tea.

“I had not thought you were very acquainted with the Darcys. In fact, I had believed you were not inclined to desire their friendship at all.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Elizabeth saw Georgiana wrinkle her brow.

Caroline smirked and added for good measure, “When we last spoke you had made your preference for Mr. Wickham very plain.”

Georgiana nearly dropped her tea cup which had been halfway to her mouth.

“Oh, my dear!” Elizabeth attended to her. “You must be fatigued from your lesson.” Looking back at Caroline, she said, “Miss Darcy was kind enough to show me her latest music and allow me the treat of listening.”

“You mean to say that she was helping your skills,” Caroline nodded knowingly.

“Oh, no. No, I could never dream to achieve her skill. Attempting that work would be the height of folly. No, I have had the pleasure of a private concert.”

Caroline frowned. “Miss Darcy does not play for anyone.”

Georgiana met Elizabeth’s eye and raised her chin. “I play only for my closest friends and family. Forgive me, but my nerves were not made for performing for others.”

“That is just the sort of thing the proper example would help you with. When your brother marries, your sister will see to your education which has lacked in some areas,” Caroline said.

“Yes, a lady must perform for guests,” Lady Charlotte added.

“I am surprised, Miss Bingley,” Darcy spoke from the doorway, startling the other ladies, “to hear that you find my sister’s education incomplete after all the praise you have given her and me.”

“Well…I…” Caroline stammered.

Darcy came behind Elizabeth’s chair and placed a hand on her shoulder. “I do not believe you have heard, as I have yet to tell your brother. It gives me great delight, however, in being the one to inform you. Miss Bennet has accepted my hand in marriage and we will very soon wed.”

Caroline and Lady Charlotte’s mouths dropped open in unison, identical looks of disgust mingled with fury swept over their faces. Lady Charlotte recovered first. “My congratulations,” she said through a tight jaw.

“Yes, I am all astonishment, Eliza. I am surprised you — or your family — were able to keep it such a secret,” Caroline sneered.

Inwardly, Elizabeth laughed at this lady who was not wise enough to befriend the future Mistress of Pemberley and Baroness Darcy. “Our engagement is not of long standing,” she smiled.

“No?” Caroline asked.

“I was sure you had heard from your brother,” Darcy said. “Miss Bennet and I met again in Kent.”

Georgiana beamed beside her. “You see, she was the cause all along for his being out of spirits after returning from Hertfordshire. When he met her again, he could no longer resist telling her his heart.” She sighed. “It is so romantic, is it not?”

Caroline looked as though she would be sick on the marble floor. “Indeed. Very.”

“Yes. Very.” Her faithful assistant echoed.

“We had better be leaving,” Caroline suddenly stood. Lady Charlotte followed and nearly tripped over her gown.

Darcy pulled out his pocket watch. “Indeed, it is time that we dress for dinner. After our family meal, we will be meeting Miss Bennet’s family at the theatre. I am sure you recall the Bennets. I believe you were quite friendly with her eldest sister at one time.”

“I — I — oh, yes. Dearest, Jane! How is she? I had thought she returned to Hertfordshire when she did not call on me again. You must tell her I am very cross at her for not returning my visit.”

“Oh, I doubt not that she has written, but perhaps her letters have been misdirected. It seems she had trouble getting earlier ones to you, and perhaps that is why it took you so long to arrive at Gracechurch Street?”

At the mention of the street name, Lady Charlotte gasped and covered it with a cough. “Yes, that must be the reason.” Caroline’s eyes darted around the room.

“I did so enjoy your visit,” Georgiana smiled. “Next time, it will be Lizzy who shall receive you as hostess!”

“Yes, do call after the wedding when I am properly settled as mistress,” Elizabeth said. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Lady Charlotte.”

Once it was certain they had left the house, they all erupted in laughter, including Mrs. Annesley.

“My goodness,” Elizabeth said as she caught her breath. “I daresay that if Miss Bingley knew she would turn such a sickly shade of green this afternoon she never would have worn that shade of orange for her gown!”

“Does she wear any other?” Darcy laughed.

“Oh! You are awful,” Georgiana giggled with them.

“Now, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth said in mock seriousness. “I believe you have confessions to make. Why did they both seem to think you were on the edge of making them an offer of marriage?”

Georgiana paled. “No, Elizabeth. Fitzwilliam would never—”

“I only tease, dearest,” Elizabeth said and patted her friend’s hand.

“Oh; I am not accustomed,” Georgiana looked at her feet and blushed.

“It is I who should be embarrassed,” Elizabeth soothed. “But a betrothed may take liberties where a sister cannot.”

“And I hope you always do,” Darcy said and kissed Elizabeth’s hand. The feel of his lips on her skin sent flutters to her belly and a shiver up her arm.

“Miss Darcy,” Mrs. Annesley called from her seat in the back of the room. “Do you need to see to dinner?”

“Oh! Please excuse me,” Georgiana said to her brother and Elizabeth before executing a hasty curtsy and leaving. Mrs. Annesley followed at a more sedate pace.

“Now, that we are alone,” Darcy said as he gathered Elizabeth in his arms. “I will collect my kiss and punish your teases.”

“I am all atremble,” Elizabeth replied saucily before his lips landed on hers.

For several bliss-filled minutes, the world faded away. When Darcy pulled away and touched their foreheads together, while their bodies calmed and their breath returned to normal, Elizabeth considered this was why she loved him. It had happened so gradually and then she realised it so suddenly, she had not given time to consider why or how. That he could steal her breath, consume her focus, make everything else fade away and then share her burdens was why she loved him.

“I have something I wish you would wear tonight,” Darcy said and withdrew an ornate jewellery case from his pocket.

Elizabeth gasped when she opened it and saw a dazzling diamond necklace and matching earbobs and bracelet. “Oh, Ben. It is too much.”

“These are some of the Darcy diamonds,” he said as he undid the clasp and placed the necklace around her throat. “My grandfather bought them for a woman he loved enough to give up his name for. It is only fitting that you now wear them.”

He turned Elizabeth to face him. “You are so beautiful,” he said then kissed her hands. “You shine brighter than these diamonds.”

“I love you,” Elizabeth said and leaned forward to kiss him. “I wish I could demonstrate my feelings with similar gifts.”

“You loving me, accepting me with my flaws and not for my wealth or title, are the greatest gifts.”

Once more Elizabeth felt drawn to Darcy’s lips but the clock chimed the top of the hour, and they resisted. “I should dress for dinner. I would not want to anger my host.”

“Indeed. I hear the host can be a bear when angered, but for the sight of such beauty he might be soothed.”

Elizabeth chuckled and shook her head as he gathered her hand in his to escort her to the hall, where a servant would show her the chamber she would use. As Elizabeth left Darcy’s side, she was aware that he fought to remain rooted and not walk her upstairs himself. She understood that perhaps it would be too much temptation for him and she vowed to check herself. New as her passionate and loving feelings were, she would never wish to cast more cause for shame on her family or scandalise Georgiana.

After leisurely dressing, she was summoned to the drawing room at the appropriate hour. Darcy looked as handsome as ever, and Georgiana looked surprisingly confident as she played hostess.

When Elizabeth asked her about it, she replied, “I believe I cannot behave any worse than Caroline Bingley, so why should I make myself feel uneasy?”

Elizabeth smiled at the sentiment. Their meal passed pleasantly, and before long they boarded a rented hack to journey to Drury Lane. At first, they remained in obscurity as the carriage did not bear the Darcy crest. Soon, however, the gentleman was sighted by an eager acquaintance. With Elizabeth on one arm and Georgiana on the other, he proudly made introductions. Still, Elizabeth could feel the tension beneath his jacket. His smile did not reach his eyes, and his laughter was not genuine. This was all a part for him to play. They had gathered to watch the stage, but the real acting took place on their side of the curtain.

While some openly dismissed Elizabeth, since they did not recognise her name and she came with no lofty title or heraldry such as “heiress of…,” most treated her with interest and deference. Considering how many focussed on the diamonds about her neck, Elizabeth believed they were instrumental to her success without Darcy having to say a word of their connection. When her family entered the lobby, they mingled for a few moments longer before going to Darcy’s box.

Darcy smiled as he seated Elizabeth next to himself. He whispered in her ear, “The last time we were here was when we met again. What fortune brought us together!”

“Are you to be a patron of the stage now?” Elizabeth teased. “In truth, I do not recall the performance. I was too concerned about…” Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder and lowered her voice more, “about W.”

“I do not recall the performance either. Lady Darcy had begun her plan for her Bluestocking Club and threatened to make me court every single lady in London. I was too busy lamenting that I had never been more miserable in my life.”

Elizabeth laughed at the image. She wished she had more time with the lady. “Shall we ask Georgiana what performance we saw?”

They did not have a chance because a servant entered the box and whispered in Darcy’s ear. “Show His Grace in,” Darcy nodded.

The Duke of Dorset entered, missing his usual entourage, and Darcy performed the introductions. His eyes fixed on Jane between his conversations with others. Elizabeth held her breath. She recalled a similar scene with Bingley, and the Duke was not near as good-natured. Elizabeth did not mean to cast aspersions on her family, but that a Duke could be persuaded to marry an undistinguished squire’s daughter seemed unlikely.

“Ah, the lovely Miss Bennet — or I should call you Miss Elizabeth, now? I see it is all settled,” he pointed at her necklace. “I will take the credit for it, you know.”

“Dorset,” Darcy said in a low tone.

“Now, Darcy, I recall that tone. If ever a man might kill me, I thought for sure it would have been Darcy when I nearly knocked his ladylove to kingdom come.” The young Duke chuckled. “Then again, it could be that the blow addled her senses and that is why she accepted you.” He clapped Darcy on the back, an unappreciated gesture.

“What happened, Lizzy?” Jane asked, and Elizabeth gave an abbreviated account of the cricket game.

The play started, and Dorset took the seat next to Jane, not seeming to care that it removed Lydia to the next row. “You do not mind if I stay in here, do you, Darcy?” he asked. “Mine gets crowded with…”

He did not bother to finish and instead feigned laughter at the stage. Surely his words were only an excuse to continue talking with Jane. Indeed, they spoke for most of the play. Elizabeth rolled her eyes. Heaven help her. Was she destined to spend every play she witnessed worried about a sister? However, when the Duke not only asked to call on Jane but introduced them all to his mother and other noble relations, Elizabeth could hardly guess who was more speechless: Jane, herself, or the many witnesses.

Georgiana invited Lydia to ride with them in the hack, and the two girls talked about the play, Lydia vowing to become an accomplished playwright when she was discouraged from taking to the stage directly. Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders. At least she was not fixated on the handsomeness of the actors and seemed genuinely interested in the skill displayed. She and Georgiana were exchanging ideas for a new comedy they would write for home entertainment, if not for the world at large, when they exited the carriage. The Darcys had been invited into the Gardiner home for a light supper.

Unexpectedly, they were greeted by a pale and rumpled looking Mr. Bennet.

“Thomas, what is the matter?” Mr. Gardiner asked, and glanced at Lydia who hid behind Jane. “There was no reason for you to come at all let alone in such a state!”

“Kitty…” he said wearily. “Kitty is missing. Gone.”

After the general cry from the others had calmed, Mr. Gardiner attempted to gather more information. “What do you mean she is gone?”

Mr. Bennet held up a crumpled sheet of paper. “She has eloped with Wickham.”

 

 

 

Dear C—

What a terrifyingly beautiful copy of “The Nightmare” you sent me! I have heard much of its fervour in London but could not imagine its detail. You say you feel haunted by such a creature as what is on the poor woman in this painting. Dearest girl, wake up, free yourself! Your nightmare is over.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

 

Darcy winced as the ladies shrieked once more. Beside him, Elizabeth tensed, and Lydia began sobbing and declaring it was all her fault. Georgiana attempted to soothe the girls.

“What do you know? What has been done?” Mr. Gardiner asked his brother.

Darcy stepped forward. “Sir, I believe I can be of assistance.”

“Mr. Darcy?” Bennet looked at him in confusion. “My brother did write that you were offering to help with Lydia, but I could not fathom why you would be concerned about the matter or our family.”

“Did you never receive my letter?” Elizabeth asked.

“Certainly, I received all your letters about Hunsford.” Bennet looked at Elizabeth in annoyance. “Now is not the time.”

“Did you read them?” Elizabeth pressed, her colour rising.

At any other moment, Darcy would have condemned Bennet for his treatment of Elizabeth, but at the distress of the moment, he could understand.

“Darcy, Elizabeth, perhaps you had better follow us,” Mr. Gardiner said. “My dear, if you will settle the girls. Miss Darcy, please make yourself comfortable here, unless your brother would rather you return home?”

Darcy looked at his sister for her answer.

“Thank you, no. I would rather stay.”

“May you send a servant to deal with the coach?” Darcy said. “I will hire another one when it is time for us to depart.”

“Jones,” Mrs. Gardiner called and a manservant reappeared who had gathered to collect their outerwear and had then discretely made himself scarce, as it was evident Mr. Bennet had disturbing news. “See to Mr. Darcy’s carriage, please.”

Darcy gave the servant the necessary coins and then proceeded to follow his host and beloved to the library while Mrs. Gardiner led the ladies to the drawing room.

Inside the library, Darcy settled near the window, conscious that while he might have much to offer regarding Wickham, he must not appear overbearing. The look of despair in Elizabeth’s tear-filled eyes tormented him. How was it only hours ago they had whispered words of love and felt alone in the world?

“What is to be done, Edward?” Mr. Bennet asked. “I was a fool to let the girls run around as they pleased. Now exertion is required, and I find I have no mind for it.”

“We had better ask Darcy if he thinks he could find Wickham,” Gardiner said. “Finding them would be the chief concern.”

“Darcy? What is all this talk of Darcy?”

“Papa, I had written you a letter, which I suppose must have been misdirected or mislaid, regarding Wickham and something I heard him say before leaving for Kent. Forgive me,” she said with tears streaming down her face. “I ought to have relayed it to you before leaving, but I misjudged.”

She continued to explain what she had heard while Bennet paled. “And you did not think to tell me straight-away? No, no, you were quite right. I would have scolded you for eavesdropping and dismissed it saying men sometimes talked of foul things.” Something like a sob escaped from him. “I have failed you all, even my most sensible daughter.”

“Sir,” Darcy said from his post at the window, “a significant share of the blame lies with me. If I had exposed Wickham’s real character while in Hertfordshire none of this would have been possible.”

“I do not put much store in this talk of seducing my girls to avenge himself on you. It sounded the work of a moment, and my brother tells me that Lydia had already succumbed to him by that point. I would wager not a person alive would have thought you admired my Lizzy, or that you were serious about it if you had.”

Darcy did not know which stung worse. The fact that he had admired Elizabeth then and yet was not serious about pursuing it, or that he remained sure Wickham’s primary motive was always revenge.

“Besides, if not Wickham, then another. To think that she would elope under my very nose, and Lydia seduced somewhere in the lanes about Meryton!”

The expression of Mr. Bennet’s face was all that a father who had received such a blow could be expected to have. Darcy reckoned it was not far from what his own had been in the days after learning of Georgiana’s scheme to elope.

“We will not quarrel about who shares the most blame,” Elizabeth said calmly. “Mr. Darcy, do you believe you might find where they are? They have certainly not left London.”

“No, there was no trace of the carriage going past London. However, I already checked with all the reputable hotels in town and no one fitting their descriptions has arrived in the last day.”

“In a few days’ time, Wickham will seek me out,” Darcy said, but Elizabeth would not meet his eyes. “However, if we find him before then perhaps we can moderate his demands. When he nearly seduced my sister, I learnt he had a history with her governess. Mrs. Younge keeps a veneer of respectability, and last I heard ran a boarding house after being dismissed from my employ. I believe she might know where he would hide.”

“Who knows of Kitty leaving?” Gardiner asked.

“All of Longbourn, no doubt,” Mr. Bennet mumbled. “My wife was insensible at the news, and her shrieking alerted all the servants. She is being cared for now by her sister and Mary.

“Perhaps since she left from home and was not with friends, the truth might be concealed? I suppose it is known that Lydia is now in London?” Elizabeth asked.

“Yes,” Mr. Bennet agreed.

“We shall say that Kitty desired to join her,” Elizabeth suggested. “Perhaps we cannot hide that she left without parental support, but it does not need to be known that she ran off with Wickham.”

The idea held merit.

“Do you think we can say she came by stage without the issue of others pointing out they never saw her on it?” Mr. Bennet frowned.

Darcy never would have considered such a concern. He would not know anyone who travelled by stage. “Perhaps if it is vague enough,” he suggested. “It is not as though a full-scale inquiry shall be made. Surely most of the passengers on the coaches for the morning would be strangers and many unlikely to return for some time, if ever.”

“There is some truth to that,” Bennet said. “However, there is the matter of the coaching inn master and wife. They are horrible gossips, and all the town relies on them for information. You would be shocked at how secrets cannot remain in small market towns, Darcy.”

Although the words were directed at him, Darcy felt they were a backhanded insult to Elizabeth. He frowned at her father.

“It was just a thought,” Elizabeth said apparently feeling abashed.

“What of Lydia?” Mr. Bennet sighed. “You are not still in love with him, are you, Lizzy? You must all get your love for a red coat from your mother.”

Elizabeth immediately turned scarlet. Darcy put aside the pain he felt, which he rather supposed her father had meant to inflict, to comfort her. He walked to her side and took her hand in his. “I am happy to say that whatever she once felt for the cad, I am the fortunate man to have earned her devotion, and I never mean to lose it. Matters were not entirely settled when Gardiner wrote to you, but I now ask for your blessing. We intend to wed in two days.”

“Married to Mr. Darcy!” Bennet gaped at them both. “Are you out of your senses, Lizzy? I know you have always hated him.”

“Papa,” Elizabeth said sternly. “I genuinely love him — not out of gratitude or quickly ignited passion — but we will speak on this later. I have been considering Lydia’s situation. Even before this latest news of Kitty, she had refused to marry him.”

Darcy squeezed Elizabeth’s hand after such a speech. Bennet looked at them in wonder for a moment or two before Mr. Gardiner cleared his throat.

“She had better marry someone,” he said.

“Why must her fate be sealed forever at such a young age?” Elizabeth asked. “There have been stories of ladies who were sent away discreetly and returned with no one the wiser.”

“And then what?” Bennet shook his head. “Who do we know that could take the child and keep their tongue? We would forever be prone to blackmail. Jane and Mary’s circumstances would be reduced at the least.”

“My mother is not beyond the age of bearing,” Elizabeth said. “Who better to keep our secrets? Mrs. Hill and my aunt could act as midwife and nurse.”

Bennet stroked his chin. “Clever, Lizzy, clever. Then what becomes of Lydia?”

“Anything she wishes,” Elizabeth shrugged. “I do not see any of the men in this room suggesting we find a way to punish Wickham for his sins, unless you mean to say marriage to one of my sisters is a punishment, so why must Lydia bear more shame in the matter?”

“Hear, hear,” Darcy agreed. “When it was my sister he attempted such things on, I would have moved heaven and earth to prevent their marriage and borne any pain to ensure her happiness.”

“But surely—”

“What were you doing at fifteen, sir?” Darcy narrowed his eyes. “The picture of morality?”

“I concede your point,” Mr. Bennet said at last.

“Thank you, but I believe it was Miss Elizabeth’s,” Darcy said and squeezed her hand. “If you would like me to make inquiries of Mrs. Younge, I can begin in the morning. Gardiner has the details of my estimation of what Wickham will require to wed but, again, I would suggest you convince Miss Kitty to break the attachment.”

“Very well, thank you,” Bennet said, at last duly humbled.

Darcy glanced at the clock. “The hour grows late, and I should take my sister home. I will send word as soon as I know anything.”

“I am to invite you and Miss Darcy to dine with us tomorrow,” Mr. Gardiner said rubbing his brow as though his head ached.

“We would be delighted to accept and allow me to invite you all to our house the following evening. I believe Miss Elizabeth should like to meet some of my other family, the Earl and Countess, and I expect my cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam to have returned by then.”

Mr. Gardiner gave his assent as did Mr. Bennet, although he frowned.

“Allow me to escort you to the door,” Elizabeth said and stood.

When they reached the hall, a servant was notified to hail a new hackney and alert Georgiana to their impending departure. “Thank you,” Elizabeth said as she gathered near Darcy.

She still wore her gown from the evening and light sparkled off the diamonds of her jewellery. Despite the worry that marred her face, Darcy could not contain his admiration for her. He would not have her last memories of him this evening be regulated to distress over her family. “You never need thank me for caring for you.” He raised her hand to his lips. “Did you enjoy the play?”

Elizabeth gave him a weak smile. “I confess I was distracted for much of it. I wonder about the Duke’s attention to Jane.”

Darcy frowned as well. If they ever had daughters, he hoped it would be a deal less troublesome than they were currently finding dealing with their sisters was. He no longer wondered at fairy-tale fathers who locked their daughters in towers, or men of centuries ago who sent them to convents where they could be safe in the bosom of women and away from the evil clutches of men.

“You have heard of the licentiousness of his father, I presume?” he asked.

“Yes…and well, the sculpture of his lover remains near the grand staircase. I suppose it might be too heavy to move, but I wonder at the Duchess not destroying it.” She met his eyes and determination filled them. “I would not tolerate such.”

“Have no fear, my darling,” he said and kissed her hand again. “I could never treat a woman with such disrespect, least of all one I loved as ardently as I do you.”

“I am frightened,” Elizabeth whispered.

“Of my love for you?”

She shook her head. “No, I worry about my family ruining yours.”

“Love, my family has their own scandals and bore them. Either they were kept entirely secret, which you have read from my mother’s letters were not the case, or they weathered them.”

“Yes, but—”

Darcy silenced her protestations with a swift kiss. “We will overcome this. Would you allow it to steal your happiness?”

“No.”

“Allow me to be your support, my love. Do not shut me out. Life is full of tempests. We will weather these and, later, life will give more. What good practice for a happy marriage!”

Elizabeth finally smiled. “Yes, I like that. We shall be the happiest couple in the world regardless of the troubles around us.”

They heard footsteps on the stairs and glanced up to see Georgiana descending them. Her eyes were red and swollen. “Are you well?” Elizabeth asked.

“Oh, yes,” Georgiana dabbed at her eyes. “Excuse my appearance. I was speaking with Lydia about my own transgressions.”

“You did not need to,” Elizabeth said as Georgiana reached her side. “I would not have you distress yourself for her sake.” Elizabeth squeezed her future sister around the shoulders.

“I was happy to share if it spared her some of the months of misery I felt. I spoke with Jane too,” Georgiana bowed her head. “Brother, Mr. Bingley is not as gentlemanly as you believed.”

“Indeed?” What had been said? He exchanged a look with Elizabeth, but the servant announced that a hack had arrived. “We will discuss it later.”

As Georgiana turned to have her coat put on, Darcy gave Elizabeth a swift kiss. “Soon, I will collect more,” he promised.

Upon returning to his home, Georgiana went directly to bed. However, Darcy stayed in his library penning letters to inquire about Mrs. Younge as well as reading letters from Richard and Lady Catherine in differing states of agitation. The former had, at last, secured a transfer for Wickham — which might soon need to be rescinded — the latter refused to believe the letter that had been sent her, even if it was in her deceased sister’s hand. She vowed to speak with Lady Darcy directly and put an end to the foolishness. Finally, a short letter from Anne was discovered. Although disliking London, she feared for her mother and had determined to come as well. As luck would have it, they would be in town the night of his dinner party, and so Darcy left instructions with the housekeeper to include three more guests.

 

******

 

Elizabeth sat with Jane in the drawing room of the Gardiner house awaiting the arrival of the Duke of Dorset. After Georgiana and Darcy had left the night before, the three sisters had a very frank discussion regarding men and their sometimes foul intentions. Elizabeth was hesitant to say that Bingley fit into that category, however tempting it was. Knowing Darcy better had taught her the complexity of some characters, even if she had thought she understood Bingley’s after a few weeks’ acquaintance. The fact remained that while Jane had felt intense love for him after their brief friendship, he had long since ceased to behave like a suitor or gentleman worthy of the name. A part of Jane might forever love Bingley, as the first man to touch her heart, but she would not pin her hopes and happiness for her future on such a fickle character. Whatever his reasons for his behaviour towards both Jane and Georgiana were, and Elizabeth had little doubt they must seem good ones to him, they were not Jane’s concern. Elizabeth applauded her sister’s new mind-set.

“Tell me more about Mr. Darcy’s bluestockings,” Jane said as they waited.

“A few of them are the descendants of members of the original club.” She paused remembering the pinched expression of Lady Charlotte Leveson-Gower the day before. “Others his aunt had suggested he invite to join.” She smiled to herself. “I understand he had some difficulty selecting ladies on his own, too many were interested in only marriage.”

“He selected you,” Jane said, and Elizabeth nodded in acceptance, attempting to keep her grin in check. “And what is required of members?”

“The primary purpose is to be patrons of the arts and sciences with preference given to women. All the new members have a skill of their own. The hope is to give greater respectability to intelligent and skilled women.”

“I see,” Jane said. “Is anyone connected to Dorset, a member?”

“I believe the latest addition was Dorset’s aunt by marriage, Julia Jenkinson. Her father was the astronomer Sir George Shuckburgh-Evelyn.”

“Do you think…” Jane trailed off and twisted her hands. “Do you think I might join? I would enjoy the stimulating conversation from educated ladies.”

Elizabeth smiled. “I will discuss it with Darcy. His aunt is too ill to make decisions, and I do not quite understand if it is his club or belongs to the ladies, in which case, I am uncertain who would preside over it.”

“Of course, you, silly,” Lydia said from the desk where she scribbled what she had declared would be an instant masterpiece.

“Me?” Elizabeth cried in shock. “I cannot think why.”

“Why not?” Jane asked. “You will be wife to the baron who began the club.”

“Yes, but I would hardly be the eldest or most experienced. I do not know artistic people to invite, nor how to host a salon. Nor would I be the highest ranking or richest. I sketch architecture for my own enjoyment. It is not as though I am hired to design them for others. It is not the same as the other ladies who write and publish, or sing and perform.”

“All the more reason for you to be the leader,” Jane said.

Elizabeth chewed her bottom lip. Darcy had never mentioned that she was expected to lead the club in addition to tasks regarding becoming mistress to his estates and houses. She did not even know if the Baroness had an estate of her own. Before she voiced her concerns, the Duke was announced.

“Good day, ladies,” he greeted them and elegantly bowed. They returned the civility.

“Outstanding performance last night,” the Duke said. “I am excessively fond of the theatre. What luck it was to run into Darcy there. I wonder that I have not seen you there before, Miss Bennet. I most certainly would not forget your beautiful face,” he raised her hand to his lips, causing her to blush.

From her station, Lydia giggled, and Elizabeth rolled her eyes.

“I am not often in London, nor am I often at the theatre,” Jane said with an honesty that shocked Elizabeth.

“But do you enjoy going?”

“I do,” Jane admitted, and the Duke smiled. “I find enjoyment in anything that allows me to gather with friends and family. I have missed my sisters dreadfully.”

“I have two, myself,” he admitted. “Although, I cannot say that I miss them very much.”

Jane laughed. “That is perhaps because you are a gentleman.”

“Thank you ever so much for noticing,” he grinned.

Elizabeth felt her lips tug despite herself.

“What I meant,” Jane said with amusement in her voice, “was that men have more freedom to carry about their lives than ladies do. You may order your horse and go wherever you like.”

“Wherever we like?” the Duke cried. “Perhaps some have such freedom, yes.”

“Forgive me,” Jane murmured. “I should not make such generalisations without knowing your circumstances. It has always seemed that way to me with the gentlemen I have known.” She fiddled with her tea. “Nor are they likely to remember the ones they leave behind.”

“I am sorry you think so,” Dorset said. “I cannot speak for all gentlemen but, for my own experience, I cannot miss my sisters when we are apart because we are hardly ever together. We were separated even in the nursery. I had different tutors than my sisters’ governess. Next came school for us all. My eldest sister has married, and she is as much a stranger to me as any other lady. Beth, my younger sister, is now restless and eager to wed.”

“Does your elder sister live near you?” Jane asked. “It is not too late to begin a closer kinship.”

“Her husband’s estate is in Worcestershire. However, they spend much of their time in London. Until recently, I spent much of my time at Oxford.”

“I did not take you for a scholar,” Elizabeth said.

“Because of my prowess on the cricket field?” he laughed. “A family passion passed from generation to generation. However, it has been the study of my life to avoid the failings of the generations before me. I found education to be the best way to reform my natural impulses.”

“Is there a particular field of study that interested you?” Jane asked.

“It is misleading to consider that University would be my first choice.” He sighed. “If I were not a Duke and destined for a different role, I would be a naturalist, botanist, horticulturist, and explorer. In short, I am enamoured with new discoveries of the natural world. I have great plans for improving the gardens at Knole, Miss Elizabeth,” he said.

Their conversation continued for several minutes, and Elizabeth was surprised to hear Jane’s insights regarding which plants she liked best and some recent articles regarding new breeds. Elizabeth had never known Jane had such a serious interest in the natural world. As much as Elizabeth enjoyed walking outdoors, to her, the enjoyment would be ruined if she were bent over a book learning the scientific names for each species of flora. The more they talked, the more Elizabeth saw proof of the Duke’s true nature. He was not as amiable as Bingley or as charming as Wickham but instead spoke with an unflinching honesty that she suspected came from inheriting a dukedom in his youth.

Soon, his visit was over, and the ladies retired to separate activities. Elizabeth sat near the drawing room window which overlooked the street. She knew not whether to wish Darcy to arrive early or be late in coming. She only wished when he did arrive, he had news regarding Wickham. To her relief, a note came before him. He begged pardon for an expected late arrival to dinner, but he had been held in meetings all day and would convey more information when he arrived.

Elizabeth dressed for dinner faster than usual, and although she had been assured Darcy would not be early, she vexed herself all the more by wishing him speed. After a hundred frustrated sighs and disappointed glances at the slow-moving clock, at last, he arrived. The meal required polite conversation with servants hovering about. When the ladies separated afterwards, the men removed to Mr. Gardiner’s library and Elizabeth was invited as well, to her great pleasure.

Darcy began with the easiest piece of business. He provided her wedding settlement for Mr. Gardiner and her father to look over. Elizabeth was given a copy as well. Although it was not legal for her to sign, he had wanted her to know the particulars. She could hardly guess who was more astounded at the sum he laid aside for her pin money. While her uncle and father were impressed with the jointure he provided if he should pre-decease her, the thought brought tears to her eyes. Elizabeth was conscious, too, of her father watching her reaction to the proceedings.

“While I had my solicitor moving funds for the wedding, I also opened an account for Miss Kitty and Miss Lydia. I hope you will forgive the presumption,” Darcy said to Mr. Bennet. “I had thought this would allow us the freedom to use it at our discretion for whatever is decided.”

“And are you any closer to finding Wickham?” her father asked.

“I visited Mrs. Younge’s boarding house today and now have the address of Wickham’s location. It seems when he first arrived in Town he had approached her for lodging, but she had no openings and directed him to another place. We may visit tomorrow. The only question is deciding who should go.”

“I am her father,” Mr. Bennet said in a steely voice.

“I do not argue with that, sir,” Darcy said. “However, we must consider our approach. Should you wish to convince her to leave Wickham, that is one matter. If you think she will not and we hope to convince him to agree to our terms of marriage, we must not appear desperate.”

“You think it would be better if her father not go?” Mr. Gardiner asked in wonder.

“He can wait in the carriage. I would suggest Mrs. Gardiner or Elizabeth come and be sure she has been treated well. At the very least, we do wish her to return here, correct?”

“Yes,” they all agreed.

“Sir, you know your daughter better than I. Would she be susceptible to quitting Wickham if she saw how it hurt her family? Will she fear your wrath? Would she stubbornly ignore all anyone has to say?”

Elizabeth could not determine which he thought Kitty likely to do. Her father looked at her, indecision warring in his eyes. “While it is impossible to know what Kitty may be thinking,” she began, “I do not believe my sister would agree to an elopement without the intent of marriage. Additionally, she will delight in triumphing over Lydia. Attempt to convince her to quit the whole thing if you can, but I would not be surprised if she remained resolved.”

“And Wickham already knows he has ruined Lydia,” Darcy added. “However, he does not know that we are aware. If he believes he has the trump card, then he will be very demanding.”

“Have you heard from his creditors, then?” Gardiner asked.

“I have,” Darcy nodded. “Added to his debts from Lambton, he owes ten thousand pounds. He will ask for an estate, to live like a gentleman.”

“Will you give it to them?” Bennet asked.

Darcy shook his head. “Your daughter will always be welcome at Pemberley, and I will assist her however I can so all her needs are met, but Wickham would only find a way to destroy an estate and ruin the lives of innocent tenants, in addition to all the others he has ruined. I will not have that on my head.”

“So, you will find him a profession then?” Gardiner asked. “I believe you said your cousin could get him a commission.”

“How will his probable death ensure my daughter’s happiness?”

“Papa,” Elizabeth admonished. “Mr. Darcy is far more than generous.”

“Forgive me,” Bennet said and rubbed his temples. “The stress of all this…”

“It is no matter. I would suggest he enter as an ensign. He must prove himself capable of managing men. He would never suit the church or the law. It is the only path left to him.”

“I wish to go tomorrow,” Elizabeth said.

“Are you certain, Lizzy?” Mr. Gardiner asked. “This address is not in a respectable district.”

“She is my sister and he…was my friend. It is far more my concern than my aunt’s.”

“She will be safe?” Gardiner asked Darcy as her father wiped his spectacles. It was as though the urgency of the conversation had no effect on him at all. As always, he only seemed partially aware of the conversation around him.

“I would never risk harming her,” Darcy said.

Elizabeth knew he meant it with all his heart. “Will seeing you together confirm his suspicions and ensure he asks for a heftier bribe?”

“I would rather pay more to ensure Elizabeth’s peace of mind,” Darcy said.

“No, I do not wish to weaken your stance or cost you more money,” she said. “I will stay.”

“Are you certain?” Darcy searched her eyes.

“I would not rob our children of money to satisfy my curiosity. I will depend on a full report from you, sir.”

“Then it sounds as though we are finished here,” Bennet said. “Until tomorrow, Darcy.” He nodded at the man who would be his son and withdrew a book to read.

Elizabeth repressed the urge to scream. She knew her father cared. There was no mistaking the fear and apprehension he felt when he had first arrived at Gracechurch Street. However, when given the choice of allowing others to settle matters with as little inconvenience to himself as possible, he took it. Elizabeth walked Darcy to the door as the servant called for Georgiana.

“Do not sit at the house and wait all day,” Darcy said. “Is there some shopping you need to do before our wedding?”

“There is always shopping to be done,” she said in mock seriousness. The truth, however, was that she had little time to plan the wedding or the things she would need as a new bride; the things a woman bought with their mother in tow. In her case, she would have far more enjoyed her aunt, but even that would not do.

“I will send Georgiana ‘round. Have the bills sent to me.”

“In that case, I can really shop,” Elizabeth teased.

“Ah, and now we see why you were eager to save me money on Wickham! Beware, madam, I am miserly. You will not get one shilling more than your allotted pin money.” He winked, to ensure she knew he was teasing.

“As if I could spend it all!”

“In seriousness, do not count new garments and the like as your pin money. That will come from the household accounts.” He took a deep breath. “You will see when you meet the Earl and Countess tomorrow. Certain things about your life will change dramatically. Are you ready for that?”

As if she had the time! If they did not marry now, they would have to wait six months for mourning Lady Darcy, and Wickham might refuse to marry Kitty in the meantime. Instead of voicing her sharp observation, she reached on tiptoe and kissed her beloved’s cheek.

“So long as your love for me does not change, I can bear all things.”

Darcy returned the kiss but was cut short of demonstrating his affection further when they heard Georgiana’s steps on the stairs. From the blush on the girl’s face, she had seen their embrace.

“Until tomorrow evening, Elizabeth,” Darcy said and raised her hand to his lips.

 

 

Dear C—

I have told myself to only write of the children and mutually enjoyed topics. I could tell you that Lucy has a suitor but I insist she wait until at least one and twenty to marry. I might also mention Angelika’s newest portrait called “The Allegory of Poetry and Music.” Normally, I would be ecstatic to relay news that Empress Catherine of Russia has named Princess Yekaterina Vorontsova-Dashkova as the Director of the Imperial Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is the first woman to head a scientific academy!

Instead, I must ask if everything between you and George is settled at last. You have been so very sly! Pray, write back immediately and tell me how this came to be after you refused to have him for so many years. I never doubted his devotion to you. I am sure you, like me, wish you could become a true family but soon you will have your heir and spares. I cannot congratulate you enough and wish you every happiness!

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Twenty-Five

 

As Elizabeth shopped with Jane, Lydia, and Georgiana, she tried to not worry about Kitty and what circumstances she might be found in. After Darcy had left the night before, she and Mrs. Gardiner had made a list of items they had not already sent for, which she would need immediately upon her marriage. Many of the garments she would require in her new station in life could wait until she had time for an appointment with the premier modiste in London.

As she and the others rounded a corner at a milliner’s on Bond Street, they met Miss Bingley and Lady Charlotte.

“Miss Bingley!” Georgiana greeted. “Lady Charlotte, how nice to see you.”

The ladies had immediately turned when they saw Elizabeth, but upon Georgiana calling after them they stiffened and turned back to speak with them. They returned the barest civility. Georgiana proceeded to introduce Jane and Lydia to Lady Charlotte.

“Did you say you were all three sisters?” Lady Charlotte asked.

“Oh, there are two more,” Caroline tittered. “You may wonder at them all being out, but so it is in the Bennet family. I suppose, with Eliza marrying Darcy, their mother sent the next two who are most likely to find suitors to be — how had she put it at my brother’s ball? Ah yes, ‘Put in the path of other rich men.’”

Caroline glared at Elizabeth, and Jane sucked in a breath. Lady Charlotte tittered behind her fan. However, while Georgiana stared at her feet, Lydia put her hands on her hips.

“Georgie, what kind friends you have that they warn us how difficult it is to find a suitable husband, even with such connections and wealth. Yes, I will write to Mama directly and tell her she must not hope for such a happy event for her other daughters for many, many years; not if Miss Bingley and Lady Charlotte are the standards.”

Caroline and her friend turned a violent shade of red.

“Oh, Miss Lydia,” said Caroline. “I am confident that your mother will not need such reassurances. After all, speedy marriages must be the norm in your family. Why is it you are marrying so hastily, Eliza?”

“Miss Bingley,” Jane said in a pleading voice, as though Caroline’s conscience would be pricked by their former closeness.

“Miss Bennet!” the happy voice of the Duke of Dorset interrupted whatever Jane was going to say next.

“Your Grace,” the ladies immediately greeted and curtsied.

“I almost called on Gracechurch Street this morning, but my mother wished to go shopping instead. I am pleased I did not risk it lest I be greeted by an empty house.”

“You call on Gracechurch Street?” Lady Charlotte sneered.

“Indeed. I spent a delightful morning there yesterday. I have never been more enchanted than when I met Miss Bennet at the theatre.” He bowed over Jane’s hand. “Although, seeing her sister Elizabeth go head to head with me at cricket in Kent came in a close second. However, Darcy would have torn me from limb to limb had I revealed my regard.”

“You know Eliza?” Caroline’s voice climbed abnormally high.

“She visited my estate at Knole while she was Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s guest over Easter. We were all very impressed with her knowledge of the game as well as the house.”

