The Secrets of Pemberley- Chapter Nineteen

secrets of pemberley maskChapter Nineteen

 

For the remainder of the week, Georgiana dragged poor Mrs. Annesley to Gracechurch Street or over London for daily visits with Jane and Elizabeth. Darcy supposed Mrs. Gardiner enjoyed the company of the older lady. He distracted himself with new investments and business meetings. They took more time than he had anticipated and thus almost a week elapsed before he could return to the Foundling Hospital. Evans agreed to his request to speak with an influential lady of the female volunteers, seemingly resigned to humour him. Darcy grinned when he heard how Tom and Freddie asked about him, no doubt sparking a new rivalry.

Shown into one of the sitting rooms, Darcy’s eyes immediately fell upon a familiar looking young lady sitting regally in a chair while surrounded by girls. The woman’s blonde hair shined in the sunlight. Her expensive clothing and jewellery made her fairly glow with beauty. Her even features sat upon a perfectly graceful neck. Bingley had called Jane Bennet an angel and declared her the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, and Darcy could well understand why even as he soon preferred her sister’s earthy looks. This lady came a close second to Jane Bennet.

“Lady Aurora,” Evans called from the door.

As the woman came closer, Darcy recognised her as the Duke of Wiltshire’s eldest daughter. Rumour had it her parents could not contain their anger at her unwed stage given her two and twenty years. Over the years, the Duke had often hinted at Darcy at least dancing with her, but he always had some excuse. Darcy did not think he had ever even been introduced to her before but saw enough of her father in her face.

“Mr. Darcy has requested a few minutes of your time,” Evans said, finished the introduction and excused himself.

“Is that your beau?” a child asked, causing the others to giggle and Lady Aurora to blush.

“Sally, you know better. Proper manners only, please.” Lady Aurora shook her head. “Mr. Darcy and I have only just met, but he needs to speak to me about you all so excuse us a few minutes. All of you are to continue your stitching.”

Darcy raised his brows. “I applaud your firm but affectionate hand with them.” Darcy nodded in the direction the girls now sat with their heads bent over needlework. “I aim to do the same with the lads.”

Lady Aurora blushed again, adding to her beauty. “What did you wish to speak to me about?”

“I have noticed the girls do not participate in the sports with the boys.”

“You can hardly blame them,” she said. “Broken bones are a regular occurrence.”

“I endeavour to reduce those, but at any rate, I would not suggest they join leagues.” Darcy scanned the girls. Very few had a hint of frailness. They had come from strong stock before their abandonment. “Exercise is healthy for them, rules of organised sports enforce self-discipline which will assist them in their eventual employment and character for life.”

Lady Aurora cocked her head as she considered his words. “If you think only of their future then I wonder at their reason for enjoying sports. Grown men might continue, but women of any class are discouraged.”

“Indeed, that is a fair point, but as they age, they might adjust their activities to walking. Training their bodies to physical endurance may very well be the difference between life and death for many of them. You, as well as I, know too many of the upper classes who are pampered but weak.” Darcy paused as he could see his arguments made sense to the lady. “Additionally, there is the concern of their free time and encouraging it in the proper direction.”

Lady Aurora nodded and smiled. “How perfectly officious but sensible of you.”

Darcy smiled at her wit. “I readily admit my fault and take no umbrage because I can see you agree.”

“Oh, do I?” she placed her hands on her hips.

“Yes. You are no green miss. I can see by the girls’ behaviour you have been visiting for a long time, and you know this is as needed as I do.”

Letting out a long sigh, Lady Aurora lowered her hands. “I do, and you will permit me for being jealous that old Evans listened to you when he would not hear of it from me.” She lowered her voice. “I meant only to test your resolve, sir.”

Darcy had always admired a woman who would not back down from a debate. “Have I met with your approval?”

Quickly scanning her eyes over him, a small smile played on her lips. “Indeed.”

Darcy felt heat creep under his collar. He had not intended to allude to anything other than the topic at hand. Good Lord, had he managed to unintentionally flirt? After years of ineptness and months of actively attempting to do so with Elizabeth, he had said just enough to point this lady’s thoughts in another quarter.

He cleared his throat. “I suppose you do not have much experience in sports.”

Lady Aurora chuckled. “I ride, and I’m a fine archer.” Leaning forward, she lowered her voice again. “My brothers taught me billiards.” Then she returned to her normal range of speech but remained close. “But I’ve never played cricket or football.”

“My friends and I can surely instruct, but it would help to have a feminine influence. You are not adverse to learning new things?”

“I greatly enjoy new experiences,” Lady Aurora said then cast her eyes down. “I am surprised you do not ask your wife or sweetheart to help you, though.”

“I have no wife,” Darcy answered. Had she moved slightly closer?

“And no sweetheart?”

In another life, yes, he should have. If he had met Elizabeth and had learned to be more open, then she would perfectly fit in a role like this. Lady Aurora might be game for the novelty, but any husband of hers would never allow her to continue volunteering here let alone run over fields. If Darcy read her cues correctly, she would not mind a closer relationship than co-mentors, but truthfully, she was too high-born for him. Had he thought Elizabeth’s family too lowly?

Avoiding the question, Darcy looked past her beautiful and silently pleading face. “We may begin practice tomorrow. I would like games to start next week.”

“Certainly.” Lady Aurora stuck out her hand. “I look forward to working with you. I believe we will make a wonderful team.”

When Darcy’s fingers touched hers, there was no thrill or excitement. Keeping his eyes on Lady Aurora’s she did not gasp or blush in awareness, there was no tremble or sigh. Here was an entirely intelligent, kind, witty, beautiful, responsive lady of rank and wealth and yet Darcy remained unmoved. She could never take the place of Elizabeth. As she re-joined the assembled children and cast a smile on her face, Darcy felt his heart revolt. His duty to his name and estate mocked his vow to remain single and yet, he could not resign himself to a loveless marriage. He and Lady Aurora—or a dozen other ladies—might have pleasant evenings of shared interests, and get along perfectly with hardly a quarrel between them but there would be no passion and no intensity. He had lived his entire life in such a way and was through settling for less. His parents had attempted a marriage without love, and it ended disastrously.

Elizabeth might never be by his side as his wife, and yet after visiting the boys, Darcy directed his coach to Gracechurch Street.

 

*****

 

A week of practices later, Darcy and his friends determined the teams ready for matches. Lady Aurora had asked why they had to even keep score, but the children clearly wanted something in exchange for all their hard work. Bragging rights could mean the world at their age.

“I can hardly wait for Jane to arrive,” Bingley bounced on his toes as the children warmed up their muscles in various activities. Darcy had been correct on needing a lady for the girls. She was able to show them how to do jumping jacks* and stretches modestly.

“When are you going to make it official?” Marshall asked.

“Why rush?” Bingley shrugged. “We knew each other but six weeks before I left Hertfordshire. Then we were separated for four months. Surely time is on my side.”

“I would hate to injure a lady’s feelings with her younger sister showing her up.”

Marshall’s words stung Darcy like a dagger in a festering wound as they always did when he alluded to his plans for Elizabeth. Perhaps if she did marry another, the injury might have a chance to heal. Lady Aurora smiled over at Darcy from across the field, and his heart seized again. Was he raising her expectations?

Perhaps it was natural to return to the state one once knew. Marshall sought to find a new mistress for his estate after the death of his mother and saw Elizabeth as the ideal candidate. Darcy sought no one because loneliness was not a new thing to him. He told himself this and yet, realising Elizabeth would never be the mistress of Pemberley and walk in its gardens made him wince in pain.

“Here they are,” Bingley grinned.

He and Marshall walked off to meet the others.

“I feel like a real gentleman with an audience watching us,” Tom said at Darcy’s side.

“Don’t let them worry you. Keep your focus.”

“Yessir,” Tom grinned up at him. “Me and Fred’s an unstoppable force.”

Tom ran off for target practice with Freddie protecting the goal. Darcy smiled to see them getting along. Putting them on the same team and making them indispensable to each other had been the key.

“Those are the two that hated each other?”

Elizabeth’s voice caused Darcy to jump. “Yes,” he shrugged. “Boys can be friends one minute and rivals the next.” His gaze drifted to Marshall who chatted with Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner.

“Or vice versa, as the situation went.”

Darcy could hear the tease in Elizabeth’s voice. Yes, he got that backwards. Did she understand his slip of the tongue?

“It is not so different with girls.”

“Oh?”

“Jane had been assured by Miss Bingley that Mr. Bingley desired to marry Georgiana. Jane is too kind to see any lady as a rival or hate her, but I never would have guessed they could become friends.”

Darcy nodded. “She loved him too much.”

“She still does,” Elizabeth said with a happy sigh.

Suddenly, Darcy could see Elizabeth stiffen and straighten beside him.

“Oh. You did not say she was so beautiful?”

“Who?”

“Lady Aurora,” Elizabeth said in a small voice. “She is exquisite. Frolicking in such a gown?” She cast her eyes down.

She felt inadequate, Darcy realised. But for what reason? Because of her gown? Or because Darcy had developed a friendship with another lady of higher rank and what Elizabeth felt was greater beauty? “I am sure your attire is the better for frolicking.”

His words brought Elizabeth’s head up, and he kicked himself. That was not what he really meant to say, nothing like what he wanted to convey but at least it was something. Elizabeth’s eyes shined with mirth and appreciation. Darcy released the breath he did not realise he had been holding. He had finally said something right.

“My secret is,” Elizabeth dropped her voice, and Darcy leaned lower to hear it, “that I intend on always frolicking. Such a gown would be an utter waste on me.”

Darcy opened his mouth to speak. His hand reached for hers. He needed to press a kiss against her smooth skin.

“Mr. Darcy!”

Lady Aurora called, ruining all of Darcy’s plans. Instead of confessing to Elizabeth that he wanted to play games with her his entire life and that he would have her no other way, he stood with his mouth half open and his hand stiffly in front of him. Elizabeth had turned in the direction of the voice. The lady in question approached rapidly, silk skirts swishing in the light breeze as she held her hat on her head with a hand.

“Do introduce me to your friends,” Lady Aurora said as she came closer.

“Certainly,” Darcy agreed and called the others over.

Aurora met the Gardiners cordially, but Darcy thought he saw a slight stiffening when his profession in Town was mentioned. She greeted Georgiana warmly and talked with Jane and Elizabeth as though they were the greatest mysteries of the universe. She garnered as much information from them as Lady Catherine might have but in a way that did not feel intrusive. She indeed was a talented conversationalist.

Soon, the teams were ready to play. The girls would play first. For this purpose, Aurora instructed one team and Darcy the other. Bingley and Marshall would be the judges.  Before going to her side of the field, Aurora looked at Darcy intently.

“What is it?”

“Nothing,” she shook her head. “Nothing of importance to you but I finally understand.”

“Understand what?”

“That your heart is taken.” She glanced at Elizabeth. “You will ask her, won’t you? Do not allow prejudice for her station to stand in the way.”

“Madam,” Darcy said through clenched teeth. He would not have these things said in public or bandy about. Her father was a duke!

“Oh, do not growl at me,” Aurora laughed. “Your secret is safe with me.” She turned and scampered away.

Darcy’s heart fell as Marshall called time to play. He did not wish to impose his sentiments on Elizabeth or ruin her reputation but keeping his love for her, a secret had done nothing. Besides, there was only one person he trusted with his secrets, and she was the last one who could ever know why.

During the break between games, Lady Aurora chatted with Elizabeth and Jane. Whatever she said caused Elizabeth to look discomposed and avoid his eyes for the remainder of the day. All was not lost, however. His team beat Bingley’s, but in the end, all the children won as Darcy treated the players and audience alike to ices. The children’s’ eyes grew large at the unprecedented treat. If Darcy could, he would spoil them all. Already, he talked with his solicitor and steward about finding places for them. Evans had acknowledged the facts to him. More than half the women who left their infants in the care of the foundling hospital had been employed in personal service. Darcy found it hard to believe that many women chose to risk their livelihoods and position with unwise affairs of an equal nature. Be it via intimidation or outright force, undoubtedly, many of the infants were fathered by the master of the house. The hospital needed a better referral system.

Additionally, his words to Lady Aurora about the health of women who do not regularly exercise were not merely about once they had married and left service, choosing to start a family. For many servants, babies came and destroyed their plans. An unexpected or unwanted pregnancy could be recovered from. The infant could be placed with family or a childless couple, and the mother returns to work. Death, however, gave the child little choice, typically, than to start in destitution.

