The Secrets of Pemberley- Epilogue

secrets of pemberley maskEpilogue

March 20, 1837

Twenty-five years later

 

“Mama, tell me you did not really wear that!” Beth Darcy giggled in the blue saloon of Pemberley.

“Yes, the rules had not been updated yet,” Elizabeth laughed. “And I had your grandmother and your great aunt Catherine attempting to help me.”

Darcy smiled from the doorway. He could not see his wife’s face, but he could imagine her expression.

“And you performed perfectly,” his mother-in-law called from across the room where she assisted another grandchild with embroidery.

“I still remember Anne’s curtsy,” Lady Catherine, present for her yearly visit, sniffed into a handkerchief. “It was just after she married—such a beautiful bride, you will recall Mrs. Bennet.”

“Indeed,” the other woman answered. “I have never seen love blossom a woman the way it did for Mrs. Marshall.”

“I am not wearing the feathers,” Beth said stubbornly.

“You have no choice,” Susanna, Jane’s daughter said. “Do you not remember from Nan?”

“As if I paid attention to Nan’s curtsy,” Beth laughed.

Darcy knocked on the doorframe. “I was told a dance partner was needed.”

“Papa,” Beth cried. “Here, save me from talk of lace and feathers.”

Darcy entered, laughing. “Am I to be your sacrifice then? Surely you know my presence does nothing to stop the chatter.”

“Behave, my love,” Elizabeth teased as she sat at the pianoforte.

Darcy opened his arms for his daughter to take as they went through the steps of a dance. “If you do not want the presentation, you do not have to have one,” he whispered to Beth.

She sighed. “I do want it. I do want to enjoy Society. I just find it ridiculous to dress that way. I would want a greater choice in my attire.”

“Ah,” Darcy nodded. “You do not like the false mask you must wear.”

“No,” she hastened to agree. “Nan never seemed to have that problem and the boys can act however they chose.”

“I hope you think I raised your brothers with more honour than to act merely however they please.”

“Oh, I did not mean it that way!” Beth cried and almost tread on Darcy’s foot.

“Darling, I would suggest you be yourself instead of snuffing your light. Your mother and I only wish you to be happy. You have the support of all your family.” Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine argued over a certain stitch. “Your very large and loud family,” Darcy added with a laugh.

“Will anyone see me with such a large and notorious family?”

Her question was not unwarranted. After Darcy regained control of Pemberley, Society turned him into something of rags to riches story, attracting more attention than ever. He and Elizabeth had six children and adopted a half a dozen more. At his school they were fondly known as Mama and Papa Darcy, and so it felt he had fathered a hundred. The Bingleys had ten children. Richard had married Lady Aurora and retired from military life. His elder brother never married and so Richard would one day inherit the earldom, then pass it to his own son. Georgiana married a local landowner who did not care about who her father was. She had three children and was now happier than Darcy ever imagined she could be. Anne had married Alexander Marshall, meeting at Darcy and Elizabeth’s wedding. The marriage had made Anne robust, and she gave birth to four large and lusty sons. To say nothing of Elizabeth’s other sisters who married and had a brood of several children each. When they all gathered together for holidays, it was easy to be lost in the crowd.

“Beth, I spent most of my life before meeting your mother trying to be invisible. I cannot say I understand how you feel, desiring to be noticed, but I will say that the right people will notice you either way. Be the lively, caring, sweet-tempered girl I know you to be and you will do well in life.”

His daughter smiled up at him. “And do you have any words of wisdom on how to walk backwards in a train that’s ten feet long?”

Darcy laughed. “Ah, no. For that, you must ask your mother.”

“I knew you kept her around for some reason,” Beth rolled her eyes as she teased.

The music came to a stop, and Darcy gazed at his wife. “I will keep her forever because I am nothing without her.”

The End

 


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The Secrets of Pemberley- Chapter Twenty-Five

secrets of pemberley maskChapter Twenty-Five

 

“You see!” Stephen tapped the documents spread out on Darcy’s desk. Bingley and Gardiner had joined him, as well as his great-uncle Reginald, a judge.

“Uncle,” Darcy turned to the elderly man. “Father’s will is clear, as is the law. Even if there is a question of my paternity, the union between Lady Anne Fitzwilliam and George Darcy was legal and binding. Any children she bore would be considered his.”

Reginald Darcy took out a pair of spectacles from his breast pocket and perused the papers. Copies of the deed willing it to only heirs of the body of Arthur D’Arcy in the Twelfth Century, a signed affidavit from a footman named Nick Huggins declaring himself as the father of a bastard born to Lady Anne Darcy, and of Stephen’s official petition to the courts.

“Why would you do this?” Darcy asked his cousin. “What inspired you to look into these things?”

Stephen snickered. “There were plenty of rumours when you arrived at Pemberley at eight years old. Lady Anne had been sent away. Everyone knew.”

“Then why wait so long?” Darcy persevered. “There is no reason for secrecy now.”

“Father left a letter to me. He confessed to an affair with your mother. Georgiana is his. He did not want me to marry my sister.”

Darcy listened in awestruck silence as his chest hammered. His father’s brother passed away while Georgiana was at Ramsgate. Never very close to his Darcy relations, he left the area directly after the funeral. He had thought Stephen glared at him with more than the usual animosity at the time and now he understood why. While George Darcy’s will left his brother and that family the use of the dower house and an allowance, they should have been the heirs of Pemberley.

“My boy,” Uncle Reginald turned to Darcy, “I am sorry, but these look authentic. You will have to appear before a court and listen to their findings.”

“No!” Bingley shouted. “Darcy has been a fair master for years. George Darcy intended it, even named him as heir.”

Reginald shook his head. “The contract on the deed might preclude any legalities my nephew had for his wife’s children or his will. If they can prove before a jury that Fitzwilliam is not George’s son…”

“Why now?” Darcy asked softly. “Why now? You could have brought this for anytime since you filed.”

Stephen sneered. “Is it not obvious? I only wanted to press my rights before the jury ruled once you started wasting all of Pemberley’s coffers!” He pulled another paper from his other breast pocket and laid it on the table.

Darcy stared unblinkingly at the papers. A notice of eviction. He and Georgiana had to quit Pemberley until after the case came to court. He no longer had control of Pemberley funds. Nor did he have access to any of the monies he had invested. All he had rights to now was the thirty thousand pounds from Lady Anne Fitzwilliam which had been set aside for daughters and lesser sons.

Darcy fell back in his chair, the next many minutes a blur to him. The others offered words of comfort and condolences. They haggled with Stephen who would allow them only three days’ time to vacate the premises. Finally, they made him leave. Darcy said nothing as Bingley and Gardiner offered him their homes.

“Elizabeth,” he mumbled. He needed to see her. This changed everything.

Bingley and Gardiner exchanged looks and then left. A short while later, there was a quiet knock on his door. The first he had moved in nearly an hour was to open his library door to find Elizabeth looking worried. One glance at him and she launched herself into his arms. Darcy squeezed her to him tightly and shut the door.

“I cannot believe that awful man. Why would he say such things, so publicly, before your neighbours?”

Darcy said nothing, only pressed kisses in her hair. He had deserved this, for years of pretending. Now the world would know, and if he thought the loss of reputation would be the most significant repercussion of Society knowing the truth about him, it was nothing compared with losing the gift of Elizabeth in his arms.

“You are trembling,” she said and pulled him to the sofa. She pushed him down onto it and climbed into his lap. Pressing kisses to his face, she repeated words of love.

“Elizabeth,” Darcy grasped her hands and disentangled them from his neck. “You know what must happen, do you not?”

“No,” Elizabeth whispered and shook her head.

“I am losing Pemberley.”

Elizabeth shook her head again, “No.” The word was more forceful this time.

“My uncle looked over the documents. Everything is there. I never should have inherited.”

“No!” Elizabeth nearly shouted and burst into tears.

He was about to explain again, but he came up short. Elizabeth was intelligent, she understood what he had said. She was not overwrought at the prospect of him losing Pemberley—although he believed she had come to love it—she perceived what he intended to say next.

“No,” she said and broke her hands free to wrap around his neck again. “I will not let you push me aside. I will marry you with no money to your name.”

She tightened her hold on him and nuzzled his neck, pressing kisses to his jaw line. “You are mine, and I am yours, and that is enough.”

Whatever stupid, foolish, noble thoughts he had vanished. Elizabeth was his life and his home. Riches might come and go, but the love of this woman was worth far more than a king’s ransom.

“Shh,” he said as he stroked her back. “We will be together. Nothing will separate us now.”

“Promise me,” Elizabeth demanded.

“I promise to marry you, Elizabeth Bennet, if you will still have me with nought but a few hundred a year and no house.”

“I will have you for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or health, to love and to cherish until death us do part.”

Darcy inhaled sharply to hear Elizabeth repeat part of their marriage vows already. “Did you forget obey?” He smiled down at her.

“Did I?” Elizabeth laughed.

Darcy joined her in laughter, the release of tension what he needed. When they had caught their breath, he lowered his forehead to lean against hers. “Lizzy. I do not deserve you.”

“Yes, you do. You deserve someone to love you no matter what life brings. Let me love you.”

For long moments, Darcy allowed Elizabeth to hold him in her embrace. His plans for the future had vanished. Even if he somehow regained Pemberley, nothing would be the same again. His reputation would never be the same. Georgiana would be all but ruined. Despite her hefty dowry, she would attract few suitors. Should he refuse to touch her funds? Darcy supposed he could take orders. Lady Catherine might have a living to grant him. He had the skills of a steward and might earn more but finding a rich enough gentleman to hire him could prove difficult. Darcy determined he need not find an answer tonight. The more significant concern would be to speak with his neighbours and hope they continued his charity plans even in his absence. He had borne much of the expense, but perhaps the others could divide the cost between them.

“What will you do next?” Elizabeth broke the silence, eventually.

“I am uncertain, and for once, I have determined that it is enough to survive.”

“We will do more than survive, William. We will live, and we will be happy.”

“We will,” Darcy promised and claimed her lips.

 

*****

 

The next three months passed in degrees of headaches for Darcy. Fortunately, the Gardiner home was ready the day following the ball, and so they all removed at once. After a few weeks, Mr. Gardiner had to return to London and took Jane and Elizabeth with him. Bingley and Darcy followed, escorting the ladies to Longbourn. News of Darcy’s birth had spread even to Meryton, but for the most part, no one treated him differently in Hertfordshire. Mrs. Bennet seemed unsure if she should give him precedence over Bingley. Mrs. Phillips crassly told him her husband claimed to have never heard of a case such of his cousin’s being upheld and therefore they believed he would soon regain control of his estate. The next words out of her mouth had been to ask if he needed a new solicitor. Darcy managed a civil reply before Elizabeth rescued him from her aunt.

A relief to Darcy was that Georgiana had found friends who did not care about her status. She and Mrs. Annesley elected to stay with the Gardiners for a time before coming to Netherfield. Additionally, the educational and relief society committee  Darcy had established for the poor and orphans of Derbyshire promised to continue their work. Many of the gentlemen went so far as to declare their anger at the injustice of effectively disinheriting Darcy and vowed to support him in any way in the future.

In London, Darcy found the news made little difference. The Foundlings, of course, never read the papers and did not care. At his club, most of the men continued to greet him. They no longer pandered to his interest or dropped hints of wishing him to marry their daughters, but he was approached by more than one man with sound investment opportunities.

About a month before the intended court date, his uncle, the Earl, summoned him to his London house. Darcy seldom had any contact with the man, preferring Richard’s company. When Darcy arrived, Lady Catherine was present as well.

“My boy, we have followed the gossip surrounding you,” the old earl said.