Caroline laughed. “Your Grace, Eliza was not the guest of Lady Catherine. I hate to contradict you, but I believe you were misinformed,” she glared at Elizabeth. “Eliza is a cousin to Lady Catherine’s parson, and that is all. How kind of you to welcome such imposters into your home.”

The Duke shrugged his shoulders. “She and her relations were invited to Knole as the guests of Lady Catherine. At any rate, she will soon have a very close kinship to her Ladyship, will she not? On her next visit, she will certainly be at Rosings.”

“Dorset, what is this?” The elegant voice of the duke’s mother interrupted their circle. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet I know. Will you introduce me to your friends?”

“A pleasure, Your Grace,” she said before performing the civilities.

“How splendid to meet two of your sisters,” she said. “My mother had four sisters as well. I believe they were described by others as an “endless horde of daughters.”

Elizabeth laughed. “I am sure my father would agree, ma’am!”

“Miss Bennet,” the Duchess directed her attention to Jane. “I find it is you who has captivated my son.”

Jane blushed prettily.

“Is your aunt or mother not with you?”

“You will find, Your Grace,” Caroline cut in, “that the Bennet ladies run positively wild.”

“Come, Miss Darcy. You and the Misses Bennet must walk with us. We are on our way to ices at Gunter’s, and I simply must have your conversation.”

Caroline and Lady Charlotte looked on eagerly, the former going so far as to clear her throat lest the Duchess forget to invite her. When nothing further was said by the woman, Caroline curtsied. “We regret we cannot join you. We must continue our shopping. Good day to you, Madam. Pray, send our greetings to your mother, the Countess.”

Others had gathered around to see who the Dowager Duchess of Dorset was speaking with. She refused to reply to Caroline and turned on her heel. Murmurs rippled through the crowd as Elizabeth and the others shuffled behind the Duchess with Jane on the Duke’s arm. Caroline and her friend were left stuttering in angry chagrin.

As they ventured further away from the crowd, the Duchess glanced backwards at her son. “Dorset, call the carriage round and tell Smith to hire a hack for our packages. We shall be snug, but we will fit. Ladies, did you bring your own coach? No, I had supposed not.”

The Duke left to do his mother’s bidding, and in a moment, they were boarded in the large box. Elizabeth could hardly fathom driving in such a large vehicle just for shopping in town. Her Grace must have planned on a great many purchases indeed.

“Forgive me,” she said in a more relaxed tone. “I had thought we better converse in private.” She rapped on the ceiling with her parasol, and they lurched forward. “I had heard those ladies speaking of you earlier, and indeed, the whole of London is ripe with gossip regarding Darcy’s bride.”

Elizabeth paled, but the Duchess held up her hands before she could speak. “I have said to all I know that they are words of a bitter and disappointed, gold-digging spinster. That I had personally known Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourn, the very same lady betrothed to Fitzwilliam Darcy. I have sworn that I saw their mutual attachment and Miss Elizabeth’s acceptance by Darcy’s family.”

Elizabeth stared at the woman in confusion. In Kent, she had seemed even prouder than Lady Catherine.

“You wonder at my defending you, Miss Elizabeth?” Her Grace asked, and Elizabeth nodded. “Amelia and I are so close in age we grew up like sisters. Our families were friends; we went to the same school. When I married the Duke, she was my closest friend. I am convinced it is one reason why she married Sir Lewis when she had no affection for him.”

Her son chuckled. “In short, Miss Elizabeth, they may bicker like family — for they are — but neither is anyone else allowed to insult them.”

“I was sorry you left Kent before accepting Julia’s invitation to tea at Knole. Now, it is time for a frank conversation, my dears,” she said as they stopped before an enormous home in Mayfair.

Tea was ordered and all seated. Elizabeth was pleased to see Lydia managed to remain respectful and quiet. It was almost eerie from a girl who had always been so lively. Once the servants had been sent away, her Grace began again.

“Is there any truth at all to the rumours? You understand that the Fitzwilliam name has been sullied before.”

Georgiana said looking abashed, “So you know of my mother.”

“It was before I was born, but I recall hearing whispers of her ruin before she married your father,” the Duchess said. “I hope you understand I am not prejudiced against such. It happens more than some may believe and I hate the blaming of the women.”

She paused, and Elizabeth fancied she was considering the rumours about her husband, a womaniser in his youth who had caused the ostracising of a lover whose husband had refused to divorce her. Then, there was the statue of his former mistress in the nude in the main hall of her home.

“Your Grace,” Lydia began, “there is no blame on my sister’s side. She and Darcy marry quickly because his aunt is not expected to live much longer.”

“I am sorry to hear it,” the Duchess said.

Lydia took a deep breath, “And because of me.”

“Lyddie,” Elizabeth interrupted. “You do not have to say anything.” She hardly knew the woman and could not vouch for her ability to keep a secret.

“No, Lizzy.” Lydia shook her head. “If anything will be said against our family let it be about me, not you and certainly not Darcy.”

Lydia then explained her seduction at Wickham’s hands and possible pregnancy followed by Georgiana confessing her own near elopement.

“Oh, my poor dears,” the Duchess said when they had finished. “So, it is true. This Wickham targets ladies close to Darcy.”

The way she said it made Elizabeth believe Lady Catherine had told her about Anne.

“Well, Dorset will see to that.”

Four pairs of feminine eyes looked at the Duke, who they had forgotten about, in question.

“I have recently been made a lieutenant-colonel of the militia for Sevenoaks and Bromley. Wickham can be under my attention directly and will not have the spare time to seduce anymore ladies.”

“Pray, sir, you cannot,” Elizabeth said before explaining about Kitty.

The Duke frowned at the information. “If I can be of service to your family, in any way, please inform me.”

“Perhaps you can assist in purchasing a commission quickly? I understand Colonel Fitzwilliam met with nothing but hardship when he wished to transfer Wickham and may well be out of favours owed.”

At this, Dorset grinned. “Do you forget that my uncle is the Secretary of War? Yes, I believe we may have this cad suited and sworn by the end of the day if we desire.”

“And I can do more for you, Miss Lydia,” the Duchess said. “Stay with me at Knole Park. My eldest daughter is now married, and my younger one lacks a young companion.”

“I…I will consider it,” Lydia said.

“Lizzy, we should be going,” Georgiana said.

“Thank you, your Grace,” Lizzy said and stood.

“Think nothing of it,” the Duchess replied. “We should chat again soon. I believe you may need some help navigating the echelons of Society,” she said to Elizabeth. “And Miss Bennet, I would be pleased if you and your aunt called on me next week. Dorset will see you home.”

The ladies curtsied to the agreeable Dowager Duchess, who responded in kind, before removing to board the Dorset carriage once more. Elizabeth smiled at the thought that good souls were willing to help them. She could only hope Darcy’s family could be counted among them.

 

*****

 

Darcy’s hired hack pulled up to a run-down inn as close to the Seven Dials district as he would dare approach without an armed guard. A gentleman would lose his pocketbook if he were lucky and too often, his life. That Wickham housed a gentleman’s daughter in an inn that looked as though it was a part-time bawdy house sickened Darcy. All for what? Some imagined feud with him?

“Oh God,” Mr. Bennet said as he looked out the window and saw the filthy streets lined with beggars, and prostitutes selling their wares. “This would kill her mother. Be sure you tell her that.”

Mrs. Gardiner nodded in agreement.

“Darcy, I know you do not want their marriage but if she will not give him up you will not be miserly, will you?” Mr. Bennet asked with real concern. “I could never repay you but this…” He waved his hand at the abject poverty around them.

“I will offer them enough for a genteel life with provision to protect any money settled on Kitty.”

Mr. Bennet mumbled his thanks but his eyes glistened as he considered how close to devastation his family now was.

Mrs. Gardiner covered her nose with a handkerchief to mask the stench of their surroundings. Darcy followed her suit as he descended the carriage and handed down his companion. He prayed, likely fruitlessly, that the building might have fresher air. Some coin loosened the man at the desk’s tongue, and he gave up Wickham’s room number. By the time Darcy reached the door, he was too angered to knock politely.

“Wickham, you scoundrel, open up for me!” Darcy yelled hammering on the door.

There was a light crashing of glass followed by a groan and shuffling of feet. Wickham pulled open the door looking dishevelled, hungover from too much drink, and unbathed. He produced a charming smile, nonetheless.

“Darcy, come in.” Seeing Mrs. Gardiner gave him pause. “Kitty, dearest, a visitor for you I believe.”

The girl stood from where she had been scooping up the broken glass and smiled at her aunt. She wore a dressing gown and looked paler and timider than Darcy remembered.

“Are you well?” Darcy nodded his head in her direction. “He has treated you well?”

Kitty remained mute but nodded. Darcy scanned the room, hoping to find signs of food but only saw signs of cheap spirits. The shades were drawn. Undoubtedly, Wickham had wanted to hide from his creditors until he had heard of Darcy’s marriage and would approach him. He wondered if their financial state necessitated such an establishment or if Wickham planned it to increase the urgency to listen to his demands. Mrs. Gardiner murmured with her niece.

“I wonder how you heard of our little adventure, and so quickly, but I believe I can guess,” Wickham said with a grin.

Darcy balled up his fist and punched him square in the nose. Still tipsy from his drink, Wickham fell to the ground, collapsing bonelessly. Kitty shrieked.

“Good God, Darcy!” Wickham cried. “You broke my nose!” he said, or so Darcy guessed from the muffled syllables.

Darcy adjusted his coat sleeves as Wickham cleaned himself. “You have ten minutes before I leave and any chance of money does as well,” he said as Wickham seemed to move slower than necessary. As suspected, the threat quickened his movements.

“I am surprised you had that in you,” Wickham said. “I suppose you really do love her then?” He laughed.

Darcy growled in frustration and approached Mrs. Gardiner and Kitty. “Miss Kitty, are you well?”

She nodded, and he looked at her aunt for confirmation.

“I come as an emissary for your father.”

“He is here?”

“He waits for you in the carriage. You must know how this has grieved your family.”

“I know,” she burst into tears. “I wish there were another way, but Wicky said we had no other options. You did not have to beat him! Will the others?”

“Others?”

Kitty looked nervously at the door. “He says there are men after him who want to cheat him out of money. He promised me a wedding as soon as he could arrange everything.” She stared at her feet. “He said you would help.”

“Did he?” Darcy paused a minute. It had not been discussed what he should say to Kitty. Some would say it would be kinder for her to believe Wickham loved her, but he thought she should hear the truth. “I am here to help you come to your senses. He had absolutely no intention of marrying you unless I pay for it and his entire existence.”

“Is that not the least you owe him?” She asked with her bottom lip trembling.

“Kitty,” Mrs. Gardiner said, “Mr. Wickham is a terrible liar who has imposed on all of us. Darcy is blameless in matters between them.”

“No, I do not believe it,” she shook her head. “He would not lie to me, he loves me!”

“Do you know,” Darcy said coldly, “that is precisely what your sister Lydia claimed but three days ago?”

“No, he never loved Lydia,” and Darcy saw evidence that the girl before him was just as caught between adulthood and childhood as Georgiana and Lydia.

“I would agree,” Darcy said. “The trouble is that he made her think it was so, just as he did with you. As he has with many others, and then abandoned them.”

“What are you saying to her?” Wickham said from the settee where he poured more wine. “Kitty, where are the cigars?” He demanded sharply, causing her to jump.

“You can leave with us and never see him again, or live a life of squalid poverty at his beck and call until he tires of you. Is this what you desire for life?”

Tears welled in her eyes. “He is anxious due to our problems, and we have no servants. If we had money, he would treat me better.”

“Kitty!” Mrs. Gardiner hissed sharply. “Think of your mother. She would die seeing you in this place. You are a gentleman’s daughter; you deserve much more than this.”

“And what? Marry without love?” Kitty shook her head. “Did Mama ever ask if Jane loved Bingley? If Lizzy loved Collins? She certainly can’t love you,” she motioned at Darcy.

“The cigars!” Wickham yelled, and Kitty dashed away to find them.

She picked up laundry and papers strewn about the cramped apartment, searching, finally finding the case on the floor. She meekly brought them to her lover. Darcy shook his head. It was hopeless.

“It is pointless,” Wickham said as he pulled her onto his lap and she yelped before he gave her a passionate kiss. “You cannot tear us apart. We are devoted to one another.”

Darcy looked at Mrs. Gardiner, who exhaled and nodded.

“Kitty,” she said, “let us gather your things. You will come back to the house while we plan your wedding.”

Kitty looked as though she was going to argue against the separation, but she clearly did not have the stomach to stay any longer in such conditions. She showed Mrs. Gardiner into the other room, which housed the bed. A minute or two later, she was dressed simply and clutching a bag as she followed her aunt downstairs.

“Congratulate me, Darcy. I daresay I got the most biddable of the lovely Bennet sisters.” He sipped his wine. “Ah! We are to be brothers after all!”

“Wickham,” Darcy growled. “I have your debts.”

Finally, Wickham sobered, and fear filled his eyes. “Would you put me in debtor’s prison?”

“I am willing to assist the marriage, should her father agree, since the girl is too stupid for her own good.”

“We will need something to live on. Wouldn’t want Mrs. Darcy’s sister to starve.” He ran his finger around the rim of his glass affecting a casual tone. “Do you still have the estate in Cheshire?”

“An ensign in the Regulars,” Darcy replied.

“The army?” The fear redoubled. “Allow me to stay in the militia then. A captain’s post and a few hundred pounds a year from Kitty.”

“One hundred pounds a year.”

Wickham stared at Darcy for some time before grinning and sitting back on the settee, looping his hands behind his head. “You cannot refuse me,” he laughed.

“Oh? Why is that?”

“If I do not marry Kitty, the Bennet reputation is ruined.”

“I think not,” Darcy said. “She left from her home.”

“Mayhap I will find another sister. I was Eliza’s favourite.”

Darcy resisted the bait. Any conversation regarding his relationship with Elizabeth would only serve Wickham’s purposes. He pulled out his watch. “Not if you are in Marshalsea, or transported for desertion. You have two minutes left.”

“I wonder what the world would say of a lady with two ruined sisters.”

Darcy remained mute, watching seconds tick away.

“Do you hear me? I have already seduced Lydia. I assume her going to London was your doing. Kitty was even easier to convince to elope than Lydia had been. It was no difference to me.”

After another thirty seconds of silence from Darcy, Wickham attempted again. “Eliza, now, she was well worth the risk. But I do not mind that you will have her more than me. I had her first.”

Darcy commanded his muscles to not tense. He knew it was a lie intended to enrage him.

“I like having things before you, Darcy. Did your cousin ever tell you her deep, dark secret?”

“Thirty seconds,” Darcy said.

“Five hundred pounds,” Wickham countered.

“Two hundred.”

“Three hundred,” Wickham’s voice sounded nearly panicked.

“Two hundred fifty and you have five seconds left.”

Wickham said nothing at first as precious time slipped away. At the top of the minute, Darcy closed his watch and returned it to his pocket. Turning on his heel, he had almost reached the door when Wickham called out.

“Yes! Yes! We have a deal.”

Darcy repressed a shudder at the way he talked about the matter as though marriage, the love and protection of a woman, were nothing more than a business transaction. Darcy stalked back to Wickham and held out his hand, gripping it tight enough to make the man blanch when they shook. Pulling out the contract in his pocket, he went over the terms. Wickham would remove to a lodging paid for by Darcy. After his residency was established, he and Kitty would marry. Wickham was expected to court Kitty daily at Gracechurch Street. He was no longer permitted to gamble or drink to excess. Darcy would have informants watching. Kitty’s income was her own and Wickham could not touch it without her permission. If she wished to separate at any time, she could, and Wickham would bring no suit.

“What is this?” Wickham asked angrily at the final point.

“Reparations,” Darcy said.

“Reparations? For whom?”

“One week’s volunteering at the Lock Hospital and Foundling Hospital before you marry to remind you of the ladies you have used so callously.”

“I have not spread venereal disease or got anyone with child!” He cried, but the tone gave away the fact that he was not entirely certain.

“You never worried about the fate of the women you took for your pleasure, and ran before the consequences could become apparent.”

“Darcy, please.”

“There is always debtor’s prison,” he reminded. “Or there’s deserting your unit…” Darcy said.

Wickham gulped and signed his name.

“My man of affairs is arranging rooms for you. He will settle your bill here and convey you there.” Darcy picked up the signed contract. “You are excused from calling tomorrow, by the way.”

“Why is that?” Wickham asked as he kicked something across the room.

Darcy made no reply but merely left with a smile on his face.

 

 

To my dearest niece on her wedding day,

We have always been friends and as close as an aunt and niece could be. Knowing that today, after such a history, you will marry, at last, to an upstanding gentleman who is entirely deserving of you, provides me with more joy than I can contain. May your marriage be as happy as mine and five times longer! I will miss being second in your affections (as I know A always came before me) but I will bear it since I know you truly love him.

We became friends when I married your uncle, and you were already eight or nine years old, and so we are still friends even as the earldom has passed to your father and then your brother. A married lady may expect many changes, but we will always remain friends.

Your aunt, always,

A.F.

 

Chapter Twenty-Six

 

Darcy returned the Gardiners and Bennets to Gracechurch Street before continuing to his house. His aunt — as he still thought of Lady Catherine — enjoyed arriving early and commanding all his attention. He had sent a letter to the Baroness’ house so they would not permit her ladyship’s entry. The last thing Lady Darcy needed was an irate Catherine de Bourgh. As he locked Wickham’s contracts away and heard a ruckus at the front door, he had assumed it was her arrival. Instead, an angry Charles Bingley was shown into his library.

“Bingley, how are you?” He asked his old friend. Only so much had changed since they last met.

“Ruined, thanks to you!”

“I do not take your meaning.”

“And that is not even pointing out that what in the hell are you doing marrying Elizabeth Bennet after telling me I should not wed Jane?”

Darcy held up his hands. “I apologise for that. I have been trying to contact you.” He may have misjudged Jane all those months ago, but neither was he to blame for Bingley’s actions since. “Do you want to explain why you are trying to court my sister?”

Bingley poured himself a glass of scotch. “Come off it! Like you have not been grooming me to wed her for years.”

“I will not deny that I used to believe you would be the ideal match for her. However, she is too young, and I have it on good authority that mere weeks ago you first gave Jane Bennet the cut direct and then proposed to her. I would not wish my sister to be courted by a man who cannot decide what he wants.”

“Why don’t you tell me what I want then,” Bingley sneered. “You are always so good at that. Besides, I had little time with your cousin sniffing around her.”

“Refrain from talking about my sister as though she were a dog,” Darcy growled.

“I apologise. That was uncalled for.” Bingley rubbed his temples. “I have never seen Caroline in such a rage.”

“Yes, you claimed I had ruined you.”

“She ran into your Miss Bennet and Miss Darcy speaking with the Dowager Duchess of Dorset. I dare not trust her version of facts, but the result was Her Grace cut Caroline in front of a crowd.”

Darcy raised his brows. He had underestimated the Duchess.

“She has been irate since her visit here when she learned of your engagement.”

“We have discussed this,” Darcy said. “I never considered her.”

“But did she not fit your new requirements? I have seen you dance and talk with her. Do not tell me you feel nothing.”

Darcy stared at the man he had thought was his best friend. How had he missed this failing in Bingley’s character? “When did you begin to think that, Bingley? You did not believe that in Hertfordshire or when we first arrived in London. Was it after learning I was to inherit a barony?”

Bingley flushed and rubbed the back of his neck. “What kind of brother would I be? You are the best man I know. Should I not wish for that for my sister?”

“Ah, and a title and wealth were just too much to resist?”

“All I did was inform her you were looking for a bluestocking. I did not tell her what to say or make you ask her to dance.”

“Neither of which gives rise to an expectation of marriage!” Bingley stared at him unapologetically. “What happened with Jane Bennet?”

Bingley shrugged his shoulders. “I panicked in the shop. I had no idea she was in London. By the time I had squeezed the information out of Caroline where she was, it seems Jane had made up her mind about me. She turned me on my heel without letting me explain a thing.”

“Did you propose to her without so much as speaking to her in months?”

Bingley slumped in his seat. “I thought it was the best way to demonstrate my love.”

“Charles,” Darcy said firmly, and the man gave him a sheepish look. “You did that to ease your guilt. You did not consider her feelings at all. That was not love.”

“Was not love?” Bingley parroted without comprehension as though Darcy had just spoken Turkish. “And you suddenly know so much about it?”

“I am learning,” Darcy could not help the small smile from forming. “Elizabeth is teaching me.”

“Have her talk to Jane for me,” Bingley pleaded. “Caroline told me that Dorset was paying court.”

“A moment ago, you were upset because Richard might have been courting Georgiana!”

“Well…” Bingley rubbed the back of his neck again. “Miss Darcy is a lovely, talented lady. She would make a very appropriate wife. If I cannot have my first choice.”

“Do you think this helps your case? What brother would I be if I gave my blessing to a man who did not desperately love her? Either my sister by blood or marriage?”

“If Elizabeth had refused you then you would have gone to the most convenient thing, your cousin.”

“No, I never would have married Anne. I courted Elizabeth. I worked hard to earn her trust and esteem. I will never take that for granted or think it is due me simply for having the sense to pay attention to her.”

Bingley seemed sufficiently cowed into silence, and the clock struck the half hour. “I have guests arriving shortly. I will call on you soon,” Darcy said as he escorted Bingley to the door, knowing all the while that their friendship had forever altered and likely had been given an irreversible blow.

Darcy retired to his chambers to dress for dinner then waited in his study for the arrival of his guests. The Earl and Countess had been civil but surprised at his letter relaying his invitation and the news of his betrothal. He restlessly paced the library, hoping Lady Catherine would arrive before the others and hopefully get most of her anger over. As if conjured by thought, a loud knock sounded at the front door.

“Darcy!” she screeched then shouted directions at his servants on how to care for Anne and the requirements for their rooms.

Darcy was halfway down the hall, but she boomed again. “Darcy! Explain this!” She held up his letter and waved it in his face.

“Madam,” he said uncertain how to address her. “Let us speak in the library.” He ushered her down the hall.

As soon as the door shut, she began again and shook a now crumpled piece of paper in her fist. “What cruel joke do you play?”

“I play no joke,” he said softly, hoping if he lowered his voice she might match it. “I am as shocked as you.”

“It is impossible!” She exclaimed. “She would have been—”

“Fifteen. The same age as Anne. The same age as Georgiana. And the same age as Elizabeth Bennet’s sister.”

“Georgiana? What — what do you mean? What happened with Georgiana?”

“Last summer she nearly eloped with George Wickham,” Lady Catherine sneered at the name. “I see you recall who he is. I foiled the plan by chance. I arrived to pay her a surprise visit a day before their intended departure. She could not grieve me and soon related the whole.”

“And Miss Bennet’s sister?”

Darcy sighed and related the tale. “So, you see, fifteen is quite the age to consider yourself in love and ready to make such a decision.”

“But did he ruin Georgiana?”

“No, she was saved that. Thank, God.”

Lady Catherine sighed in relief.

Darcy sighed as well, then added, “He did significant emotional damage, though, and she is only now recovering.”

“Yes…that man can harm a woman’s soul,” she said darkly, and no doubt recalled Anne’s depression. “So, is it really true?”

“It makes a certain amount of sense,” Darcy said. “Mother married late even for a bluestocking. You and I look very similar, more than most aunts and nephews.” Darcy shrugged. “Besides this, you know her hand. Lady Darcy would not copy it and does not benefit from hiring a forgery. Consider the interest my mother took in you when most siblings separated by years and distance are not as close.”

Tears pricked Lady Catherine’s eyes and then smiled. “She charged me so strongly to look after you and Georgiana. I had often felt as though I failed her, but I had wondered why she had said it was my right by birth.” She dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. “All this time, you were my brother.”

Darcy smiled a little in return. “You arrive shortly before the Earl, Countess, Elizabeth, and her family.”

“So, what am I to do?” Lady Catherine asked.

“It is your news to share if you like,” he said. “Elizabeth was with us when the Baroness explained matters, but the others do not know. Would you rather be known as my aunt or my sister?” He quirked a smile at her, wondering if she would give up her superior title as the daughter of an earl.

Lady Catherine smoothed out the battered paper. “My letter did not divulge who her seducer was.”

Darcy found it telling that she did not call the man her father.

“Do you know?”

“You actually knew him,” Darcy said gently. “Nathaniel Dance, the artist.”

“Harriet Bisshop’s husband?” Lady Catherine gaped at him. “The Dowager Countess of Liverpool’s brother-in-law? All those years at Knole…”

“I know,” Darcy nodded. “I wonder if the Baroness would have taken the information to her grave if he were still alive.”

Shockingly, Lady Catherine erupted in laughter. “Egads,” she said between gasps. “I’m the bastard daughter of a painter. What irony!”

“Indeed,” Darcy grinned. “How fortunate you are. You might have been in Mrs. Jenkinson’s position.”

Lady Catherine sobered at the thought and asked to refresh in her usual chambers. Darcy agreed and resumed his post waiting for his other guests, who arrived promptly. Elizabeth whispered that she wished to speak with him privately before the meal. Finding a quiet corner of the drawing room, she relayed the encounter with the Duchess of Dorset. Darcy’s anger simmered at Caroline Bingley and by extension to her brother but he was impressed with the fortitude the Duke and Duchess had shown.

“Do you think she will consider going?” Darcy asked Elizabeth about the Duchess’ offer for Lydia.

“I do not know,” she said. “She has had a vicious row with Kitty, who will not believe Lydia’s words at all. I never knew she could be so stubborn — No, do not give me that look.”

“I only think it is good to be forewarned that stubbornness affects all Bennets,” Darcy said.

Elizabeth sighed. “I will punish you for your thoughts later. For now, do you think it is too near my cousin Collins?”

“I think it unlikely that he would ever be invited there again and certainly avoidable for several months. Lady Catherine and Anne would be close enough to provide her with additional company, and we may visit with impunity as well.”

“I confess, I would like that. I am only beginning to value my sisters again.”

Dinner was announced, and further discussion was delayed. As the Earl and Countess quizzed Elizabeth and her family, Darcy watched as Lady Catherine’s frown deepened. He had been surprised earlier when she did not scold him for his attachment to Elizabeth. Judging by the looks of disdain on his aunt and uncle’s faces, gossip about Darcy and Elizabeth had evidently reached the Fitzwilliam household.

“I believe I have an announcement which concerns us all,” Lady Catherine said, and the table paused their conversation to listen to her pronouncement. Using years of experience, she spoke with frankness. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet, I apologise for deriding your ancestry. It turns out that you are of better blood than I.”

“How’s that?” the Earl asked from his end of the table.

“Before I begin, I would ask that each person consider their actions and sense at fifteen. Were you the picture of morality or intelligence?” She waited for everyone to accept her words and glared at the Earl until he complied. Even with such preparation, her revelation was met with shock and denial from the Earl and Countess.

Rather than offending his other guests, the Bennets and Gardiners seemed amused by the scene. Darcy inwardly laughed at himself. Pride went before the fall. Mere weeks ago, he had presumed his family came from better breeding than the Bennets and behaved better as well. The shouts from the Earl and his leaving the dinner early proved that incorrect.

“Well,” Georgiana said after he and his wife and left. “Now that the children have left, ladies shall we adjourn to the drawing room?”

The tension diffused and the ladies followed her lead.

“What do you know of this Duke of Dorset?” Mr. Bennet asked his soon to be son-in-law.

Darcy frowned. “I do not know him well, although men I thought I knew well are increasingly turning out to be far different than I had expected.”

“Think nothing of that,” Bennet said. “You are still a young man; friends must show their true colours. For what it is worth, I believe Elizabeth experienced the same when her friend married Mr. Collins.”

“Indeed,” Darcy agreed.

“I will count on you when dealing with these other gentlemen,” Bennet said. “And you will make her happy, will you not?”

“It will be my greatest honour every day,” he swore.

The men discussed the arrangements Darcy had with Wickham, including his unrepentant attitude. “I look forward to receiving Dorset’s letter of confirmation tomorrow,” he said. He would consider it his greatest wedding gift.

When they had finished, they joined the ladies in the drawing room. They took turns on the pianoforte while Jane, Mrs. Gardiner, and Anne hovered over a book of floral sketches. When the evening ended, he rejoiced as he raised Elizabeth’s hand to his lips. It would be his last night parted from her side.

 

******

 

Elizabeth rose the morning of her wedding day with a smile on her face. The arrangements had been so rushed she hardly had time for a new dress made, and certainly not the sort of bridal gown of which most ladies dreamed. Mrs. Gardiner had donated her veil worn a dozen years ago, and fresh flowers circled her hair. The weeks away from her family had taught her that while she would always love them, she yearned to stretch her wings and experience a life away from the nest in which she had been raised.

As the parson went through the service in the drawing room of the Gardiner residence, Elizabeth hoped it did not make her ungrateful that she did not miss her mother at this moment. Soon, they would journey to Longbourn, and Elizabeth prayed for patience as she anticipated her mother ferrying her about with fanfare.

In a reversal of expectations, Elizabeth smiled at the arrival of Lady Catherine and Anne, and did not miss the absence of the Earl and Countess. Upon hearing the truth of Lady Catherine’s parentage and her intention of exposing it should rumours spread regarding the Bennets, they had sworn they would break ties with the family. Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders. She could not see how that would be a loss to her.

Elizabeth and Darcy, however, did keenly feel the absence of Lady Darcy. Their feelings sprang not only from gratitude for her information regarding Lady Anne, which might mitigate any rumours attached to their marriage, but also by affection. Elizabeth, especially wished she had known the lady longer. In a happy coincidence, Darcy and Elizabeth had both written to the Baroness, vowing to name their first daughter after her. In typical fashion, the lady replied, in addition to wishing them joy, that she did not care what they named their child but instead suggested a school be ladies be erected in her name. Elizabeth rather hoped they could do both.

Soon, too soon, she was pronounced Mrs. Fitzwilliam Benjamin Conyers Darcy. They enjoyed a brief wedding breakfast in which Kitty pouted that Wickham had not come. Among her other prayers, Elizabeth added that Kitty might come to her senses regarding Wickham. However, for the remainder of the day, Elizabeth vowed to put him and all family scandals from her mind. A little past noon, Darcy and Elizabeth boarded Anne’s phaeton for their London house. Georgiana had removed to Lady Catherine’s house, which she usually did not open as she instead stayed with Darcy or the Earl.

Darcy and Elizabeth, despite their love, were full of nerves, neither knowing how to be a bride or bridegroom. Instead, they teased and talked, making up for lost time of spending too much worry over their sisters. They ordered an early dinner, and before Elizabeth knew it, she had retired to the mistress’ chambers. Her maid had arranged a bath for her and laid out a nightgown which must have been a gift from her aunt, as Elizabeth had been too embarrassed to purchase such things with her sisters in tow. She looked in the mirror and brushed her hair as she waited for Darcy to arrive. She still looked every inch the same Lizzy Bennet who had left Longbourn angry and confused. Now, she was Elizabeth Darcy, blissfully happy and stronger than she had ever known.

“Come in,” she called when she heard Darcy’s knock. She met him halfway across the room.

“You are beautiful,” he breathed as he pulled her into his arms and kissed her.

Feeling her desire rise, Elizabeth pulled away. “I have been thinking of what I can give you to show my love and devotion as you are fond of giving gifts to express yours.” Since the first necklace, Elizabeth had received five other pieces with promises for more.

“You are my gift,” he said and attempted to kiss her again.

“I know,” she said breathlessly and held his eyes as she untied her dressing gown and allowed it to flutter to the ground. Darcy’s sharp intake of breath and instant widening of his pupils told her he enjoyed what he saw.

“I love you,” she said and lifted his hands to her lips. “I can think of no greater gift I can give you than my heart and my trust. Tonight, you will claim my body,” she said as her pulse quickened at the thought.

“But this union is an expression of my love for you. Each touch,” she trailed a finger down his cheek, and he turned his head to kiss her palm. “Each kiss,” she said and pecked his lips before dragging her mouth down his throat, “is a marriage of passion and love; of trust and sense.”

Darcy moaned appreciatively, and Elizabeth smiled against his flesh.

“I love you,” he said and swooped her into his arms then walked her to their bed.

 

*****

 

Three days after the wedding, Darcy called on the Duke of Dorset at his enormous house in Mayfair. Darcy was shown to the Duke’s library, full of artifacts ranging from natural history to vases from antiquity. The Duke also had several shelves devoted to dried plants and various drawings of their dissected parts pinned to the walls. Also on a wall was a map of Europe with pins in it. Given the state of things with Napoleon for nearly the last decade, Darcy assumed they were locations the Duke desired to visit when peace was restored. Darcy had the impression that if the man had not inherited a dukedom, he would have become an explorer or scholar.

“Darcy!” The duke said the minute the door flung open. He bounded over to his sideboard. “A drink?”

“No, thank you,” Darcy declined and then sat when it was offered.

“I did not think to see you so soon after your marriage.” His Grace winked. “I was on my way out to call on Jane, actually. I hope you can make it quick.”

“I believe you mean Miss Bennet,” Darcy narrowed his eyes.

“Feeling territorial, are you?” Dorset laughed. “She has only been your sister for a few days! I suppose you have come to talk to me about my intentions?”

Darcy scowled. “Not today, although soon, I think.”

“Oh? If you are asking about Wickham it is all arranged.”

“I think we understand one another,” Darcy said and scrutinised his companion’s face.

“You want Wickham…shall we say, out of your life?”

“To say the least.”

“He hurt your sister, I understand,” Dorset said, his lip curling like an angry animal.

“Not as much as he has hurt others like Elizabeth’s.”

“Yes…Jane’s pain is palpable.” Dorset stared at his drink for a moment. “My uncle can do many things. If it were me, he would not even survive a journey across the channel.”

Darcy held up his hands. “I do not want him murdered. But the regiment he is in will soon deploy?”

“Within weeks. And what of Miss Kitty?”

“She will be taken care of and perhaps heart-broken. Elizabeth and I have discussed it and if Kitty blames us then we will simply have to bear her anger.”

“You are likely saving her from a life of misery. Although, there is always a chance that he will survive.”

“We will not beg trouble and worry about that until we must.” The clock chimed the quarter hour and Darcy stood, stretching out his hand. “It occurs to me I may seem less than grateful for your assistance in affairs but truly, allow me to thank you.”

Dorset heartily shook Darcy’s hand with a firm grip. “Think nothing of it, brother.”

“Brother!”

“If she accepts me, that is. I intend to ask for Jane’s hand this morning.”

“So soon?” Darcy said before thinking. Seeing the Duke’s reaction, Darcy hastily added an apology. “Forgive me. Best wishes, then. I will see myself out.”

Far from being offended, Dorset smiled at Darcy and walked with him to the door. “Do you know what this means, Darcy?”

“What, Your Grace?”

“You shall have to change cricket teams next year.” Dorset laughed and clapped Darcy on the shoulder.

Darcy shook his head at his soon to be brother-in-law’s levity. While driving Anne’s phaeton back to his house, he considered that, while Wickham had still attached himself to the Bennet family and gained his money, it was not as dreadful as Darcy feared when Elizabeth first approached him. He was not ruining the Bennets. Darcy had seen Elizabeth’s concern for Kitty, and previously for Lydia, but she had no need to despair for her beloved sisters. If Wickham survived the war, they would deal with matters then. In the unlikely event that either Kitty or Lydia’s situation became known, Society would not shun a family married into a barony and a duchy.

Bolstered by such positive thoughts, he did not expect a sobbing Elizabeth to launch herself into his arms the minute he stepped into the house. “Elizabeth, love, what is wrong?”

“The baroness,” Elizabeth managed between sobs. “We just got word…”

Elizabeth did not continue but Darcy’s throat tightened. “She is gone?”

“Yes, I am so sorry.” Elizabeth squeezed him tightly. “I hate that she went alone.”

“She went the way she lived — on her own terms.”

Darcy managed to lead Elizabeth upstairs to their chambers and held her in his arms as she cried herself to sleep. When she awoke some hours later, he rang for a supper tray. Elizabeth withdrew a note from her pocket.

“This came with the letter conveying the news.”

Darcy ripped open the missive and saw his aunt’s script.

My Dearest Nephew Lord Darcy,

You have always lived up to your noble names. Now embrace your Bluestocking heritage. Renew the club with Elizabeth as hostess.

Your aunt always,

  1. D.

 

Continued in Lady Darcy’s Bluestocking Club, coming 2018!

Mr. Darcy’s Bluestocking Bride–Chapters 13-20

MDBB.jpgChapter Thirteen

Elizabeth awoke to a dreary day. Combined with yesterday’s shower, it was impossible to walk out in the morning. She could only hope the sun would emerge later and dry enough to allow her freedom in the afternoon. She spent the morning sitting with Charlotte and Maria, hoping her anxiety did not show. Fortunately, the post arrived bearing a letter from Mrs. Gardiner. Fearful of the letter being read by Jane or one of the children, Elizabeth had written nothing of Wickham. Such indelicate words were not fit for letters to women as they frequently shared their news by reading them in company. As she was not in the habit of writing her uncle, she knew that would needlessly terrify them. She and Darcy had settled it between them that Lydia was safe at Longbourn for the moment. Instead of writing anything of substance regarding Wickham, Elizabeth had only expressed she wished to leave Hunsford early.

Friday, March 27, 1812

Gracechurch Street, London

My dear niece,

I read your latest letter with great concern. If you find the company in Kent distasteful, you are always welcome here. Jane is very melancholy, and I confess to being glad you are returning earlier than expected. The children are sick, however, so I do not think you should come for at least a fortnight.

I am thankful you have the assistance of Mr. Darcy; we must now assume he is everything trustworthy and the opposite of what Mr. Wickham would represent to us. I wonder why he would lie about the gentleman.

Yours, etc.

  1. Gardiner

Elizabeth ought to have found joy in her aunt’s words. Instead, she had a strange feeling of lost potential as her time in Kent was coming to an abbreviated close.

“Is that a letter from Jane?” Charlotte asked when she looked up from her embroidery.

“No, it was from my aunt.”

“I hope all is well with the Gardiners,” Maria said. “They were ever so kind to me when we met them in London.”

Charlotte smiled kindly at her younger sister, and Elizabeth wondered what it must have been like to be reared in the Lucas household. Sir William was nearly as ridiculous as her mother, but with a knighthood bestowed by the King, one could hardly put them in the same category. Although he had once been in trade, he now firmly ranked in the gentry near Meryton. While the Lucases had a very large family and only a modest income between them, they evidently loved one another. When she married, would her father visit? Would her younger sisters miss her?

“The children are ill,” Elizabeth answered, at last. “I hope my aunt does not catch it.” It was not the most inventive deceit, but her cousins’ colds did serve as an explanation for her leaving when the time came. Mrs. Gardiner was expecting her fifth child in October and by then may wish for Elizabeth’s assistance.

“So, you have not heard from Jane?” Charlotte looked anxious. “Mama writes she is still in London.”

“Yes,” Elizabeth nodded and rather wished she had some employment. Perhaps then she could discuss threads rather than the contents of her letters. “I received Jane’s letter yesterday. Its contents contained only the usual,” she shrugged her shoulders as she lied through her teeth. “Weather reports and details of shopping excursions. With my aunt and the company the Gardiners keep, she has not even missed me at all!” Elizabeth hoped the light laugh she added convinced her friend.

“Maria, could you fetch Betsy. I believe she was in the garden gathering herbs.”