Darcy and Georgiana could have easily been one of those children. Fortuna’s wheel dealt him luck. A few short months ago, he never would have described his life as fortunate. He would have railed against all the injustices he had faced. Now, he saw an opportunity to extend his blessings to others. Would George Darcy approve of him spending so much time at the Foundling Hospital? No, he probably would not. Was Darcy disgracing his supposed forefathers and letting down the Darcy legacy? He no longer cared.

Having performed his duties as head coach*, Darcy sought out the company of his friends. Lady Aurora spoke with Jane and Elizabeth again, the latter’s composure returned. Marshall hovered at her side, likely the cause of sereness.

“Darcy,” Marshall grinned. “Spectacular events. We should do these every week!”

Darcy chuckled. “I believe neither me nor the children have the energy for that.”

“True and I would much rather you save your strength for my ball.”

“Have you chosen a date, then?”

“Yes, and Lady Aurora convinced me to choose fancy dress. Now, everyone is to choose a costume, and we will play a game guessing who is who.”

The others gasped in surprise and applauded Marshall’s choice. Darcy hung back. He did not like balls, he did not like crowds, and he detested subterfuge. However, he wore a disguise every day. He was endeavouring to show others his feelings. Still, he supposed he could bear the annoyance for one night. Elizabeth’s eyes danced with glee and Darcy knew he would do anything but miss her joy.

“Darcy,” Mr. Gardiner said quietly, “I must speak with you privately.”

Finding a secluded corner, Gardiner explained he desired Darcy’s assistance in viewing two homes near Pemberley. “I had hoped to leave next week, but I suppose you would like to stay for the ball,” Gardiner said.

Darcy kept his eyes trained on Elizabeth. “I do not often enjoy balls, and yet I would not miss this one for anything in the world.”

“I…” Gardiner trailed off.

Typically, able to converse regardless of the time, crowd, or service, his reticence drew Darcy’s notice. “What do you wish to say? I assure you I will not be offended.”

Gardiner sighed and shook his head. “No, I would not guess you to be offended, but I wish to put you on your guard.”

Darcy tensed, supposing he knew the route of this conversation.

“He calls on her every day, he courts her for all the world to see. It’s enough for her to see it and while I love my niece, she is not always the most observant when she would rather ignore a thing. Apparently, Mr. Collins had dropped repeated hints that he wished to marry her but she claims she was utterly surprised.”

“Thank you for your concern,” Darcy silenced the older gentleman. “I assure you it is unnecessary. I mean no trouble for her happiness.”

Gardiner looked at Darcy for a long moment. “You really do love her.”

It was no question, and it saved Darcy the heartache of having to answer. He did love Elizabeth and always would. He wanted her happiness even more than he desired his own. He would attend Marshall’s ball, watch Elizabeth, and then leave with Gardiner. By the time Gardiner returned to Derbyshire in the summer, Elizabeth would likely be engaged. Perhaps by then the thought would hurt less but, all things considered, nothing could wound Darcy more than Elizabeth not living in the world. He could bear any pain but that—even seeing her marry his oldest friend.

Marshall whispered to Elizabeth, pulling a smile and a laugh from her lips. For the millionth time, Darcy wished he had the ease and gregariousness of his friends. Instead of returning to them, Darcy called for the carriages and made arrangements for everyone to return to their homes.

The Secrets of Pemberley- Chapter Eighteen

secrets of pemberley maskChapter Eighteen

 

The next morning, Darcy was at work in his study when he heard the doorbell followed by the excited chatter of ladies and Georgiana’s squeal of joy. One voice rose above the fray—Elizabeth. Darcy pinched the bridge of his nose as a deep boring sensation drilled* into his head. He had not known she was to call today. He would have made plans to be out of the house.

All hope of productivity vanished. If it were any other set of visitors, he would at least make an appearance. He did not wish to appear uncivil. Just when he determined to leave and go anywhere, if only there could be one place on Earth where he was free of thoughts of Elizabeth, the door rang again. This time, Bingley and Marshall entered his study. Neither even gave the pretence of coming to visit him.

“I believe Jane is here,” Bingley asked more than said.

“My sister has guests. I did not confirm, but it did sound like Mrs. Gardiner and her nieces,” Darcy answered.

“It is too fine a day to be inside,” Marshall said and waved at the shred of light shining through the April clouds. “We should invite them on a drive in the park.”

Darcy raised his brows. “There is an uneven number of couples.”

“Then we will walk,” Bingley suggested, borrowing Marshall’s excitement. “Jane and her sister often walk in Meryton.”

“Georgiana is no great walker, and Mrs. Gardiner likely would not prefer it.”

“You could drive with them in the coach,” Marshall suggested. He glanced at Darcy for the first time since entering and did a double take. “What the devil happened to your face?”

Darcy chuckled. “The foundlings. They’re a bunch of scamps!” Bingley and Marshall laughed as Darcy told them how he spent yesterday. “As for the idea to enjoy the day in the park, may I suggest we ask the ladies instead of choosing for them?”

“Excellent idea,” Marshall grinned and led the way.

The other two men bounded into the sitting room, but Darcy’s breath caught when he saw Elizabeth sitting in a ray of sun. It highlighted her features and made her face glow. She hid a laugh as Bingley and Marshall animatedly invited them to walk or drive in the park, her eyes shining with the amusement. Although her expression did not change, her gaze flitted toward the door and collided with Darcy’s. For a fleeting instant, their eyes met, and Darcy felt the familiar tug to her as he always did when they glimpsed one another in that way. His feet propelled him into the room.

“Oh my goodness!” Mrs. Gardiner exclaimed with a hand to her heart. “Mr. Darcy, whatever happened?”

Darcy smiled and related his tale, with Marshall adding in more colourful description now and then. He was the better storyteller, it had always been that way, even if he had not been present.

“Well, I applaud your service,” Mrs. Gardiner smiled. “I would not have expected such a hands-on approach and to hear how you rescued the smaller boy several times. What a fine father you will make!”

Darcy flushed, and Marshall came to his aid. “It does not surprise me at all. We met in a very similar fashion.”

“Really?” Mrs. Gardiner continued the conversation, but the eyes of everyone were upon Darcy and Marshall.

“I was the small boy with a chip on my shoulder, going toe to toe with bullies a foot taller than me,” Marshall laughed. “I could barely do school work all first term because my eyes were too swollen.”

“My goodness! Did the teachers put no end to this?” Mrs. Gardiner cried.

“Boys are little savages,” Bingley laughed while the ladies exchanged looks of alarm.

“One particular day, the set pummelling me was larger than usual—or some sort—I never really asked Darcy why he suddenly noticed me—but he pulled a livid young lordling off me.” Marshall looked at Darcy with a wistful smile. “Why did you notice me that day?”

“You make it sound as though I walked by you—or others—dozens of times during a beating,” Darcy said while shaking his head. “The truth is, I spent that term in my room as much as possible. I studied and read my books. I had no notion such things occurred, and I could not abide watching it.”

“That is just what I would have expected,” Elizabeth said in a tone of genuine praise.

Darcy was too shocked to say anything in reply, but Marshall had never been speechless in his life. “I suppose everyone left you alone because you were a Darcy. Then we left University, and suddenly no one could leave him alone, so it all evened out.”

Just before Darcy dropped his eyes, Elizabeth met his gaze again. A softness had entered them. Could she understand now how lonely he had been as a child? Then how guarded he had to be as an adult? Everyone he met desired something out of him. Even Bingley and Marshall had been conscious of who he was. Elizabeth was the only one who had never given a fig about it. Lord, he was so sick of civility and deference, all the officious attention when he had met Elizabeth. Darcy had never met a woman who had a real brain in her head, they all cared for nothing but his opinion. Then he met Elizabeth and her lively mind burned like a thousand candles in the darkness of his existence.

“Did you ladies decide what you would like to do about the park?” Bingley asked. “Should we leave for a moment to allow you to come to a consensus?”

Georgiana frowned. “I think our meagre sunshine is gone.”

In unison, they swung their heads to the window and saw rain beating down on the street below. Darcy particularly noted Elizabeth’s shoulders slump.

Darcy thought quickly. “Why not make definite plans for the next day of tolerable weather and, if you still wish to leave the house, we might tour a museum?”

“Where shall we go?” Jane asked.

“Weeks’ Mechanical,” Bingley suggested, and Jane blanched.

Mrs. Gardiner diplomatically weighed in. “I think some of the displays may not be quite to our taste.”

Darcy nodded. He had seen the giant mechanical tarantula and saw more than one lady actually swoon.

“Art, then?” Marshall looked at the ladies.

Georgiana rolled her eyes. “I am sick of looking at portraits. I’ve never been to the British Museum.”

“We cannot enter today,” Marshall said. “They always make you request a later date.”

“Not always,” Darcy said, biting back a smile. This was one of the few perks of being so well-known. Lest Elizabeth think he was proud or arrogant, he added, “I would be pleased to use my connection for the enjoyment of my friends.”

“That would be delightful,” Elizabeth beamed. “It has been many years since I have toured the place.”

“Excellent,” Marshall clapped his hands and jumped out of his chair.

Soon, they all packed into separate coaches and drove through the crowded streets, arriving nearly an hour later. The porter began to explain the policy of arranging a later date for touring but immediately changed his policy when Darcy mentioned his name. He invited the party of seven in.

To a man of Darcy’s intellect, the Museum housed untold wonders and diversions. He earned his entry today both from frequent visits in his younger years before he was burdened with the duties of a large estate and also by donating some manuscripts from a long-ago relative.

Although called the British Museum, much of the displayed collections came from Greece, Rome, and Egypt curiously mixed with British items. The corner stone of all things British, the original Magna Carta, stood on display in the manuscript room. Although damaged from a fire decades before, it continued to command awe and respect. Georgiana gasped at the frescos and marvelled at the vases and remains of ancient life. She had never before conceived history could come alive.

As the group moved to other rooms, their amazement continued. The concept of fossilisation fascinated Darcy. Years and years of pressure impressed two objects together so much that when one disintegrated its image remained fixed in the other object. Elizabeth is etched in my heart like this, Darcy thought as he considered a fossilised leaf. Something so delicate and innocent had left an indelible and immovable mark on a hard, unyielding rock.

Continuing through the animal rooms, Bingley and Marshall gawked at the strange creatures. Consulting his pocket watch and their cards, the officer rushed them through the coin room, and none of them appeared to care. Returning to the great hall, Elizabeth stopped before two black monuments covered in Egyptian hieroglyphics. The others moved to inspect a series of Greek sculptures. Without intention, Darcy walked to Elizabeth.

“What does it say?” Elizabeth asked with a note of awe in her voice. She had not looked up, and yet it seemed she knew who was at her side.

“That is the mystery of it all,” Darcy explained. “There is Greek here,” he pointed to the appropriate section, “while these others are Ancient Egyptian.”

“They read in pictures?”

Darcy chuckled at her tone of incredulity. “At some point. Language evolves over time. We know this area,” Darcy waved his hand over the middle portion, “is a form of Egyptian first used before the first century.”

“And the…images?” Elizabeth’s mouth twisted as she attempted to treat the idea of reading via images seriously.

“They are not certain but thousands of years before Moses led the Hebrew children out of Egypt.”

Elizabeth gasped. “What an incredible time we live in.”

“Indeed,” Darcy smiled down at her.

“These three languages each say the same thing?”

“No, that is the tricky part. Scholars can read the middle area, and they can read the Greek, but it does not match perfectly. As such, they stumble at the hieroglyphics.”

Elizabeth nodded. “I see. They must understand the meaning, the full concept and then they might break down what each of the…what did you call them? Yes, hieroglyphics—what they mean.”

“That is the hope. It has been over a decade since the stone was discovered, however, and it may take many more years before someone understands the key.”

“Is that not like all of us, sir?” Elizabeth turned her eyes upon him. “Words can mean so many different things to each of us. What one considers harmless criticism, another may perceive as a deadly insult. One might try to compliment but only give offence.”

Darcy stared at her. Was she referencing his proposal? Their entire acquaintance? “Yes, that is a misfortune, indeed.”

“You and I begin to understand each other, I think,” she said softly.

“Do you?” Darcy felt himself step an inch closer to her. Was he imagining the air turning thicker between them?