Darcy fought to roll his eyes. Yes, gossip is all his uncle would care about. “I hope it has not tarnished your name at all.”

“No,” the earl shook his head and tapped his cigar in a tray. “However, my sister has news which might be beneficial to you.”

Darcy turned his attention to his aunt.

“You could still marry Anne,” she opened with.

Darcy stood from his chair. “If this is all this meeting is about, then you will excuse me. I have made my choice. Neither Anne nor I have any desire to wed one another.”

“Catherine,” the earl glared at his sister. “Tell him. Sit, Fitzwilliam.”

Darcy waited for a nod from Lady Catherine that she indeed had something of importance to convey before retaking his seat.

“It should come as no surprise to you that I was your mother’s confidant.”

“I had supposed that is why Father did not allow me contact with her side of the family.”

“Yes,” her ladyship picked at lint on her gown. “And it happened at a house party at Rosings. Your father quite blamed me.”

“He did not go with her?”

The earl answered. “He was busy with the spring planting. Anne had missed the last Season with the birth of James. She was desperate to enjoy some of Town and accompanied my wife. She met him at our home, and they arranged to consummate their affair at Rosings over Easter.”

Darcy fought a wave of nausea and balled his fists. “Who?”

“The Earl of Stanhope,” Lady Catherine murmured.

“Your best friend,” Darcy asked the earl. Their friendship began at Eton. “Had she loved him all along? Why did she marry George Darcy?”

Lord Fitzwilliam looked to Lady Catherine. “No, they were never lovers before. There were as many years between them as there are between you and Georgiana. George courted her. One of many. But he charmed her, and she chose him. It was never love, but they were fond of each other. In the beginning,” she shrugged, “I think they thought it was enough to make them happy but soon their differences drove them apart.”

Darcy nodded. He had always suspected as much.

“That winter, she had been very depressed, and Stanhope offered her amusement. She had her heir…and well, I cannot think of a leading lady of the Ton who does not have a lover.”

“They must have been discreet,” Darcy said.

“Too discreet to prove for a divorce,” Lord Fitzwilliam agreed. “Not that George wanted one. I think…I think he always hoped they might work past their differences, find each other again. He would visit her and plead for her return. He thought when he took you in she might beg to return…but she disliked Pemberley too much. She was too stubborn for her own good.”

Darcy nodded. His mother had asked only one time to return and George Darcy must have wanted her to grovel. “And Georgiana’s father?”

Lady Catherine nodded. “Bernard and George looked enough alike that if any townspeople saw them, they would think she was with her husband. Although, she cared so little for anything after you left.”

“Did he seek her out? Seduce her?”

“He had gone at George’s urging to check the estate and visit with her. George could not bear to see her and be refused again.”

Lord Fitzwilliam leaned forward and looked Darcy earnestly in the eye. “Stanhope never married. He has no legal children. You could not have the earldom, without a special remainder, but you could have his estate and income. It rivals Pemberley.”

Darcy started. “Despite not having children, there must be some relative as the heir. I would not steal yet another man’s inheritance.”

“I told him you would say as much,” his lordship sighed. “He vowed to use his influence to help the case, then. He has offered his attorney.”

Darcy’s head pounded. A man who never took any interest in his life, who used his mother and disregarded any harm to her reputation, suddenly offered him a solution to his problems. He would try to be a father to him. Darcy stood so suddenly, his chair skidded backwards and fell over. “That will not be necessary. My apologies, I have another appointment.”

Fleeing his uncle’s house, Darcy rode hard back to Netherfield. George Darcy might never have been his father by blood. He might never have been terribly affectionate, but he had been there. He had taught Darcy how to manage Pemberley and how to balance books. He taught him how to ride a horse and helped him memorise the feel of every hill and dale of its estates. He modelled how to treat servants and tenants. George Darcy was not perfect, but Fitzwilliam Darcy would not be half the man he currently was without him, and now some other man wanted to mar his memory.

Arriving at Bingley’s house, the butler informed Darcy he had mail. Collecting his letters and retiring to his bedchamber to refresh himself, he flipped through the correspondence. His eyes landed on one he had not expected to see and held his breath.

 

September 25, 1812

Lincoln Inn, London

 

Darcy,

I am sure you never expected to see a letter from me. Before you ask, I promise I said nothing to your cousin. He did approach me, knowing some of your dislike for me, but I had nothing to offer him. I have a good position as a clerk and am diligently applying myself to the law, this time.

As a student of law, I wondered what burden of proof there could be verifying this former footman of Pemberley told the truth besides his own paper. It occurred to me that I still had my father’s papers from time as the steward. Nick Huggins was not employed at Pemberley until 1786, years after your birth. Before that, he was apprenticed at Mr. Chester Grant of Wolverhampton’s house. There was no previous acquaintance between the couples; your father found Huggins through an employment agency. I have enclosed the original documents of his hire and termination date as well as the letter from the employment agency.

I hope this might be enough to exonerate the accusations against your birth and restore you to Pemberley.

  1. Wickham

 

Darcy stared at the papers in his hand. Here it was and from Wickham of all people! Unable to contain his relief, Darcy sought out his family and friends. Elizabeth and Jane spent most days at Netherfield with Georgiana, and Darcy was lucky enough to find them in the drawing room with Bingley.

“You are back earlier than I expected,” Elizabeth said at his entrance with lines furrowing between her brows.

“I will explain it all to you later, but my arrival is quite timely.” He held out his papers and read the explanation.

“Is it true?” Georgiana asked. “Do you think it will be enough?”

“I do not know,” Darcy answered, “but it is enough to try.”

Bingley ordered a round of punch to celebrate the news. Elizabeth came to Darcy’s side and slipped her hand in his.

“I will love you no matter what,” she declared and leaned her head against his shoulder.

“I know,” Darcy squeezed her hand. “The same as I love you.”

The group played games and told stories to complete the festive atmosphere until Jane and Elizabeth had to return to Longbourn. Twenty years before, his mother had said he would never have love again but she had been entirely wrong. Once Darcy opened himself up to it, he could see all people who had come to mean something in his life, ranging from Mrs. Bennet with her prattle about lace and pin money to Bingley and his confidence in Darcy’s words of advice, to Elizabeth, the love of his life. There was no one way to love or be loved and protecting himself from the prospect of pain should that love ever be severed brought nothing but misery. Darcy went to bed that night, his future as uncertain as ever, and yet he rested easy with secure dreams knowing he could face anything with those he loved at his side.

The Secrets of Pemberley- Chapter Twenty-Four

secrets of pemberley maskChapter Twenty-Four

 

As the days passed while the Gardiners stayed at Pemberley until their home was entirely put together, Darcy and Elizabeth continued their private morning walks. Mr. Gardiner had been so delighted with the news of their betrothal, he agreed to allow them as much privacy during daytime hours as they desired. Sometimes they walked to the meadow, at other times they explored various parts of the estate. Darcy could see Elizabeth’s enchantment with her future home growing. Contentment and pride filling him in ways it never had before. He also explained his endeavours for assisting the poor and orphans of his community.

“You really are the best man I have ever known,” Elizabeth said one day.

Darcy flushed. He had longed to hear such words from Elizabeth, and as much as a part of him thought to push the compliment away, he knew she would not give him idle praise. Not when she had been so honest in every moment of their acquaintance. He still felt unworthy to carry on the Darcy legacy, but the sting lessened. He could visibly see and tangibly feel the good he now did; something that mattered more than perfectly balanced books.

“You make me want to be a better man,” Darcy confessed. “Before that night at Hunsford, I had merely gone through the motions of what I had been taught. A good master would do this and would do that. I did not apply myself.”

“Could my words have meant so much?” Elizabeth shook her head. “I have understood since reading your letter that you have depths of sensitivities and vulnerabilities I never realised, but I had never thought you would esteem me so much.” She met his eyes even as her cheeks flamed. “Seeing in London, how you went out of your way to talk with my friends—to be friendly with me—it made me feel the weight of your compliment. I accused you of pride, but I was puffed up as well. Seeing your behaviour humbled me. Who was I to take you to task?”

Darcy lifted Elizabeth’s knuckles to his lips. “You were and are everything to me. I confess if it had been anyone else I might not have listened.”

Elizabeth pulled one hand from his grasp and placed her palm on his cheek. “I see that now. I see behind your mask. Will you tell me all now?” She licked her lips. “About your dream?”

Darcy inhaled sharply. Instinct screamed to keep the hurt to himself, to not open the wounds again. Elizabeth’s eyes looked pleadingly at him, and he began to drown in the love and concern her brown depths contained. Recalling how he felt after he confessed the truth of his birth to Elizabeth, Darcy slowly nodded. Yes, sharing it with her would rid him of the pain. She was to be his partner in life, not a child for him to protect. He led her to a bench and wrapped his arms around her. With Elizabeth’s head over his heart, he told her all the dreadful details.

Elizabeth listened without interruption, and when he had finished, she tilted her head up to kiss him. Tears had come as he recounted his grief and as her lips found his, the salt of her own tears mingled with his.

“I am here, William,” Elizabeth said as she clung to his cravat and pressed herself against him. “I am here. Alive. Yours.”

Each press of her mouth against his, each word, each stroke of her hand on his body broke a chain around his restraint. Their kisses became frenzied and passionate. He pulled Elizabeth to his lap, where they could be even closer, the heat of their bodies mingling together. He thrust his hand into her hair, dislodging pins. The other trailed down the softness of her neck, then her arm. Breaking his lips from hers, they followed the path of his hand. Elizabeth gasped, and her head lolled back, giving him greater access. He sucked on her pulse point, feeling its rapid beat for him.

“Look at me,” he commanded and pulled back. Elizabeth obeyed, and his nostrils flared in appreciation. Through the years, many ladies had approached him with lust and desire in their eyes. Whether for his body or his wealth, he was never sure. What he saw in Elizabeth’s gaze aroused him more than any seductive look he had seen before. In those glittering brown orbs, he saw love and trust.

Pulling her to him once more, Darcy captured her lips and parried with her tongue. His arms tightened around her, and his hands itched to wander. One day, he told himself. They had the rest of their life to explore each other, to enjoy their passion. Instead, he focused all of his energy on discovering the texture of her mouth, and memorizing every breathy moan with each flick of his tongue. Drowning in it, he slowed their kiss. Finally, his lips left hers and climbed to her forehead. Elizabeth let out a shaky but content sigh. She settled her head on his chest once more, and one hand drew lazy circles down her back while the other stroked her hand.

When Elizabeth had recovered her breath, she asked in a small voice, “Will you tell me about what it was like when you came to Pemberley?”

“I…I did not know the truth for many years,” he stroked her hair, keeping his mind anchored in the present even as he told her of the night he last saw his mother.

“When did you find out about your parents?”

“Just before Eton. Father had thought they covered it all well. My mother needed the sea air for her health. Ayr was not the typical choice but they claimed they wanted a house near one of the family estates and Mother did not like large towns.” Darcy shook his head. “The opposite was true; she craved people and the energy of constant activity. At any rate, he told me in case there were rumours about my birth. We never knew if my true father told stories.”

“Who was he?” Elizabeth squeezed his hand which still stroked hers.

“I never asked,” Darcy shrugged. “He had no legal rights over me. Mother never made it sound like he desired contact with me.”

“There were never any male visitors?” Elizabeth pressed. “Georgiana…”

“I found out when I was older that Father would visit Mother. I was never there when they met—kept home and occupied by the maid. They had to pretend to be a happy couple, but I do not think they ever…” Darcy was unsure how to say such things to maiden ears. “That is, he seemed certain Georgiana could not be his.”

“She does have a certain Darcy look about her.”