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows as Maria happily skipped off. Charlotte glanced at the closed door. “Betsy is in the village, so Maria is unlikely to return for some time. You are certain everyone is well?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth insisted.

“Good. I would not wish to distress you further with what I have to say.” Charlotte cast her embroidery aside and joined Elizabeth on the settee. “I know my husband’s anxieties, and moods, have been unfair to you, and Lady Catherine has been beyond impertinent.”

Elizabeth mutely nodded her head. It was a time when agreeing too much would be insulting.

“We will dine with Lady Catherine on the morrow. Colonel Fitzwilliam remains in London, and it has quite upset her ladyship.”

She searched Elizabeth’s face for a sign she knew of his departure or his reasons. Elizabeth steadfastly kept her face blank.

“My husband would be more upset with you being seen with Mr. Darcy yesterday if he were not confident that Darcy will marry Miss de Bourgh.”

Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders. “I surely do not know who he will marry, but I wish the lady the best of luck.”

“Eliza,” Charlotte reached for Elizabeth’s hand. “You know I think Mr. Darcy admires you. Beware, my friend. Great men often have no honourable use for ladies of our station.”

Elizabeth wrenched her hand away. “You think he would treat me so? I am surprised you do not believe Lady Catherine’s nephew above such things!”

“He is a man. They have their freedoms,” Charlotte shrugged.

“And do you think I would succumb to such an offer?”

Charlotte stood and smoothed her hands over her skirts before answering. “You can be quite passionate,” she said as she picked up her embroidery and resumed her task. “And you are sensible enough to know what he could do for your family.”

Elizabeth clenched her fists. How could Charlotte think such a thing of her! “You, perhaps better than anyone, have always known my feelings toward him. You know what reasons I have to hate him.”

“And yet, do they matter?” Charlotte said without looking up. “Jane has been in London for months, and I gather she has not seen Mr. Bingley. You cannot blame Darcy for all of that, especially while he has been here.”

Elizabeth bit her tongue to keep from disabusing her of her assumption. However, Jane would not appreciate Elizabeth sharing her feelings with the world.

Charlotte continued, “And Mr. Wickham is not here. Nor is he enamoured with you, Maria tells me.”

“Pray, tell, what else do you know? I did not know you had spies in London and Hertfordshire. Perhaps we should put you to use against Napoleon,” Elizabeth attempted to add a teasing quality to her voice but could not hide the acerbic meaning.

“There is no need to be so defensive,” Charlotte said coldly. “You may have your flirtation. I am not oblivious to the reason for your walks and your avoidance of Rosings, but know when to end it,” she added firmly.

Elizabeth’s mouth dropped open. “Charlotte — I — You misunderstand — ”

“Elizabeth Bennet at a loss for words? Oh no, I understand all too well.” She put aside her sewing again and stood. “If you will excuse me, I must discuss a matter with Cook.”

Charlotte curtsied and left. Elizabeth surged to her feet. Grabbing any bonnet and taking Maria’s gloves by accident, she quit the house. She knew her feet would carry her to the grove, but she would not avoid it out of fear of Charlotte’s false assumptions. Anyone could happen upon them, and while they might report she was a hoyden and argued with a man of such wealth and prestige, there was no evidence whatsoever that she was his doxy.

As if Darcy were even capable of such extreme passions! Elizabeth snorted at the thought. Mere days ago, Mr. Collins accused Elizabeth of entrancing Colonel Fitzwilliam. Now, his wife believed she had designs on Darcy! Charlotte may fancy herself cleverer than her husband, but she had been just as offensive — although she used none of the same reasoning or words.

Despite her cousins’ illness and Jane’s depression, Elizabeth rejoiced at her aunt’s letter. Soon, she would leave Kent and everyone in it behind.

 

*****

 

When Darcy’s feet touched the floor in the morning, his mind was consumed and focused on one thing only: giving Elizabeth his letter and hoping they could begin again. Noticing the sky, he cursed the infernal rain that typically did not plague Kent but, by a cruel twist of Providence, did so during this most important of visits to the area. He had heard France was far more liberal in…well, everything, but especially morals including courtship. He could hardly help wondering if it were because it was far more conducive to meet with ladies in the sunshine and balmy weather rather than rain and chilling breezes.

In the breakfast parlour, Lady Catherine intoned about the evils of going out of doors in such weather. She insisted that Anne remain by the fire all day and ordered the butler that her daughter was not permitted to use the phaeton or ponies. Darcy blushed for his cousin’s sake at her mother’s treatment. Poor Anne was treated like a child rather than an adult. Next, her ladyship turned her commands upon Darcy.

“You will see to Anne, Darcy,” she said and snapped her fingers for a servant to refill her tea. The footman raced over.

“I will surely do my duty to her,” he said, and Anne winked at him.

“Good, good,” Lady Catherine said and slathered butter on bread. “It is well past time for you to wed. You are hardly growing younger.”

“If I am not mistaken, Mama,” Anne said, “you were even older when you wed.”

Her ladyship narrowed her eyes and then sniffed. “It was the way in my family. All that bluestocking nonsense. You,” she wagged the knife in Darcy’s direction, “ought to know better. Your mother also listened to that crazed woman, and you see what she got?”

Darcy took a sip of coffee before replying. “Marriage to a man she loved and children? She is hardly the only one to die in the child-bed.”

Lady Catherine frowned, and for a moment a hint of genuine remorse flickered in her eyes. “George Darcy had never deserved her.”

“I think if a family truly loves any of the ladies in its care, no one will seem worthy of her,” Darcy said. “I firmly believe as much for Georgiana. Do you not feel similarly about Anne?”

Lady Catherine paused with bread half way between her mouth and plate. Darcy inwardly sniggered as he could nearly see the wheels of thought working furiously in her mind.

“An exceptional gentleman deserves her hand in marriage,” she said and nodded as though that neatly explained everything and kept her from having to outright demand he marry Anne.

Lady Catherine’s gaze flicked from Darcy to Anne. They shared an amused look and a roll of the eyes as soon as the dragon looked away. Soon, Mr. Collins arrived and followed Lady Catherine from the room. Anne and Darcy retired to a small parlour.

“You will not spend all day with me,” Anne said as she settled herself.

Darcy rolled his eyes. She could not be more commanding than if she were his wife. “I had no intention,” he said.

“Good. The grove should be nearly dry. Now, about the visit to Knole Hall.”

“Yes?”

“Mother has just heard the Duke will be in residence and she is reconsidering inviting the Collinses and their guests.”

“If they are good enough for the Duchess would they not be good enough for her son?”

“Mother worries Miss Bennet might entrance His Grace.”

Jealousy tore through Darcy’s heart as he envisioned the young duke, having just turned three and twenty, blessed with good looks, charm, and wealth casting his attention on Elizabeth. Dorset was not an utter coxcomb and there was family propensity for liking pretty ladies. Would Elizabeth’s admiration for the home transfer to admiration for its master?

“Conor!” Anne called, jolting Darcy from his miserable reverie.

“You have not called me that in a very long time,” he said as thousands of childhood memories flashed through his mind.

“I did call you Darcy, but you did not hear,” Anne said with a smirk.

“Forgive me for wool-gathering.”

“I do not think Mother’s concern has any merit at all,” Anne said, and Darcy raised a brow in question. “After all, it is you Miss Bennet cannot cease thinking about.”

Darcy refused to take his cousin’s bait. “You were saying? About the visit to Knole?”

“If I can establish a friendship with Miss Bennet then Mother will not think twice. As it is right now, she does not understand why the lady does not fawn all over me.”

Chortling, Darcy shook his head. “No, Lady Catherine would never understand that.” Sobering, he added, “I will do my best to suggest she be friendlier to you, but Elizabeth is unfailingly frank and honest.”

Anne chuckled, “And that is why Mother does not like her more, they are too alike!”

“Egads!” Darcy cried. “How can you compare the two?” The image of his witty and intelligent Elizabeth behaving the same as his repulsive aunt twisted his gut.

“Only on that,” Anne said. Her eyes trailed to the clock. “Now, the Mistress of Hearts suggests you be on your way.”

“Shall I ring for Mrs. Jenkinson? Or is there anything you require, a glass of wine?”

Darcy looked at the sideboard. It housed many medicinal bottles but only a decanter with a small amount of sherry. He had never noticed before, but now that he thought about it, his aunt had few spirits in the house. When he looked back at Anne, she too gazed at the sideboard. A look of hollow hunger transfixed her and startled Darcy. Then, she shook her head and dispelled whatever thoughts had been within.

“Mrs. Jenkinson will be here momentarily, and I do not require anything, thank you.” She approached the writing desk and busied herself.

“Are you certain?” The way she gazed at the sideboard made Darcy wonder if she were ill or in pain. With Anne’s shake of her head, he said a perfunctory goodbye and walked to the door. Mrs. Jenkinson was just around the corner and greeted him with a smile but walked on to her charge.

Darcy retrieved his letter and then, much too soon, was on his way to the place he usually met Elizabeth. He attempted to fix his mind on his letter from Richard, which he had received yesterday before his disastrous encounter with Elizabeth. Richard had no more luck on reassigning Wickham. His contact was away on holiday, so even if he had been able to journey to the General’s estate, he would not have been any nearer success. The difference, however, was that then Richard could have resumed his holiday at Rosings. Instead, as his commanding officer perceived his presence in London as a return to duty, he would now be unable to leave. Richard joked, but Darcy could tell his cousin harboured frustration and a small amount of resentment.

At least I am at liberty with the sorts of “ladies” I enjoy, Richard had written. I wish you good luck in acquiring Miss Bennet’s hand, Anne reports there may be complications. Do not worry, I have not told her anything about what I am really doing and why I left Rosings.

Darcy had breathed a sigh of relief when Richard confirmed he had kept a tight lid on matters relating to Wickham. As Richard knew of his affection for Elizabeth, Darcy did not mind that Anne shared the status of his courtship. It was not his first intention to tell Richard that Elizabeth was less than eager for his hand, and he hoped Anne would have the delicacy to not report Elizabeth’s outright refusal in her next letter. However, Anne did not know about Georgiana’s near elopement with Wickham. While he was re-establishing his friendship with her and would listen to some of her advice regarding Elizabeth, he saw no need to inform her of an event which was not only in the past but might hurt her opinion of Georgiana. And if Lady Catherine ever knew…

Darcy shook his head. No, enough people knew of the incident. If Wickham or Georgiana’s former companion, Mrs. Younge, ever chose to smear her name, her reputation would be in tatters before her come out. As it was, he lived half in dread of blackmail. Richard, of course, was in favour of silencing him through other means, but Darcy could never encourage violence toward the man he once called a friend.

Richard now sought a letter of introduction to Wickham’s commander, Colonel Forster. However, most of his contacts were still out of town, and even if he would choose the impertinence of riding to Meryton and informing Forster of Wickham’s perfidy, Richard could not leave London. For his own peace of mind, Darcy needed Wickham far gone from anyone connected to him. Their meeting at Meryton, while he had no doubt was entirely coincidental, proved how small England was.

Perhaps Elizabeth would have a suggestion. His heart seized at the thought that she might not walk this morning. She might actively avoid his presence. What if she refused his letter of apology? He would call on the parsonage but what if she claimed illness or refused to speak with him beyond civility? Was it conceivable that she could find a way to refuse to see him until his departure entirely? Would he never see her brilliant smile on such kissable lips again? He might never see those flecks of green dance with merriment in her brown eyes again. Why had he never told her these things? His stupid pride! He had felt so proud of his self-control yesterday. He did not lay his heart before her and have it trampled, but she deserved to know he felt far more than admiration. Did she not deserve to know that, flawed as he was, there was one man on this earth that loved her with his whole heart?

 

 

Dear C

My congratulations to your friend, Jane, on the healthy delivery of a baby. I am sorry to hear she regrets not having a son. I have seen her sister Marys portrait. It would not surprise me if Tom outshined Reynolds. On the whole, between the Duchess and Mrs. Graham, I would wager the latter is happier. You may have old wounds open at the sight of friends entering marriage and having families of their own, but you may have that as well if you are but patient and hope. Already, rumours have subsided considerably.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Fourteen

Just after the parsonage was out of view, Elizabeth espied a familiar figure. Darcy did not hear her approach, and she took a minute to study him. He appeared no different than yesterday, and yet he did. Everything between them must be different now. She had believed he looked at her in disapproval, but he claimed he had admired her for quite some time. Had he ever truly disapproved of her? Were even his comments at the assembly on her looks his real opinion? All this time she thought she knew him, she thought she had understood him, but she had never really seen him at all.

He turned just then, his face quickly showing a variety of emotions which Elizabeth wisely chose not to presume to understand. He stood still and blinking. When he did not speak, she knew she must.

“Mr. Darcy,” she tentatively began. “I am pleased to see you this afternoon. I… I desired to discuss some things with you.” It seemed so similar to their encounter a few weeks ago and yet nothing was the same.

“I am at your leisure,” he said with perfect politeness, but all words escaped her.

They stared at each other, perhaps seeing one another in reality for the first time, and perhaps both forming a desperate resolution.

“I have brought you a letter.”

“Will you do me the honour of reading this letter?”

They spoke simultaneously, and their eyes were drawn to the forwarded envelopes. Elizabeth could only shake her head and laugh in amusement, and Darcy gave a small smile.

“How can we be so missish now? We have crossed words readily enough any other time, surely we can do so again.”

Darcy hesitantly agreed. Elizabeth motioned to the path, and they began walking. After ambling in silence for a few minutes, Darcy said smilingly, “I am afraid I must defer to you and allow you to begin as usual.”

“Why is that?” she blurted out. He looked startled. “I beg your pardon, forgive my impertinence.”

“No, no it is well. Have I not explained twice now how I feel when I must speak to others?”

“You explained it was so when you were only first getting to know a person, yet you believe you know me well enough to marry me but not converse with me?” She was only half teasing.

She expected him to be offended, but instead, he laughed. “How did I ever think you would accept me? You honestly do not know, do you?”

Elizabeth shook her head.

“Have you never been hesitant to speak to someone whose opinion you valued? Coveted, even?” Her blank expression must have been answer enough. “Of course not! You have never known such reluctance to speak your opinion in your life, have you?”

“Am I to take that as a compliment, Mr. Darcy? For you are very near to insulting me again,” she reprimanded.

“And yet when I do speak, I only make a muddle of it! I lose my wits around you, Elizabeth. That fear is part of my hesitancy!”

She blushed but felt it necessary to scold. “You must not take such liberties!”

He ceased walking and looked her directly in the eye. “I mean no offence, but I have called you such in my mind for a very long time now.” He paused and then seemed to make some kind of resolution. “I see now that my attempts at quelling my attraction to you from the beginning of our acquaintance have only served to make you believe I dislike you. I will no longer hide my admiration for you; I never want you to doubt it again.”

“You must not think so. Your foolish fancy will soon end, and you will learn to admire a worthier young lady.”

“There is no one worthier, and it is I that must learn to be worthy of you, Elizabeth.”

His eyes had turned a very dark shade of blue, and the earnestness in his expression made her breath hitch. She blushed again, but would not give way. “Still, you should not call me by my given name.”

Darcy took a step closer. “Why? Because it implies an understanding between us? An intimacy?”

Slowly, he reached for her hand. Her eyes fixed where they met. White kid leather rest against his black. It ought to have provided some protection against his searing touch, but it did not. Her pulse quickened as new sensations pricked up her arm.

“It signifies a close friendship at the very least. I want all this and more.”

Instantly, the spell was over, and she attempted to withdraw her digits. “It is not solely about your desires!”

He squeezed her hand to quell her anger. “No, but it displays them openly to you. I cannot give speeches or write poetry but perhaps with one word, simply your name, I may convey a portion of my regard to you. When I call you Elizabeth you will know what is in my heart: only you.”

It was fortunate he then placed her hand on his arm and resumed walking. She felt unaccountably light-headed.

“I am still open to your course of discussion, Elizabeth.”

Ignoring the speeding of her heart when he said her name, she boldly began her prepared speech. “I must apologise for my unjust accusations yesterday. My words were unforgivable, and I am heartily ashamed of myself.”

Darcy shook his head. “What did you say to me that I did not deserve? I have been selfish and thought only of my own comfort, of my own opinion. Even with matters between your sister and my friend, my interference was the worst kind of officiousness. I presumed to know what kind of marriage he desired and what would be best for him.”

“It rather seems you acted in Jane’s best interest.” The vehemence in her voice surprised Elizabeth.

“Bingley is not so bad, I cannot understand why he would act thusly, and I apologise profusely for his harming your sister. I can only think it must be due to me and my words, in deference to my opinion. Perhaps…”

“No, please do not make excuses for him. Unless you were decidedly forceful or cruelly kept him imprisoned in some way, then this only shows a weakness in his own character. He is so eager to please everyone he could not resolve to ask for her hand or even see her again and court her good opinion. There can be no love in this.”

“I wish I could disagree, but I have learned love must be selfless, Elizabeth.”

He slowly said her name. It was almost a caress, confusing her. Yesterday, he had admitted to only admiring her and finding her a worthy marriage partner. Today… She shut off that train of thought. Some things had not changed in one night.

Clearing her throat to break the spell and signalling they should turn, she asked, “What did your letter contain?”

“An apology of sorts.”

“Of sorts?”

“An apology for my behaviour in Hertfordshire, even on the first night of our acquaintance. An apology for making you believe I disliked you. And an apology for stating my sentiments when you did not wish to hear them.”

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow, “You did not seem so penitent a moment ago when you insisted on telling me your feelings once again, and in using my Christian name.”

“I never said all of my apology was sincere,” he smirked. “I thought I wrote in the clearest of minds, but I see now I was incorrect. I do not regret declaring my feelings and wishes. I understand now what it must take to please such a worthy woman, and I see what work must be done in my own character.”

“Please, you must not change for my sake. And who am I? Just a silly, foolish girl! My head was turned by Wickham’s flattery and attention; I was blinded by Jane’s pain.”

“Elizabeth, I do not evaluate my failings to win your regard, but because your reproofs were just. Do you not think you are as capable of sound judgment as others?”

Elizabeth scoffed. “I had. I had thought my opinion was superior to most, but I see now my father was correct in calling all of his daughters silly, ignorant things.”

Darcy’s face turned stony. “He has said that of you?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “He enjoys teasing us, but I have indeed displayed there is some sense to it. I believe I am as intelligent as any woman, and yet I have been entirely confounded by the actions of nearly every gentleman of my acquaintance. Perhaps there is some merit in concluding my sex is prone to sensibility and lacking intelligence.” As she said it emptiness filled her.

Darcy ceased their movement, and she looked at him expectantly. He seemed to need a moment to gather his thoughts. Instead of his usual well-thought dialogue, he nearly blurted, “You cannot possibly mean that!”

“And why not? Is it not what your professors have taught you? Women are weak-willed and silly?” There was no use in attempting to convince him of all people that she was something more. He had seen her at her worse.

“And you presume I would believe such horrible nonsense?”

She began walking to avoid seeing his triumphant look. “I have never met a man who does not.”

His long legs quickly caught her up to him. He stopped in front of her, halting her progress. “Fitzwilliam Darcy, at your service.” He elegantly bowed.

Elizabeth shook her head and looked at him with incredulity. “Did you not agree with the most ridiculous list of accomplishments for a lady I have ever heard? Your standards were so fastidious that I could not imagine you knowing a single woman who met them!”

He held up his hands to stave off her angry retorts. “I only stated a woman should improve her mind by extensive reading. I firmly believe a lady can be educated the same as a man.”

“So, are you to learn embroidery then?” Elizabeth huffed.

“As you already know how,” folding his arms across his chest, he smirked, “I shall leave it to you, but you may teach our sons if you wish. My cousin tells me sewing is indispensable in the military.”

“Sir!”

“Let us speak plainly. I believe any woman can learn as well as any man, but we see not every man chooses to learn, just as not every woman does.”

Uncomfortable with his words she turned them on him. “Everything is a matter of education, is it? I suppose you ought to take your aunt’s advice and practice conversation with strangers more!”

Apparently unfazed by her angry words after so many encounters, he remained stalwart without so much as blinking. “You mean to anger or embarrass me, but it only proves my point. You are as capable of intelligently reprimanding my behaviour as any schoolmaster. And a great deal prettier as well!”

“’Tis a comfort to know that I could take the role of a governess,” Elizabeth frowned.

Darcy released his hands to his side and took a step toward her. “I can see you are uncomfortable with this.”

Elizabeth hated that he knew her so well.

“I will desist, but I believe I have more experience with debating gentlemen than you do, and you already know I do not falsely praise. Please trust me; you are a worthy foe in a battle of words.”

She allowed his last words to pass without comment. Looking past him, she could see the parsonage in the distance. “I received a letter from my aunt. She says I am welcome in two weeks. She thanks you for your offer to be of service.”

“Does that date suit you? I had thought you wished to conclude this matter earlier.”

Elizabeth thought for a moment. “We should make my father see reason and settle any problems in Meryton as soon as possible, but you refuse to call on the Gardiners without my presence.”

She did not hide her displeasure in her voice, and Darcy looked at her for a long moment.

“You understand why, do you not?”

“Yes, you fear they will be like my mother and Aunt Philips, but I promise you, you are mistaken. They are very genteel.” She could have added that they behaved better than even his own aunt, but did not.

Darcy shook his head. “You think I desire your presence because I would need assistance dealing with inappropriate relations? You have met my aunt.”

He smiled, and Elizabeth repressed the urge to laugh.

“I wish to call on your family when you are there so it may not be construed that I paid a visit to your sister.”

Elizabeth was silent for a moment. “Does it follow then that you would want it said that you paid a call only once I was in residence?” She did not welcome his attachment so why did her heart thrill at the thought that he still desired a future with her?

“Yes,” he said emphatically. “I do not mean to accuse your relatives of gossip. I mostly associate with people who would not gossip, and yet much of the ton believes they know my every movement. If they must talk, let it be on my terms. I have made my choice. Our acquaintance from Hertfordshire and meeting again in Kent cannot be kept secret as Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst know it. I will escort you to London and call on your relatives once you are within.”

Elizabeth paled as her mind rapidly drew the conclusion that all of London would be linking her name with his. A match would be expected between them, and she could not consent to such a plan as it would damage her reputation when nothing resulted. She was only beginning to appreciate the gentleman, she did not wish to have her freedom of choice taken from her.

“Nay, you must arrive in London separately and when you visit bring your sister,” Elizabeth hoped to keep a tone of panic out of her voice. “Surely you must see I cannot agree to such a plan as yours.”

He looked at her, surprised and offended but remained silent. Finally resigned acceptance entered his eyes. “I do not mean to set your course or push your hand.”

“No, you just wish for all of London to talk about it!” Elizabeth dashed around him and surged forward again.

“Surely not.” Again, he quickly matched her pace. “I only do not wish my name to be linked with another or to make them not accept you later, should I be fortunate enough to win your hand.” He reached for her hand, and she glared at him. “Please, allow me to still ride alongside you, but the following day I will call on the Gardiners with my sister.”

Elizabeth slid her hand from his while shaking her head. “It truly is not necessary to escort me to London.”

“It is most likely foolish of me, but I will worry if you go with only a maid and manservant. Please, Elizabeth.”

She had intended to move around him, but the tone of his voice brought her up short. Looking into his eyes, which pleaded for her to allow him this, and she found she had no wish to deny him. He was not trying to force her into an understanding, nor did he seek to take away her independence. He only desired to care for her, something, so few people asked to do. Would she let him?

He motioned to the path, and he placed her hand on his strong arm. They remained silent as they walked. She knew he would allow her to decide the matter, but the choice was made harder by his presence and masculine scent. She made her decision only steps from the parsonage gate. “It seems a fair compromise, sir.”

Immediately, she felt the tension release from his form and heard a soft exhale. He squeezed her hand still on his arm and then bowed over it, nearly kissing it.

He spoke when he finished. “Thank you. Until tomorrow, Elizabeth.”

Her brow furrowed as he left and she thought over the course of the afternoon. Not the least on her mind was why she cared to ease his discomfort so much.

 

 

Dearest Niece,

 

I was delighted with your description of Miss More and when it is convenient to you, I invite you both to Bath. Her writing sounds exemplary. I suppose London is leaving its period of mourning after the death of the King’s mother behind. I must wonder what she would think of this act regarding all royal marriages being determined by the King. That not only one brother but both married commoners and kept it a secret, I found shocking but refreshing. I should hope the King treats his sons and daughters better than he treated his brothers.

 

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Fifteen

The following morning, Darcy awaited Elizabeth at their grove. Their grove. Darcy shook his head. She had made her feelings very clear numerous times. There was no them. However, he thought she might not be so indifferent to him as she once was.

As Darcy reconsidered their last few meetings, he began to think that Elizabeth might feel lonely despite her companions at the parsonage. He knew that she sought solitude away from the Collinses and had never accompanied her friend on her morning visits to Rosings. However, requiring isolation from unlikeable companions did not mean one did not feel alone and desire pleasant company. He knew that well from experience. During the dinners at Rosings, Elizabeth seldom spoke. Afterwards, she was often “invited” to perform on the pianoforte. Elizabeth was not the sort to be intimidated by his aunt’s commands or critique, but neither was she the kind that expected to be listened to in silence. At Lucas Lodge, she had laughed with her friend, now Mrs. Collins.

He sensed there was now a coolness in feeling between the two ladies. Mrs. Collins’ younger sister did not seem to provide Elizabeth with any company. What must it be like for Elizabeth, so used to the liveliness of Longbourn? He did not think he could understand fully what she felt, having lived in quiet for so long, but he could empathise. He would provide her company, if she allowed, and try not to irritate her. For once, he considered her needs while he waited for her arrival.

Casting his eyes down the path, he noted her silhouette against the rising sun. Each day, she came earlier and earlier. Was she so eager to leave the parsonage? Or was it a desire to see him that propelled her? His heart sped at the thought. Logic told him to cool his desires and expectations, but he could not. She approached with a smile on her face, and Darcy knew, no matter where he went in the world or what the future held, he would never feel at home again unless he was looking into her smiling face.

“Good day, Miss Elizabeth,” he said when he could make his mouth move.

“Good day,” she smiled back at him.

“May I walk with you?”

“Certainly.”

She took his extended arm, and a thrill shot up the limb. Some of her usual reserve seemed gone, adding to the heady sensation. Darcy forced his brain to focus on conversation and not the light pressure of her hand on his body.

“Did you bring your sketchbook?”

She held up her other hand and grinned. “You know me well, sir.”

“I am beginning to believe such a thing is impossible. However, I dearly enjoy learning about you and guessing what you might do next.”

Elizabeth laughed at the image he created, and Darcy realised he had never known the joy in giving someone else happiness.

“Well, I am waiting. What do you think I will do next?”

She gave him an impish grin, and the desire to feel it against his lips consumed him. A raw hungering burned in him. Men in his clubs boasted of bedding the most beautiful courtesans in England. Poets claimed love would drive you mad. And yet nothing he had read or heard in his life prepared him for this feeling, this need to consume and allow himself to be consumed, not with carnal pleasures, but with enjoying — in needing — another’s presence and to be the source of their bliss.

“I am that much of a conundrum, am I?” she teased when he remained silent but her smile slipped.

“Forgive me,” he rasped. Desire still coursed through him. “I do not dare guess what you will do next. Your path is unmappable by any but you. However, I would like to show you something, if you will follow.”

Elizabeth tilted her head; insatiable curiosity lit her eyes. The image of her looking up at him thusly from where she lay on his bed jolted to the front of his mind.

“This way,” he motioned to a narrow path off the main grove while cursing his dishonourable thoughts.

They walked in silence and Darcy mourned the loss of her hand on his arm as the lane was too narrow to allow them to walk side by side. After nearly a quarter of a mile, the route curved sharply and then opened to a grassy area filled with newly blooming meadows, a pond, and the foundation and one ivy-covered wall of an old church. Coming up next to him, Elizabeth gasped.

“How did you find this place?” she asked when she recovered.

“I spent many visits of my youth escaping Rosings’ stuffy drawing rooms. I still do,” he admitted.

“It is stunning,” she said reverently and walked forward to gain a better view.

“You may have guessed, Rosings was built during my uncle’s lifetime. His father was the first baronet and tore down a crumbling structure from Henry VIII’s time. The church your cousin now uses was built then as well. Records state this church is from even earlier, Edward III’s reign.”

“How sad,” Elizabeth muttered and approached the wall. “Did you know the Perpendicular Gothic came to prominence during his reign — after the Black Death ravaged the country?” She ran a hand lovingly over the stone.

“I did not,” Darcy answered. “Is that what appeals to you about the style?”

“Perhaps,” Elizabeth said as she began to move around the structure to examine it from all sides. “It denotes a certain amount of strength in humanity to achieve such vaunted heights. After so much death, they still cared about culture and beauty.”

Darcy trailed behind her, and she continued speaking. “It is not the fashion at all now. Instead, we’re told to favour buildings with the straight lines of ancient Greece. Stone upon stone must be secured. Every piece doing its part, never out of place.” She shook her head. “The Gothic embraces nature, rather than trying to conquer it.”

Elizabeth pointed at the empty Tudor arch which would have housed a window or door. “Do you see the shape? Curved and graceful?”

As she talked, Darcy believed she may have well described herself. Eyes lingering on her form, he reverently said, “Beautiful.”

“It is, is it, not?” She stood still and appreciated the view she now saw with the sun shining through the empty frame illuminating overgrown vegetation. With no regard for her gown, she sat and opened her sketchpad.

Darcy allowed her the quiet he believed such concentration required. Her hands moved swiftly and gracefully. She drew without the sort of labour that comes from self-consciousness or a desire to impress. She simply unleashed a passion she felt, and finely-honed skill. As much as she might deride her skills on the pianoforte, she apparently had put her time to greater use.

As she drew, Darcy imagined the lives the place had seen. The ones who built a place of worship after so much devastation. The family who provided the funds but eventually sold the estate. Their family name did not appear in the roster of current peers. Likely, they had no sons left to inherit and had kept the property away from their daughters. The next owners fared no better. The family sold it after two or three generations to Sir Lewis de Bourgh’s father to cover a debt. Through the passage of time, this area stood largely neglected and ignored, unnoticed by those who inhabited the space just outside it. However, Darcy could not mourn its neglect. The sheltered alcove he now sat in remained unspoilt by following generations attempting to conquer nature and shape it into formal gardens and hedges. Even more, it allowed him this morning of peace with Elizabeth.

When she finished, Elizabeth looked up and blushed. “Forgive me, I had not meant to ignore you,” she said and bit her lower lip.

“Think nothing of it. I enjoyed the companionable silence and watching you work. Your passion should never be hidden. May I see?”

Shyly, she handed the sketchbook to him. He could see from a distance Elizabeth had great skill. Upon closer viewing, it was clear that she saw through a true architect’s eye. There were no exaggerated and idealised views. She had imagined the church as it once might have looked, but it seemed far more real than any portrait he had seen. Acquainted as he was with blueprints for new structures, he saw her natural skill. She was not a gentlewoman dabbling in art or design. If she were a man, she would find sufficient income putting her talents to use.

“This is quite good,” he said in wonder, hating the insipidness of his words.

“Do you really think so?” Elizabeth asked with an insecurity he had never heard before. “I know it is nothing compared to what Mr. Dance could do, but I have so few opportunities—”

He silenced her with a finger to her lips, all the while hating his gloves. “You have great skill, Elizabeth.” He triumphed when she did not rebuke him. “Far greater than any person that I have seen.”

“Do not exaggerate,” she sounded offended and grabbed the notebook from his hands. “You must have studied architecture at school and University. You have seen far grander places than I ever have.”

“It is true,” he responded slowly, “that I had the occasion to view magnificent buildings. During the Peace of Amiens, Father and I journeyed to Vienna. At Cambridge, I sat and attempted to draw the Octagon Lantern in Ely Cathedral. But not one of my classmates had the sheer talent or passion you do.”

“Thank you,” she murmured.

“I am sorry my praise is inadequate to what you deserve. I do not know the correct terminology, despite my classes, but it is near brilliant.”

Elizabeth shook her head, unwilling to accept his compliments. She stood and shook out her skirt. “Can you tell me about Vienna?”

Darcy stood as well and smiled. “It is very different from England. There was a reverie, a joy for life. In London, the people only care about their appearance and politics. In Vienna, there was laughter. Art and music were everywhere.”

She sighed a little and hugged herself. “It sounds wonderful.”

“It was unforgettable. I would love to make the journey again. Georgiana would flourish there.”

He hummed the tune of a waltz he had heard long ago in a crowded ballroom. His father had teased him for not asking any of the ladies to dance, and at the time all he could think of was how uncomfortable he felt. What he did not know was that he was waiting to have the right partner; the one he would do far more than discomfort himself for.

“What do you hum? I do not recognise the rhythm.”

“It is called a waltz. It is very different from our English dances.”

“Show me,” Elizabeth said, curiosity once again lighting her features.

Darcy chuckled. “I am not sure I remember.”

“I will never know any better,” she laughed with him.

“Very well.” He held one arm to his side and the other at the height of her shoulder. “Now, you step forward. You place one hand in mine and the other on my shoulder.”

Elizabeth’s eyes went round. “Surely not!”

“Indeed,” he said with amusement. She remained still, and he could see the indecision warring in her eyes. “I had thought you unafraid of anything.”

With the raising of her chin, she stepped into his arms. Immediately, thought escaped him. This had been a bloody terrible idea! How had it escaped his notice that he would be practically embracing Elizabeth?

“Mr. Darcy?” She asked and lightly tapped his shoulder.

The pressure sent a thrill of pleasure coursing through his body, and he bit back a groan. “Yes?”

“The dance?”

The dance? The dance. As if blood still circulated to his feet! He cleared his throat and began to hum again, awkwardly leading Elizabeth in the steps of a waltz. And somehow, in this grass covered ballroom with the shadows of an ancient church heightening Elizabeth’s features, he fell even more in love with her.

His song ended, and their movements ceased. Elizabeth’s chest rose and fell rapidly, and Darcy believed, in every fibre of his being, she was as affected as he. With his hands still on her, he leant forward, needing to taste her lips. A bird called in the tree above them, tearing Elizabeth’s gaze away from his.

“We should return,” she said nonchalantly, although her face burned red.

Offering his arm to her, they left their hidden glen of discoveries. As they walked toward the parsonage and all the rules of Society, Darcy talked about Knole Park and “his” belief that if she befriended Anne, an invitation would follow.

When he reached the gate, he bowed low over Elizabeth’s hand and brought it to his lips. It would have to do as he had been deprived of her mouth, and he had never hated leather more in his life. “Until tonight, Elizabeth.”

 

***** “Cousin Elizabeth, where have you been? How can you dress properly for dinner with Lady Catherine in such a short time?”

Elizabeth was just about to explain she could be no later than some of Lady Catherine’s own party as she had been walking with Mr. Darcy when she thought better of it.

“My dear, Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine prefers to have the distinction of rank preserved. Eliza will suit admirably.”

Elizabeth shot her friend a grateful glance and quickly saw to her toilette. The others were finished quite early and nervously fretted in the sitting room. She could hardly account for the Collinses’ behaviour as they had dined many times with her ladyship by now, but then she was not disposed to think well of the sense of either.

Gathering to leave, Charlotte looked over her friend. “Eliza, you look very well indeed. All these walks are giving you a very healthy bloom.”

Elizabeth nodded in acquiescence, but her friend continued speaking.

“I have heard her ladyship often say her nephews enjoy walking the park as well. Have you ever seen them?”

Elizabeth pursed her lips at her friend’s attempt at slyness. “I have seen Mr. Darcy a few times on the paths. You can imagine how awkward conversation is with such a man.” She hoped she did not give too much away in her countenance or tone.

Before Charlotte could say more Mr. Collins called her to his side and Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief.

Dinner was the usual affair with Lady Catherine. She held court and extolled her opinions on all things no matter how little she could understand of them. By her account, the War Office should consult her even on how to handle Napoleon, and she briefly bemoaned her worries for Colonel Fitzwilliam. Elizabeth had to contain her delight when she was asked to perform.

She was hopeful her efforts at entertainment would exclude her from having to converse with the entire party. She could not dislike Mr. Darcy as before, but neither were her thoughts at all settled over his declarations. Yet, under the guise of querying her on some musical matter for his sister, he found his way to her and offered to turn her pages.

“You play very well this evening,” he said.

This did not seem quite his usual fashion so Elizabeth arched her brow, preparing for whatever he might muster. “You flatter me, sir.” Something flashed in his eyes, and it confused her. “Well, you see I am taking your aunt’s advice and practising, and you seem to believe I am improving.”

“You mean to suggest there is merit in her argument?”

“I believe I said there was merit in her argument several days ago.”

“Am I not practising? Have I not been taking the trouble to converse over these last few days, Miss Elizabeth?”

She blushed at his use of her name although he dropped his voice as it was not strictly proper to call her such without her elder sister present. “I shall make you a bargain. While I improve my skills, you must improve yours. Now, you cannot become a victim of country society. Certainly, we are a small party, but I believe we are quite varied. Your skills will improve even more if you speak to the others as well.”

Darcy glanced to the adjoined room. “Who do you propose I speak with next?”

“I am shocked that you would consider allowing another to order anything about you.”

“You still believe I prefer my own way?”

“I speak as I find.”

“And how do you suppose I am able to order my life when others cannot?”

“You easily arrange things just as you please because you are so rich and others are poor.”

Growing serious he calmly replied, “I cannot order all things as I would like. There are many things my wealth cannot buy, Miss Elizabeth.”

She despised herself for it, but she shivered just the same.

“I have a firm opinion that the greatest things in life are not for sale and cannot be influenced by money,” he continued.

“You mean family name and prominence.”

“No, I mean affection and familial love. Your father’s estate is entailed, and supposing you had a brother, your family might be in a better position. Now, what if you must trade one of your sisters for that unknown brother?”

Elizabeth’s eyes misted. “I could never choose. Some of them might be quite silly and ridiculous, but I dearly love them all.”

“You would rather face the unknown when your father dies, with Mr. Collins inheriting, than sacrifice the love of your family?”

“I have already chosen to face the unknown when Mr. Collins inherits.” She gasped as she realised her admission. She glanced at him and saw his smirk. “That was very cruel of you, sir, getting me to confess such a thing.”

“It was not my intention at all, I assure you, but I am pleased to know my suppositions were correct.”

“That I rejected my cousin and selfishly chose my happiness over ensuring my family’s survival? What a foolish thing you must think me!”

“No, I thought you valued more than money in marital harmony. You desire respect and affection.”

“What made you so confident he had offered for me?”

“It, amongst other things, was quite the gossip at Bingley’s ball. His attentions to you were very marked and yet you visit his home as a friend to his wife and are not its mistress.”

“Not every man who pays attention to a lady means to offer matrimony, sir.” She was thinking of his friend.

“Do you think so little of the male sex?”

“I have seen little constancy from them. Even the best of them might be mistaken and confuse companionship and love with infatuation and attraction.”

“Earlier I meant that I might be able to order things as I like due to my wealth, but it is only because I am master of my own affairs. I assure you I would much rather have less freedom in my choices and less money at my disposal and be merely the heir than the master of all of England with all its burdens.”

He spoke passionately, and Elizabeth could feel the weight of his loss. For so young a man to be left with the responsibility of so much was a difficult thing for her to consider. More than that, she was pleased to see the emotion his words evoked in him. Her sketch of him may never be complete, but there was more than the stoniness she first believed in Hertfordshire.