“Perhaps I will keep that secret,” she teased.

Darcy met her gaze, his eyes piercing into hers. “How I wish it were true.” If he could never have her, just knowing someone in the world really saw him made his heart beat wildly.

“Darcy, Miss Elizabeth,” Bingley called to them. “Mrs. Gardiner requires rest. We must go.”

The spell broken, Darcy and Elizabeth turned to leave. The others had already entered the carriages. Outside, the rain had muddied the streets and created puddles everywhere. As soon as they exited, it began to pour, marring visibility. Elizabeth laughed as she jumped over several puddles to avoid soaking her shoes and garments. Darcy was seized with the urge to lift her in his arms and carry her to safety.

“Take care, Miss Elizabeth,” he called over the roar as the rain slapped the cobbled streets filled with the noise of people and carriages.

Elizabeth laughed again, pulling a smile from Darcy’s lips. Her carriage was only a few steps away when a flash of black caught the corner of his eye. A man ran up the street, his hat crammed over his eyes. Heedless of where he went, he crashed into Elizabeth. Darcy dashed several steps and lunged to reach her, saving her from just falling entirely in a puddle. As it was, her gown hung in it, and his movements sloshed water around them. As Darcy settled Elizabeth into an upright position, Marshall jumped from his coach he shared with Bingley.

“You there!” He shouted at the reckless man and ran after him.

Darcy imagined he had him by the collar, but he could not take his eyes off Elizabeth.

“You harmed a lady! You good-for-nothing-drunk, apologise!” Marshall continued to berate and argue with the man.

Finding his voice, Darcy asked, “Are you well?” He scanned Elizabeth’s features as the rain slowed.

A variety of emotion crossed her face. She was unhurt and found the whole thing ridiculous, she did not like Marshall’s treatment of the man…and a final expression Darcy could not name but her eyes did not leave him.

“I am well,” she answered. “I am well,” she said again in a stronger voice.

Darcy realised she repeated herself for his benefit. His hands still gripped her arm, and he had felt terror seize him as he watched her begin to fall. It was too much like his disturbing dream. “You are certain?”

Elizabeth nodded, and as Darcy let go of Elizabeth, he heard Marshall approach.

“I am sorry I could not get the worthless lizard to face you and apologise directly,” Marshall said with a bow.

“I am uninjured. Mr. Darcy’s aid was most timely,” Elizabeth said with a blush.

“Thank God for that,” Marshall winked at Darcy then stepped forward to hand Elizabeth into the carriage.

He heard her reassure her aunt and sister of her well-being before it strolled away.

“To your club?” Marshall asked.

“I must return Georgiana home.”

“She went with the ladies.”

Darcy scoffed. A bloody proper chaperone he was. Still, before she lived with him, she and Mrs. Annesley came and went as they pleased. Actually, that would solve Darcy’s need to see less of Elizabeth.

“Then I should go to the Hospital. The boys will not be able to play today, and Mr. Evans will need assistance in redirecting their energies.”

Marshall grinned. “Then we must go with you. Send your carriage back.”

Darcy rolled his eyes but laughed to consider Bingley and Marshall hoping to help at the Hospital. They had no idea what they signed up for. After speaking to his coachman, he followed his friend and lumbered into the carriage, feeling it dip and sway with his movements.

“I hope you left a message with your man about guests for dinner,” Bingley grinned.

“My cook knows to keep extra supplies on hand the first she hears of your presence in town,” Darcy smirked.

Marshall laughed, “Good man, Darcy. Good man.”

The three friends joined in laughter and discussed various games to play with the children. They could involve the girls, as well.

Darcy had noted many of them watching their football exercises with longing in their eyes. With as much energy as Georgiana had to shop and visit, he firmly believed females had the skill to engage in any number of sporting activities. If only he could convince the Hospital staff of the same thing. He needed an ally amongst the women volunteers who spent their time with the girls. Darcy mentally noted to seek one out at his next visit.

The Secrets of Pemberley- Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Seventeen

 

“Thank you for allowing me to come,” Georgiana said in the carriage and squeezed Darcy’s hand.

Darcy smiled but scrutinised her face for signs of over-enjoyment. In his nightmare, she had never recovered from the heartbreak of Wickham. She never learned to trust herself again. More than that, Darcy felt the wounds twenty years later enough to have it affect rearing his children. It had been twenty years since losing his mother, so perhaps some scars took decades to heal but he ought to have wondered why Georgiana did not improve upon meeting Elizabeth. At least in that, the reality was better than he could imagine.

The others had talked excitedly about this play. Darcy did not enjoy performances. He could not catch the nuances of the emotion of all the characters and never seemed to enjoy them the way others did. To him, it was a waste of time.

Arriving at the entry, Darcy was greeted by many who expressed interest in his guests for the evening. They looked Jane and Elizabeth over with degrees of approval or dislike. Darcy shrugged it off, there was no understanding some people. Given how Miss Bingley shot daggers from her eyes at Elizabeth, the others were likely jealous as well. Darcy vowed to speak with Bingley. He could not bear this.

Eventually, they made their way to his box, and the performance on stage began. So did one in his box. Marshall had connived to sit next to Elizabeth and played the solicitous gentleman. He offered his opera glasses, they whispered about various moments and shared in laughter. More than once, Darcy saw Marshall’s eyes light up when he looked over at Elizabeth. Already radiant in a gown with crimson overlay and her glossy curls arranged around her face, laughter transformed her to goddess-like. Marshall looked on the outside, as Darcy felt on the inside around Elizabeth.

During the intermission*, the young people chose to retrieve refreshments. Mrs. Gardiner looked tired but insisted on staying for the entire appearance. Darcy had just managed to shoo a persistent lord and his young daughter away when Elizabeth appeared unexpectedly at his side.

“Are you enjoying the performance, Mr. Darcy?”

“It seems very fine.”

Elizabeth crinkled her brow. “You are not an aficionado of the theatre, are you?”

“There are a great many things about London that I do not profess to enjoy or understand.” His words sounded awkward even to his own ears.

“Do you always do that?”

“What?”

“Answer in a way that almost hides how you feel but seems to give the answer you think the other desires?”

“I try to be civil even if my opinion differs.”

Elizabeth shook her head. Her curls brushed against his coat, and Darcy wished he could capture them and bring them to his lips. Her lavender water wafted to his nostrils. There was some other scent too. Something he could only describe as Elizabeth-like.

“When you speak in that fashion, it sounds arrogant.”

“I assure you, I mean no insult. It is only my inadequacy—”

“I understand, now,” Elizabeth hastened to say. “Simply state your feelings while validating the other person’s feelings.”

“I…I do not know how to do that,” Darcy admitted and expected her to laugh.

Instead, Elizabeth nodded encouragingly. “It is never too late to learn. Try it this way, ‘I applaud those that find enjoyment at such outings. I find my interests are in different quarters.’ This way you do not sound critical or falsely humble.”

“Thank you,” Darcy said in genuine appreciation.

Elizabeth leaned closer and whispered conspiratorially. “I quite agree. There, now we have exchanged another set of secrets.”

At that moment, Marshall approached. “Here is your lemonade, Miss Elizabeth and I have one for your aunt as well.”

“I am sure she will revive with the beverage,” Elizabeth smiled up at the man. “Thank you for being so thoughtful.”

Marshall extended an elbow for Elizabeth to take and looked down adoringly at her. A lump formed in Darcy’s throat as he watched them return to his box. He sensed Elizabeth tried to find a way for them to be friends and navigate the complicated waters before them. He could be thankful for how forgiving she was. She deserved the best. She deserved Marshall.

The following morning, Bingley called on Darcy. “I miss the days when Caroline was too angry to speak to me.” He squeezed the bridge of his nose. “She was impossible last night asking me about the evening afterward.”

Darcy raised his brows. “I had thought it was the other way around.”

“Well, that too,” Bingley smiled for a moment and then it fell. “How are you given…the developments.”

Would Jane know her sister’s feelings regarding Marshall? Would she have shared them with Bingley? Darcy could ask…no, he internally shook himself. It would be an underhanded way to learn her heart, and she had made her preference obvious enough, had she not?

“It matters not how I feel. It is in Elizabeth’s best interest for me to limit my contact with her. However, I do not want to limit Georgiana’s friendship.”

“Ah, you need someone else to escort Miss Darcy. Lest the world wonder about two unattached people.”

“Three…” Darcy mumbled under his breath. Marshall showed no signs of ceding the field.

“Or we could increase the numbers. Caroline and Louisa should spend more time with Jane.”

“Have you made it official?”

“No,” Bingley laughed. “First, I think I need to grovel more and display my constancy. Secondly, if I propose, her mother will demand her home, and I envision the woman would not allow us a peaceful courtship.”

“No,” Darcy shook his head. “Nor a peaceful marriage if you stay at Netherfield.”

“Gardiner has the right idea, looking for a house near Pemberley.”

Darcy shrugged. “I certainly like the area and admit the convenience of having friends nearby. When I am an old man, I will not need to stir far from my fire to have some company.”

“You will surely have a wife and children by then.”

“No,” Darcy said firmly. Elizabeth was the only one for him. Regardless of what Anne said, he could find no other. He could not merely force his heart to attach to another.

“Darcy—” Bingley began but was interrupted by the arrival of the butler.

“Mr. Marshall,” Lewis announced.

“Splendid!” Marshall cried as he sat in Darcy’s study. “Bingley is here too. We can all go to Gracechurch Street together.”

Bingley swung his eyes to Darcy. They had not finished their plans on how he would limit his calls. “I regret I have other plans.”

“Oh, really?” Marshall and Bingley asked in unison.

“Yes, I have been on the board for the Foundling Hospital for some years but rarely visit. I have determined to remedy that.”

“The Foundling Hospital?” Marshall asked in obvious doubt. “Since when do you care about orphans or the unwanted?”

“Do you not think it a worthy cause?”

“Undoubtedly,” Marshall tapped the arms to his chair. “However, it is the stuff that old, stuffy men support. If you do not want to go with us, you are better to go to your club or find some other cause. Any number of charities might be better.”

“Better for who?” Darcy asked. “I can think of few needier than helpless newborns.”

“Darcy,” Marshall said slowly as he approached Darcy who still sat behind his desk. “Do you have a guilty conscience?”

“No.” He was affronted at the mere suggestion.

“I meant no insult,” Marshall explained. “The man I knew you to be a few years ago would have no need to go to the Hospital, but mistakes happen.”

“That part of my character is unchanged.”

“Good,” Marshall said. “However, you also would have had no interest in it.”

Darcy affected a shrug. “I was younger and new to my responsibilities. I have more time and seek to return some of my energy, not just my money, to the innocent and marginalised.”

“When put that way, you make it impossible for us to remain behind.”

Bingley’s face fell into a noticeable frown. “I have to make calls with Caroline later. If I go with Darcy, I will have no time to see Miss Bennet.”

“Go,” Darcy said. “The Hospital will be there should you wish to come another time. You too, Marshall.”

Marshall gave Darcy a curious look. “If you are certain? Your company will be missed and not just by Bingley and me.”

“I will go another time with Georgiana,” Darcy busied himself with arranging papers. He did not like Marshall’s probing or hinting.

“Well, let’s not leave the lovely ladies to wait!” Marshall grinned at Bingley.

Darcy bade them farewell and then prepared to leave. His words were only partially impulsive. He had given the idea consideration and was about to propose it to Bingley when Marshall arrived. Given what might have happened to him if George Darcy had not allowed him to remain with his mother, he very well could have ended up in the Hospital. Darcy knew enough that merely having physical needs met did not fulfil a child. His money could never replace his time at such a place.

 

*****

 

Arriving at the Foundling Hospital, Darcy was greeted by the administrator and taken to his study.

“Frankly,” Mr. Evans said, “I am surprised to see you here, Mr. Darcy. We do not often get gentleman volunteers.”

Darcy stiffened. Had he misunderstood some social cue again? “I admit I may not have much to offer the very young children but perhaps the older boys…”

“Boys over fourteen are apprenticed out. Should you desire one for your staff, we may arrange it.”

“Certainly,” Darcy nodded. “I can speak with my housekeepers, and my estates are large enough that upon completion I can find a position for them.” He cleared his throat. “However, I came under the impression I could offer friendship.”

Mr. Evans sat back in his chair, confusion crossing his face. “You wish to be friends with the foundlings?”