Darcy shrugged. “I had never thought about it, but I suppose you are correct.” Darcy furrowed his brow. “When I first met George Darcy, he seemed cold and imposing. He had just lost his heir, had to face his adulterous wife, and take on her bastard as his own. I was so shy, so uncertain—he had no idea what to do with me. But he was never cruel. Even with Mother, he did not divorce her. Our cottage was not lavish, but all our needs were met. I do not think he would treat Georgiana as he did if she were his.”

“When did she find out the truth?”

“What makes you think she knows?” Darcy tensed.

“When she thinks no one is watching, she has a hint of your uncertainty. It is not mere shyness, and it is more pronounced here than in Town.”

“I did not know,” Darcy planted a kiss on Elizabeth’s temple. “I knew you would be perfect for her.” He sighed. “I told her after Ramsgate and she had nearly eloped with Wickham.”

“That must have been a very hard conversation,” Elizabeth stroked his cheek.

“Not nearly as bad as you would imagine.” Sighing, Darcy explained, “She had long felt something strange about our family composition. The worst was, she seemed to think she was fated to make the same choices as our mother. That she agreed to elope with Wickham due to something bad in her blood.”

Darcy dropped his voice to a whisper. “I know that feeling intimately.”

“Do you still feel that way?”

Darcy could tell by her voice her tears had returned. A desire to protect her even from his own feelings rose up. He could lie and tell her he no longer felt inadequate or unworthy. He could put on his armour and try to be invincible. Or, he could let her in. All she had ever wanted was to see the real him. Such a simple request for any other man, but she had asked it of him. Elizabeth said nothing more. She did not push or pry. Her patience told Darcy that she understood how difficult it was for him. He loved her even more for that. “Sometimes, but I am learning to see the blessings of it. I think I am making Pemberley stronger for the future in ways another man with different experiences would never dream doing.”

Elizabeth squeezed her arms around his waist. “I think that is exactly right.” She sighed. “Did you ever find out what happened between your parents? What caused her to stray?”

“I…I do not think it was just one thing. Nothing so simple. Did Father have mistresses? Probably; I think so. Was he unfaithful first? Maybe. But did she love him enough to be jealous of that? I do not think so. I think their temperaments never suited. She loved the Ton and Father despised it.”

Nodding, Elizabeth said, “I think I understand what you mean. My father and mother are such extreme opposites with so little respect between them.”

Darcy agreed. “It made me over-anxious about my own mate.”

“You thought we would not suit?” Elizabeth asked.

“At first. Your liveliness attracted me, but I am aware that I am dour and stand-offish. In time, I saw your seriousness. I saw your sensitivities and insecurities.”

“You saw me so much easier than I saw you,” she confessed. “I do not think another person understands me in that way.”

“I love you,” he said and pressed another kiss to her temple.

“I love you, my William.”

A smile came to Darcy’s lips. “I have waited my whole life to have love.”

“Many others love you,” Elizabeth said. “Georgiana, Bingley, Colonel Fitzwilliam. Mrs. Reynolds adores you,” she added saucily. “Your mother must have loved you.”

“After I left her, I resented her. Even when Father was taking me away, she said nothing about doing whatever was necessary to come along. She seemed to have no desire to see him or return to Pemberley. If she loved me—if she really loved me—then why did she allow me to go? In all the years that followed, why did she not earn back my Father’s trust?”

Darcy squeezed his eyes shut against the pain that threatened to well up. He had learned to think about it logically. “In time, I learned to think about it differently. I know she loved me, but it does not mean she could show it so unselfishly. Whatever drove her to her affairs might have infected all her relationships. Lord knows her brother and sister have issues displaying their affection and love in their families.”

Elizabeth nodded as though she understood. Given her family, she likely had similar experiences: parents that loved her, but with conditions as they battled their own fears.

“I will always love you,” Elizabeth said, pulling his head down to hers and meeting his eyes. “And I will never leave you or allow us to be parted.”

As Darcy worshipped her lips once more, he acknowledged his heart feeling complete. Elizabeth would fight for him. She would never leave him. Everything he had ever wanted was now within his grasp.

 

*****

 

Finally, the day of Georgiana’s birthday ball had arrived. Darcy grinned to himself; they had actually managed to keep it a surprise. She had asked after the plans for the day at breakfast, and could not contain her astonishment when he explained the masquerade in the evening.

“Oh! But what will I wear?” she exclaimed after a few moments of profuse thanks to her brother.

“You may thank Mrs. Gardiner and the Miss Bennets,” Darcy laughed. “They have made all arrangements with your maid, and I think you will be most pleased.”

“May I go now to see it? Oh! And the ballroom. When was the last time it was used, do you think?”

Darcy chuckled at her excitement. “Some thirty years or more. I am not sure, none of our current staff was around then. However, yes, you may go now.”

“Come, Lizzy, Jane!” Georgiana jumped from her seat and tugged Elizabeth by the hand.

Darcy watched them go with a smile. Jane and Mrs. Gardiner excused themselves and followed at a more sedate pace. Left to their own devices, the gentlemen adjourned to the library. Servants rushed up and down the halls to make arrangements, and they were best kept out of the way.

“I will drop a suggestion to Jane to not extoll too much about the grandeur of Pemberley and its ballroom, for your sake, Darcy,” Bingley said with a cheeky grin.

“For my sake?”

“Yes, or Mrs. Bennet will forever be visiting!”

“Mrs. Bennet visit me? I cannot imagine why she would,” Darcy contained a smile.

“Come, I am not so blind that I do not see something between you and Lizzy. Is it all settled at last?” Bingley leaned forward in expectation.

Darcy’s lips twitched, and he could conceal his joy no longer. “I have finally been accepted, but have yet to write Mr. Bennet.”

Bingley whooped in happiness, and Mr. Gardiner laughed. “It is all Meg and I can do to keep it from the others.”

“You knew?” Bingley asked Gardiner, who nodded. “Well, I suppose that is only right.”

“We are delighted,” the understatement of his life, “however, we have not told Georgiana yet. I would appreciate you if keep it a secret, for now.”

Bingley solemnly agreed, but Darcy had planned to tell her the news that evening before the ball. At dinner, she had her head together with Elizabeth, and they giggled through much of the meal. After the meal, the ladies excused themselves to rest and prepare for the festivities.

About a half an hour before guests were expected to arrive, Darcy knocked on Georgiana’s door. She bade him enter but sounded more melancholy than he had expected. Opening the door, he could not believe his eyes.

“Look at you,” he murmured as he entered the doorway. “A grown woman before my eyes.” Georgiana turned to look at him and twisted her hands. “You look lovely, my dear.”

“Thank you,” she smiled, but it did not reach her eyes.

“What is it?”

Georgiana let out a shaky breath. “Last year when I…when I planned to elope with Mr. Wickham, I thought that I was making a very adult decision. Now, I understand how much I have left to learn about life. I do not think I am ready for tonight.”

“Come,” Darcy took her hand and led her to a set of chairs in the room. Seating her, he poured her a glass of water before taking the chair next to her. “Tonight is only a ball. All that is expected is for you to enjoy yourself. Dance, talk, laugh.”

“I suppose I was allowing my thoughts to get ahead of themselves.” She smiled, at last. “I do not need to find a husband tonight.”

“You need not ever find one if you do not like,” Darcy said.

“One day you will marry, and your wife might not like me forever living with you,” Georgiana said sheepishly.

“Is that what you worry about?”

“One of the things,” she admitted.

“Then allow me to ease your mind.” Darcy smiled and gathered her hands in his. “First, I would never marry a woman who would not accept my sister. Nor would she sway my feelings. Secondly, it is with great joy I tell you that Miss Elizabeth Bennet has accepted my hand in marriage.”

Instantly, Georgiana cried in delight. She leapt from her chair to embrace him tightly about the neck, earning laughter from him.

“Do you think you shall enjoy having your friend as a sister?”

“I shall love it!” She gave him a kiss on the cheek. “I never had any idea. You both have been so sly! She never even mentioned you to me!”

“We have both been private in our feelings, and I have not been the most adept at courtship.”

“William, this is the best present you could ever give me.”

“Even better than a masquerade?”

Georgiana cocked her head to one side as though thinking seriously. “Just slightly better than a masquerade,” she laughed.

Her maid entered, and Darcy withdrew his watch. “I should go. Guests will arrive soon. I will see you downstairs.” He kissed her on the cheek. “Oh, on your vanity you should find another piece of jewellery to go with your gown.”

Georgiana gasped and hastened to the stool in front of the mirrored table full of bottles of lotions. Her maid came behind her to arrange her hair. Darcy watched for a minute. He could do nothing about the years of distance between them but seeing her now hovering between girl and woman, filled his heart. With Elizabeth by his side, they would be a real family.

Guests began to arrive, and the ball started as most do. Georgiana was the guest of honour and so a hush fell over the crowd when she arrived at the top of the stairs. Darcy smiled and hastened to her side, escorting her down. A small flock of ladies her age from neighbouring estates came to admire her gown of white silk with a light blue overlay which made the blue of her eyes shining through her mask burn brighter. Too soon, gentlemen came to claim numbers on her card. Begrudgingly, Darcy allowed it. They were all neighbours or Darcy cousins and men he had known most of his life. He opened the first set with his sister, who talked about how much she was enjoying the evening.

After performing his duty, and while his great uncle, a retired judge, who had refused to wear a mask saying he was too old for one, danced with Georgiana, Darcy allowed his eyes to wander over the sea of guests. He had previously arranged his sets with Elizabeth, but it did not mean he could not look for her now.

“I know you,” Elizabeth’s voice said to his side.

Darcy smiled and spun to see her, his breath catching in his throat. She wore a white slip gown with red gauze overlay and a dark red corset-front bodice. Her puffed sleeves were slashed. Around the sleeves, neck, and hemline were small red roses, matching the ones on her pink dancing slippers. Her bright eyes sparkled from the cut-outs in her mask, with her curls artfully arranged around them.

“My goddess,” he raised her knuckles to his lips. “Your beauty is unsurpassed, Elizabeth.”

She blushed but shook her head. “Jane looks positively divine, and Georgiana is lovely. You are blind, my love.”

Darcy looked over his shoulder at a few gentlemen attempting to inch closer to her and nodded at her full dance card as well. “Blind I was when I did not see all your beauty and all your worth. Now, my eyes have been opened, and I see what I almost missed.”

“Pretty words,” Elizabeth laughed. “How are you this evening?”

Darcy understood the unsaid inquiry in her seemingly innocuous question. This was his first ball as host and a year ago, thoughts of how he was nothing but an imposter would have crippled him this evening. Now, he felt confident in his role. “Far better than I expected,” he acknowledged. “It helps to have you at my side.”

Elizabeth smiled and met his eyes, the expression of love unmistakable. Too soon, a partner came to claim a dance and Darcy had to return to his role as host. The night passed in joyful reverie until sometime after supper. Darcy recognised the figure of his cousin, Stephen, arrive. All the Darcys were tall, but his head rose above them. His black hair gleamed in the candlelight and his broad shoulders cut a path through the crowd.

“A masquerade,” he sneered at Darcy and then ripped off his mask. “How fitting.”

“What do you mean?” Darcy glanced around, looking to signal a footman. He and Stephen had never got along, but now it seemed he might have to physically remove him from his sister’s ball.

“I know the truth,” Stephen hissed. “I know the truth!” He continued and shouted.

All music stopped and dancing ceased. In unison, the entire room turned their heads to Stephen and Darcy. Stephen let out a hollow laugh.

“Always getting the best Pemberley has to offer, but no more.” He reached in his coat and pulled out a packet of papers. “This will see an end to it. This is a signed letter of contention over the inheritance of George Darcy. His legal heir was my father—you are nothing but an ill-gotten bastard from his filthy wife.”

Gasps rang through the room. One woman swooned at the crass language.