Seeking to console him, she spoke. “I had not considered that, sir. How old were you when your father passed?”

For just a moment he looked vulnerable, as he recalled his misery, but soon he recovered. “Mother died first when I was eleven. She had not recovered from Georgiana’s birth. Father died suddenly when I was two and twenty.”

She had not realised he was an orphan, or that he had been the master for so long. Caring for a sister at such an age!

“I am sorry for your pain.”

He gave her a tight smile. “I thank you, but I am certain you had little to do to cause the demise of either.”

“Of course not, sir.”

He seemed on the verge of speaking something inexpressibly painful but thought better of it. They passed a few moments in silence before she sought to cheer him.

“You must hold up your share of the bargain, sir. Why not speak with your cousin, Miss de Bourgh? She seems very lonely.”

Darcy started. “She likely is. I confess I do not pay her much attention on my visits, lest my aunt make too much of it.”

“What is it she can do? She cannot ask or demand you marry her daughter. She cannot put words in your own mouth. Your cousin might not even desire the match, should you ask.”

Elizabeth glanced away as jealousy gnawed in her belly. Why should she care if Miss de Bourgh did wish to marry Darcy? And why should it bother her if he might now think it a prudent choice? “Would it not be better to know of her hopes? You may fear for nought. Or if she does have them you might explain your feelings.”

She grew silent as she recalled her sister being left hoping for Bingley’s proposal. “Imagine being left hoping for a man’s addresses all these years.”

Darcy’s thoughts might have turned similarly for he nodded his head in understanding.

“I believe you are correct.” He leaned his head closer to her, his breath tickling her ear. “Never fear. You shall not be rid of me to her clutches.”

Elizabeth fought the smile forming on her lips. “No?”

“We had a very frank conversation not too many days ago and it seems although I never would have asked, she will not have me either.” He let out a sigh of feigned despair. “It must be the sign of an intelligent woman.”

Elizabeth remained mute for she had not seen any signs that Miss de Bourgh had much of a brain.

“Did you have another suggestion for my conversation partner?”

Elizabeth welcomed the change in conversation. “Oh, you do trust me too far!” She said with false gaiety. “For what if I would select my cousin!”

Darcy chuckled, revealing a hint of dimples. “Do your worst, madam, for I am not afraid of you.”

Elizabeth thought for a moment. “I shall have mercy on you and propose that you do not practice on either your relations or mine, as there is an unequal number of them. Your task, therefore, is to practice on both Mrs. Jenkinson and Mrs. Collins.”

If she were not certain he truly felt distressed she would have laughed at his expression. “Come, sir. You have visited Rosings for many years now, you must know some matter to speak with Mrs. Jenkinson on, and you have met Mrs. Collins’ family. That is always an excellent place to begin. I wager she would happily talk about memories of Hertfordshire.”

Sighing deeply, Darcy agreed. “And now for your end of our bargain.”

“I do not recall making one.”

“Oh, but you called it one just now. I believe we were on the subject of improving one’s skill.”

Elizabeth knew not whether to feel trepidation at whatever scheme he had, or excitement at this informal, bantering side of him.

“You need no motivation to walk, although I very much hope you continue to improve yourself there.” He gave her a knowing look. “You must oblige my aunt and practice the pianoforte at Rosings, only I will ensure it not be in Mrs. Jenkinson’s room.”

Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “Sir! Do you fathom how difficult that will be for me to bear? Lady Catherine will forever be standing over me and reprimanding, worse than any music master I have had.”

Darcy had a bit of a wicked gleam in his eye, so she did not entirely believe him when he assured her that would not be the case. Before she could argue more her piece was finished, and he stood to make good on his offer. Lady Catherine commanded Elizabeth continue to play for the rest of the evening, and Elizabeth could only shake her head at the mingled feelings of pride and frustration she felt as Darcy talked more animatedly with the others than she had ever seen before. He would occasionally cast a look at her, daring her to withdraw but she would not be intimidated. When Lady Catherine once again recommended she practice at Rosings, Elizabeth agreed with sweetness.

 

 

Dearest C—

I suppose you have heard the terrible news of the banks. I declared years ago that I did not like this Dr. Fordyce with his opinion on women and now we see how unscrupulous his brother is! I fear for your cousin as I understand his father is caught up in all of this.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

The following day, Elizabeth practised on the pianoforte for two hours in a “small” parlour at Rosings and was surprised she was left uninterrupted. It allowed her mind to wander, as her walks had not been solitary lately, and it had rained again this morning. The shade of Darcy she now knew was surprisingly amiable, gentle even. It was a pleasant surprise, but this could not console her as she increasingly worried for her family. She told herself it was only because this was the longest she had been away from all of them, and dearest Jane seemed so shattered by Bingley’s treatment.

Elizabeth’s frustration was not limited to the most pressing matters, but it seemed all she could do in life was wait. She felt she had no choices of her own to exercise, except when she had refused Mr. Collins’ proposal. She had no means of protecting her family from danger, be it from scoundrels like Wickham, or from broken hearts. Then she recalled Darcy’s words on how he would gladly have his family instead of the ability to order his life. If Longbourn were not entailed, or more profitable and the people in it more sensible then, while they may all be entirely different, who was to say things would be better? She resolved to be more thankful for the life she did have.

Elizabeth had just decided to quit the room, and finally felt as though some portion of her thoughts were settled, when Miss de Bourgh entered the room.

“Miss Bennet, I hope I am not interrupting,” the other lady said after the requisite curtsies.

“Not at all, I just finished.”

Miss de Bourgh looked ill at ease but persevered. She took a step closer and grasped Elizabeth’s hand. “I must thank you for inspiring Conor to speak to me.”

“Conor?”

“Oh! Darcy. We called him that when he was young. Second names are favoured in our family.”

“Forgive me; I did not recall Mr. Darcy’s Christian name.”

“He is named after his mother’s family, Fitzwilliam, but so are several other cousins and the earl’s eldest son is named William — a family tradition — so you see we had no choice but to call him by his middle name.” She paused and made a face of displeasure. “Well, a form of it. Conyers is exceedingly difficult for a young child to say.”

“You sound quite close with your cousins.”

“Although my Aunt Anne was older than my mother by many years, we cousins are closer in age. Richard, Conor, and I were once very close friends, and now perhaps we will be again.”

Somehow Elizabeth expected greater formality between them, and began to experience an unaccountable fear over what the small woman before her was to say next.

“I was so pleased when Conor asked for my feelings on the matter of my mother’s wishes.”

Elizabeth did not know what to say and instead took in her companion’s countenance. Anne’s usual sickly-looking face looked positively radiant as if she felt great joy. Elizabeth found herself envying the lady and quickly determined it must be because the woman was so vibrant with life. She refused to believe the jealousy she felt came from the small suspicion that Darcy had changed his affections and proposed to Miss de Bourgh.

Stomaching her tumultuous emotions, Elizabeth helped the conversation along. “I see you come bearing very happy news indeed!”

“I have lived in fear for years that Conor would marry me — and clearly only for my dowry as he does not love me in that way. I know my opinion would not have swayed his own, so I never brought it up. I do so much appreciate him coming to me with his decision and asking about my opinion.”

“You are not displeased?” For some reason, Elizabeth’s willingness had been tied to Anne’s expectations to accept Darcy’s attentions; perhaps because of Jane’s experiences.

“No! We never would have suited. He needs a wife who is spirited and witty, who will not back down from his debates. Please understand; I do admire him. He is among the best men I have ever known, but I am not sure if I could have stood up to both Mama and him. And how could we ever have been happy if he only wanted my money? I do genuinely appreciate his concern for my future, and his unexampled kindness in asking after my opinion and treating it with equal weight.”

Elizabeth attempted to understand all that Miss de Bourgh had declared. She believed the other lady painted a more complete picture of Darcy’s character than she ever got from the man himself. She was not left with her thoughts for long.

“Would you follow me to the library?”

Puzzled, Elizabeth agreed.

“I wanted to thank you properly for putting the notion in Conor’s head to clear the air between us, and he suggested allowing you to select a few volumes. You may take anything you like from in here. Mama and I have our favourites secluded elsewhere.”

The clock chimed. “Oh! I am to meet with Mrs. Jenkinson about something. Please inform a servant when you are ready to leave, and we will ensure your books are packaged correctly and send you in the carriage, so you do not have to carry them so far in this dreary and muddy weather.”

“It is no matter, truly.” Guilt gnawed at Elizabeth for her previous uncharitable thoughts about the woman before her.

“Please allow me this kindness. You can imagine I seldom get to meet new people. I would be very pleased if you visited me when you have a spare morning.”

Feeling as though she was the one rescuing a lady trapped in a tower, she agreed to accept Miss de Bourgh’s token of thanks and invitation to call.

“I also have the honour of extending an invitation to you and all of the parsonage to an afternoon at Knole House tomorrow. The Duchess of Dorset is good friends with Mother.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth said and grinned. “Mr. Darcy had mentioned it, but I did not dare to hope.”

“I think we have much more in common than you would believe. Admit it,” Miss de Bourgh smiled, “you were predisposed to dislike me.”

Elizabeth returned the smile with a sheepish, guilty one of her own. “I concede. I had a false impression of your cousin and had heard gossip in Meryton which did you and your mother no favours. If you can forgive me, I would like to begin again.” A weight lifted from Elizabeth’s heart, and some of her usual lightness returned.

Suddenly, arms were thrown about her neck, and Miss de Bourgh gave her a meek kiss on the cheek. “God bless you, Miss Bennet!” Anne exclaimed, and then she scurried off leaving Elizabeth rather confounded.

She roamed about the library for some time and tried to limit herself to only three choices but failed. At last, she pulled the cord, and a servant arrived with a basket to convey her books in. He left to arrange her ride, and when the door opened again, she expected it to be a maid to accompany her to the parsonage. Instead, Mr. Darcy entered.

“Did you find anything interesting?”

“Oh! Several things. Your cousin need not have been so gracious, but I am too selfish to pass this opportunity by.”

He chuckled. “I thought you would be pleased.” He looked through her stack. “You included Letters on the Improvement of the Mind. Are you trying to improve your manners?”

Elizabeth raised a brow. “Do you think they need improvement?”

“No, of course not but you seem quite interested in the book.”

“I am. It reminds me somewhat of the letters I would receive from my own aunt, but I did not know conduct-book writers approved of so much learning and independent thought.”

“You did not learn from one?”

“You do think I need improvement.” She riposted. If it were not so ridiculous that he should think she needed lessons in manners, she would be offended.

“You misunderstand. I am surprised, as well-mannered and intelligent as you are, that you did not have one.”

“My mother superintended our education, as we had no governess, but we were encouraged to read from my father’s library. Mama did not believe we needed a book to tell us how to behave, that she could teach us everything we needed, but Papa had an old copy of Fordyce’s Sermons. Although all but Mary found it ridiculous, we have a rudimentary knowledge of it.”

Darcy grimaced when she mentioned the title. “I would have to agree with your estimation and have directed my sister to read other material.”

“You assign your sister reading material?”

“Sometimes, it helps us to have a matter to debate and discuss. Georgiana will soon be out and in the presence of gentlemen; who better to test her discourse on than her brother? I also believe it wise to take an active role in her education.”

His words made sense. However, Elizabeth found it difficult to believe he read anything so feminine. “Have you read these books for females?”

“I have,” he stepped closer and smiled down at her. Leaning in to whisper, he said, “I know all your secrets now.”

“Oh, I doubt that, sir.” She chuckled until her eyes met his. Suddenly, it no longer felt like a laughing matter and indeed, that he was searching her soul to know every detail.

Finally, his eyes fell to her lips. “Do you?”

Forcing herself to step away, she cleared her throat. “Can you actually encourage independent thought if you are the one to assign your sister the books?”

“Let us test it. I will select material for you, and we can discuss it on our next walk.”

“Very well, I will meet your challenge.” Elizabeth handed Darcy her stack of books to look at again.

“Let’s see, Donne, Wordsworth and Madame d’Arblay, the former Miss Burney. An interesting selection.” He raised his brow at her.

“Father dislikes Donne’s Holy Sonnets and thinks Wordsworth too silly, comparing himself to a cloud. I enjoyed Evelina and thought I would try Belinda. No that is not right. Selina…or Camilla!”

“I fear it must not bode well if you recall not the title.”

“And I suppose she writes the type of book you do not allow Miss Darcy to read.”

“No, I have heard no harm of her; if anything, I have a good opinion of her as she enjoyed the patronage of several very educated ladies. No, but I dislike Georgiana reading the Gothic novels by Mrs. Radcliffe and the like.”

“Oh, yes very different things entirely,” Elizabeth said with a shudder as she recalled attempting The Mysteries of Udolpho which was praised by so many of her friends.

“I believe I know just what to debate with you, Miss Bennet.” Darcy left her side and after a moment brought back a book. “We shall discuss The Tempest.”

Elizabeth’s face tightened in distaste. “I have, of course, read the complete works of Shakespeare and can already tell you my opinion on this matter.”

“You do not believe in giving things a second perusal?”

She was about agree when she remembered that she had been wrong in her first assessment of him. “I shall try, but I am certain I will test your opinions on the matter.”

“I would not have it any other way,” he said with a smile. “What is the nature of your dislike?”

“Miranda and Ferdinand’s love is too instant for my tastes.” She did not add that it was Jane’s favourite work.

“You would rather hate a gentleman first?”

Elizabeth looked up sharply and was uncertain of Darcy’s expression. It might be hopeful, or perhaps only teasing.

“I would rather know a gentleman’s character. No matter the love or attraction felt, there must be substance behind it.”

There were footsteps in the hall. Undoubtedly, this time it would be the maid for her escort. Darcy seemed frustrated at the interruption but hastily spoke before the steps reached the door.

“I will enjoy discussing this with you further. Thank you for an enjoyable afternoon.” He quickly raised her hand to his lips. “Until tomorrow, Elizabeth.”

The maid appeared, and after the requisite curtsy and bow, Elizabeth left in Lady Catherine’s carriage.

*****

The following afternoon, Darcy handed his aunt and cousin into the carriage destined for Knole Park. Lady Catherine had sent another for the guests at the parsonage. He did not know what the day would hold, and usually he would hate to be among so many strangers. Today, his concern was fixed on Elizabeth. He had only a passing acquaintance with Jenkinson. His aunt would be disappointed if Mrs. Jenkinson did not join the Bluestocking Club, but Darcy was more interested in Elizabeth getting to tour the Hall and speaking with noted architect George Dance. He was not entirely sure how to introduce her to such a man when he needed a family tree diagram to understand his relationship with the Duke.

“Make haste, Darcy. We cannot keep the Duke waiting,” Lady Catherine commanded from within. The conveyance rocked to the side as she situated herself on its plush seats.

“Conor!” Anne called and Darcy at last folded his tall frame into his chaise. Sitting next to his cousin, as his aunt and Anne’s companion took the other row, he dwarfed her small figure.

“I have not heard anyone call you that in a very long time,” Lady Catherine said. She looked peculiarly at him as they lurched forward and drove down the lane.

“After Mother died, I think Anne was the last one to call me such.”

“And then you went to Eton and came back demanding to be called Darcy,” Anne pouted.

“Did I?” he chuckled when Anne emphatically nodded.

“She always did favour middle names,” his aunt whispered while looking out the window.

“I did?” Anne asked sounding confused.

“No, your aunt,” Lady Catherine answered. “She did not go by Lady Anne until her marriage to your father,” she nodded at Darcy. “Of course, we were not born the daughters of an earl at any rate,” she added.

“I always forget that your uncle died without a male heir so your father inherited,” Anne said. “So, it seems not everyone ‘did their duty to the Fitzwilliam line,’ after all.” Anne raised a brow at her mother.

“That was quite some time ago!” Her ladyship gave her daughter a stern look. Anne turned her face toward the window, no doubt to hide her rolling eyes.

Darcy said nothing but considered his aunt for a moment. She was still a handsome woman. She was born when his mother was fifteen and had Lady Anne not married so late in life, he would be even closer in age to her ladyship than their gap of sixteen years. He wondered, briefly, what she had been like when she was young. His memories of his mother were of a woman vastly different than her younger sister. And yet, he also knew the affection between the two was very real. It seemed they were always together whether at Pemberley or Rosings.

After some moments of silence, Anne sighed. “Without Richard, I wonder if they will have enough for a cricket team.”

“Never mind the cricket. We shall picnic outside at the very least,” Lady Catherine said. “But it would not do to arrive at the Duchess’ home in an open carriage.”

Anne sighed but said nothing, and Darcy also cast his eyes out the window. It was a beautiful day for their visit, but it seemed Anne would not be content to merely sit out of doors. An idea struck. “Perhaps, you might request Mr. Dance to give a drawing lesson. Surely it is something all the young ladies would enjoy.”

“Brilliant!” Anne grinned and clapped her hands, displaying more liveliness than he had seen in her in years.

The distance to Knole Hall was scarcely four miles, and soon they had arrived. The Hunsford party was just behind them. Darcy bounded from the carriage and impatiently handed down his relatives. He wanted to run to the other coach and watch Elizabeth’s reaction when she saw the house up close, but he knew he could not pay her too much attention.

Luck had it that Mr. Collins was so eager to praise Lady Catherine for securing his invitation that he dashed away before assisting the ladies in his care. Darcy happily took his position. Elizabeth was the last to emerge, and when she placed her hand in his, he could feel the tremble. A slight gasp escaped her lips, and she looked in wonder at the magnificent edifice.

“Marvellous,” she said.

The butler led them inside. Miss Lucas grasped her sister’s arm for support. A look of awe and triumph settled on Mrs. Collins’ face. Darcy did not wonder at the expression. For the spinster daughter of a tradesman turned knight and wife to a country clergyman, invitation to a duke’s house would be a conquest indeed. Her husband’s eyes nearly bulged out of his head, and Darcy could see him estimating the cost of tapestries and window glazing to report to others in all his usual superciliousness. Lastly, Elizabeth’s intelligent eyes took in the structuring of the hall, and the pillared arches leading to the grand staircase with the intricately carved wooden “Sackville leopards” holding shields mimicking the family’s coat of arms and forming the finials of the balusters. They were shown to an ornate saloon on the main floor. The walls were covered in crimson caffoy but Darcy noticed Elizabeth’s eyes first went to the coffered ceiling.

Standing before the seated Dowager Duchess of Dorset and her controlling mother, the Dowager Countess Liverpool, Lady Catherine performed introductions. Of course, his aunt had left out the family skeletons. The Duchess’ great-great-grandmother had been the mistress of James II and her step-brother, the current Earl of Liverpool, had a great-grandmother who was a Portuguese-Indian Creole. Darcy wondered; if the Earl had to own that relationship to the world, would he still be a supporter of slavery? Of course, that was his policy decades ago, before the slave trade was abolished. Now, the Earl served as the Secretary of War, and Darcy believed the chance to meet with him was the sole reason for Richard’s visits to Rosings the last several years.

Unease nibbled at Darcy as he considered why Richard was away on duty when he ought to have been on holiday. To Elizabeth and the people in Meryton, he was the most powerful man they might ever meet. Even more so once he inherited the barony. The truth was, despite his wealth, there were richer men — even tradesmen — and far more powerful and ambitious nobles. He understood his position in the world. If not for his cousin’s favours with colleagues in the War Department, he would have no hope of ridding Meryton of Wickham. Men like Lord Liverpool and even the young Duke had far greater concerns than familial disputes. Men such as Darcy could not hope to control their world unless they enjoyed the friendship of a prince and, given the behaviour of the current princes of the United Kingdom, Darcy had no intention of being on such terms with any of them.

“Darcy,” the ageing, hoarse voice of Lady Liverpool intoned after they had all sat and tea was served. “Your sister did not accompany you on this visit?”

“I am afraid not, your ladyship,” Darcy said in cold formality. “She was ill this last autumn. She preferred to stay in London and to spend more time with her studies.”

“Such a pity,” the lady remarked. “Dorset was hoping to see her again. She will be presented at Court this season?”

Darcy bit back a growl. Dorset seemed a decent young man, but he would not sell his sister to merely the highest bidder who had not engaged her heart, or without her input and at such a young age. Furthermore, he despised the grasping and matchmaking mamas, or in this case grandmamas. “She will not be of age for two years and might prefer to delay it even longer.”

The countess seemed baffled by such a thought, but Darcy knew his sister. Georgiana would hate being a duchess. She already loathed the idea of her court presentation and all the pomp. It was no wonder she had been attracted to the steward’s son.

“Ah, I had forgotten your mother was such a bluestocking. I rather suppose she got that from her aunt,” the Duchess weighed in and shook her head.

“The Baroness?” Elizabeth asked, and the ladies started at the unexpected voice.

Darcy examined her face. Her colour was heightened, but he could not tell if it was from embarrassment or some other emotion.

“Forgive me, I had the pleasure of meeting her recently but never knew Lady Anne. Lady Darcy seemed everything ladylike, to me, and I quite admired her intelligence.”

“Who did you say this one was and where was she from?” the Countess asked, looking at Lady Catherine.

“Her name is Elizabeth Bennet and father has an estate in Hertfordshire,” Lady Catherine replied.  “I have told her before she gives her opinions shockingly freely for one so young.”

Inwardly, Darcy cringed at the way they talked about Elizabeth as though she were not present or capable of speaking for herself. He opened his mouth to defend her, but the expression on her face showed she was more amused than offended. Their eyes met, and silently she communicated that he need say nothing.

“Miss Bennet,” the Countess gave Elizabeth a haughty look. “It is forgivable you do not know much of superior society. I do not mean Lady Darcy. I am speaking of Lady Anne Fitzwilliam, wife to the second Earl and Clara and Amelia’s aunt.”

“I am sorry, aunt to who?” Elizabeth asked.

The duchess set down her teacup. “There are far too many Catherines and Annes about. The ones you call Lady Anne and Lady Catherine, we as close friends of the family,” she nodded at Lady Catherine and then Darcy,” know as Clara and Amelia, their second names.”

“Forgive me, I had not realised,” Elizabeth said and looked nervously at her tea cup.

“I cannot speak for my aunt,” Darcy said, “but my mother was known to nearly all as Clara. Their father did not inherit the earldom until just after Lady Catherine’s birth, and there were several Annes in the family already. Mother might have been known as Lady Anne in formal situations, but she grew up as Clara Fitzwilliam, daughter to a barrister who never expected to inherit.”

“At any rate,” the Countess continued in a bored tone, “Lady Anne Fitzwilliam, the Countess, was a leader in that Bluestocking Club. It was she who involved Lady Darcy and later Clara in it. We were all just scandalised when she married the Earl. His first wife had been the daughter of a marquess and died after their first child, a son and his heir, was born. He lived decades without remarrying. We all believed he loved his wife too much.”

“What happened?” Anne asked, appearing fascinated with the talk of long dead relatives she had never known.

“The young man died,” the Countess said.

“In a riding accident, if you can believe it,” the Duchess inserted. “I always tell my son to take care riding, but then with his superior breeding he has the most magnificent seat I have ever seen.”

She eyed Darcy, and he held back another scowl.

“So, the Earl remarried, and just how he settled on a bluestocking we have never quite ascertained,” the Countess added.

“I am surprised to hear you demean a relation of your own,” Lady Catherine said, glaring at the Countess. “My aunt was the granddaughter of Viscount Falmouth, as you well know. What a joy it is for us to share a great-grandmother and claim such close kinship to James the Second.” The Countess sucked in a breath and paled, but Lady Catherine continued. “I know how the relationship pleases you since you named your daughter Arabella.”

When his aunt had finished, there was an awkward silence in the room, but he had eyes only for Elizabeth. Mirth swam in them, and he knew the same was reflected in his own. Finally, the door opened and several others bounded inside.

“Ah, Dorset,” the Duchess greeted her son and gave introductions.

“Enough formality,” the young Duke said when she had finished, reminding Darcy of Bingley. “We have come to gather men for cricket. Darcy, I see your cousin is absent this year. I do not know that we will have enough, unless any of you ladies play?”

Darcy did scowl when Dorset’s appreciative gaze landed on Elizabeth.

“Eliza is an excellent player,” Mrs. Collins said, and became the newest recipient of Darcy’s glare.

“Is that right, Miss Bennet?” the Duke, who was very near to being punched, grinned at the woman Darcy loved.

“Well, I do not know how I compare to others, and it has been a great many years since I played.” The slight squeezing of her hands signified her distress to Darcy, but none of her other friends appeared to notice.

“You shall be on my team, then,” the Duke laughed.

“I hate to contradict,” Lady Catherine said, “but it really is unkind to make the poor dear play with strangers. It would be much better for her to play on Darcy’s team. Do not you agree, Arabella and Cathy?”

The female relations of Dorset emphatically agreed, and he relented. Darcy breathed a sigh of relief. However… “Forgive me, but we did not ascertain if Miss Bennet wished to play.” He looked at her. “Would you rather watch from the side-lines or do you prefer to take your chances on me? Full disclosure, the Sackville and Jenkinson men are known for their prowess.”

There was a slight twitch of Elizabeth’s lips, but she answered without laughter. “If what you say is true, then I should infinitely prefer to play for a team that makes it only a game and is willing to laugh at themselves. We shall have quite the better time of it, I am sure.”

“Oh, the lady challenges us not who wins, but as to merriment!” the Duke called out and his faithful companions laughed with him.

“Are you certain you wish to remain on Darcy’s team then, madam?” Liverpool asked. “I have never seen him without that scowl upon his face.”

Darcy’s scowl deepened, and he mentally thought to add his boot to the man’s backside in a more just word. Alas, one could not pummel Secretaries of War and brothers to their hostess.

“I shall take my chances,” Elizabeth answered smilingly.

Jenkinson tsked. “Just as well, if you are the sort that enjoys such a dangerous wager.” He ended in a grin which gave way to more laughter.

“Come along, then,” Dorset commanded, and all but the Countess filed out of doors. She would watch from a window, the stairs being too much for her arthritic knees.

 

 

Dearest Niece,

The latest gossip in Bath reports that the eldest Miss Linley is now officially Mrs. Sheridan. All the papers are enamoured with their love story. How they had to elope so she would not be forced to wed a terrible man. Then Mr. Sheridan defended her honour in two duels. However, I do not think anyone has explained why it took them an entire year after eloping to marry. Dearest Fanny bemoans the marriage, as it is rumoured Mr. Sheridan will not allow his wife to perform no matter their poverty. Understand, and rejoice, my love. Fame and riches make all things possible.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

Elizabeth followed the others outside, feeling the disapproving glares of Lady Catherine, the Duchess, and the Countess. It did not alter their dislike of her or the interest the Duke paid her. To her right, he chatted amiably of cricket, reminding her of Mr. Bingley. To her left, Mr. Darcy glowered. Did he think her unworthy of the Duke as well?

Despite Elizabeth’s dislike for Darcy’s present expression, she could barely spare him a thought. She was too consumed with her anger at Charlotte. How had Elizabeth not known her dearest friend was such a deceitful creature? She had practically fed Elizabeth to the wolves, whilst it was Darcy who attempted to mitigate problems. Her head wondered if it was due to pride — belief that she was of inferior consequence, or from his rejected proposal — but her heart began to whisper that he only wished to put her at ease.

They arrived at the large lawn on which they would play and broke into teams. The Duke captained his family’s team, consisting of titled relatives and, as special guests, the sons of Lord George Cavendish, a younger son of the Duke of Devonshire. They had recently re-entered society after the death of the eldest son and heir. Darcy captained the other team made up of people who were clearly guests of less distinction and rank, although in some instances they were of closer relation. Among them, the three sons of George Dance the Younger.

“How is your father, Tom?” Darcy asked as they gathered around.

“Quite well for his age. He sits under the shade tree with Aunt Harriet,” the man nodded toward an elderly gentleman. “Although, he does feel down now and then since Uncle Nate’s death last autumn.”

“Indeed, I was sorry to hear of his passing. A loss to all of England but surely felt most acutely by your family.”

Elizabeth saw in Darcy’s expression genuine remorse, and Thomas Dance nodded in acceptance of Darcy’s words.

“Well, now,” Mr. Dance said and cast his eyes at the opposite end of the field. “We are down Richard but Liverpool is another year older, yet I think quite out of shape with his office work.”

Darcy chuckled. “You are scarcely a few years younger than he!”

“Yes, but I hardly look it,” he said and winked at Elizabeth.

“Nor do you act it!” Another gentleman came bounding over. His similar features proved meant he must be a Dance relation. A third young man tagged behind. The introduction that followed proved Elizabeth’s assumption correct, he was the youngest brother. Their other teammates, including Mr. Collins, gathered near.

Elizabeth could feel Darcy’s stare as the Dance brothers trained identical brown eyes on her. “How skilled are you at cricket, Miss Bennet?” the eldest asked.

“That is a rather subjective question. I played better than most of the boys in my town. However, that was several years ago, and they were not grown men.” She did not wish to disclose that it was a mere three years ago and not the dozen they likely presumed.

“Do not worry about that,” one of the younger brothers said. “They will be too awed by a female playing at all. These fancy types aren’t used to ladies doing more than sitting. Their chivalry will demand they bowl easy.”

The last brother looked at Elizabeth’s long skirts. “Do you bat well? I dare say it must be impossible to run in that get-up.”

“Run!” Mr. Collins gasped. “Miss Elizabeth surely you do not mean to do something so unladylike as run! Why Lady Catherine would never—”

“Miss Bennet is a capable player,” Darcy cut in. “She is healthy and young, full of energy. Do not underestimate her. That is their job, as Tom pointed out.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth said. Tiring of others speaking for her, she stepped toward the equipment. “We ought to use this time to practice. As Mr. Darcy is our captain, I trust he is formulating a plan.”

“We shall play to our strengths.” Darcy counted the group off into nearly equal numbers and sent half to practice batting and half to work on sprints. When he had a moment, he spoke quietly to Elizabeth.

“I hope I do not upset you, but I feel that since you are burdened with less sporting attire, we would benefit the most from having you run with a partner most likely to hit far.”

“And who is that?” she asked, noting it did not seem like Darcy considered her own ability at bat. Knowing the eyes of the entire house were on her, she did not show her true skill during practice. She would rather surprise their opponents.

Darcy rubbed the back of his neck and looked away sheepishly. “In the past, it has been me.”

Elizabeth’s eyes scanned his tall, broad build, for the first time noting how more masculine his physique was than other gentlemen. How was he so strong? Did not rich men spend all their time indoors?

“Then, we shall be partners,” Elizabeth said and smiled.

The smile Darcy gave her in return stole her breath. He looked more youthful and carefree, vigorous and virile among men of an academic bent. As much as she admired George Dance and the legacy of his relations, wheedling away hours at a drafting table did not lend itself to the sorts of powerful muscles which rippled under Darcy’s coat and breeches. Her mouth growing dry, she suddenly wished she had taken greater note of their waltz.

“Excuse me,” Elizabeth said shaking her head. “I would like a drink of water before we begin.”

She ran over to the refreshment table, where Charlotte and several other ladies were gathered. “Good luck, Eliza,” Charlotte whispered.

Shoving concerns over her friend’s behaviour aside, Elizabeth thanked her and scurried back to the team, just as the Duke announced the game ready to commence.

“To not fatigue Miss Bennet,” the Duke began.

Elizabeth quelled the urge to roll her eyes at the Duke’s unnecessary condescension.

“Or our audience,” he continued, “we will play only one inning each. The limit is one over per bowler. Liverpool has the coin toss. I call heads.”

The Earl flipped the coin in the air and Elizabeth waited in trepidation for the resulting answer.

“Heads it is!”

Elizabeth and her teammates took to the field. Tom Dance took position as the first bowler. The Duke served as the on-strike batsman and the Earl at the bowling end. Tom bowled well, but the Duke struck the ball toward Mr. Collins who seemed too alarmed, whether by a hard object hurtling toward him or by the thought of catching the Duke out, that he jumped out of the way. The fielders near him scrambled to grab the ball, and the Duke and Earl managed four runs. Darcy rearranged the fielders and sent Collins to long-stop at the back after that, a decision Elizabeth wondered he did not start with.

The next several balls went better. Tom either bowled them out, or the fielders managed to limit the number of runs. However, Tom’s turn was over, and a new bowler was chosen. Elizabeth soon realised not all her teammates desired to win against such illustrious personages. As a fielder, no one hit a ball toward her. Anything that came remotely near was snatched by a gentleman who might harm his health with how hard he ran, all to keep Elizabeth from exerting herself in any way. However, one time, a ball came directly toward her, and she caught it, dismissing the batsman, to the surprise of nearly every participant.

“Miss Bennet,” Darcy called, “it is your turn to bowl.” He gave her a tight smile and Elizabeth could not make out if he disliked her playing or her treatment. As it was, he had saved her for next to last. She walked to the beginning of the approach.

“You may come forward,” the Duke called from where the opposing team gathered.

Elizabeth gave him a false smile and complied. When she had last played she did not need the modification, but she would not allow her pride to get the best of her. She took a few paces forward.

“And you may bowl underhand,” Liverpool added.

Elizabeth took a deep breath but before she could begin her run-up, Darcy made a motion, and the umpire called a break. Elizabeth narrowed her eyes at yet another modification due to her sex. Her would-be champion approached.

“Never mind them,” Darcy said. “Are you certain you wish to bowl? Dorset sounds like he would make allowances for you, but do not be fooled. He might just as soon hit directly at you. You can claim you are fatigued by the sun.” Darcy looked in the direction of the trees providing shade for the other guests. Charlotte talked with a very pregnant Mrs. Julia Jenkinson.

“I will not perish from one game of Cricket, sir.” Elizabeth glanced backwards. “However, my cousin seems quite weary so let us talk no more. The sooner I do my part, you may do yours, and then we might stand under the shade.”

“If you are certain,” Darcy scrutinised her resolve.

“I am,” Elizabeth said with an annoyed edge to her voice.

Darcy merely nodded and returned to his position as wicket-keeper. Elizabeth took a deep breath then ran a few paces past the crease and threw underhand. The striking batsman was evidently surprised for he missed his chance to strike the ball and instead resorted to protecting the wicket with his arm. Declared out leg before wicket by the umpire, the batsman left the field. The Dance brothers cheered Elizabeth, while Dorset and Liverpool consulted one another.

“On second thought, Miss Bennet is welcome to bowl as the others,” the Duke’s younger uncle, Mr. Jenkinson, said while laughing.

Elizabeth smiled, as well, and complied. Remaining behind the crease line and throwing overhand certainly was more difficult, but achievable. Again, the batsman was surprised. His delay caused him to edge the ball and be caught out by a fielder. Having learned to not underestimate her, Elizabeth’s next three balls resulted in several runs. By her last ball, her shoulder did ache from the unusual movements. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, one batsman had reached his century and retired after his one-hundredth run. The Duke of Dorset became the striking batsman and Darcy’s words resonated in her ears. However, she had thought the Duke had been quite good-natured. And while she disliked being coddled, she knew he acted with honour. He would never aim directly at her.

Elizabeth ran toward the crease line and let the ball fly from her right hand, rejoicing when she saw it line up well with the wickets. The world seemed to slow, however, when she heard a loud cracking sound and saw the ball hurtling directly for her. She heard the gasps from the crowd and out of the corner of her eye saw the silly point and the short leg race from their positions near Dorset to her. Despite hearing the pounding of feet from the slips behind her, she had no choice. She would not duck or jump out of the way. Taking a step backwards, so the ball did not strike her face, she caught the hard sphere in her hands at chest height. It punched into her with such force that she fell and knocked her head.

“Miss Bennet!” her teammates called to her. She attempted to sit up and soon regretted it.

“Rest a moment,” Tom Dance insisted. “I believe you hit your head when you fell.”

Elizabeth peered beyond him, first to the ladies rushing to her side, and then to where she heard angry words being yelled from the receiving wicket. Darcy looked ready to resort to fisticuffs with the Duke.

“That was in poor spirit of the game!” Darcy yelled, and many others seemed in agreement.

The umpire shook his head. “The Duke is caught and bowled. If Miss Bennet is not injured, we must resume the game.” The assembled crowd returned to their posts under the trees or to their position on the field.

“Can you stand?” Tom asked her.

“Of course. I am quite well,” Elizabeth insisted and took his hand when offered. Her head ached, but it would not stop her from playing.

Darcy approached. “Miss Bennet,” he said frowning. “I wish you would rest and allow someone else to take your place.”

“There is no one else,” she said and lifted her chin. “I wish to stay.”

“Surely—”

“Let her be, Darcy,” Tom said. “Take it out on Dorset when it is your turn to bat.”

Darcy glared at the Duke but seemed to accept the other man’s suggestion. He ordered Elizabeth to the farthest fielding position and therefore least likely to be needed. Although Elizabeth was some distance from him, she could see he bowled well. His over was completed quickly with the Duke’s team gaining only two runs. While the teams exchanged positions on the field, Darcy took Elizabeth by the elbow and led her to Charlotte and Mrs. Jenkinson.

“If you ladies cannot talk sense into Miss Bennet to quit the game, perhaps you may insist she rest,” he said gruffly as though she had done something wrong.

He stalked off, and Elizabeth stared daggers at the back of his head. He had returned to his high and mighty Hertfordshire ways, and she despised it.

“Here is some lemonade,” Charlotte said and offered her fan. Elizabeth took both, but only to appear agreeable.

Mrs. Jenkinson shook her head. “I am surprised at Dorset. He never did such a thing to me.”

“Do you play?” Elizabeth asked. She was surprised the sister-in-law to an earl and aunt to a duke would participate in the sport.

“I think it might have been what Charles first noticed about me,” she laughed. “My father had been invited for some reason I can no longer remember and at fifteen, I was headstrong enough to volunteer for the task of completing a team, not realising how seriously the Liverpool men take the game.”

Elizabeth chuckled. “I admit I would not have expected such renowned men to play so passionately.”

“Indeed!” the lady agreed. “I was too young to court then, and Charles had just returned from Austria, but our families remained on good terms. We were always invited to the Easter gathering. I was around your age when Charles finally seemed to notice me for anything beyond cricket.” Her eyes took on a soft quality. “I sprained my wrist batting, and he was so tender. Oh, forgive me. I get so weepy when I am with child!” She pulled a handkerchief out from her reticule.

“You obviously love him very much,” Elizabeth said smilingly.

“Yes. His mother was not pleased when he wished to marry a penniless daughter of an Irish astronomer. I have undoubtedly polluted the family blood line.”

By the turn of her lips, Elizabeth could tell the lady found it more ridiculous than offensive. Inwardly, she smiled as well. Hearing that the Dowager Countess was related to Lady Catherine seemed fitting. It was exactly how she imagined her ladyship would react to Elizabeth marrying Darcy. Marrying Darcy! Where had such a thought come from?

“I think mothers often just wish for their children to do well. I do not know that my own ever went to sleep at night not worried about my future until I wed,” Charlotte said.

Elizabeth glanced at her in surprise and saw her friend’s eyes glittering.

“Surely the love between a mother and child is more than most will ever have.”

“Oh, now I have you crying too!” Mrs. Jenkinson pulled another handkerchief out and handed it to Charlotte. “Calm yourself, it is not good in your condition. You are entirely correct; happiness in marriage does not always follow a love match. There are many things love cannot change. If Charles had nothing and we married, I do not think we could have ever felt content.”

Elizabeth did not entirely agree, but was saved the trouble of having to reply by being called for her turn. As she left, Charlotte daintily wiped at her eyes and Elizabeth belatedly put the lady’s words together. Was Charlotte with child? Was that the source of her odd moods? Mrs. Jenkinson seemed to imply as much, and Elizabeth recalled that when her aunt had been expecting she also had emotional outbursts.