“Surely there is something I can do while showing them a positive example—something where I have no authority over them as a master or teacher would.”

Mr. Evans stroked his chin. “They have teachers and tutors. They do have free time to play after their chores here.”

Darcy had rarely had boys to play with at that age. George Wickham had been his only friend at Pemberley. “I believe I can handle that. Are there some who do not join in the games?”

“Yes, you will easily spot them. Some others are quite unruly. Follow me,” Mr. Evans stood and directed Darcy through several corridors to a back door where a large lawn was, and several groups of boys played. Evans left him to his own devices.

Darcy scanned the grass. The oldest looking group of boys played cricket and the youngest set marbles and played with hoops. The third group of middling aged boys played football. Darcy had enjoyed the game at Eton and decided to approach. They played rougher than he ever had and before he met them, fisticuffs broke out.

A small lad stood toe to toe with a boy who towered over him. Darcy could hear the shouts. The smaller one was easily the fastest on the field and had kicked the ball into the goal. The large boy had missed defending it but rather than accept it, thought he could intimidate the other child. Soon, fists replaced words. A few others joined in before Darcy could reach them. He pulled over five boys off the little one, curled in a ball at the bottom of the heap.

“Oi! I had them!” He yelled at Darcy when he realised he had been rescued.

Darcy looked at the boy who sported a few days old bruises and had new ones already turning purple. He likely would not be open to his eye soon. “Yes, you certainly had the upper hand.”

“Don’t matter what it looked like,” he replied, fearless even though Darcy clearly looked like a social superior. “I’m clever. See?” He tapped the side of his head. “And I’m quick. Only one or two more needed to join in before a few would be trampled down and I could crawl out. Freddie wouldn’t have noticed I got away as long as his fist smashed someone.”

Darcy looked over his shoulder at the giant boy, glowering at the one he talked with. “Is that Freddie?”

The boy nodded. “And I’m Tom. Who you?”

Darcy fervently hoped the other boys had better manners, or they would never find successful employment. However, as they had resorted to a fight for entertainment’s sake, he thought it unlikely. Darcy turned to speak to all the assembled boys. “I am Mr. Darcy. Mr. Evans sent me to enforce structure to your game. There are rules to play by.”

“Who needs rules?” one shouted.

“I ain’t listening to you!” another called from the back.

“Either you listen to me, or you lose your privilege to play,” Darcy said firmly. It was a bluff, he had no real authority over that although he suspected the administrator would do anything he asked.

Tom looked Darcy over then shrugged. “You can try, but you won’t tame us.” Several cheered at his words.

Freddie stepped forward and folded his arms over his chest. “Stuff it, Tom. I don’t sit all day in Old Oak Tree’s class to not get play time. We’re listening.”

Tom lunged forward, but Darcy caught him by the collar. Ignoring the laughter and cries for a fight, Darcy began instructing the children on the basics of the game. Rules they had either neglected to use or had never learned. Nevertheless, a fight broke out before too long. As Darcy pulled Freddie off Tom, a fist missed its target and slammed into his eye. For such young boys, they really had quite a bit of strength. Darcy knew he would be sporting a black eye and sore muscles on the morrow.

Enforcing strict adherence to the rules, Darcy sent the boys to their rooms and with instructions to double their chores. The others behaved well after seeing the repercussions and even a few straggling, shy children joined in the game once it was no longer chaos. After about two hours, Darcy challenged a few to one on one matches against him. The children cheered each other on, and a few genuinely did best him. When he slipped in mud defending his goal they broke out in peals of laughter. Darcy laughed as well, realising it was the first time in his life he had ever laughed at himself and relishing in the lightness he felt on the occasion.

Returning to his comfortable house with a grin on his face, Darcy had to admit it was the first time he had fun in many, many years. He could not wait to do it again and again.

 

The Secrets of Pemberley- Chapter Sixteen

secrets of pemberley maskPrevious Chapters: One / Two / ThreeFour / Five / Six / Seven / Eight / Nine / Ten / Eleven / Twelve / Thirteen Fourteen / Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

 

Georgiana vibrated with nervous energy across from Darcy as the carriage rolled over the cobbled and crowded streets of London. Darcy found himself having to remember to breathe. For Elizabeth’s sake, he would be careful to betray nothing. Mr. Gardiner had already learned of Darcy’s failed courtship, and Darcy supposed his wife knew as well. However, Elizabeth did not need anyone believing Darcy had any hopes or intentions of pursuing her. He was aware that she would receive pressure to accept him. He often wondered if his mother had felt pushed to take her husband’s hand in marriage even when their temperaments did not match.

Georgiana waved eagerly out the window as the coach approached the shop. Mrs. Gardiner and her nieces were gathered outside looking at the window display. Thankfully, the Bennet ladies would return to Hertfordshire soon. Georgiana could continue her friendship via letters. If he continued to squire her around to each meeting with them, gossip would follow.

Darcy hung back as Georgiana walked around the music shop with her new friends. He could see her confidence growing with each kind word from the Bennet sisters and their aunt. Timidity had never been more than a mask on Georgiana and not who she truly was. Darcy smiled as he considered the freedom his sister must feel now.

He wandered around the store. A memory flickered through his mind. He was only seven years old and in the small Scottish cottage with his mother. She had been reading the London newspapers and had received a letter from a friend about a concert she attended. His mother wept over not being able to attend the hailed genius of Joseph Haydn. She was told The Surprise was sublime and ordered sheet music. There was no pianoforte in the cottage, but the rector had one. Lady Anne diligently practiced so often Darcy could hum the tune. As a child, he had particularly enjoyed the sudden changes in volume. Seeing the others occupied, Darcy found a copy and ran his fingers over it.

He still did not know what to make up his vision of his mother but agreed with her commandment to leave her in the past, except when there were happy memories such as sitting at her feet with his toys while she played. Who was he to judge her? She had made mistakes which cost her much. So had he. She did love him. Perhaps it was not displayed in ways Darcy would have liked—and maybe not as pure as he would want—but he supposed she had her own emotional burdens. Lady Catherine and the Earl certainly appeared to have troubles.

“It has been a very long time since I have heard that one,” Elizabeth said at his side.

Darcy turned to look at her, surprised she had approached him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that the other ladies were looking at newer pieces. “It was one of my mother’s favourites.”

From the way Elizabeth sucked in a breath, Darcy knew she had read his letter. Elizabeth knew the truth of his birth. She had greeted Georgiana with openness and without censure. Some tension eased from his body.

“You ought to buy it for Miss Darcy, then,” Elizabeth said. “If you do not mind my recommendation.”

Elizabeth glanced away, and a light blush filled her cheeks. She seemed nearly as uncomfortable as he did.

“A fine suggestion. Thank you,” Darcy smiled at her.

“I hope you understand how much she adores you,” Elizabeth continued. “She has not ceased to praise you.”

Elizabeth appeared confused. Uncertain how to reply, he settled for keeping the focus on their sibling emotions. “I regret we have not had the closeness I would like, but there is nothing I would not do for her.”

“Yes…I understood as much.”

They descended into silence for a long moment, and Darcy held his breath, expecting a pointed barb from Elizabeth at any moment for his stupidity. He scrambled to think of something to say when she lightly cleared her throat.

“I feel like I owe you not only apologies but a secret of my own.”

“I believe the apology is all mine.”

“And so, you have already given yours, and I accept,” Elizabeth said, at last meeting his eyes with a teasing smile on her lips. “My secret is not equal to your own.”

“Oh?”

“It is a true secret, however. Even Jane does not know.”

Darcy observed her as the smile disappeared and sadness filled her eyes. “After seeing the unhappiness of my parents’ marriage, I promised myself I would not marry unless I could have a union like my aunt and uncle. I cannot share that with Jane for she will attempt to dissuade me from my understanding of our parents. I could not share my feelings with Charlotte, and it is just as well. She married my ridiculous cousin.”

The corners of Darcy’s lips tugged up. “Yes, it appears she would not understand your views.”

“That was really background to my secret,” she grinned cheekily. “The real secret is that in my case, I would say fifty miles is not near far enough from some family. I begin to dread returning to Longbourn.”

“Ah,” Darcy nodded. “And this you also cannot share with your sister?”

“No, she feels very differently.” Elizabeth looked fondly at Jane. “Thank you for speaking to Mr. Bingley.”

Before Darcy could assure her that he never thought otherwise, the others announced they were ready to continue the excursion. For the remainder of the day, Darcy did not have any more moments to speak with Elizabeth. When he returned home, he discovered a letter from an old friend. Alexander Marshall arrived in Town yesterday after a few years in the country. Eager to see his friend, and preferring a buffer between him and closeness with the Bennets, Darcy invited the gentleman to dinner.

*****

Marshall arrived first. Their friendship extended to school days and the man’s easy manners eased some of Darcy’s anxieties by the time the others arrived. Darcy greeted his guests and tried to hide his feelings of discomfort at Elizabeth in his home. She stole his breath, entering with a smile on her face and greeting Georgiana with an embrace and a kiss on the cheek. Georgiana said something which made her laugh, the sound pulling on his heart like always. Beside him, he felt his friend turn to be introduced. Darcy heard a quick intake of breath and glanced to see Marshall staring enraptured at the new arrivals.

Jane directed her eyes to Bingley, who stepped forward to kiss her hand. Marshall’s eyes remained fixed on Elizabeth. A black veil descended over Darcy’s eyes. Rage filled him and the desire to pummel his oldest friend coursed through his body.

Marshall elbowed him and whispered. “Introductions, man.”

Darcy blinked twice, forcing his emotions down. He had no claims on Elizabeth and never would. Marshall was ten times the man he had ever been: confident, articulate, and a devoted son. Marshall inherited and ran a profitable estate of about three thousand pounds per annum. Tenants and servants knew him to be generous and fair. If Elizabeth earned his admiration, she would be well-provided for her whole life. Knowing these things did little to silence the beast in Darcy growling to claim his mate and protect what is his. Mr. Gardiner cleared his throat and raised his eyebrows, returning Darcy’s mind to the task at hand. Introductions performed, Marshall ingratiated himself at Elizabeth’s side until they were called to the table.

Fortunately, between Bingley and his equally outgoing friend Marshall, Darcy had no awkward silences to fill. Marshall talked with Elizabeth as much as possible, so much that by the end of the meal, even Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner had noted it and frequently glanced between Darcy and the new suitor. Elizabeth conversed with her usual ease, and if she looked at Darcy more than when he made the almost insurmountable effort to talk, he did not see it.

“How long have you and Mr. Darcy been friends?” Elizabeth asked Marshall who sat across from her.

“We met our first year at Eton,” Marshall acknowledged.

“Marshall is my oldest friend,” Darcy said with an attempt at a smile.

Elizabeth raised her brows in surprise. “I had thought Mr. Bingley was your oldest friend.”

“No, we did not meet until after University,” Bingley answered.

“Oh?” Elizabeth smiled, encouraging him to continue with the story.

“We met at a ball,” Bingley chuckled. “It will not surprise you, Miss Elizabeth, that Darcy felt the need to hold a wall up.”

“Come, I was not so bad as that,” Darcy flushed a little at the tease.

“You stood more rigid than a Doric column and scowled as though you wore the weight of the entire roof on your shoulders.”

Darcy glanced down at his plate. It had been only six months after his father died. He had been propositioned by eager widows twice before the opening set. Around the room, people craned their heads and stood on tiptoes for a glimpse of him, fathers and mothers grasped their daughters by the hand and pushed them his way. The scowl, which he had been too late to adopt, was the only thing that prevented more intruders to his solitude.

“I was in ill-humour,” Darcy said neutrally.

“Why would Miss Elizabeth not be surprised by Darcy’s behaviour?” Marshall asked.

“They first met at a ball in Hertfordshire and Darcy refused to dance, saying exactly as he has just explained,” Bingley explained, “he was in ill-humour.”

“Do we not all need practice when in a new situation?” Elizabeth said. “It must say very much about the hosts of the other balls you have been to if after so many years you are still learning to manage discomfort. You must have felt at ease at the other occasions.”

Marshall nodded at Elizabeth’s words. “You are very insightful. Yes, Darcy regularly only attends when he knows the hosts and many of the guests well. He prefers quiet dinners instead.”

Elizabeth smiled. “I would not be surprised if Mr. Darcy behaved better at his next ball.”