“Stephen,” Darcy’s great-uncle stepped forward, but one glare from the younger man held him in place.

“You knew, old man. You knew and allowed this imposter to sit and spend our legacy. Not one drop of Darcy blood in him and if this paper didn’t prove it, then his spending money on the product of whores would!”

“That is enough!” Darcy cried. “We shall speak about this in privacy. To my library, if you please.” Darcy stormed out of the ballroom but not before he saw the shattered looks on the faces of Georgiana and Elizabeth.

In the hallway, he signalled to the butler to end the ball. He would never forgive Stephen for doing this in front of others and at an event to celebrate Georgiana of all things. Was he drunk or simply mad? Or worst of all, emboldened by fact?

The Secrets of Pemberley- Chapter Twenty-Three

secrets of pemberley maskChapter Twenty-Three

 

The following morning, Darcy awaited Elizabeth in the rose garden, a bouquet in hand. This is how he should have courted her at Rosings. Months of agony could have been avoided if only he had been open about his feelings and intentions. He looked over the garden wondering if some Darcy ancestor created it for his wife. Walled gardens were a relic of centuries ago whereas the building of Pemberley was modern, rebuilt on the original foundation during his father’s childhood. Hearing footsteps behind him, he turned to find Elizabeth approaching with a smile on her face.

“Good morning,” she said.

“Good morning,” he bowed over her hand and kissed it before presenting the flowers. “You look lovely today.”

Elizabeth blushed. “Thank you. You look handsome as well.” Her cheeks turned redder with her words.

“Do you really think so?” He had never been vain, but hearing Elizabeth found him handsome gave him more pride than he knew he could have.

“You never knew you were handsome? Surely not all the ladies desire you for your wealth.”

“I would not know,” he squeezed her hand. “I did not pay attention to any of them. I never wanted them.” He had never really wanted a woman until Elizabeth. His parents’ marriage and mother’s affairs made him wary of attraction and entanglements.

Elizabeth turned to walk around the garden but did not relinquish his hand. Soon, he would have to know the feel of her skin. Now, they still observed the rules of propriety with gloves when out of doors.

“The rose garden is lovely, but I want to see more,” Elizabeth said. “I decided against walking with the other ladies. I would rather walk with you.”

Darcy grinned at her words and led her to some of the park. He knew the history of every field and glen. As they strolled, hand in hand, Darcy told Elizabeth about the estate. “My grandfather rebuilt the house, determined to make it a modern structure. Construction took five years, and during that time, the family stayed at the estate in Shropshire—when not in Town that is.”

“Modern and impressive!” Elizabeth glanced back at the house. “Everything is so well laid out with none of the awkwardness of adding wings or refurbishing a room’s purpose.”

“Thank you, but I can take no credit for any of it.”

“I never would have thought you could be so humble,” she said and avoided his eyes. “I was dreadfully wrong in my estimation of your character.”

“You are not to blame,” Darcy said and gently turned her face back to him. “I concealed my feelings and my nature from everyone, even myself. I thought I knew what was right but I followed it with little conviction. I quite needed your lesson and revelation.”

Elizabeth blushed at his words. “And I needed yours. Your letter…”

“I hope you do not hate me for writing it. I think you did not like reading its contents.”

She shook her head. “No, I did not happily learn how wrong I had been, but I was thankful to learn the truth. I was so blinded to believe Wickham the better man and to mock you at every turn. I do not know that I ever spoke to you without wishing to pain you.”

“I have always been a glutton for punishment,” he laughed. “I found it refreshing and irresistible.”

Elizabeth joined his laughter. “Dare not say such things, you will feed my vanity.”

“You deserve every kind word I could say,” Darcy smiled down at her. Then he noticed the sun climbing in the sky. “Come, we should return to the house.”

As they walked in companionable silence, Darcy drew his courage. “Would you join me tomorrow after breakfast for a substantial walk? There is a place I would like to show you. I think your uncle will allow it.”

Elizabeth smirked. “I have often walked alone with you.”

“At Rosings we met by accident and thus far here, we have not left the view of the house.”

“I see,” Elizabeth’s eyes sparkled. “I very much look forward to it.”

Arriving at the house, they parted in the hall. The morning mail had arrived, requiring Darcy to tend to it before breaking his fast. By the time he entered the room, his guests had left. Instead of being able to join them, the steward needed his time, followed by Mrs. Reynolds. After two hours of meetings, he found them on the lawn playing croquet. The Gardiner children had joined them, and Elizabeth held one on her lap as she cheered the others on. She was precisely the mistress Pemberley needed, and Darcy could wait no longer to secure her.

 

*****

 

Mr. Gardiner had no qualms about allowing Darcy to escort Elizabeth around all Pemberley had to offer. He sent them off with a wink, but Darcy understood the gravity of earning the man’s trust. With basket and blanket one arm and Elizabeth on the other, Darcy could not contain his grin.

Elizabeth chattered and pointed at various groupings of trees, flowers, and birds as they walked. If she had any inkling of the serious intent behind Darcy’s request, she hid it well. As they winded past the river and went over a simple bridge, they continued through a narrow path toward a glen, now and then with clearings of a stream. Elizabeth grew silent, allowing the sounds of nature to hum around them. Birds chirped in trees and called their mates and rabbits hopped through brush.  About a mile through the woods, Darcy turned them down a now mostly overgrown path.

“Watch your step here,” he said, and Elizabeth gripped his arm tighter. She did not shirk from the task, however, and had worn sturdy walking boots. With practised aplomb, she managed to step over mangled roots and twigs. “I have not come here in many years.”

After a sharp turn, a beautiful clearing opened to them. Woods surrounded it, and butterflies flitted through the meadow. The stream gurgled nearby and hundreds of memories flooded Darcy’s mind of his childhood refuge. He had never shared it with another.

“What a haven,” Elizabeth smiled up at him.

“Come, there is a flat rock perfect for a picnic.”

He led Elizabeth to the destination and then spread the blanket down. Once they both settled on it, he removed his gloves and brought out the refreshments packed by the cook. Elizabeth freed her hands from their leather confines, and Darcy eyed them greedily.

“Thank you for bringing me here,” she smiled as she sipped the packed cider and removed her bonnet. The sun shone down on her hair, glistening in its rays.

“I have never shared this with another,” he admitted.

A slow smile crept across Elizabeth’s face, and she took in all of the scene. “It is a secret, then?”

“Yes,” Darcy smiled and leaned back so he could see Elizabeth’s face as his hand lay less than an inch from hers.

“Would you tell me a secret, Mr. Darcy?” Elizabeth asked.

“What would you like to know?” Darcy focused on where their hands nearly touched. Did she have any idea what she did to him? The light breeze sent her lavender and rose fragrance drifting to him. What he would give to have that scent surround him always.

Elizabeth lightly chuckled. “If I direct you to it then I fear it hardly counts as a secret.”

Lifting his eyes, he sought to put all his earnestness into his gaze as he focused on her. “I will tell you anything you wish to know.”

Elizabeth held his gaze for a moment. “Why do you always ask me to take care when I am out walking?”

Because I still love you, he wanted to answer. Because I know the pain of holding your dead body to my chest and wishing you back to life. Because I know I am nothing without you…

“Darcy?”

“Forgive me. I promised you the truth, but I fear it brings painful memories to me.”

Elizabeth furrowed her brow. “Do I seem so fragile?”

“No. It is nothing so rational, and you will think I am mad when I tell you.”

A look of surprise crossed Elizabeth’s face followed by a small smile. “You will tell me then? You will not put me off?”

“I keep my promises, Elizabeth,” he said lowly and thought he saw her shiver. “Are you chilled?”

“No,” she blushed. “Please, continue.”

“Do you recall the last time we saw one another in Kent?”

“Yes,” she said softly. “You looked very unwell.”

“I have often suffered from vivid dreams…usually of things past. The night before that day, however, I had a dream which will forever haunt me.”

“I am sorry,” Elizabeth whispered. “I have long regretted my behaviour that evening—”

“I do not tell you this so you may chastise yourself. I share far greater blame for our misunderstandings, and we have long moved past them, have we not?”

“Yes…”

“Then let us forget the past.”

Elizabeth nodded. “Very well. About this dream?”

Darcy remained silent for a moment. As always, he struggled with expressing the facts without inserting his emotions. Losing the battle, he shook his head and closed his eyes, feeling the pain again.

“That night, I had an inexplicable dream in which, among many other things, you sought relief by walking after I had upset you. And you…died.”

Elizabeth gasped and paled, bringing her hand to her mouth.

“Words cannot convey the torment I felt and still feel when I recall it. Although a dream, it felt as though I lived it. My selfishness had brought your demise, and I will never forgive myself for it.”

“Well, that is ridiculous,” she laughed.

Darcy jolted at her reaction. He had not expected her to laugh at him.

“I do not find you ridiculous, but you cannot blame yourself for a dream. As you see, I am alive and well.”

Darcy shook his head. “You cannot understand. I can feel you in my arms, still. My throat can still ache from growing hoarse after spending the night in anguished sobs. The absolute desperation I had, knowing I drove the woman I loved to her death—”

Elizabeth’s hand on his cheek rendered him mute. He nuzzled into it, hardly believing she had touched him so affectionately.

“I am so sorry. I have tormented you.”

Darcy watched as her eyes welled with tears and she began to slip her hand away. He clasped his over it. “Stay.”

Elizabeth gave him a tremulous smile. “As you wish.” She dabbed at her eyes with the back of her free hand. “I suppose I owe you a secret now.”

Darcy stared into her eyes. If he moved now, even to nod his head, he would capture her in his arms, and he knew what calamity that impulse would bring.

“I call you William when I think of you,” Elizabeth did not look away.

“You think of me?”

She chewed the bottom of her lip before breaking into a mischievous grin. “That would be another secret, and it is your turn now, William.”

Her voice saying his name brought a shiver of pleasure up his spine and made him dizzy. “I have often dreamt of you in this clearing and everywhere else at Pemberley.”

Elizabeth sucked in a breath and blushed. “I have barely stopped thinking of you since the moment we met—although it has certainly taken many different turns. I blush to think of what I called you then but now…” Elizabeth shrugged.

“Perhaps hearing Georgiana say my name so often has affected you.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “It is your turn, again.”

Releasing her hand from his cheek and bringing it to his lips, he confessed, “I never want you to leave.” This was a dangerous game, and Darcy had never been much of a gambler. Now, he was laying all his cards on the proverbial table.

“I hoped you would say that,” Elizabeth said breathlessly.

Still holding her hand, Darcy rubbed his thumb over it and found himself leaning forward a little, struggling to keep his eyes on hers and not her tempting mouth. He only held one more secret, and he could keep it no more. He would rather face her rejection daily than to keep the words to himself. He knew that route only brought suffering. “I still love you.”

When she did not yank her hand away or rebuke him, he leant his forehead against hers, content to merely be so close to her. “My wishes and affections are unchanged but one word from you—”

“I love you,” Elizabeth said.

Darcy could hear the smile in her voice, and he lifted his head. Her brown eyes shone with passion and tenderness. The loving gaze he had seen a hundred times on so many others and now, finally, him. Remnants of ice broke from his heart as her love finally warmed him through.

“I never want to be parted from you again,” he said realising he had one more secret after all. “Will you marry me and be my wife?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth breathed. “My secret is I have wanted you to ask me for months. Shortly after I arrived in London.”

“For so long? I am stupid!”

Elizabeth shook her head. “No, it is hardly a secret if one does not hide it. I have four sisters. I am very adept at hiding my secrets.”

“I want to know them all,” Darcy grinned. He could wait no more. “I wish to kiss you,” he cupped her cheeks with both hands.