Shaking her head to clear the family concerns of others, she focused on her position. With any luck, she would be caught out and not expected to stay on the pitch as a non-striking batsman. Her head did ache, but she also had little enthusiasm for the game. She much preferred to stroll the grounds.

When she was receiving, she was a victim of discrimination again; the bowler bowled the ball far too easily. She hit the ball and managed two runs, but the former non-striking batsman retired. Finally, it was Darcy’s turn, and soon the infernal game would be over. It was now the Duke’s turn to bowl, and Darcy eyed him with steely determination. After two balls that were wide, Darcy seemed more infuriated. Elizabeth recalled him claiming great skill with the bat, and if the Duke would not bowl correctly, then it would prevent Darcy from hitting over the boundary and scoring six runs. Looking over her shoulder, Elizabeth saw that the fielders had backed up closer to the boundary.

Elizabeth watched as Dorset bowled again. From her position, it looked as though the ball would hit Darcy in the shoulder. At the last possible moment, it veered to her left. Darcy swung hard, his form worthy of being sculpted by the great artists. The ball sailed through the air past the boundary. She could not help cheering with her teammates, although she was entirely unsure what the score was. The teams gathered around their captains and waited for the umpires to call the game.

“Team Darcy wins! One hundred twenty-two runs to the Duke’s one hundred twenty. Darcy’s team wins by two!”

The cry from her teammates filled Elizabeth with pride. She cared nothing for the game. It had been a pleasant enough past-time from her youth, but she enjoyed more their pride and teamwork as they beat their hosts, something Elizabeth thought seldom occurred, and not merely out of deference. To her surprise, she was specially thanked and praised.

“It was your two runs, Miss Bennet!” One of the younger Dance brothers proclaimed.

“Aye, it was!” Tom agreed.

“Three cheers for Miss Bennet!” more called out.

Elizabeth laughed at the gaiety and absurdity. She could only think they gave her such credit because it would wound the pride of the Dorset clan more to have been beaten by a woman. “And what of our captain? He scored the final runs!”

Darcy flushed with her praise and the resulting cheers but as his eyes met hers he gave her a genuine smile, which she returned. Whatever his foul mood was from earlier, she was pleased to see him return to informality and friendship.

The remainder of the day was spent eating a casual luncheon, polite conversation with the ladies including Miss de Bourgh, and a tour of the grounds and the house. Despite Elizabeth enjoying the Tudor arches, Knole’s brown gallery, a collection of Raphael cartoons, and many paintings by Joshua Reynolds, including Wang-y-tong the Sackville Chinese page boy, the height of her enjoyment was the original medieval walled garden inside a larger walled garden. The additional highlight of a group drawing lesson from George Dance was only eclipsed by then speaking with him about the need for more neo-Medieval architecture. His agreeing that Elizabeth had many knowledgeable points nearly outshone the bizarre jealousy she felt when she observed Darcy talking for an extended period with Julia Jenkinson.

Overall, Elizabeth was excessively pleased with her visit to Knole. Mr. Collins did not let her forget how much she owed Lady Catherine and, although she rather thought it was all due to another, she profusely thanked the lady before leaving. Fortunately for Elizabeth’s still slightly throbbing head, the distance to Hunsford was easy, and soon she was away from her cousin’s commands of gratitude and unheard compliments to his patroness.

 

 

Dear C

I have had the pleasure of seeing Angelikas portrait of the Earl of Spencers children. The eldest daughter is soon to marry her young Duke. I confess, I worry for Lady Georgiana. At not yet seventeen, she is still a child and I fear the Duke was not raised as I would have hoped a grandson of Lady Burlington would have been raised. Dearest, when you wed find something between an impoverished gentleman and a Duke, if you please. On a more pleasant subject, I have never enjoyed a piece of poetry so much as I loved Miss Scotts Female Advocate.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Eighteen

The following morning, Elizabeth slept later than usual. Mr. Collins was already in the garden while Charlotte and Maria were in the sitting room, having finished breakfast. Before entering, she heard some of their conversation.

“Like this?” Maria asked.

Elizabeth presumed the young girl was being shown an embroidery stitch.

“Yes, that is excellent!” Charlotte praised her younger sister.

A sad smile came to Elizabeth’s lips. She recalled sitting with Jane in such a way. Her elder sister had much more patience than their mother did. But who sat with the younger ones? Jane sometimes would try, but Elizabeth had cast off Lydia and Kitty as far too simple-minded for her. Their parents did little better. In the end, it was small wonder the girls had felt no one was worth listening to.

“Shall we not ask Lizzy to join us?” Maria asked.

“I think we had better let her rest. She must be overtired from her performance yesterday.”

“Performance? You mean Cricket?”

Charlotte sighed. “Maria, dear, you must see by now that Eliza is the type of woman who must always have as much attention as possible. It is not to be wondered at since you know her mother. She was not raised to be retiring or modest. I suppose Jane tries, but with such beauty, she will never be overlooked.”

Elizabeth covered her mouth lest an offended gasp alert them to her presence. Must she always be hearing ungenerous things about herself?

“Do not look at me so,” Charlotte scolded. “Eliza is my dearest friend, but our months of separation have allowed me to see our differences. I had thought age would demure her, but I am convinced it is not so. She will never change. Thank heavens she had the sense to know how ill-matched she would be with my dear Collins.”

“I had not thought of it that way,” Maria said.

“Be thankful you have an older sister, for I had to learn for myself and you see it took me twenty-seven years. Forget notions of love or romance. Men of sense desire wives who are calm and level-headed. They want women who will run their household well and be a credit to their names. Look for a gentleman who matches your desires in life. For example, I would not be pleased with a man who wished to live in London.”

“Surely love exists for some no matter how ill-matched they are?”

Elizabeth could hear the anxiety in Maria’s voice.

“Mr. Darcy seems to love Lizzy. They have little in common, but it would be—”

Unwilling to allow them to gossip about her, Elizabeth called out as though she were some distance away. “Charlotte?”

There was a slight pause. “We are in the drawing room.”

Rolling her eyes as she stamped her feet on the ground to pretend walking down the hall, she counted the minutes until she could leave. She intended to visit Miss de Bourgh this morning. Finally, she entered the chamber.

“Eliza, you look unwell.”

Genuine concern etched across Charlotte’s face, confusing Elizabeth. “A lingering headache. I think a walk will cure me.”

“But you have not eaten. Stay and take some tea, at least,” Charlotte insisted.

Feeling as though she could not avoid the invitation, Elizabeth complied. While they drank, the mail came. Elizabeth had a missive from Mary and Charlotte opened a letter with eagerness.

“Ladies, Mrs. Julia Jenkinson invites us to call on her in two days’ time for an informal tea at Knole House.”

“La! Will we see the Duchess again?” Maria asked with her eyes rounding in mingled fear and excitement.

“I do not think we will. She would have much more important things to do than wait on us.”

As Charlotte said it, Elizabeth imagined the cogs in her head turning in thought. A friendship with Mrs. Jenkinson could very well lead to greater intimacy with the Duchess. The Sackvilles would have considerably more patronage in the church. Fortunately, Jane’s voice scolded her. Elizabeth needed to clear the air with her friend, but she should be careful to not presume her motives. Instead, Elizabeth expressed her happiness with the invitation. When their tea was finished, she excused herself to walk and read Mary’s letter.

Mary had little of interest to say. The militia would soon decamp to Brighton, giving Elizabeth ease for if they could not remove Wickham earlier then he would be leaving anyway. However, a few lines later, Mary reported Lydia’s growing intimacy with the Colonel of the Regiment’s wife and that she was frequently in the company of several of the officers, including Wickham.

If only she could leave Kent earlier! She needed to speak with her Uncle or Father. They must be made to understand the danger Wickham posed. Increasingly, Elizabeth wondered if she should reveal to Darcy all that Wickham had said. Weeks ago, it had seemed immaterial, but now with Darcy’s declarations and professions of admiration, it seemed possible that Wickham had considered Darcy might wish to marry her all along. How humbling to think that so many others were less astonished by Darcy’s interest than she was. Two things kept her from anxiety as she walked swiftly to Rosings. The first being that Darcy would be intelligent enough to think of some excuse for an earlier arrival in London, even if it meant she could not stay with the Gardiners. Secondly, that while Wickham may understand Darcy enough to see his attachment, he most assuredly did not know her. He had supposed she and Charlotte would concoct a plan to ensnare Darcy. In actuality, Charlotte did not approve of the match, and Elizabeth would rather live in disgrace the rest of her life than to bring a shred of it to the Darcy name.

That thought slowed her pace. She could no longer vow that she did not harbour the slightest desire to marry Darcy. It was far too early to know if she would welcome his renewed declarations but she also admitted there was an increasing possibility that she might when weeks ago he would have been the last man she would have considered. However, it was not just Darcy of whom she must think. Scandal attached to her could ruin Georgiana or Anne. And while she had only met the Baroness once, she felt they were kindred spirits. Lady Catherine would undoubtedly not approve of the match at any rate, but the thought of losing the good opinion of Darcy’s other aunt troubled her.

“Elizabeth!”

Darcy’s voice called out, startling her. She missed noticing a raised tree root and tripped. Feeling her ankle twist and not wanting to risk further injury, Elizabeth crumpled to the ground.

“Elizabeth!” Darcy exclaimed and ran to her side. “Are you injured? Is it your head?”

Elizabeth blinked up at him. Her head? She had landed on her bottom and remained upright. Why should he worry about her head?

“No, my head is quite well, thank you. I twisted my ankle on this root.” She pointed at the source and experimented with flexing her foot. “I think I can walk but should probably rest the remainder of the day. I will regret missing my visit with Miss de Bourgh.”

“You are far closer to Rosings than you are to the parsonage. I will assist you to the house. Then, we will let the housekeeper fuss over you and you may keep your visit with Anne.”

Elizabeth smiled a little. Had she thought him arrogant and intruding before? Now, she admired the way he could manage a situation. “Very well. Could we rest a bit first? And perhaps out of the lane?”

“Certainly.” Darcy looped one arm under Elizabeth’s knees and clasped another around her waist, lifting her with ease as she shrieked and clutched his lapels.

“I can walk!”

“Ah, but then I could not play the hero,” he said with a smile he did not attempt to hide.

Elizabeth laughed and shook her head. Would she ever know what to expect from this man? He gently placed her on the ground under a tree, several paces from the lane and joined her.

“Other than your ankle, are you well? You have had no lingering effects from yesterday?”

“Only a slight headache.”

Darcy cursed under his breath. “That dolt should be whipped. He was threatened by you and sought to harm you!”

Elizabeth laughed. “I am sure it is no more than he would do to any opponent.”

“That may be, but you are… you are…”

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows in expectation. “I am?”

Darcy clamped his mouth shut.

“A woman? Something delicate?”

Darcy shook his head. “No, that is not the source of my agitation.”

He seemed unwilling to say more, and it occurred to Elizabeth they had sat like this not too many days before and yet her feelings were entirely different. Now, she did not blame him for every misfortune in her life or feel the need to fill their moments of silence. She found them companionable. She fiddled with the grass and leaves around her, then brushed a fly from her cheek.

“You mean very much to me,” Darcy said. The words were the words of a lover, and yet the tone sounded angry. “I care for you and wish for you to be safe.”

“Is that why you kept asking me to quit the game?” Elizabeth asked. It was probably the sweetest, most infuriating thing a person had ever done for her and she bit back a smile.

“You know I am not gifted with words. I apologise if I angered you. I know I am muddling this up.”

“Why do you say that?” Elizabeth thought he did quite well. He could be very articulate when he wished.

“There are no words to explain my admiration. I will not renew addresses which disgusted you but neither can I remove those sentiments.”

For some reason, Elizabeth’s heart sank. His proposal had only mentioned that he found her a suitable candidate as a wife. There was nothing about tender feelings or passion. When had she begun to wish to have such things with him? Did he only see her as a bluestocking? An intelligent woman who could further his social circle and run his household?

Glancing at him, she saw his intense stare on her face. “What is it?”

He withdrew a handkerchief and tenderly passed it over one cheek while he held her chin in his other hand. She must have wiped dirt on her face. She lowered her eyes in shame while he remained holding her face.

“Elizabeth,” Darcy rasped. “If you do not wish for me to kiss you, wrench your face away this instant. I can bear it no more.”

Instead, Elizabeth tilted her chin up as her lashes fluttered. As his flesh met hers, pure bliss ripped through her body.

 

*****

 

He should not be doing this. He absolutely should not be doing this. Elizabeth’s sweet kiss held a grip on him, though, and all the logic in the world stood no chance. It mattered not that they were paces from the lane to Rosings where anyone might see them. Nor did it matter that the woman had soundly refused his marriage proposal and thus any sane man would say matrimony was not in their future. Alas, he was sick of logic and claims of duty.

When he had savoured her lips for as long as he dared, he touched his forehead to hers. Elizabeth’s breath came quickly, and he could feel the heat of her blush. The vestiges of control he had began to slip. Never before had he understood how men could mislay their honour and seduce maidens and yet he was very aware that life would be incomplete without joining with this particular one.

“Do you know,” Elizabeth said with humour in her voice when she had caught her breath, “that I believe you can read minds.”

The statement was ludicrous but flattering and caused him to chuckle. “A dangerous talent, then. Perhaps it is best that I have never used it before.” They shared a laugh before he asked with keen interest, “What makes you think so?”

“Moments ago, I was wondering if you saw me as anything more than a bluestocking to be collected for your club.”

Darcy started. He had been careful to not mention the Club to avoid her coming to such a conclusion. Additionally, he was uncertain if his aunt would approve of her lower position in the world when her ladyship had asked for titled and wealthy members.

“The papers report many things,” she said with a knowing look. “I had not looked before, but after you had mentioned the likely gossip that would attend your arriving at the Gardiner residence, I took an interest. You are recreating the Bluestocking Club. It seems all of London is invested in the oddity of your celebrating your future inheritance with surrounding yourself with intellectual women.”

Darcy shook his head. “It is Lady Darcy’s request which I am bound to honour. If the papers imagine I would be the head of such a club, they could not be more wrong. While the ladies decades ago sometimes invited gentlemen to partake of their meetings, I am convinced a gentleman hosting so many ladies could be anything but proper.”

Elizabeth’s smile dipped a little. “So, you would be looking for a proper hostess.”

“Not necessarily,” he hedged lest he scare her away. “Georgiana is nearly of age, and there is no reason to conclude a lady related to me must be their leader or that they would even need one. They might decide upon a more democratic approach.”

“Democracy in the social spheres of England? How scandalous!” Elizabeth exclaimed in mock outrage. “Why your other aunt would never approve!”

They laughed before Elizabeth glanced toward the mansion. “Speaking of her ladyship, I would like to continue my journey now. I would not wish for Miss de Bourgh to think I would skip our meeting or to worry about me.”

“Very well,” Darcy offered his arm although he longed to scoop her up again. She leant heavier than usual on it but not near as heavily as he would have guessed from a twist. While they walked, Darcy explained his aunt’s vision for her club and the ladies he had already gathered, Julia Jenkinson being the most recent addition. He included a brief history of its predecessor as well.

“Angelica Kauffman…” Elizabeth furrowed her brow. “I have seen that name before.” After a moment of silence, she exclaimed. “Oh! In the copy of The Tempest, you found for me, there was a sketch of Ferdinand and Miranda. It said it was copied from a portrait by Angelica Kauffman.”

“How interesting! When next we meet I would enjoy seeing it.”

“Certainly,” Elizabeth said. “Will you not now scold me for avoiding our conversation of the work?”

“I would, if I thought it might do any good,” Darcy smiled.

Elizabeth laughed. “I promise we may talk about it soon. You must forgive me for not having read more than a few pages. Last night, I was overtired from the outing and the evening before I was over excited from anticipation.”

“Then perhaps tonight you may read it, for the evening will be very dull indeed. At least it will be so for me. Lady Catherine’s dinner table is always tedious, made bearable the last several weeks by your presence. What are meals like at your cousin’s?”

Elizabeth groaned. “Dull would be my word of choice as well! Each passing day feels more and more like a rusted knife attempting to rip out my heart, in the process doing as much damage as it can. I never thought I would miss the high spirits of Lydia and Kitty or the anxieties of my mother.”

She peeked at him, and Darcy wondered if it were to see what he thought of her family now. “You must miss them greatly.”

Nodding in agreement, they reached the steps of Rosings, where, without caring who might see, Darcy swept Elizabeth into his arms again. When the butler greeted them, he could not contain his shock but informed them in which drawing room they could find Anne. She gasped at Darcy and his precious cargo, immediately ordering a cold compress and refreshments as well as wraps and liniment. Soon, Elizabeth was coddled and relaxed in a chair with her foot elevated, and while she flushed with each kindness, Darcy did not know when he had ever felt more concerned, excepting when he saw Elizabeth fall backwards yesterday and knock her head.

The three young people took turns reading poetry and making a card table. Eventually, it was time for Elizabeth to return and as she refused to stay at Rosings, the carriage was ordered for her. As Darcy handed Elizabeth in, he was pleased to see her ankle mostly healed.

Returning to Anne’s sitting room, he met her smiling face. She clapped her hands. “That went splendidly! I believe Miss Bennet is seeing the honourable gentleman you have been hiding behind a facade of indifference and annoyance.”

“Usually, that would fluff my pride. Today, I know better. If she does think of me, I am sure it has only been with hate.” At least until recently, he held back a grin at the thought.

“No, it is me that she hated,” Anne shook her head.

“You! She hardly knows you!”

“And yet she has heard I am destined to be your wife. She found me insipid and arrogant.”

Darcy frowned. It was a wonder Elizabeth did not accuse him of either toying with her or of dishonourably abandoning Anne. “Considering she says I am also arrogant, she must think we deserve each other.”

“Perhaps,” Anne shrugged, “but she came to that conclusion before ever meeting me. Elizabeth confessed while she was in Hertfordshire, she had been told I was conceited and insolent. I wonder who she could have as common acquaintances, but I did not have a moment to ask her or Mrs. Collins.”

Biting back a curse, Darcy’s frown deepened. “Undoubtedly, more of Wickham’s lies.”

“Mr. Wickham?” Anne turned whiter than linen, and her voice wavered. “Your old steward’s son?”

“Technically, he was never my steward. His father served mine,” and therefore I owe him nothing, Darcy thought to himself. He scrutinised his cousin. “Anne, you are unwell. I will call Mrs. Jenkinson. Allow me to fetch you some wine.”

He quickly poured her a glass. Upon returning to her side, he was pleased to see some of her colour had returned. Still, she eagerly took his offered drink and did not admonish him when he pulled the bell cord. After the servant had left to seek Mrs. Jenkinson, Darcy returned to her side.

“Thank you for looking after me,” she said with a wry twist of her lips.

“It is nothing,” he said.

“I am so ashamed,” Anne blushed red and then covered her face. “If he knew — if he only knew! Oh, how he would delight in finding me weak once again.”

“I do not understand what you mean. Are your senses addled?” Darcy sat beside her and felt her forehead.

Anne swatted his hand away. “I am not ill. Please, before Mrs. Jenkinson arrives, you must answer me.” She took a deep breath, and her pleading eyes held Darcy’s gaze. “Do you mean to say that Miss Bennet is acquainted with Mr. Wickham?”

“Yes, he had joined a militia regiment quartered in Hertfordshire. I understand he has not hesitated to speak against me and use the area’s prejudice to his advantage.”

“Specifically, Miss Bennet?”

Darcy frowned. “Yes, and it contributed to some of her opinions of me.”

Now, I might be ill—” A

knock at the door interrupted her words. Darcy opened it, and Mrs. Jenkinson strolled in.

“Oh, my dear girl!” She exclaimed and cast accusing eyes at Darcy. He had often observed that the woman was motherlier than the woman who birthed her. “What has happened?”

“I will soon recover, Nan.” Darcy began to retreat, feeling that he was unwelcome and intruding on a scene which required privacy. “No, stay, Conor.”

Darcy’s feet ceased their movement at that still unfamiliar but nostalgic endearment. “I am at your service. How can I assist you?”

“Quit being such a bloody knight in shining armour. This ordeal would be much easier if you were not so perfect,” she glowered darkly at him.

Darcy looked at Mrs. Jenkinson, a question on his lips.

“What Anne means to say is to be seated,” she interpreted.

Darcy shifted his eyes between the two as an unspoken discussion passed between them. He sat feeling like a recalcitrant schoolboy called to the head master’s office. Only, as Anne had said, he had been too “perfect” to have experienced such a humiliation.

“I will wait in my chamber,” Mrs. Jenkinson said and glanced at a clock. “I will return in half an hour,” she said firmly.

Anne nodded and met her companion’s gaze. There was a steely set to Anne’s eyes which Darcy had never seen before. If he had to name it, he would call it the Fitzwilliam stubbornness.

Mrs. Jenkinson left, and the only sound in the room was the slow ticking of the clock. After several minutes, Darcy cleared his throat. “Anne?”

His cousin squeezed her eyes shut. “I have imagined this conversation dozens — hundreds — of times. I would practice it and imagine how you might storm and rage. I imagined you would rail at me and tell me of the shame I brought to our family and how you could not abide my failure. Never once had I imagined it would be in such a context.”

Darcy furrowed his brow. “I apologise for any offence, even if imaginary. You will have to enlighten me, however, on what context you reference and why you fear I would behave in such a fashion.”

“I am referencing the fact that I hold information which will aid your courtship with another lady and will, hopefully, preserve the happiness of her family and the innocence of a maiden. If I had to guess his motives now, I would think he would target one of her sisters.”

Darcy’s pulse slowed, and ice filled his veins. When he was told his mother would not survive after Georgiana’s birth, the same terror had seized him. Although he could only guess at Anne’s meaning, he knew whatever next came out of her mouth would likely change his life forever.

“George Wickham seduced me.”

 

 

 

Dear C

I refuse to waste any more paper considering the mad Americans. It is all the chatter at my usual salons. If ever there was a need for a salon where politics was not discussed tis now. Instead, I will tell you that I saw Sheridans newest play and enjoyed it immensely. I have surely known far too many ladies like Mrs. Malaprop who think they are being clever and yet only display their lack of intelligence by continually misusing words.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Nineteen

A loud buzzing noise filled Darcy’s ears. He must have misheard Anne. “Pardon?” His voice sounded raw even to his faulty senses.

“George Wickham seduced me,” Anne squeezed her hands together tightly. “I was but sixteen.”

“The last time you visited Pemberley,” Darcy murmured as he considered the occasion. Anne had withdrawn from him and appeared ill. She pleaded with her parents to leave, but they refused. Upon her return to Kent, she was unwell for nearly a year. Terror seized him. “Your illness?”

“I was so ashamed…” She trailed off.

“Were there consequences?” He asked with raised eyebrows. Was there a babe hid away somewhere? Did her mother know?

A hollow and throaty laugh emerged from Anne. “Consequences?”

She asked mockingly, but Darcy took no offence.

“There was no child if that is what you are asking, but there were surely more consequences. Far more than I think men consider when they make light of women and their position in the world.”

Her eyes drifted to the sideboard and his followed. In most rooms of the gentry, it was filled with decanters of various spirits. Anne’s held tea and what he presumed were various medicinal items. There was one small decanter of sherry. He had not considered it before, but it was far smaller than any other he had seen before.

“I had feared I would lose my mind with love for him. How could I give up my family? And yet, I was prepared to do so. I knew there would be no other way. We were to elope.”

A knife twisted in Darcy’s heart.

“He insisted I demonstrate my devotion first.” A shudder wracked Anne’s body. “After…” she paused, and her breath grew laboured for several minutes.

Darcy had little doubt she was reliving it all.

“After it had become apparent he meant none of it, I hated myself.”

“You left Pemberley very ill,” Darcy said.

Anne snorted. “Yes, well, when you shun food for nearly a week and pilfer every liquor cabinet in a vast house, that will happen.”

Only years of good breeding kept Darcy’s jaw from dropping to the floor.

“Do you recall how good I was at finding hiding places when we were young?”

The sudden change in conversation puzzled Darcy, but he nodded.

“They could not hide the bottles from me. There was always some servant I could bribe and then…then I would find a way to fill my thirst.”

“Anne, I do not know what to say…” He had spent years avoiding her and any mention of their alleged betrothal, yet all the while she went through a hell he could not imagine.

“Mother saved me, you know,” she whispered.

Darcy shook his head. “I did not.”

“She recognised some serious matter had thrown me into depression. She told me I was not the first, nor would I be the last, to make such a mistake.”

“She was right,” Darcy emphatically agreed.

“She told me if I wanted to kill myself to get on with it, but drawing it out accomplished nothing and she would not help me hurt myself any longer.”

Hardly able to fathom his aunt had said such a thing, he leant forward, enthralled with Anne’s story.

“I thought about it,” she shrugged. “Food was one thing I could control in my life and spirits the one thing that could dull the pain. After a particularly bad episode, I realised I did wish to live. I regret Father did not see me overcome my selfishness.”

“You were ill,” Darcy reassured and touched her hand. “He would have been very proud.”

Anne gave him a sad smile and then drew her shoulders back. “I vowed that you would never hear it from me, unless under the most extreme circumstances. I would torture myself with thoughts as to why I would divulge my shame. I thought perhaps it would be if Mother or Nan died. If loneliness in this huge house threatened to consume me and tempt me again, I would tell you the truth and throw myself on your mercy. Or if anything happened to Georgiana. I had thought perhaps you would leave the begetting of heirs to her. Or mayhap, when you inherited your title.”

She shook her head. “Really, I came up with many far-fetched scenarios of you believing you had no choice but to marry me, and my explaining why I never could.”

“Do you think I would not have you because of a youthful transgression?” He hated that she thought it of him. He hated that his arrogance had been a source of self-torture.

“No, it is not that,” she said with heightened colour. “I did not imagine you happy over the information. But I know Wickham’s designs. He foolishly said as much to me.”

“What do you mean?” The fear returned and gripped his heart even tighter.

“He bedded me simply so he could enjoy having me before you. He had always intended it as a victory over you.” She twisted her hands and spoke with increasing rapidity. “Don’t you see? He targeted Miss Bennet for a reason. He must have seen your attraction to her.”

“But she is here,” Darcy shook his head. “You were correct. Elizabeth tells me she overheard him boasting of being able to seduce one of her sisters. While Lydia Bennet is a shameless flirt, there is no reason to presume that to defile her would pain me.”

“Would you marry Elizabeth even if her family were ruined?” Anne raised a brow.

“Of course,” Darcy replied without hesitation. He had known for weeks that if Wickham truly did have such a scheme and attempted to put it in motion, he might succeed. It seemed doubtful, however, that Wickham would attempt such folly. The Bennets could offer him little. He had not considered that Wickham had made a connection between him and Elizabeth. Still, after Georgiana nearly eloped with the scoundrel, he could hardly object if Elizabeth’s sister did the same.

“And would you have her if Wickham were her brother?”

Darcy’s jaw clenched at the thought. He would try every other means rather than see anyone marry the man. Lydia Bennet, however, might be silly enough to believe herself in love with him. “He would never be welcome at Pemberley,” Darcy growled.

Anne raised her eyebrows, but there was no time to explain about Georgiana. Anne fiddled her thumbs. “Perhaps you are correct, and there is nothing to it. I hope I did not distress you for no reason.”

“Think nothing of my discomfort,” he said. “You are far braver and stronger than I ever gave you credit for,” he said with genuine feeling.

“Thank you,” Anne said. “The damage is done, though. I grow yellower by the day. My frequent drives in the sun help the jaundice, but nothing can help the liver.”

“I am sorry I was not there for you,” he said.

“I did not wish you to be!” Anne’s eyes swam with unshed tears. “You were staid and dull. George was exciting and vivacious. I hated Mother’s insinuations that we should wed. I dreamt of romance and adventure.”

“Still I ought to have been a better friend to you since then,” Darcy hung his head.

“Your father died soon after the incident and naturally you had other concerns. I will not listen to your self-pity. Do not allow it to break you like mine nearly did to me,” Anne insisted. “My mistakes are my own. One day you will learn and accept that, rather than taking on everyone else’s concerns for yourself.”

Footsteps sounded in the hall.

“Now, be off with you. Nan will come and fuss over me.”

Darcy paused at the door.

“Before you ask, yes you may tell Miss Bennet.” Anne shooed him away with her hands and turned her attention to a book.

“Thank you,” Darcy said and awkwardly left.

He would have spoken with Elizabeth the following morning. On the way to his chambers, he was alerted by a servant that he had letters in his room. He had been neglecting his business and personal correspondence for the sake of his courtship with Elizabeth. After spending the afternoon answering letters from his steward, he turned his attention to letters from family.

Richard had been given leave to attend General Middleton’s house party in Sussex and would speak with him on transferring Wickham. However, it would take days to journey there and back. In the meantime, he now seemed annoyed at having to deal with it at all. He counselled Darcy that Wickham was no menace to Elizabeth’s family. That the man was prone to exaggeration and would gain nothing from seducing a squire’s daughter. He spent most of the letter ranting about Darcy needing to protect Georgiana from untrustworthy suitors, and that he thought Bingley visited too often.

Miffed at his cousin’s letter, Darcy put it aside and turned to Georgiana’s. She pleaded with him to leave Rosings. She went on and on about the near constant visits from Richard or Bingley, sometimes overlapping and yet their aunt had not visited or returned her letters. Able to read between the lines with his sister easier than Richard, Darcy could discern Georgiana grew anxious over Lady Darcy’s health and tired of visits from the gentlemen. If Darcy returned then he would be protection enough, and the others could go about their lives rather than chaperone her.

By the time he finished replying to the earlier correspondence, the clock had begun to chime the hour to dress for dinner, and Darcy laid his last letter aside. He would read Lady Darcy’s missive in the morning.

 

*****

 

In the morning, Elizabeth tiptoed down the parsonage stairs. The day and night of rest healed her ankle entirely. It sounded like only the servants were awake and Elizabeth desired to avoid her hosts. She had forgotten to speak with Darcy about leaving Kent earlier than planned. There were now five days remaining before she could join the Gardiners. It was not only the matter of her discomfort with the Collinses and worries for her sisters which drove her decision. Darcy had proved more than trustworthy. Her heart raced at the thought of telling him everything she had heard Wickham say, no matter how embarrassing. However, she trusted him. While she had resisted telling her father — or any other soul — what she heard, she believed she would never lose Darcy’s friendship.

Rehearsing her words, all thought escaped her when she rounded a turn in the grove and found Darcy waiting for her. He turned at the sound of her steps on the path.

“Elizabeth,” he hastened to her side.

“Good morning, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth smiled, feeling some of her nerves ease.

“I hope you slept well.”

“I did, thank you.” They shared a tense smile. They had never been very good at bland, polite conversation. “I must speak with you.”

“We must talk,” Darcy said at the same time. “Pardon me! Please, proceed.”

Elizabeth stuttered and attempted to give him the opportunity to speak first. However, he insisted she say her piece. At last, she nodded but did not know where to begin. Darcy ceased walking and caught her by the hand when she tried to continue. He pulled her closer to him.

“You can tell me anything, Elizabeth,” he said and raised her gloved hand to his lips.

“I know,” she said and squeezed his hand in return. Looking into his eyes, she found a courage she did not know she had. “I have kept something from you.”

“There are more faults in my character you see?”

“I have been wrong, so wrong!” Elizabeth exclaimed.

“Please, I meant to jest.” Darcy placed her hand on his arm. He kept his hand on hers, imbuing her with strength.

“Do you recall when I told you Wickham planned to elope with Lydia?” Darcy’s arm tensed underneath her hand, and he nodded. “I told you I had overheard him speaking of it with other men. However…” she trailed off, and Darcy squeezed her hand. “I did not tell you everything I heard.”

“I assume it was not pressing,” he said. “How can I assist?”

“At the time, it seemed ridiculous and…and embarrassing.” As Elizabeth spoke, her cheeks turned red. “Yesterday, I received a letter from Mary. She reported Lydia’s increasing intimacy with Colonel Forster’s wife. Lydia hopes she might be invited to go with them when the Regiment decamps to Brighton in a few weeks.”

“That would be the ideal time for him to elope with her.”

“Indeed. You also, evidently, recall how I misunderstood your character. We have had many conversations about my false impressions and insecurities, have we not?”

“Yes,” Darcy said and squeezed her hand. “I would not trade those discussions for the world, no matter the pain and anger I felt at first.”

“We will not argue about who shares the greater blame.” Darcy again squeezed her hand and Elizabeth took a deep breath before the words rushed out. “Wickham, he…he…he presumed an attachment between us…that is that you admired me and I would ensnare you. His goal was to elope with Lydia after a betrothal between us was announced.”

Elizabeth glanced up at Darcy, who had turned his head. She could see by his profile that his jaw was clenched, and a vein near his eye pulsed.

“Is this all you heard?”

“No…” Elizabeth trailed off and began to remove her hand from Darcy’s arm, but he would not allow it. He raised her hand to his lips again. Elizabeth sighed and closed her eyes to escape seeing the anger or disappointment in them when she said the next part. “He thought that after our marriage, he could…s.. s…”

Why was this so hard? She began again. “He thought he might seduce me. It seemed like that was his final triumph. Your money he would like, but there was something more…something vengeful.”

Elizabeth’s words ended on a whisper, and a shudder wracked her body. She had spent weeks telling herself a man who had dined in her home could not be so evil, but she could no longer deny it. Glancing at Darcy, his face had turned white.

“I will kill him,” Darcy vowed. His grip on her hand was almost painful. “If he ever laid a hand on you, I would kill him.”

Elizabeth attempted to pull her hand free, and Darcy finally released his hold. “Forgive me. Forgive me,” he muttered.

He took several steps away from Elizabeth. She could see anger evident on every feature. Now that she knew him so well, she no longer feared it was directed at her. She watched him pace for several minutes before it occurred to her that he should not bear alone whatever burden now tortured him. Elizabeth approached and grabbed his hand, bringing him to the present.

“What troubles you?” She asked before raising his hand to her lips. “You can tell me anything.”

Darcy’s features softened with her words and gesture. Elizabeth’s heart fluttered at her effect on him.

Darcy took her by the hand, and led her to the fallen tree they had sat at days ago. Once he settled his coat on the tree and saw that she was sitting, he took her hands in his. “I have many things to explain, but I do not have much time. Please believe me that while I may have been foolish, blind, too reserved, and even arrogant, I was never malicious. I never would have wished for anyone to be hurt by Wickham, the least of all your family.”

“I know,” she squeezed his hands in return.

“When I had explained there was a young lady that Wickham attempted to elope with last summer, you did not press for details, and I did not divulge them. I had also said that Wickham was capable of plotting. The truth is…the lady he selected had a very close relationship with me. It was…” He paused, and Elizabeth saw his throat work. “It was my sister.”

“Georgiana!” Elizabeth could not contain her shock. In her few interactions with the girl, she was very shy and scarcely older than Lydia.

“Please do not think less of her—”

“No, I would never!”

“He preyed on her childhood friendship with him while she was on holiday at Ramsgate. However, I always believed he desired revenge even more than her thirty thousand pounds. Now, I know for certain.”

“How can you know that?”

“Yesterday, after you returned to the parsonage, Anne said she believed you disliked her. I assured her that you must have only been prejudiced due to Wickham. Then…she made the most shocking confession.”

Elizabeth listened in silence. While Darcy spoke, she could feel his love and compassion for his relations. How many others would have cast off a foolish sister? Additionally, that a sheltered young lady like Anne de Bourgh could have something to say even more shocking than nearly eloping with a steward’s son, stunned Elizabeth.

“I fear this may not be fit for a lady’s ears.”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Spare me the chivalry. I heard worse from Wickham, I am sure.”

“You are correct,” Darcy nodded. “Wickham seduced Anne when she was sixteen.” He said matter of factly.

“No!” Elizabeth gasped.

“Yes, and there is far more about that situation which I could explain later, but she said that Wickham had told her he meant to have her before we wed.”

“Where?”

“Pardon?”

“Where did he seduce Anne? Georgiana’s involvement happened at Ramsgate. I assume you did not accompany her?”

“No, no. She went with her companion, who I later learnt had a connection to Wickham. However, he seduced Anne at Pemberley. He must be adept at avoiding chaperones.”

“Exactly! And so, Lydia may be unsafe even at Longbourn.” Elizabeth glanced around. “Consider how often we have met unaccompanied. We must leave for London and send for Lydia as soon as possible.”

“I agree, and on that subject, my aunt has requested my presence.”

“Immediately?”

“Yes, I must depart this morning. She has been quite unwell.”

“I hope it is nothing serious,” Elizabeth said knowing that at her age illnesses often were.

Darcy dipped his head. “I fear it might be.” He squeezed her hands again. “Let us not worry about such things. Will you accompany me to London?”

“Thank you. I—”

“I know you have not been keen on the idea before, but we have very few choices now. A maid has not been arranged yet, and Richard has my carriage. Lady Catherine’s coach broke an axle slipping in mud after returning you to the parsonage yesterday. Anne has offered her phaeton. The open carriage should lend propriety. If you refuse, however, you could go by post, and I will follow on horse.”

“No, that will not be necessary. Miss de Bourgh is very generous to offer the phaeton.”

“I will send an express ahead to my house in London. Should you like to write the Gardiners?”

Elizabeth agreed, and they then separated. While Darcy made arrangements at Rosings, Elizabeth explained to Charlotte that she had received an important letter from her relations. Mr. Collins disliked the idea of her driving with Darcy but neither could he gainsay Lady Catherine’s nephew. Charlotte frowned at her the entire time she assisted in packing her trunk.

“I am sorry you have to leave early, Eliza,” Charlotte said. “I hope you had an enjoyable visit. It has been a pleasure to have my own home and expose my old friends to superior company. You must return, perhaps at a different time when there are fewer guests at Rosings?” Charlotte raised her eyebrows.

Elizabeth replied neutrally and gave her friend a perfectly cordial adieu, but her heart was not in it. Perhaps it was Charlotte’s marrying Collins, but something between them had altered forever. Darcy arrived punctually and handed Elizabeth into the carriage, despite Mr. and Mrs. Collins’ concerns over rain. Soon, they were bound for London.

 

 

 

Dearest Niece—

Have you read Mr. Gibbon’s volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? How interesting that he publishes it now.

I have heard many of our friends are featured in an engraving by an artist named Richard Samuel in which he names them the “Nine Living Muses of Great Britain.” We are all in an uproar for nobody sat for this drawing and many say they cannot recognise a soul.

Give dearest A kisses from my girls and me.

Yours,

A.F.

                                          

Chapter Twenty

For the first fifteen miles, Darcy and Elizabeth had easy conversation. Elizabeth praised Darcy for his fast thinking in sending an express to the Gardiners and requesting Lydia be brought to Town. Additionally, Elizabeth conceded she enjoyed The Tempest better on her more recent read-through. Naturally, she remained critical of Miranda’s lack of independence and complete submission to Prospero.

“Although,” her lips twisted in a wry smile, “perhaps if I had been more like Miranda, I would have told my father everything I heard Wickham say. Then Lydia might have been safe from him weeks ago.”

“She may yet be safe. Others have suggested that Wickham has no motive to wound me. Further, he would need proof that we — that is his…investment in Lydia’s feelings was secured.”

Darcy chanced a look at her face to see that she understood his meaning. She twisted her hands in her lap and furrowed her brow.