“I certainly hope so!” Marshall grinned. “I come bearing an invitation. I am to mark my return to Society with exuberance. Before the Season’s end, I will host the greatest masquerade we have seen in many years.” He turned to Darcy. “There, you may hide behind a mask. No one will know it is you and you do not have to mingle.”

Darcy nodded in appreciation, but inwardly he cringed. If only Marshall understood he always wore a mask.

“How exciting,” Georgiana breathed.

“If your brother allows it, you are certainly invited,” Marshall said. “And of course, Bingley, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, and the Misses Bennet.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth grinned. “We will be staying in London for several more weeks, and I look forward to some frivolity.”

Mrs. Gardiner laughed. “What Elizabeth means is that her uncle and I do not escort her to near enough outings for her own taste. We typically only go to the theatre once or twice during her visits.”

At first, Darcy was confused as to the change of plans regarding their return to Hertfordshire. Then, he saw the way Bingley’s eyes fell on Jane and her slight blush. Ah, Mrs. Bennet must have been alerted to their reconciliation. Darcy would have to speak with Bingley. He could not continue escorting Georgiana to outings with the other ladies. Gossip would ensue. At least, he told himself that was his reason for desiring another chaperone for his sister.

The others had returned to their conversations, but he caught some of Elizabeth’s words to Marshall.

“You mentioned this ball would be your return to Society?”

“Yes, I have been away from Town for three years. My mother had a long illness and desired me at her side.”

“That must have been quite the sacrifice,” Elizabeth’s eyes shone in admiration. “What a devoted son you were!”

“It was the least I could do for such a mother,” Marshall answered. “As for the true sacrifice of spending little time in Town, I cannot say it was much of a loss. I have no seat in Parliament, and my income is not as substantial as Darcy or Bingley’s.” He shrugged. “I get few invitations and therefore only miss the shops and museums.”

“I can sympathize,” Elizabeth agreed. “But you now mean to entertain and re-join Society?”

“Not so much Society at large as much as friends and acquaintances I have neglected for the last few years.”

“And after that?”

“I will return to Briarwood Manor and enjoy the summer.”

“What a lovely name. In which county is your estate?”

“Buckinghamshire,” a wistful smile crossed Marshall’s face. “I am some ten miles from Bedford near a town too small for you to know by name.”

“Oh, I entirely understand small towns,” Elizabeth grinned. “Longbourn is in Hertfordshire near a town called Meryton. I have it on good authority that some visitors found us exceedingly primitive compared with the grandeur of London.”

Marshall threw his head back to laugh. “Indeed! I am sure they might, but I do know Meryton. A charming town and surely larger than Clophill.”

Elizabeth beamed at Marshall’s reply, and Darcy’s grip on his wine glass tightened. Marshall complimented her home while Darcy had offended everyone and gave insult without speaking a word. Belatedly, he realised the power of first impressions.

Georgiana announced it was time for the ladies to separate so no more could be said, but Marshall’s eyes followed Elizabeth out the door. Darcy assessed his friend. Darcy had always been drawn to others who were lively and more fun-loving than himself. Marshall seemed to have no direction in life. Darcy did not think poorly of him for it, he had been just as lost following the death of his father. While Marshall might have been the master of the estate for several years now, he was not at real liberty until now.

“You met that delightful creature months ago and did not scoop her up?” Marshall whispered to Darcy as Mr. Gardiner and Bingley conversed.

Darcy stiffened. “I would hardly scoop up anyone.”

“I imagine you found fault with her somehow,” Marshall shook his head.

“I had no desire for a wife,” he answered neutrally.

“Well, I do. The house is deuced quiet without Mother. And I had no siblings. I want a houseful of children.”

Despite Marshall’s more open temperament, the two men had many qualities in common which bonded them at a young age and persisted into adulthood. Darcy could well sympathize with his friend. “I would imagine Miss Elizabeth—or any woman—would rather be chosen for her qualities than her ability to be a broodmare and fill your house.”

“Oh, there are many qualities I admire,” Marshall said with a grin. “You allow her to be friends with your sister. Surely you must esteem her.”

“I do,” Darcy answered carefully. “However, I would caution you to not choose too quickly. You have just met the lady, you do not know her family—”

“Aha! That is it,” Marshall murmured to not draw the notice of the others. “You have complaints about her family. I have no lofty relations and do not need to please an earl. There can be no issue for me.”

“I do not need to please the earl,” Darcy frowned. “I am my own man.”

“But the family? You found them wanting.”

“They are livelier than I am accustomed to.”

“Miss Elizabeth said she has three younger sisters and they are all out. They must be very young.”

“Younger, I believe, than Georgiana.”

“My, my. A household of lively young women, without age or maturity and added rivalry for attention? I am sure that did not put them in the best light.”

Blast Marshall for being so insightful. “You are welcome to stay for billiards and supper,” Darcy attempted to change the subject. “Bingley plans to remain, and Georgiana prefers solitude in the evening.”

Marshall looked at Darcy for a long moment. “I see your design, but you will not put me off my intentions.” He held up his hands as Darcy began to open his mouth. “I am not so foolish to plan to propose just now, but I will pursue Miss Elizabeth. I see qualities which will make an outstanding wife and I will not lose her to another.”

Marshall gave Darcy another long look, meeting his gaze squarely. Did he perceive Darcy’s admiration for Elizabeth? Was he calling Darcy to the field of battle over her? What would Marshall say if he knew Darcy had already made his offer and was rejected. There was nothing more Darcy could do but watch his friend pursue the woman he loved.

The remainder of the evening continued as most do. The gentlemen discussed politics and sport then re-joined the ladies. Darcy invited Elizabeth to play and sing, and he saw Marshall fall even deeper under her spell. After Jane and Mrs. Gardiner sang a duet, Georgiana braved the requests and performed as well. Closing his eyes, Darcy allowed the stress of the evening to fall away and familial pride to fill him. Just before they left, plans were made to join the Gardiners and their nieces at the theatre in a few days’ time. Marshall expressed joy at the notion and promised to attend as well. As he readied for bed that evening, Darcy mused that he really did hate London.

The Secrets of Pemberley- Chapter Fifteen

secrets of pemberley maskPrevious Chapters: One / Two / Three / Four / Five / Six / Seven / Eight / Nine / Ten / Eleven / Twelve / Thirteen / Fourteen

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

A few days later, Darcy arrived in Meryton. Merely being in the same town that Elizabeth grew up in built anticipation in his heart. He knew she remained in Kent, however, his eyes greedily sought her around every shop corner. In addition to asking after Wickham’s debts, he would seek out the man himself. As Darcy had suspected, Wickham’s spendthrift ways carried through to the Militia. The bulk of his obligations at the milliners. No doubt, small fripperies bought for ladies to impress them with his charm.

Settling the accounts, Darcy then approached where the Regiment stayed on the outskirts of the town. Staying in the officer’s common room, Wickham was fetched and brought in.

“Well, Darcy,” Wickham drawled. “You seem to ever catch me surprised. What brought this visit?”

“I must speak to you in privacy. Can you send the others away?”

“I am sure they will oblige for a free pint or two.”

“Very well,” Darcy tossed a few coins at Wickham to hand around so the other men might leave. He rolled his eyes when Wickham kept a few for himself.

“What can I do for you, old boy?” Wickham winked as he sprawled on a settee.

“I have heard you enjoy spreading tales of woe and slandering my name.

“That’s nothing new,” Wickham shrugged. “It is not my fault some are eager to find justification for thinking ill of you.”

“And in the past, I have not taken the trouble to correct it,” Darcy said in a warning tone.

“Never say you find yourself actually caring about little Meryton’s opinion of you.” Wickham scrutinised Darcy for a long moment. “Not the whole town, rather just one person, eh? A lady. Well, I don’t see how my lies would keep her from your bed—”

“Shut your mouth,” Darcy growled. “Don’t you dare say another thing in that direction.”

“Oooh,” Wickham rubbed his hands together. “Even better! You don’t just want to bed her! You must love her! Well, who is it?”

“As usual, you have jumped ahead of yourself. I did not come so you might amend your lies. What care I if you lie when I have the means to prove you wrong?”

Wickham furrowed his brow. “Ah, so we come to the real thorn in your side?” He smirked. “Can you not trust me? Gentleman to gentleman, I will not expose you—or dear Georgiana either.”

“She is Miss Darcy to you,” Darcy glared. “And you know all trust and respect I had for you evaporated long ago.”

“Not to mention neither of us are gentlemen,” Wickham laughed.

Darcy chose to not take Wickham’s bait. “Here,” he handed a packet of papers. “I have your debts. Signed by my solicitor in Town and Mr. Philips here. Sign the agreement to never even hint of anything irregular about mine or my sister’s birth, and you need not fear the Fleet.”

Wickham’s mouth jawed. “You really did this?” He perused the papers. “What would Mr. Darcy say? Holding my life in your hands in such a way! He wanted me independent of you!”

“Do not twist the blame for your indiscretions on me,” Darcy said. “You could have had that independence. Sign the paper and keep your vow and I will not use this against you.”

Wickham shook his head. “I need more.”

“You admit that you meant to keep this as an option to use one day!” Darcy had never been a violent man, but now his blood rushed through his veins and the urge to throttle Wickham built in him.

“Only to blackmail,” Wickham rushed to say. “I don’t have a Pemberley to fall back on.”

“And what if I called your bluff?”

“Would you though? For Miss Darcy’s sake…”

Darcy thought for a moment. Will you do nothing for him? He heard in Elizabeth’s voice from that terrible dream. “If I do something for you now, you must prove your seriousness in it.” He dipped a quill in ink and wrote an addendum to a passage. “Return to the law. You are not suited to the church, and I take it you do not wish for the Regulars.”

“Indeed,” Wickham said.

“Meet me tomorrow at Mr. Philips’ office. We will sell your commission and arrange matters for you at Grey’s Inn. You will agree to specific behaviour and monetary constraints. However, I will do all I can to advance your career.”

“You would do this?” Wickham asked in a different tone than he had used moments before. “After everything I have done? I told you two years ago my circumstances were very dire—and they were. I would not have attempted the matter with Georgiana—I never thought it would go so far. I thought all along she would write to you and you would arrive, and then I could argue some blunt from you—”

Darcy held up his hands, not wanting to hear anything else. “This really is the last time, George.” He held out his hand, and Wickham took it. “Tomorrow at Philips’ at one o’clock sharp.”

“Thank you, Darcy,” Wickham said. Darcy walked to the door, and Wickham called after. “I never would have exposed you. Out of regard for Mr. Darcy and because my father was one of the best men in the world and he begat me: a wastrel. Whatever your parentage, you are a good man.”

Although shocked, Darcy merely bowed his head and made his way to the Inn. The following morning, he called upon Sir William Lucas, Mr. Bennet, and Mrs. Long before arriving at the solicitor’s office. Every person he had met with expressed surprise to see him which humbled him anew.

Despite his embarrassment, he took the time to listen to each person’s news. Sir William blathered about the joy of meeting Lady Catherine and finding his daughter well set up. Darcy reckoned if he were a father, he might be thankful for a woman like her ladyship in his daughter’s life. Mrs. Long talked at length about how inconvenient she would find it to keep a carriage when she so seldom leaves the house, and her young nieces can walk to town. Darcy entirely agreed with her, and it seemed to put her at ease.

Mr. Bennet teased him in his sly way, reminding Darcy of Elizabeth. He had asked if Bingley came as well and appeared disappointed until Darcy confirmed that he had often seen him at Gracechurch street in the company of Jane. Then, the older man’s lips twitched as though to conceal laughter. When he spoke of keeping it a secret from his wife, his eyes twinkled. As much as Darcy had judged the patriarch as indolent and selfish but perhaps he merely enjoyed a joke more than Darcy did and found it hard to navigate waters needing weightier actions. George Darcy had been similar.

All in all, it was a productive trip to Meryton and one full of startling revelations. Convinced he would never see the place again, Darcy felt wistful as he left. It really had been a charming town and the place he imagined many a lad and lass met their heart’s love to begin their happy lives. If only such had been part of his tale. Sighing, he pressed his horse onward to London.