She dropped her gaze. “That is perhaps not such a secret.”

Elizabeth lifted her eyes and smiled. Darcy leaned forward to taste the beginning of her laugh on his lips. It tasted sweet and loving. Although he craved more, he pulled back lest he frighten her.

Elizabeth’s lashes fluttered, and she sighed happily. “If I tell you I wish for you to do that again, you will keep it a secret, won’t you?”

Darcy threw his head back and laughed, feeling lighter than he ever had before. She would bring such joy to his life.

“It is very safe with me,” he said as he wrapped his arms around her and leaned in so close their chests touched.

This time, when their lips met, Darcy took his time. He started with one corner of her mouth and kissed across to the other. With each touch, the pressure increased and Elizabeth sighed against him. Bringing one hand up to cup her cheek, he held her face in place as he sealed their love with all the things he struggled to say. Pulling back, he saw the dazed look on Elizabeth’s face, the satisfied smile, and her dark lashes against her pale skin as she had her eyes closed in surrender.

“My Elizabeth,” he kissed her again. “Mine, at last.”

Elizabeth nodded and leaned forward, wanting and expecting more. Darcy smiled to himself before meeting her tantalising lips once more. Running his tongue along the seam, Elizabeth gasped. Darcy touched his tongue to Elizabeth’s for the briefest second. He wanted her to get used to the idea. She pulled back, and her eyes flew to his. Then, she threw her arms around Darcy, nearly tackling him to the ground. He could not resist her offer, and soon their tongues were tangling against each other as they held each other tight. The feeling of her in his arms stirred him more than any dream or fantasy. This was really, truly Elizabeth giving herself to him, loving him, and asking to be loved in return.

It was almost too much for his honour to bear. Feeling his excitement rise and Elizabeth leaving her inhibitions behind, his courage rose to the front. He slowed their frenzied kissing and loosened his hold on Elizabeth. She looked half-ravaged. Her hair in disarray and cheeks flushed.

“My Lizzy,” he said and stroked her cheek.

“Yes, I am yours,” she sighed against him. “Do not ever forget it.”

“I could never. You are imprinted on my heart.”

Darcy encouraged her to turn and sit between his legs with her back against his chest.  Wrapping his arms around her, he rested his chin on her shoulder as their hearts calmed and breathing returned to normal.

“Your sister said you were ill while at Longbourn,” Darcy observed. He would not press her for details, but he had wondered about that, combined with her appearance at her first arrival. Elizabeth’s hands idly ran over his, sending shivers down his spine.

“I had thought I starved your love away. I mourned your loss. I saw Lady Aurora and realised how extreme the compliment of your hand was. You could have had a lady like her—far above me in beauty, rank, and fortune. Who am I compared to all the world had to offer you? I spitefully and wrongly refused you.”

“Did you think so little of me that I would carelessly offer my heart and then hand it to another within weeks of your rejection? Or did you discredit the depth of my regard?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “When you proposed—it shocked me. I had not expected it or ever guessed. Charlotte did think you loved me, but I question her understanding of the notion. She saw near as much love from Colonel Fitzwilliam. I had not thought you capable of such deep, intense emotion. Before reading your letter, I attempted to explain it as merely an idle fancy from boredom in Lady Catherine’s home.”

“I do not know the hour or the spot that set my course. I had started to love you before I knew it had begun. Sometime in Hertfordshire sealed it for me, although I did not recognise it for a very long time.”

“That is as I had imagined it.”

Darcy could hear the smile in her voice. “And after you read my letter?”

“I instantly understood how you were capable of such deep feeling but also able to conceal it so well. I saw the truth of your account with Wickham, and in time, began to accept what you said of Jane and Bingley. By the time I returned to London and was told how you called on my aunt and uncle and clearly restored Bingley to Jane, I saw you in a new light. You had always fascinated me. Now, it seemed the harder I looked, the more I saw good in you.”

“I did not bring Bingley to Jane. I confessed to concealing her presence in Town, but he decided to call on her on his own. For a time, I thought it would ruin our friendship, but after seeing evidence of her continued affection, he heartily forgave me.”

“So do I,” Elizabeth said. “It is little different than I tried to do when Charlotte told me she was to marry Mr. Collins. I hope you can forgive my hypocrisy.”

“I cannot because I do not accept it was a double-standard. In each case, you had a lively interest, and the lady is always in the least advantage in these situations. You know Miss Bennet best, and she is blessed to have your loyalty. But what happened with Marshall after I left Town?”

“Oh,” Elizabeth said and paused. “After our dance, he hinted very strongly he had something of importance to say to me. I may be slow to catch on but the third time’s the charm with gentlemen, I suppose. I apprehended his meaning and feigned a hurt ankle so I could not dance.”

Darcy smiled at her cleverness and squeezed her waist for a moment. Elizabeth laughed, the sound going straight to his heart.

“Over the next few days, I made up excuses to miss his calls or did not give him my full attention. He took the hint and came around less and less. Eventually, it was time for me and Jane to return to Longbourn. Mama believed Bingley would propose at the prospect of losing Jane again. She was right. We went home, Bingley followed, but then my uncle needed assistance in the move. Where Bingley went, Jane was allowed to follow. It was I who had to beg and plead to come along.” Elizabeth paused for a moment. “My aunt and uncle intervened, but I had not thought they suspected anything. Can you imagine why?”

Darcy chuckled. “The first time I met your uncle he had figured out I fancied you. Rather than putting him off, I decided to confess that I loved you but knew I had no chance for you. He suggested to me multiple times—as did Bingley and Richard—that I attempt to win your hand, but I would not listen. It seems we were each blind regarding the other. They saw what we were too afraid to believe.”

“Never again, though,” Elizabeth vowed. “I hope I do not appear inconstant for having changed, so extremely, my opinions from only a few months ago. I was blinded by my judgment and misunderstood your character. Now, I know the truth, and nothing can ever break my heart from yours.”

Darcy said nothing and only squeezed her tighter. After years of loneliness and isolation, hearing that this woman loved him and would not give him up, filled his heart to bursting. He had never known such love and contentment could exist in the world. A feeling as though every trial he ever went through had led to this moment, making it all the sweeter, filled him.

“I do not doubt you, Lizzy, if you do not doubt me. I left you three times.”

“They hardly count as that,” she scoffed. “The first you did not understand the strength of your attachment if I understand what you said earlier. The second time I refused you! Lastly, another man courted me, and to many, it looked as though I encouraged him. I was too preoccupied with thoughts of you, with attempting to show you my changed opinion and to earn a second chance from you, that I did not realise I spent so much time in his company seeming to listen to his words. I thought only of you.”

Darcy grinned so broadly, he believed his face might crack. “Come, let us return to the house. I must speak with your uncle.”

As they walked back to Pemberley, hand in hand, they made their plans for the future. Darcy felt, at last, the cold grip of the past had left him.

The Secrets of Pemberley- Chapter Twenty-Two

secrets of pemberley maskChapter Twenty-Two

 

As Darcy finally greeted his guests and guided them through Pemberley after brief refreshments, he could not stop grinning. Elizabeth belonged here. She belonged at his side. He knew it more than he knew anything in the world. Now and then their eyes would meet, and she would blush. Hope swelled in Darcy’s heart. Perhaps, finally, she understood that as well.

They needed to talk and clear their most recent misunderstanding. Had Marshall ever proposed? Did he break it off or her? Either way, her reputation could be damaged, but Darcy did not care. Once, he might have worried that Georgiana’s reputation could be tarnished by who he chose as a wife and he was willing to sacrifice his desires for her sake. Now, he cared nothing for the opinion of strangers. Anyone that knew Elizabeth could see her qualities.

After the tour, his guests chose to retire to their chambers to rest. Darcy inquired with Mrs. Reynolds about all the arrangements. Elizabeth was an unexpected addition, and Bingley’s preferred room was unprepared as Darcy had expected Marshall to arrive. He also spoke with her about the ball planned for Georgiana in a week’s time. He had invited several Darcy family members as well as a few neighbouring gentlemen and their families. Apparently, his cousin Stephen disagreed with Darcy’s latest ventures and spewed vitriol all over his reply. However, he would come, never one to miss an opportunity to enjoy all Pemberley had to offer. Darcy rolled his eyes and put the missive aside. He had no patience for such antics right now.

How many times had Elizabeth seemingly slipped through his fingers? He could hardly credit her change of opinion about him when she seemed indifferent in London, but he would do nothing to risk it now. For the first time in his life, Darcy felt he was on the cusp of obtaining greatness.

A noise in the hall brought his head up from other letters and duties. He had left his door open in case someone—hopefully Elizabeth—would need to speak with him. Leaning to one side, he could see her figure through the doorway. She peered up at an old tapestry hung by some Darcy long ago. Happily putting aside his work, he silently approached.

“Splendid, is it not?” He asked, and Elizabeth started.

“Heavens! Forgive me for not hearing you,” she laughed.

“There is nothing to forgive. I should apologise for startling you. I had not intended it.”

“Tell the truth,” she arched a brow and smiled. “Were you spying on me?”

“Hoping for the opportunity to speak with you, yes.” Darcy stared down into her face. Some of the signs of anxiety and sadness had eased. “Did you rest well? I am sorry you are not in a more spacious apartment.”

“It is beautiful,” she breathed. “Yes, I did rest well and feel quite renewed. I suppose you did not know I was coming. I apologise if it was impertinent—”

“Your arrival was unexpected, but that is not to say unpleasant.”

“High praise, indeed.”

“I did not mean…” Darcy took in Elizabeth’s smiling face. “You are teasing me.”

“A terrible habit, I am afraid.”

“I find it refreshing,” he smiled. Dinner time approached, and he did not want to continue wasting time in frivolous discussion. “The grounds are magnificent, and I think you would enjoy them immensely. Would you allow me to escort you on a walk in the morning?”

Elizabeth beamed. “I hoped you would.”

“Perfect,” he said. “Utterly perfect.” Staring into her eyes, Darcy hoped she understood that he meant her not their plans.

“Here you are, Lizzy,” Jane said from down the corridor, Bingley at her side. “We expected you to sleep longer after your illness.”

“You were ill?” Darcy asked.

“Jane worries too much. I was never ill.” She sent her sister a look of unspoken words.

The others arrived before any more could be said and they adjourned to the drawing room until called for dinner. The meal passed with more enjoyment on Darcy’s side than he had ever experienced in the house. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner had none of the stiff formality that his family did, and their nieces were equally unaffected. Bingley could be nothing but gregarious and finding amusement in all things. Skipping the separation of the sexes in favour of retiring early, they all joined in drawing room Darcy had refurbished for Georgiana, complete with a new pianoforte. She and Elizabeth took turns playing. Too soon for Darcy’s liking, Mrs. Gardiner asked to retire, and the other ladies followed her lead. He could understand the days of travel wearing on her in her situation. Bingley and Gardiner stayed up for billiards and brandies but soon took to their rooms. Darcy could hardly sleep for the anticipation of the following day.

 

*****

 

Darcy paced the hall below the central staircase early the next morning. He did not clarify a time with Elizabeth. How stupid of him! He recalled from Rosings that she walked after breakfast. He had hoped she would arrive before the meal so they could be assured privacy. Otherwise, they would likely end up with other persons accompanying them. Perhaps that is what she wished, though.

He heard footsteps and glanced up. Elizabeth smiled down from the top of the staircase in a walking dress of yellow with green trim. He had seen the same attire before, and while ladies of the first circles of Society would be embarrassed to wear the same thing so often, Darcy thought the outfit beautiful and perfectly reflecting the character of the wearer. She blushed under his gaze, but his eyes followed her the entire way down.

“You came,” he breathed as he bowed over her hand.