He attempted to soften the blow. “There is no reason to think that she would even be susceptible to his charms.”

Elizabeth mutely nodded, and melancholy descended between them. They stopped at a coaching inn for new horses and refreshments before continuing their journey. Darcy had remained silent, considering various strategies. If his aunt’s health was as poor as her letter made it seem, then he would not be journeying to Longbourn. Nor did he know how much time he could dedicate to assisting Bingley with making amends to Jane Bennet. A letter would have to suffice for both situations and yet did not seem adequate.

A raindrop landed on his nose, interrupting his reverie. He squinted up at the sky. The second half of their journey might be delayed by rain. He scowled at the clouds. Beside him, Elizabeth laughed.

“So serious,” Elizabeth teased. “The serious Mr. Darcy,” she said in a horrible impression of him. “Or should that be Lord Darcy?”

“Do you think you are the only one who can make light of another person?”

She raised her eyebrows. “Do your worse, sir. I am not afraid of you.”

“I am Elizabeth Bennet,” he said in an obnoxiously high voice that sounded nothing like hers. “I am pert, sarcastic, and clever. Far cleverer than you.” Then he raised an eyebrow and smiled knowingly to copy her signature expression.

“Oh, I do not sound like that!” Elizabeth playfully slapped his arm, which was being increasingly pelted with rain.

“No, I am pleased to say you do not,” he chuckled. “Do I really sound so dour?”

“I used to think so,” Elizabeth confessed. She tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow. “Now, I know that you are merely quiet, reserved, and serious. There is no fault in that any more than there is a fault in my liveliness.” She laughed for a moment. “Well, I suppose that depends on who you ask. Lady Catherine would have nothing kind to say.”

“Let us speak of pleasanter things,” Darcy shouted over the pounding rain. “Do you agree with some of the critics that Shakespeare was examining Plato’s theory of the soul with Prospero?”

“Pardon me?” Elizabeth cried out.

Darcy looked over at her. Her ringlets were now plastered to the side of her face, and droplets trickled down her chin. The hat she wore had no brim. Her clothes were growing increasingly sodden. Even worse, the condition of the road was deteriorating, and the horses were slowing. Then the phaeton lurched to a stop.

“What is it?”

“The wheel must be stuck!”

Darcy tossed the reins to Elizabeth and jumped down, his boots splashing in the mud. He stomped around to the back of the carriage and found one of the wheels trapped in a rut. He pushed on it with his shoulder, hoping to free it. However, despite feeling the horse take a step forward, the wheel did not budge. Again, he shoved on the carriage, his boots slipping. As he fell to his knees, he heard a sloshing sound beside him.

“Allow me to help.”

“Who will guide the horse?”

Elizabeth shrugged. “I didn’t need to guide it at all. It wants out of this storm as much as we do.” Elizabeth said and took a position.

“No! No, you could hurt yourself,” he said.

“And I suppose sitting in the rain for hours would have been better?” Elizabeth said.

Darcy laughed. He knew better than to attempt to change Elizabeth’s mind. “Ready?” he called, and they pushed against the carriage. It rocked forward, and they groaned with exertion. Then the phaeton rolled backwards with such momentum that they fell, landing on their rears. Mud splattered around them.

Elizabeth erupted in laughter. After a moment of shock, Darcy joined in. After several minutes spent in laughter, Elizabeth had tears streaming down her face. She wiped them away with her mud-soaked gloves.

“Can you imagine what Lady Catherine would say if she saw us now?” Elizabeth said between chuckles. “Falling in the mud is strictly for the lower classes,” she said while tilting her nose in the air.

“Cease that, woman,” Darcy growled and pulled her to him. Yesterday, he had hesitated and allowed her to turn away if she desired. Today, he had no restraint. As his lips touched Elizabeth’s, her arms wrapped around his neck and she clung to him. Releasing her mouth and trailing kisses down her throat, he spoke into her silky soft skin. “Come, we must get out of the road.”

Elizabeth blushed and allowed him to lead her off the road. He had no fear of being observed. No one else would drive in such a deluge. But he worried about her health, or at least her comfort. He led her to a thick copse of trees hoping the branches would provide some refuge. As they ran through the woods, a large structure became visible.

“There!” Darcy pointed. “We’ll ask for shelter there.”

As they darted through the path, hand in hand, Elizabeth’s laughter increased. “I think I know this place!”

“Do you?”

“How far are we from Bromley?”

“I think we may be about five miles. We should be near—”

“Eltham Palace! The Great Hall was built by Edward IV. Later, Henry VIII grew up here. After the Civil War, a baronet leased it. As the previous tenant let it fall into disrepair, they built a new manor house. They use the Great Hall as a barn and prefer their estate in Yardling.”

They reached the building and opened the doors. “Oh!” Elizabeth exclaimed. “Oh, the hammer beam roof is more beautiful than I could imagine!”

Darcy looked around and saw dust and clutter everywhere, but once again Elizabeth saw the architecture of their surroundings. She could see the potential in buildings…and people. It was why she gave him a second chance and why she saw the good in Wickham. The wind whipped through the cracks in the windows and Elizabeth shivered beside him.

“Come here,” Darcy said and pulled her into his arms. Her head nestled right over his heart. A heart which beat only for her.

“Thank you,” she murmured into his coat.

As he rubbed his arms up and down her back to warm her, he wished they could avoid what would follow. Soon, this storm would end, and they would resume their journey to London. With it, they would learn the consequences of their secrets. And soon, far sooner than he would like, Darcy would have to take on the responsibilities of a barony. Even if all those matters were settled to the best possible arrangement, it would still mean an interruption of the peace he found at this moment. He could offer Elizabeth houses, carriages, fine clothing, and jewellery, but all she desired was a man of good character and sense who valued her for who she was. In the months since leaving Hertfordshire, he had recounted their conversations, the glances they shared, the feel of her hand in his during his long-fought-for dance. He could hardly say when he fell in love with this woman. Was it in Hertfordshire or was it after leaving her, after he understood how rare she was and the effect she had on his life?

It mattered not, for what he had also learned was that his love for her grew daily. First, merely because he embraced the love instead of fighting it. Then, because of the honesty they expressed when he had first arrived in Kent. Lastly, as their encounters brought them together daily, he could see more of her character. Each day revealed a new facet of Elizabeth and each day, Darcy found something more to love about her. Soon, when they had settled affairs with their families, he would be sure she knew how much he loved her.

“What were you asking me earlier?” She asked, her voice still muffled against the fabric of his coat. “Something about Prospero?”

Darcy welcomed the conversation. Holding her in his arms was a great temptation and some distraction was warranted. “Do you know of Plato’s theory regarding the human soul?”

“That it is three parts? A soul can only be at peace when its temperament embraces logic and shuns passions?”

“Yes. Did you find Prospero a manifestation of Plato’s theory? Once he gave up his magic and anger, he was welcomed back to Milan.”

Elizabeth thought for a moment. “I rather think I reject the philosophy in general. Natural urges should be under proper regulation, of course, but they need not be suppressed as evil.”

“Some believe it was only when Prospero accepted his baser instincts and abilities that his soul aligned and he could join his peers.”

“I believe that is more likely. We must accept all of ourselves. The sensible and logical as well as high spirits and…” She trailed off when their eyes met. Her breath grew shallow and raised her chin in a clear invitation.

“Carnal desires?” He finished her thoughts.

Gently, he pushed a wet tendril behind her ear and let his hand caress the soft skin of her cheek and throat.  Then, holding her beautiful face in his hands, he made love to her lips. Elizabeth enthusiastically returned his kisses. She stroked her tongue over his, causing his eyes to roll in his head and a groan to emanate from his lips.

It took all of Darcy’s honour to pull away from her delicious mouth. He pulled away lest they yielded to those desires that would lead to their ruin. Elizabeth laid her head over his heart again, and he rested his chin atop her bonnet. This time as he wrapped his arms around her, he was pleased to note she was not as damp and nowhere near as chilled.

After several minutes of silence, Elizabeth spoke. “Do you hear? I believe the rain has ceased, Mr. Darcy.”

“Will you not call me by my given name?”

Elizabeth gave him a weak smile. “I confess I felt jealous when Miss de Bourgh called you Conor. Yes, I know all about that pet name and how you got it.”

He smiled in return. “When I went away to school, I came back refusing to answer to the name. I would not ask that you call me Conor.”

“I am afraid Fitzwilliam reminds me too much of your cousin and the image of stuffy old earls.”

Darcy shook his head. “I agree; I am not fond of it myself.”

Elizabeth sighed. “It is too bad parents must name their children. I feel as though all your names have been given to you to remind you of your position in life.”

“They were,” he murmured against her hair. “I have another one though. Legend tells it that he was invited to a salon but declined for he had no formal black, silk stockings. The hostess told him to come wearing his blue stockings.” His smile grew with the retelling. “They did not want me to forget my Bluestocking roots and named me after Benjamin Stillingfleet.”

“Really?” Elizabeth exclaimed, and drew back her face to look at him. “I do not think I have heard anyone else call you by that name before.”

“Perfect. Then it shall be for your use alone. What would you have me call you?”

“You already call me Elizabeth,” she said with a bit of a smirk.

“As do many others,” he answered. He could consider certain endearments such as “my love” but he did not believe she would welcome them.

Elizabeth cocked her head. “That means very much to you?”

“I know it is probably selfish of me but in moments when we are alone — like this —.” The look of surprise on her face ceased his words. She did not expect — or perhaps even want — them to have more moments like this.

“Belinda,” she whispered. “My second name is Belinda.”

“Perfect,” Darcy grinned. “Absolutely perfect. Beautiful Belinda,” Darcy cupped Elizabeth’s face for another kiss. “Lizzy Bel.”

They returned to the carriage, unsurprised to see a large puddle and much debris of twigs and leaves. Elizabeth suggested using nearby fallen branch as a lever to free the wheel, and soon they were on the road again. For the last few miles, until they reached Gracechurch Street, Elizabeth spoke of the books she had borrowed from Anne. Tucked within Letters for the Improvement of the Mind were, shockingly, personal letters.

The authoress of the book, Hester Chapone, had first written it as letters regarding conduct to her niece. Likewise, the letters within the volume were between an aunt and niece. However, it was not entirely clear who was involved. The writer signed her name A.F. which made Elizabeth consider, at first, it must be Darcy’s mother, Anne Fitzwilliam. Yet, the niece had created some kind of scandal and had to go to France to recover. Lady Anne had died before Anne de Bourgh would have been of an age to cause such trouble, and journeys to France had been impossible for nearly twenty years. Darcy was uncertain to whom the letters belonged. There was a shocking number of Anne Fitzwilliams in his family.

Night had fallen when they finally reached the Gardiner residence. Darcy walked around to Elizabeth’s side with trepidation. Would this be the last time he saw her? Her family would have every right to be angry with him and demand that he leave them forever. Feeling like a man about to be hung, Darcy assisted Elizabeth from the carriage and walked toward his fate.

 

*****

 

Elizabeth took a deep breath as Darcy pulled the borrowed phaeton to a stop outside the Gardiner residence near Cheapside. He gave her a small smile and offered his hand for her to exit the carriage. It was getting dark and still raining, and her wet and muddied gown caught under her foot, lurching her forward. Before she could even cry out Darcy’s hands were on her waist, catching her before any harm was done.

“Thank you.”

He only nodded, and they walked up the stairs one behind the other. Both felt too much and were conscious of the seriousness of the reasons for their journey. They were soon shown in the front hall, thankful they had dried just enough to not leave puddles on the floor.

“Lizzy!” Mrs. Gardiner quickly greeted them. “Mr. Darcy, thank you for bringing Elizabeth to us.”

“It was my honour. Forgive the impropriety of my visiting without an invitation.” Darcy spoke with perfect civility.

Mrs. Gardiner looked at Elizabeth in surprise, but the latter was not astonished at his politeness at all. She had come to know him well over the last few weeks.

“We expected you hours ago, but I can see you must have been caught in a downpour. Please, come to the drawing room and enjoy the fire. The children are abed, and we can speak freely in there.”

“Forgive me,” Darcy said, “but as you mentioned it is quite late, and I am quite wet and muddy. I would hate to ruin anything. Nothing may be accomplished tonight and my news can wait a few hours. Would it be possible for me to call on the morrow?”

“Certainly.”

He caught Elizabeth’s eye and, perceiving what he was about, she shook her head negatively. He returned to looking at Mrs. Gardiner.

“Miss Elizabeth expressed a desire to visit with my sister. Would it inconvenience you if she came?”

“Mr. Darcy…” Elizabeth began to interject, but her aunt stepped forward and squeezed her hand, muting Elizabeth.

“You are both very welcome, sir. Mr. Gardiner will be home for dinner. We eat at six o’clock.”

“Does this meet with your approval, Miss Elizabeth?”

“You need not bring Miss Darcy on the morrow, sir.”

He gave her a look, and she let out an exasperated sigh.

“It would not do if you are unable to speak with my uncle until after dinner. Would your sister feel comfortable with strangers for so many hours? Nor is it sensible to bring her in the morning, return her to your home, and then come back for dinner.”

He stepped closer to her and a small smile played about his lips. Her aunt was entirely forgotten.

“Are you giving me leave to arrive at your uncle’s home without the pretence of my sister?”

Elizabeth beamed back at him. “Yes, I am giving you leave to call on me.”

His smile broadened, and Elizabeth could not keep the lightness in her heart escaping through laughter. Fortunately, Darcy recalled himself.

“Thank you for your kind offer, Mrs. Gardiner, but it seems unnecessary. I look forward to dining here tomorrow and speaking with your husband. Have a good evening.” He turned again to Elizabeth and bowed over her hand, stealing her breath. “Until tomorrow, Miss Elizabeth.”

She watched him leave and then turned to face her aunt, who only smiled and shook her head at her. Further down the hallway Elizabeth saw Jane and ran to her side.  Embracing her, they laughed when she transferred some mud to Jane’s gown. “Oh, dearest! How are you? Truly, tell me all!”

Jane replied, “I am tolerable but, how are you? My aunt only told me this afternoon that Lydia is to come tomorrow and you were expected today, arriving with Mr. Darcy! You have been very sly, Lizzy! Never until this day would I have imagined seeing such an affinity between you two.”

Elizabeth laughed. “I dare say until today I could not imagine it possible myself.”

Elizabeth loved Jane dearly and did wish to make her acquainted with everything that had passed in the last fortnight, but desired to reflect on things first. She was grateful when her aunt intervened.

“Jane, Lizzy is very wet and must be exhausted. She needs her rest lest she catch cold. There will be time tomorrow to talk.”

Elizabeth recognised it for the warning that it was. Although utterly grateful to have each other’s company again, after changing and drying her hair she and Jane obediently went straight to sleep.

The next morning dawned with sunshine and Elizabeth was happy to see it. Lydia would be travelling from Longbourn this day and should arrive at noon. Jane began to awaken beside her.

“Lizzy, how did you sleep?”

“Very soundly. I suppose I was exhausted from my journey. At one point, Mr. Darcy and I had to get out of the carriage and push when it got stuck in a rut.”

“I am surprised you rode with him — and in a phaeton no less! The storm was, no doubt, unexpected but the dust from the road would have been enough to deter me.”

Elizabeth laughed. “Where is your sense of adventure? Mr. Darcy had little choice if I was to arrive yesterday. His cousin is using his own carriage, and one of Lady Catherine’s was damaged the other day and not repaired yet. She was disinclined to offer her large barouche box for the journey. Lady Catherine’s daughter suggested the use of her phaeton. Mr. Darcy could drive it instead of needing a coachman and then returning him to Rosings. Additionally, Darcy only keeps one carriage in town— the one his cousin is using— so he can use the phaeton until Colonel Fitzwilliam returns.”

“And hiring a hack being inconvenient,” Jane suppled and raised her eyebrows. “Darcy, is it?”

Elizabeth blushed and stared at her hands. “If it were anyone but you they would be regaling me with “I told you so’s.” You are far too kind.”

She squeezed her hands. Her feelings for Darcy were beyond her own comprehension, and she had not yet found adequate words for them. When she did speak of him, it was in halting and short sentences. “He is amiable. I like him very much. I was quite wrong about him.”

“Please, tell me all!” Jane grasped Elizabeth’s hands, and Elizabeth could have cried at the affection of her sister after experiencing the strangeness of her supposed friend the last few weeks.

“I will in time but for now I would like a bath, and we must get dressed and join our aunt and uncle for breakfast. Lydia arrives in a few hours, and it would be helpful to have some idea on how to handle her.”

Jane furrowed her brow. She brought a shaking hand to her chest. “Why has she been sent away from Longbourn?”

“Do not imagine anything too evil. She is not being brought here as punishment. We were hoping to separate her from some influences in the Meryton area. More will be explained after dinner.”

Jane’s nervous expression did not change, but she pressed for no more information. Elizabeth took a moment to scrutinise her sister. She seemed paler and thinner. Dark circles were under Jane’s eyes. When Elizabeth had last seen her in March, she had been unhappy, but she did not seem despondent. Elizabeth was more worried about her sister’s health now than she had been directly after Bingley left.

“Jane, will you tell me how you truly are? I can only imagine how grieved you are by Bingley’s actions. Darcy was quite upset when I told him.”

“You told him!” Jane blushed.

“He came upon me after I read your letter.” Elizabeth tried to hide her wistful smile for although the memory held sad ones, it also kept a happy one as well. “I was outraged and perceived him to be the source of it all.”

“What did Mr. Darcy say?” Jane asked very quietly.

Elizabeth’s heart broke for her sister’s pain. She still hoped to find some good in Bingley.

“Darcy did encourage his friend to stay away from Netherfield. He thought you indifferent. His other concerns were about our family’s behaviour. He learned you were in town as Miss Bingley informed him, but she did not mention you had visited; that could have only been a sign in your favour. He never encouraged Bingley toward Miss Darcy.” Her face darkened as she thought of how unjustly Bingley treated her dearest sister.

Elizabeth looked at her sister for a long moment. “Is that all that happened? Did you really not speak with Bingley at all?”

“I did,” Jane whispered very quietly.

“What?”

Tears streaked Jane’s beautiful face as she released her heart. “He was shown into the parlour while I was there so I could not refuse to see him. My aunt was called away by one of the children and then—” Jane covered her face and sobbed into her hands for a moment. Elizabeth rubbed her back.

When Jane had regained some composure, her face was mottled and red. She did not meet Elizabeth’s eyes. “He asked that I forgive him for his behaviour. He declared he loved me and wished to wed me. It was so dreadful!”

Elizabeth had never felt so much confusion in her life. “But my dear why would that distress you?”

“How can he claim to love me but treat me so badly?”

There was no doubt from Jane’s reaction that she very much loved him. What had Darcy said? Love must be selfless. “I do not know, dearest. So, you refused him?”

“How could I do otherwise? He had offered no explanations, and although he apologised, he did not seek to make amends. It was as though he felt he had only one moment to trust his courage and ask for my hand rather than court me properly.”

Elizabeth could say nothing against her sister’s supposition. It was her opinion as well. “And are you absolutely decided against him? Could he not win your heart back?”

Jane, who had searched for a handkerchief, sniffed. “My heart is broken and will never love or trust again.”

Elizabeth had a growing suspicion her decision had less to do with Bingley’s treatment and more to do with Jane doubting her own sense. That was something she could keenly sympathise with. “Perhaps.”

She would keep her thoughts to herself on the matter, for now, but Darcy must be told of this development. She would never desire Jane to marry Bingley without proper amends being made, but perhaps Bingley’s dependence upon his friend for advice may be of some use.

After a pause, Elizabeth asked the question which had been weighing on her for some time. “Do you mind at all that I arrived with Darcy?”

“No! Why should I?” Jane dabbed at her eyes but could do nothing for the puffiness from her tears.

“I only worried that you would dislike the reminder of Mr. Bingley or the chance of seeing him again.”

Jane slowly brought down the handkerchief and searched Elizabeth’s face. “Lizzy, do you have an understanding with Mr. Darcy?”

Elizabeth was silent for a moment. “He has asked for several things, and nothing has been accepted or decided. I worry for the family’s acceptance of him and wish to slowly show my change in feeling first. I have told him I cannot promise to accept his suit but…”

“But?”

“It is very frustrating!” Elizabeth’s hands gripped the counterpane. “I do like him very much. I am flattered by his admiration, but you can certainly understand I worry for his constancy as well as my own. Not too many days ago I believed we equally despised each other.”

Jane shot her a look, and Elizabeth knew that she was likely the only person with sense who thought Darcy disliked her. So blind had she been! “Time will sort it out, it always does.”

Mr. Darcy’s Bluestocking Bride- Chapters 11 & 12

It’s release day!! Mr. Darcy’s Bluestocking Bride is now available at: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Kobo.

I’m still waiting on iBooks and the paperback will be a few more days. I’ll post a few more chapters here but am also working on creating a page where you can read the chapters in a more streamlined way.

One / Two / Three / Four / Five / Six / Seven / Eight / Nine / Ten 

MDBB4Dear C—

Thank you ever so much for your miniature of my beloved B. I do miss him terribly at times. Have you recently heard from your friend, Lord Cathcart’s daughter? I have read of plague in Moscow and worry for the Hamiltons as well as the Queen. It would be devastating for Russia to lose their enlightened monarch. She should serve as an example to our own King and Queen of German blood.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Eleven

 

The Monday after Easter, Elizabeth awoke determined to walk. Fresh air would clear her mind of the excruciating evening spent at Rosings the night before. It was their first invitation to the house since the arrival of Lady Catherine’s nephews, and Mr. Collins was beside himself in both pleasure and anxiety. Elizabeth shook her head. It seemed more likely that her cousin was related to her mother rather than her father given they both thrived on feelings of anxiousness.

The night was only tolerably better than previous visits to Rosings. Lady Catherine invited Elizabeth to play the pianoforte and seemed to take pleasure whenever she erred. In the course of one sonata, she referenced Anne’s imaginary but undoubtedly superior abilities at least a dozen times. Occasionally, Darcy would glance in Elizabeth’s direction. His blue eyes burned with intensity, likely with his disapproval of her. She was saved conversation with him, however, for Lady Catherine frequently called his attention back to herself. Elizabeth was not sorry for it. She had often heard of Miss Darcy’s superior abilities, and while the girl was everything sweet, the brother must be in the habit of hearing only the best performers — his aunt said as much.

Just before leaving, the post arrived. It was too early for a reply from her aunt, but there was a letter from Jane. Mr. Collins was away on parsonage matters, and Mrs. Collins and Maria had gone shopping in the village, allowing Elizabeth the freedom to take the letter on her walk and read in privacy.

Wednesday, March 25, 1812,

Gracechurch Street, London

Dearest Lizzy,

Mr. Bingley called today.

I do not know what he planned to say, if anything, for his actions in the shop or the reason for his never returning to Netherfield or calling earlier. I refused to see him.

I have waited and hoped every day since November 27th for him to arrive on my doorstep again. I will no longer wait for his explanations. The time for that is long past.

Do not imagine me angry or sad, my dear sister. I am alarmingly at peace with the matter. Some blessing will come of this.

I hope all is well in Kent. Give Charlotte and Maria my love and greet our cousin for me.

Yours,

Jane

 

Elizabeth was incensed as she left the Parsonage for a fitful walk, heedless of the rain clouds quickly gathering. She walked along the path to Rosings. As soon as she was out of open view from the main road, she intended to run.

As she walked, she muttered to herself. “I am sick of them all! Charming men who prey on the silly and vain! Other charming and amiable men who prey on the sweet and innocent! Senseless goats that rattle on about nothing! Indolent fathers who sit in their libraries! Confusing, arrogant and wealthy young men who think they can order everything to their own choosing!

As she had weeks before, Elizabeth exclaimed, “What are young men to rocks and mountains?” She certainly wished she could kick a young man or two the way she kicked the rock the day she heard Wickham’s insane boast. And a mountain might be climbed and therefore vanquished. But young men would apparently always persist in deceiving and confusing her.

“Miss Bennet!” the last voice in the world she wanted to hear called out, much, much too cheerfully.

She turned as though she did not hear him, but it was for nought. His long legs had him meet with her in a moment.

“Miss Bennet, I am surprised to see you out walking. I was just about to call on the Parsonage.”

“The Collinses and Maria are out,” she replied testily. She thought she saw a hint of a smile and it angered her again. Whether he felt himself better than them or just did not want to practice his conversational abilities on them, it was nearly the same thing.

“Perhaps, I could join you on your walk before it rains?” He held out an arm.

She looked up at the sky thick with swollen clouds. She had not realised until that moment how soon it was likely to begin raining. Then why should he call now? “No, I had not realised the weather had turned so severely. It is why I turned back.” She took a step closer to the Parsonage, but he spoke again.

“Have you had an agreeable day?”

What a ridiculous thing to ask! No day was truly agreeable here. She enjoyed Charlotte’s companionship, but the presence of Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine detracted from all enjoyment she could find indoors. And then her letter!

“Not especially, Mr. Darcy. I have just had the most distressing letter from Jane. Weeks ago, she saw your friend Mr. Bingley and his sister outside a shop. They did not see her, but she easily saw Mr. Bingley lavishing attention on a young lady she believes was your sister. It is evident Jane was considered not good enough, and Bingley was just toying with her feelings the entire time.”

Darcy paled at her words, but she pressed on. “This is not the first time she has been treated as such from your friends. In January, Jane called on Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst. They claimed they never received her letters announcing her presence in town, and did not seem very pleased to see her. They waited over a month to return the call!”

“That is horrible…”

“But exactly what you wished, is it not? You need not fear; your friend is now entirely free from my sister. Not only were you able to separate them in Hertfordshire, but you were able to conceal her presence in town. Jane has the gentlest soul! She does not deserve such ungentlemanly treatment! Do not worry, sir, she refused to see Bingley and will never consider him a suitor again.”

“She visited with Miss Bingley?”

Elizabeth clenched her fists as he seemed to latch on to the least important piece of information she relayed. “Yes, nearly as soon as she arrived in town. Hardly the actions of an indifferent lady. Or do you think her forward and mercenary now?”

“It is not what I think that matters.” He took a step backwards, and she advanced toward him.

“Is it not? And then I think of another one of your good friends. George Wickham is a scoundrel, and you knew it! You grew up with him and saw his ways, yet never warned the people of Hertfordshire when he arrived.”

“Did you not explain only yesterday how little faith anyone in the area has in me? Gentlemen do not go about slandering other people without the most extreme cause of provocation.”

“You left us defenceless!” Tears pricked Elizabeth’s eyes. How did he not see it? As a man, and a wealthy one, he simply could not understand how little freedom ladies had.

Darcy scoffed. “Hardly! You said you would judge a man by his words and actions. What truly gentlemanly behaviour has Wickham displayed? He has entered the militia, and anyone who believes all men in a red coat are upstanding is the worst kind of ignorant and silly!”

Enraged as he dismissed her concerns, Elizabeth stepped forward again. “Since nearly the first moment of our acquaintance, your manners impressed me with an immoveable dislike. I was frequently a victim of your constant arrogance and conceit, your selfish disdain for the feelings of others. It is not lost on me that the common element between the ungentlemanly men I mentioned is you.”

Darcy’s jaw tightened. “What do you mean?” He spoke with extreme coldness.

Elizabeth deflated. She had done it again. She aimed to cruelly wound him to mask her own pain. He had explained, and it made a certain amount of sense, that he found it difficult to converse with strangers. She had seen enough truth in Darcy’s looks the other day to know that he would never be complicit in any of Wickham’s actions. And did he not mention his concern over Bingley’s steadfastness? No quality could be further from Darcy’s character.

Elizabeth had always thought she behaved correctly, in light of the poor example from her mother and youngest sisters, but now she saw how her own actions may have made Bingley and Darcy feel her family too improper. She should have recommended herself more to Bingley’s friend, for her sister’s sake, rather than attempt to cleverly mock him and provoke him. Her manners were at fault as well, and her spirits lead her wrong.

In her silence, he assumed a meaning of his own. “I understand your meaning entirely.” He turned to leave her.

“Excuse me, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth pleaded and walked after him. “I am sorry I spoke in anger. I cannot claim to know you well, but I know you are nothing like Wickham and, whatever your faults are, they are certainly not the fickleness of Mr. Bingley.

“Pray, forgive me. I have only recently recognised my own behaviour, and my poor treatment of you must have contributed to your feelings of the inadequacy of my family. I am uncertain now if I would desire Mr. Bingley to return my sister’s affections if his heart is not to be trusted, but it grieves me to suspect that I cost my dearest sister, such great love.”

Darcy let out an exasperated sigh. “What mean you now?”

“That your justified dislike of me motivated you to separate my sister from your friend.” She hung her head low in shame.

“I will not be accused of such again! Nothing could be further from the truth. I wish to marry you!”

Immediately, Darcy paled as though he realised what he said and wished he could collect his words back. Crickets hummed, and birds chirped, proving the world went on existing, and yet Elizabeth could not fathom a sphere in which Mr. Darcy wished to marry her.

“What?” She asked, shaking her head to dispel the insanity which made her mishear him to such an extreme degree.

A look of warmth and gentleness took over Darcy’s face. “I realise you dislike me, and perhaps rightly so. I did endeavour to separate your most beloved sister from my friend, though not as you suppose. And for this, you may never forgive me.” He paused as though drawing strength. “I am acutely aware my sentiments are unwelcome to you, but I would be pleased if you accepted my hand in marriage.”

Elizabeth stared at him, quite disbelieving. “You cannot be serious.”

“I am quite convinced you are the perfect woman to be my companion in life.”

“How can you possibly think that?” She blurted out. All they did was argue! Elizabeth shook her head. It was still entirely unfathomable. “Why?”

“Why?” He started as though he never expected to be asked such a question. He raised his hands up and helplessly motioned at her. “Because of you. Because of the thousand and one unique things that make up who you are! You are kind, intelligent, witty, clever, playful, lively. I admire your stubbornness and loyalty —  even when it’s directed away from me. You are the perfect companion for me in every way.”

Elizabeth shook her head once more and held up her hands. “You are mistaken, sir. I tease, and you hate it. I am silly and outspoken, and you are silent and taciturn.”

“It does not follow that I enjoy those qualities about myself or must dislike that you are quite the opposite.”

“I have no fortune, my relatives are in trade and my family is improper.” Darcy’s initial silence spoke volumes to her.

“I will not lie and say these things did not hinder my regard. I did think marriage to you imprudent, at first, but I have conquered those objections.”

“Then why are you only now speaking of it?”

“Instead of when I knew you in Hertfordshire?”

Elizabeth nodded.

“Because of every reason I had against Bingley’s match with your sister. I needed to be sure of my regard. Six weeks is not a very long acquaintance. I could not trust my judgment in my affections.

“I knew I enjoyed your company more than any other lady’s, but what if it were mere infatuation? You deserved more than that from a spouse. And as I acknowledged with Bingley’s situation, there would be some — even in my own family — that would dislike the union. I would not put you through being slighted by spiteful members of the ton, and my aunt, if we did not have a strong foundation.

He began to pace and ran his hands through his hair. “In the last week, I attempted to ascertain your feelings. As I explained with regard to your sister, it was difficult to make out how you felt in Hertfordshire. Here I thought, I had hoped…but it must have only been my vain pretensions.”

Elizabeth trembled slightly as she considered the compliment of being his object of affection. “What is it you want from me, Mr. Darcy?” They had reached the Parsonage gate.

“I ask nothing of you. What I want most you cannot give. I hope it was not selfish of me to declare my sentiments, but I could not be accused of disliking you again. I could not allow you to think ill of yourself, or that I found you unworthy in any way.”

Thunder cracked, and the clouds unleashed their bowels at last. Darcy closed his eyes, Elizabeth believed against the pain even her face must cause him now. “Good day, Miss Bennet.” After a slight bow, he departed.

Elizabeth would have stood still in her bewilderment longer, as she stared at Darcy’s back, if not for the rain. Instead, she dashed into the house and grabbed two umbrellas stored at the entry.

“Mr. Darcy!” She yelled loudly over the rain.

He momentarily ceased walking before shaking his head, as though chiding himself, and continuing onward. She called again as she ran to him and this time he stopped. He had not walked far; he was walking rather slowly, Elizabeth thought. He turned around just as she reached him.

“Mr. Darcy, please will you wait in the Parsonage until the rain passes?”

“Your cousins are not home, it would not be appropriate. I believe the last thing you would want is gossip about a compromising situation.”

Elizabeth blanched but pressed to her secondary plan and produced the other umbrella. “I knew you would decline out of stubbornness, if nothing else. Here, take the umbrella.”

Darcy let out a frustrated sigh. “Yes, that part of my character you would have made out very well, of course!”

He took the umbrella and made a small bow, but they both turned as they heard a carriage followed by Mr. Collins calling. “Make haste, Mrs. Collins, Maria! Make haste!” Darcy began to walk again, but it was too late. “Mr. Darcy! You must come inside.”

“I thank you, Mr. Collins but I would not like to get your furniture damp. It is better I continue on to Rosings. Miss Bennet was kind enough to loan me an umbrella when she saw me outside.”

“Walk back to Rosings in your wet clothes? Certainly not! Why Lady Catherine would never forgive me!” Her cousin was truly panicked, but Darcy looked towards Elizabeth.

“My cousin is correct. We would not wish you to catch your death. Please come in, Mr. Darcy.” He gave her a sad smile, but acquiesced.

Darcy was quickly ushered upstairs to dry off, and a servant sent to retrieve fresh clothing for him from Rosings. By the time he returned, dinner was being served, and Mr. Collins insisted Darcy remain. He spoke little during the dinner, which Elizabeth fully understood, between the rain and their conversation, he must be desperate to leave her presence.

She was surprised when he cleared his throat and addressed the table. “My aunt sent a note with the servant. She invites the whole party to dine at Rosings the day after tomorrow.”

Mr. and Mrs. Collins and even Maria exclaimed in delight, for they had not been invited to Rosings with the same regularity now that Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam arrived.

“Eliza, is this not grand news?” Charlotte asked her. Elizabeth readily saw Darcy slyly observing her.

“Oh, yes. It is always a pleasure to dine at Rosings.” She hardly knew what else to say.

It was a simple dinner of a single course and before the hour was through Darcy was returned to Rosings in Lady Catherine’s coach that was sent for him. Elizabeth wisely pleaded a headache and excused herself upstairs before her friend could question her.

 

*****

 

Darcy returned to Rosings and pleaded illness rather than join the ladies. He was surely the weak link in the Darcy line. Not only could he not even propose to a lady correctly but she had no idea that he had long admired her. His pride thanked the Lord he never confessed love to her.

He and Anne had developed a plan. Darcy would take the time at Rosings to court Elizabeth, and prove that he could treat her as an equal and listen to her concerns. He would persuade his aunt to secure an invitation for her to Knole Park. He would support her interest in architecture. All the while, Richard would work to separate Wickham from the Regiment in Meryton, thereby keeping the Bennet sisters safe from his dastardly schemes.

Darcy would confess his story to Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Bennet. His pride did not like exposing himself and acknowledging he was not without fault, but he would further prove to Elizabeth he was not ashamed of her relations. While in Meryton, he could make amends to the shopkeepers of the area. Additionally, he would encourage Bingley to return to Netherfield and, if Miss Bennet wished it, resume their courtship. Once in Hertfordshire, Darcy could properly court Elizabeth. She could see his merits after he had secured the happiness and safety of so many in her life. Not that she would marry him out of gratitude: he did not think she would do such a thing. But that it might enliven her feelings toward him.

If all went as planned, he would be married by Michaelmas. They would honeymoon at Pemberley and go to London for the Season. She would be an instant success and fit in the Bluestocking Club perfectly. They would be the envy of the ton, disgustingly happy. Georgiana would become so fastidious in desiring a love match, and confident in the friendship of Elizabeth, she would not wed for many years.

Yes, Darcy had verily planned the next five years of his life. Of course, that was without even speaking to Elizabeth and discussing her desires, let alone understanding just how deep her dislike for him went.

She had been quick to apologise today but had firmly believed he disapproved of her. Overcoming her prejudice and the wound he served her pride would not be easily won. Matters were progressing nowhere with Wickham as Richard had yet to hear from his comrade about reassigning the rogue. Nor had Elizabeth received a reply from Mr. Bennet or Mrs. Gardiner yet.

And Bingley!

To hear that Bingley had cut Jane in a shop had been more than Darcy could believe. He had thought his friend too embarrassed to speak and pulled away by his sister. Darcy ought to have anticipated that Bingley might call on the Gardiners to make amends. He ought to have warned his friend or been with him. He should confess to Jane Bennet that it was he who suggested Bingley not return to Netherfield. That he alone was the cause of her heartbreak, not Bingley. From the sound of how she turned Bingley out on his ear, Darcy rather thought he also would not be welcome at the Gardiner house. How would he speak with Mr. Gardiner about Wickham?

Elizabeth could never love him now. Not when he had ruined, perhaps forever, the happiness of her most beloved sister. At the very least, he could not expect Elizabeth to choose him, when she did not love him, over her sister whom she loved more than any other person on this earth.

A light tapping on his door broke his thoughts. “Leave it,” he cried to the maid who brought his supper tray.

The maid continued to knock. “I said leave it!” he called louder.

The rapping did not cease. Shooting from his chair, he began yelling before he pulled the door open. “Leave it before I tell your mistress you’re incapable of following simple commands!”

He wrenched the door open, and his cousin’s small frame stood before him. She held her chin high.

“Anne!”

“Am I supposed to be frightened of your bellowing?” she asked and bent her head, edging her way under his arm and into his chamber.

“Anne, what are you doing?” he hissed, scanned the hall and then quickly shut the door.

“And you should know our servants hear enough screaming from my mother that your antics will not scare them. They are far more terrified of her.”

“Anne,” Darcy pressed fingers to his temples. They had avoided each other for the better part of a decade. Since he cleared the air with her, they had slipped into the easy friendship of their youth. However, he now desired solitude.

“No, I won’t leave you alone with your mercurial thoughts,” she said and sauntered to a chair.

Darcy stared at her. He had not spoken his thoughts aloud.

“You did not have to say anything. Anyone would know you wish me gone.” She scrutinised his face. Her thin brows joining together. “What have you done?”

Darcy walked to his sideboard and poured himself a glass of port. He considered not answering her. “Do you care for anything?” He motioned to the contents.

Anne licked her lips. “I take a glass of sherry in the evening.”

Darcy filled a tumbler and brought it to her. “You, no doubt, know that I was caught in the rain and had to stay at the Collinses. I dare anyone to be in good spirits after that.”

Anne looked dubiously at him. “Rain never hurt anyone. And the lovely Elizabeth was there, was she not?”

“She was,” he answered neutrally and took a sip of wine.

“Usually, after a morning with her you can bear anything even my mother dishes out, and tonight you are out of spirits because of Mr. Collins? No,” Anne shook her head. “Do not forget that I am Mistress of Hearts. You quarrelled with Miss Bennet.”

“When have I not quarrelled with her?” Darcy bit out in disgust. It was as Bingley had tried to say. All the times Darcy thought they were merely debating and learning about each other’s character, she was arguing with his false pride. He had been too arrogant to see it. “I have ruined everything.”

“If you frequently argue then how can this one ruin everything?”

Darcy’s heart lurched at the hope Anne offered. “You do not understand. She has so many faults against me.”

“Are they true?”

“They are…complicated,” Darcy said through a clenched jaw.

“Are they true,” Anne repeated slower and raised her brows.