 

*****

 

A few days after Darcy returned from Meryton, he took Georgiana shopping. Making an effort to join in her activities, he confessed he had not considered before how confined ladies’ lives were. Georgiana had lessons with various art and music masters and spent a portion of each day reading. At her pleading, Darcy allowed her to drop sessions of French language study. For most of his life, Britain had been at war with France, and while the day might come when it would be safe to travel again, he hardly supposed she would need to be as conversant as a native. To fill the moments of boredom and dullness, Darcy discovered Georgiana—and judging by the crowds of women on the street most other ladies as well—shopped. It did not matter that she had bought ribbons for a new bonnet yesterday. Today specific thread was needed.

“I truly appreciate you coming with me,” Georgiana smiled up at him as she walked on his arm.

“It is my pleasure,” he returned the smile. “Would you care for any new music? The shop you favour is just around the corner.”

“If I could, I would buy every speck of music I could find and then I would have no money left for all these fripperies,” she laughed.

Darcy joined her as the image of their London house being filled from corner to corner with sheet music filled his head. At least he could discuss music. He had little of use to say regarding ribbons and lace.

“Is that not Mr. Bingley?” Georgiana interrupted Darcy’s musings.

Looking around, Darcy found his friend in the company of Mrs. Gardiner and Jane.

“Who are the ladies he speaks to?” she asked. “They look so elegant but do not have the superior look I often meet with.”

“Would you like to meet them?”

Georgiana shyly nodded, and Darcy lead her to his friend. “Bingley,” he called.

“Darcy,” Bingley turned and grinned. “A pleasure to see you about. Miss Darcy, you are looking well,” he bowed.

“Thank you,” Georgiana curtsied and then turned anxious eyes on Darcy.

“Georgiana, allow me to introduce Mrs. Gardiner and Miss Jane Bennet. Miss Bennet is one of Bingley’s neighbours in Hertfordshire and Mrs. Gardiner is her aunt. Ladies, may I present my sister Miss Darcy.”

After the requisite curtsies, Georgiana smiled at Miss Bennet. “How did you find Rosings?”

“I am afraid that was my sister. Lizzy arrives tomorrow, but from her letters, she…she found much to observe.”

Darcy thought that strange wording, but then he supposed Miss Bennet attempted to soften Elizabeth’s pointed wit.

“Now, I recall,” Georgiana said. “Fitzwilliam wrote to me from Hertfordshire. You have many sisters, do you not?”

“I am the eldest of five,” Jane smiled.

“How I wish I had a sister!”

Darcy chuckled. “I regret that I am not a female.”

“Oh, that is not how I meant it!” Georgiana blushed. “I would never wish you away, but the companionship of a sister would be nice. Perhaps if you ever marry.”

“We must continue our shopping,” Mrs. Gardiner said, “but we would be most pleased to see you again, Miss Darcy. You must come the next time your brother calls.”

Georgiana grinned. “I would love that!”

“Sir, I am surprised we have not seen you in the last week,” Mrs. Gardiner scolded.

“Forgive me, I have had many affairs to tend to. I should not want to call when Miss Elizabeth has just arrived. We will call after that.”

“And then you must all dine with us,” Georgiana offered without hesitation.

“In that case, you had better come tomorrow. The girls are returning to Hertfordshire by Saturday.”

“I would hate to intrude on any family plans,” Darcy said. He nervously glanced at Bingley, hoping his friend could extract him from the awkwardness, but Bingley was speaking with Jane.

“We have no fixed plans,” Mrs. Gardiner smiled. “Except more shopping, that is. Miss Darcy, would you care to join us?”

“Could I, Brother?” she asked with pleading blue eyes.

“Certainly.” It tore at his heart to consider Georgiana becoming Elizabeth’s friend. He had imagined a closer relationship between them.

“It is quite settled then. We will see you at Gracechurch street tomorrow and then the next day will be shopping and dinner at Darcy House.”

“Splendid!” Georgiana bounced on her toes and even clapped her hands.

The Gardiner party and Bingley left after settling on a time for tomorrow’s meeting. The two siblings finished their shopping and returned home in very different states of mind.

When Darcy and Georgiana arrived at the Gardiner house the following day, Darcy could barely breathe to contain his anxiety in seeing Elizabeth again. Had she read his letter? In his dream, she had not. The first letter he wrote, the one he later burned before giving her, he had thought it was most important for Elizabeth to know the truth about Wickham and by explaining his failures, it would tell about Darcy as well. He held some pride she might, at least, rue her refusal. After his dream, he wrote her the full truth and did not care in the least about defending himself or puffing himself up. He wrote not to preserve his pride, but to humble himself.

He also believed he would never see her again.

Would she meet him with censure in her eyes? Darcy did not believe she would gossip. Still, she was very close to her sisters and her aunt. Would she tell them? They had not treated him with anything but civility, but perhaps Elizabeth would wait to reveal it them in person. All thought ceased when he was shown to the Gardiner sitting room, and Elizabeth, lovelier than ever, was finally before him again and surrounded by children with enough familial features to tug at his heart.

“Lizzy,” Jane said, “This is Miss Darcy.”

“I am pleased to meet you,” Elizabeth said with a gentle smile for Darcy’s sister.

“And I you,” Georgiana returned the smile. “I recall from my brother’s letters you enjoy music, Miss Elizabeth.”

“I do,” Elizabeth answered. “Children, it is time for you to return upstairs and let us visit. Miss Darcy, you may sit next to me.”

“No!” A little Gardiner through chubby arms around Elizabeth’s neck. “My Lizbef.”

Elizabeth laughed, tossing shiny curls as she shook her head and Darcy’s breath caught. Her eyes twinkled, and the pain in his heart was so acute, he thought he might pass out.

“Come along,” Mrs. Gardiner said as she came to save her niece. “Elizabeth is correct. Pardon our manners, Mr. Darcy. Please seat yourself.”

Her words jolted life back into Darcy. Surely this encounter would be more natural if he were in a chair. The children were taken upstairs and everyone seated as tea was served. Darcy tried to not allow the usual awkward feeling settle in him. Bingley arrived and talked with Jane. Georgiana and Elizabeth conversed about music which left Darcy to speak with Mrs. Gardiner. Elizabeth cast curious looks at them.

“My steward has written to me of an estate which will soon become available that is only five miles from Lambton,” Darcy said to Mrs. Gardiner.

“But five miles!” The woman grinned and pressed a hand to her heart. “Oh, that would be ideal!”

Darcy smiled at her enthusiasm. “I do not know the condition of the estate. The house has been unoccupied for many years and only a steward in charge of the tenants and land.”

“I am not afraid of a bit of hard work and patience. Besides, it is family which makes a house a home.”

Darcy glanced at Elizabeth, surprised to see her eyes upon him again. Yes, with no family a house was a mere set of bricks. “There is a difficulty,” Darcy admitted. “They want everything settled by Midsummer day. I believe that is earlier than you and Mr. Gardiner had planned.”

Mrs. Gardiner pursed her lips and looked at Jane and Bingley for a moment before replying. “True, the timing is not perfect, but the location is.”

Her eyes shone, and Darcy believed he saw a smirk before she raised her cup to her lips. “I will be certain to pass the information on to my husband.”

“Perfect,” Darcy said. “He and I can discuss it more at dinner tomorrow.”

“Yes, you certainly will!” Mrs. Gardiner grinned, and Darcy felt his lips lifting in response.

“Fitzwilliam,” Georgiana said from the nearby settee, “Elizabeth has suggested a music shop I have not visited before. May we start there tomorrow?”

“Of course. Anything you prefer.”

Georgiana beamed then turned to Elizabeth. “He is the best brother.”

Darcy felt a flush creeping up his neck.

“I am sure it is effortless to be such a wonderful brother to a sister like you,” Elizabeth said and squeezed Georgiana’s hand.

Pain lanced Darcy’s heart again. He had neglected Georgiana so much. She was so vulnerable and fragile, so wanting love from anyone. Here Elizabeth was, offering her friendship as freely as he always knew she would. If he had ruined anything that might have been between him and Elizabeth, at the very least, he could be thankful for this moment. Realizing that Georgiana could find healing and friendship through this eased the pain in Darcy’s heart. Still, he was grateful when the clock struck a quarter after the hour.

“Thank you very much,” Darcy said to Mrs. Gardiner as he stood, “for your hospitality. Shall we gather at eleven tomorrow?”

“Certainly,” Mrs. Gardiner replied.

Georgiana rose with reluctance but also made her goodbyes. Darcy remained perfectly polite to Elizabeth and Jane, who betrayed nothing less than the usual civility to him. Once in the carriage returning to his home, Darcy sighed in relief. The first meeting was over. Perhaps now he could be comfortable in Elizabeth’s presence. They would shop together tomorrow as nothing more than indifferent acquaintances, and while his heart still longed for more, he told himself to adapt to it. It was all that would ever be between them.

The Secrets of Pemberley- Chapter Fourteen

secrets of pemberley maskPrevious Chapters: One / Two / Three / Four / Five / Six / Seven / Eight / Nine / Ten / Eleven / Twelve / Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

 

While Georgiana settled at Darcy House, he had another unpleasant errand. He had not told Bingley about Jane Bennet’s feelings because Elizabeth had not empowered him to do so. Darcy would not hint at continued affection if there were the possibility she had moved on. Still, he knew he had wounded Jane, and owed her an apology. Having sent a servant around Cheapside the day he spoke to Bingley, Darcy learned Mr. Gardiner owned a fabric warehouse and resided at Number Nine, Gracechurch Street.

After being shown in by the butler—which Darcy was surprised they had—he was taken to a comfortable and elegant looking drawing room. The outside of the house looked very neat and well-kept, as did the entire street. True, less terrific accommodations were mere streets away, but in London, the poor were everywhere. The city would grow and build new houses, and in a few decades, they became worn-looking and over-crowded. The rich would move on and build in another empty spot. In doing so, each neighbourhood was surrounded by their lessers and their betters.

Miss Bennet looked as complacent as always, but Mrs. Gardiner was a mix of curious and surprised to see him. She rather reminded Darcy of Elizabeth in comportment although there was no blood kinship.

“Darcy?” a familiar voice cried.

He looked over and saw Charles Bingley sitting in a chair next to the ladies.

“What are you doing here?”

Darcy did not hear the disappointment and malice from yesterday, only confusion. “I came to call on Miss Bennet and pass on greetings from her sister.”

“Oh, how thoughtful of you,” Miss Bennet smiled. “Thank you.”

“Forgive me for coming when you already have company. I shall leave you,” Darcy began a hasty bow but was interrupted by Mrs. Gardiner.

“There is no occasion to rush away. Mr. Bingley had just explained how kind you were to inform him of my niece’s presence in town. It seems his sisters did not.”

Bingley flushed a little, and Darcy felt heat creep up his neck as well.

“I know they will be grieved at their oversight,” Bingley said. “You all were very great friends when last we were at Netherfield.”

“That was many months ago,” Mrs. Gardiner said and paused long enough to allow the meaning to sink in. “How have you occupied your time since then?”

She ended with a bright smile. Oh, yes. This was the woman after whom Elizabeth modelled herself. Darcy took a moment to take in more of the room and the lady. Mrs. Gardiner dressed fashionably and was perhaps as little as only ten years older than her niece. While she clearly meant to protect Jane and scold the gentlemen, she did not do so with meanness or in an improper way. She could not be more different than her sister-in-law, Mrs. Bennet. The room had stylish new furnishings as well as a few older pieces proving they had a heritage worth remembering. During Darcy’s silence, Bingley had managed to acquit himself of his unintentional insult rather well, and Miss Bennet seemed to relax.

“And you, Mr. Darcy?” Mrs. Gardiner now turned her attention to him as Bingley and Jane chatted. “I confess I will admit to jealousy if you have been to Pemberley. Spring is my favourite time of year to be in Derbyshire.”

“You have been to Derbyshire?” Darcy asked. “Have you visited Pemberley?”

“I never had that honour, but I did live in Lambton for many years of my youth.”

“That is but five miles from Pemberley.”

“Indeed,” Mrs. Gardiner grinned. “I was sorry to hear of your father’s passing. He was a very great man.”

“He was,” Darcy nodded and twisted his signet ring.

“My husband and I plan on taking a tour of the lakes in the summer and will be spending some time in Derbyshire and Lambton along the way.”

“You must visit Pemberley then. If Mr. Gardiner fishes, I would be pleased to offer him bait and tackle, it is the best time of year for the sport.”

“How generous,” Mrs. Gardiner smiled. “He would enjoy that.”

“Mrs. Reynolds always handles the tours and is particularly delighted when the visitor is known to me.” Darcy shook his head. “She will thrill you with tales of my wayward youth.”