Elizabeth’s lashes fluttered, but she smiled. “And you are waiting.”

“I could not sleep,” he answered bashfully.

“Nor I,” she said.

A servant arrived with their outerwear and Darcy extended his arm to take her about the garden paths. The entire walk was a longer distance than they had time for this morning, but they could attempt it another time.

“Come, we must have some conversation,” Elizabeth teased and squeezed his arm lightly.

Darcy’s heart convulsed. Did she have any idea what she did to him? “As always, I will say whatever you wish.”

“Then allow me to observe that your gardens are the most beautiful I have ever seen. They were left so natural and not artificially restrained in the Greek manner.”

Darcy nodded. “I do not think my father had any stylistic impressions. Mother favoured the fashionable gardens like Lady Catherine, but after she was sent away, I think he allowed things to grow wild.”

“I am sorry,” Elizabeth glanced at her feet. “I did not mean to bring up a painful subject.”

“It does not distress me,” he gently squeezed her hand with his free one before allowing it to drop again by his side.

Elizabeth let go of his arm and examined some flowers out of his reach. He felt the loss acutely.

“What is down there?” She pointed near a copse of trees following the stream to the walled rose garden.

“Roses,” his voice was thick with longing.

Elizabeth smiled and then started off running at a slow speed. “Catch me up,” she called over her shoulder.

After recovering from his shock, Darcy followed after her. His longer legs reached her in seconds. Then they ran neck and neck through gardens, replacing talk of unfaithful spouses with laughter. Once inside the walled garden, she came to an immediate stop. She spun in a circle and grinned. Seeing the arbour in the corner, she ran off again. “Chase me!”

More prepared this time, Darcy reached her almost immediately and grabbed her hand, pulling her to the arbour with roses climbing over it. It was reckless and ridiculous. He a grown man running around the garden in a way he had never had the freedom to do as a child. Chasing after a woman whose bonnet began to slip off her head and curls tumbled free. And he could not stop laughing or smiling. Elizabeth, only Elizabeth, gave him this precious gift of feeling free in his own skin.

At last, they were under the arbour and skittered to a stop. Keeping her hand in his, Darcy used his free one to pull the bonnet from her hair and remove the remaining pins. Her hair looked wild, and her cheeks flushed brighter than the day she had arrived at Netherfield with her skirts knee deep in mud. He pushed a tendril from her face and rested his hand on her cheek, hating the leather barrier of his glove. Elizabeth’s face turned up to him, inviting what he most wanted to do.

“I will never stop chasing you, Elizabeth,” he said, resisting the impulse to claim her lips, still panting for breath by the barest thread of control.

Elizabeth’s cheeks flamed brighter, but her eyes never left his. “Tell me another secret.”

“Roses remind me of you. Their scent, their beauty, their vibrancy.” Darcy let his hand fall from her cheek, expecting a rebuke.

“I never loved Mr. Marshall. I never encouraged him. He was not the king for me.”

As she referenced Marshall’s ball when they had dressed as lovers, and she wished to tell him about the man she desired, but he could not bear to hear it, she placed her hand back in his.

“I thought you wanted him. I tried to be happy for you—to not be in the way.” Darcy could resist no longer and raised it to his lips. If he could not claim hers, then he must kiss her somewhere. “I never thought you would allow me that.”

Elizabeth took in a shaky breath. “That is the first time I have allowed a gentleman to kiss my hand.”

“Good,” Darcy smirked then retrieved her bonnet from the ground. He held out hairpins while she hastily rearranged her hair. When she finished restoring herself, he kissed her hand again before placing it on his arm. “We should return for breakfast.”

Elizabeth nodded in agreement and allowed him to lead her to his home. It all felt surreal. It was too much. More happiness than he had ever dared to hope to have. Plans for the future bounced in his mind. He would woo Elizabeth while she stayed here. Once settled at her uncle’s, he would propose again then seek her father’s blessing. Unfortunately, she would likely return to Hertfordshire before they could marry but he could not contain the sincerest wishes of his heart that she would remain at Pemberley forever.

Arriving at the house, they were separated by their friends. Darcy could pay no attention to anything said around him until he heard a scheme for the ladies to go walking on their own later. Just before Elizabeth entered the dining-room, Darcy stole to her side.

“I wish you to be careful when out walking without me.”

Elizabeth looked up at him, confusion and perhaps defiance in her eyes. “Why?”

Darcy shook his head. “You are unfamiliar with the paths there might be roots or rocks…” He could not bear to think of his nightmare at this moment. “Will you promise me?”

Elizabeth paused for a moment and cocked her head to one side. Then, she met his eyes, “I promise.”

Relief washed through Darcy. He could see from Elizabeth’s expression that she apprehended the importance of his request and saw his relief. She would inevitably ask him about it later. For now, they had a breakfast to enjoy and a day’s worth of entertainment. The activities of the day provided them with little privacy for conversation. He settled for whispering to meet him in the garden on the morrow as he observed her embroidery.

The Secrets of Pemberley- Chapter Twenty-One

secrets of pemberley maskChapter Twenty-One

 

Darcy finished his tea and set it aside. Dusk was slipping over Pemberley, and he could not resist the temptation to walk in the gardens. The roses were blooming, and he could think of Elizabeth. He had spent the last several weeks making changes at Pemberley.

George Darcy had left the estate rich in pounds but barren in love. He had doled out money every Boxing Day to his tenants, donated to the local church and school, but he did not mingle with those he believed beneath him. Mrs. Gardiner, for example, as a resident of the town and a shopkeeper’s daughter had never seen the older Mr. Darcy or been to Pemberley. However, he had a good reputation amongst the community and Darcy had attempted to copy that. For him, however, it had felt like a hollow shell when there was no real compassion or desire to help.

Fitzwilliam Darcy, always as generous with money as his adopted father, now focused on genuinely giving back to the area. He had contacted other local gentleman and raised funds for school improvements. The nearby workhouse would lose most of its children. Copying the Foundling Hospital’s system, they would be given a grammar education and then placed in apprenticeships. For now, Darcy oversaw the placements, but soon, someone trustworthy would be hired to manage the feat. In the future, Darcy wished to extend the possibilities to the adults in his district of Pemberley.

Darcy had expected more resistance from his solicitor, steward, and staff but they all eagerly followed his example. It seemed gentlemen in other counties had banded together to alleviate corn and bread scarcities—the unending war with Napoleon wreaking havoc on food supplies. All the while some farmers revolted against the new factories which took their winter employment. It was a double-edged sword. The factories meant cheaper goods, leaving more income left over to purchase food. However, it also meant many skilled artisans now without employment and low wages to the factory hands. Someone other than Darcy would have to sort it all out. He had directed his attention to different situations.

The sun had all but disappeared when Darcy returned to the house and looked through the evening mail. Georgiana wrote often and requested his return to London. He would wait until next year. Georgiana would be presented at court, and then he would be her chaperone until she married—which he had no intention of pressuring her into matrimony ever. She could reside with him forever. If she did, one day, marry then Darcy would have more time at Pemberley and would gladly leave the trappings of London behind.

Richard seldom wrote. Darcy attempted to read between the lines. His cousin was undoubtedly involved in a flirtation with Lady Aurora, but if it were a legitimate courtship with the intention to marry, he was less confident. Knowing Richard, neither was he. Bingley had not written at all—which was certainly not out of the ordinary. No one mentioned Elizabeth—even Georgiana, who he had explained nothing to—and so Darcy assumed she was to marry Marshall and they were kind to avoid mentioning it. Although he received the London papers, he refrained from perusing the notices and threw himself into work.

At the bottom of his mail stack was a letter Darcy had been dreading. It was in Mr. Gardiner’s hand. The time of his possession of the estate he chose was rapidly approaching. Undoubtedly, the note contained information regarding the transaction and determining dates. The Gardiners would be staying at Pemberley while the servants set up the house.

Frowning at his cowardice, Darcy picked up his letter opener and unfolded the paper. Yes, Mr. Gardiner confirmed the dates of his arrival. He asked if his niece and her betrothed would be welcome to come as well but did not name them. Darcy’s hand shook, and he struggled to continue reading. He had never expected to see Elizabeth at Pemberley. To see her married or courting another man and residing in his house. He rubbed at the ache in his chest.

“When will I put you behind me?” Darcy muttered aloud. He always knew he would love her forever. However, he did not expect to continue to feel such visceral pain. On the other hand, it took him twenty years to overcome separation from his mother. It had only been just over two months since he proposed to Elizabeth.

The candles had burned low in his study before Darcy pulled out writing supplies to reply to Mr. Gardiner. The servants had alerted him to dinner and had brought in a tray when he claimed to be too busy to leave. He had not touched it. While alone at Pemberley, he never bothered with a real supper. Tea and light repast in the study was enough for him. The clock struck ten and Darcy knew a maid would arrive soon. Mrs. Reynolds would cluck at him in the morning for wasting the poor cook’s time and talent.

Once he believed he could write in legible hand and with a semblance of a calm mind, he answered Gardiner’s questions and welcomed his niece and her betrothed to his home. Darcy had a request of his own. Georgiana’s birthday approached, and this year she requested to spend it at Pemberley. Richard could not leave Town and riding with the Gardiners would save Darcy a trip. Additionally, he could spend the coming weeks planning festivities for her. What could be better than her celebrating with her dearest friend, Elizabeth?

Darcy had never dreaded a fortnight more. He spent the time advancing his plans for the school and work placement. Freddie and Tom wrote to him from London. Richard had taken to visiting when he could, partially filling in the whole Darcy left. He missed the boys but knew he needed the distance from Town. If they expressed interest, he would be more than happy to finance their education and apprenticeship in Lambton. However, he thought they would miss the bustle of the large city.

Recalling what he said to Richard the night of Marshall’s ball, Darcy asked his solicitor to look into the legalities of adoption. He would not remove Georgiana’s stake in Pemberley yet. However, she had already been the victim of one fortune hunter. As heiress to an estate, she would be even more susceptible.

In the mornings, Darcy tended to the improvement of his charitable legacy and business letters. In the afternoons, he rode over the fields with his steward and talked with tenants. Working from sun up until sun down had proved an efficient way to almost avoid recalling Elizabeth would soon be under his roof but not his to claim. Almost, but not entirely. Never able to control his active imagination, she featured in his dreams. In the netherworld between reality and fiction, they lived and loved and Darcy had never hated the rise of each morning’s son more.

 

*****

 

The dreaded day arrived. Eerily like his nightmare, the sun rose as if there was no threat of Darcy’s heart shattering on this day. The only signs of darkness were his own attitude as he almost barked at every staff member he came across. His restless legs carried him to the rose garden.

Life-like memories of his memory circled him. Elizabeth in his arms for their first real kiss under the arbour. The weight of her in them as he carried her dead body down the lane. The cold and imposing stone above her grave.

“Let go,” he said to himself.

He had held on too long to his mother, and it nearly ruined his life. Not her actions, not his father’s indifference, not Wickham’s cruelty but his own actions. Realizing his culpability gave him enormous freedom and allowed him to feel lighter than he ever had before.

“Elizabeth chose another.”

Truthfully, it had been no contest. He never attempted to separate Marshall from Elizabeth. He never tried to put himself in a better light. He respected her opinion and wanted her happiness.

A gentle breeze lifted the scent of roses to him, and a smile crept across his lips. He could not change the past. He could not shape the future. His only choice was to accept the present and learn to take the good and the bad.

He had tender memories of his mother, not just of being separated. Georgiana deserved to know more of Lady Anne. Telling her the truth of her birth after she nearly eloped with Wickham had devastated the girl. Darcy had not said more on the subject as he had tried to put the world into compartments of black and white. Now, he saw things differently, and his sister should know of the good of Lady Anne Darcy.