“Very well,” Darcy said and put his glass down on the nearby table. He blew out a deep breath and leant forward, earnestly meeting his cousin’s eyes. “A significant number of them are. There —  I am an arrogant ass!”

Anne shrugged her shoulders. “Better she knows it now.”

Darcy sagged against the chair. “Where’s your sense of familial pride. Should you not be outraged?”

“Think of who I live with,” Anne said and took a sip of her sherry. “We have arrogance in abundance.”

“Perhaps, but I am attempting to reform,” Darcy said.

“Bah,” Anne cried. “Do not reform. If she cannot bear your faults, she should not marry you.”

“I unjustly accused her sister of being a fortune hunter,” Darcy levelled. “I encouraged a friend who I knew depended upon my advice to leave the house he leased without a word to the neighbourhood and not return.”

“Ah, I see. And if he had decided to marry the lady instead, would he have needed you to tell him what to say?”

Darcy stared at his drink. “If he did then I would have ruined that too, no doubt.”

“Darcy! Do you mean to say…that is… no, it’s impossible!” Anne exclaimed.

Looking up from his glass, Darcy met her gaze. “That I proposed to Elizabeth Bennet today and she refused me? Naturally. I have the grace and tact of an elephant tiptoeing on ice.” He swallowed his remaining port in a large gulp.

Anne guffawed. “An elephant tiptoeing on ice! And people find you droll!” Darcy scowled further. “Come. The lady rejected her cousin and now stays under the man’s roof.”

“For the sake of visiting her friend,” Darcy said.

“Yes, and you are assisting her with Wickham. Once you return to London, you might ease the way between her sister and your friend.”

“I do not know that she can ever forgive me,” Darcy said.

“What has changed in the last day?” Darcy related the contents of Jane’s letter. “Excellent,” Anne nodded. “She should turn him out. He should work for her admiration! As should you!”

Anne stood and paced the room. “You men think everything is owed you on a silver platter! I read it time and time again in my article.” She paused upon seeing his raised brows. “Yes, gentlemen write to me. You accepted my help.”

Darcy did not bother telling her that it was hardly the same thing as accepting the advice of a stranger. “What would you tell another?”

“Time will prove that her sister will either recover from her heartbreak or that the gentleman was never worthy. You will not be the fair-weather sort of suitor. Between previously meeting her London relatives, and then your plan to speak with them and her father regarding Wickham, you will be in her sphere of acquaintance. Stay the course.”

“What if she wishes to never see me again,” Darcy said while shaking his head.

“See how she behaves for the rest of her time here. Do not force her but you must remain constant. She has had too many men prove they are unreliable. You can be the rudder in her ship. Help steer her safe even in troubled waters.”

Darcy did not immediately reply. Perhaps all was not as hopeless as he had first considered. She had seemed to forgive him before, and in general, forgiveness was not an overnight act. It often took quite some time. And time had persuaded her to visit Kent even when she detested her cousin. A slow smile spread across his face.

“You see I am correct,” Anne said and began walking toward the door.

“Really, Anne,” Darcy gave her a false frown and shook his head. “Navy references?”

“Nautical,” Anne corrected and winked. She inched open the door and upon determining the hall clear, promptly left.


Dear C—

You have asked for my advice regarding a proposal you found repugnant. You were right to seek my counsel. Despite your mother’s worries, do not wed where your heart is not attached. You have overcome too much to be the victim of alliances and convenience. I will write her directly and speak with her when I am next in town. I have enclosed volumes by the late George Edwards. With six hundred drawings to duplicate I believe it shall keep you busy for some time.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Twelve

 

Elizabeth sat on the chair in her bedchamber at the Parsonage. Charlotte had taken care to be an excellent hostess, despite the tension in their friendship, and her favourite flowers were frequently in a vase on the table. Also on it were a small stack of books borrowed from her friend. They must be from the Rosings library because Mr. Collins did not keep such works. Elizabeth nearly snarled recalling the conduct books he thrust at her. She picked up the novel she had been reading, it held no interest to her tonight.

What would Darcy’s opinion on such a book be? Her memory flashed to their dance at the Netherfield Ball, he had asked her opinion of books then, but she was so determined to be displeased. Even during her stay at Netherfield, there was once a discussion on female accomplishments, and after Miss Bingley’s ridiculous list, Darcy added a woman should have an improved mind through extensive reading. Elizabeth had held a book in her hand at the time, although she was too preoccupied with the discussion of the room to pay any heed to the volume. She had thought then he was mocking her, but it now seemed he was genuinely interested in her opinions.

After Darcy’s insult to her, she was determined to never dance with him. At each refusal, she was quite aware she was likely the only woman in the world to do so. She thought the revenge rather complete when she was able to refuse him twice to his once.

When she could not refuse him at the Netherfield Ball, she made it quite an unpleasant dance for him. She knew the mention of Wickham would provoke him. She blindly trusted Wickham because his tales supported what she most wanted to believe about Darcy.

She had spitefully blamed him for her sister’s pain because she did not want to see anyone else’s responsibility in the matter. Bingley was fickle. Jane was too reserved and too naive to see his sisters’ machinations. Her family behaved improperly, and yet it was quite accepted among her community while they all blasted Darcy as the most disagreeable man in the world off his behaviour in less than one evening. To those outside their circle, however, her family behaved so badly it may have put off an agreeable suitor for her most deserving sister.

What a humiliation! Was nothing in the world as she thought it?

Mr. Darcy wished to marry her. He, who she had thought was proud and arrogant, who must have seen the greatest beauties of London for years, who could have fortune and rank, wanted her. It was humbling.

She knew Wickham was not to be trusted for several weeks now, but still, she did not discount all of his words against Darcy. Even in the last few days, she persisted in believing he would separate Bingley from Jane only due to desiring fortune and circumstance for his friend. Her opinion of Darcy was so wrong that the entire time she had been convinced he wished to keep Bingley from her sister, he was examining her character.

The times she had been certain he had looked at her in contempt, he admired her from afar. It seemed every time she took offence to something, he had only attempted to compliment her. Now, she could even see the times he had tried to court her good opinion. All the while she had courted prejudice and willful ignorance! How blind she had been!

Elizabeth’s eyes had been opened, however, and it was a new world to her. She could not repent her words on his behaviour in Meryton, but neither could she ignore the unjust accusations she made. To compare him to Wickham, to blame him for Bingley’s defection was terribly wrong of her. She also could not forget the look of pain when he acknowledged she must refuse him or the resigned air in which he tendered his aunt’s invitation.

She must prove that no matter her silly ignorance she could behave correctly. She could hardly determine if she wished to welcome his attentions, but she would prove she was worthy of the respect and esteem he held for her. She was through acting like a spoiled child over insults, imagined or real.

Elizabeth’s pride did shirk, momentarily, at having to apologise and confess to her vanity, but her honour demanded it. Darcy deserved it, and her duty required it to ensure his help to her family. For them, she would bear any degradation. Her only hesitance was should he not wish to converse on the subject, or worse, seek to blame himself. Additionally, she admitted to a minuscule amount of concern that he had only offered his help out of thinking he helped his future family. She told herself that was merely old prejudice and he could only act out of honour. Darcy would not revoke his assistance at disgust with her incivility or hurt pride at her rejection. However, he was a mortal and who could have the strength to frequently meet with the woman who so callously spurned him?

Choosing to not ask herself why it mattered if he had already overcome his preference for her, she decided to write a brief note of apology to give him in case conversation proved impossible. She could only hope he would overlook the impropriety. She had the greatest trust he would not betray her.

Sitting at the little table in her room she drew out a sheet of paper from her writing box and began to swallow her pride.

Dear Mr. Darcy,

I pray you will forgive me for the terrible breach in propriety I am making by writing this letter but, like a great many things, men do not hold a monopoly on honour and mine demands I apologise for my unforgivable words yesterday. I hope we can put our differences behind us as we work on our project.

Sincerely,

EB

 

*****

 

Despite Anne’s words of encouragement, Darcy believed he could not treat his last argument with Elizabeth as no different than the ones before. He had not understood at the earlier times that she had specific accusations against him. He rather thought she was testing to see if he felt similarly about the world. Now, every conversation they ever had seemed to take on a new light.

At Lucas Lodge, when she declined dancing with him it was revenge for his first insult. Indeed, even at Netherfield, it was. Had she doubted ladies could have good sense and accomplishment or merely that he would deign to know them? On that score, she had been nearly correct. Not for lack of trying, he had to wade through hoards of empty-headed ladies to find the diamonds he sought. Apparently, when they argued over pride and vanity, she meant to expose him as having both.

Darcy stretched his legs out. She was not faultless, but she had apologised. Some would wonder how he would think her worthy if she disliked him and desired to only debase him, but she was not flighty or conceited. She did have pride and for her to apologise must have cost her quite a bit.

He pushed aside any residual anger he felt at Elizabeth’s complaints and assumptions and instead focused on her feelings. When Georgiana had been hurt by Wickham, it was as though Darcy’s own heart bled with her. Elizabeth now felt that for Jane and it was through his methods. Having noble intentions did not excuse the misery he caused. An apology was in order.

The maid arrived with the supper tray, and as Darcy ate, he ordered his thoughts. He had always expressed himself better in writing than with words. Once finished with his light meal, he walked to his escritoire and pushed aside letters of business. His sister and aunt had written, but he would read those letters on the morrow. Tonight, Elizabeth deserved his entire attention.

Withdrawing the writing items and arranging himself as neatly as he could, Darcy paused before he began. It was surely a silly thing to entreat the Almighty for, but he wished to infuse his regret and love into this letter so he might start again with Elizabeth.

Dearest Elizabeth

Darcy crossed it out and blew out a sigh. That was far too informal. Balling up the paper, he tossed it aside.

Dear Madam.

No, too cold and formal. How did one begin a letter to a lady he wished to wed? To one he loved but did not offer his heart? A woman with whom he had a long acquaintance, and yet, she would say they were not friends. Annoyed, he settled for the same name all the world called her.

Dear Miss Bennet,

Words can scarcely convey the regret I feel at learning for the many months of our acquaintance you have been under the misapprehension that I disapproved of you. I understand there may have been mitigating factors, and I know in your generosity you would excuse some of my behaviour, but allow me to take the blame I must. My honour demands it. Had I behaved as I ought to have, none of this would now be an issue. As such, I apologise to you, and when I meet with your relations, I shall entreat their forgiveness as well. I understand, too, that I have harmed the citizens of Meryton and when an apology is in my power, I will make amends.

On the matter of making my sentiments known to you, I ask your pardon as well. A gentleman does not force his attentions on a person and had I not been so careless and presuming, I would have known better. I hope I have given no lasting distress.

I remain your humble servant and wish to aid you should you ever need it,

Fitzwilliam Darcy

Darcy’s eyes scanned over the words. He hoped to give it to her on the morrow, although letters between unwed ladies and gentlemen were not entirely proper. Nor was the letter exactly genuine. Amongst the things he apologised for there were many things, he was not the least sorry for. His mortified pride hated that he had proposed to a woman who had never seen his admiration or desired his notice, but he felt freer having spoken some of his heart. All the days he had met under the guise of discussing Wickham — and he did worry about the cad — Darcy had had nervously courted Elizabeth. Now, when he met her next, there would be no deceit between them. When he was attentive to her, she would know his honourable intentions.

Of course, it might be that she never wished to speak with him again.

Tossing his pen aside, Darcy peered at the clock in his room through bleary, sleep-deprived eyes. If he arose at his regular time, he would have less than six hours of sleep. Before trudging to his bed, he reached for his mail, duty calling to him. As he undressed for the evening, he paused now and then to make out words.

Georgiana was in good health and enjoyed her newest pianoforte master. Mrs. Annesley was a balm to her wounded soul. Richard visited often, and Bingley and his sister called nearly daily. Darcy wished he knew if Georgiana was forming an attachment. He did not believe for a moment that Bingley had any interest in his sister if he was so in love with Jane Bennet as to call on her at the Gardiners’ and without an introduction. Nor did he think Bingley would encourage a lady while his affection lay elsewhere. However, Georgiana was quite young still. Darcy chuckled imagining her face upon such a claim.

Boots and stockings removed, Darcy moved on to the Baroness’ letter. He told himself he would alert her and Mrs. Annesley to the possible complication of Georgiana’s attachment to Bingley, who was rather spoken for. Lady Darcy reported that she had found a new candidate for the Bluestocking Club and asked after his progress. He had come under the guise of asking the Duchess of Dorset’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Julia Jenkinson, to join. Her father was a noted astronomer and had raised his child to appreciate the stars. Mrs. Jenkinson, in turn, relished in her father’s profession. As the wife to a very wealthy and influential politician, Mrs. Jenkinson could be a very powerful patron of science. Lady Darcy also bade him to hurry his “adventure at the Dragon’s” and choose his bride. Darcy frowned. She was not usually the aunt to wish him to the altar in a trice.

Pulling his shirt over his head, he accidentally knocked his still full glass of port and cursed. Dashing to the wash stand, he grabbed the towel to clean his mess. His aunt’s letter had fluttered to the floor, but by the time he had everything settled again, he decided to wait and finish reading his correspondence later. Sleepiness pulled all strength from his body, and he stumbled toward the bed as though he were drunk. Collapsing in it, he slept soundly until awoken with a start as his valet entered at the usual time.

 

Mr. Darcy’s Bluestocking Bride- Chapter Nine

MDBB4Dear C—

I am delighted to hear of you have seen our cousin’s new baby girl. A pity she would rather wish for a son. I would suggest she spend more time with her aunt as I know my mother has always wished to be closer to her brother-in-law’s children. When you marry I hope you will not think sons are the only children worth having. Your uncle loves our girls.

Your Aunt,

A.F.

 

Chapter Nine

As much as she tried to tell herself otherwise, Elizabeth could not mistake the look of pain and hurt in Darcy’s eyes as he left. She had done so much more than wound his vanity. Is that what she wanted all along?

Elizabeth thought over the history of her acquaintance with Darcy. She barely spoke to him without wishing to cause him pain. When had she become such a spiteful creature?

Elizabeth knew not how long she stood in place, alone and crying until she felt someone leading her off the path again.

“Miss Bennet, are you well?” Mr. Darcy had returned!

She could not answer. What must he think of her? Never before in her life had she been so cruel to a person! Always, always he provoked her past the point of civility! She allowed herself to be tugged into a sitting position.

“Please, do not cry for my sake.”

When she still did not speak, she felt something entirely unexpected. Mr. Darcy pulled her into his arms and held her! Near a public path on his aunt’s estate! All men from Derbyshire must be mad!

She pulled back from his arms and looked up at his face. “Mr. Darcy…”

“Shhh…”

This was madness! Why did he still hold her? Why did she let him?

This time she pushed against him, intent on rebuking him but something in the way he watched her stilled her tongue. She had said enough for one day. How long would she hold a grudge for one statement eight months ago?

“I cannot bear to be the cause for your tears and distress,” he said with an unfathomable gentleness.

Who was this man? Not the Mr. Darcy she knew in Hertfordshire, or even thus far in Kent. He let go of her and Elizabeth was nearly positive she saw regret etched on his face. Yes, he must regret speaking to her if she could not even keep a civil tongue and then resort to tears!

She said nothing as he sat beside her looking straight ahead. She was certain she had the most dumbstruck look on her face.

“Do you truly believe I dislike you and think so little of everyone around me?” His voice was quiet and uncertain.

Still not trusting herself to look at him, she fixed her gaze on the distance. “I confess it has been my firmest opinion these many months.”

Darcy was silent for many moments and Elizabeth hazarded a glance in his direction. Now his eyes remained forward, but she saw his jaw clenched tight and a muscle twitching near his eye.

Darcy plucked a blade of grass and focused on shredding it into small pieces while he spoke. “I do not mean to offend. I become nervous meeting new people. They all look at me, are judging me, estimating my income, presenting their daughters to me, approaching me with a business proposition, wanting to meet my uncle.

“More than that, with all the unwanted attention I am under constant scrutiny. I have been careful to not besmirch my family name. It is one reason I do not attempt to slander Wickham and why I have given into his financial demands before. The one time I did not, it nearly cost me dearly.”

Elizabeth thought over his words before replying. “I never thought you may be feeling that way, but did you ever think what other people might be feeling when the most powerful and richest person they have ever met enters the room, and will not even make eye contact with them? Will not speak with them? And who are you? Only a gentleman. You are not a peer or prince! We have our pride in Meryton, as anywhere.” Belatedly, Elizabeth recalled that he would one day inherit a barony.

“And I wounded yours.” Elizabeth blushed. “I never should have said it. I was in a foul mood but should have danced anyway. Truthfully, I would have danced after Bingley pointed you out but you know how I feel about Bingley’s ability to be easily persuaded. I only grasped at something to say.”

Before she could speak in reply, such as noting that it was the poorest apology she had heard in some time and she grew up with three younger sisters, he pressed on to the more important topic of discussion. “We still must decide how to warn your father. It seems he would not listen to your testimony and he will not listen to mine. Is there someone he may respect?”

Excessively grateful for the turn in conversation, she took a moment to think. She considered suggesting Bingley return, but it did not seem like her father would be willing to take Bingley’s word for it either. “My father greatly esteems my aunt and uncle in London. You have met them and know they have good sense.”

However much Darcy accepted his eccentric and titled aunt inviting the Gardiners to her home, Elizabeth knew it would be a stretch for a man of such pride to visit a tradesman, and was astonished when he did not hesitate to answer.

“If I explain matters do you think he will keep the confidence?”

“Yes, he certainly would. He met Wickham at Christmas. My aunt, especially, enjoyed his tales of Derbyshire and Lambton as she is from there, but they would be very interested in knowing the truth of his character. As you saw, they had no prejudice against you.” Unlike me.

Darcy smiled a little, and she was pleased that he noted her non-stated apology. Then another thought struck her. “Well, they did hear of you,” she could not bear to explain it was from her own mouth, “but they are fair people and enjoyed meeting you in London. My aunt had wondered about Wickham’s sensibilities when he began to pay attentions to a young lady who recently inherited ten thousand pounds when, previously, his affections seemed to lie…elsewhere.” Realising she rambled, she suddenly ceased speaking. She attempted not to blush but could feel the heat on her face.

“I see.” He sounded angrier than she expected. He clenched his jaw again.

“My aunt is predisposed to think well of you as she knew how good your father was.” Unexpectedly, Darcy smiled a sincere smile at that. His expression changed, and Elizabeth recognised that was when he was feeling proud. It was rather becoming.

“When do you leave for London?”

“I am to stay nearly another month.”

“I cannot call on your aunt and uncle without cause.”

A sly smile crept across Elizabeth’s face. “Mr. Bingley could call on my sister, and you could accompany him. I could send a letter with you.”

He began shaking his head before she had even finished her suggestion. “I would prefer you to be present.”

Elizabeth was annoyed he did not respond to her suggestion about Bingley. Of course, Darcy knew Jane as well and could call on her without his friend’s presence, but he seemed to have rejected that idea.

“Might you leave early?” he pressed.

Elizabeth huffed. “I do not have the freedom to order my own life. Mrs. Collins expects me here for another month, and my aunt and uncle are not prepared for me.”

“Perhaps you could write and ask if you may arrive in advance? You could argue the society here is discomforting, and I think that would be rather truthful. If they reply in the positive, you could find some excuse to Mrs. Collins.”

“I suppose you will tell me it is only fifty miles of good road and I might see my friend again frequently,” she said with something nearing sorrow. With all that Charlotte and Mr. Collins had put her through, leaving them would be no hardship but she had the distinct feeling her friendship with Charlotte would suffer forever.

Darcy cast a nervous look at her. “Might we worry about this trouble with Wickham before we borrow more from the future?”

“Very well. I can see, sir that your suggestions are prudent. I will sacrifice my leisure for the benefit of my family and the community. Oh, what I do for my beloved sisters!” She said dramatically, for greater effect.

He smiled at her theatrics. “Again, you cannot be certain what the future holds.”

Darcy pulled out his watch and noticed the time. “Allow me to escort you to the parsonage.” Once they began walking again, Darcy inquired, “When will you write your aunt?”

“I will write today. Things should be arranged in less than a week.”

Darcy frowned. “We had not considered how to convey you. Surely Miss Lucas would desire to stay with her sister longer. Additionally, your relatives might wish for you to remain in Town for a time rather than send you immediately to Hertfordshire, as Miss Lucas would likely prefer.”

Elizabeth chewed her lip. Was there a hint of anxiety in Darcy’s eyes? “I had not thought of that. We were to travel by stage, but my uncle was to send a manservant for us.” Darcy looked away, but Elizabeth saw him wince at her news. Undoubtedly, he would never dream of travelling by stage.

“If I could arrange for a maid to travel with us, might you ride in Lady Catherine’s carriage while I ride on my horse?”

Elizabeth disliked having to accept so much from Darcy, but it was the only feasible way. She could not travel with only a manservant and hated to have to beg for a maid from either the Collinses or the Gardiners. “Thank you.”

They arrived at the Parsonage gate, and Darcy bowed over Elizabeth’s hand. As he left, she sighed. Once again, she could not make him out at all. Fortunately, there were two such people just within who would rectify that feeling immediately.

*****

Darcy knocked on Anne’s sitting room door and looked up and down the hall, hoping no servant would see him.

“Yes?” she called out.

“It’s Darcy,” he said. A memory of them as young children flashed in his mind. They would play “hide from the dragon.” Richard and their other cousin would never let Darcy hide with them. Anne, as a resident of Rosings, always knew the best places to hide. How often had he knocked on a wardrobe or cover and said, “It is me,” and she knew his voice immediately? Now, because of her mother’s scheming, they had grown into mere strangers.

Anne opened the door and also scanned the hallway. “Well?” she asked.

“I need to speak with you privately. Might I come in?” Darcy watched as Anne’s nervousness increased tenfold.

“If you must,” she said and walked toward the seating area. She lowered herself slowly into a chair and motioned for Darcy to do the same. Sitting on the edge of her chair, as though prepared for flight at a moment’s notice, she stared at her hands rather than look at Darcy.

“I must ask for your assistance,” he began nervously.

Anne’s head shot up. She looked a mixture of relieved and sceptical. “You need my help? Whatever for?”

“Miss Bennet finds she must journey to London earlier than previously planned. Neither the Collinses nor her relatives in Town have a suitable conveyance. I have offered to escort her, but she will need a chaperone and use of one of your mother’s carriages.”

Anne’s eyes widened, and she placed a hand protectively over her neck. “I cannot journey so far! London? No, never!” She looked ghost white, and she clenched the arms of her chair in terror.

Darcy gently touched her arm, causing her to jump. “Forgive me,” he said and drew it back. “I did not mean to alarm you,” he said. While some might fear confined places, Anne never did. No, she feared large groups of people. The result of being nearly trampled as a child when taken to see Macbeth with her father and a riot broke out due to an increase in ticket prices.

“Wha — what did you want then?” she asked, her chest still heaving but the fear easing.

“I wondered if you could arrange for a maid to accompany us. Miss Lucas will not wish to leave so early.”

“Oh, is that all?” Anne sagged against the chair in relief and looked younger than he had seen her in ages.

“That shall be hard enough without arousing the suspicion of your mother.” Darcy stood to leave.

“And what of my suspicions?” She said, and if it were not for the fact that Anne seldom left the vicinity of Rosings, Darcy would despise the way she sounded like her mother. As it was, she could hardly help it.

Darcy raised an eyebrow but said nothing. “You will not dally with Mrs. Collins’ friend, will you?”

“I hardly need to explain myself to you,” Darcy turned to go but at the last moment thought better of it. He was striving to be a better man because of Elizabeth’s rebuke. “Forgive me,” he said and retook his seat.

Anne furrowed her brow, unaccustomed to him caring about her opinion.

“I assure you, I have nothing but honourable intentions toward Miss Bennet, but that is all there is worth saying at this moment.” He took a deep breath and pushed forward. “Anne, surely you know… That is, it can be no surprise…” Blast it. There was a reason he had never discussed the situation of her mother’s hopes before.

Anne squeezed her hands tightly and stared at her feet.

Respect. “No, I will not dictate to you as you have had done your whole life. I will not tell you how you must think or feel and will not presume to know better than you.”

Slowly, she lifted her eyes, tears misted them.

“It was wrong of me to avoid this conversation for so many years. Your mother has made her preferences quite known, and I suspect has even raised you to expect our union.”

Anne timidly nodded.

“I ask your forgiveness. I ought to have discussed my feelings long ago.”

“You love Miss Bennet,” she said with understanding.

“I do,” Darcy confirmed. “However, I had felt since my youth that I could not marry you.” She opened her mouth, but Darcy waved it off. “Please, do not disparage yourself. I do not find you wanting. Another man will be quite blessed to have you as a wife. You deserve a man who passionately adores you. I have always known I am not that man and believed I was doing you a service by not bowing to your mother’s wishes.”

Anne exhaled a long breath and tears streamed down her eyes. “Thank you,” she clapped her hands together. “Thank you! Thank you! I have lived in fear, in dread of your proposal for most of my life.”

Despite his relief that she did not resent his rejection, it stung to hear yet another lady wanted no part of his courtship. “Again, I apologise for not stating my feelings earlier.” He stood to depart.

“I can help you!” She called out as his hand reached for the doorknob. He turned back toward her. “I can assist you with Miss Bennet.”

“What makes you think I need your assistance?”

Anne laughed. “She has not the faintest clue you admire her. She would sooner expect Richard’s stallion to grow wings.”

“And you are an expert on matchmaking now?”

“Those who cannot wed, plan!” Anne exclaimed. “I will tell you a secret.”

Dutifully, Darcy returned to his seat and leaned forward as Anne motioned. “I write for a ladies’ magazine. I am Mrs. Mabel Fairweather, mistress of hearts.” She scurried off to her desk and brought correspondence for him to inspect.

Darcy turned them over, recognising her penmanship. “I do not know what to say. You are accomplished beyond my wildest thoughts.”

“Now, you have begun your courtship on the wrong foot,” Anne grinned and retrieved her letters. “However, Elizabeth is a reasonable woman. She can be convinced to let the past remain there. She is prejudiced against your rank and wealth, and it does not help that she knows my mother,” Anne groaned at the thought.

Darcy silently added that Elizabeth’s other accusations involved Wickham and Bingley. “I have already determined I must show her and her relations greater respect.”

Anne nodded. “An excellent start. And how will you demonstrate this? Just wait for them to appear? Or to be brought up in conversation?”

Indeed, that was exactly his plan. Conversation was not his strong suit. Now, if only Society allowed him to demonstrate his passion for the lady…

“Do not fret,” Anne said. “We can practice some conversation and” she waggled her eyebrows, “we can discuss the appropriate behaviour of suitors. You must not leave her in doubt of your regard.”

Darcy loosened his cravat. The ways in which he desired to show Elizabeth his affection were not suitable for a lady’s ears, or anyone really. He had long struggled with accepting that he could feel very carnal desire for Elizabeth and love her intellect and personality as well. He stood to leave.

“When do you see her again? I imagine in the morning. I have not seen her sketching as early as she used to.”

“She sketches?”

“Oh yes,” Anne nodded. “She favours the hill overlooking the village. In the distance, you can see the spires of Knole Park. It does not surprise me that she has an interest in architecture.”

Darcy grinned. A true bluestocking. Neglecting fashionable pursuits for “gentlemen’s art.” She could not be more perfect for him than if he had intended to find a wife upon his entering Hertfordshire. He might have searched for many years before finding her.

“We do often meet in the grove,” Darcy answered neutrally.

“Do not go tomorrow,” Anne said. “Leave her wishing she had seen you. Visit me, and we will discuss how to proceed.”

“Thank you,” Darcy said, uncertain he should encourage her meddling in his life.

“And where the devil did you send Richard?”

“He had business in London and is detained by an ill commander. He hopes to return soon.”

“Yes, well, Mother pesters me more about you when he is absent.” Anne waved a hand. “You may go.”

Darcy, at last, left her sitting room, marvelling how much she was like her mother, and yet, that was not an entirely bad thing.

 

Mr. Darcy’s Bluestocking Bride- Chapter Eight

MDBB4Dear C—

When did you last indulge your love of art? Come with me to Bath again. There is a new drawing master I wish you to meet. There is talk that the King will finally agree to an establishment of Britain’s finest artists.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Eight

After a night of little sleep, Elizabeth arose even earlier than usual for the day. She walked to the grove and had brought a book with her expecting to wait nearly an hour before Darcy, and hopefully not his cousin, appeared. Elizabeth believed she needed the solitude to steady her thoughts. Charlotte had come to Elizabeth’s chamber yesterday evening and attempted to apologise for the scene with her husband. Elizabeth tried to view things from her friend’s perspective. She had little control over her husband’s opinion or mouth. Even still, Elizabeth did not think she could ever remain silent while her spouse scolded her friend for imaginary sins.

She should not have been surprised to hear her name called out immediately, and yet she was. “Good day, Miss Bennet!”

Elizabeth plastered a false smile on her face. It turned genuine when she discovered Colonel Fitzwilliam did not join his cousin. The man had seemed gentlemanly at their first encounter, but she rather thought it rude of him to ask after her so minutely. Of course, he had no way of anticipating her cousin’s eccentricities. Elizabeth greeted Mr. Darcy and inquired after the Colonel.

“Was the Colonel was still abed when you left? It must be nearly nine now, surely he will happen our way soon then.”

Belatedly she realised Darcy had ceased walking. She turned to look at him with an eager face, and he finally moved forward again. “No, he left at dawn.” He paused for a moment. “I am sorry to have delayed in relaying the plans to you. You must be anxious to hear them.”

They resumed walking. “Actually, it was a welcome respite from my worries.”

Darcy gave her a slight smile. “I am glad to be of service. Richard seeks to have Wickham transferred to another regiment. We worry he would become vengeful if he were suddenly treated differently with his current regiment. As he is certain I am out to ruin his life, knows I frequently visit my aunt this time of year, and knows you are here, it would take little for him to assume I was behind his change in acceptance, and it was by your information I chose to act.”

Elizabeth saw the wisdom in the plan and nodded.

Darcy continued, “I also intend to journey to Longbourn to speak with your father. Wickham likely has debts he will not pay, so I will collect those. Does this meet with your approval?”

Elizabeth disliked his presumption. Her letter to her father had just gone out in the morning post, and they had not discussed this possibility yesterday. “When will you go to Longbourn?”

“I had thought to wait until Wickham was gone. It should only be a matter of days. It is not improbable he will find some other means of harming your family, so I thought it best to explain his history to your father.”

Chewing her bottom lip, Elizabeth considered the best way to voice her concerns. “Mr. Darcy, you will recall yesterday I apologised for believing Wickham’s lies against you. I explained he was telling the whole community of it. Perhaps you think I am silly enough to be charmed by a handsome face—”

“I would never believe that of you,” he said with surprising vehemence.

“It is near enough the truth,” she shook her head, unwilling to accept his kindness. “I am so ashamed, all due to my wounded vanity. Perhaps you think the rest of the neighbourhood silly and thriving on gossip. However, I hope you have seen my father has more intelligence about him.”

“I have,” Darcy gave a slight nod.

Elizabeth took perverse enjoyment in getting him to agree to her father’s intelligence for what followed was his just desserts. “He also believed Wickham’s accounts of you.”

Darcy whipped his head in her direction and flushed. “Your father had no difficulty believing this of me?”

His words ceased her movement. His rebuke toward her father was more than Elizabeth could stand. Anger simmered in her veins, and she grit her teeth until she could reply with tolerable civility. “How can we know a man but by his actions and words? You disapproved of all of Hertfordshire. You would not speak to nearly a soul! You showed yourself to be proud and disagreeable. It would be no hardship to believe you denied a servant’s son — whether out of pride or jealousy — a valuable living and dishonoured your father’s will. Had I not noticed Wickham’s lies and inconsistencies I could easily believe it of you still; even if I allowed Wickham to not be everything he wishes others to believe.”

Darcy was silent for several minutes, and Elizabeth perceived he was searching for composure. Taking a few deep breaths, he finally replied tersely. “Very well. I have offended the entire county, and your father will not listen to me. Should I send someone in my stead?”

Elizabeth noted he did not apologise or seem overly concerned by the opinions of those so far below him. “How many people know of your history with Wickham?” she asked.

“Colonel Fitzwilliam was one of the executor’s of my father’s will. He knows the details of it and of when Wickham gave up the claim to the living and was fairly compensated for it. Bingley knows as well.”

Elizabeth was surprised, for Bingley did not divulge information on Wickham when asked by Jane at the Netherfield ball. “That might be enough to discredit Wickham’s dislike of you but will it be enough to make my father see that Wickham is a threat to the community?”

“Your father cannot be so naive as to think most soldiers behave like true gentlemen.”

“Did not your own father know Wickham and fall for his lies for years?” How dare he rebuke her father when his own was guilty of so much more.

Darcy took a step toward Elizabeth. Passion and fire snapped in his blue eyes. His voice came out as a ragged and harsh whisper. “My father was very grateful to his steward. Father inherited an estate in need of repairs and revitalization. Mr. Wickham proved very capable. He guided my father and taught him to be the best landlord and master. People of the area still speak his name with devotion and reverence. He believed he owed his steward very much. You should not criticise what you do not know!”

Elizabeth took a step forward. She arched her head to meet his eyes. “That is very fine coming from you!” Suddenly, she could feel heat radiating off Mr. Darcy

“What can you mean?”

Anger emanated from his frame, but Elizabeth would not back down. She approached even closer. “Your dislike for anyone not of your rank and wealth!” Her neck tilted back more and she straightened her spine. She would not be made to feel small even if he were so tall. “You feel superior in every possible way without knowing the person at all.”

“We are not all blessed with making friends quickly. Did you not learn recently to not judge a character by that?”

Elizabeth persevered, unfazed by his intent to wound her pride. Lacing her words with as much hatred as possible, she continued. “And for those you do know there is not a friend you have that you do not interfere with, is there? You always know the best way for everyone!”

“What is this of my friends? Speak plainly, madam. I would understand your accusations.” His voice had a mocking quality.

Elizabeth held onto her anger so tightly she feared she might actually snap in half. Looking now at his smug face, so sure she had no weight behind her words, she held nothing back. “I have no doubt Mr. Bingley’s sister played a role as well, but I am confident you played the greater part in separating my most beloved sister from the man she loved! You decided my sister’s love would not be enough to make him happy.” Her chest heaved, but she rejoiced in seeing her verbal punch landed full force. Colour drained from Darcy’s face. “That fortune and rank — that your sister would be a better match!”

“Good God woman! What has happened to your intelligence? I had taken you to be the cleverest woman of my acquaintance!”

She gasped. “My intelligence is not in question—”

He interrupted and spoke over her. “Bingley violently in love with your sister! Would a man violently in love be able to give up so easily? Would he give up love for a greater match as you suggest?”

“And you did nothing to help him? You journeyed to London to keep him away!” Elizabeth clenched her hands. Growing up with four sisters with high spirits she was no stranger to fisticuffs and, at the moment, desired to scratch out Mr. Darcy’s brilliant blue eyes.

Darcy laughed hollowly. “He liked your sister very much, and I am sorry if he raised her expectations, but I did not perceive any particular regard from her. When I questioned Bingley about it, he was uncertain as well. In a match with no fortune or connection, which is sure to be spurned by society, there should at least be mutual regard to ensure marital tranquillity.”

Darcy’s words jolted Elizabeth. She had not thought he considered matters with such sound logic. “Do you deny your assistance in the matter?”

“I have no wish to deny it,” he said and shook his head. “However, you would lay it all at my door. You will not entertain the idea that it was impossible to know if your sister even liked Bingley with the way your mother declared a match between them? It never crossed your mind that to attach himself to a family with such disadvantages — such improper behaviour — Bingley needed to be assured of his attachment.”

“It matters not if you are innocent in such a charge!” Elizabeth exclaimed. “From the first moment of our acquaintance, your arrogance and conceit built a dislike that was firmly in place before a month was over.”

Pain flooded Darcy’s eyes. Moderating his voice, he said slowly, “You believed Wickham’s lies of me. You think I interfered with my dear friend’s happiness for my own desire — perhaps even my own good as you seem to believe I prefer him for Georgiana. You think that I am proud and disdainful to all around me. Can you truly say I have behaved as such? Why do you persist in disliking me so?”

“Because you dislike me! Without even a proper introduction you believed me unworthy of even a dance!” Her face had turned red long ago, but she felt a fresh wave of heat slap her cheeks. She turned her face from him.

Darcy dipped his head, and his breath tickled her ear. She could not see his face but was now so close she could feel his chest move with each exhalation. She felt the raw emotion in his voice. “Dislike! Unworthy? I seem to recall asking you to dance thrice before receiving a favourable answer. Certainly, you noticed I did not pay such attentions and persistence to any other lady.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “You asked to mock me.” She suppressed a sob. This was all far too much. She had been dreadfully wrong first about Wickham and now Darcy? She refused to believe his words. “I know I am not handsome enough to tempt you! You declared it so yourself!”

Darcy stepped back as though she struck him. He remained silent for several minutes, and Elizabeth felt his eyes compelling her to turn and face him. She would not.

“You are determined to judge me from the words of one evening,” he sounded weary and defeated. “Your feelings are perfectly clear to me. I can only apologise for taking up so much of your time.”

Darcy turned and left Elizabeth trembling in the grove. She immediately burst into tears.

******

Darcy walked away from Elizabeth, on legs that followed their own course. How the limbs moved when his heart had been meleèd by Elizabeth’s lashing, he knew not. Blood somehow still circulated through his body but all the while, he felt as though life had left him. How did one live if their heart did not beat? How did one exist when they could not breathe? He loosened his cravat.

How had he not seen it before? Recalling their previous conversations, it now appeared clear to him. Elizabeth Bennet believed he disliked her. She thought he had found her inferior and not worthy of his notice. And it had hurt her.

Darcy had long noted the lady’s bravery. However, the sharpness of tongue she just displayed only came out when she was hurt and embarrassed. What had it cost her pride to declare she had known of his supposed dislike? Darcy shook his head. He did not believe he could debase himself before anyone in such a way.

He could scarcely remember the words he had uttered to Bingley the night he had first seen Elizabeth. Had he found her less than beautiful? But that was only when he first knew her. He had yet to understand the teasing glint in her eye, the way they shined in amusement. He had not become fascinated with the arch of her brow or the graceful line of her neck. He had not clasped her hand in his as he led her to the dance floor and felt his blood surge in response as an animal instinct declared “She is mine!”

It was also before he had been separated from her for months before a chance meeting brought her back to him. It was before he knew the thrill of excitement as he counted the days until their next meeting — here, at a place that he had hated his whole life. Each night he spent in the company of titled and wealthy debutantes, he instead longed for Elizabeth’s conversation. Each outing with a bluestocking thrust at his side made him appreciate Elizabeth’s liveliness all the more.

She was not the most beautiful lady — at least not by the standards of the world. Nor was she the most intelligent, although he had no doubt she could learn anything she desired. She could add nothing to his material comforts.

For all the reasons he should not love her, nothing could cease his passion. Not just to know her intimately as only a husband should, but to savour each moment when she smiled, to hear each teasing retort. He wanted to consume her heart and soul the way she did his.

Darcy ceased his walking. The way she consumed him. A chill swept over his body. How arrogant he had been! Now, removed from her side he allowed himself to feel the full weight of her disapproval. She abhorred him!

This time, his heart shuddered to a stop, and he rubbed a hand over the ache in his chest. His presumptuous words even yesterday to Richard about her affection driving away the belief she was a fortune hunter echoed hollowly in his ears.