“Oh my,” the woman put a hand to her heart and laughed.

“Yes, I learned the consequences of pilfering biscuits and leading ponies around by the nose quite proficiently.” Darcy chuckled, and Mrs. Gardiner joined him. “If we are in residence then, of course, you must sit with us.”

A twinkle entered Mrs. Gardiner’s eye. “What a kind invitation. I am certain my niece Elizabeth will appreciate it as well.”

At the mention of her name, Darcy attempted to keep his face neutral. “I know Miss Elizabeth greatly enjoys walking. The grounds at Pemberley are beautiful in the summer.”

A shiver went down his spine as he recalled his dream and the visceral emotions which followed at thoughts of her death. He had never held her in his arms and yet, they still ached with the memory of holding her lifeless form.

“Darcy,” Bingley called.

Jolting from his thoughts, Darcy noticed Bingley standing and near the door. “Pardon me.”

“Thank you again for visiting and bringing news of my niece,” Mrs. Gardiner said as Darcy bowed to her. “I expect to see you again when Mr. Bingley calls. We will have you both to dinner sometime. My husband would enjoy meeting you.”

“I would be honoured,” Darcy said as he bowed to Jane. “It was a pleasure seeing you, Miss Bennet. I am happy to see you in good health. I know your sister had worried.”

“Did she?” Jane said in surprise.

“Yes, and I fear I fuelled the cause. I hope there have been no lasting effects?”

“No, I am perfectly well,” she snuck a glance at Bingley and blushed.

“I apologise all the same.” It was as close as he could get to an apology in this setting.

Jane curtsied, and Darcy followed Bingley outside. They walked in silent tandem toward their carriages. Once on the street, Bingley fiddled with his hat.

“Bingley—”

“I am sorry, Darcy.”

Nodding in sorrow, Darcy turned to his carriage. Bingley could not forgive him.

“I am sorry I would not listen to you,” Bingley called after him and followed his voice with his boots. “You meant well, I know it.” He reached and gripped Darcy’s shoulder.

“I did,” Darcy nodded. “My reasoning was flawed and my methods awful, but my motive was to protect you.” Darcy sighed. “I know you do not need it. However, I love you like a brother and cannot help having a lively interest in your welfare.”

“Me too,” Bingley grinned as Darcy clapped Bingley on the shoulder.

“Care to dine at Darcy House tonight? Georgiana is there, and we could have music afterwards.”

“Is everything well with Miss Darcy?”

“Utterly well,” Darcy reassured his friend. “We merely decided it was time for our family to be together.”

“Speaking of family, my own is quite angry with me. I accept your invitation and beg for more for the foreseeable future.”

Darcy and Bingley shared a laugh then departed for their coaches.

 

*****

 

A few days later, Darcy called on the Gardiners with Bingley and was invited to stay for dinner. The ladies talked now and then of Elizabeth, and there he saw enough similarities in Jane and Mrs. Gardiner to have her always on his mind. She had not left his heart in November when he fled from all memories and references of her and Darcy knew she never would. Nor did he seek to remove her. Finding the Gardiners amiable and just the sort of acquaintances he liked only further proved the justness of her reproofs.

“Did my wife tell you the real reason for our tour of the Lakes?” Mr. Gardiner asked Darcy when the ladies had separated.

“No,” Darcy shook his head. “I had no suspicion there was an ulterior motive.”

“There is, and I confess you might be an excellent source of information. Raising five children in London is quite the expense.”

Darcy raised his eyebrows in silent question, for only four children had been introduced to him. Gardiner grinned in reply.

“It is a man’s blessing to be able to provide for a growing family, is it not?”

“Indeed, sir. My congratulations.” He had thought Mrs. Gardiner an exceptionally pretty woman for having four children, but he had also heard pregnant ladies had a special glow about them.

“Thank you. It will be you two before long.” Gardiner winked at Darcy and Bingley. “I am looking for a country home. Not necessarily an estate with tenants, although I have the funds for a small one. Margaret fancies Derbyshire, of course.”

“And will you be retiring from business or returning to London while your family remains behind? Either way, I would certainly welcome you as a neighbour.”

“Darcy is an excellent neighbour and teacher in the gentleman’s trade if you wish for instruction,” Bingley added.

“I would be pleased to aid you in your search,” Darcy nodded, “and in the transition to estate management if you wish it.”

“I will think on it,” Gardiner said. “If you hear of anything available, even to rent, between now and July, please inform me.”

“I certainly will,” Darcy agreed.

Gardiner’s smile faltered for a moment. “I fear I must owe you an apology, sir.”

“I cannot imagine how.”

“I heard tales about you this past Christmas from some officer in the Militia encamped at Meryton.” Gardiner nodded, “I see you know of whom I speak. My wife and I thought nothing of listening to his complaints, and I condemned you without even knowing you. Forgive me.”

Ice gripped Darcy’s heart. “It is of no consequence. However, do I understand you correctly? This man was speaking openly against me?”

“Indeed. I believe he had told his story to the entire town by then.”

This was far worse than Darcy had expected. He had envisioned Wickham confiding only in Elizabeth. Perhaps her natural curiosity had led her to inquire about their mutual past. Or, if he wished to torment himself, Darcy imagined Wickham offering a story of woe to win her affections. Given her words to Darcy, he had not relinquished fear that she had held the rogue in high regard. Worse than this, if Wickham talked so openly against him the possibility of him one day revealing too much could have catastrophic results.

“May I ask the nature of this communication?”

“I do not remember all of the particulars. You may ask my wife or niece to be certain. I believe Elizabeth well-versed in them, actually.”

Darcy attempted to not fidget under the man’s gaze as he mentioned Elizabeth and referenced Wickham in the same sentence. “Did he mention a specific event or action? I know a well-placed lie has the aura of truth and I would enlighten you if I could.”

“It had something to do with a living and your father’s will, I believe,” Mr. Gardiner shrugged.

“Ah, the usual,” Bingley said. “That rumour has plagued Darcy for many years. Of course, at University it was all manner of things, wasn’t it?”

Darcy nodded. “My father left him an annuity and recommended I give him a living when he came of age. However, he gave it up himself, and I compensated him three thousand pounds. A few years later, when it fell vacant, he came demanding his right to it.”

“I see,” Gardiner nodded. “He’s not much of a gentleman, that’s for sure. You sound entirely blameless.”

“I wish I were,” Darcy said while staring at his hands. “The truth is that my father over-indulged him and I followed likewise for many years. By the time I resolved to cease rewarding his bad ways, it was too late for him to learn the lesson, I fear.”

“You speak as though he has done much worse than merely slander your name.”

“He has but nothing else is pertinent.” Darcy flushed under the curious gazes of both Gardiner and Bingley. “However, he is not known for paying his debts and has left behind many in Lambton and London. I think I should ask the Meryton shopkeepers about his accounts.”

“I am certain no one would expect you to settle his payments,” Gardiner said.

“I ought to have warned them before I left the area.”

Gardiner stared at him for a long moment. “Sir, I told you Lizzy believed Wickham’s lies. Are you always so stubborn? For I can see no other reason for her to have disliked you enough to believe the man.”

Before Darcy could speak, Bingley began to chuckle.

“Oh, he is, but I think it might be the constant arguing he did with her.” Bingley held up a finger. “Or perhaps his incessant staring and lurking.” A second finger joined the first. “However, I would lay a bet it began when he refused to dance with her.”

Gardiner smirked as Bingley raised a third finger. “She does love a dance.”

“I—I asked her to dance several times afterward,” Darcy attempted to defend himself.

“But there is more!” Bingley’s little finger popped up. “He called her not handsome enough to tempt him within her hearing. I know Caroline would never forgive such a remark.”

“She heard that?” Darcy whipped his head from friend to Elizabeth’s uncle.

“Young man,” Gardiner said in a sombre tone. “Either you are blind or intolerably stupid.”

Darcy gulped. “The latter, I assure you. However, I am intelligent enough to recognise my error and live to roost the day.”

“Indeed?” Gardiner raised a brow.

Darcy met the man’s eyes, understanding his unasked question. “She was less than amenable to accepting my apology…or admiration.”

“Admiration?” Bingley asked, furrowed his brow. “I thought you did not like her! I thought you believed her beneath you!”

Darcy’s face heated. “You have heard the phrase “protesteth too much”? I apologise, sir.” He directed his words to Gardiner, who waved it off with a laugh.

“I still do not understand,” Bingley said.

“Allow me to illustrate it for you,” Gardiner smiled. “If a young man is always near a lady and trying to insert himself in her conversation, even if it is to little or no effect, all the while ignoring everyone else, what would you think of him?”

“He must be in love with her,” Bingley shrugged then smiled. “I can barely manage one coherent sentence near Jane. Whenever she is in the room, I see and hear no one else, I am desperate to be near her.” Sitting up, with sudden insight, Bingley’s eyes grew wide. “Did I offend others with all the attention I paid her?”

Darcy and Gardiner enjoyed a laugh at Bingley’s expense.

“Yes, my niece Elizabeth described you, Mr. Bingley, thusly when she told of how you loved Jane. And no, I do not believe any other lady was offended. Now, can you think of anyone else who you say stayed near a lady and had little to say while ignoring others?”

“Darcy?” Bingley rubbed the back of his neck. “Darcy,” he shook his head. “I never saw it, old boy.”

“I meant to conceal it to everyone even myself,” Darcy said with a sheepish smile. “According to her, I achieved it too well for she had no idea.”

“Do not worry overmuch about that,” Gardiner said. “Little is more irresistible to a woman than knowing a man is in love with her.”

“I am afraid I think very differently about Miss Elizabeth’s estimation of her feelings than you,” Darcy said and downed his drink. “She has very definite feelings about me regarding my character and with good reason. She will not be modifying them, and I will not ask her to do so.”

“Mr. Darcy,” Gardiner began, “surely she will see—”

Darcy stood. “Should we not rejoin the ladies?”

Gardiner and Bingley shared a look then stood. After returning to the drawing room, Darcy stayed for only a few minutes more. His nerves were too raw, and a part of his old reserve felt mortified for allowing others to know his pain and rejection. However, he was endeavouring to embrace a more open disposition. Now that both knew, they would understand when he absented himself from visits when Elizabeth arrived.

 

The Secrets of Pemberley- Chapter Thirteen

secrets of pemberley maskPrevious Chapters: One / Two / Three / Four / Five / Six / Seven / Eight / Nine / Ten / Eleven / Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

 

Richard and Darcy arrived in London around noon the following day. Elizabeth had not asked for Darcy to inform Bingley about Jane’s feelings for him. However, Darcy knew he needed to confess his wrong-doing to his friend. He imagined how he would feel if Bingley or Richard had told him that they had found Elizabeth unworthy of him and withheld information about her whereabouts. Of course, Darcy might have thanked them for the effort. He was rather sure that Bingley would not be so grateful.

Dropping Richard off at his Regiment, Darcy returned to his empty London house. No friends or family greeted him; only paid servants. Trustworthy and loyal though they were, he felt the pang of not having others to share his time and space. Even Lady Catherine had her daughter and Mrs. Jenkinson. Even Mr. Collins had found a wife and hosted guests.

When Darcy had retrieved Georgiana from Ramsgate, she came to Darcy house. After a week or two, he hired a companion and set up an establishment for his sister. They had never been close, and he believed it would allow her the freedoms and interests a young lady would have. She would enter Society soon, and friends already arrived to call. Hating the ever-increasing flow of fortune hunters wanting only a glimpse of him, he gave her a residence of her own. It also proved that he trusted her and did not blame her for the Wickham fiasco. Did he ask how she felt?

Bringing her and Mrs. Annesley, Georgiana’s new companion, to Darcy House instantly crossed his mind. However, he realised his first instincts often did not consider the emotions of others. He had thought his decisions perfectly rational and logical, but he had grown so used to shutting off his feelings that it did not occur to him that others felt differently. Still, he hoped Georgiana might be willing to reside with him until she married. Instead of relying on her companion to chaperone after her come out, he would squire her around himself. A selfless task, indeed.

He had too many matters to attend to after being gone for so long to call on Georgiana that day. It required thought and preparation as to what to say. He worried, too, the desire would vanish as instantly as it had occurred and one could not simply boot their younger sister out of a house because they changed their mind.

Retiring early that evening, he determined to seek out Bingley in the morning and then call on his sister after that errand finished.