Likewise, Darcy had positive remembrances of time with Elizabeth. The way her face glowed walking in Rosings, their conversations and teasing in London. If she were to come to his home, then he would merely enjoy her for as long as he could. She deserved to see all that Pemberley had to offer. His failed ideas of romance should inhibit nothing. If she would not stay with him for always, he could at least see her eyes sparkle as she inspected the grounds. That would be a memory he could cherish for ever.

With a renewed spirit and resolve to extend friendship to Elizabeth, Darcy returned to the house just in time for a runner to tell him the carriages had passed the lodge. Reminding himself to breathe and forcing his legs to lock in place rather than wear the carpet thin, Darcy waited in his study until he heard the crunch of wheels on the drive. Then he removed to the front portico*. Three carriages rolled to a stop and coachmen scurried to open doors. From the first, Bingley climbed out, followed by Miss Bennet and Georgiana. She jumped up and down and waved her arms. Saying something to the others, she turned to climb the steps.

While Georgiana advanced to him, Darcy’s eyes watched the other carriages. A governess and children spilt out of one while Mr. Gardiner exited another. Holding out his hand, Mrs. Gardiner stepped down. Where was Marshall? He ought to have exited before the ladies. Instead of a gentleman’s boot, a dainty slipper extended to the ground. Pulling his eyes up from the lady’s feet, Darcy hungrily scanned the gown and form. Heart hammering in his chest and blood rushing so forcefully his head began to ache, he blinked his eyes once, twice, a third time.

Elizabeth.

Alone. Without Marshall. A hundred questions flitted through his brain one second, and then it went utterly blank. She smiled up at him, and Darcy thought he might pass out and roll down the steps. Cloth filled his mouth, he could not speak, even as Georgiana greeted him and attempted to redirect his focus. He could not control his mouth, but his legs propelled forward on their own. Leaving his sister behind, Darcy lumbered down the steps. Ignoring the call of Bingley and not even sparing the Gardiners a glance, he stopped right before the only one who could make his life complete.

“You came,” he said, his eyes gazing into hers.

Elizabeth said nothing but blushed and glanced down.

“Elizabeth,” he whispered like the most fervent prayer he had ever uttered.

Her eyes flew to his, and her breath caught, but she did not look away.

“Am I dreaming? Are you real?”

“Are you?”

Her words confused him, and he took a moment to fully take her in. She appeared thinner, dark circles were under her eyes, and uncertainty filled her gaze.

“What has he done? Did he abandon you?”

“He? Who?” Confusion etched every line of her face.

“Marshall,” Darcy growled out. “I understood you were to arrive with your be—” Darcy’s eyes slipped to Bingley and Jane. The gathered with the others on the steps. Mrs. Reynolds had come outside and now talked with everyone as Darcy shirked his duties as host. They were the engaged couple.

“We have had another one our misunderstandings, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth said, drawing his eyes back to her.

“We have,” he agreed. Was her worn expression because Marshall tired of her or because Darcy had abandoned her? If the latter, he would never forgive himself but he could scarcely hope it.

“I owe you a secret,” Elizabeth whispered. She looked down at her feet and took a deep inhale before returning her eyes to his. “I was desperate to come to Pemberley.”

“Were you?” Darcy could not keep the astonishment from his voice. “Perhaps Longbourn had become unbearable?”

“I will not deny it added to my feelings, but I wished to see my friend…that is friends…again.”

Darcy scrutinised her expression. She had coloured while speaking and seemed to waver between boldness and shyness. Her eyes bounced between sadness and fear. They pleaded with him to know something, to accept something from her. What did she wish to say but felt she could not? Darcy could not allow himself to hope.

“Your guests are waiting, sir,” Elizabeth said, blushing all the more as she looked up at the others who attempted to not watch their conversation.

Darcy did not care. Let the whole world know. He loved this woman and if putting her at ease made others feel uncomfortable then they would have to wait and be thankful for his attention.

“Come, then,” he stretched out an arm. “Welcome to Pemberley, Elizabeth.”

The Secrets of Pemberley- Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty

 

“I am not wearing that,” Darcy said, disgust and embarrassment nearly clogging his voice in this throat as he stared at the costume laid out by his valet.

“You asked for a costume like Edward the Fourth,” his long-suffering valet held no sympathy in his voice. “I am sorry if you did not understand the customs of their day.”

“Brantley, it is obscene.” Darcy looked again at the long hose which was meant to be the only covering of his lower half. His legs and backside, not to mention his unmentionables would be on display for everyone to see.

“These are not historical hose,” Brantley reassured him and held them up. “These are the pantaloons some of those dandies wear.”

“I’m no dandy,” Darcy grunted.

“No, nor a fop but this is the costume you have ordered.”

Firm and rapid knocks sounded through his dressing room door. “William, please hurry! We are meant to leave soon!”

Darcy could picture Georgiana bouncing on her toes and wringing her hands while her face flushed with excitement and her eyes darted nervously to the clock. “A few more moments,” he called back. “Wait in the drawing room I have a gift for you.”

Georgiana squealed, actually squealed. Mere weeks ago, she never would have displayed so much emotion. “As if allowing me to attend my first ball was not enough! I can never thank you enough!”

Darcy grinned and shook his head. He would have to make the most of this costume somehow. He would not disappoint his sister. “Go.”

He heard another squeal and rapid footsteps as she scampered off. Darcy turned to his valet again. “I do not understand. What about those stuffed short breeches I have seen?”

“Those were hose stuffed with horsehair and not worn until nearly a hundred years after your Edward.”

Darcy pinched the bridge of his nose. “And Henry the Eighth? He wore a long pleated tunic.”

“Fifty years later, sir.”

Darcy took in a deep breath. Debating history, or in this case being educated on it, would do little right now. There was no time for a new costume. He had spent the past week avoiding thinking of it and avoiding seeing Elizabeth. Marshall intended to propose to Elizabeth this night, Darcy was quite sure. I am happy for her, he repeated in his mind. It was true, he would never want to deny Elizabeth’s happiness but how he had wished she would have found it with him. Tomorrow, he would leave with her uncle to look at several properties near Pemberley. He supposed the blessing to Elizabeth’s marriage to Marshall would be that she would not visit the Gardiners at their estate near as often as she could if she remained single. Darcy had said nothing to Mr. Gardiner, but he had no intentions of returning to London.

“Sir,” Brantley interrupted Darcy’s thoughts, “there is a long cloak-like garment to be worn with it. Surely that would provide some…modesty.”

Darcy grunted in agreement. However, there could be no dancing in this attire. He could hold his arms in such a way to conceal his body, but dancing required too much movement. Once more, Elizabeth would have a reason to think poorly of him.

Georgiana radiated joy, and for a moment, Darcy stood in the doorway of the drawing room watching her as she primped in a mirror. In a gown of white, she looked so much like their mother. At last, she noticed him and beamed up at him.

“Let me see,” she said and made a great show of circling around him to critique his costume. “Hmm…one of Shakespeare’s plays? Henry…well, one of the Henries.”

Darcy chuckled as Georgiana shrugged her shoulders. History and literature were not her strong suits. “Close, I was a character in Henry the Sixth. I am Edward the Fourth.”

“I see,” Georgiana said still eyeing his costume. “Well, let me see the rest. What is under the cloak?”

“I fear that is impossible.”

“Impossible?”

“There was a…misunderstanding about my requirements for this evening. I did not know they wore such…indiscreet attire. I had only seen portraits of Edward from the waist up.”

Darcy had chosen Edward IV because he had married for love and to a woman named Elizabeth Woodville. She was severely below him regarding rank and fortune. Her family had supported his rival and the former King Henry VI. There had been rumours about his bastardry which came out again when he risked everything with marrying who he pleased and rewarding her family. He suffered from the plots of two brothers and an uncle to take his throne. He was victorious in battle but also capable of diplomacy. The only things Darcy could not admire about the man were his infidelities and leaving his family so unprepared in the wake of his death. It cost his wife and children dearly. He had refused to see the truth of his family’s schemes. Instead of his heir being crowned, his brother had the two princes imprisoned for their safety. Soon, they disappeared from history, and Richard III sat on the throne instead.

“William, may we go now?”

Georgiana tapped her foot impatiently and glanced at the clock. She had no interest in his costuming concerns or the reason for his choice. “In a moment,” Darcy chuckled at her impatience. “First, let me look at you.”

Georgiana posed, lifting her arms and a flute to one side of her mouth. “Ah, Euterpe, goddess of music,” Darcy smiled. It suited her perfectly. “I wanted to present you with a gift for your first ball.” Darcy opened the case and showed his sister. She gasped at the amethysts on a silver chain. “It was our mother’s.”

“Thank you,” Georgiana said with a tremor in her voice and shimmering eyes as he moved to slide it around her neck. She had to fix the clasp, as Darcy was too unpracticed in the skill of ladies’ maid. Suddenly, she met her brother’s eyes. “I will not be like her.”

“No,” Darcy smiled. “She was not happy, I think, for most of her life. She always did what others told her she must until she could not squash her own desires any longer. You have come into your own in recent weeks, and I am so proud of you, Georgiana.”

He held her eyes, and they silently communicated their shared hurt over the past and their commitment to a happier future.

“I want you to be happy too,” Georgiana squeezed his hand. “Maybe Lady Aurora—”

“I thought you wanted to leave?” Darcy led her to the entry where servants rushed forward with their outerwear. “If you want to talk matchmaker then we will never leave.”

Georgiana affected a pout then rolled her eyes. “Very well. But soon, dear brother. You cannot escape me and my feminine abilities forever.”

The siblings laughed as they entered the carriage. Soon, however, nerves overtook both of them, and they rode to Marshall’s London residence in companionable silence. They alighted from the carriage, and Darcy’s heart hammered in his chest. Georgiana’s grip on his arm was tighter than usual reminding him as stressful* as this evening would be for him, he must consider her first.

Marshall and his aunt and uncle greeted them at the door. Lucy Marshall served as tonight’s hostess and had been Marshall’s stand-in mistress of his house in town. The older couple dressed in vaguely Grecian garments and pronounced themselves Zeus and Hera. Marshall would not admit his identity, beholden to the concept of a game. However, Darcy could easily guess his friend had selected Julius Caesar. In fact, nearly everyone had adopted Greek or Roman fashions.

Hardly a Society crush, Darcy and Georgiana were able to meander through the rooms and greet friends. Jane and Bingley appeared to be Romeo and Juliet. They gazed lovingly into each other’s eyes too much for Darcy to remind them of the tragic ending to their tale. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner dressed as Orion and Artemis while Lady Aurora evoked the image of a nymph in a gown the colours of the sea.

“Richard!”

Georgiana’s cry pulled Darcy’s eyes away from their friends. He had not located Elizabeth. Where was she? Then, Darcy saw her next to his cousin who wore a crown. If Darcy had guessed correctly, he imitated Richard the Lionheart. Next to him stood Elizabeth in a costume which could only make Darcy grin. Georgiana pulled him in their direction.

“Welcome to our little troop of English monarchs,” Richard laughed when he saw Darcy’s costume.

“We did not know you were invited,” Darcy replied after he and Georgiana formally greeted them.

“Marshall and I belong to the same club,” Richard shrugged. “I believe he thought I might make you and Georgie feel more comfortable. I was happy for the invitation. I was just telling Miss Bennet how my general has worked me near to death since returning from Rosings.”

“Yes, I had wondered when you would arrive at my table,” Darcy smirked.

“It has hardly been empty from what I understand!” Richard laughed. “You are suddenly overflowing with friends and engagements.”

“Come,” Georgiana said. “I will introduce you to our new friends. I had forgotten you already knew Lizzy, and I know you do love talking with pretty ladies, but Jane and Lady Aurora are equally lovely.”