But why did she hate him so? Because of the first comment to Bingley? Had he not given her attention at every turn? Could she not understand how he cared for her? Perhaps she hated him because she perceived his regard but twice before he did not play the suitor.

Finally, the pain in his heart eased, and he stalked off the path to sit under a tree. His friends had always teased him for his fastidiousness. He was meticulous in his planning and methodological in his business. For this reason, many, like Richard, had assumed he did not hold emotions in high regard. They could not be more incorrect. To overcome his sentiment, Darcy relied on sense and logic. And despite all his planning, he had never thought he would fall in love and certainly not unintentionally. In recent days, he had been so surprised by the truth he had not spared thought to question if Elizabeth reciprocated his regard or how to court her and win her favour.

Darcy scrutinised several possibilities. He could be forthright. He could even avoid mention of love entirely. She could not be senseless to his situation in life. However, Anne had said that Elizabeth refused Mr. Collins. While Darcy flattered himself that she must prefer him — or anyone — to her cousin, it did not follow that she would marry for monetary gain.

What did she require in a spouse? Darcy considered all he knew of her. In his catalogue of memories of her, there were as many instances of her playfulness as there were occasions of her embarrassed by her family. Heat crept up Darcy’s face. Had that agony been because of him? She had presumed he found fault with them — and he did; never even caring to disguise the truth. He had thought they were of like minds about her family, but, in reality, his dislike had only served to hurt her and make her hate him in return.

What she deserved was respect. Someone should accept her with any flaws she might have, including her family. He had always treated her as an equal and allowed for her opinion even when they debated but was that the same as respect? Many men were his equals in rank, but he did not respect them. He did not care for their opinions or allow their words to hold any weight with him. Instead, Bingley, a man of lesser rank, meant far more to him. He respected Bingley, and as such he bore with his friend’s sister. Likewise, he respected Lady Catherine for her position in his family.

Darcy rested his elbows on his bent knees and dragged his hands over his face. He had respected aspects of Elizabeth, but as long as he could not accept her family and situation in life, he could not say he respected the whole of her. What a lesson! He now saw his treatment of her the first night, which must have built her dislike, stemmed from his disrespect for society as a whole. However, he would not dare voice it in a crowded London ballroom. How insulting that he did so in Meryton!

He was not a man used to seeking others’ good opinion in life. At some point, that transformed into treating everyone with disdain. As such, he did not have the first clue how to articulate his revelation to Elizabeth.

If he had thought before declaring his sentiments of love and devotion were nigh on impossible, Darcy was now hopelessly lost. Still, no one had ever accused him of cowardice. Uncertain how to dispel Elizabeth’s opinion of him or if she could ever alter it, he determined he must, at least, apologise. Validating her feelings when only moments ago he criticised them was surely the first step in demonstrating his new found respect.

Gathering his courage, he stood and dusted himself off. Glancing down the path, he saw Elizabeth still standing on the road. His heart constricted as he considered the pain he must have caused her. Why had she not moved? It was unlike her to not be moving. As he grew closer, he saw her hands on her face, and her shoulders shake.

Darcy’s heart shattered as he realised his arrogance and selfish disdain for the feelings of others caused the beautiful and strong woman before him to resort to tears. Quelling the urge to pull her into his embrace and kiss away each tear, he instead spoke her name.

Mr. Darcy’s Bluestocking Bride- Chapter Eight

Chapter One / Chapter Two / Chapter Three / Chapter Four / Chapter Five / Chapter Six / Chapter Seven

MDBB4Dear C—

When did you last indulge your love of art? Come with me to Bath again. There is a new drawing master I wish you to meet. There is talk that the King will finally agree to an establishment of Britain’s finest artists.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Eight

After a night of little sleep, Elizabeth arose even earlier than usual for the day. She walked to the grove and had brought a book with her expecting to wait nearly an hour before Darcy, and hopefully not his cousin, appeared. Elizabeth believed she needed the solitude to steady her thoughts. Charlotte had come to Elizabeth’s chamber yesterday evening and attempted to apologise for the scene with her husband. Elizabeth tried to view things from her friend’s perspective. She had little control over her husband’s opinion or mouth. Even still, Elizabeth did not think she could ever remain silent while her spouse scolded her friend for imaginary sins.

She should not have been surprised to hear her name called out immediately, and yet she was. “Good day, Miss Bennet!”

Elizabeth plastered a false smile on her face. It turned genuine when she discovered Colonel Fitzwilliam did not join his cousin. The man had seemed gentlemanly at their first encounter, but she rather thought it rude of him to ask after her so minutely. Of course, he had no way of anticipating her cousin’s eccentricities. Elizabeth greeted Mr. Darcy and inquired after the Colonel.

“Was the Colonel was still abed when you left? It must be nearly nine now, surely he will happen our way soon then.”

Belatedly she realised Darcy had ceased walking. She turned to look at him with an eager face, and he finally moved forward again. “No, he left at dawn.” He paused for a moment. “I am sorry to have delayed in relaying the plans to you. You must be anxious to hear them.”

They resumed walking. “Actually, it was a welcome respite from my worries.”

Darcy gave her a slight smile. “I am glad to be of service. Richard seeks to have Wickham transferred to another regiment. We worry he would become vengeful if he were suddenly treated differently with his current regiment. As he is certain I am out to ruin his life, knows I frequently visit my aunt this time of year, and knows you are here, it would take little for him to assume I was behind his change in acceptance, and it was by your information I chose to act.”

Elizabeth saw the wisdom in the plan and nodded.

Darcy continued, “I also intend to journey to Longbourn to speak with your father. Wickham likely has debts he will not pay, so I will collect those. Does this meet with your approval?”

Elizabeth disliked his presumption. Her letter to her father had just gone out in the morning post, and they had not discussed this possibility yesterday. “When will you go to Longbourn?”

“I had thought to wait until Wickham was gone. It should only be a matter of days. It is not improbable he will find some other means of harming your family, so I thought it best to explain his history to your father.”

Chewing her bottom lip, Elizabeth considered the best way to voice her concerns. “Mr. Darcy, you will recall yesterday I apologised for believing Wickham’s lies against you. I explained he was telling the whole community of it. Perhaps you think I am silly enough to be charmed by a handsome face—”

“I would never believe that of you,” he said with surprising vehemence.

“It is near enough the truth,” she shook her head, unwilling to accept his kindness. “I am so ashamed, all due to my wounded vanity. Perhaps you think the rest of the neighbourhood silly and thriving on gossip. However, I hope you have seen my father has more intelligence about him.”

“I have,” Darcy gave a slight nod.

Elizabeth took perverse enjoyment in getting him to agree to her father’s intelligence for what followed was his just desserts. “He also believed Wickham’s accounts of you.”

Darcy whipped his head in her direction and flushed. “Your father had no difficulty believing this of me?”

His words ceased her movement. His rebuke toward her father was more than Elizabeth could stand. Anger simmered in her veins, and she grit her teeth until she could reply with tolerable civility. “How can we know a man but by his actions and words? You disapproved of all of Hertfordshire. You would not speak to nearly a soul! You showed yourself to be proud and disagreeable. It would be no hardship to believe you denied a servant’s son — whether out of pride or jealousy — a valuable living and dishonoured your father’s will. Had I not noticed Wickham’s lies and inconsistencies I could easily believe it of you still; even if I allowed Wickham to not be everything he wishes others to believe.”

Darcy was silent for several minutes, and Elizabeth perceived he was searching for composure. Taking a few deep breaths, he finally replied tersely. “Very well. I have offended the entire county, and your father will not listen to me. Should I send someone in my stead?”

Elizabeth noted he did not apologise or seem overly concerned by the opinions of those so far below him. “How many people know of your history with Wickham?” she asked.

“Colonel Fitzwilliam was one of the executor’s of my father’s will. He knows the details of it and of when Wickham gave up the claim to the living and was fairly compensated for it. Bingley knows as well.”

Elizabeth was surprised, for Bingley did not divulge information on Wickham when asked by Jane at the Netherfield ball. “That might be enough to discredit Wickham’s dislike of you but will it be enough to make my father see that Wickham is a threat to the community?”

“Your father cannot be so naive as to think most soldiers behave like true gentlemen.”

“Did not your own father know Wickham and fall for his lies for years?” How dare he rebuke her father when his own was guilty of so much more.

Darcy took a step toward Elizabeth. Passion and fire snapped in his blue eyes. His voice came out as a ragged and harsh whisper. “My father was very grateful to his steward. Father inherited an estate in need of repairs and revitalization. Mr. Wickham proved very capable. He guided my father and taught him to be the best landlord and master. People of the area still speak his name with devotion and reverence. He believed he owed his steward very much. You should not criticise what you do not know!”

Elizabeth took a step forward. She arched her head to meet his eyes. “That is very fine coming from you!” Suddenly, she could feel heat radiating off Mr. Darcy

“What can you mean?”

Anger emanated from his frame, but Elizabeth would not back down. She approached even closer. “Your dislike for anyone not of your rank and wealth!” Her neck tilted back more and she straightened her spine. She would not be made to feel small even if he were so tall. “You feel superior in every possible way without knowing the person at all.”

“We are not all blessed with making friends quickly. Did you not learn recently to not judge a character by that?”

Elizabeth persevered, unfazed by his intent to wound her pride. Lacing her words with as much hatred as possible, she continued. “And for those you do know there is not a friend you have that you do not interfere with, is there? You always know the best way for everyone!”

“What is this of my friends? Speak plainly, madam. I would understand your accusations.” His voice had a mocking quality.

Elizabeth held onto her anger so tightly she feared she might actually snap in half. Looking now at his smug face, so sure she had no weight behind her words, she held nothing back. “I have no doubt Mr. Bingley’s sister played a role as well, but I am confident you played the greater part in separating my most beloved sister from the man she loved! You decided my sister’s love would not be enough to make him happy.” Her chest heaved, but she rejoiced in seeing her verbal punch landed full force. Colour drained from Darcy’s face. “That fortune and rank — that your sister would be a better match!”

“Good God woman! What has happened to your intelligence? I had taken you to be the cleverest woman of my acquaintance!”

She gasped. “My intelligence is not in question—”

He interrupted and spoke over her. “Bingley violently in love with your sister! Would a man violently in love be able to give up so easily? Would he give up love for a greater match as you suggest?”

“And you did nothing to help him? You journeyed to London to keep him away!” Elizabeth clenched her hands. Growing up with four sisters with high spirits she was no stranger to fisticuffs and, at the moment, desired to scratch out Mr. Darcy’s brilliant blue eyes.

Darcy laughed hollowly. “He liked your sister very much, and I am sorry if he raised her expectations, but I did not perceive any particular regard from her. When I questioned Bingley about it, he was uncertain as well. In a match with no fortune or connection, which is sure to be spurned by society, there should at least be mutual regard to ensure marital tranquillity.”

Darcy’s words jolted Elizabeth. She had not thought he considered matters with such sound logic. “Do you deny your assistance in the matter?”

“I have no wish to deny it,” he said and shook his head. “However, you would lay it all at my door. You will not entertain the idea that it was impossible to know if your sister even liked Bingley with the way your mother declared a match between them? It never crossed your mind that to attach himself to a family with such disadvantages — such improper behaviour — Bingley needed to be assured of his attachment.”

“It matters not if you are innocent in such a charge!” Elizabeth exclaimed. “From the first moment of our acquaintance, your arrogance and conceit built a dislike that was firmly in place before a month was over.”

Pain flooded Darcy’s eyes. Moderating his voice, he said slowly, “You believed Wickham’s lies of me. You think I interfered with my dear friend’s happiness for my own desire — perhaps even my own good as you seem to believe I prefer him for Georgiana. You think that I am proud and disdainful to all around me. Can you truly say I have behaved as such? Why do you persist in disliking me so?”

“Because you dislike me! Without even a proper introduction you believed me unworthy of even a dance!” Her face had turned red long ago, but she felt a fresh wave of heat slap her cheeks. She turned her face from him.

Darcy dipped his head, and his breath tickled her ear. She could not see his face but was now so close she could feel his chest move with each exhalation. She felt the raw emotion in his voice. “Dislike! Unworthy? I seem to recall asking you to dance thrice before receiving a favourable answer. Certainly, you noticed I did not pay such attentions and persistence to any other lady.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “You asked to mock me.” She suppressed a sob. This was all far too much. She had been dreadfully wrong first about Wickham and now Darcy? She refused to believe his words. “I know I am not handsome enough to tempt you! You declared it so yourself!”

Darcy stepped back as though she struck him. He remained silent for several minutes, and Elizabeth felt his eyes compelling her to turn and face him. She would not.

“You are determined to judge me from the words of one evening,” he sounded weary and defeated. “Your feelings are perfectly clear to me. I can only apologise for taking up so much of your time.”

Darcy turned and left Elizabeth trembling in the grove. She immediately burst into tears.

******

Darcy walked away from Elizabeth, on legs that followed their own course. How the limbs moved when his heart had been meleèd by Elizabeth’s lashing, he knew not. Blood somehow still circulated through his body but all the while, he felt as though life had left him. How did one live if their heart did not beat? How did one exist when they could not breathe? He loosened his cravat.

How had he not seen it before? Recalling their previous conversations, it now appeared clear to him. Elizabeth Bennet believed he disliked her. She thought he had found her inferior and not worthy of his notice. And it had hurt her.

Darcy had long noted the lady’s bravery. However, the sharpness of tongue she just displayed only came out when she was hurt and embarrassed. What had it cost her pride to declare she had known of his supposed dislike? Darcy shook his head. He did not believe he could debase himself before anyone in such a way.

He could scarcely remember the words he had uttered to Bingley the night he had first seen Elizabeth. Had he found her less than beautiful? But that was only when he first knew her. He had yet to understand the teasing glint in her eye, the way they shined in amusement. He had not become fascinated with the arch of her brow or the graceful line of her neck. He had not clasped her hand in his as he led her to the dance floor and felt his blood surge in response as an animal instinct declared “She is mine!”

It was also before he had been separated from her for months before a chance meeting brought her back to him. It was before he knew the thrill of excitement as he counted the days until their next meeting — here, at a place that he had hated his whole life. Each night he spent in the company of titled and wealthy debutantes, he instead longed for Elizabeth’s conversation. Each outing with a bluestocking thrust at his side made him appreciate Elizabeth’s liveliness all the more.

She was not the most beautiful lady — at least not by the standards of the world. Nor was she the most intelligent, although he had no doubt she could learn anything she desired. She could add nothing to his material comforts.

For all the reasons he should not love her, nothing could cease his passion. Not just to know her intimately as only a husband should, but to savour each moment when she smiled, to hear each teasing retort. He wanted to consume her heart and soul the way she did his.

Darcy ceased his walking. The way she consumed him. A chill swept over his body. How arrogant he had been! Now, removed from her side he allowed himself to feel the full weight of her disapproval. She abhorred him!

This time, his heart shuddered to a stop, and he rubbed a hand over the ache in his chest. His presumptuous words even yesterday to Richard about her affection driving away the belief she was a fortune hunter echoed hollowly in his ears.

But why did she hate him so? Because of the first comment to Bingley? Had he not given her attention at every turn? Could she not understand how he cared for her? Perhaps she hated him because she perceived his regard but twice before he did not play the suitor.

Finally, the pain in his heart eased, and he stalked off the path to sit under a tree. His friends had always teased him for his fastidiousness. He was meticulous in his planning and methodological in his business. For this reason, many, like Richard, had assumed he did not hold emotions in high regard. They could not be more incorrect. To overcome his sentiment, Darcy relied on sense and logic. And despite all his planning, he had never thought he would fall in love and certainly not unintentionally. In recent days, he had been so surprised by the truth he had not spared thought to question if Elizabeth reciprocated his regard or how to court her and win her favour.

Darcy scrutinised several possibilities. He could be forthright. He could even avoid mention of love entirely. She could not be senseless to his situation in life. However, Anne had said that Elizabeth refused Mr. Collins. While Darcy flattered himself that she must prefer him — or anyone — to her cousin, it did not follow that she would marry for monetary gain.

What did she require in a spouse? Darcy considered all he knew of her. In his catalogue of memories of her, there were as many instances of her playfulness as there were occasions of her embarrassed by her family. Heat crept up Darcy’s face. Had that agony been because of him? She had presumed he found fault with them — and he did; never even caring to disguise the truth. He had thought they were of like minds about her family, but, in reality, his dislike had only served to hurt her and make her hate him in return.

What she deserved was respect. Someone should accept her with any flaws she might have, including her family. He had always treated her as an equal and allowed for her opinion even when they debated but was that the same as respect? Many men were his equals in rank, but he did not respect them. He did not care for their opinions or allow their words to hold any weight with him. Instead, Bingley, a man of lesser rank, meant far more to him. He respected Bingley, and as such he bore with his friend’s sister. Likewise, he respected Lady Catherine for her position in his family.

Darcy rested his elbows on his bent knees and dragged his hands over his face. He had respected aspects of Elizabeth, but as long as he could not accept her family and situation in life, he could not say he respected the whole of her. What a lesson! He now saw his treatment of her the first night, which must have built her dislike, stemmed from his disrespect for society as a whole. However, he would not dare voice it in a crowded London ballroom. How insulting that he did so in Meryton!

He was not a man used to seeking others’ good opinion in life. At some point, that transformed into treating everyone with disdain. As such, he did not have the first clue how to articulate his revelation to Elizabeth.

If he had thought before declaring his sentiments of love and devotion were nigh on impossible, Darcy was now hopelessly lost. Still, no one had ever accused him of cowardice. Uncertain how to dispel Elizabeth’s opinion of him or if she could ever alter it, he determined he must, at least, apologise. Validating her feelings when only moments ago he criticised them was surely the first step in demonstrating his new found respect.

Gathering his courage, he stood and dusted himself off. Glancing down the path, he saw Elizabeth still standing on the road. His heart constricted as he considered the pain he must have caused her. Why had she not moved? It was unlike her to not be moving. As he grew closer, he saw her hands on her face, and her shoulders shake.

Darcy’s heart shattered as he realised his arrogance and selfish disdain for the feelings of others caused the beautiful and strong woman before him to resort to tears. Quelling the urge to pull her into his embrace and kiss away each tear, he instead spoke her name.

Mr. Darcy’s Bluestocking Bride- Chapter Seven

mdbbDear C,

I am pleased you benefitted from staying with us. You have experienced a rogue and have now met some intellectual gentlemen old enough to be your father. You are young yet, though, do not give up. The right man will come at last.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Seven

 

Elizabeth walked along a path at Rosings. She thought this was the one Colonel Fitzwilliam mentioned Mr. Darcy favoured. She could hardly account for her reasons. She knew Wickham was not to be trusted and resolved to consider Darcy’s character to be as she knew it before ever meeting Wickham. She could not say she liked him at all, but she did not hate him.

Aside from desiring to settle the matter of sketching his character, she realised it was wise to strike a friendship with him. She was inclined to think Wickham a madman or stupid but felt it prudent to confirm this in some way, and Wickham claimed to know Darcy well; knowledge should go both ways. Darcy had called on the Parsonage yesterday and, while apparently finding the place wanting, was entirely civil and went out of his way to express concern over their conversation weeks ago.

A movement down the lane caught her eye, but still, she was surprised to hear, “Miss Bennet!  What a beautiful morning for a walk. Do you often favour this grove?

“Good morning, Mr. Darcy. I do indeed enjoy this path the most.”

Now that she was not blinded by prejudice, she found it difficult to read Mr. Darcy’s face. She thought she saw a glimmer of happiness or pleasure, but it was likely just at being away from Rosings. In another instant, he wore the haughty expression she recalled so well from Hertfordshire.

Well, he is not so bad as Wickham would say, but that does not excuse his behaviour to the rest of Hertfordshire, nor does it change the fact that he dislikes me. But since there is no proof that he is dishonourable as Wickham has claimed, I have every hope that he shall help.

They had lapsed into silence, though Mr. Darcy seemed on the verge of speaking many times. Deciding that her family was worth this discomfort, Elizabeth decided to push forward with her request.

She could not meet his eyes and instead watched her feet. “Mr. Darcy, I am a very selfish creature and have confessed to unjustly listening to tales defaming your character. I would very much like to hear what you have to say against Mr. Wickham so I might learn the truth.”

Darcy was silent for several minutes before he spoke in a gruff voice. “I do not know particularly what he has said of me, or under what manner of falsehood he has imposed upon you.”

His words immediately brought Elizabeth’s head up. It was as though he had thought she was in love with Wickham!  She wet her lips and replied with hesitation. “I do not know why Mr. Wickham chose to confide in me. I suppose I seemed willing to hear his lies.” She blushed and swallowed back the bitter taste that invaded her mouth. “I assure you, however, I did not seek such information, which was accepted only in the excitement of new friendship, nor was I vowed to secrecy; indeed he soon related his tale of woe to the whole of the area.”

Elizabeth watched Darcy’s face as it seemed he relaxed as she spoke before turning white in anger with her final words. She could see how tightly he clenched his jaw, and she despised herself for so tactlessly telling him an entire county hated him based on the lies of a cad. She winced at the impropriety of it all. As a Bennet, she seemed cursed to always say and do the wrong thing.

“Do not reproach yourself for my sake,” Darcy said gently. “Detection was not in your power and suspicion is not in your inclination. Allow me a moment to gather my thoughts.”

Elizabeth remained silent as they slowly walked through the grove. New life had begun to bud on the trees in the weeks since her arrival. Every day brought subtle changes. She envied how quickly nature could change. And yet, it remained constant as well. She knew that by now the maple near Longbourn would be putting forth leaves, and the roses would soon bloom.

“If you will allow us to sit here,” Darcy’s words interrupted Elizabeth’s thoughts, and he motioned to a fallen log near the path, “I will tell you everything of my dealings with that man.”

Darcy patted the trunk. “It is clean and dry here, Miss Bennet. Nor did I see any insects.” He stepped aside to allow her to sit.

Elizabeth smirked at his consideration. “I have sat in wet grass many times and am not afraid of the crawling inhabitants of the forest. It is much more their home than mine.”

Darcy slightly smiled, and Elizabeth released a breath she did not realise she had been holding. He must be used to well-bred ladies who seldom stirred out of doors. Next, he sat on the log and exhaled. He stared into the distance and related his tale.

In many respects, it was the mirror image of what Wickham had told her. When old Mr. Darcy died, it was recommended that his son help establish Wickham in the church. However, Darcy explained that Wickham soon gave up any such claim, and instead stated he chose the law. He had been bequeathed one thousand pounds already and then requested an additional three thousand pounds for his studies and living expenses in lieu of the living. Darcy had long before lost his good opinion of Wickham and considered him ill-suited for the church, so agreed and such seemed the end of their acquaintance. Darcy could not speak to the particulars of Wickham’s existence but believed the man lived a very dissipated life with no sincere intention of becoming a barrister.

Darcy had indeed given the living Wickham hoped for to another man when it fell vacant. However, Wickham had neglected to include in his tale the fact that he had been compensated at his own request. Some while later, when he had exhausted his funds, Wickham approached Darcy asking for the living to be reinstated and, when Darcy refused, abused Darcy in foul language which he did not hesitate to spread near and far.

“You asked me weeks ago if I believed Wickham capable of plotting and, unfortunately, I do. Although I had thought all acquaintance between us severed, he intruded most painfully in my life last summer. His motive was financial, but I do not doubt he intended some kind of revenge on me as well, regardless of any harm to others.”

Elizabeth watched Darcy clench his hands at his side, his frame taut. At the time Elizabeth could scarcely guess what Wickham had done and was troubled to have Wickham’s sanity defended. While Wickham had appeared at ease with his retelling of events, Darcy’s visceral reactions held far more weight than all of Wickham’s pleasant smiles ever could. She fell silent and was surprised when Darcy finally spoke again.

“I am pleased you broached this topic, Miss Bennet,” he turned his attention from the distance to her face. “Often times, in the last several months I had considered returning to the neighbourhood as I know what Wickham is.”

The earnestness in his features pressed Elizabeth to confess more of what she heard. It was far too embarrassing to admit it all. “I fear he has plans to elope with my sister, Lydia.”

Darcy stiffened, and his face took a grim look. “How do you come to such a conclusion?”

“I overheard him speaking with other men.” Elizabeth could not meet Darcy’s eyes as she blushed, recalling what else Wickham had said. Surely the part about Darcy admiring her was false. Nor would she ever plot to ensnare him.

“What has been done to stop the plans? I assume your father has taken measures.”

“I never told him,” she said and twisted her hands. “I heard it the day before leaving for Kent. I had not thought there much truth in his words or that Lydia would agree to such a scheme.”

Darcy jerkily nodded. “I regret to tell you, last summer he made plans to elope with a young lady far more sedate than your sister. It was interrupted by the merest chance.”

Elizabeth knew he had been kind in his description of Lydia but blushed all the same.

Darcy stood and began pacing, “I need to speak with my cousin, the Colonel. Do I have your leave to explain what you heard?  You may be assured of his secrecy.”

“Yes, of course. I am sorry to have to involve you, and now your cousin, especially considering Wickham’s history of abuse towards your family.”

“I am honoured to be of service. Now, I must quickly depart to speak with my cousin. Is it possible to meet with you again tomorrow, to acquaint you with any plans or news?”

“Yes, sir, I thank you. I am usually walking by eight. I will write my father as well.”

They walked back to the Parsonage gate in silence. Darcy bowed over Elizabeth’s hand and said, “Until tomorrow, Miss Bennet.”

“Thank you again, Mr. Darcy. Until tomorrow.”  Then with one long parting glance, he was gone.

When Elizabeth returned to the Parsonage, she was besieged by Charlotte. She twisted her hands as she met Elizabeth in the entry.

“My dear Charlotte, whatever is the matter?”

“Colonel Fitzwilliam called. He seemed to wish to see you and waited nearly an hour before leaving.”

Elizabeth furrowed her brows. “I cannot understand why he would wait so long. We have only just met.”

“Hence my disconcertion.” Charlotte looked over her shoulder. When she spoke again, she whispered. “Mr. Collins is very upset that the Colonel would ask after you so minutely after just making your acquaintance. He has determined something untoward on your part must be happening.”

“Untoward!” Elizabeth exclaimed.

“Hush!” Charlotte said in a harsh whisper.

“You cannot seriously believe I have done something improper,” Elizabeth spoke through clenched teeth. “Additionally, why does your husband not blame the Colonel? He witnessed our single encounter.”

“Beware, Eliza. Ladies always catch the blame for such entanglements.” Charlotte wet her lips and lowered her eyes. “Normally, I would not hesitate to promote a match with either of her ladyship’s nephews, but everything must be done properly.”

Elizabeth huffed. “There is nothing to this imagined impropriety! I was not even present. If I had designs on him, would I not take care to stay at home for his possible visit?”

Charlotte nodded. “Very good. That may make some sense to my husband.”

“I am certain the Colonel is only bored at Rosings. Would it not be worse if he appeared overly friendly with a married lady or Maria?”

“True.”

Elizabeth narrowed her eyes. “Is what angers Mr. Collins that Colonel Fitzwilliam preferred waiting for my presence rather than enjoying his company?”

“Please,” Charlotte said and held her hands up to stave off Elizabeth’s verbal assault. “You do not understand how his duties weigh on him.”

“Such an abominable mixture of insecurity and conceit!” Elizabeth muttered. Were there any gentlemen who did not contain a combination of the two?

The door to Mr. Collins’ library swung open, and he spoke without looking up from the book he held. “Mrs. Collins!”

“Yes, dear?” Charlotte’s voice was sweeter than Elizabeth had ever heard, and she tried not to gag at the facade of this marriage.

Mr. Collins looked up, startled to hear his wife so near. His eyes narrowed on Elizabeth’s and, if she had ever been afraid of looks before, she might fear he meant her harm. “Ah, Miss Bennet.”

It seemed all the friendly “Cousin Elizabeths” were over. She did not mourn their loss. “Good morrow, Sir,” she said with a false smile.

The look of displeasure on his face heightened. “In my home, you will take care to quell your Jezebel arts.”

Elizabeth gasped at the insult. Heat slapped her face and her heart hammered in her chest. Anger surged through her veins. She opened her mouth to verbally slay him when Charlotte placed a hand on her arm. Elizabeth clamped her jaw so tightly she winced at the pain.

“Please, sir. You have witnessed her good manners and know her Christian heart.” Charlotte left Elizabeth’s side and came to her husband. She turned a smile on Elizabeth as though it would alleviate the torture of this scene. “Do you not believe education and prayer can reform? It was most inspiring in your latest sermon.”

Mr. Collins sighed, and his shoulders slumped. “Very true, my dear. As always you are a balm to my soul.” He looked at her with adoration and Elizabeth thought she would cast up her accounts on the polished wood floor.

He bowed his head in Elizabeth’s direction. “You will permit me the liberty of my ill-temper, I am sure.”

Was that his attempt at an apology?

“Mrs. Collins has reminded me that there are several works I would have you read while you are here.” Charlotte dutifully entered the study to retrieve the pile of books. Mr. Collins continued speaking. “You will find these most informative, I am sure. As you read them, I would charge you with reflecting on how you can mould your character as Mrs. Collins has done. You have every advantage before you with education, acquaintance, and age. I am determined you will do nothing to sully the Collins name.”

Elizabeth remained standing still with her jaw locked tight. Charlotte approached with an apologetic look but held several tomes out for Elizabeth to take. If they expected her to thank them or appear contrite, they could not be more mistaken. They stood before her, Mr. Collins seeming to think that a stern look would propel her to say something and Charlotte twisted her hands in non-verbal apology.

A sound on the road drew their notice. “Oh! It is Miss de Bourgh!” Mr. Collins exclaimed. As he walked to the door, he said, “I would charge you Miss Bennet with following Miss de Bourgh’s example in all things. You cannot meet with a more virtuous lady.”

Mr. Collins opened the door and immediately began his awkward bowing while quickly shuffling down the walk. Charlotte followed sedately behind. Maria entered the hallway. “Eliza, I did not hear you return. Are you well?”

Elizabeth made no response and Maria’s eyes were drawn to the road, and she also left to pay homage to the heiress of Rosings. Elizabeth’s fingers curled tightly around the conduct books. Finally releasing her locked jaw, she walked up the stairs to her room on wooden legs.

*****

Darcy smiled as he took the steps to Rosings two at a time. Despite the discussion about Wickham, he was pleased to see Elizabeth and that she had trusted him with the truth. He sensed that such disclosures did not come easily to her. He only regretted that she did not allow him to see to matters entirely. As a guardian, however, he recognised that it was only natural for a lady to defer to her father. Until such a time that she would place all her trust in her husband. Darcy’s smile grew.

“What has you grinning?” Richard asked. He stood leaning against the wall in the entry as though he awaited Darcy’s arrival. “The charming Miss Bennet?”

“I do not know what you mean,” Darcy said.

“Well, she was not at the Parsonage when I called.”

Darcy shrugged his shoulders. “The lady enjoys walking. Can you blame her?”

“No,” Richard shook his head. “But that Collins barely gave me a minute’s peace to talk with the ladies the hour I was there.”

“An hour!” Darcy’s eyebrows rose.

“You should thank me,” Richard shrugged.

Darcy tilted his head toward the stairs and began climbing them. Richard followed suit. Once safely in his chamber, he turned and scrutinised his cousin. “Why should I thank you for torturing yourself with Collins’ endless praise?”

“If you did not think there was merit to my claim, and would very much like your actions to remain private, why did you assure our privacy?” Richard stared back.

Darcy shook his head. It was useless attempting to ferret information out of his cousin, nor conceal it. The man had been trained in interrogation. “I thank you for staying at the Collinses for an hour because…” He waved his hand for Richard to continue.

“Because now no one will suspect your interest in Miss Bennet.”

Darcy’s spine stiffened, and his senses heightened. “What did you do?”

“Cool your porridge. I only asked after her whereabouts and a few other questions although she was not present. Enough to make it seem I was the one interested in her.”

“Richard!” Darcy clenched his hands but kept them at his sides.

“What?” His cousin said and walked to a chair. He settled himself in it and crossed his legs. “What have I done to offend the high and mighty Master of Pemberley, now?”

Darcy stalked over to the other chair. “It creates quite a conflict for her to appear to have engaged your affections while here.”

Richard blinked confusedly. “Engaged my affections?” He knit his brows. “Creates a conflict of interest how? Like the other mistresses of Richmond — I do recommend Richmond by the way — will have a care. My actions assured Lady Catherine would no reason to assume you meant to bed the chit.”

Darcy shot out of his chair, and it took all of his control to not pummel his cousin. His face burned as blood churned through his body and Richard’s shocked expression told Darcy he must have looked a terror.

“You are my cousin and one of my closest friends, but if you ever dare to insult the woman I intend to marry again, I will tear you apart from limb to limb,” Darcy growled.

“Marry!” Richard stood as well. “Marry! When you could have any lady. Daughters of dukes vie for you, vast fortunes. You could be master of this very estate!” He stretched an arm around as though Darcy had never before seen the expensive tapestries and furnishings.

“It means nothing,” Darcy said allowing some of his previous anger to dissipate.

“Nothing!” Richard echoed as though he did not understand the word. “Only a man who lived in luxury his whole life could think of giving it up so easily.”

“I won’t be giving anything up. I’ll not lose Pemberley simply because I wed a lady with no connections.”

“And her dowry?”

“She likely brings nothing to the marriage, but I have no worries,” Darcy said firmly.

“I am glad to hear you do so well,” Richard said. “You have thought of Georgiana?”

“Elizabeth will be a sterling model of behaviour for Georgie. She needs more confidence and liveliness, and an understanding sister.” A soft smile pulled at Darcy’s lips as he considered the two ladies together. “She has younger sisters and is very close to them.”

“Yes, about her family,” Richard resumed his seat and toyed with a cuff link, but Darcy was not put off by his cousin’s nonchalance. He was probing. Whether it was for their aunt or the Earl or merely his own prejudices, Darcy was unsure, but Richard had set himself up as a defender of Darcy’s name.

“I am not duped by her charms,” Darcy said, at last, frowning.

“Multiple as they may be,” Richard winked. “You hedge on her family which means they must be objectionable. Society will not be kind to her. At least she is not born on the wrong side of the blanket or had a history of employment.”

Darcy scowled again at the hint of Elizabeth and prostitution, as Richard’s reference to employment was a euphemism for. “The Bennet family want sense and connections. Her mother came from trade, but her father is a gentleman. Remember you speak of a lady!”

“I promise,” Richard held up his hands, and Darcy felt his pulse rate lower. “You may not like it, but my interrogation is far kinder than you will receive from any of our relatives and Society as a whole.”

“Who would reproach her? The biddies at Almacks. It’s well-known the Countess of Jersey’s mother was in trade. Indeed, the Countess owns the majority of Child’s Bank! Elizabeth will have Darcy wealth behind her, no one will dare breathe a word against us.” Unlike Richard, Darcy remained standing. He fought the urge to pace.

“They will not take kindly to a fortune hunter,” Richard said after several minutes of silence.

Darcy guffawed. “A fortune hunter! Everyone in the ton is fortune hunting! Have I not had every silly nitwit debutante flung upon me for nigh on a decade now, simply because I am wealthy? They could care less about my character or expect me to care about theirs.”

Now, Darcy did pace. “I am told that such and such lady can dance or speak French with ease. I am forced to feign admiration at lame attempts at art. And not for the family gallery mind you, or for general appreciation. Oh, no. They are merely for firescreens or embroidered samplers that, if lucky, will hang on a wall instead of being soiled by a December nose!”

Darcy flung himself in his chair, his pique over. His chest heaved, and he loosened his cravat to take deep breaths. His display was hardly gentlemanly, and nothing like the calm and collected man he was known to be, but Elizabeth had always stirred passions in him.

“Fortune hunter!” Darcy exclaimed again. “Let them see us. They will know we married for affection.”

Richard stared at Darcy in silence for several minutes. “Affection? Disdain for Society’s values? To hear you speak now, I would hardly know you.”

Darcy shook his head and leant forward, placing his elbows on his knees. Cradling his jaw in his palms, he stared unseeing at the ostentatious wallpaper across the room framing a portrait of some long ago distant relative. “I love her.”

The firmness of the words shocked even Darcy. For the first time he ever spoke them aloud, he had not expected to sound so assured or proud. He had expected to feel humiliated with being ruled by his emotions, but not everything about Elizabeth utterly defied logic. She was not a servant or courtesan. Their marriage would be unlikely, but not unheard of.

“You. Love. Her.” Richard enunciated each word. “You love her? And you think, what? That love will erase all of Society’s arguments against you? That love is all you need?”

No, it was not the only tool they needed. Darcy was no fool. He would require support from Lady Darcy, and Lord and Lady Fitzwilliam if they would extend it. Beyond his family, Darcy was not without friends with money and influence. He could not be accused of having been the most friendly man in his eight and twenty years, but most overlooked his gruffness to stay in his good graces. “What would you have me do?”

“Bed her, do not wed her.”

“How poetic,” Darcy glared. “Something one of your opera light-skirts taught you?”

Richard laughed. “You asked what I would do, not what should be done. Well, despite my raking you over the coals just now, I will support you – whatever little help the second son of an earl will be.”

Darcy leant back, feeling as though a weight left his shoulders. He rested his head on the back of the chair. “Only tell me you will not insinuate anymore that you wish to debauch her.”

“Well, if you think she should have a proper education before coming to your bed…”

“Richard,” Darcy growled. Although he knew his cousin jested, he did not care for associating Elizabeth with such imagery.

“I do enjoy riling you,” Richard said. “If Pemberley does ever go under you have the gumption of many a serjeant I know.”

They shared a smile for a moment before Darcy’s fell. “I do need your assistance.”

Richard nodded, and Darcy told him of his conversation with Elizabeth.

“She is fortunate he did not know she was there!” Richard exclaimed when Darcy had finished. “Do you think Mr. Bennet will be of any use?”

Darcy stroke his jaw in thought. “I should think better of the man I hope to make my father-in-law, but I do not believe he will take Elizabeth’s letter seriously — if he reads it all, which even she admitted was a possibility. My own father had refused to see the truth of Wickham’s character.”

“Uncle Darcy also had known Wickham from an infant and had no daughters’ virtue to protect.”

“No, but I did,” Darcy said. The familiar self-hatred whipped at his heart lashing open old and new wounds. No more, he told himself. I met Elizabeth after the pain. The experience has a purpose now.

Richard did not offer absolution and Darcy did not seek it. They had argued years before about Darcy keeping Wickham’s behaviour a secret from Georgiana, and now both knew which man had been right. It was not a mistake Darcy would allow to happen again.

“Last autumn, you offered to use your connections to transfer Wickham. I would ask that you now do so,” Darcy said.

Richard nodded in agreement. “It will take a few weeks. Do you believe you have the time?”

“Elizabeth writing to her father is not the only idea I have, but we must tread carefully. You can hardly expect a family to thank you for interfering in their affairs.”

“Will they not soon be your family as well?” Richard asked.

“Elizabeth and I have no understanding, at present, and I think it unlikely that we can reach one while at Rosings. Our aunt…”

“Yes,” Richard frowned. “And with me away, she will desire you at the house even more than usual.”

“Indeed.” Darcy tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair, wishing the days would speed by. A few stolen moments with Elizabeth each morning was not nearly enough while other lovers were able to enjoy entire days with their beloveds. However, Richard had spoken the truth earlier, and this would not be their last trial. He wisely kept complaints to himself, allowing that one word to represent all that surged in the sea of emotion residing in his heart.