 

*****

 

The April day in London dawned partly sunny. Parliament had returned to session and the Mayfair district Darcy lived in thrummed with activity as lords and ladies welcomed the warmer temperatures. The Season continued until the end of June, but few could afford to spend all of the time in Town. Warming temperatures meant an increase in the city’s population. In turn, the streets were more crowded. All was not perfect, though. Pickpockets came out in an abundance and ragged, dirty children asking for handouts lined many streets. Darcy could not abide to ignore them. He might have been one. George Darcy had every right to cast him and, later, Georgiana aside.

Instead of arriving by coach, he chose to walk to the Hurst Townhouse on Grosvenor Street. With any luck, Bingley would be in and his sisters would not. As he entered the drawing room, his hopes proved wrong.

“Darcy!” Bingley cried with his usual cheerfulness and reached out for a handshake. “What brings you here? I thought you were in Kent!”

“I returned yesterday.”

“And your first thought was to visit us?” Miss Bingley cooed. “How thoughtful!”

“Have a seat,” Bingley said. “We were just ordering refreshments.”

“I am sorry there are no lemon tarts, as I know they are your favourite,” Caroline said.

“As long as there are some crumpets,” Hurst said.

“Of course, there are your crumpets,” his wife glared at him. “You are always here, and we know what you prefer.”

“Do tell us, Mr. Darcy, if you plan on visiting more frequently. We could easily keep your favourites on hand,” Caroline smiled as she poured him a cup.

Darcy held in his sigh as she added three cubes of sugar. He detested overly sweet tea.

“Just as you like,” she beamed.

Handing it to him, she leant down in attempt to display her cleavage. Darcy averted his eyes, as usual, and murmured his thanks.

“How did you find Rosings?” Bingley asked.

“My aunt and cousins are well,” Darcy smiled. “To my surprise, I met with a few of mutual acquaintances of ours.”

“Indeed?”

“You will recall Mr. Collins,” Darcy said.

Bingley stared blankly at him.

“The parson related to the Bennets? His patroness is my aunt.”

At the mention of the name Bennet, Darcy saw Bingley’s eyes take on a faraway quality.

“Yes, he danced at my ball.”

With Elizabeth, Darcy mentally added.

“Do not get me started with that dreadful ball,” Caroline said. “Such vulgarity! And the Bennets arranged to leave last, I am sure of it!”

“The presumption,” her sister added. “So disgusting.”

“And that Eliza!” Caroline harrumphed. “I tried to steer her away from Mr. Wickham, but she would defend him, no matter how abominably he used you, Mr. Darcy.” Caroline fluttered her lashes and simpered at him.

“What do you expect from such low breeding?” Mrs. Hurst added.

“I expect you to see to my plate,” her husband grumbled.

Darcy watched the scene as though he had never met them before. Had he thought the Bennets improper? Bingley’s family was little better. Nor was his. He cleared his throat. “As it happens, Miss Elizabeth Bennet was at the Parsonage as well.”

“I knew it!” Caroline cried in glee. “She did marry her cousin. Her mother crowed that she would.”

Thank God, I do not have to live through that misery, Darcy thought as Anne’s words echoed in his head.

“You see, Charles,” Mrs. Hurst said. “They are all out for as much as they can get. Anyone who would marry such a fool is.”

“I do not feel qualified to speculate on the heart of his wife. However,” Darcy paused for dramatic effect, “the former Miss Charlotte Lucas married Mr. Collins. Elizabeth Bennet was there as a guest, as was Mrs. Collins’ sister.”

“Did she mention her sisters? Are they all still at Longbourn?”

Bingley nearly dumped his plate of biscuits over and sloshed his tea in excitement. It told Darcy all he needed about his friend’s continued feelings. Each mentioning of Elizabeth’s name, each reference of her family, Darcy recalled his terrible proposal, feeling a fresh slice to his heart. Still, for Bingley, he would bear this. He had wronged the man.

“No—”

“Mr. Darcy, have you seen Georgiana yet?” Caroline interrupted. “How I dote on her! I am due to call on her. Perhaps you could escort my sister and me there tomorrow as my brothers have need of the carriage.”

Darcy’s mouth dropped at Caroline’s forwardness. A part of him wanted to think that if she had not been scrambling to redirect the conversation, then she would have behaved better but there was delight and security behind her eyes mixed with her panic.

“I have no definite plans but allow me to answer your brother’s question.”

“It hardly matters—”

“Caroline!” Bingley called in a tone Darcy had never heard him use before. “Let the man speak!”

Miss Bingley blushed a little, and even Mrs. Hurst looked away and did not come to the support of her sister. Darcy took a breath to quell his courage.

“All but one are at Longbourn,” Darcy said and glanced at Miss Bingley who fiddled with her skirt. “The eldest Miss Bennet is in London and has been for many weeks.”

“We must call on her!” Bingley sprang from his chair. “Do you know the address?”

“I…I do not but perhaps your sisters might?” Again, Darcy glanced at Caroline, giving her every opportunity to disclose her involvement in the matter.

“Of course!” Bingley continued, unaware of the mounting tension. He turned to his younger sister. “You must write her directly. I believe it was somewhere near Cheapside.”

“Bingley,” Darcy said in solemn tones. “I need to speak with you alone.”

“A splendid idea,” Caroline agreed rapidly. She hastened to her brother and kissed him on the cheek. “You are so fortunate to have such a great friend in Mr. Darcy. We are all so dependent on him for advice.”

She was going to pin this all on him? She and Mrs. Hurst scurried away. Hurst had fallen asleep and remained.

“What time do you think I should call tomorrow?” Bingley said as he walked around the room full of nervous energy.

“Bingley—you may want to sit down for this,” Darcy said, and his friend slowly wheeled toward him and cocked his head.

“I have done you a disservice.”

“Oh, God. No, don’t do it, Darcy. Even you can’t be that thick-headed.”

“Do what?”

“Ask me for Caroline’s hand. You just avoided your cousin, but it does not mean you need her.”

“Good God!” Darcy cried, and he was the one who stumbled backward into a chair. “Have I made you or her think I would? Do others believe it?” He pulled on his cravat feeling like a noose squeezed around his neck.

“Nothing beyond her grasping wishes and my knowing you would deny your heart for Society’s approval.”

Darcy shook his head. “I would never…but you are a good friend. You tried to stop me.”

“Of course,” Bingley said. “Caroline is my sister, but she is not for you. We do not need to be directly related.”

“Indeed,” Darcy said as he gathered his thoughts again on how to ask the most faithful friend he ever had to forgive him of cunningness and deceit.

“Well, if you are not here to ask for my sister’s hand then what has you looking so awful?”

Darcy met Bingley’s eyes. “I have known Miss Bennet was in Town since January. I should have told you. My interference was officious.”

A vein near Bingley’s left eye ticked. It was the only sign that he had even heard the damning words Darcy said. After several moments of strained silence, Bingley spoke.

“Why didn’t you?”

Darcy shrugged. “At the time it seemed well-reasoned. I did not lie when I told you my observations in November. I did not believe Miss Bennet cared for you as you did for her. When I heard she was in Town, I worried you had not been parted long enough to loosen her pull on your heart.”

“Who told you she was here?” Bingley asked, but his face showed security. He already knew.

“That is unimportant,” Darcy said as he leant forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “I knew you relied on my opinion. Nor did I even put the information to you. I decided for you.”

“You were very wrong,” Bingley’s voice shook.

“I was,” Darcy said.

“Do you think so little of me?” Bingley glanced away.

“No,” Darcy said truthfully. “I failed to reason that you would feel differently than me. Or that you would trust my judgement.”

“You expect me to believe that you did not trust yourself?” Bingley scoffed. “You are the most arrogant man I have ever known.”

Darcy gulped. “That is true, and I do not expect your forgiveness.”

“Why do you tell me now?” Darcy opened his mouth, but Bingley shook his head and held up his hands. “No, I no longer care. Get out.”

Bingley had barely moved a muscle from his position in the chair, but Darcy felt as though he had been punched in the gut. In truth, he would rather face his friend’s fists than his solemn and determined silence. “If you wish.”

Darcy bowed, but Bingley did not look up. As Darcy walked to Mrs. Annesley’s residence on Park Lane, he reflected that being denied his heart’s greatest wish and then losing his greatest friend in one week was just one more cruel fates destiny handed him.

“Fitzwilliam, I did not expect you,” Georgiana said as she invited him to sit in the modest drawing room.

Darcy looked at his sister, seeing more than a hint at the woman who bore them. He ought to have done this years ago.

“I returned from Rosings yesterday. Lady Catherine and Anne are well.”

Georgiana tensed. “Did they ask after me… do they suspect?”

If he answered as callously as he felt, it would be, Of course, no one suspects you planned to elope with the steward’s son! Ladies of Society rarely do so. However, even before Elizabeth’s chastisement, Georgiana was one person with whom he could be nothing but gentle. “Nothing is known, and there is no reason for alarm or worry.”

Sighing, Georgiana sagged in relief against her chair. “Then why do you visit?”

“I am your brother.” Did family usually need reasons for visiting? In the Darcy family that had been the case.

“Yes, I know. My brother and my guardian, in charge of everything about me until I marry.”

Darcy shook his head. “I do not wish for our relationship to be as cold as you say. I would not wish to encroach on your freedoms.”

“I am told you give me more freedoms than most brothers in addition to your unending kindness and forgiveness.”

“But?”

Georgiana stood and walked to a window. Some might assume it an inherent Darcy trait yet it must have been Lady Anne who did so when troubled. Darcy had no reason to believe they shared a paternal bloodline.

“Georgiana, I wish for your happiness.” Darcy walked to her and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Is it too late to ask you to confide in me?”

“Should I?” She asked, sounding like a fragile child.

“I wish to be your friend and confidant.”

“Is that not unusual and improper? I should conceal my feelings—”

“No, you should not,” Darcy said adamantly. “I have recently learned the very high cost of hiding one’s emotions.”

“In that case,” Georgiana whirled around and threw herself into his arms, sobbing on his chest. “I am so very tired of being alone.”

Slowly, Darcy’s arms tightened around her. Since George Darcy’s death, he had often felt over-extended and like he held too much responsibility. Too many people relied upon him. However, Georgiana never felt like a mere responsibility and never should.

I love her, Darcy realised suddenly. Having not grown up together and then merely being her guardian, he had not considered that sentiment. He had loved his mother yet when he knew the truth of what she did, he also hated her. He respected George Darcy but having so little affection from the man, he could not say it was real love. Darcy’s feelings to accept and protect Georgiana were love of the most profound sort. Family.

“You are not alone,” he said as he rubbed her back. “Would you like to return to Darcy House? To live there?” Georgiana stilled and pulled back her head. Her blue eyes looked more vibrant than usual against the red rims, but the sorrow in them struck him to his core.

“Could I? You would not resent the weakness?”

Darcy hugged her closer. “You are my sister, and we are family. I wish I had understood all of what that meant earlier, but I think I begin to understand.” Loosening his hold, he offered his handkerchief. “It is what I had come to propose.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I no longer care about Society’s suggestions on how to raise you. You need family, and you need love. That you shall have.”

“Thank you so much, Fitzwilliam,” she stretched on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. “I will begin packing right away.”

Georgiana scampered off, leaving Darcy alone in his thoughts. Jane’s pain had become Elizabeth’s because she loved her. Indeed, insulting her family hurt Elizabeth because of her love for them. What a dunderhead he had been! What a lesson he was learning about love, acceptance, and family. How had he lived nearly eight and twenty years without knowing it?

Georgiana returned a few minutes later saying her maid was packing. As Darcy had walked instead of bringing a coach, the maid and her things would follow later. They walked arm in arm to Darcy House. Along the way, a few acquaintances stopped to talk with them. Georgiana blushed under the appreciative gazes of a few gentlemen and Darcy’s arm flexed beneath his coat. I have just discovered her and will not give her up quickly. If Georgiana’s reaction was any indication, she also had no intention of marrying young and leaving him. Perhaps they would be two old siblings together. No. Darcy shook his head. He would not wish that on her. He would hold onto her for a little while longer, but he would not deprive her love and children.

“Thank you, Fitzwilliam,” Georgiana gave him another kiss as he brought her to the chamber she had used before. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” Darcy said quietly and earned a small smile and another kiss on the cheek from his sister. The more he said it, the more he liked saying it.