“How can I refuse?” He bowed to Elizabeth and held out his arm for Georgiana to take.

Darcy looked at Elizabeth, his eyes taking in her black gown with patterned collar and sleeves. Her headpiece and veil gave away her identity to him, instantly. Elizabeth Woodville, consort to Edward IV. She had desperately loved her husband.

“My queen,” Darcy bowed over her hand.

“You knew me?” She smiled, her eyes dancing in the candlelight. “No one else has thus far. I even gave a hint to Mr. Marshall that I was known as Queen Elizabeth. He could only think of Henry the Eighth’s daughter.”

“You do not favour her?” Darcy asked shifting slightly closer to her and turning his back to the crowd.

“I am sure there is much to admire,” Elizabeth said. “I am sure the ordeal of her family weighed on her. Imprisoned by her father and her sister! Still, while they might have tried to call her illegitimate no one questioned her status as the king’s daughter. I can hardly relate to that.”

“Few could.”

“True, but she had also been educated as such, and so her accomplishments seem less sterling. She acted as she should have—something her father evidently forgot, but I see no need to think her the most amazing monarch of all time.”

“But Elizabeth Woodville is?”

“No, probably not her either.” Elizabeth glanced away nervously.

“Tell me, then, why you chose her?” Darcy smiled down at her. He loved speaking with her and understanding how her mind worked.

“She came from a simple background, a commoner. Her parents had a scandalous and imbalanced marriage. She met the King fearlessly one day and for that earned his love. Their love overcame so much: class and political lines. She lived amongst her enemies daily but had his respect and love. It gave her strength and bravery. I can only hope to experience the same one day.”

Darcy noticed the white rose in her hand. “You mean to be Elizabeth before she married?” He touched a petal.

“I have not yet met my king,” she dropped her voice but stared at the red rose pinned to his hat.

“You have not met him, or you have not secured him?” Darcy held his breath. How could they speak like this and yet her favour another man? He needed to hear her say it. Kill the hope within him.

“Are you asking for one of my secrets, sir?”

Darcy shook his head. He did not want to play their game. He searched Elizabeth’s eyes.

“Perhaps I will tell you if we dance,” she said before he could decide what to say.

“I am not dancing tonight.”

“You cannot claim to be unacquainted with the guests tonight,” she teased.

Darcy fought a flush to his cheeks. “I fear my valet is far too talented in finding accurate costuming. I require my cloak to be held in this position. Movement would be…catastrophic.”

Elizabeth looked him up and down, and he felt himself stand up straighter under her inspection. A blush overspread her face, and her voice seemed raspier than usual, but she addressed the problem at hand.

“Could you find a belt? Colonel Fitzwilliam does not need one over his tunic.”

“How will that help?”

“Find a servant and ask for scissors. Trim the cloak so there are three sections, and your arms have openings. Next, trim the hem to the desired length and cinch everything under the belt.”

“I think that might work,” Darcy shook his head in disbelief. “How is it you found a solution when my valet could not?”

“Pardon me for saying so, but it happens that I might be more familiar with garments of this length than your valet. I dare say he has never had to alter a gown.”

Darcy chuckled. “Indeed not. I should have gone to Georgiana’s maid!”

“Perhaps so,” Elizabeth smiled. “Will you ask for my secret again?”

“I will ask you to dance,” Darcy promised.

“I am waiting,” she teased.

Darcy grasped her hand with his free one, and the smile dropped from her lips as she lightly gasped. Her eyes flew to his. “My dear Miss Elizabeth, may I have the honour of a dance?”

Aeons ago he had asked for a set at another friend’s ball. He had approached her sure of her answer. Despite her teasing, nervousness filled him. The last time they danced, she had been surprised and seemed to answer reluctantly.

“I insist,” she beamed and held out her card.

Marshall had planned for the final dance of the evening to be a waltz. His name was scrawled on the spot on Elizabeth’s card, but the dance just before was available. Darcy took it, knowing he would not be able to watch her in another man’s arms but he could fantasise about the night ending with their dance. Richard could deliver Georgiana home. Just after Darcy finished, the musicians began to play. Marshall arrived at Darcy’s side to collect Elizabeth for their first dance. As he took her to the dance floor, she glanced over her shoulder to look at Darcy. For a moment, Darcy thought he saw regret in her eyes.

While couples took to the dance floor, Darcy sought out his cousin. He found Richard dancing with Georgiana. Darcy waited for their set to finish and Lady Aurora approached him.

“You never told me about your cousin,” her eyes followed Richard.

“I had thought you knew him. You know Arlington.”

Lady Aurora huffed. “My father knows your uncle. I have been introduced to Lord Arlington, but it does not mean I know him.” Her gaze softened. “Colonel Fitzwilliam was not in attendance the few times I have conversed with his brother.”

“He is not often one for the London set. He attends but few events.”

“Is that by choice or necessity?”

“Both, I believe. He has been to the Continent twice and overworked when in the country. As such, he prefers to find enjoyment on his own terms.”

Lady Aurora’s brows rose to her hairline. “Meaning?”

Darcy choked on his breath as he realised how his words must sound to the lady. “Pardon me, that is not what I wished to convey. He is an outstanding gentleman and treats ladies justly—although given to flirtation.”

“Brilliant,” she breathed.

Darcy scrutinised her. He had not even finished his explanation, but she appeared fixated on Richard. Mere weeks ago, she seemed ready to jump at being the next Mrs. Darcy. If Darcy had ever valued Aurora’s romantic attachment, his pride might smart at losing her to his cousin. As it happened, he could only wish Richard luck. The lady had a way of getting what she wanted and cajoling people into things against their will. If Richard flirted too much with her, he would likely find himself at the altar.

Finally, Richard and Georgiana’s dance was over. Before Aurora could launch her claws* into Richard, Darcy pulled him aside. “I need to borrow your belt.”

“What?” Richard asked confused. “Why on earth do you need my belt?”

Darcy explained his predicament.

“It will ruin the effect of my costume but very well.”

Darcy and Richard moved to the gentleman’s retiring room. Seeing they were the only ones present, Richard pestered Darcy with talking on the subject he most wanted to avoid.

“I cannot believe you have sat back and allowed your rival to claim her.”

“I do not understand what you mean,” Darcy said frowning in the mirror as he tugged on the cloak. This idea had been ridiculous. Just another example of him missing the ways society functioned and sticking out like a sore thumb.*

“Elizabeth. The woman you love.” Richard said firmly. “Do not quit the field, fight for what you want!”

Darcy shook his head. “She made her choice. Even before meeting Marshall, I was not her choice.”

“Lady Aurora would make a fine wife for you,” Richard said while giving him a sideways glance. “From the right sort of family who could do wonders for you if you wished to enter politics—maybe a peerage. Her dowry is likely even more substantial than Georgie’s.”

“I have no requirements for those things,” Darcy tugged more. He hated everything about this. The costume, the crowds, the small talk, discussion of Elizabeth and courtship, being in Marshall’s home, seeing him dance with Elizabeth…

“Yes…well, some of us do,” Richard, thankfully, interrupted Darcy’s thoughts.

“If you are sniffing around to find if I have intentions toward her, I do not. I’ll not take Lady Aurora or anyone else as a wife.”

“You cannot mean that,” Richard stared dumbfounded.

“I do. I have a wife in my heart. It will have to be enough.”

“But—but—but the estate! The Darcy legacy!” Richard dropped his voice. “Everything you ever feared you were not qualified for might prove true. Would you really risk failing your duties?”

Darcy shrugged. “I have no duty to marry and have an heir. Georgiana’s descendants can carry on the estate. My responsibilities are only to keep the estate profitable during my lifetime.” A thought struck him. “In fact, I could adopt a child and name an heir of my choosing. Nothing in Father’s will said it had to stay in the bloodline.” Darcy and Richard’s eyes met both knowing the unsaid words. It had already been left to non-Darcy blood.

Richard shook his head in disbelief, and then his eyes alighted on the clock in the room. “We should re-join the dance and get you some refreshment. I fear the late hour and lack of food have addled your senses.”

Darcy happily followed his cousin out where there could be no more discussions on marriage and heirs. Georgiana approached him for a dance, and he smiled in thinking she was not too embarrassed to dance with her brother again. Again, more would-be suitors seemed to circle around her. Darcy noted when she was not with her or Richard, Elizabeth joined her. The other ladies often spoke with her, but Elizabeth practically stood sentry. Darcy had to squash the urge to bark at all the gentlemen around his sister and keep her a child forever. However, he needed to prove to them both that he could trust her, that she could behave well and earn the freedoms other young ladies her age enjoyed. Still, he was thankful for Elizabeth and her caring nature. He had no doubt that she would have always been an excellent friend to Georgiana but seeing more proof that she had read his letter and took his sister’s wounded heart under her wing, filled him with pride. She had every reason to burn his message, to rebuke him at every turn, to even announce the truth of his birth. Instead, she forgave him for his proposal—not just his mode but the fact that he approached her without regard to her feelings. She went out of her way to establish a friendship with him, exerting herself at the beginning when things had been awkward. What other lady could be so forgiving and generous? Richard might hint or lecture that Darcy ought to aim higher, but he had lived at Pemberley without a woman’s touch for twenty years. Darcy understood what both he and his estate needed, and it had nought to do with pounds in a bank.

Throughout the rest of the evening, Darcy watched as Elizabeth danced with other men. He was also acutely aware he was not the only one observing her. Marshall had claimed her, returning to her side frequently between sets, always searching for her over the sea of guests. One final dance, Darcy told himself.

“It is time for our set, Miss Elizabeth,” Darcy smiled as he held out his arm to lead her away from Marshall.

Elizabeth’s smile met her eyes as she placed her hand on his arm. Instantly, everything in the world seemed to slip into place. If Elizabeth never married him, he would still wish to know her, to be her friend, to have this dance. He had hoped for a future for them, but the future could change. And while it was not what would make him happiest, it would be enough.

“Come, Mr. Darcy, we must have some conversation,” Elizabeth said and arched a brow, reminding Darcy of their dance at Netherfield.

“As always, I will say anything that you wish.” He winked, acknowledging that he understood her game and as the dance separated them, he could hear Elizabeth’s laughter.

“As it would look odd for us to be silent for half an hour,” Darcy said when they rejoined, “I will ask if you still find private balls more entertaining than public ones.”

“Indeed, this has been my favourite private ball thus far.” She stifled a giggle as she looked at Darcy’s garment.

“I must thank you for your suggestion on my attire,” heat crept up his neck, but he persisted.

“It was nothing,” Elizabeth blushed. “I know how much you wished to be present for Georgiana.”

“Indeed,” Darcy nodded, and the dance separated them again.

“You leave for Derbyshire with my uncle tomorrow, do you not?” Elizabeth asked, an unrecognisable look in her eye when they returned to each other for the final time.

“Yes. If all goes well, your aunt and cousins will be settled by Midsummer Day.”

“I do not know if I will be able to arrive with them. I may be needed at Longbourn.”

“I will do everything in my power to see that they are well-adjusted* and pleased with their home.” Darcy would do it in any case but easing the lines of worry on Elizabeth’s face became a chief concern.

“You are so good to them,” Elizabeth cast her eyes down. “To me as well. You have been an unexpected and true friend.”

The final chords played. As Darcy escorted Elizabeth back to Marshall’s side, he whispered in her ear. “Take care when walking and God bless you, Elizabeth.”

He turned from her side, made his excuses to Georgiana and Richard, and left without a backward glance. Before him was a new future. What kind of master did he wish to be knowing he would not have the usual legacy of begotten heirs? Time spent in Derbyshire and Pemberley would allow him to decide.